Casa Azul

During our recent tour around central Mexico we visited the capital, Mexico City. The visit would not be complete without visiting museo Casa Azul, a house of the gratest female mexican painter Frida Kahlo. The walls of the house are painted blue, her favourite color that is why it is called Casa Azul, a Blue House. She grew up there with her 3 sisters and later lived with her husband, famous artist Diego Rivera.

What a vibrant personality she was! Starting with her image, hair styles, dresses and her unibrow.

Her life was far from perfect. She suffered polio as a child and later was nearly killed in an accident that shuttered her spine, ribs and pelvis.

She spend long weeks in a hospital, that is where she started to paint. She had to be on constant pain medications to exist. Due to this accident she could never become a mother, suffering miscarriages over and over. The story of her life touches me enormously, walking through her house with teary eyes I could not help thinking that this is the way it was meant to be. Her art would not be as meaningful or maybe there would be no art at all…?

Her paintings are her biografy, reflecting her experiences and suffering in life. Some say it is folk, some say it is surrealism, I say it is very candid and touching. She is the essence of Mexico.

Her house is filled with every day life objects, put in its place like she still lived there and just stepped out for a moment. I waited, but then everyone was ready to move on so I just whispered bye and cought the last glimpse of her on my way out.

06-Jan-2012 11:25, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 6.7, 70.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 400
06-Jan-2012 11:25, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 9.5, 70.0mm, 0.003 sec, ISO 200
06-Jan-2012 11:46, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 3.8, 28.0mm, 0.022 sec, ISO 800
 
06-Jan-2012 11:46, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 3.8, 28.0mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 800
06-Jan-2012 11:50, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 3.8, 28.0mm, 0.167 sec, ISO 800
06-Jan-2012 11:51, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 4.5, 28.0mm, 0.011 sec, ISO 200
 
06-Jan-2012 11:52, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 4.5, 70.0mm, 0.1 sec, ISO 800
06-Jan-2012 11:53, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 4.5, 45.0mm, 0.1 sec, ISO 800
06-Jan-2012 11:54, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 4.5, 55.0mm, 0.008 sec, ISO 400
 
06-Jan-2012 11:55, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 4.5, 45.0mm, 0.017 sec, ISO 200
06-Jan-2012 11:55, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 4.5, 70.0mm, 0.011 sec, ISO 400
06-Jan-2012 11:56, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.011 sec, ISO 200
 
06-Jan-2012 12:00, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 200.0mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 800
06-Jan-2012 11:59, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.022 sec, ISO 400
06-Jan-2012 11:56, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 4.5, 70.0mm, 0.011 sec, ISO 400
 

Place of Invisible Spirits

Nadia practicing Yoga in El Tajin

During our two day visit to Xilitla, we have visited Las Pozas and Sotano de las Huahuas. The later is a large cave in the middle of a jungle, where at dusk, we have witnessed several flocks of macaws and thousands of swallows dive deep into the dark abyss. A very unreal experience. Unfortunately, despite shooting almost 400 photos, I couldn’t capture the moment. Instead, here’s a short excerpt from a 2006 BBC movie called The Earth.

We have left the wild, but beautiful region of La Huasteca driving South-East towards Poza Rica. Even though it’s only a distance of 170 miles, it took us almost the whole days to get to El Tajin. What on a map looked like a decent highway, turned out too be a really bad maintained road dotted with small towns, countless speed bumps, crazy drivers and unmarked potholes able to hide a midsize sedan.

We were up for a large disappointment, when we finally made it to Poza Rica. This large city, unlike most towns we’ve seen in Mexico doesn’t have a picturesque Centro or narrow, cobblestone streets. In fact it looks like a modern, US city – busy and functional, but charmless.

Our first attempt at finding a shelter for the night failed miserably. Lured by the name and decent looking exteriors, we attempted to drop anchor at one of many local Auto Hotels.  Unfortunately, we were told that the rooms (and curtain covered garages) were only rented for up to… six hours. Hmm…

Haunted Mansion - plantation style hotel near El TajinHaunted Mansion - plantation style hotel near El Tajin
Haunted Mansion - plantation style hotel near El Tajin31-Dec-2011 09:20, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.011 sec, ISO 200
 

Since we came there to see El Tajin and not to make local hotel moguls richer, we decided to leave town and look for accommodation near the archaeological site. That was another mistake. It was already dark and way too late to find a camping. Our only option was finding a room. Except, near El Tajin there is only one hotel – charming, but dated plantation style house. I have no doubt it used to be a really chic place – some two hundred years ago… Nowadays it’s missing almost everything you would expect from a hotel – there’s no internet, no towels and only sparsely some hot water. Even the owners left (or died) already, leaving a haunted mansion business in the very capable hands of their… handyman. What remained from the good old days were the prices, eagerly adjusted for two centuries of inflation.

We were tired and it seemed that we had no choice. After loosing a small fortune on a room lacking some of the basic amenities, we rolled out our sleeping bags and went to beds. I’m sure we would have gotten even more memorable souvenirs from the bargain if we decided to use the hotel linens.

Our luxurious hotel had a restaurant, a very nice looking indeed. Except, there was no one to operate the kitchen. Imagine our despair when we had to leave without even as much as a cup of coffee in the morning! Quite frankly though, the night was peaceful and quiet – no fire crackers and no drunken serenades at midnight – which helped us get over those minor annoyances quickly.

We have arrived at the entrance well before 9.00 AM. Unlike hotels, there is no shortage of food joints in El Tajin. I wouldn’t dare calling them restaurants – that would be a great exaggeration, but if you look beyond the bare ground floor and plastic seats, they do offer some decent, inexpensive breakfast options. Regrettably their coffee comes automatically sweetened… Oh well!

After getting past the crowds of vendors, we arrived at the entrance. A large, modern, concrete complex of building hosts a small museum, restaurant, restrooms and offices. The archaeological site is fairly large and we have spent the whole morning wandering aimlessly between smaller and larger pyramids.

A view from the living quarters towards the ball game and the Pyramid of the NichesA view from the living quarters towards the ball game and the Pyramid of the Niches
A view from the living quarters towards the ball game and the Pyramid of the Niches31-Dec-2011 12:10, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.008 sec, ISO 200
 

Even though undoubtedly  interesting, I have to admit that our first encounter with the remains of the ancient civilization was rather disappointing. As usual, we came unprepared – without knowing what we’re looking at, all buildings looked like nothing more than a bunch of very old rocks. Only after doing some research, I found out that the site we visited, was in fact a capital city of the nation of Totonacs. The site’s prosperity falls between 600 and 1200 AD. An excerpt from Wikipedia article on the city:

Its significance is due to its size and unique forms of art and architecture.[10] The borders of the city’s residential areas have not yet been defined but is the entire site is estimated at 2,640 acres (10.7 km2).[13] To date, only about fifty percent of the city’s buildings has been excavated, revealing a series of plazas, palaces, and administrative buildings within a two-square-mile area.[5] Unlike the highly rigid grid patterns of ancient cities in the central highlands of Mexico, the builders of El Tajin designed and aligned buildings as individual units.[15]There are several architectural features here which are unique to the place or seen in only rarely in Mesoamerica. Adornment in the form of niches and stepped frets are omnipresent, decorating even utilitarian buttresses and platform walls. Stepped frets are seen in other parts of Mesoamerica but rarely to this extent. The use of niches is unique to El Tajin.[10]

Haunted Mansion - plantation style hotel near El Tajin
Haunted Mansion - plantation style hotel near El Tajin31-Dec-2011 09:20, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.011 sec, ISO 200
31-Dec-2011 09:21, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.011 sec, ISO 200
31-Dec-2011 09:21, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 8.0, 108.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 800
 
31-Dec-2011 09:52, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 8.0, 135.0mm, 0.017 sec, ISO 800
31-Dec-2011 10:38, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 6.7, 55.0mm, 0.008 sec, ISO 200
31-Dec-2011 10:43, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 8.0, 28.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 200
 
31-Dec-2011 10:49, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 6.7, 55.0mm, 0.011 sec, ISO 200
31-Dec-2011 10:54, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 6.7, 85.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 200
31-Dec-2011 10:53, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 6.7, 28.0mm, 0.011 sec, ISO 200
 
31-Dec-2011 10:59, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 6.7, 28.0mm, 0.011 sec, ISO 200
31-Dec-2011 11:11, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 200
31-Dec-2011 11:14, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 6.7, 28.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 200
 
31-Dec-2011 11:25, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.008 sec, ISO 200
31-Dec-2011 11:33, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 6.7, 70.0mm, 0.011 sec, ISO 200
31-Dec-2011 11:34, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 8.0, 200.0mm, 0.008 sec, ISO 400
 
31-Dec-2011 11:43, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.011 sec, ISO 200
31-Dec-2011 12:14, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 6.7, 70.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 200
31-Dec-2011 12:11, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 200
 

Las Pozas

After a long drive on a winding roads through Sierra Madre Oriental, at the end of December, we arrived in Xilitla. It’s a little town in the picturesque La Huasteca region of Mexico. Rather unremarkable, and similar to all other little towns we’ve been driving through, with one exception though. This little pueblito hides a few secrets… One of them is known as Las Pozas, a garden in a jungle, just outside of town, full of surrealist concrete sculptures and buildings with no apparent purpose. The garden sits on over 80 acres of waterfalls and natural pools. Here’s an excerpt from a Wikipedia article about Edward James, English aristocrat and eccentric artist, who created this jungle retreat:

Las Pozas is near the village of Xilitla, San Luis Potosí, a seven-hour drive north of Mexico City. In the early 1940s, James went to Los Angeles, and then decided that he “wanted a Garden of Eden set up . . . and I saw that Mexico was far more romantic” and had “far more room than there is in crowded Southern California” [9]. In Hollywood in 1941, his lifetime friend and cousin, Magic Realist painter Bridget Bate Tichenor, encouraged him to search for a surreal location in Mexico to express his diverse esoteric interests.[10] In Cuernavaca, he hired Plutarco Gastelum as a guide. They discovered Xilitla in November 1945.[8] Eventually Plutarco married a local woman and had four children. James was “Uncle Edward”, to the children called James,and frequently stayed with them in a house Plutarco had built, a mock-Gothic cement castle, now a hotel – La Posada El Castillo.[11]

Between 1949 and 1984, James built scores of surreal concrete structures with names like the House on Three Floors Which Will in Fact Have Five or Four or Six, the House with a Roof like a Whale, and the Staircase to Heaven.[11] There were also plantings and beds full of tropical plants, including orchids – there were, apparently, 29,000 at Las Pozas at one time [12]– and a variety of small casas (homes), niches, and pens that held exotic birds and wild animals from the world over — James owned many exotic animals and once took his pet boa constrictors to the Hotel Francis in Mexico City.[11].

Massive sculptures up to four stories tall punctuate the site. The many trails throughout the garden site are composed of steps, ramps, bridges and narrow, winding walkways that traverse the valley walls.[13] Construction of Las Pozas cost more than $5 million. To pay for it, James sold his collection of Surrealist art at auction.[11]

In the summer of 2007, the Fundación Pedro y Elena Hernández, the company Cemex, and the government of San Luis Potosí paid about $2.2 million for Las Pozas and created Fondo Xilitla, a foundation that will oversee the preservation and restoration of the site.[8]

We walked from the hotel, through the town of Xilitla, down to the gardens. The weather was gorgeous, the views worth every shot. We enjoyed a whole morning and a good part of the afternoon in the park.

29-Dec-2011 11:17, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 200
29-Dec-2011 11:31, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 8.0, 200.0mm, 0.004 sec, ISO 400
29-Dec-2011 11:53, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 8.0, 200.0mm, 0.003 sec, ISO 400
 
29-Dec-2011 11:28, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 8.0, 200.0mm, 0.004 sec, ISO 200
29-Dec-2011 11:37, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 8.0, 28.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 200
29-Dec-2011 12:02, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.017 sec, ISO 400
 
29-Dec-2011 12:03, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.011 sec, ISO 200
29-Dec-2011 12:06, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 200
29-Dec-2011 12:09, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.017 sec, ISO 400
 
29-Dec-2011 12:11, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.017 sec, ISO 200
29-Dec-2011 12:15, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 4.0, 28.0mm, 0.017 sec, ISO 200
29-Dec-2011 12:15, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 6.7, 28.0mm, 0.008 sec, ISO 200
 
29-Dec-2011 12:26, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 6.7, 45.0mm, 0.004 sec, ISO 200
29-Dec-2011 12:22, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 6.7, 28.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 200
29-Dec-2011 12:21, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.008 sec, ISO 200
 
29-Dec-2011 12:19, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 6.7, 28.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 200
29-Dec-2011 12:19, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 4.5, 28.0mm, 0.011 sec, ISO 200
29-Dec-2011 12:27, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 400
 

I found this documentary about Las Pozas, done by BBC in their series Around the World in 80 Gardens, with Monty Don:

Traveling by car in Mexico

Some of our readers were wondering about the practical aspects of traveling by car in Mexico. And obviously about safety of such extravaganza. Some of them even consider coming over and needed a few tips. Instead of responding all of their concerns individually and writing hundreds of emails, here are some of the things I would recommend:

  • First and foremost, here are the formal requirements for crossing the US-Mexican border. Yep, everything in that article is accurate, and even though it sounds complicated, you can get everything done at the border within an hour or so.
  • When you shop around for Mexican car insurance, check online and compare at the border. The agents in Laredo wanted between 30% and 100% more then an online quote.
  • If driving through Laredo (like we did), use the Columbia bridge crossing. It’s few miles West from Laredo, and it may seem like burning a lot of gas, but the crossing is almost always empty, so it’s easier to get the paperwork done and you get onto the highway right away and don’t need to drive through Nuevo Laredo.
  • Hit the border early (Columbia opens 8.00 AM) in the morning to have much daylight for driving through the border region.
  • After crossing the border, “unlearn” everything you’re been taught about traffic rules and safety on the roads. There don’t seem to be any… your imagination (and vehicles capabilities) are the limits!
  • Avoid driving after dusk. It’s for your own safety – the roads are badly lit and their surface is unpredictable (rocks, potholes, drunks, animals, etc…).
  • Make sure your vehicle is in good shape before crossing the border – finding good mechanics and/or authorized dealerships is much more difficult than in the States.
  • Make sure your vehicle has got some decent clearance between the undercar and the pavement. Some of the speed bumps (called “topes”) here are 4 to 5 inches tall. And they’re the most frequent and popular feature on the roads in Mexico. Some of them are marked, most take you by surprise…
  • The longer and wider the rig, the more difficult it will be to maneuver some of the narrow streets. Most of the towns in Mexico were build, before Mayflower anchored Plymouth. The streets only allow for bidirectional traffic of unloaded donkeys. There is a street in San Miguel de Allende, where we have to fold the side mirrors of our minivan to get through…
  • The paid highways (called “cuotas”) may seem expensive, but are well worth the 100 pesos or so, per 20km… or so – I didn’t quite figure it out yet – there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to their prices. They are no German “autobahn”, but as good as any US interstate. Unless…
  • … unless the “cuotas” are only one lane roads. It is common that you pay for a highway and drive on an equivalent of a well maintained US county road. In such case, the two lanes and the shoulders (if any) are spontaneously upgraded into a four lane highways.
  • The  non-paid highways (called “libramentes”), or lets just call them the paved roads, are… paved (at least for the most part). They remind me of the long forgotten and never attended roads in some underfunded US counties. Except…
  • …the “libramentes” are always busy. Usually it’s motorized traffic, but not necessary: cars, wagons, bicycles, wheel barrows, tequila fueled pedestrians and animals (wild and domesticated) are a norm.

And most of all, don’t be alarmed by everything you read in the US media. 99.9% of people here are very friendly. At the worst, some of the poor fellows may try to fool you for a few pesos you at the gas pump (make sure the pump is reset and shows zeros before start pumping). But at the same time, they will go out of their way to help you, should you be in trouble.

Oh, and remember, plastic is very much useless in most of Mexico (except for larger and tourist cities) – cash is king! So be sure to exchange your hard earned dollars for pesos before crossing the border. Or get it from an ATM – the rates are usually better then the border region crooks. Just remember that the ATM’s are not as frequent as in the US.

More questions? Let me know!

Sierra Madre Oriental

Christmas Holidays in Mexican schools started this year on December 17th and will last untli January 9th, 2012. That Friday was a last day with backpacks and books. What followed, was a Christmas show the next week and now we’re enjoying a time off school. Trying to make the best out of such long break, we’ve packed our van again and hit the road.

The plan is to make a loop around central Mexico. The first leg of this short trip took us from San Miguel de Allende, through Celaya, Queretaro, Jalpan, all the way to a small town in the Sierra Madre Oriental mountains called Xilitla. The place is mostly famous thanks to Edward James, an excentric millionaire, who build… well, let me disclose that only after we visit the place.

In the meantime, here are some pictures from the winding road through the mountains. It was curvy indeed. To a point, when Agnieszka finally throw up and said: “There’s no way we’re going back this road!”. Later on she read in our Mexico guide, that highway 120 is the least frequent way to get to Xilitla. Well, now we know why…

28-Dec-2011 16:23, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 9.5, 28.0mm, 0.004 sec, ISO 200
28-Dec-2011 18:07, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 9.5, 28.0mm, 0.004 sec, ISO 200
28-Dec-2011 16:21, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 8.0, 28.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 200
 
28-Dec-2011 16:21, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 8.0, 28.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 200
28-Dec-2011 16:05, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 8.0, 28.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 200
28-Dec-2011 18:03, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 200
 
28-Dec-2011 16:04, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 6.7, 28.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 200
28-Dec-2011 14:57, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 9.5, 28.0mm, 0.004 sec, ISO 200
28-Dec-2011 14:54, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 8.0, 45.0mm, 0.004 sec, ISO 200
 

How to spend a year out travelling with kids

Since the very beginning of this Sabbatical, people reading our blog have been having questions. They wanted to know what was it exactly that we’re embarking upon. They were curious why we decided to do it. What was our approach and how were we planning to fund it. Among others, those were the most frequently asked questions. At the beginning of our trip, I promised to answer them all. Now, the time has finally arrived to keep the promise.

What is a Sabbatical?

Lets’s start with the basics. The term Sabbatical, might not be familiar to everyone. The word derives from Greek (sabbatikos) and Latin (sabbaticus) and means a break from work, a hiatus lasting between a few months to roughly a year. In the Bible, a sabbatical year, in Hebrew called the Shmita is the last of the seven year agricultural cycle mandated by Torah. That year, the fields are left alone to recuperate. Without going any further into religious or agricultural interpretations, let’s just say that recently a Sabbatical, also known as a Gap Year is most commonly considered to be an extended break in professional career. Unlike extended vacations or holidays, a Sabbatical is usually undertaken with a specific goal in mind.

The goal of Sabbatical

In the ministerial or academic field, people often take Sabbaticals to pursue personal projects – travel, research, write a book. It’s no different in the corporate world. Sabbatical gives an opportunity to focus on personal development – gaining new skills, obtaining knowledge or simply following interests.

In our case, the goal has not been clearly defined. At least not at the beginning. All we knew, was that our life was missing something and that we needed time to evaluate what it was.

As millions of other people, we were living our happy and peaceful life following guidelines prescribed by society – a house in the suburbs, couple of kids, successful careers and retirement accounts. So far, everything has been going as planned, everything on target. And yet, the American Dream wasn’t complete.

For the longest time we couldn’t figure it out. Actually, we were doing everything possible not to admit that there was a problem. We were clearly in denial. In the perfect picture of our life, we weren’t able to admit, that something was missing…

Since we couldn’t quite name it, we kept getting more and more stuff. We’ve worked hard to earn enough money to built a house. Then we worked to stuff  it with lots of items – some of them essential, most useful, some nice, others simply worthless junk. We kept bringing more and more into our life, and yet… Something was still missing.

So we worked harder to earn more money and brought more stuff, over and over again. In this pursuit, we kept rewarding ourselves for our hard work with various tokens – big toys and small gadgets, home improvement projects, vacations, entertainment, etc… And the more we rewarded ourselves, the more it was apparent that something was missing…

Finally, we decided that we needed to change our approach completely. Instead of bringing more clutter into our life, we decided to adapt the minimalist approach and concentrate on pursuing our passions.

The goal of our Sabbatical is to discover or develop them.

The Minimalist Approach

While the pursuit of passion is the goal to this Sabbatical, the minimalist approach is it’s enabler. It also happens to be a way of life, which reflects our core values. In a nutshell, rather then fulfilling desires, we decided to re-evaluate our needs.

We started with the low hanging fruits…

  • Between the two of us, do we really need 3 cell phones?
  • Do we need a land line on top of it?
  • Do we need several TV sets and 100 channels when we have no time to watch them?
  • Do we need to stuff ourselves with nutrition-less, genetically modified and poisonous food…?
  • Do we need or want to spend time and money on video games, brainless movies, junk food, mediocre entertainment, junk toys…?
  • Do we want to produce tons of garbage and use countless resources to ruin our kids future…?
  • Do we want other people to raise our kids, to decide about their education, to brain wash them…?

…and we ended up asking ourselves some pretty difficult questions. What started as an analysis of our monthly house budget utilization, ended up shaping our world view manifesto. This is obviously a much broader subject. For this article, suffice it to say that re-evaluation of our expenses resulted over time in significant savings, which became the corner stone of the Sabbatical Travel Fund.

Family Travel

We have quickly realized that our little “pursuit of happiness”, the search for life’s passion will have very little chances of success if we don’t change the environment we live in. Not to mention that if we were to quit our jobs, living in upstate New York would be way too expensive. At that point, the idea of  an extended travel career break was born…

In the past, before we had children, we have been travelling a bit around Europe and North America. Despite popular belief, we found  travel to be fairly inexpensive and always inexhaustible source of inspiration. Therefore we were both immediately sold to the idea of a long journey. The only questions were: where are we going to go and how are we going to finance it?

We decided to look at our finances first, as we knew those will determine our options. Since we didn’t plan to generate income (read:  work) on the road, the financing had to come from our savings. Even though we have been fairly considerate about our spending in the past, we haven’t put aside as much as we figured would be necessary to support ourselves during a Round the World trip. On top of it, we weren’t necessarily interested in visiting great number of tourist attractions, while schlepping our kids through countless airports and sharing cheap hostels rooms in shady parts of big cities. Therefore we’ve scratched that idea off the list very early.

If we were to search for our life’s passions, we wanted to have the flexibility of choosing places we wanted to visit, being able to extend (or shorten) our stays in various places, or change direction of travel on a dime if we needed to. We didn’t want to stay in cities, preferring natural attractions over man-made marvels. Not to mention, that staying at campgrounds, is not only more romantic, but also less expensive and more adventures (especially in less developed countries) than hotels. Weather permitting, of course…

Having said all that and with the ever rising prices of gas, we decided this might be the last opportunity for a real road trip.

The Sabbatical Travel Fund

Once we decided we will travel using our minivan, and as much as possible stay at campgrounds we needed to assess how much would it cost us. We figured that on average it will be USD $20 per night to setup a tent in a State Park. That’s $600 a month – in Mexico and Central America, we hoped that would be enough to rent nice apartments. Considering that we wanted to cover about 30,000 miles during that trip and factoring in our van’s fuel consumption and estimated gas prices along the way, we figured that USD $500 a month would be sufficient amount for gas money. We realized that availability and prices of quality (mostly organic, local, unprocessed) foods  in different places will vary, but we’ve estimated it will cost us between USD $1,000 and USD $1,500 per month. On top of that between USD $400 and $900 for incidentals, tourist attractions, etc… Bottom line, we’ve estimated it will cost us in average about USD $3,000 per month to support ourselves on the road. Adding car and travel insurance, reserve for unexpected repairs and other surprises, we’ve figured we needed about USD $40,000 for a year long Sabbatical.

As a result of the Minimalist Approach, we have adapted a rather frugal lifestyle already sometime before we decided to set off on this Sabbatical road trip. Thanks to that, over the last few years, we were able to set aside almost half of the required amount. The rest came from the annual tax return, but also from the sale of our vehicles, furniture and other household items.

I’d like to add at this point that with the exception of mortgage, we have always been debt free, which – in times of recent economical turmoil – is especially important, and was a significant variable in weighing our options. Also, with a favorable rate and high equity to debt ratio (and with a bit of luck), we were able to rent our house out at a rate that just covers the mortgage, taxes and property management fees. Barely, but it does…

Mental Liberation

In last weeks before hitting the road, we went through countless garage sales and trips to Goodwill, but were able to empty the house to almost bare walls. I have to admit, that getting rid of all our possessions was almost a spiritual experience –  at times difficult, but mostly very invigorating. Removing the clutter, the material anchors, allowed us to detach our life from the limitations imposed by objects we possessed. While giving the stuff away, we realized that the items we accumulated over years not only didn’t make us happier, but actually skew the way we viewed our life choices. Because of all this junk, we understood our life options as only being limited to a given geographical area. Suddenly, after being freed up from all this worthless luggage, the World stood wide open in front of us.

Terminating Employment

At times I wish I was able to continue working for Alstom during our travels. It’s not unheard of and quite often even expected by the Company, that their employees work from remote locations. I’m sure I could find few hours everyday to support the firm, in exchange of a steady paycheck and benefits, which would allow to extend the Sabbatical trip beyond it’s planned duration.

On the other hand though I always knew that an arrangement like that would not work in a long term.

With today’s technology, telecommuting from even the most remote places in the World is no longer an issue. And yet only a few organizations are mature enough to allow their employees to travel and pursue their passions while working for the Company. For such an arrangement to work, the organization has not only to implement trustful and truly results oriented work ethics in their work environment, but also have a very strong and mature management in place.

Unfortunately Alstom is no different than most traditional companies. I would even risk a statement, that driven probably by the dated (compared to other industries) technology at the core of it’s business, the Company is even more stiff then other businesses in the Industry. There is no shortage of talented people within the organization and yet work ethics and management are heavily impaired. Finally, for our journey to be truly considered as Sabbatical, I don’t think I was ready to even investigate possibilities of such work arrangement. Instead, I requested an unpaid leave of absence, which in fact is no different from flat out quitting. What I got in exchange though, is an offer letter from the Company, stating that upon my return, Alstom will make all efforts to make employment options available to me. I truly think this is the best possible arrangement.

Conclusions

Obviously it’s a long process and only slowly we’re getting used to this thought. Finally, we start to consciously shape our life. No longer enslaved by the material world, we start to notice our inner drive. The lyrics of Jannis Joplin’s old song start to finally make more sense:  Freedom’s just another word for nothing else to lose…

I’m sure I didn’t cover everything I wanted to share, most probably I didn’t even answer some of the questions. If you’d like to know more feel free to comment under this post. At times I’m having difficulties with prompt, individual responses, but as you can see here, I’m very transparent and I’ll make all efforts to respond quickly. If you’re interested in the minimalist approach or mental liberation I mentioned in this post, I’ll try to develop those terms into more detailed articles in the near future.

Feliz Navidad!

Couple of weeks short of six months. That’s how long we’ve been on this Sabbatical. So far, everything has worked out exactly as planned. Or better… Sounds like a cliche, but it’s true – time flies when you’re having fun!

Recently, I’ve been having really hard time coming up with new updates for this blog. Fortunately, my talented wife stepped in and (as usual) saved the day. While I was tinkering with yet another programming pet project, she took things in her capable hands and made sure our loyal readers are kept frequently updated on the developments of our Sabbatical…

Today, we’d like to thank all of you for being with us for so long and for keeping us company through your encouraging posts and emails. Gracias a Todos! Feliz Navidad and …we want to wish you a Merry Christmas!

Our Mexican Christmas

It is the first time we spend Christmas in warm climate. Very strange feeling but not for Mexicans who are in Christmas spirit for a month or so. The whole town is beautifully decorated and the Christmas carols are playing everywhere. The celebrations of „posada” which means „inn” or „shelter” also started few days ago. This tradition recreates Mary and Joseph’s search for a place to stay in Bethlehem. They are held on each of the nine nights leading up to Christmas, from Dec 16 to 24 th.

All the markets are full of beautiful decorations, lights, candles, sweets and trees of course. We, instead of getting a classic tree decided to do something different. On our way from Guanajuato we picked up a dead tree branch. On our roof top terrace we shaped it and spray painted it white. An upside down plastic red bucket serves as a stand and ……tada!!!!!! Tree was ready for decorations and these were very special this year. All were either knitted by me or made by my children. The only thing we bought were lights. It was sooooo much fun even though, I have to be honest – it is not the most beautiful thing I have ever seen:-) The kids were extremely happy and proud cutting out all the dinosaurs from color paper. We also have Spiderman, who on a daily basis is just a finger puppet but now during Christmas guards order on our funky tree.

Now all we have to do is make sauerkrout and muschroom pierogies for Christmas Eve dinner…..Feliz Navidad Everyone!!!!

17-Dec-2011 14:16, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.167 sec, ISO 200
 
17-Dec-2011 14:16, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 4.5, 55.0mm, 0.167 sec, ISO 200
17-Dec-2011 14:16, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 4.5, 55.0mm, 0.167 sec, ISO 200
17-Dec-2011 14:16, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 4.5, 55.0mm, 0.167 sec, ISO 200
 
17-Dec-2011 14:16, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 4.5, 55.0mm, 0.167 sec, ISO 200
17-Dec-2011 14:17, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 4.0, 28.0mm, 0.167 sec, ISO 200
17-Dec-2011 14:17, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 16.0, 55.0mm, 0.167 sec, ISO 200
 
17-Dec-2011 14:17, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 11.0, 55.0mm, 0.167 sec, ISO 200
17-Dec-2011 14:17, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 4.5, 55.0mm, 0.167 sec, ISO 200
17-Dec-2011 14:17, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 4.5, 55.0mm, 0.167 sec, ISO 200
 
17-Dec-2011 14:19, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 4.5, 28.0mm, 0.167 sec, ISO 200
17-Dec-2011 14:59, OLYMPUS IMAGING CORP. u850SW,S850SW , 3.5, 6.7mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 100
17-Dec-2011 14:59, OLYMPUS IMAGING CORP. u850SW,S850SW , 3.5, 6.7mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 100
 
17-Dec-2011 15:00, OLYMPUS IMAGING CORP. u850SW,S850SW , 3.5, 6.7mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 100
17-Dec-2011 15:01, OLYMPUS IMAGING CORP. u850SW,S850SW , 3.5, 6.7mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 100
17-Dec-2011 15:01, OLYMPUS IMAGING CORP. u850SW,S850SW , 3.5, 6.7mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 100
 

How to make lemonade in Mexico

After a few sets with his older sister, Alex finally got promoted from an assistant to an anchor. On his mother’s birthday, he not only helped with the breakfast to bed in the morning, but also offered to prepare fresh lemonade. Taking advantage of his generosity, we turned that rather uncommon event into an instructional video for all the scamps in the World!

Fernando de la Mora

As part of the Festival San Miguel Cantador, last Sunday, one of the contemporary greatest tenors gave a free concert in front of the Parroquia, in San Miguel de Allende. As you can imagine, this drove crowds from all over Guanajuato and other parts of Mexico. The concert was televised live.

In one of the few short breaks, Fernando gave a great speech calling for a national action to show that Mexico, despite it’s recent problems, is not only a land of drugs, corruption and violence, but it’s also a great place for connoisseurs of fine art. With it’s long and rich history and talented, friendly people San Miguel de Allende is a true cultural mecca for people from all over the World.

Even though, I’m really not much into opera music, I have to admit, I really did enjoy the event. The orchestra played many classical pieces, as well as some season relevant songs by modern composers from all over the World. Rather then sitting or standing in one place, I was able to walk around, see kids break dancing in the park, grab a coffee and take a few pictures.

Fernando de la Mora on stage in front of Parroquia, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
Fernando de la Mora on stage in front of Parroquia, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.04-Dec-2011 21:38, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 200.0mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 800
Fernando de la Mora on stage in front of Parroquia, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
Fernando de la Mora on stage in front of Parroquia, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.04-Dec-2011 20:21, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 135.0mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 800
Fernando de la Mora on stage in front of Parroquia, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
Fernando de la Mora on stage in front of Parroquia, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.04-Dec-2011 20:27, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 70.0mm, 0.1 sec, ISO 400
 
Fernando de la Mora on stage in front of Parroquia, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
Fernando de la Mora on stage in front of Parroquia, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.04-Dec-2011 20:27, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 85.0mm, 0.1 sec, ISO 400
Fernando de la Mora on stage in front of Parroquia, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
Fernando de la Mora on stage in front of Parroquia, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.04-Dec-2011 20:26, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 6.7, 200.0mm, 0.1 sec, ISO 800
Fernando de la Mora on stage in front of Parroquia, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
Fernando de la Mora on stage in front of Parroquia, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.04-Dec-2011 20:25, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 6.7, 200.0mm, 0.1 sec, ISO 400
 
Fernando de la Mora on stage in front of Parroquia, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
Fernando de la Mora on stage in front of Parroquia, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.04-Dec-2011 20:28, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 3.8, 28.0mm, 0.1 sec, ISO 800
Parroquia (parisch church) at night.
Parroquia (parisch church) at night.04-Dec-2011 20:27, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 3.8, 28.0mm, 0.1 sec, ISO 800
Break dance in the park.
Break dance in the park.04-Dec-2011 21:27, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 3.8, 28.0mm, 0.1 sec, ISO 800
 
Break dance in the park.
Break dance in the park.04-Dec-2011 21:27, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 3.8, 28.0mm, 0.1 sec, ISO 800
People gathered in Jardin Allende to watch performance of Fernando de la Mora.
People gathered in Jardin Allende to watch performance of Fernando de la Mora.04-Dec-2011 21:26, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 3.8, 28.0mm, 0.25 sec, ISO 800
Kids dancing in a gazebo, in the back Fernando de la Mora performing on the stage.
Kids dancing in a gazebo, in the back Fernando de la Mora performing on the stage.04-Dec-2011 21:28, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 3.8, 28.0mm, 0.125 sec, ISO 800
 
Parroquia at night with moon in the background.
Parroquia at night with moon in the background.04-Dec-2011 21:43, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 45.0mm, 0.25 sec, ISO 800
Agnieszka and Estefania in  Jardin Allende after Fernando de la Mora's concert.
Agnieszka and Estefania in Jardin Allende after Fernando de la Mora's concert.04-Dec-2011 21:44, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 3.8, 28.0mm, 0.25 sec, ISO 800
Agnieszka and Estefania in front of Parroquia after Fernando de la Mora's concert in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
Agnieszka and Estefania in front of Parroquia after Fernando de la Mora's concert in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.04-Dec-2011 21:45, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 3.8, 28.0mm, 0.25 sec, ISO 800
 

Fireworks against a backdrop of a Parroquia.The concert concluded with a display of fireworks against the backdrop of the Parroquia. In the series, there more concerts coming, and since now we have a babysitter (or even three of them), I’m  sure we’ll take the opportunity to spend a few nights on town this winter season.