A Vacation By Any Other Name

It’s been two weeks now since we returned from our spring break jaunt to Puerto Rico. I’ve tried at least three times to encapsulate our experience in post format, but as seems to have become par for the course, I’m struggling in the process.

I was excited for this trip, our first real excursion since “the trip,” for more than a few reasons. First, it removed for just a moment the ever-looming reality that our new house is still empty, the old one full and unsold. Once again I could sit on someone else’s chairs, limit my wardrobe to a few key items, and push aside any and all concerns that had to do with purchasing, fixing, throwing out, or cleaning up “stuff.” Second, and more importantly, the family would be in motion again, recapturing a little of the spirit of our great adventure. Part of me thought that if we simply jumped on a plane, the months that have lapsed since our return would be erased and we could pretend, if even for a few days, that once again we were free from the obligations and rigors of our usual lives and engaged in something beyond the usual.

I was correct in my first assumption. Not once did I fret about credit markets, price drops, piano movers, shipping containers, or inflatable mattresses (which after two months we’ve learned are prone to leaking). I was however, mistaken about the second. As best I can figure, here’s why…

Travel is a complicated creature. We vacation to rejuvenate, to fill up our tanks before heading into the end of a school semester or the beginning of a fiscal year. We yearn to relax, unwind, and relieve our minds and bodies of their ordinary stress. We travel, however, for distinctly different reasons. The point is not so much to leave something behind as to discover something new, to experience something deeper. We hope to learn more about the world and ourselves by changing our surroundings and challenging our assumptions. This is what we both sought and achieved in taking the kids and “leaving it all behind” for 11 months. Though our days were full, even busy, no two were the same and each offered new insight. As the first weeks passed and we got comfortable with being away from home and around each other, we felt a strange, exhilarating release. It wasn’t just a freedom, that’s too simple a characterization. While we shelved our usual cares, we adopted new ones centered primarily on our relationships with each other and our collective relationship to the world. How could we strengthen and improve each other, and what promise could we offer the planet? As we got into our groove, we learned to savor each day (well, most of them) and understand that each offered the potential of something extraordinary. What valuable life lesson awaited us in the next town? Which inspiring role model were we destined to meet in the next country? What frightening or invigorating once-in-a-lifetime experience would befall us on the next continent? What new way could we find to tease Dad, who was always our good-natured problem solver, perspective bringer, and champion? While some people are able to find the magic in each day of a patterned existence, we are not so noble, and rightly or not, felt more alive, more connected, and more challenged as travelers than dwellers.

Somehow after our experience in extended travel, I assumed we had gained the unnatural ability to shed our domestic psyche at will, as if there were a switch we could simply flip on and off to change between normal life and travel modes. It turns out, at least for this seasoned crew, that one week is too tight a timeframe for such a feat. In the end, I think I deprived us of a vacation because I was trying to travel.

We stayed at a low-key beach resort, for free of course thanks to our Sheraton points. We spent a few days at the beach and by the pool but felt compelled to scour the island to partake of its artistic, historic, environmental, and culinary offerings. Each day in our minivan-powered quest turned out to be more disappointing than the last, but the fault was not Puerto Rico’s. With the three-hour time change, we could not seem to emerge from our hotel room before noon. Tom had phone calls, text messages, and emails to the office, I was frustrated we were so far from everything and everyone was sleeping so late, Dax would always rather have been at the beach, and McKane kept getting carsick. Kieran and Asher preferred the pool but thankfully were amenable to long days in the van.

Castillo San Felipe Rainforest FunMuseo de Arte de PoncePuerto Rican Flotsam and Jetsam

Though I put a lot of pressure on trip it couldn’t fulfill, it reaffirmed the real reason we went around the world and the reason we will continue to seek opportunities to travel–strengthening our family. Though no one was thrilled with the itinerary, everyone got along and looked for ways to enjoy the time together. Dax gave Asher rides on his back in the pool on our resort days and shared musical insights and high school truisms with us on our driving days. McKane was bent on doing things unique to Puerto Rico, realizing this would probably be his only visit of the decade, and goodnaturedly encouraged us to make the most of the few days we had. The little kids chattered and made up games both in the room and the van, demonstrating their hard-earned skill of adapting to any situation, and were just as thrilled to frolic in a Puerto Rican pool as they are a Tunisian, Indian, Argentine, or Vietnamese one. Throughout, our shared memories of other places and times came crashing back…just as we want them to for the rest of our lives.

As I see it, the challenge is to avoid living in the past and pining for the road and to instead find the same enthusiasm and freedom within the parameters of domestic life. It can be done. We need to observe our surroundings with the same sense of wonder, prioritize the time we spend together as a family, and continue to think with newfound perspective. When I start getting lulled into passivity or overtaken by details, I will try to travel in my mind. When I just want a break, I’ll vacation. I’m going to test this one out and will let you know how it goes.

In the meantime, here are our Top 6 Observations About Puerto Rico:

1. Everywhere you go, the roads are filled with squished iguanas. I’m guessing there’s either an overpopulation problem or they’re on the verge of extinction due to motorized transport.

2. Though officially a US protectorate, the Puerto Ricans uphold a bizarre, hybrid standard of international measures. Distances are measured in kilometers, gas in liters, but speed limits are posted in miles. We didn’t think to ask how they measure height and weight. Gone are the days when we had to know our weight in kilos for bungy jumping, and in accordance, our memory of metrics has faded.

3. Here a K-mart, there a Wal-Mart, everywhere a Mart Mart. Everywhere we went there were strip malls replete with discount retailers and chain restaurants. I thought about checking things off my standing grocery/supplies list from home but realized I’d have trouble getting it all on the plane.

4. If it’s not fried, it’s not worth eating. Fritura dominates the menu as the Puerto Ricans seem motivated to deep fry anything animal, vegetable, or mineral. I’m sure at home they eat fresh foods, we just couldn’t find any at the traditional roadside stands.

5. Si, we have no bananas…only plantains. Plantains are tasty when fried, but don’t try ordering them in English. While Puerto Ricans learn English in school and fly the American flag beside the Puerto Rican banner, most we encountered preferred our broken Spanish to our fluent English. Amusing for them, humbling for us.

6. That’s some serious swell. The biggest waves since 1991’s famed Perfect Storm hit Puerto Rico’s north shore while we were there. We may live in Malibu, but our surfing skills aren’t that good yet!

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9 thoughts on “A Vacation By Any Other Name

  1. OH MAN!!
    We miss you guys, but are glad you got to have a Quick Trip.Also, that there are such things as e-mail and telephones.This blog is well written as usual.Thanks.

  2. Anne – great post as you helped me clarify something that I have not been able to put into words, namely that there is a HUGE difference between “vacation” and “travel.” In college I traveled all over Europe and found adventure, but my attempts to recreate such experiences in my more recent trips with my wife have not been as successful. Now I know why. I have been confusing travel and vacation, and when I only have one week somewhere it is impossible to travel. I also have found it hard to vacation as it takes me time to unplug from my crazy, chaotic, time-pressured day-to-day life. Just when I begin to relax it is time to go home. But your post has helped me to rethink both the purpose of trip-taking, and how best to do it. Thanks.

  3. I saw a story about you all on matadortrips. You’re an inspiration. I wish I had done something like that when I was a kid. Your childen must have loved it and came back with a unique perspective.

    I see you were on oprah. any plans for a book?

  4. You guys are very definitely inspiring – I can’t imagine traveling with a whole herd of kids!! Two is plenty for me!

    We are a family of four (with ten-year-old twins) who are about to take off to ride our bikes from Alaska to Argentina. Can’t wait to get on the road!!

    You can read more of our journey at http://www.familyonbikes.org

  5. What an absolutely incredible description of the joys (and trials) of family travel! Thank you for putting so wonderfully into words what we all, as families, want to express but are so often unable to. I LOVE the picture of your son and daughter holding hands at the beach, reminds me of a picture of my oldest 2 holding hands (like Tigger and Pooh) walking down the sidewalk. Not as glamorous as the beach but brings the same sensation. I applaud your dedication to making the commitment to expose your children to the wide world around them and allowing them to learn from it. It requires a great deal of patience from the parents (we have 3 girls ages 3, 5, and 7 and we know that travel doesn’t always mean relaxation….it’s for them now, not for us all of the time :-) Again, you put into words so well what so many parents feel and I thank you for that. I just found you and look forward to reading more as you continue your travels.
    With Gratitude,
    Mimi

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