Ten Reasons Why Your Family Shouldn’t Take a Year Off: Reason #3 “What will you do with all your stuff?”

Pulling up your family’s suburban roots and heading off for some developing country for a year is foolish. There are lots of reasons not to do it. For example: What will you do with all your stuff?

As we started planning to rent out our house, we looked at all the “stuff” we had accumulated for the previous 10 years and wondered where it would go. We got some storage quotes for our things that ranged anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000. Fortunately, we found tenants who wanted our house furnished, so the biggest hurdle – where to put beds, couches, tables, desks, etc. – was cleared. It also helped that we decided to sell our second car, a 14-year old sedan, which further reduced our storage needs. The remaining stuff would be dealt with in four steps: 1) Toss it, 2) Sell it, 3) Donate it, 4) Store it.

Step one was pretty easy. Like most homeowners there were lots of things left over from house projects, such as old paint cans, old 2”x 4” pieces, extra pieces of chicken wire, old cinder blocks, etc. that had outlived their usefulness. After about four or five trips to the dump with the mini-van, all that was gone.

Step two was by far the most satisfying phase: selling it on Craig’s List. Craigs’s List is a beautiful thing because it accomplishes three worthwhile and simultaneous objectives: 1) you liberate yourself from your unwanted material goods, while 2) transferring it to someone who really wants it, while 3) keeping it out of a landfill. We sold dozens of items on Craig’s List, most of which fell into two categories: Kid’s furniture and toys that were either outgrown or no longer wanted and merchandise from sample sales of the various retail companies that I’ve worked for. If an item did not sell, we slashed the price; in some cases we offered an item for free, just to keep it out of the dump. For a couple months people were coming by the house at all hours to buy things. With multiple appointments on the same day, we sometimes became confused. “Are you here for the PlayStation2 console or the Pottery Barn rug?” “Was it the snowboard or the Williams-Sonoma wine rack?” “The Trek kid’s bike or the rattan chairs?” As these good passed from our hands to someone else’s, I reflected on the excitement of acquiring many of them. I remember buying the distressed pine wine rack at a Williams-Sonoma sample sale, snagging it just before another man could get to it. I remember the elation of beating him to it and getting it at a substantial discount over 12 years ago. It has done nothing but collect dust in our garage since that time.

Step three was simply a matter of taking everything that languished on Craig’s List and donating it to the local Goodwill store. After this was done, our garage was starting to look downright empty. Now it was time for step four: store it. Between our storage shed, the attic above our garage and the loft space above my mother’s garage we had about 1,500 square feet of storage to use. Over the course of the 2 months leading up to our departure, we gradually filled up every square inch of that space. We also stored our mini-van at my mother’s house.

With everything put away we felt really good about getting rid of almost half of the things in our house and even better about getting a lot of it to someone else who wanted it.


Ten Reasons Why Your Family Shouldn’t Take a Year Off: Reason #2 “What will you do with the house?”

Pulling up your family’s suburban roots and heading off for some developing country for a year is foolish. There are lots of reasons not to do it. For example: What will you do with the house?

Unquestionably, the cornerstone of our family’s ability to take a year off was being able to rent out our house. In fact, it’s safe to say that without renting out the house, our one year sojourn would have shrunk into an extended summer vacation. Because of this, our immediate focus was to do all the things that needed to be done to the house to make it rentable—without major problems cropping up during the year while we’re on a different continent. This included large projects like replacing the swimming pool light that was never grounded properly and cutting down the aging Monterrey Pine tree in the front yard that was sure to fall while we were away. The list also included scores of smaller tasks that had been put off for a few years like repainting the baseboards, getting screens for the office windows and replacing the lock on the garage door. There were also unexpected things like the 45 year-old sewage line deciding to back up and spew fetid water into the backyard about a month before I left for Peru. We had to replace 180 linear feet of sewage line. All of these things went on our list and we slowly ticked them off.

Once we’d made headway on the list, we decided to advertise the house on Craig’s List. We got a lot of out-of-town responses immediately from families with kids who were moving to Marin County and wanted their kids in our local school district. People from as far away as Texas, Los Angeles, Connecticut were all familiar with our neighborhood and school district and wanted to see the house right away. Most importantly, all were comfortable paying an amount of rent that would cover all our monthly housing expenses.

This response was in contrast to the last time we rented our house out for 6 months (March to September 2005). We turned up exactly two families, both of whom couldn’t afford what it would take to cover our monthly costs. We attributed this to the longer one-year period and the fact we were requesting a lease to start in the summer prior to the school year.

After many responses and a few showings we met our present tenants, who we liked immediately. The man owned a successful business and was financially solvent and they specifically wanted to live in our neighborhood. Although they lived about 40 minutes away, they wanted to move near a nearby high school so that their daughter could play basketball there for her senior year. Even better, since they planned to keep their house, they did not need much storage space and were fine with us keeping the furniture in the house, which meant that we did not need to find external storage for our things.

What we thought would be our biggest hurdle has turned out to be a relatively small one. Fortunately, we quickly located great tenants whose rent covers all our monthly costs; what could be better?


Ten Reasons Why Your Family Shouldn't Take a Year Off: Reason #1 "What will you do with the dog?"

Pulling up your family's suburban roots and heading off for some developing country for a year is foolish. There are lots of reasons not to do it. For example: What will you do with the family dog?

Our dog is a male, 6 year-old shepherd-mix that we got from Smiley Dog Rescue in Oakland, California about three and a half years ago. After a 6 month family sabbatical in 2005, one of the things we decided to do upon returning home was to get a dog. Without a lot of experience with dogs, we evaluated the pros and cons of rescue dogs and decided to get one, figuring that giving an unwanted dog a home outweighed any other considerations. By October of 2005 we had our dog and after a transition period where he would find every possible way out of our fenced yard, he settled in quite nicely. We quickly learned that he had to stay on leash while on walks, as he'd lunge and growl at certain types of dogs while he'd be friendly with others. Around the family he was very good and he was a great dog for us.

When it came time to start planning our suburban exodus, deciding what to do with our dog was not "top of mind" for us. Once we started to focus on it, the first thing we did was to add up a year's worth of kenneling costs At the rates we'd paid previously, we were looking at $9,500 for a year and that's only if he never left a 4'x4' cyclone fence cage with a concrete floor. If we added a daily 45 minute walk, it would cost close to $20,000 for a year for a pretty miserable existence.

Around the time we were starting to wonder where we could possibly place our dog, the woman who was to rent our house suggested that we could keep the dog at our home and she'd take care of him, along with her three poodles. This seemed perfect; our dog could stay in his own home and even have some canine companionship. She and my wife decided to give the idea a test one afternoon. All of our hopes came crashing down as our dog immediately defended his territory and started growling and barking and did not stop for the entire hour they were at our house. With each growl and bark, our dog's chances of a nice comfortable year in his own house slowly evaporated. Both my wife and our tenant agreed that this would not work.

A few weeks later during a dinner party with our best friends, after a few glasses of wine, the wife of the couple said that they'd love to watch our dog while we were away. As we put away a few more glasses, we ended the evening feeling optimistic about this scenario. The next day, in the cold light of day, we all realized that their house was on the market and there was no way of knowing if their future home would accommodate a dog. Back to square one.

A month later, a dog-loving friend of my wife's casually mentioned that she might take our dog for a year. My wife slowly worked up to suggesting a "doggy-sleepover" to see if such an idea might work. With no other options in sight, we awaited the fateful night. Again, our irascible canine could not contain himself. Not being on his home turf, he paced the house all night and just could not get comfortable. Again, it was mutually decided that we would pursue other options.

At this point, my wife even emailed Smiley Dog Rescue to see if there was a possibility that they'd take the dog back, even temporarily, but they said no.

As a last resort, my wife called her sister in Los Angeles. My sister-in-law and her husband don't have kids and have a nice back yard and she told me wife that she'd do it only if all other options were exhausted. My wife assured her that they were. She and my son brought the dog down in May and thus far the match has been very good. Our dog gets a lot more time walking than he did with us and my sister- and brother-in-law seem to genuinely enjoy his company. At one point during a recent walk, one of their neighbors even asked if he was for sale. From being unwanted and possibly having no home to being set up in a perfect environment and being the talk of the daily walk, our dog has come a long way.


In Praise of the Termo

While living with the Chavez family I was often awoken by the early-morning sound of the teakettle singing as water was being boiled. Tap water is not drinkable in Peru so you must either buy drinking water in plastic bottles (and deal with how to recycle them) or boil it yourself. Once the water is boiled, it is poured into one of the ubiquitous 2-liter insulating termos that every household, school and business seems to have. Termo, like its English-language counterpart, the thermos, is a brand name that has become generic and until recently for me was just another thing cluttering the household. I now look at the lowly termo in an exalted light.

In Peru there is nowhere near the energy and environmental hyper-consciousness that exists in California. Part of this is economic: consumers and companies can’t afford strict environmental safeguards or expensive, clean fuels. Part of this is government policy – as in the case of China: “let us become wealthy before we’re forced to become green.” Part of this is also timing: it takes a while for habits in developing countries to catch up with modern products. For example the Peruvian who throws the Snickers wrapper or Coke bottle out the bus window – as they might a banana peel or corn cob -- is slow catching on to the idea that these modern products won’t decompose or be eaten by pigs or goats within a week.

Despite all this, there is something to be learned from Peru and the termo.

Has there ever been a better low-tech solution to the twin problems of health and energy conservation? Boil a kettle of water in the morning and pour it into the termo and count your blessings all day long. Pour the boiled water into glass pitchers to let them cool and you have purified drinking water. Keep the boiled water in the termo and you have an all-day source of hot water for tea and coffee, as well as (in the case of our home) hot water for washing the dishes. Each time you pour from the termo, you are not firing up an energy source. Better yet, this fantastic low-tech, health and energy conservation system is portable; we took our termo with us on a recent excursion to Tres Cruces (12,000 ft) for a freezing-cold sunrise and had hot tea to keep us warm all morning long.

As we have settled into our Cusco apartment and continue to appreciate the benefits of the termo, the early morning singing of the teakettle has become a daily ritual.

This post is part of Erin's Blogsherpa Carnival at La Tortuga Viajera entitled Unique Customs from around the world.


Cusco Cockfights

For our first seven weeks in Peru, my daughter and I lived with the Chavez family in the Santa Monica suburb of Cusco. The family is very well off by Cusco standards; they own a large 3-story house with a maid in the nicest suburb of Cusco and they also own a 35-acre corn farm in the Sacred Valley. Alfredo, the husband, has a large dental practice and drives a SUV, while Zulma, the wife, is from a wealthy family and enjoys having foreign students stay in their home. They have made a concerted effort to include us in all the family activities.

One Sunday morning at breakfast, Alfredo turned to me and said “Vamos a Gallos?” (Do you want to go to the Cockfights?) Even though Alfredo is a professional and a doctor he definitely has a macho streak in him, so I interpreted his question as “Eres Hombre” (Are you a man?). Not wanting to disappoint, I agreed. He said to be back at the house by 3:00 pm.

Alfredo and his son Alfredito, along with Alfredito’s friend and I left the house at 3:00 pm and started winding through the suburbs of Cusco. We arrived at the “Coliseo de Gallos”, situated in a dusty area behind the airport. We paid the entry fee and entered a courtyard with food stalls, beer vendors, a smelly bathroom and the cockfighting arena itself. There were about 400 people there, 90% of which were male. The entire arena was about 50 feet in diameter and resembled a pit, with the circular, central fighting area ringed by ascending seating rows. The fighting area itself was a sandy surface about 25 feet in diameter surrounded by a chain link fence. Inside the cage were signs on either side, one saying izquierda (left) and one saying derecha (right). Since most roosters look the same, especially when the feathers start to fly, these signs help during the betting process. Prior to each fight when the betting happens, each trainer stands near one of the signs, poking and agitating their roosters (sometimes biting them on their backs) so that they become more aggressive.

As we arrived I bought four large beer bottles and quickly learned how men in Peru share beer. Despite all the news coverage of the swine flu, everyone shares a glass and drinks one bottle at a time. When the beer bottle is passed to you, just hold on to it and wait until the drinking glass is passed to you. Once it’s passed to you, fill up the glass and then keep the chain going by handing the bottle clockwise. When you finish your glass, hand it to the man with the beer bottle

Once the beer protocol was understood, I watched the trainers carefully tie the sharp blade to the rooster’s right leg and then hold them up to the crowd. Suddenly, the arena went crazy with men shouting bets. Alfredo explained to me that the betting process isn’t terribly scientific…just pick the one that looks stronger and shout out your bet to the crowd and wait for a response. The first round I watched Alfredo as he shouted veinte derecha, held up 2 fingers and scanned the crowd. A young man looked up at him from the first row and held up his 2 fingers and shouted veinte izquierda: Alfredo had just bet 20 soles on the rooster on the right side of the cage.

The fighting was now set to start with Alfredo yelling "vamos derecha!" Most of the fights followed the same pattern as this one: the roosters carefully stalked each other for 4-5 minutes until they got close enough to pounce on one another. Then after a about a minute of flying feathers and blood, one of the roosters stood above the other, the loser with its beak resting on the sand floor. Alfredo’s rooster lost this fight and I watched him settled up with the young man in the first row. After observing Alfredo, I tried a few on my own.

Over the course of the evening’s 15 or so fights, I ended up winning about 15 soles ($5). As the night wore on, more and more cerveza was consumed and the men in the crowd became filled with drunken bonhomie. A man near me affectionately babbled indecipherable Spanish to me throughout the night and I occasionally babbled something indecipherable back, to which he laughed loudly. After almost 5 hours of drinking beer, we all stumbled out of the Coliseo and went home.


Bless the SUV

Within the first two weeks of starting work for the Centro de Textiles Tradionales de Cusco (CTTC) my daughter and I were invited to a ceremony in the Sacred Valley of the Incas to bless the Center’s new SUV. CTTC supports over 400 indigenous weavers in 9 small communities, most of which are in remote mountain valleys that are only accessed by four-wheel drive. The ceremony was to be held at the shrine of El Senor de Huanca (“The Lord of Huanca”). The only thing I knew about El Senor de Huanca was that every other taxi in Cusco displayed decals with the words Guiame El Senor de Huanca (Guide me Lord of Huanca) across the top portion of their windshields. What I learned that day was that pilgrims from all over South America visit both the chapel and a painting of Jesus Christ inside a nearby cave, as well as bathe in the two nearby springs that are reputed to have miraculous healing properties.

The story of El Senor de Huanca is somewhat shrouded in mystery, but there are two principal events or “miracles”, around which the story seems to coalesce. The first event was in 1675, when a peasant miner named Diego Quispe from Chincero decided to escape the exploitative environment of the local Vasos mine in the Sacred Valley. While escaping on foot, he broke his journey by spending the night in a cave high on Pachatusan Mountain. During the night Diego was awakened by a brilliant light illuminating the dark cavern and within the light was the image of Jesus Christ. The image, whose body was bloody and beaten, spoke to him and told him he’d been chosen as a messenger and to go back to his village get the local priest and bring him back to the cave. Diego, after leaving a simple silver cross in the cave, went to Chinchero and returned with the priest. He also brought a renowned painter from Cusco who portrayed the likeness related to him by Diego in the cave where image appeared. When news of this event circulated, the cave became a pilgrimage site and a chapel was erected the next year.

The second event was in 1775, when a rich Bolivian miner named Don Pedro Valero became suddenly ill and bedridden in Cochabamba, Bolivia. When no local doctors could cure him, a foreign doctor healed him with a treatment of healing water. Don Pedro offered to pay the doctor but he declined and said that the only payment he would accept is a visit to his home in Huanca. Three years later, knowing only that it was near Cusco, Don Pedro set out to visit the doctor in Huanca but had much difficulty finding him. After a few months of searching, some miners coincidently led him to the same cave where the Jesus Christ image was painted 100 years earlier. Don Pedro was astounded to find that the image painted on the rock in the cave was of the very same doctor that treated him three years earlier.

Unaware of the details of the Huanca story, my daughter and I met my work colleagues at the Textile Center on a Saturday morning to carpool to the Sacred Valley. Along the way we stopped at Oropesa, a town about 20 kilometers from Cusco that is locally famous for its round, sweet bread loaves. We bought a couple bread loaves about a foot and a half in diameter to share at our picnic later that day. Not long after reaching the Sacred Valley we turned left and started to climb the road uphill and then quickly pulled to the side. Impromptu shops lined the narrow sides of the road with what seemed to be miniature toys: cars, trucks, houses, high-rise apartment buildings, boats, even tiny stacks of $100 bills. It was explained to me that these were “aspirational” gifts; if you buy a miniature version of what you desire, you’ll soon receive the real thing. While my colleagues decorated the car with streamers, balloons, flowers and good luck charms, my daughter bought a bag of rice to throw at the SUV-blessing ceremony.

Once we got to the chapel and shrine, we waited for quite a while for the priest to arrive. We walked the grounds and watched pilgrims bathing in the healing waters and we watched a middle-aged couple get married. Once the priest arrived, he quickly went about his work. He greeted each member of our party of 20 people with warmth and charm, then slowly made his way around the car. He sprinkled holy water inside all the doors and lifted the engine hood to carefully bless the car’s most vital area. Once done, he instructed us to suspend an earthenware pitcher of chicha (fermented corn beer) in front of the grill of the car with two ribbons. Someone brought out a hammer and shattered the pitcher and everyone threw some rice and the SUV was now officially blessed.

After the ceremony, we drove to spot in the valley for a picnic and a game of volleyball. I think we all travelled with a bit more confidence thanks to the El Senor de Huanca insurance policy.


Dive Right In: The First Night of Swim Practice

While living in Cusco both of our kids had settled into a regular routine with the Cusco Swim Team. Three to four times per week at 6:45 p.m. they'd stroll in to the Piscina Municipal de Wanchaq and jump right in with the other swimmers. I’m sometimes amazed at how easy they blend in. I have to remember, however, that the first practice was very difficult for my 12-year old daughter.

My daughter and I came down to Cusco 6 weeks before my wife and son (my son wanted to graduate from middle school), so she was the sibling that would pave the way for the other. After giving her a few days to acclimatize to the altitude and get a couple Spanish lessons under her belt, we showed up early at the pool to meet Coach Cristian. I had thought that there might be practice that morning so my daughter had her swim gear on. It turned out that he came especially for us and there was no practice, but he asked if she wanted to have a workout. My daughter nervously declined and we agreed to return that night for the formal practice.

Cristian had been a positive and enthusiastic correspondent, but the language barrier and his communication style left many questions unanswered; Was there a swim meet schedule? Was there a swim team web site? How many kids were on the team? How much did it cost? Were our kids fast enough to compete? Was the team in a league of some kind?

We returned that night at 6:30 sharp, but there were no swim team members at the pool. Cristian saw us in the lobby and waved us in. With no other swimmers present, my daughter reluctantly started moving towards the locker room to get ready. She spoke virtually no Spanish and was the only blue-eyed, blond-haired person at the pool. After she changed she came over to me and handed me her backpack and looked at me with tears welling up in her eyes; I knew that she didn’t want to do it. I told her, “This is going to be an experience that you will never forget and nobody you know even has the opportunity to do it.” I wiped her tears and she went over to Coach Cristian, who had her and another girl start stretching. Within five minutes she was back with more tears. I told her, “This is not going to be one of those things that I’m going to let you back out of. I know that you can do this.”

By now about 10 other kids had joined and all were introduced to my daughter. They started their laps and I noticed after about 5-6 laps, she was taking breaks on the turns: the altitude was definitely getting to her. I watched as Coach Cristian barked instructions in Spanish and she looked at him incomprehensibly. At one point he clearly motioned for her to jump off the diving platform so that she could be timed but she appeared to not have the slightest clue what he was saying. I could tell that she was completely flustered at this point. Her body language – shoulders slumped and arms folded in front of her chest – betrayed her inner state: Get me out of here!

I started to wonder if Cristian regretted his decision to let our kids join the team. It was definitely a challenge to communicate with my daughter and I wondered if this was worth the effort for him. Fortunately, one of the girls knew a few key words of English and this made the second half of practice go a little better. When Cristian asked them to swim the next lap their fastest, she turned to my daughter and said “Speedy!” (Speedy.com is a Peruvian internet service provider; this is my guess as to how this word crept into her vocabulary).

I was very relieved when practice ended and I was very proud of my daughter for what she went through. Just as I was thinking about how I would reward her, I noticed that all the girls formed a circle around her in the pool with Speedy translating their questions, “You have brother?” “How many years?” I saw one of the girls stroke my daughter’s blond hair and they all giggled. She answered their questions about the brother and two of them shot their hands up as if to say “He’s mine!”

She emerged from the pool smiling; a great ending to what had been a difficult experience. We resolved to go for a scoop of gelato after her shower. All’s well that ends well.

This post is a part of the Lonely Planet Blogsherpa Blog Carnival from Claire at at First Time Travels. You can find the carnival here.