Tag Archives: New People

Keeping Travel Alive between Trips

A couple of friends remarked recently, “Haven’t seen much about travel at ‘No Pension, Will Travel.’  Sounds like no pension, no travel.

Yes, it’s true.  I’ve been writing about almost every other aspect of our journey these days.  Cheryl and I were lamenting that – as we are still both working – all of our vacation time is spoken for this year, and our first trip longer than a weekend isn’t until late June.  So how do we keep travel alive when we’re not traveling?

There’s the usual travel-related tasks such as budgeting for the next trip – a lot more exciting than paying for the last one!  Or trying to find the cheapest way from Rome to Rio.  (If you don’t let the shenanigans of the airline and other travel sites drive you crazy!)  Planning a vacation is often listed as one of the top ways to improve your mood.  We’ve discovered quite a few others.

Canoeing in Croatia's National Plitvice Park - photo credit Huck Finn Adventure Tours

Canoeing in Croatia’s National Plitvice Park – photo credit Huck Finn Adventure Tours

Most of our upcoming trips are with groups of various sizes.  Following our resolution made on our cycling trip in Provence, we pulled together an ad hoc group of 16 people for a week of cycling in Croatia.  This has given us lots of excuses to get together with fun-loving people and talk about the upcoming trip.  Half of the original group of 16 decided to add on another week of exploring Croatia’s Plitvice National Park, so we met at the coordinator’s home for spaghetti, wine, and a little bit of travel planning.  With eight people, we have enough to make a custom itinerary cost-effective.  In the next month or so, we hope to get all 16 together for dinner as some of us have yet to meet.

Arranging accommodation through services such as Servas, Couchsurfing and AirBnB has given us another way to start a trip months before liftoff.  Once we’ve booked something, we often find the host happy to talk about our upcoming visit, offering us information and ideas, as well as just getting to know each other a little.  Recently we’ve been chatting with Sara, our upcoming host in the old centre of Ljubljana, Slovenia this Fall.  Nothing like connecting with a real person to make it feel like you’re already there.  We also stay in loose touch with hosts we’ve had on earlier trips – to Paris, Avignon, Barcelona, Costa Rica, Tuscany, and the Italian Riviera.  Add Mexico and Columbia for those we’ve hosted here.  Often it’s just Facebook, but special connections warrant something more.

Slovenian Sunday Brunch - photo credit EatWith.com

Slovenian Sunday Brunch – photo credit EatWith.com

Learning something about the culture of the countries we’re going to visit is another way to savour an upcoming trip, one that can also amplify the experience when we’re there.  We’re hoping to visit the local Croatian cultural centre before we go – in our city, there seems to be a centre for almost every ethnicity you can imagine.  Something we’ve yet to try is EatWith.com, billed as “Dine in homes around the world! Meet amazing people, eat great food and enjoy unforgettable experiences!  Besides using them when we travel, we could also find an authentic Croatian meal right in our home town.

Perhaps the most significant cultural undertaking before a trip is to learn something of the language. As Rita Mae Brown observed, “Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.  I’m just starting my Croatian lessons, hoping I can achieve a working knowledge before we arrive in Dubrovnik.  Travel has been the main reason that I’ve learned several other languages since leaving high school, although there are other advantages.  Sure you can get by with English in most countries these days, but bear in mind the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “No man should travel until he has learned the language of the country he visits. Otherwise he voluntarily makes himself a great baby – so helpless and so ridiculous.

In the meantime, my volunteer work as an immigrant mentor has led to a number of invitations to meals and parties among the local Chinese community.  Most recent was an invitation to a house party to welcome in the Chinese Year of the Horse on January 31.  Definitely a cultural

40th annual Chinese New Year parade, Vancouver, Canada

40th annual Chinese New Year parade, Vancouver, Canada

experience, even if we don’t yet have a trip to China in the planning stages.  Even if you don’t have any personal immigrant connections, check out the public festivals celebrated by immigrant communities in your area.

There are lots of other ways to travel between trips.  As members of Servas and Couchsurfing, we also host overseas visitors from time to time.  This Spring we have a special visit in the works.  Through dabbling in my family tree on the great collaborative genealogy site, WikiTree, I’ve made contact with hitherto unknown second and third cousins in England, Ireland, Germany, Lithuania, Australia and Brazil.  Our current challenge is to choose between invitations to several countries.  A cousin from Brazil plans to visit us this year, and Cheryl and I are already making tentative plans to visit my new extended family in Florianópolis in the next couple of years.  It would be great stopover en route to learning tango in Buenos Aires.

If you keep your eyes open, there are lots of opportunities to experience the world within easy commuting distance.  In most cities, there are frequent “world music” concerts to expose you to new sounds.  I’ve been greatly enjoying my first attempts to learn Latin Funk Dance.  I’m pretty much off balance for the entire hour every week, but just think of all the new synapses I’m creating.  And with that Latin beat, I could be back in the main square of Santiago de Cuba.

Being “off balance” is a lot of what good travel is about.  As a dear friend recently reminded me in her post, “Out of the Blue”, travel “rattles our carefully-designed world view.”  If you have any doubts, check out one of the many Internet lists on how travel makes you a better person.  The truth is, however, that we don’t have to travel at all to live in “vacation mode.”

A Tree Drum - photo credit, Drumming & Health

A Tree Drum – photo credit, Drumming & Health

I was reminded of this the other day when I discovered an opportunity to join a “drumming circle” and bring along as many friends as I could muster.  The opportunity to join a drumming master, schooled for months in western Africa, and experiment with call-response rhythms on djenbe and other drums sounds like a great new experience.  I jumped at the chance, and invited 25 of my friends along too.  I was sure that they’d all leap at the chance to experience something new.  Yet, as the excuses started to dribble in – “I have to go skiing the weekend following.” – “I’ve got to do my tax return.” – Really!? – I began to realize that not everyone saw the value in jumping in to brand new experiences.  It’s a pity.  The evening was magical, and those who showed up were excited to invite others to a future event.

I think this points to the real way to keep travel alive even when you’re not traveling:  bring that attitude of open-mindedness, that stance of being perpetually a little “off balance”, to everything you do.  I collected some of the markers of my own travel attitude in a “vacation mode” posting a few years back: “Do only one good thing every day…  Talk to people for no reason…  Live with less material stuff…  Go outside even when the weather isn’t cooperating…  Spend time with friends and family that you enjoy being with…  Have sex any time of the day…”  You get the picture.

Under a Full Moon - photo credit, Meetup.com

Under a Full Moon – photo credit, Meetup.com

So, what can you do today in that spirit of exploring a brand new place you’ve never been before?  How can you rekindle that wide-eyed curiosity in familiar surroundings?  When you start to look, there’s no shortage of opportunities.  On Valentine’s evening, Cheryl and I joined a small group for a snowshoe hike under the full moon.  Snowshoeing is a fairly new activity for us, and this was the first time we’d ever been out after dark.  It was magical.  And, yes, it was romantic too.

What are you taking on in vacation mode?  How do you keep the travel spirit alive between trips?

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A Peace of Christmas

We’ll be taking a Christmas break from the blog, but before we go, Paul shares some holiday memories.

I’ve never fallen out of love with Christmas.  I’m thankful for that.

Somehow the madness of the holiday season – the crowded malls, the in-your-face commercialism, the social occasions with relatives you can’t stand – have all passed me by.

My personal Christmas is still infused with the memories of more than fifty years ago.  The smallish city I lived in then was blanketed in peace and tranquility on Christmas morning, with ghosts of solitary tire tracks on snow-covered lanes.

Scrooge's third visitor, from Charles Dickens:...

Scrooge’s third visitor, from Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. With Illustrations by John Leech. London: Chapman & Hall, 1843. First edition. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To this day, some of my favourite seasonal music were the songs I first heard on an old Columbia Masterworks 10-inch Christmas LP – sounds that came out of hiding every December to evoke the holidays season:  “Patapan”, “Gloucestershire Wassail”, “Sing we Noel once more”, and others one hears too rarely these days.  The music was similar to that which played on my favourite Christmas movie – then and now – the black-and-white version of “A Christmas Carol” with Alastair Sim.

For a few glorious years in my childhood, the family assembled at least thirty five members from cousins to great aunts and uncles for a dozen hours of feasting and games.  Not willing to choose between the English tradition of ham and plum pudding, and the North American tradition of turkey and trifle, the family did both – one meal at one house, then everyone heading over to a second home for the other tradition.

Now perhaps as young children, my siblings, cousins, and I were protected from harsh realities such as family feuds.  But I doubt it.  I really believe that all thirty five of us were happy to be there, and everyone got along.  We were a family that truly enjoyed each other’s company, playing games, singing songs, and generally being jolly until the night overtook us.

Somehow I’ve been able to carry that sense of Christmas peace and love and family with me for half a dozen decades, despite the many changes the years have wrought.  The grandparents, great aunts and great uncles are long ago departed – most of the parents, aunts and uncles too.  Cousins and siblings have scattered far and wide.  The city has grown substantially and no longer shuts down completely for a couple of days in late December.

All the older photos were destroyed in a flood.  At this time, the gathering was under a dozen.

All the older photos were destroyed in a flood. At this time, the gathering was under a dozen.

I think my secret has been to keep the spirit and not fret the form.  A few years ago, when we were still buying a few Christmas presents for close family, I made a decision that I would henceforth avoid the box stores, malls and traffic jams.  I would eschew the best bargains for presents bought in the spirit of Christmas.  I would choose a quiet area of town, where stores were walkable, and do my shopping on foot at a leisurely pace, and without really knowing what I’d find.  I’d stroll the relatively quiet streets, chatting to shopkeepers, and seeing what caught my eye.  I always found what I needed. While others all around me were complaining of crowds and Christmas commercialization, I felt the same inner peace I’d felt in my childhood.

Not many years later, I noticed that Cheryl was finding Christmas more stressful.  Despite pacts with parents and siblings to eliminate gift exchanges, as our kids were growing up, it seemed as if old rituals were evolving into new obligations.  Holiday parties were becoming impositions, and even shopping for Christmas meals seemed to involve fighting crowds and traffic.  So we made a further pact with our two sons that we’d skip the presents altogether and put the money towards a Christmas holiday in Hawaii or some other tropical destination.  As it turned out, Cheryl’s Mom chipped in generously on more than one occasion, and we’ve enjoyed several low-stress extended-family tropical Christmases in recent years.

Christmas in Hawaii:  stars in the gift shop.

Christmas in Hawaii: stars in the gift shop.

More recently we’ve had to adapt to new realities.  Changes in family dynamics mean that getting everyone together on Christmas Day is rarely possible.  Both of my siblings are now grandparents, and the grand-kids may be claimed for the day by other families, taking their grandparents with them.  One or the other of our boys may be invited to Christmas dinner with their girlfriend’s family.  So, we roll with the punches.  Some years the day itself is a quiet one – this year, for instance, we may be on our own and spend the evening taking in the light displays in the neighbourhood.  Our family Christmas dinner may be on the 24th.

Still, new traditions are forming.  In some recent years, we’ve held a variant of the “widows and orphans” party on the 26th – we’ve invited friends and acquaintances who perhaps have no relatives nearby, and who we think might enjoy the sort of  fun, songs, and games my family used to enjoy over half a century ago.  This year we’ve invited about fifteen from a variety of backgrounds – we’re hoping to play Murder, a game we learned from one the recent immigrants I’ve been assisting, and who’ll be joining us that day.  Like our childhood games, this one requires no purchases and no supplies beyond a few pencils and scraps of paper – only a willingness to slow down and enjoy the family atmosphere.

It doesn't take much to enjoy Christmas.

It doesn’t take much to enjoy Christmas.

Will things change again?  No doubt they will.  The arrival of grandchildren – not yet on the horizon – will herald another major shift.  Gift-buying may once again be part of Christmas for us.  The “peace” of Christmas may only be found after the little ones fall asleep on the couch.  One day we may be celebrating Christmas in a retirement commune.   I have one other dream – a bucket-list promise to take Cheryl to a small village in the Alps for a traditional Austrian Christmas.

Thinking back over the years, I can remember many other sorts of Christmases.  Gatherings with family friends where my father would sing – the only time of the year I ever heard that.  A decade later, it was tobogganing with friends down the hill behind our country home..  Ten years after that, Cheryl and I were living in Australia and passed several Christmases on the beach under a blistering sun.  One year, while camping at Byron Bay, NSW, a Christmas-eve flash flood left us drying everything on tree branches the following day, while we barbecued crabs and sucked on fresh mangoes.  A few years later we were snowed in for days at my parents’ hilltop home, periodically hiking down the hill for supplies.  There was one low-key Christmas in Costa Rica.  More recently, I joined a Christmas choir one winter to sing at the light show at the botanical gardens.  And so it goes.

Main accessible beach from Byron Bay ...

Main accessible beach from Byron Bay (Australia), close to the swimming pool. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The same theme runs through them all:  a sense of peace, and love, and family – externally shaped by the conditions of the day, internally unaffected by the ebb and flow of life.

If I have any trouble getting into the Christmas spirit, I have only to play an old musical favourite like Patapan, and my heart once more fills with all those wonderful Christmas gatherings of family and friends.

Have a peaceful holiday season, both inside and out.  See you next year!

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Learning Languages for Fun, Travel & the Fountain of Youth

Apart from his native English ability, Paul’s profile lists professional working proficiency in Portuguese and German, limited proficiency in Spanish, and elementary in French and Italian.  Here he hints at how he acquired these other languages and why he doesn’t intend to stop there. Do you speak a second language?  Why not? According to Science Daily, “The majority of people in the world learn to speak more than one language during their lifetime.”  However, I don’t think native-born North Americans are pulling their weight.

English: A USSR stamp, 70th Birth Anniversary ...

English: A USSR stamp, 70th Birth Anniversary of Nelson Mandela. Date of issue: 18th July 1988. Designer: B. Ilyukhin. Michel catalogue number: 5853. 10 K. multicoloured. Portrait of Nelson Mandela (fighter for freedom of Africa). Русский: Марка СССР Н. Мандела (1988, ЦФА №5971). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Learning other languages – even just a nodding acquaintance – makes travel so much more rewarding.  Opening a conversation with a few words of the native language transforms us from tourist to traveler in the ears of the person we’re addressing.  According to a Czech proverb, “You live a new life for every new language you speak.”  Learning other languages may even be the key to peace and reconciliation.

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head.  If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart” – Nelson Mandela

At my age, I’m often tempted to say, “I’m too old for this.  Our sensitive period for language learning goes downhill after age seven!  On top of that, my hearing is going, and even understanding English is getting harder!”  You look at initiatives like “Fluent in 3 Months” or “Fluent Every Year” and say, “Yeah, but, those are young folks!” If that’s your excuse, perhaps it’s time to set it aside.  There may even be more at stake than getting around Paris, Venice, or Dubrovnik.

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

Every year, new studies come out showing that learning a second language is one of the best ways known to reduce or postpone age-related cognitive decline – even Alzheimer’s.  A recent study in Toronto suggests that learning a second language can delay the symptoms of that brain-wasting disease for years.  Lead neuroscientist, Dr. Schweizer, said that a second language appears to delay the onset of symptoms by four or five years.  “This is fantastic,” he said, adding that no existing medicine is that effective.  Perhaps only social dancing has a stronger effect, but not every senior is able to take up dancing. There’s also good news on the other side of the equation.  New research in neuroplasticity is showing that the brain continues to develop throughout our entire lives.  Books like Norman Doidge’s “The Brain that Changes Itself” offer remarkable and inspirational stories about this phenomenon.  While we seniors may have to adapt the way we use our brains in order to learn new languages, such adaptation is possible, and science continues to understand it better.  This excellent if lengthy article, “Memory Problems in Seniors and Learning a New Language”, offers some surprising advice based on recent research.

“How a child learned this was from hearing and using the constructions thousands of times before ever beginning their formal education.  The child associates images with the words and phrases – he can use grammar correctly because he heard and repeated correct grammar over and over again!  What an adult does, most unfortunately, is not associate images with words and phrases in which correct grammar and vocabulary is learned, but rather tries to remember words and phrases in the foreign language as an association with words and phrases in his native language.  He is constantly, and erroneously, associating the foreign language with his native one.  This short-circuits the second language learning!

This emphasis on how children learn language is a key one, especially now that we know that we retain a considerable amount of the child’s neuroplasticity all our lives.  Not only does learning a second language keep us young, but also it may be necessary to “think young” in order to learn that language.

Practicing German with Swiss cyclists in Brisighella, Italy

Practicing German with Swiss cyclists in Brisighella, Italy

I’ve taken that one step further.  From my own experience, I’ve concluded that to learn another language most efficiently, you need to become as much like a child as possible.  In a blog post a few years ago, I recounted my experience learning my first foreign language in my early twenties.  The principles I distilled pretty much sum up the way a young child comes at learning their first language.

  • Put something at stake that’s more important than looking good.
  • Cut off all escape routes.
  • Stop trying to translate everything.  Learn how to think in others’ terms.
  • Trust the “music of the language.”  Don’t let the words get in the way.
  • Unleash your natural mimic
  • Relax and have fun!  Enjoy the game!

Perhaps the reason we adults have trouble learning new languages has nothing to do with our ability to act like children.  Maybe it has more to do with our willingness.  It’s just not cool! Others are saying much the same thing.  A new initiative, called Velocity Language Learning, has adult participants wearing funny hats and playing silly games as part of their strategy for getting them back into that childlike state of wonder and learning.

The cofounder of Velocity Learning models a hat

The cofounder of Velocity Learning models a hat

There are so many Internet resources for learning languages, it’s overwhelming.  I listed a few in my earlier piece on “The Language Lab of Life.”  I’ll list a few more links at the end of this article.  My advice is to use those that give you the greatest freedom and incentive to free your inner child – and set her about learning that next language the way she learned her first.  She didn’t engage endless vocabulary drills, or consult translation dictionaries and grammar texts.  Instead, she was born into the pool, and it was sink or swim – and if she was lucky, the adults around her paid more attention to what she was trying to say than how many mistakes she made along the way. So, throw yourself in the pool.  Go join a Meetup for your target language, or try an ESL one or polyglot one where you may find others willing to trade their language for English conversation.  Leave a comment on this post and let us know what you’re doing, or what’s working for learning your new language.

Our AirBnB hosts in Paris helped our French!

Our AirBnB hosts in Paris helped our French!

My own project for the coming year is to move my Italian to the next level for a return trip to Italy.  Some elementary Croatian would also be helpful for the bike tour we’re doing out of Dubrovnik on that same trip.  Beyond that, who knows?  To paraphrase Sandra Martz, “When I am deaf, I shall learn Sign Language.” A few more resources:

I fear that projects like SIGMO or Google Translate will reduce the incentive to learn other languages.  What will keep us young then?

Ageing Heads in the Sand?

Cheryl and I attended a workshop last weekend called Ageing Well in Community, sponsored by a seniors’ cohousing initiative.  I think it was the “Community” part that attracted our attention, not the “Ageing”.  After all, we’re still young, right?  Our average age is still under sixty, just.  (In fairness to Cheryl, I’m contributing more than my fair share to that average!)

Biking the hills at Les Baux-de-Provence, France

Biking the hills at Les Baux-de-Provence, France

We joined the outdoor club and are hiking and biking more than ever.  I’ve taken up an exercise program called “Younger Next Year”, and I’m feeling good about it.  I’m  in better shape than I was a year ago, and back near my college weight.  Cheryl’s taken up sprint triathlons.  In our coming decade or two, we look ahead not to ageing, but to more travel.  We’ve signed up with Couchsurfing, and booked a biking trip in the Dalmatian Islands, so we’re definitely young at heart.  We both still work at demanding careers, and are working towards our next one.

We were a little surprised by the image on the front of the course workbook:  a man with his head in the sand.  Surely that wouldn’t be us?

We were pretty smug about others who had their heads in the sand about ageing.  We had dealt with relatives of our parents’ generation who had refused to make plans for independent living until circumstances forced them into assisted-living complexes.  By refusing to accept the fact of their ageing, they had lost their independence when it was no longer possible to do much about it.

We also looked around at our own peers who were talking about retirement and still not saving anywhere near enough to finance it.  We were often shocked at the statistics of baby boomers heading into retirement with significant debts and mortgages, and an expectation that their current salary would continue for decades past traditional retirement age.  They definitely were behaving like ostriches.

What, me worry?

What, me worry?

However, as we worked through the first day of the workshop, we began to shift our perspective.  We are getting older, and those “ageing things” are getting closer.  We’ve lost friends to cancer, and more in our circles are widows and widowers.  We notice that some aren’t as sharp as they once were and wonder if it’s the beginnings of Alzheimer’s.  Friends and relatives younger than us have artificial hips or knees.  Our hiking and biking companions are sidelined more often, sometimes indefinitely.  We’ve become good friends with our physiotherapists.  At present, I’m dealing with shoulder problems.  While I’m still hoping to resolve them, I may not.  For now, I’m having trouble reaching things from top shelves. Wow!  I’m one of those “old people” with “reduced mobility”.  Fast forward fifteen years, and it’s highly unlikely we’ll have quite the energy and stamina we have now.  We might not want the same demanding workload we currently carry.

Like a growing number of people, we also realize that the world’s rapidly ageing population is going to put serious strains on traditional models of healthcare.  No matter how we organize society, when the population is ageing, and the ratio of younger workers to retired people is dropping, the cost of that care is going to rise.  Except for those who are independently wealthy, we are all going to feel the squeeze.

If we put these thoughts aside and wait until necessity intrudes, we may find it’s too late to take the necessary actions to maintain our independence.  Like others we’ve regarded ruefully, we may wake up one day and realized we’ve missed the opportunity to create our community of support.

Our friends still like to play

Our friends still like to play

As we discussed in an earlier post, we’ve been investigating the role of community – including some sort of shared or collaborative housing – in staying young and providing mutual support.  So far, it’s been a Good Idea.  Good enough to get us to the workshop last weekend.

While the workshop exposed us to a lot of creative ideas for building community and constructing collaborative living arrangements, it also made us realize that these things take time.  If we wait until we need community support in order to remain independent or manage our health care, it will be too late to build it.  Developing a collaborative home or a cohousing development can take years:  we know of few who’ve done it in three or four, and many who’ve taken seven or more.  Even if all we do is move to a new community, it will take time to become integrated and establish new networks and friendships.  The time to start is now.

Coming out of the weekend, we have a new sense of purpose in building our future community, … plus a lot more creative ways in which we can get started.  As interesting as we find the traditional cohousing concept, we’re not sure it’s the model for us.  But there are plenty more to choose from.  It’s a good thing.  As boomers age,  more and more of us will realize it’s going to take some creative community building to meet the challenges of the coming years.  No one solution is going to be able to match the magnitude of the requirement.

In less than two decades, I'll have one of these!

In less than two decades, I’ll have one of these!

As I was writing this post, I was chatting with Cheryl’s mom, who is visiting us from her home in an assisted-living complex.  She was telling me about how she was too young to take up some of those exercise activities that the staff put on.  Maybe next year, she said.

For my part, I have acquired a new sense of urgency, not a panicked urgency, but a realization that the biological clock is ticking.  Having taken my head from the sand, it will not be so easy to bury it again.  We need to pick a direction and start taking concrete actions to make ageing well in community our reality.  It’s time.

Need more?  Check these out:

What’s your take?

Back from Costa Rica, into the “Real World”

In the previous two posts, we talked a little about why and how we came to spend half a year in Costa Rica with our two boys, aged nine and 12, and touched on the irreplaceable education we all four acquired from this experience.  Here Paul talks about the aftermath.

All good things must end.

We ran out of money in Costa Rica perhaps ten days earlier than we’d planned, and so booked our travel back home around the time of the first few showers of the impending rainy season.  Including our air fare, as well as various tours and admissions, our average cost of living for the entire six months was about half of what it would have been had we stayed home.  Since we’d canceled our lease and put everything in storage, we had few other expenses during that time.  However, there was other financial fallout.

We spent one morning "helping" make caramelized sugar the old-fashioned way

We spent one morning “helping” make caramelized sugar the old-fashioned way

We quickly rented a new home, but before we’d even had the storage containers delivered, we learned that our company had suffered a major crisis in recent days.  My partners had taken the unprecedented step of laying almost everyone off – including themselves, Cheryl and me.  So there we were with a new lease and no jobs.  I won’t say it was easy to recover, but things did work out.  Cheryl, who had been the work-at-home Mom, eventually found a full-time job outside, and she still works there ten years later.  I picked up the slack at my former company by sub-contracting there part time, allowing me to take on more of the at-home parenting role for the next few years.  The company never fully recovered and we wound it down a few years later.

We had originally thought we might buy a house again, but the experience of being mortgage-free – together with our employment uncertainty – had us defer the purchase.  By the time our finances looked better, the real estate market looked overpriced and we stayed out.  We still rent – not a bad thing, as it turned out.

Packing up after our whitewater rafting adventure

Packing up after our whitewater rafting adventure

Despite all this, Cheryl and I never wavered.  This was one of the best things we ever did for our kids.

Still, I thought I’d best verify this again, and so I asked our two boys, now in their 20s, how they would sum up their experience.  (They had not yet read the earlier blog posts.)

Al, the younger, said emphatically that it was the best thing we’d ever done as a family.  It wasn’t just all those exciting adventures, including all those new animals he “never knew even existed.”  Most important, he said, was just that “time out of time”, when he and the rest of us could escape from the relentless schedule of everyday life, and for a few months, follow our spirits and our curiosity.

Dennis, who was still 11 when we were planning the trip, even wrote me something:

New friends visiting at our Costa Rican country house

New friends visiting at our Costa Rican country house

I remember vividly the day my parents told us we would be moving to Costa Rica for six months.  We were walking through our favourite city park when they dropped the bombshell on us.  I remember being pretty upset at first, especially when they said I couldn’t bring my Game Boy.  Fast forward 13 years later, and I can safely say I have absolutely no regrets regarding the trip.  I got to be surrounded by warm weather, awesome animals, cheap delicious food, and learn the Spanish language.  We lived on a farm, in an apartment, in the house of a Costa Rican family, in hotels, motels, inns on the mountain, bungalows by the beach, you name it.  I have dozens of interesting stories to tell from that six-month period, and it was definitely an experience I hope to repeat someday with my own kids.

Whew!  (I hope he still says that after he sees the picture in Part 2.)

Yes, it was worth it.  If you are reading this, and considering creating your own family adventure, and holding back … just go for it.

The beach at Manuel Antonio Park is busier than most we saw - and that means spunky monkeys!

The beach at Manuel Antonio Park is busier than most we saw – and that means spunky monkeys!

After I’d returned from Costa Rica, with the failing fortunes of our business partnership, I found myself years later confiding in one of my favourite career counselors.  I had the impression that my peers in the high tech industry looked askance at me because I had other interests – because I was willing to put my job on hold for half a year to go traveling with my family.  She told me that, in her experience, many parents work their whole lives, hoping “one day” to be able to do what Cheryl and I had done … and many never do.  It was good hear her acknowledgment.  Since that time, even some of my peers have admitted to taking inspiration from what our family did.  Some have admitted to envy.  Some have even compared me to the

A cemetery in San José, Costa Rica

A cemetery in San José, Costa Rica

fabled Mexican fisherman in this story.

I was reminded again of my priorities and Cheryl’s when I read “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying”, a short review of a book by the same name.  The author, a palliative nurse who worked with the terminally ill, had made a short list of the things she heard most frequently from those who were running out of time:

  • I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  • I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  • I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  • Amazing butterflies seemed to be everywhere

    Amazing butterflies seemed to be everywhere

    I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

  • I wish that I had let myself be happier.

Referring to the second point, she went on, “They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship.”

During our family’s six month adventure in Costa Rica, we truly experienced each other’s companionship, our children’s youth – and, truth be known – our own.

What do you want to experience?  What will you miss if you don’t?

What our Family learned during our Season in Costa Rica

When we mentioned our half-year visit to Costa Rica with our boys, nine and twelve, people often asked us wouldn’t the kids be missing school.  Well, they may have missed school, but they certainly got an education.  Here are some of the many things we all learned.

People make the journey.  We met many friendly people in Costa Rica.  Two stood out.  One was Jorge and his family, themselves expats from the US and Asia.  We both belonged to the

Traveling under sunny skies in beautiful Costa Rica

Traveling under sunny skies in beautiful Costa Rica

same international organization, and a query to the president in San Francisco had put us in touch.  Jorge immediately invited us to crash at their place while we got our bearings.  All they asked was for us to deliver the airbed they were going to offer us, and the wine for a toast.  Their girls and our boys hit it off as well, so it was a great start to our adventure.

Our second find was Alex Martinez who ran a small B&B and ecotourism operation in the Caribbean Lowlands.  We met Alex through another B&B & tour operator that we found on the Internet.  Alex was a wonderful guide and host, and the boys loved him.  To top it off, he shared a first name with our younger son.  Costa Rican custom allowed them to call each other “El Tocayo” or “Toca” for short.  We all called Alex “Toca” although only Al was the namesake.  We ultimately took a couple of two week trips with Alex, covering much of the Southwest and Interior of the country, and staying in small-scale accommodations run by agricultural coops and other local operators.

The boys eventually got photos of all four species

The boys eventually got photos of all four species

Do one good thing every day.  We learned this lesson in “slow travel” while staying for a month in a dilapidated country house on a forty-acre farm near the village of La Garita de Alajuela.  We shared it with a single-mom from back home and her two kids, friends of ours.  Plus one pair of emaciated dogs, a flock of scrawny chickens, and more insects than we ever knew existed.  There was one bus a day if we wanted to go anywhere.  Sometimes we didn’t.  We could lie under a mango tree beside the small pool out back, and watch the neighbours harvest sugar cane with bull-drawn carts.  Or chat with the woman who ran a tiny chicken shack down the road about how she was helping her daughters through college in the US.  When we took the bus and went on day trips, we were tempted at first to schedule a full day:  “In the morning, we’ll go to the snake farm, in the afternoon to the ox-cart display.”  This always had us rushing to make the second appointment, and kept us from following our hearts with whatever came up in the morning.  So, we resolved only to do one thing a day.  It was one of our most important lessons in Costa Rica.  Even now, when life feels rushed, we remind ourselves of this one.

This was our insect-friendly home for a month in the country - and many memories

This was our insect-friendly home for a month in the country – and many memories

Don’t ignore the bugs.  About two-thirds of Costa Rica’s half million species are insects.  We were sure that ants comprised one quarter of all animal biomass in the country.  Apart from the more mundane activities – marveling at unusual beetles, walking sticks, and the ants swarming on the kitchen counters or carrying leaves along an ant highway – we had some more exciting adventures.  An ant bit Dennis while we were trekking through the rainforest to swim in a jungle

Dennis contemplating the bite of the Bullet Ant

Dennis contemplating the bite of the Bullet Ant

pool.  Fortunately, it wasn’t the fabled Bullet Ant.  Our most notable insect adventure had us chased through the mangroves by a swarm of Africanized honeybees – otherwise known as killer bees.  How many kids can say that?  Both boys were stung a few times, but managed to outrun the rest of the swarm.

There’s a naturalist in every child.  “Toca” was an avid birder and bird watching guide.  He was engaged in conservation efforts for the Great Green Macaw.  Before long, he had our nine-year-old hooked; Al spent six weeks of pocket money to buy the definitive Costa Rican bird guide, and logged more than 150 species over the next six weeks.  Al was waking me up before 6AM to look for the Oropendula in the grounds of the pre-Columbian ruins at the Guayabo National Monument.  On our flight home, he struck up a conversation with a professional bird guide returning from Belize – it was amazing to hear them comparing notes about their recent field experiences.

We are lucky and we have so much.  Our friend Alex took us to visit a poor family near his place.  Like many of the poorest in Costa Rica, they were refugees from the recent proxy war in neighbouring Nicaragua.  The father had recently passed away, and the oldest boy of thirteen had to leave school to help his mother support her five children by carving wooden key-chain fobs.  It was eye opening to our boys to see how this family lived in a shack with earthen floors.

Simple accommodation provided by an Agouti Coop

Simple accommodation provided by an Agouti Coop

Closer to home was the single mom and her kids who lived in a small house on the farm we inhabited for a month.  The landlord employed her to keep an eye on the place and do cleaning, and she would do laundry for us at a very low price.  When we first moved into the house, the absentee property owner had asked her to tie up the dogs at night.  Big mistake.  That very first night, while she was at a nearby New Year’s Eve party, someone broke into her place and stole her TV.  This was a very big loss to her.  After that, we encouraged her to let the dogs run free.  As mean as they sounded and looked, within a few days, they had befriended the children and were gentle as puppies.

Treasure your family.  Despite the many adventures we had in Costa Rica, some of our best

Our weekly trip to the Internet cafe - now disappearing

Our weekly trip to the Internet cafe – now disappearing

memories just came from hanging out together.  After years of always working family time around work commitments and school schedules, it was wonderful just to be able to kick around together, even when there was no agenda.  Wandering around the neighbourhood.  Playing cards at night under a dim fluorescent bulb.  Or talking about what we’d just seen or what we wanted to do next.

We also stayed for a month with a large family in the capital, San José.  A small newspaper ad from a homemaker offered rooms plus meals to students in the area near the University.  We applied for a month, and ended up with two rooms, two meals a day, and all laundry for about $700 for the month.  The matriarch of the household was nearing 80, but she still cooked for a family that appeared to number about 50 people in total.  There were smaller buildings out back where two of her daughters lived with their families.  They would often come in for meals.  One of her sons drove a city bus, which he’d stop outside the house so he could come in for mid-morning coffee.  It was a lively place.  If we lingered at the table after breakfast, we would be treated to a stream of visitors and constant conversation.  Our Spanish improved immeasurably.

View into the crater of Poás Volcano

View into the crater of Poás Volcano

Volcanoes are amazing.  We visited the top of Irazú once, and Poás twice, both still steaming.  We passed Turialba more than once.  The best by far was Arenal, one of the most active volcanoes in the world.  We were fortunate to visit at the tail end of a period of higher activity, with remarkably few clouds – it was amazing to watch the smoke puff from the top, followed by booms like muffled canons.  Most memorable of all was the evening we spent on a recent lava flow on the flank of the volcano.  Not only could we see the orange-hot rock sliding down from the peak, we could actually hear it.  Grandma was with us that evening, and despite her nervousness, stood her ground.

We never seemed to have the camera when Arenal was blowing its top

We never seemed to have the camera when Arenal was blowing its top

In half a year, a family can have a lot of adventures.  We took a fisherman’s open boat through the mangroves and the surf to a deserted bay.  We had lunch in the home of an indigenous chief.  We huddled in primitive cabins while the roar of the Howler Monkeys reverberated

Al making friends with the local chickens

Al making friends with the local chickens

through the valleys.  Broke bread with the Israeli consuls.  Adopted a baby turtle.  Saw every museum in the county.  Stalked the elusive Resplendent Quetzal on the Mountain of Death.  Walked across a river into Panama, on a rickety train bridge high above the crocodiles.  Went zip-lining and whitewater rafting.  Just to name a few.

Some of the other lessons we learned in our “summer” in Costa Rica included:

  • The world is getting smaller.
  • Politics suck.
  • Tourists are annoying.
  • Join the local economy.
  • Pay it back, and forward.

The most important lesson our family experienced while slow traveling around Costa Rica?

The world is your school.  Go get your diploma!

We spent three days snorkeling in Bocas del Toro, Panama while renewing our Costa Rican visas

We spent three days snorkeling in Bocas del Toro, Panama while renewing our Costa Rican visas

In our next post, we’ll talk about the legacy of this trip.  What did we take away from it – the good and the bad – and was it worth it?  (See Part 3 here.)

The herpetologist assured us it wasn't poisonous

The herpetologist assured us it wasn’t poisonous

What do you think?

While what we learned about Costa Rica more than a dozen years ago likely won’t help you, here are a few starting points for your own exploration:

Paul’s Left Brain Takes a Mayan Holiday

Paul has been reflecting on what he likes so much about travel – about being in “vacation mode”.  He’s not one to sit around the pool with a margarita, but can usually be found on an all-day walking tour, or working on a new foreign language.  He observed that his favourite principles of good vacations apply just as well to “everyday life at home” – although we don’t always remember them:

Paul's not above trying the local beer, however.

Paul’s not above trying the local beer, however.

Here’s something he wrote on the subject a couple years back…

Ah, to live life in vacation mode every day!  What does it take?

I explored the texture of that question on a recent trip to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

For sun-chair reading, I’d packed a copy of Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight.  Neuroscientist Dr. Jill reports “from the inside” what it felt like when a massive stroke shut down the left side of her brain, and put the right side in charge.  As I understand it, the left brain manages linear reasoning and language functions;  the right brain fills a more intuitive, holistic role.  In Dr. Jill’s case, for the first eight months of her eight-year recovery, the “little voice” in her head fell silent.  Imagine!  She used her experience to reflect upon her life in general, and in particular, the relationship between her two different aspects.

Dr. Jill observed that “vacation mode” derives from the right brain.  So simple, I mused?  The question hovered over me like an iridescent Yucatan hummingbird.  Meanwhile, I did the usual holiday things.

Even plain, the best tortillas ever!

Even plain, the best tortillas ever!

One of my travel activities has me strike up conversations with strangers for no reason.  I dusted off my knowledge of Spanish, German and Portuguese to talk to almost anyone I found myself next to, even tried to learn a little Mayan.  Bix a bel, tz’unu’un!  What’s up, Little Hummingbird?  Yet my wife and I both found it hard to start conversations at the resort.  Our fellow vacationers seemed reluctant to connect, as if locked in their tour buses with the windows up.  I felt frustrated.  After this mood settled over me, something startling took place.

En route to climb the great Mayan pyramid at Cobá, we pulled of the road at a corner store in one of the small towns that crouch in the Yucatan interior.  We squeezed in to harvest a few nuts and chicharrones to stave of the need for a tourist-priced lunch.

I plopped a couple of bags of munchies near the cash register, while we continued to hunt for more.  Just then, a small Mayan girl of six or seven came in, chose a bag of the pork-rind snacks and took them to the cashier.  As we arrived at the counter with the rest of our purchases, I saw the store owner already totaling our bill.  The young girl stood waiting.  I sensed him directing preferential treatment toward us “gringo elders”

En route to Cobá, the better known Chichén Itzá

En route to Cobá, the better known Chichén Itzá

In my most sophisticated Spanish, I explained that she had preceded us, and that he should look after her first.  Alas, my linguistic abilities failed me.  After a couple of failed attempts followed by puzzled looks, he asked me if I meant to pay for the young girl’s purchase.  Annoyed that my communication attempt had gone so completely wrong, I shook my head and replied, “No, no!  That’s not what I was trying to say.”  Chastened into silence, I let him continue with our order, and we left the store.

While we poked around decaying ruins that afternoon, however, I had my own “micro stroke of insight.”  I saw that I had at least two valid answers to the store owner’s question, “Do you want to pay for hers too?”

My “right-wrong” linear left brain had jumped in and taken control of the situation in the store.  “No, that’s wrong.  That’s not what I was trying to say.”  End of story.

Yet his question had another valid answer, one that my less linguistically adept right brain could only whisper on a quiet trail in a Mayan jungle.  Did I want to spend sixty cents to buy chips for a cute kid who looked as if sixty cents mattered?  Did I crave a chance to make the tiniest human connection, no matter how fleeting?  Yes. I did!  Yes, I had!  Yes, I would have!  And then a wave of sadness and disappointment flooded my soul concerning opportunity missed – not just this one, but for all the little missed opportunities of a lifetime.

Jungle-clad Cobá from the top of its pyramid

Jungle-clad Cobá from the top of its pyramid

Fresh from Dr. Jill’s book, I supplied mental hemispheric interpretation to the event.  My number one priority on this holiday involved connecting to people, just because – I thought that a right-brain function.  Yet I’d let my linear left brain run the whole show with its need to get the Spanish right.

This reflection troubled me.  My troubling in turn shocked me.  My own stroke of insight had allowed me to glimpse how my left brain’s reaction had drowned out my right brain’s voice, leaving my life just a little less rich.  A single thread dropped from an intricate Mayan blanket.  Even after returning from Mexico, I kept brooding.  Intrigued that such a trivial event had bothered me for days, I pulled at the loose thread.

How often had I missed an opportunity like this one because I didn’t want to get something wrong?  Ba’ax ka wa’alik?  Hell-o?  Now I see how many threads I’ve dropped in the tapestry of my life. It’s a good blanket regardless and it keeps me warm, but my stroke of insight showed me that I could weave it even warmer, more colourful.  Sometimes I hush my left brain’s chatter, listening for a second right answer, a fleeting chance to make the human connection, just because.

Is Paul destined for the Sacred Cenote (also known as the "Well of Sacrifice") at Chichén Itzá

Is Paul destined for the Sacred Cenote (also known as the “Well of Sacrifice”) at Chichén Itzá

I’ve watched myself drop a few more stitches since then.  Sometimes I’ve gone back and picked them up again.  I look forward to catching more before the tapestry runs out.  The colours brighten.

Yum bo’otik!  Thank you, Mayan sun god.

For further exploration:

Speaking of vacation mode, here's another lounge lizard from around the pool

Speaking of vacation mode, here’s another lounge lizard from around the pool

What’s “vacation mode” mean for you?

Best Tour Ever?

Cheryl and I recently spent a couple of weeks on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.  We had chosen to stay in a former small fishing village, now growing in popularity with European tourists.  With few North American visitors, there was little English spoken, something that appealed to our sense of adventure.

Gourmet seafood with new friends from the dive shop

Gourmet seafood with new friends from the dive shop

Adventures came from unexpected quarters.  An aborted snorkel trip had led to our befriending the French family who ran the dive shop, and we had joined staff at their home for a gourmet seafood meal.  We’d also put our travel technology to the test.  A family health emergency at home had Cheryl trying to manage doctors’ care and hospital transfers remotely, spending hours every day sitting by the pool on her iPod skype-to-phone connection.  Maybe the stress still won out:  she spent most of the second week knocked out by a nasty bug.  After a week of house calls at the small family-run hotel, the patient was old friends with the doctor.

Doctors still make house calls in the DR

Doctors still make house calls in the DR

On the last day of our stay, I insisted Cheryl treat herself to a massage.  The stomach bugs had canceled a couple of tours so we had a cushion in the budget.  Meanwhile, I spent the morning wandering around town with my camera, taking in the sights.  The air was warming, the sun was growing hot, and I was enjoying the rhythm of the place.  Pretty girls said “hi” in passing.  Everyone seemed happy.

A young man joined me with a friendly “Hola” as I was strolling up the street.  How was I enjoying his country?  He mentioned he was one of the security guards at our hotel.  I couldn’t place him – there were a couple of shifts of each day – but I didn’t let on, and we continued to chat.  I was happy for the chance to practice my Spanish, and he seemed willing to humour me.  He asked if I liked fishing, and said he had a cousin who could give me a deal on a fishing trip.  I smiled.  We’d been declining similar offers all week, and fishing wasn’t my thing anyway.

One of the sites around town that caught my eye

One of the sites around town that caught my eye

He talked a bit about his family, and told me he was worried about his baby son.  A doctor had just told his wife that the baby wasn’t getting enough nourishment, and that she needed to start supplementing with formula right away.  He wanted to get some today, but he didn’t have the cash.  He asked if I’d be able to lend him the money and he could pay me back at the hotel that evening when he got paid.  I thought to myself that I’d likely not see the money again, and immediately felt guilty.  I reasoned that I wouldn’t mind contributing a few dollars to a struggling family.  Our short stay in their town had shown us that many here got by on very little.  I told him I could help him out.

He thanked me and suggested the easiest thing to do would be to buy the formula together, and I could pay the store directly.  He knew a store up the street a bit where the prices were lower, but he was concerned they were about to close for siesta.  He quickened his pace considerably explaining that he knew the shopkeeper and it really would be the best place to go.  As I tagged after him, we continued to talk about some of the things we’d done in the past couple of weeks.  Struggling with more complex Spanish, I told him of our own medical challenges.  A couple of times, I suggested we could stop at another store, but my new friend appeared to dislike the thought.

Out for a stroll on Main Street - what will you see?

Out for a stroll on Main Street – what will you see?

By then we’d left the part of town frequented by tourists.  I suspected that a local on a security guard’s salary would find better deals in the less upscale neighbourhood.  Just as I was about to ask how much farther, we arrived at a small grocery store – with the metal shutters down.  My companion let out an exclamation, then asked a boy sitting out front something I didn’t quite catch.  “Good news!” the distraught father said, “My friend is still inside.”  He knocked on the side door, and it opened to admit us into the dimly lit interior of the closed store.  The shopkeeper behind the counter said hello, and the two men exchanged a few words.  The young security guard asked for the formula and the shopkeeper went to the shelves and brought back a box that looked like it would last until the baby was weaned.  I felt an unpleasant taste in my throat.  While I was still recovering my equilibrium, a case of disposable diapers appeared on the counter beside the box of formula.  At my urging, the bill was quickly calculated, and the shopkeeper held out his hand for the equivalent of about sixty dollars.

At that moment, the growing unease I’d been refusing to acknowledge for the last twenty minutes asserted itself.  I saw I’d put myself into a potentially dangerous situation.  Here I was in a part of town where tourists didn’t go.  I was inside a shuttered store, with two young men, both of whom now looked surprisingly burly.  The young boy outside was probably a lookout.  The young “father” had suddenly grown shrill and demanding – I had promised to pay for the milk, after all.  I was definitely past my physical prime, and with no fighting skills to speak of.

The candidate's message: a much bigger scam?

The candidate’s message: a much bigger scam?

My priorities changed rapidly.  My overriding objective was to get back out on the street.  Giving up sixty dollars to ensure my escape seemed a small price to pay.  I didn’t even blink when the young man grabbed the extra bills from my hand as I was paying the shopkeeper.  Pushing open the door, I burst out into the bright sunlight, stepped over the boy, and high-tailed it back down the street even faster than we’d come up it.  As the shuttered shop fell behind me, I counted my losses, about $75 all told.  I imagined the milk and diapers going back on the shelves.  I wondered how many times they’d been “sold”.

The next day, as Cheryl and I were taxied out of town, we passed the store, now open.  I briefly considered stopping and raising a scene, but figured nothing worthwhile would come of it.  Besides, they’d played a good game and won.  We continued on to the airport without interruption.  Losing the money had been one thing.  The blow to my pride and self-confidence had been much worse.  How had I let myself be taken in?  “I don’t know what you were thinking!” said Cheryl.

We visited this park on one of the legal tours

We visited this park on one of the legal tours

With a bit of perspective, the money ceased to bother me.  In fact, I came to think of this experience as just one more “tour,” an educational one this time.  The price of $75 was the norm for the higher-end tours in town.  I had to admit that this was the most memorable tour I’d had in the two weeks!

Talking to strangers, meeting people when we’re on the road, these are some of greatest pleasures of travel for us.  I’ve always tended to trust people’s motives until proven otherwise – and I don’t really want to change.  Cheryl doesn’t want me to change either, but she does wish I’d be a little less willing to suspend disbelief.  Frankly, I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t fall for a scam like this quite so easily next time, so I spent some time thinking about how I fell for this one, and how I might train myself to heed the warning signs sooner next time.  I’ll share some of that next time, as well as some security tips from travel gurus.

I trust no one reading this will restrict their travels as a result of my story.  In over forty years, Cheryl and I have traveled a fair amount – and I’ve been in a few dicey locations – but all told, we’ve had very few problems between us.  A couple of pickpocket attempts, one successful one during the Munich Olympics.  I’m sure we’ve paid more than we should have for the odd purchase abroad.  In Costa Rica, I lost my electric razor to a “fisherman” – I’ve traveled with blades ever since.

Many years ago, while serving tables in a small town in Germany, I lost a hundred Deutschmarks to a winsome young German lass – almost $150 in today’s money.  I learned from the “polizei” that many other young lads in town had been fleeced during her short stay.  She knew her marks!

This lovely old hotel was the site of Paul's first "tour" - still looks lovely as ever.  I wonder if Brigitte still visits?

This lovely old hotel was the site of Paul’s first “tour” – still looks lovely as ever. I wonder if Brigitte still visits?

What about you?  Have you ever fallen prey to scams or other petty crime while traveling?

Travel the World without a Passport

In our previous post, we shared some of our experience staying overseas with Servas and Couchsurfing hosts.  This week, it’s our turn to host.

When Henry David Thoreau wrote that he had “traveled a good deal in Concord”, we don’t think he had his profile listed on Couchsurfing.org.  However, we’ve been able to experience some of the world’s wonder simply by offering hospitality and good cheer to wandering strangers.

We started by hosting a Couchsurfer who we knew from years back

Playing it safe: we started by hosting a Couchsurfer who we knew from years back

We started hosting with a listing in the Servas directory, and more recently added a Couchsurfing profile to our visibility.  In both cases, we hosted before traveling with these networks, but this is not required.  In fact, there is no explicit tie-in between hosting and traveling – save for conscience.

We felt confident offering short-term accommodation to visitors with Servas, knowing that they had supplied references and been interviewed to get their official letter of introduction.  As we gained hosting experience and became comfortable with the concept, adding couchsurfers to our guest list was not much of a stretch.  In place of references and interviews, Couchsurfing profiles have verification, online reviews, and “vouching”.

Do Couchsurfing hosts need to offer a magnificant guest suite as our recent hosts in Provence did?  No, as the name implies, even a couch will do.  Servas listings in Europe often indicate that a sleeping sheet or bag is required.  Our own offering is a little rustic.  We try to make it up by being informed guides and scintillating conversationalists.  We ‘d rather our visitors remember our kindness and wit than the ridge down the middle of the fold-out bed.

Relaxing after a local hike with a young visitor from Spain

Relaxing after a local hike with a young visitor from Spain

We’ve found the average age of travelers we’ve hosted to be younger than the hosts we’ve stayed with.  This is partly by design:  we often choose older hosts.  And youth is a time to “seek one’s fortune.”  For some of the oldest hosts we’ve met, their traveling days are behind them.  Hosting is a way to stay in the game, both by exposure to new people from new cultures, and by sharing past travel experiences with visitors.

We’ve enjoyed all of our hosting experiences over the years with Servas and Couchsurfing.  Each story is unique.  Our first visitor this year was Christoph, a young man from Germany completing his PhD thesis with a study of the North American distribution of an invasive weed species.  He had flown into Montana and was making a large circle tour that included our area.  He had chosen our home because we happen to live near a large infestation.  Who knew?  He explained that he had to pay for accommodation out of his limited research grant.  Christoph could only stay one night before driving several hundred miles to the next infestation, but we spent a great evening over a bottle of wine discussing everything from religious discrimination in Europe to crossing international borders with bags of weed seeds.

Local Renassiance Festival is a crowd-pleaser

Our local Renassiance Festival is a crowd-pleaser

Maud, a young woman from the French Alps, was traveling between long-term WWOOFing engagements on opposite sides of the country.  It was interesting to hear her first impressions of life on an organic farm in the New World.  In return, we showed her around the area, and offered her suggestions on where to stay when her mother came to join her.  Like most Servas and Couchsurfing visits, Maud’s stay was limited to a couple of days.  Servas has a policy of restricting stays to two days barring an unsolicited invitation by the host.  Couchsurfing has no official policy but recommends a similar time limit.

Have we had any troubling experiences?  Not really.  Once we had to exercise our “no” muscle.  A few years back, a young visitor from Prague broke several Servas rules when he asked, “Can I borrow the car?  Can you help me find a job here?  Can I stay longer?”  It is helpful to be able to

One of many local attractions

One of many local attractions

set clear limits without undue stress.  In our case, it wasn’t hard to say, “No, no, and no,” but others might find this challenging.  Our experience with this guest left us a little edgy, but with other positive experiences, we soon forgot this.  Until, months later, we received his unsolicited apology letter in the post.  Traveling is a learning experience for all of us.

Our most memorable hosting experience was non-standard.  Anaid, a young Mexican woman studying English on a student visa had been stranded here for several months by a travel snafu.  Her mother in Mexico had contacted Servas to make sure her daughter wasn’t left wandering the snowy streets.  Our local Servas coordinator contacted hosts with a special request for longer-term back-to-back stays to house the young woman until she could return to Mexico.  We chipped in about 10 days, and together with other hosts within a hundred mile radius, Anaid’s accommodation gap was covered.

As with traveling, hosting is about enjoying the unexpected.  Anaid’s letter of introduction – written no doubt by her mother – sported a grainy black and white photograph of a young woman with pigtails and a traditional school uniform.  However, when we first saw Anaid, she was wearing a backwards baseball cap and carrying a soccer ball – and her beaming smile revealed a tongue stud.  No doubt some of this would have been news to her mother … as would the news that Anaid had indeed spent at least one snowy night on the streets of the inner city.

A young student from Mexico at a local diner

Our young student from Mexico at a local theme diner

Anaid proved to be a delight.  She was helpful and easy-going.  She brought us some Mexican artwork, and our family still enjoys her easy recipe for enchiladas that she demonstrated for us one evening.  She was quite happy to accompany us on whatever we were up to, like spending an hour watching underwater coaching videos from Cheryl’s swim team.  Whenever we were tied up, she’d just pick up her soccer ball and head out, telling us she’d find someone “on the street” to play soccer with.  The first time we heard this, we were doubtful.  But she always found her game.  We suppose the young men in our town also fell under her spell.

A visitor such as Anaid lets us see our hometown in a new light.  Naturally, we took her to some of the local attractions we liked to visit.  We also discovered that her biggest unfilled dream was to see some of the filming locations for a popular TV series.  We looked them up and went on a tour.  Snapping pictures of familiar backdrops, she laughed, “I’m going to sell these for a million back in Mexico!”

Another visitor at the diner

Another visitor at the diner

As we’ve said, visitors are not expected to reciprocate with their hosts.  There is no requirement to offer anything other than a helping hand with the chores.  Couchsurfers can mark their profiles as “no couch available” or “currently traveling”, and even Servas hosts who are “receiving” are always free to decline individual requests without apology.

Still, most of our recent visitors have offered us accommodation back home and we’ve stayed in loose touch with many of them.  One offer in particular, we look forward to accepting before too long.  In a mid-size town in the Mexican mountains – “a place of eternal springtime” says she – a young woman named Anaid still lives with her very grateful mother.  We’ve promised to look them up when we’re in the neighbourhood.

Couchsurfing on a Feather Duvet

When we told our senior friends we were going Couchsurfing in Provence, many of them had never even heard of Couchsurfing.  Most of the rest expressed strong reservations about crashing on someone’s uncomfortable couch.  By the time we headed for the airport, we were confident we’d find more comfortable sleeping arrangements.

Couchsurfing.org is one of the more popular “hospitality exchanges”.  These sites and organizations offer travelers around the world short-stay accommodation with local hosts, with no expectation other than the pleasure of each other’s company…  and maybe some help with dinner.  The fundamental premise is that the cultural exchange is a two-way street, and the hosts should enjoy the experience as much as the travelers.

There are a number of hospitality exchanges, and some might be more suitable for the older traveler.  If you “surf” with a 20-something host, there’s a good chance you will be sleeping on a couch.  The average age of a Couchsurfer is 28, and only about 3% of users are over 50.  Still with about 5 million members, that’s 150,000 “golden age” surfers and hosts.

The view from our balcony in Provence

The view from our balcony in Provence

We decided to search hosts who were couples over 50, something fairly easy to do on the site.  We also restricted our searches to “verified” profiles with pictures, and read all the references carefully.  The listings generally indicated that their offer of accommodation was at least a private bedroom.  Still, to be on the safe side, we decided to try it out nearby before heading to France.  (We’d done the same thing with AirBnB.)  Our first Couchsurfing experience was in the seaside town of Sequim, Washington.  Our host, Teresa, was both interesting and gracious, and the accommodation offered us by our new friend was as good as any an old friend might provide.  After one more local test run, we were ready to try Europe.

Our chosen hosts in Avignon included facility with English on their profile, so we figured we could revert to our native tongue if our fractured French was found wanting.  In our message exchange before our arrival, we were careful always to include a Google Translate French translation of every message we sent.  It turned out to be unnecessary as our hosts were fluent in English.

Roussillon, the "Colorado of Provence", was one of the many local sites we visited with our hosts in Avignon

Roussillon, the “Colorado of Provence”, was one of the many local sites we visited with our hosts in Avignon

We were pleasantly surprised with the responses we got from our query.  Another host who couldn’t accommodate us went out of her way to recommend nearby B&Bs and restaurants:  “Tell them Pauline sent you.”  We received an unsolicited offer of accommodation from a retired judge who’d spent six months in our hometown years earlier.  By then we were already “booked” with the couple we’d selected.

Our hosts, Monique and Jean-Paul, had offered to meet us at the boat docks – later switched to the train station due to flooding on the Rhône.  We easily spotted each other, and much to our delight, they proceeded to drive us – with a few sightseeing stops en route – to a 400-year old Provençal six-bedroom farmhouse, hidden away on a quiet country lane, and surrounded by vinyards and fruit trees.  Our “couch” turned out to be a very comfortable bed in a second-story bedroom with ensuite, balcony overlooking the gardens, and kitchen facilities.  The kitchen was

This farmhouse in Tuscany was a wonderful oasis

This farmhouse in Tuscany was a wonderful oasis

hardly needed as our hosts fed us delicious healthy home-cooked French cuisine three meals a day for our entire stay.  In addition, they drove us to many area attractions – including some we’d never heard of, and certainly would never have visited but for their hospitality.  What’s more, given their patience with our halting efforts, our French improved dramatically over just two days – although it never got anywhere near as good as their English.

Our visit to Avignon was a perfect example of the objectives of hospitality exchanges.  We talked about many subjects over our two days, comparing French ways of doing things to those back home – not to mention all the other countries that each of us had visited.  Like many Couchsurfers, our hosts were globetrotters, so we had the chance to live their adventures vicariously – as did they with ours..  And pick up some tips for the road.  It was the most memorable two days of our entire trip.  Couchsurfing will be high on our list for our next trip.  We’d recommend it for yours.

Maddalena shows Paul around the cheese operation

Maddalena shows Paul around the cheese operation

If you still feel uncomfortable and are looking for ways to start gradually, there are some alternatives you might try.  One is a much older hospitality exchange called Servas.

Servas has been around since just after World War II.  In many ways, it’s similar to Couchsurfing, but “older”.  Servas chapters operate independently in each country, and maintain paper lists of hosts.  Only gradually and tentatively are they experimenting with Internet directories.  Travelers must supply two letters of reference and be interviewed by a local Servas volunteer before receiving their official “letter of introduction” and the directory of hosts for their target countries.  In our experience, the average age of Servas hosts is older, perhaps even in the 50+ range.  The Servas accommodation we’ve seen has generally been at least a spare bedroom, if not more.

We were Servas members before we joined Couchsurfing, our second membership because the latter offered more convenient access via the Internet.  We still love Servas and have had great adventures with them as well, including a stay in a remote organic sheep-cheese farm in Tuscany, and a cozy family apartment on the Italian Riviera.  In both these stays, we had lots of

Barbara showed us the local shopping on the Riviera

Barbara showed us the local shopping on the Riviera

time for local sightseeing.  (One memorable experience at the last place was witnessing a typical argument between the mother and her teenaged daughter.  Out of deference to their guests, they switched from Italian to making points in English, leaving the father scratching his head … since he only spoke Italian and Genoese!)

Another way to ease in to the hospitality exchange concept is to arrange for a “day host” as it’s known in Servas.  (Couchsurfing has a similar concept.)  A day host meets a traveler during the day for a few hours to show them around, or engage in some joint activity.  For instance, while in Florence, we arranged to meet for capuccinos with a Servas day host who turned out to be a professional tour guide.  Surprisingly, we didn’t end up picking his brains for tips on the Uffizi Gallery, but instead learned of his excitement about the family’s impending trip to Colombia to adopt a young girl.

Cinque Terre was a day-trip from their place

Cinque Terre was a day-trip from their place

Is there an obligation to host in return for being hosted?  Not in Couchsurfing nor in Servas.  It’s more of a “karma” thing;  I’m sure there’s a special hell reserved for travelers who never host.  Perhaps it’s an endless stay in a characterless chain hotel.  But most travelers enjoy hosting as much as visiting.  After all, most of us can’t travel all the time, and hosting is inexpensive way to experience the world from the comfort of your own home.  In the year and a half we’ve belonged to Couchsurfing, and the longer time we’ve been Servas members, we’ve hosted more often than we’ve traveled.  And enjoyed every one.  We’ll share a few recent hosting adventures in a future post.

Maybe the next one will be you?