Believe it or not, there are multiple families traveling across the US in minivans, spurred on by information published in this blog and its predecessor, the Getaway Van. Real people in real vans following our mostly made-up blog.
Oh, alright, we don’t really make most of this up; the Spreadsheet is real, and surely a great resource for families wanting to head west with their families as far as five weeks will allow.
None of these families has actually returned yet. But we figure they’re fine. Things can’t have changed that much since 2011.
And as imitation implies flattery, so does flattery inspire bloggers to keep on blathering on about whatever it is they feel like.
So, for anyone else considering a trip with youngish kids, maybe some of the following endorsements from our Central American odyssey will come in handy for you.
The contents of my backpack, still organized on day 74 of the trip.
Modular packing: Jen picked up these cool soft-sided cases for packing purposes. The backpacks lent to us by the Brooks family were excellent and very spacious. There was a lot of potential for huge messes every time we opened them up. Inside each backpack were individual cases that held clothes, toiletries, school supplies, games, etc. This greatly facilitated unpacking, packing, and general organization, and cut down on the time it took us to set up or strike camp. The cases that Jen ordered worked well, but so did the re-purposed packaging from sheets, blankets, and pillow cases (generally clear vinyl cases with zippers). We won’t travel again without them.
What can tackle a muddy volcano and clean up well enough for a night out in Moyogalpa? Keens.
Keens sandals: For the vast majority of the the eleven weeks abroad I wore my trusty pair of Keens. This includes the day we left frozen New Hampshire (with socks that day) and throughout all 16 kilometers of Volcan Maderas (a week later I was still washing mud out of them). By contrast, the flip-flops I brought lasted only five days in Jiquilillo before the left one started falling apart. Everyone had a pair of Keens and all five pairs made it home intact. They didn’t even start to smell (at least not enough to stand out from the rest of our smelly stuff) until after we got home. To remedy the situation, by the way, we had to stick Lanie’s pair in a bag full of baking powder and stick the whole thing in the freezer for a night. They’ve been fine ever since.
Actual picture from our snorkeling trip in Cahuita, taken on our Panasonic Lumix underwater camera
Panasonic Lumix DMC TS25 underwater camera: We would not have pictures of our waterfall cave and cave tubing tours, not to mention the girls’ scuba trip and our first snorkeling trip without this camera. When taken on land, the pictures were not as good as the ones from our trusty Canon A70 point- and-shoot, but when taken in places filled with water, the pictures from the Panasonic were bordering miraculous. Its ability to withstand wet conditions allowed this camera to preserve some of the most exciting experiences of our trip and present them in our blog to our incredulous fan base. In general, the underwater pictures came out better than we expected. Even if they were not as good as those taken by Carlos, our guide, remember that I don’t have his experience on the reef, and I was getting seasick by the end of the trip anyway.
We were so happy when the pavement started again that we took a picture.
Toytota Yaris four-door sedan: Renting a car was not the best experience of our journey. I get very stressed out driving in unfamiliar places. We were deeply conscious of how much more it costs to rent a car than to travel by public transportation. So we didn’t fork out the extra money for an SUV. It turns out that the roads of Costa Rica — even the ones connecting highly popular tourist attractions — are a lot worse than we expected. But this lightweight Toyota sedan is sturdier than it appears. These were bumpy, unpaved, uneven, winding roads. Hilly, too. Even filled with our family and our luggage, we made it from Fotuna to Monteverde and then to La Fortuna and then to Alejuela. I wouldn’t say it was a pleasure to drive, but it was a necessity, and the Yaris did its job. Plus, it had an aux-in jack that allowed us to listen to a good portion of “My Friend Flicka” on the ipod, when the road noise would allow.
The travel guitar is affixed and ready to depart Granada with the rest of us.
Guitar Works SO-GWG-TC1 travel guitar: Ok, I did try to check this with the rest of our luggage when we flew from Costa Rica to Belize. By this point I was tired of carrying my travel guitar around worrying about it getting crunched. Of course, Jen realized that it would definitely have gotten crunched if I checked it with our backpacks for an airline flight. She talked me down and I carried it onto the plane where it went nicely into the overhead bin. Even on the manifold bus trips that we took, the guitar suffered little more than going slightly out of tune. Mostly, it was un-noticeable when we traveled, strapped to the outside of my backpack, not increasing the overall weight of my load significantly. It does not make a lot of noise when I play it (a blessing for anyone else who happens to be in the vicinity), but it makes up for this with its life-saving track record: If I hadn’t returned to our hut in Jiquilillo to strum a few chords, I would not have noticed the (potentially) venomous snake crawl under the wall and slither up into Jen’s mosquito netting. Where would I be then? I ask. Somewhere with a traumatized wife, that’s where. Carrying around my guitar and Lanie’s violin proved useful endeavors, as I do not feel like I got too rusty being away and Ms. Louise seemed pleased that Lanie was able to keep her Suzuki Book 1 songs “in her fingers” for when we came back. Plus, Lanie earned a few bucks busking at our resort in Belize, and generally received acclaim wherever she played.
David Archy Quick-Drying Men’s Underwear: That’s right, I got special underwear for this trip. I exclusively wore David Archy Quick Drying boxer briefs, black if you must know, from one end of Central America to the other. That’s right, four pairs. Quick drying underwear meant I could wash one pair — often in the shower — and expect it to be dry and wearable the next day, even the next morning if I washed them at the end of the day. I could’ve made it through with two pairs. Four pairs was an extravagance. When paired with my quick-drying Quicksilver surfing shorts, they made fine bathing suits; thus, I was relieved from the burden of carrying around a dedicated bathing suit.
Grandma gets a pre-trip lesson on Skyping.
Skype/Facetime: Most of the world already knew about Skype when we left for the trip, but we had barely — if ever — used it. This mode of communication made our laptop (and our ipod Touch for our friends on the Facetime platform) extremely useful communications tools. While we tried to get the girls to describe their surroundings in the blog, it was much more fun and easy for them to take their Webcam out to the balcony and show Grandma Arenal volcano across the street from our apartment. This served as a launching pad for them to talk in better detail than we might have heard from them otherwise. At one point in the trip Grandma admitted that she felt less worried about us on this trip than she had felt when we drove across the US. (???!!!???) I think being able to see as well as talk to us contributed to this feeling. We did not use Skype in the Getaway Van days. I’m not sure we called her more than a few times from the road. It was all on the blog back then. Skype/Facetime also made up for the fact that our “international” cell phone was c-r-a-p. Crap. We were able to be in communication whenever we had wifi, which wasn’t always, but it was just about good enough.
Jen rocks the travel skirt on the streets of St. Ignacio.
Travel skirt: (Jen here. Despite its many virtues, Bob has not adopted a travel skirt.) For hot-weather travel, nothing beats a skirt like this. It’s at least as comfortable as shorts, and it can go so many places that shorts can’t — nice dinners, cathedrals, etc. Given the extremely limited amount of clothing we had room for, a multi-tasker like this was critical. This one is made of lightweight, wrinkle-free, quick-dry fabric and has several convenient pockets.
Did the monkey want to snatch my lunch, or my hat?
Airflow sun hat: This hat, proudly made in Canada, was left behind by the previous owner of our camp. Likely it belonged to the wife of the previous owner of our camp. Yes, I probably walked around Central America wearing a woman’s hat. Kept the sun off, though, and held up well to washing. The chin strap came in handy on top of Mombacho where the wind was threatening to carry my hat out over Lake Nicaragua.
Fine-tipped markers: Jen found these on Amazon and got them for the girls to use for their school work. Incredibly, none of them appear to have stayed in Central America. The whole set stayed together, thanks largely to the roll-up packaging. Also, I don’t think any of them dried out. Impressive, given all the coloring that went into just the Costa Rica rainforest coloring book Zoe and Lanie chipped in for in Monteverde.
(Small) games: We are a game-playing family, and a rainy day or quiet evening is much improved by having some family-friendly entertainment on hand. One of the packing modules Bob mentioned above was a small plastic pouch containing the essential pieces of several of our favorite games, along with a little pad of paper for score-keeping. Naturally among these was the classic deck of cards, usable for a nearly infinite supply of games. Ones we played regularly included Hearts, Spades, Go Fish, Crazy Eights, War, Spit, and the kids’ favorite, I Doubt It! (which also goes by a less child-friendly name that several of you are no doubt familiar with.) Lanie also developed an obsession with building card-houses, and spent many happy hours in this pursuit. Other games were selected based on a combination of how much we liked them and size/weight (which mostly meant card games). These included: Iota, Sushi Go!, Horse Show, Dominion (my personal addiction; for the true geeks out there, we brought a subset of cards from the original and Intrigue sets), and Left Center Right.
Nicaraguan Zipper Wallet: I wanted a non-leather wallet because I suspected I was going to get very wet at some point and leather wallets don’t hold up very well to those kinds of conditions. For my birthday I got a cool, colorful wallet with three zippered pockets. I still don’t know how well it holds up to water, but it definitely keeps a low profile in my pocket. True, I don’t hold nearly as many frequent buyer cards as I used to, but I am a much more nimble and efficient traveler these days, even when I’m just running down to the market for some milk. This wallet was probably made in Indonesia, but, as it was purchased at the market in Masaya, it is a Nicaraguan wallet to me.
Without the date function on the Iron Man, would we have known it was time to go home?
Timex Iron Man watch: As far as I know this is not an expensive watch, but it served me brilliantly during our trip and continues to do so. I’ve often had issues with watch bands cracking or tearing, but this one held up well. No problem with water, either. It held up to two snorkeling trips, several river caves, and a couple of swimming holes. The calendar display was appreciated — it’s easy to lose track of days on excursions like this — as was the two time-zone settings, which made it easier to adjust to switch back to EST during our home voyage. Also, several of the Brooks boys have the same watch, making it trendy with the young folk. Not bad for a watch that was turned to steel in a great magnetic field.
Renting to nice people: It is always a gamble turning your house over to other people, and we did just that, for eleven weeks, to people we barely knew. And we were extremely fortunate. Not only did Deb and Denny keep the pipes from freezing and the local cat burglars from preying on our possessions and copper pipes, not only did they inhabit our home in the middle of the winter without the comfort of cable tv or an adequate snow blower, they shoveled our roof at one point and cleaned our oven — heroic feats, both. Here’s hoping they’ve moved into the new house they were building this spring, and that it has a very clean oven.