Coming Home and Leaving Again

We’ve now been home two months, and now we’re heading off. I’ve been offered a job that is sending me to New Zealand for a week so we’ve decided to make a trip of it and we’re all going. One week of work in Auckland and then we’re getting a camper van and touring around NZ for 10 days.

Being home has been hard. We knew it would be. The kids have settled into school now, we’ve moved into our house and we’re both working again (our empty piggy bank is oinking ‘thank you’). But have we been glad to be home? In many ways, yes. But for me, truthfully, I’ve really struggled with it.

We’ve loved having our garden back, we’ve planted a lot of fruit & veg, and we can’t wait to start eating them. We’ve been harvesting our grapes and peaches and eating them with relish. The kids have been making the best use of our spacious backyard, something they missed in the European cities. They can often be found out there playing soccer, or just walking around looking at insects or plants.

One of the most exciting things about returning was to catch up with all the amazing people we love. This has been much harder than we expected. Everyone’s lives are so busy (including our own), and finding time to catch up is not easy. This has been a stark reminder of everything we were trying to escape in the first place, that we’re so busy filling up our lives with work, school, extra curricular activities, that it’s hard to make time to spend quality time with the people in our lives. We spent so much of the last year in Spain, where a day (even a work day) is organised around coffee or lunch with friends, or a stroll with family. Real connection between people remains a high priority and people listen with their full attention. Nobody seems to be thinking of where they need to be next or their long list of tasks to complete by the end of the day. This sounds like a harsh judgement of Australia, but it is intended more as a compliment to the Spaniards, who, even in this busy, digital age, have maintained this incredible sense of interpersonal connection by valuing it as a vital part of the fabric of their lives. This is not affecting the kids so much – I believe kids are better at connecting with one another than adults – but I for one am grieving for the community and society we felt so strongly in Spain, even as unknown travellers.

We’ve made a conscious effort to not fall into old routines, and that has been refreshing. We’ve made time to enjoy our family time together at the end of every day, although we’re all missing each other a lot. After 24 hours a day together for a year, I feel like a part of me is missing when the kids are at school or I am at work.

Heading off again is exciting, and I’m so grateful that we’ve been able to do it again so soon (thank you to a very well-timed work offer). Our bank account is bottoming out – our financial advisor told us the other day that he’ll have to start guilting us out of this travel-bug soon or we’ll end up unable to support ourselves in the long run. He added that we need to be careful that we have enough money to do the things in retirement that we’ve waited our whole lives to do. At least we don’t have to worry about that part – we’re not waiting, we’re doing those things now! But his warnings need to be taken seriously, we don’t have anything to fall back on, and we need to earn some money instead of constantly travelling to afford to live, but when the opportunities come up, we feel we have to take them if we can. We know that our wanderlust will have to be reined in as the kids’ education becomes the priority, but for now, we’ll take the ebb & flow of life and squeeze every bit of juice out of life that we can.

Checking into my flight this morning without Cass and the kids felt strange and unusual. Thankfully they’re only a day behind me and I’ll see them tomorrow in Auckland. I’m looking forward to reconnecting with that life I’ve been pining for since we came back home. Spending time with each other, being curious about the world, meeting new people and experiencing everything we can about this planet is much more precious to us right now than the minutiae of life. So that’s why after such a short time after coming home, we’re leaving again (even though we probably shouldn’t).

 

 

 

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Cycling Towards the Horizon

Traversing mountains, swimming in oceans, and getting lost in forests has increased our deep commitment to travel with  minimal impact. In an attempt to take it to the next level, our new favourite method of transport is cycling. We now travel with some cycling gear and hire bikes in every town possible.

It all began when we were given the opportunity to housesit on a farm in England, we decided not to hire a car. This was a major decision because our farm was four kilometres from the nearest village and 24 kilometres from the closest town, Taunton. It was a chance to stretch our pedalling legs, so without thinking it through, we made the decision to cycle there from Taunton and use bikes as our primary transport for the next four weeks.

Cass did a lot of research and found a bike shop, On Your Bike in Taunton, who fix up old bikes and sell them for charity. They also train and employ disadvantaged people (people with disabilities, ex-services personnel and homeless) to be bike mechanics. We loved their values, and they agreed to hire bikes for us and the kids.

There were a number of obstacles we needed to overcome. The biggest was working out how to carry our luggage. We travel light (see What’s in our luggage?) with approximately 40kg between four of us, but our bags are not pannier bags and it was too much to ask the kids to ride that far with extra weight. Cass and I would need to carry it all.

On Your Bike had a trailer for hire, but it wouldn’t fit everything, so we decided to buy an additional new trailer to put the rest of the luggage in. After researching all of our options, we decided to buy a 2-Child Steel Bicycle Trailer for our luggage (we successfully sold it afterwards on Gumtree).

We arrived in Taunton the day before our ride, so we could prepare the bikes, buy helmets and some lights and just get organised. We are so glad we did, because it took us the whole day to get everything together and go for a little test ride.

On the morning of our ride, we had a tight schedule. The people we were housesitting for had to leave in the middle of the day, and we needed enough time to learn about looking after their animals. We really needed to arrive by 11:30 am so we got up at 5:30 ate a buffet breakfast, and headed off.

There was a misty rain as we set off but it kept us cool as we rode. Cass had one trailer with half our luggage, and I had the new trailer with the other half, and a bag with all our snacks on my back. The trailer was hard to pull. Hills I could usually ride up with ease were very difficult, and I had to walk up many more than I would have liked.

The first half went well, we rode at a good pace and were enjoying ourselves. Cass and I were nervous about the ride and whether the kids would make it, but being in the open air and seeing the English countryside was a good antidote.

12 kms in and feeling hungry (but good)

After a snack break at the halfway point, the rain set in. The temperature dropped dramatically, and our raincoats were only keeping our top half dry. The hills started increasing (as we expected from our meticulous route planning) and the kids were tiring. We started questioning ourselves. Had we made a terrible mistake?

After a lot of hard pushing, under the dark clouds and heavy rain, we finally reached the last kilometre. We knew this was a continuous uphill climb to our housesit, and we very slowly trudged up feeling tired, uncomfortable and not really enjoying it anymore. We had no choice but to keep going, and much to our incredulity, we finally made it. The kids were amazing, remained positive and were so relieved when we arrived. They nicknamed the last hill ‘Giant’s Hill’ and called it that every time we saw it after that. I told them they were my heroes.

For the time we were away, we only took the kids to the nearest town once as their faith in riding was a bit diminished by the ride up Giant’s Hill in the rain. Cass and I did the trips over the hill to the closest supermarket. With the kids we did small rides down to the creek, or to the nature reserve for a bushwalk, but kept the rides small so they could renew their love of riding.

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You can find secret swings when riding a bike.

When we returned to Taunton it was all downhill without any rain and the kids absolutely loved the ride. We stopped to pick blackberries, look at horses and eat our snacks with beautiful vistas.

When we returned the bikes, the kids were sad to see them go. They lamented it for the next few days. We kept our helmets and other paraphernalia and then hired some more bikes in Cambridge.

We were treated to some lovely weather in Cambridge and cycling was the perfect way to get around (no hills either!). We saw so much more of Cambridge than we would have otherwise, and we were able to ride to the Orchard Tea Gardens in Grantchester, where we drank tea under the apple trees.

A few of my favourite things – tea, apple orchards, sunshine – after a beautiful bike ride.

Now the kids want to ride everywhere, and we hire bikes often. It can be difficult navigating the traffic, and making it all work, so here are some lessons we’ve learned along the way:

  • A strong peloton goes a long way – We ride in single file with one adult up front and one at the back. There’s a number of reasons this works; we are more visible to drivers, the kids feel safe sandwiched between us and we can adjust our speed based on how the kids are going. The one at the front has to navigate and watch for traffic for themselves and the first child, while the one at the back can stay in pace with the slower ones.
  • Teach the kids the road rules while on the road – This seems obvious, but our kids knew the rules in theory before we started. We constantly go over them before we set out, but it is a different thing when they are on the road thinking about steering, pedalling, changing gears and dealing with traffic. It is like everything they know goes out the window. El Chico constantly heads straight into a roundabout without looking for cars, or sometimes even noticing that it is a roundabout. We stop at every corner and wait for everyone to catch up, talk about what we need to do at the corner, then go across in pairs so that we aren’t holding up traffic.
  • It isn’t a money saving venture – For four bikes it sometimes costs more than hiring a car. We don’t have to pay for petrol so it probably comes out even. The benefits outweigh the costs though, as it’s a beautiful way to travel. You are out in the world on a bike, rather than being removed from it inside a car. And your impact on the places you are visiting is diminished.
  • Check your maps – A lot of places have dedicated bike lanes and paths. These are invaluable with the kids because you don’t have to worry about the traffic, you can stop and smell the flowers and go your own pace. Galileo Maps are very accurate when it comes to cycle paths and footpaths, (and can be used offline) and Google Maps has a function where you can show a layer of the dedicated cycle lanes and paths.
  • Gears are best – The kids always find it easier when they have gears. They don’t always use them, and we find it frustrating, but when they have fixies they struggle up the hills.
  • Think about your equipment – Some bike hire shops provide you with lights and locks, but not all of them, so we now travel with lights, locks, helmets and some occy straps.
  • Fuel up – Riding makes the kids hungry (this is good for us because our kids are usually fussy eaters), so we need to have a big stash of healthy snacks in our backpack
  • Bikes + trains = more fun – In our experience, you can take bikes on trains in both England and Spain at no extra cost. This means you can go more places and take your bike with you to ride around at the other end. Many of the Spanish trains have a carriage where you can chain your bike to a dedicated rail. Although a word of caution, we did get in trouble once for trying to take bikes on a long distance train (we were only going to the next stop and didn’t realise it was any different).
  • Water is your elixir – Don’t underestimate how much water you need, especially in hot climates. A good rule of thumb is to have one litre per person per hour of riding.
  • Enjoy it – Riding is such fun so relax, enjoy and explore!
DISCLAIMER: We are not affiliated with any of these towns or attractions and were not paid nor given any free bikes, tours, accommodation or food. We paid for all these journeys with our own money and these are our own opinions. Some of the links in this article are affiliate links. 

Our First Week in Spain as a Nomadic Family

We’ve been in Spain for a week now, and it feels like a month. Each day stretches out before us as we fill it with experiences.

We have watched hot air balloons hover over our mountain-cave home, danced at a local charity fiesta, watched locals create incredibly simple but delicious foods, climbed to lookouts to see the vista, explored hidden alleyways full of surprises, eaten a variety of tapas and run through hedge mazes in the middle of one of the world’s great cities. It feels impossible that we could have done all this (and more) in just one week.

Between our two nights in Madrid we managed to see a large proportion of the city. We spent the morning in the Parque del Retiro  and then in the evening we explored around Plaza Mayor, Plaza de Sol, Palacio and Almudena Cathedral. There’s still a lot to discover next time we come to Madrid, but we had a good overview of the city.

Since then we have been living in a cave (Cueva Balcón) in Guadix that we found on Airbnb (click here to get a free travel credit for your first stay on Airbnb). While it is a little cool in the mornings and evenings, the ambience is incredible, as is the view from our balcony. We can see the snow on top of the Sierra Nevada, the cave houses nestled into the pointy and jagged hills, the white lines of the Church at Ermita Nueva, the rugged Moorish Alcazabar, the deep green orchards on the plains, and the tall bell tower of the Cathedral.

During our ten day stay, we are coming to know some people around our local area, and finding some amazing places that are a little off the tourist track. Local butchers, bakeries and bars are very accommodating of our stilted Spanish and always enjoy finding out that we’re not the usual Spanish or English visitors to Guadix.

The kids have been starting to pick up Spanish words here and there. Walking down the street, they’ll sometimes ask us about a word they have heard from someone we’ve passed, or they’ll read something in a shop window. Occasionally we hear them practicing the sounds, which sound like a Spanish gibberish, but is all part of them training their muscles. They each bought a Spanish kids’ magazine yesterday. While looking at them together, it was clear that they were understanding more than just the pictures were describing. If they can pick up this much in one week, it will be amazing to watch how their language progresses over the next month. Hopefully when they start interacting with Spanish kids their confidence will increase.

Some valuable travel lessons have been learned in the last week too:
* Australian credit cards (including travel cards) cannot purchase train tickets online. We’ve had to buy them all at the train stations so far.
* When looking up something online, the price will go up if you go back and look at it a second time. A good work-around is to use ‘incognito’ or ‘private’ mode on your browser.
* Atocha railway station in Madrid is not easy to navigate, nor were the staff very helpful. Arrive with more than 30 minutes before your scheduled departure to try and find your platform. We only just made our train.
* Getting a Spanish sim card was one of the easiest things we’ve done so far. The man in the phone store was very helpful, and the SIM cost us €10. For €20 credit we get 2GB of internet and €20 of calls. SMS between us is free as we are on the same network.

We’re living exactly the life we wanted to create. I can’t wait to see what’s around the next corner.

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Maps

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always had a thing about maps. They fascinate me. I’ve been hooked from the first time I ever opened an atlas as a youngster and saw all those lines and dots and names of exotic faraway places. It was an almost overwhelming introduction to a world of possibilities that fired my imagination and lit my desire to find out what was in those places with the strange, evocative names.

My new favourite cafe, the Owl and the Elephant in Uraidla, South Australia, has earned this title because it is filled with tables upon which maps from across the world have been affixed. I call in there more than I should (we are saving money for an overseas adventure, after all) and paw over the tables, imagining myself on a ferry between Denmark and Norway, or once again standing atop the gorge bisecting Ronda in the midddle of the night, while a lone borracho wails plaintive flamenco tunes into the abyss.

Perhaps it’s the unknown quantity that I find so compelling; the mysterious pull of the unfamiliar and a curiosity to find out what lies around the next corner, over the next ridge or beyond The Horizon. But there’s also a strong compulsion to use maps to gain greater insight into the familiar. I have spent hours plotting my movements across a high resolution map that charts the landscape of my childhood, topography that I know almost as well as the features of my own children’s faces.

When I was younger, maps were objects of paper, the best of which expanded in a complex puzzle of folds to reveal their secrets. Early on I learned the value of deciphering this puzzle – the maps lasted longer and I avoided both the wrath of my parents and the scorn of my older brother, who was always a couple of steps ahead, cognitively. The legacy of these days can still be found at my house, where book shelves and car glove boxes are stuffed to capacity with dog-eared charts from past adventures and times from my youth spent dreaming of distant lands.

These days, with the advent of the Internet, smart phones, apps and platforms like Google Earth, Open Street Map and Galileo, access to maps has never been easier, and you don’t need a Masters in Origami to get your geographic fix.

For our upcoming adventure we will be relying in part on these digital options. We have our iPhones, for which we’ll purchase European SIM cards with data allowances to enable access to whichever online resource best suits our needs. To date, Google Maps has proven far more reliable than the proprietary Apple Maps app, other than that one journey I took, back when the Google Maps app was still in beta testing, when I ended up on a remote back-woods road in rural South Australia, banjos ringing in my ears as I passed rundown farmhouses with fox carcasses hanging from the fence. But that’s another story for another time…

Back in 2000 I spent three days walking one of the northern routes of the Camino de Santiago, el Camino Primitivo. I’m really keen to retrace at least part of that adventure, and to show my loved ones some of the places and sights that I remember with such clarity and fondness. Because el Camino goes well off-piste in some places, mobile reception will inevitably get a bit sketchy along the way, so to ensure we don’t get lost (well, not too lost, anyway), I’ve downloaded the Galileo app and a number of camino-specific maps. Galileo is “a map browsing app you can use offline. It makes life easier, when traveling (sic) without any Internet connection, because you can use previously saved offline maps on your mobile iOS device”.

I’m no expert when it comes to technical details and anything I tell you would most likely be at best innacurate, and at worst completely misleading, you’re much better off visiting their site and getting the good oil straight from the source. But suffice to say, with the .gpx maps I’ve downloaded, I’ll be able to keep us on the path when we venture beyond the reach of modern mobile communications. And the sooner we do that, the better, as far as Mem and I are concerned. Because, really, this whole journey is in part about freeing ourselves from the routines and habits that bind us to our current conventional lives. And a big part of that will include disconnecting our online IV tubes.

But when it comes to charting our adventures, we’re not going to be completely reliant on technology. In a burst of nostalgic inspiration, last week Mem and I visited our local map shop and bought the kids an old-school paper map each for Christmas. One was a world map, the other a chart of Spain. The idea is that this will both hone their origami skills, and also provide them with a fun way to keep track of our unfolding journey.

In reality, they’ll probably either completely dismiss the idea, or embrace it for a couple of days then leave the maps folded shut in the bottom of their packs for the rest of the trip. But hey, it excited us and made us feel like we were doing something fun and “out of the box” to prepare them for the massive change that this adventure represents.

Finding inspiration as we hurtle towards our departure date

As the countdown clock on our front page likes to remind us, there are now only 3 months to go until the wheels leave the runway and there is just so much to do between now and then. Some days the sheer number of items on our to-do list can be overwhelming, but as Mem reminds me, it’s just a matter of ticking them off one at a time and eventually the slate will be clean.

Not that the anxieties have come anywhere close to surpassing the excitement and giddy exhilaration that the mere thought of traveling evokes. Every day, at any given moment, I’ll find myself daydreaming of a prospective experience, location or flavour from the journey to come and a thrill of anticipation will light up my nervous system for an instant.

As Frost points out in his seminal poem, The Road Not Taken, “…way leads on to way“, and one can find no better example of this than when considering how the imagination behaves when stimulated by thoughts of travel. The memory of a night spent bar-hopping in Sevilla, following the echoes of guitars and a throng of clapping hands, leads on to thoughts of walking el Camino Primitivo as it winds its way through the hills and valleys of Asturias.  I snap back into reality to realise 15 minutes have gone by and I’ve either reached my destination, or spend the last quarter of an hour staring vacantly out the window. Either way, my motivation to get things done and make sure we’re ready to depart on time is only fuelled by these moments.

This week, a friend (thanks Matt) put me onto the book Vagabonding by Rolf Potts. I had a brief look at the website affiliated with the book, then immediately signed up to Audible.com and bought it. Vagabonding: all about the whys, hows, wheres and whens of long-term travel – journeys that transcend tourism, an intersection where travel becomes life, not just a temporary escape from our everyday routines. The following definitions of the title are given in the book’s introduction:

Vagabonding (noun)
1. The act of leaving behind the ordered world to travel independently for an extended period of time.
2. A privately meaningful manner of travel that emphasises creativity, adventure, awareness, simplicity, discovery, independence, realism, self-reliance and the growth of the spirit.
3. A deliberate way of living that makes freedom to travel possible.
– Rolf Potts, Vagabonding

All three of these encapsulate our impending journey perfectly. At least, that’s how I see it. We’re giving up a comfortable, sedentary life and going traveling for as long as possible; we’ll be maintaining a deliberately simplistic, minimalist existence; and both of us are looking to this journey as a means to ignite our creative spirits.

The book itself is not very long and it took only two trips into town for me to listen to it in full. But it’s so full of insight, so concentrated in wisdom and so saturated with inspiration that I’m sure that this is only the first of many listens. Potts’ s writing style is, I guess, as deliberately spare and utilitarian as the way he packs his bags on the morning of departure. Yet he still manages to light up the listener’s imagination and inspire the prospective traveler to get their shit together and get out on the road before their time runs out. It will become, in a post-modern digital sense, an extremely well-thumbed volume.

One passage that really caught my imagination and set my feet itching was something like “Vagabonding starts now. Even if the practical reality of travel is still months or years away, vagabonding begins the moment you stop making excuses, start saving money and begin to look at maps with the narcotic tingle of possibility”. Once you start believing that you’re going traveling, and you’ve started planning for the trip, your vagabonding journey has already begun.” So effectively, we’re already on our way – all that’s left to do is everything!