We confess. Radical Family Sabbatical is really just a shell game, a diversion, a misdirection…all to get you to think differently about what you can be and how you can live your life differently. With Families Afoot we hope to capture every kind of family having every kind of sabbatical experience possible, so any family can relate and any family can imagine their own sabbatical. We’ll get there. But we can’t think of a better example of acting boldly and discovering a wonder of the world by letting go what we know of it than Michael, Pilar, and Xylia. Besides an amazing experience filled with adventure, service, and self-discovery, they created a business out of their time that will continue to change their lives and the lives of those they touch.
Where did you go?
We started in Quito, Ecuador the summer of 2011 with an introduction to a Quechua family by their youngest sister whom we met in the States. With her we lived with this agrarian family in Pijal (the family namesake), just outside of Otavalo, for three weeks. Following our plans, we traveled south from there, visiting the coast and back into the Andes. We stayed for month a little further South in Vilcabamba, and finally crossed the border to Peru after the first 2-3 months of our trip.
It was tiring to consider buses along the length of Peru en route to Cuzco, so we hopped on our first flights from Piura to Lima, and Lima to Cuzco, missing a lot, we know, but also clearing in a couple days what would have been weeks. And we made our homes in Cuzco, renting an apartment, volunteering, taking Spanish classes, and exploring our new communities of the Sacred Valley Cuzco District.
Around the first of the year we set out south again for a brief adventure exploring Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. But persistent flu infections and budgetary issues cut this trip short. We rather dragged ourselves (quickly) back to Cuzco and salvaged our trip from there, finishing out the intended year from the comfort of familiar settings, and actually thriving, sweetly, in a community: working, volunteering, sharing, and growing. So, it was quite difficult to leave at the last. But, finally, we followed our breadcrumb trail by plane to Lima, and plane to Piura, the night crossing to Vilcabamba, visiting friends the whole way back through Ecuador to Pijal and finally flying out of Quito, the summer of 2012, one year later.
How long was your sabbatical?
We’d set out with a year plan. My idea was for an experience that would evolve and explore itself in ways that could only happen across a full year. And it did. We reached those plateaus of boredom, home-sickness, and fatigue, and we turned insightful, inspiring corners. We each asked ourselves personally hard questions, we struggled with and against one another, and we came through it all together.
What were you thinking? (What inspired your sabbatical, or why did you do it?)
We certainly shared that romantic notion of the World Traveler, so we had dreams of grooming ourselves into such inspired and “worldly” folk. A distant sort of dream. But the inspiration for this sabbatical really came when we’d finally Let Go of our cemented lives in Southern California and decided to move to Oregon, starting totally fresh. Quite a task considering each of us ran small private businesses with local client bases, our daughter was committed into a Waldorf school term, and L.A. is a sticky place, convincing you to stay with another opportunity just around the corner.
Letting Go was clutch. Letting Go opened the door to everything. What else could we do with no attachments? Let’s travel!
Where is home, and what was life like there?
Where was home? Home was Southern California, for myself Los Angeles since I was 18, for Pilar more or less Orange County off and on during her childhood, adult life, and most of Xylia’s life. We met in the area and became committed partners somewhere in that time.
I was a sculptor cum IT contractor. Daily I made office visits and worked from home for my clients. In the last couple years before leaving I’d pared the business down quite a bit and enjoyed lots of personal time.
Pilar had lived and grown in Hawaii, along the northwest coast, and in Orange County, CA. She had Xylia at a young age, was a single mom throughout who worked hard educating herself and her daughter. Pilar worked a private business as a sport massage therapist and Ayurvedic practitioner, and taught massage. We both had flexible, work-from-home schedules.
Xylia was a student at Waldorf School of Orange County. She loved theater and music, enjoyed the company of adults more than her classroom peers, was well rounded, interested, and interesting.
We have all been good friends as a small family, sharing road trips, culture, music, and stories. It made this intimate travel time a fun reality; I never could have done such a thing at her age, with my parents (sorry I was such an pain mom).
What is different about your life upon return?
The Adventure continues in the States!
Leaving Sudamerica in June, we spent a month in Southern California, and are now “settled” into Southern Oregon, in Ashland. The ride has been bumpy in the U.S. As we were leaving our home of eight months in Cuzco, Peru, it seemed a strange idea to abandon our new lives for some distant vision that drew us back to the States. In Peru we lived in a community, working for pay. Our daughter volunteered full-time. We were actively building a life there, whereas nothing really awaited us at the other side of the round-trip ticket. But, a plan was settled upon long ago, and sometimes you need that structure. So, here we are. We brought back a fair trade business and are building that. Xylia, our daughter, turned 16 in Cuzco and entered high school for the first time as a second year student here in Ashland. She’s committed to school socially and academically and excelling on both accounts. None of that sounds so tough, but it was, and in some ways continues to be, a difficult transition. If our new venture does well enough we’ll be back in South America by February, and we already have plans for next Summer in Peru.
What was your education strategy for your daughter?
We avoided the online/homeschool route of materials, as being way too expensive and cumbersome. We hoped that the travel and wonderment would electrify her spirit and mind and we would keep pace with math and reading/comprehension learning through a few workbooks and regular reading and writing assignments. But we discovered in conversation with other traveling families, and then through our own experience, that you simply can’t keep up with any curriculum in such a setting of travel. And the learning really does happen in a format outside of “education”. Quite a lesson about our understanding of education systems and real learning, overall. It proved true; she’s doing awesome at a stateside public high school.
How did pay for your sabbatical?
We saved for approximately 10 months with the same everyday income. The key was having a savings goal and the means was frugal living. No stocks or real estate to liquidate, no house to sell, no trust fund, no “live-anywhere-work-abroad” schemes, no passive income source. The point I’m stressing here is no secret, nothing special, and, really, very little sacrifice—just a goal and cooking at home. If you imagine it takes limitless resources, or retirement funds, than you’ve waited too long and you’ve too many investments to protect. The 1% don’t travel like this. I found that being middle-class allowed us the freedom to let it go and GO.
How did you handle your professional life?
We had a cut n’ run approach.
What was your average monthly sabbatical budget?
I’ll give you solid numbers. Our budget was $2000 a month for the three of us. We did, however, go over the year’s trip budget by $1000 per person. Basically, we stayed a month or so past our budget. And we weren’t prepared for how long we’d be living back in the States from our savings. So, it’s been a difficult transition. Expensive too! The US is the most expensive leg of the adventure.
What resources did you use?
I would caution against the obvious impulse to research and research. A guide book is great. A guide book digitally in PDF on your Smart Phone is better. But the Interweb is a strange, convincing place. I found that for every horror story, bus robbery, border crossing danger, etc, there’s actually a thousand untold, uneventful stories for the same stretch of road. Stop the FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt).
What’s advice would you offer a family considering a sabbatical?
The time is now. Follow your dreams. Let Go. Take the plungeâ€¦There’s a ton of snappy aphorisms, but really, just do it. And my practical advice? You can’t plan it all, Sudamerica doesn’t live and breathe through the Internet. Many countries don’t. You’ll find out more on the ground than in the air. For instance, there’s three WWOOF sites listed in Bolivia, there’s a hundred places that would work trade gladly.
If you had it to do over again, you’d…?
Reign in the scope of the trip so we aren’t over-planning, over-preparing for all climates, all conditions while imagining a journey from Jungle to Arctic to Desert.
Start the trip in the most expensive parts of the travel plan. This way we’d be in cheaper countries or have access to more community or have more experience for frugal travel/living when absolutely needed, and have already seen those glaciers and penguinos instead of missing them.
What did you do about language?
We didn’t follow a travel dream to Southeast Asia, so we could learn a useful and tangible second language. Sudamerica offered Spanish, something we could relate easily to and had some experience or foundation with. Our foundations were rudimentary and we learned at various levels. Immersion is key. It’s difficult to progress in the new language by speaking your first tongue all day, every day with family or by congregating around ex-pats.
We brought back a collection of fair trade weavings and crafts from the artisan families we met in our favorite countries. This is a new and exciting vision that will help us continue traveling and supporting our friends. We’re selling these goods at fairs, festivals, through trunk shows and soon through our website. Visit us on Facebook or the web. Our email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Xylia volunteered seven months for a wonderful organization in Cuzco. By far the best organized and productive, locally operated program I had visited. Aldea Yanapai is an after-school program with a hostel and restaurant as profit arms for the program.
And we lived and worked and thrived in a beautiful community house in San Blas, Cusco called Healing House. They provide longer term housing at great rates, workshops and teaching opportunities, as well as a volunteer program for local children. They also need funding to purchase their property.
Read more about Michael, Pilar, and Xylia and their South American adventure from their travel blog, Pequeñas Ventanas (little windows). And definitely check out their import business that was birthed from their experience, Pacha Mamacha or on facebook.