We always say that a family sabbatical is not easy (don’t we?). At least we find the families who seem to get the most from their sabbaticals find some of their time to be challenging. And why not? It is outside our comfort zones where we experience the most growth and personal discovery, right? The van Dernoots are a great example of struggling with the change of it all, then coming to love the experience…in their case loving it twice more! Tara explains it all…
Where did you go and for how long?
We’ve taken three sabbaticals because the first one was such a wonderful experience. That first adventure took us to a small beach town, Lo de Marcos, Nayarit, Mexico, an hour north of Puerto Vallarta. Craig’s sister had vacationed in the area and thought it might be a good spot for our sabbatical. We visited over Thanksgiving with our son, and then Craig and I went back in February to look around some more, and visit another town. In August we packed up the car and drove down, then rented a house a few days after we arrived. About a week later we found a house we liked better, so we moved to one right on the beach. At the time our son, Garvin, was 10 and in 4th grade. We lived there for eight months and enrolled Garvin in the local school.
What were you thinking (what inspired your sabbatical)?
My husband, Craig, and I had talked about living out of the country for years, and since Garvin was doing so well in his Spanish dual language program, that made our decision easier.
Where is home?
Avon, Colorado—near Vail and Beaver Creek ski resorts, a small mountain community which is a great place to raise kids. However, we wanted to break out of the regular routine, and also take a break from winter. We had a fun, busy life, and even though we have one child, we still yearned for a simpler life, a slower pace.
What was your education strategy for your son?
I brought loads of supplemental materials thinking I’d do more home schooling, but didn’t end up using most of it. We worked on math to try and keep him current, and he read a lot. Before we left I ordered a bunch of used books from Amazon so he could keep up with English, and we had him keep a reading log. Otherwise, we let Mexican school and his Mexican friends be the primary teachers.
Academics definitely took a back seat. The school had just gotten blackboards the previous year. No computers or any other school supplies we take for granted. School only went until 12:30, and sometimes he’d be home by 10 or 11 if there was a teacher meeting. If their teacher was sick, they just didn’t have class. However, it was great from a family schedule point of view. He’d come home from school, we’d have lunch together, he’d do his homework, and by 3 or 3:30 his friends would come by and we’d go all go play in the surf.
What was different about your life upon return?
We were in Mexico from August 2008 to May 2009, so the financial meltdown and President Obama’s election took place while we were away. We knew what was happening, but I didn’t realize the full extent of the recession until after we came home. And even then it took awhile for me to see how deeply it had affected people and businesses here.
When we first came back, I felt detached from much of life in our area, as if it didn’t apply to me. I didn’t want to engage at first. It was like I was Rip Van Winkle. What happened? Who left the valley? What businesses closed? I really missed the pace of our Mexican life, the simplicity of it, and even the isolation from the outside world.
How did you handle your professional life?
Craig owns a souvenir business selling items to ski resorts, so his busy season is winter. I am a former middle school teacher and help Craig in the winter. I also have a wedding business, but for the most part I’m a stay at home mom who has been active volunteering at school and helping get the district to improve our school lunch program.
Because much of Craig’s work in the off-season is on the computer, it doesn’t matter where he is as long as he has an Internet connection. To help cover our mortgage we rented our house (that was a story all on its own), and from Thanksgiving through March, Craig flew home once a month to call on his accounts throughout Colorado. He’d be gone for at least a week, usually 10 days, and that was a bummer, but it’s what he had to do to run his company during the busy season.
What was your average monthly sabbatical budget?
Our monthly budget was lower than if we’d been in the States. We paid $600 a month for a house on the beach (nothing fancy at all), and food was much cheaper. If I had to guess, I’d say we spent about $800 a month total, not counting the extras we did like a whale watch or travel. We took a 10 day road trip in October, and a five day trip over Christmas. In April we traveled for three weeks in central Mexico as we headed back to the States.
What did you do about language?
Craig and I had a basic level of Spanish, nothing overly advanced, so Garvin often served as our translator. The longer we were there, the better we became at understanding the gist of what was being said, even if we couldn’t respond with very advanced concepts/vocabulary. Garvin’s Spanish was incredible by the time we left.
What advice would you offer a family considering a sabbatical?
Taking a sabbatical was absolutely the best thing we did as a family (we’ve taken two shorter ones since). If you’re even considering taking one, the best thing you can do is commit; decide when you’re going to go and where. Once you’ve actually picked a departure date, the details fall into place much more easily. We talked about it for years, and then realized it was time to stop talking and do it.
Also, if the idea of six months or a year away sounds too overwhelming, go for a month. Do what you can to start. From our experience, and in talking to other people, once you go, you’ll want to stay for longer. If I could do it again, I’d go for at least a full year, and I could see extending past that! Four weeks into our time in Mexico I was already thinking about when and how we might be able to do it again, and Craig was the main instigator originally, so it says a lot about the experience that I wanted to go again.
I felt like we “bought time” and had a bonus year with our son in Mexico because time slowed. Our lives were full, but the pace was more relaxed. During our first week in Mexico we met a local who said, “Time is something we have plenty of in Mexico.” I loved that and loved living that way. We were in a small town so we walked everywhere. I didn’t have to drive to go to the store or take my son to a friend’s house. We weren’t driving to lessons or events. When there was an event in the town, or at school, we walked. I really miss that lifestyle and the outlook that there’s no need to hurry.
That said, it was an adjustment, since my nature is to be busy and feel I have to accomplish a lot every day. Moving slowly doesn’t come naturally, and more time to practice the lifestyle would have been great! I was amazed when we came back at how quickly it felt like we never left.
Was it hard sometimes? Yes. The first month was the hardest for me and for Garvin. We arrived during rainy season, the hottest and most humid time of year. We’d been in the Colorado mountains for 14 years, so hot and humid were a big adjustment. There were lots of bugs during rainy season—ants on the counters, mosquitoes, lots of other crawly things, none of which I like. There were times in that first month when I wanted to strangle my husband for having this idea, and I wondered what in the heck we’d gotten ourselves into. But thankfully that didn’t last long and I was soon thinking about how we could manage another sabbatical.
Garvin really missed his friends at first and he had some sad times. Dropping him off at school the first day made me feel sick; what were we doing? And it was tough for him, especially in the beginning. He made friends quickly but endured taunting and bullying throughout most of our time there. However, it also showed me how resilient kids are, and how well they can adapt. Garvin was my hero. We took him out of his comfort zone, threw him into a school where he was the only white kid, and where he didn’t understand all of what was being said. He made friends and worked at learning in a rowdy classroom where that wasn’t an easy task.
And being in such a small town allowed us to give Garvin liberties he didn’t have at home. He could walk to buy something from the store, or to the town square and hang out with friends. Our town in Colorado isn’t set up as a walking community so he didn’t have a lot of independence at that time.
Sometimes I marvel that we pulled it off, and I’m so very glad and grateful that we did.