I imagine I’m not alone. That for every parent who makes a choice to take her child out of school, away from home and community, and to immerse him or her in another country and culture, there comes a moment when one says, “Oh sh-t, what have I done?” This moment likely arrives amid some sort of chaos – perhaps an unsettled living arrangement, illness from new food or more polluted atmosphere, or simply one long day of no productivity, amplified by a child’s pleas of “I’m so Booored. What can I do??? (this, often codeword for Can I play on your phone or some other electronic device.) If I stick to my guns of no or limited device use, it reminds me that I am also the sole play pal, homeschool teacher, disciplinarian, cook, and comfort giver. Plus all the other crap us single moms are in charge of – no small load at that. So this moment came, shortly after our arrival in Mexico. We were at our fourth home/hotel stay in three weeks and I was getting very grumpy. With such constant movement, I was unable to settle into any writing/thinking/quiet time discipline. None of those imagined cheap yet luscious massages, long yoga classes or endless hours of life contemplation and research. Not to mention 8-hour sleep cycles I so desperately needed.
I left the US to Do Nothing, after a year of juggling what felt like three full time jobs in hostile environments and with health and home challenges, plus trying to carve out time to be a mom — not to mention mourn the loss of my own mom, whose death was so sudden I’d hardly had time to absorb it all. So off we went. In search of Time. Some people called it a “vacation,” which, by American standards, is probably the only way some people can make sense of such journeys. Unless you’ve actually traveled, felt the challenges, and realized that in other countries, families aren’t torn apart by endless “work” hours, by lack of support for mothers and families, by lack of understanding that productivity should not be measured by the number of hours in a day or where that work is conducted (some of the most small minded folks I’ve worked with of late feel that sitting at a desk in an office is the only place where “work” happens). In other countries, people have leisure time, and yes, still live extremely productive lives. There is flexibility in work hours and more of an understanding that with greater familial and individual support, often efficiency and productivity increases.
It isn’t only time that we’re searching for, and indeed finding, but so many of the other benefits that travel can best provide.
Traveling also can force you to be vulnerable, sometimes on a daily basis, and it confronts you with the kindness of strangers. Sure there are dangers, like anywhere. But there are few other experiences where you must ask for help in so many ways, and count on the generosity of others, particularly in a place where you don’t speak the language. In turn, it has always made me want to help others more, both at home and abroad.
Travel makes you more compassionate when you realize how little people exist on every day, and how resourceful they are and often have to be. It reminds us how materialistic our culture is, and how consumerism is a national American pastime. It makes us do more with less. In fact, despite cries for more legos, toys, plastic crap and more, one of Aiden’s most used toys here is a small rubber superball with long ribbons attached. We’ve spent many evening hours bouncing the ball high into the sky, in coordination with or merely side by side with other Mexican children. Definitely outlasting some of the other more expensive items that have made their way into our household.
And travel at this time in my life is part of my rethinking of education. In fact I consider this travel a very active search for an alternative to standardized testing-focused schooling (and sadly, the $20k/year private schools in NM are simply not an option for me). Here we have a language challenge, immersion in a different culture, and the exploration of new and different schools. We’ve found a great unschooling center surrounding a pond filled with tiny frogs, with horses and sheep wandering nearby. Or a more “traditional” school, which teaches mythology using Rick Riordan books. There are Catholic and international schools with high price tags, and public Mexican schools where the level of education is still questionable. But the exploration continues. I might admit soon that I’m not the best homeschool teacher, which seems to require a level of consistency, dedication and scheduling that I tend to avoid generally while traveling. But education is a continuum and I can’t forget the larger picture: that leaving your place of comfort is often where the greatest growth occurs.
This trip also makes me think about national dialogues, ours in particular. Having been immersed in media for much of my life and career, taking a break from this noxious, toxic environment is a blessing. Sure, some of the Trump obscenities sneak through — my favorite being the Dr. Seuss tweets — but it’s not shouting at me from every newspaper, TV or radio ad. It is work trying to avoid one of the most racist, sexist, and virulent (if not outright violent) election cycles I’ve encountered in my lifetime. But most days I am successful, which means I am not as easily pulled down by the crazies. Not a small point for one’s general and mental health.
I don’t want to romanticize too much, because travel is difficult. And sometimes very uncomfortable. For example, losing a month’s rent when we realized that our mold-filled nasty hotel right next to a disco was simply not going to work, well that just plain sucked. Plus, I miss the mountains. I miss the clean air. I miss my easily accessible organic foods. And I miss my dogs. My lungs seem to have adjusted to the emissions-spewing vehicles down here, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Though it does make the days go by easier. And becoming volunteers at the local animal shelter has taken off some of the edge from our current dog-free lives. But living without a car and depending on a bus system that in this town can only be learned by psychic interpretation (as there are no maps indicating routes, nor consistent signage on any bus that indicates where it might be traveling!) is a great challenge. But challenges make you stronger, right? They certainly make me more appreciative of the ease with which I live in America. But that ease comes with a price to society and to the environment that not many Americans care to think about. Yet I’m having to think a lot about it here.
So perhaps that Oh Sh-t moment is not as profound as it sounds or feels. Perhaps it’s just the residue of jumping in and taking a big risk and not knowing yet how it will all work out. It’s living without familiar comforts and without a PLAN. Which can be really scary. And when things settle in and you find the house and town that works, you realize that those moments come and go, regardless of where you are.
Sitting here and watching Aiden read in a hammock with the beautiful city of San Miguel spread out before us, with Legos spread on a table and fresh mangoes on the kitchen counter, I have to remember that this kind of time together is rare. And time I did not have and could not afford in Santa Fe. So today, rather than asking questions or wondering about my choices, I’ll simply count my blessings. Indeed I have so many.