Lessons learned from a year of family travel

01 Washington Coast 2017

Walking through our house for the last time, I felt excitement and trepidation. We were leaving the US with only a vague sketch of a plan – we would visit my mom in Mexico, I would finish my research project, and apply for a new faculty position. The position I landed would dictate where we would go next. I was open to where that would be and confident that with my education and research background an extraordinary opportunity awaited. What I didn’t anticipate was that even with a PhD and decades of experience, no job offer would come.

A false promise

As a first-generation college student from a working-class family,  I believed the promise I had been told. Education would guarantee constant employment and a higher quality of life. A doctoral degree was like a magic pathway out of poverty. I learned there was a caveat! At this point in time, careers in higher education are no longer guaranteed to even pay a living wage. Many positions are temporary or contract with no benefits. The competition for full-time tenure-line faculty positions is fierce. There are now more people with PhDs than positions requiring them. Perhaps, if I wasn’t as selective about where we want to live, I could have landed a position. However, one thing I have learned this year is that quality of life matters. Just having a job and merely surviving isn’t living.

Unexpectedly falling in love

14 Fisherman on Lake Patzcuaro 2018

The next surprise was that I love México. I was reluctant to visit my in Ajijic because no one in my family likes heat and constant sunshine. Not surprising since the pacific northwest is where we call “home.” However, while we wandered around México, we came across Pátzcuaro, a Pueblo Magico, high in the mountains where summer days rarely surpass 70 degrees, and it rains daily. The lush green landscape and cloudy skies remind us of Oregon and Washington. Yet, Pátzcuaro is also inimitably Méxican. The area has a rich history and unique artesian villages nearby. There is also a large Indigenous population, which has ironically helped me reconnect with my Indigenous roots.

13 Summer Solstice Ihuatzio 2018

As I type this, I hear a sound collage of my favorite rooster belting out his distinctive song mixed with music from a car radio, and an occasional church bell. I love being surrounded by a culture where hugs and kisses are a standard greeting, public affection isn’t shamed, and young people offer their arms to elders as they walk through the plaza.

17 Blue Corn of Corupo 2018

Of course, like any place else, México has social problems. However, I do not feel the anger spewing out of the drivers and people walking down the streets like I did in Seattle. The more money that came into Seattle, the more angry and entitled people seemed. Often as I walked to my office, I was nearly run down in the crosswalk (frequently by BMWs). Sometimes the driver would honk at me, even though I had the right of way and was in the crosswalk! I often thought, “If money was supposed to make you happy why were the people in their fancy cars so damn angry?”

In our new town, there doesn’t seem to be the pride of busyness like there is in the US. I previously received praise because I worked so much. It frequently took weeks for me to find time on my calendar to have dinner with a friend. In stark contrast, people here take time to be with their loved ones.

16 Cantoya Fest opening night 2018

The pace is slower. I have time to think. And time to sip my morning coffee while absorbing the beauty of the mist covered mountains outside my window – instead of pouring my coffee into a to-go container and drinking it while battling traffic on my way to work. When I think of where we should go next, I cannot think of any place I’d rather be.

11 Tzintzuntzan Yuccata 2018

A change of plans

We met a lot of other family travelers over the last year. When my dream faculty position didn’t materialize, I contemplated staying on the road and continuing the adventure. Maybe we should head to Europe? We could ship the van over and fly the dogs. We’d have to hustle to keep the money coming in. Lots of people do it though and generously shared their success stories with us. It seemed doable.

The more I thought about leaving México, the less I wanted to. Why? What else do I need to see? What makes my family happy? When are we at our best?

04 Pink Coral Sand Dunes 2017

When I moved into my last house in Seattle, it was supposed to be our “forever home.” I had moved 46 times in my life. I lived in every US state that I wanted to live in. I moved for adventure, education, and jobs. However, mostly I moved out of economic necessity. I was ready to settle down, nest and make a permanent home. When that was no longer possible, I made the best of it and worked hard to tap into my adventurous spirit. I had never heard the term “slow traveling” until this year. Since I have never lived in the same town for more than 5 consecutive years, I guess you could say I have always been slow traveling!

08 Oregon Coast 2018

Traveling full time turned out to be exhausting. Although being on the road with dogs is doable it added to our expenses. We also have special dogs. Our German Shepherd is a terrified rescue who doesn’t do well with other dogs. Our Basset Hound is becoming a grumpy old man who can’t keep up on hikes. Both are happiest when they have their own yard and comfy beds. They are family. Leaving them behind is not an option for us.

Communication is key

We also learned that whatever unaddressed issues you have as a family will be magnified 1000x when you are living on the road. When you are consumed by the daily grind, you can hide your issues and emotions. Often American families spend so little time together you don’t even notice what is going on with each other.

And now we are together 24 hours a day/ 7 days a week (no exaggeration).

One of our biggest mistakes was not talking about what traveling full time would mean for us as a family and how we would all get our needs met while on the road. I think we thought it would just work itself out. That has been far from the case. As it turns out, we each need incredibly different things to be happy. This wasn’t as noticeable previously because so much of our time was consumed by what we had to do. Work. School. Sleep. Repeat.

Stan and I routinely worked over 60 hours a week each. Now, we are learning how to be together all the time and what we want to do now that we have time to do it. It has been a steep learning curve. We haven’t completely figured out this new life, but I have confidence that we will.

12 Pink Coral Sand Dunes 2nd visit 2018

Road Schooling

The best part of this radical new way of living is having time and space. As an educator and advocate for student-centered, culturally relevant, and personally meaningful education, I feel privileged to be able to provide this for my son. The other night we went out to watch a metal band (my choice, not his). While listening to the band my son shared that being homeschooled allowed him time to figure out what he was interested in. He reflected that in a traditional school they tell you exactly what to learn and when to learn it.

“You don’t have the opportunity to figure out what you like or to explore topics that are interesting to you.”

Then he told me the six topics he would like to focus on next. I was so excited! I am surprised I didn’t start jumping up and down. This is EXACTLY what we (academics) teach about how to keep students engaged in their learning. We have known this for decades, but our approach to educating students hasn’t incorporated this basic idea – make school meaningful, culturally relevant, and interesting! My son was disengaged from school before we left Seattle. Due to his experiences in the traditional school system, he did not believe learning was fun. A primary goal of mine was to ignite his passion again and help him find something he loved and wanted to learn more about. So, although my education did not land me my dream job (yet) I am thrilled that my own son is benefitting from it.

Next Steps

10 The 400 steps to the top rim of a dead volcano in Patzcuaro

What’s next? We don’t really know. It has been a year of tremendous growth and uncertainty. There are days that I long for Seattle, being part of a research institute, and our friends. I remind myself that I actually want to return to Seattle circa 1995 and it no longer exists. We love Michoacán and have been embraced by the community here. We have been invited to be of service to the community. I have never lived anywhere where so many people have asked me to stay.

Perhaps this is my “forever home?” I really cannot say. For now, we will continue to accept opportunities as they present themselves and be open to living a life we never imagined!

We hope you continue to follow our journey, where ever it takes us.

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Accidental parade participant and an Indigenous history lesson

Last summer before we left Seattle, I was a member of the Seattle Public Schools (SPS) Ethnic Studies Task Force which formed due to a resolution by the NAACP (after a long history of inequality within the district). The task force consisted of a dynamic group of educators, community members, and students determined to eliminate institutional racism in SPS. Implementing ethnic studies is just one step towards achieving this huge goal. However, the impact of a culturally relevant curriculum is well documented. When the curriculum reflects students’ life experiences they are more engaged in their learning and academic and critical thinking skills improve. They also build self-esteem.
One of the big push backs heard frequently about ethnic studies is, “What about white students?”

Research demonstrates ethnic studies benefits all students (regardless of ethnic background) because it contributes to greater cultural awareness and promotes equality.

During the task force meetings, my son’s school experience haunted me. My daughter benefited from attending some progressive forward thinking student-centered schools. She thrived – as did her self-confidence, curiosity, and love of learning about and trying new things. Although my son had a few great teachers, overall his schools tended to be more regimented, stale, and mainstream. The focus was on teaching to succeed on standardized tests and compliance. Not surprisingly, his level of engagement was dropping quickly. The curriculum was not culturally relevant or personally meaningful. Two things we know are critical for students to be excited about learning. Much of what we discussed during the task force meetings helped me decide that taking my son on the road would benefit him tremendously. My son was not thriving, getting excited about learning, developing his strengths, or connecting with his culture within SPS. Since middle school is a critical developmental period, I did not want to risk him becoming further disengaged from learning! So, we took the leap and dove into student-centered and culturally relevant learning – 100% of the time! First stop, Mexico! My son now gets to learn about a part of his heritage every day (we will get to the others in time)!

As a research scientist and educator, I love planning! However, I challenged myself to live a more relaxed lifestyle while on the road. We basically live day to day now. We will pick a spot of interest and head out with no set agenda, ready to greet what we meet. In Mexico, it seems there is frequently a surprise waiting. Last Sunday, we headed out to Mezcala Island (aka El Presidio) in Lake Chapala. We read there were ruins of an old fort and ancient tree on the Island. I jump at the chance to be out on the water, so between a boat ride and cool things to explore I was excited to check it out. From our last post, you already know the drive out to Mezcala is dramatic and bumpy. Once you make the turn towards the village, the roads quickly narrow. We came to an intersection and guessed at the way to the dock where we’d catch a boat to the island. We saw flashing lights ahead and the road seemed blocked off, we tried to back up and turn around, but a local passed us and got behind the police vehicle. We assumed they had more information than us and decided to follow. Why not? The cars started moving again, we could see horses up in front…the next thing we knew we were in a parade with no way to turn out! You can imagine the look on the faces of the locals as we drove the parade route. Ever feel like you are being looked at strangely? Well, this time we knew for sure we were not just being self-conscious!

Children to the rescue! A boy around eight years old asked us if we were going to the malecón. “Sí”, we responded. He pointed ahead and said “derecho”. Got it, we just need to go a few more blocks and then turn right. But that meant a few more blocks of being in the parade!! As you can imagine, the children thought this situation was hilarious and they ran along the van instructing us about where to turn. They continued offering guidance until we arrived in a parking area. We were incredibly thankful for our young guides and that the local people found our predicament humorous, not disrespectful. As we got out of the van, we were greeted by a man that runs shuttle boats out to the Island. We walked about a block down the road with him and he explained that it was a very important day. November 25th marks the day of resistance for the Indigenous people that held the Spaniards from over taking Mezcala Island from 1812-1816. Apparently, we had just been a part of the resistance celebration parade!
Mezcala Boat blog
Within a few moments, our shuttle boat was ready for departure. Our young guides eagerly helped us board the boat. I admit I was a little relieved when the boat’s Capitan offered us life jackets – the lake was choppy and the boat had very low sides. The two young metro police that were also catching a ride also took the life jackets. Maybe, I wasn’t being paranoid after all? When traveling, I am frequently amused by how often I really have no idea what is going on. My Spanish is such that I can “get by” and know the jest of the conversations but the details are often lost on me. We approached a boat anchored offshore, for a moment I thought we might have to try to get ourselves from the boat we were on and into the other one! Instead, the man who had walked us down to the dock stepped into the other boat and said “good-bye”. Guess, he wasn’t our guide after all. The Capitan then turned the boat, picked up the pace a little, and headed towards the island. Although incredibly young looking, he exuded confidence and I relaxed a bit and enjoyed the short ride. Along the way, we saw Great White Egrets, Mexican ducks, and beautifully awkward White Pelicans.
Mezcala Tree blog
From the very first steps, you begin to realize that Mezcala Island is an extraordinary place. We were the first boat to arrive that morning, so it was extremely quiet on the island. I immediately began to feel contemplative and calm. El Árbol de la Vida (Tree of Life) stands gracefully above a statue of the Virgin of San Juan de los Lagos. I haven’t been able to locate an accurate age of the tree but locals gave us a range of 300 years to 1000s, so let’s just say it is impressive and very old. After an easy climb to the top of the hill, the fortress, chapel and soldier’s quarters came into view. As we wandered, I kept thinking I smelled food but there were no restaurants on the island and we didn’t see anyone else. However, there were some backpacks and cooking gear near a large tree in the middle of the fortress (also used historically as a prison). Although it seemed we had just arrived, the timer went off and the hour we paid our Capitan to wait was almost over. We were not close to being ready to leave, so my husband ran down to ask if we could stay an extra hour. Luckily, this was possible. As we continued to explore the island, a man in his twenties came up and started talking with us. He spoke some English but most of the conversation was in Spanish. He spoke slowly and used lots of gestures to help us understand, as he shared with us the history of the island and his tribe (Coca). It was during this conversation that we began to understand how fortunate we were to have decided to head to the island on November 25th. José said that many indigenous people would be arriving on the island for lunch and to celebrate thier culture and the resistance. He told us he had once moved away but is so happy to be back on the island – the land of his ancestors. Now, we understood why the backpacks and cooking gear were in the fortress. A festival was about to happen!
Mezcala Fort blog
José asked us to walk over to a circle on the ground under a large tree. He said it was very special and that Indigenous people held ceremony at this location. He asked me to raise my hands to the sky and feel the power. I followed his lead and let the energy from the sun come into my fingertips and then I washed it along my body down to the earth. We repeated this together 3-4 times, he glanced over occasionally to see if I was still following his lead. The ritual was so familiar, it reminded me of those I experienced with Indigenous people in the US. I felt calm and connected. Reminded again that although we come from different cultures and are born on different land, we really are similar in so many ways. José asked if I felt the power, I responded, “Sí” and he began to share the story of the resistance.

Perhaps, the most famous part of the story was the four-year period where the Indigenous people fought off the Spanish army and navy. The Indigenous people created underwater barriers that destroyed the unsuspecting Spaniards’ boats. While the boats were sinking, the Indigenous people launched rocks to ensure the invader’s defeat. The Spaniards were embarrassed by being decimated by the Indigenous people, whom they outnumbered by several thousands! As he told the story, our new friend’s pride for his people’s resilience and creativity shone brightly on his face. After four long years, he told us, the people on the island began suffering from illness and eventually a surrender was negotiated. However, because of the long history of defeat, the Spanish authorities agreed that the Indigenous people would have amnesty, assistance in rebuilding their villages, and be awarded seed and livestock. The Spaniards honored this agreement, which was very rare! We were told that this success helped inspire others to continue the resistance, which ultimately contributed to Mexican independence.
Mezcala Soldiers Quarters blog
José then invited us for a tour of the fort and to stay for the celebration. Unfortunately, it was time to return to our boat so we had to decline. We promised to return and he told us to look for him and he would tell us more about the Coca people. At this point in the conversation, he switched to mostly English and told us that it was important to him to know the history of his people and now he just wants to share it with others. On the drive back to town, my son and I had a long conversation about colonization. We compared and contrasted colonization in the United States to that which occurred in Mexico. Although our goal is to be as organic in our learning as possible we do create a framework to keep us on task. Since November is Native Heritage month, we already read and discussed colonization in the US at length. We talked about how US history continues to play out related to current events like the Dakota Access Pipeline and land grabs from tribal people. My son became curious about how colonization happened in Mexico, wanting to know more about the Coca people, and his own Mexican heritage. Instead of being “forced” to learn Spanish or being “bored” by it, my son listened attentively while José talked because he was interested and wanted to understand. And all of this learning occurred on a Sunday, which wasn’t even a day we do “school”. It is pretty spectacular to have the luxury of time, so teachable moments aren’t wasted and deep reflection is possible.

As part of our roadschooling, my son keeps a travel log. It provides him a framework for digesting what he learns and observes during our adventures. His travel log incorporates history (including from Indigenous and women’s perspectives) and life science. I also encourage him to go deeper and explore any aspects that are particularly interesting to him. Through this process, I can see clearly how his schooling taught him to only answer the questions asked in the prescribed format. I am still waiting for the day that my son is so excited by a new topic that I can’t pull him away, but we are only a few months into the journey and he must unlearn the 7 years of conditioning that taught him to fill in the worksheet, answer the test questions, and just get it done. However, I already see a change in the depth of the conversations we have and in our relationship.

How do you incorporate ethnic studies into your home- or world-schooling?

Teachers in public/private schools – How do you incorporate ethnic studies (regardless of if it has been officially implemented in your school)?

Why are you doing this?

When I started telling people that we were selling our house and moving out of the US, the first question was “Why”. Why would you leave Seattle, a city that you have moved back to three times? Why would you choose another country over the US? Why now? And why would you take your son out of school? Sometimes, I engaged in a lengthy conversation and explained how we had made our decision. Other times, I responded with “I promise to explain in on the blog”. So this post is for those of you that have not received an answer or new people we have met that are curious about why this came to be.

Let me start by saying, I love Seattle. Seattle has been good to me over the years and will always hold a piece of my heart. Seattle is home. I first moved to Seattle in 1989 with about 100 dollars to my name. Friends talked me into moving there because jobs were plentiful and paid well and housing was cheap. Back then, living in Seattle was easy. The city was bursting at the seams with creativity, passion, and originality. I found a job within a few days and for the first time in my adult life, I had money to burn after paying for my necessities. Now the cost of living is prohibitive and artists and other creative types are leaving the city in droves. For many of us, we need multiple jobs to just squeak by. And the traffic, the city just wasn’t ready for the influx of techies and planning decisions thus far have not eased the growing pains. As the cost of homes continued to reach ridiculous levels, it seemed for once it was time to be an opportunist and cash out. My city no longer afforded the quality of life it previously promised and leaving had the potential of giving me more time with my son, time to travel, and time to pursue other passions. Staying, meant working 60-80 hours a week at multiple jobs and not being able to be fully present as my son soars through the teen years. After weighing the options, the right path became clear. And since my current research project was ending and I didn’t receive funding to start a new one, I decided instead of feeling like all was lost… I would embrace it as an opportunity to try something radically different!

Leaving the US made sense for so many reasons. Quality of life is at the top of the list. My mother has lived in Mexico on and off for quite a few years and has been encouraging me to head south of the border as well. She started sending pictures of houses for rent close to where she was living. For less than the cost of a studio apartment in many areas of Seattle, I have a gorgeous home, lake view, maid service and a gardener! I feel privileged beyond my wildest dreams. (The thought of having hired help goes against my working class & DIY roots but I’ll save that for another post). In contrast, my salary as an academic living in Seattle barely paid the bills and I lived very modestly! It was not sustainable. Leaving the US has already provided a higher quality of life and best of all TIME! I can focus on my health, my son’s education, writing, and playing music. It has been years since I had time! I have often said that music and art are what makes us truly human, but I had to stuff my own creativity into the back of the closet so I could pursue the money necessary to merely get by. Our short time on earth was not meant to be spent making money and paying bills. About 20 years ago, my boss at the time told me “no one ever dies, wishing they had spent more time at the office.” He was absolutely right! And since life also offers no guarantees, it doesn’t seem wise to wait for retirement to live the life you want. Time and time again, I have witnessed that life can be cut short and I don’t want to take the chance of kicking off before I get to really live.

As for my taking my son out of public school, all the reasons will unveil themselves over time within the posts on this blog. As an educator that focuses on preparing youth for the transition to adulthood, I endlessly study adolescent development, best educational practices, and interventions that are the most effective. I studied at one of the best schools in the US for this field. I have trained teachers, school counselors & psychologists, chemical dependency counselors and social workers. I have observed in well over 100 schools. We know how kids learn best. We know how to keep kids engaged in learning. We know how to help improve kids quality of life, self-esteem, and social/emotional health. As a nation, we do not do it! Educators often tell me how trapped they feel within the system. Many have their students’ best interests at heart, but the system they work within doesn’t allow them the flexibility to meet kids where they are. I saw my son become increasingly disengaged from school. We know middle school is a pivot point, that can have a dramatic impact on the rest of the child’s educational experience. As an educator (and first-generation college student) the last thing I want is for my son to be turned off from learning. But even worse, I saw his schooling was taken a toll on his self-esteem. I have worked with far too many youths and young adults that suffered from the narratives others created about them. I could not let that be my son’s experience. So now, I put myself to task and will utilize all I have been taught so that my son’s education is personally meaningful and culturally relevant. Volumes of research support this approach and although I cannot immediately change the entire US school system, I can change my son’s educational experience.

So there you have it, in a nutshell. The answer to why we left our home, city, and community we love. Like so many immigrants before us, we are searching for a better quality of life.

Photo credit: My incredibly talented daughter, Nox, took this shot!