BY: TIM O’NEAL
It took several minutes to explain to the woman at the airline counter why we only had one way tickets, no long-term visa, and very little luggage. “What are your plans?” she asked.
“We’re flying into Nicaragua and traveling to other countries by bus from there,” I said.
“Oh.” She glanced at our young daughter waiting quietly in the child carrier on my wife’s back, then to my backpack, and back to our daughter, Bell. “And why don’t you have a return ticket?”
“Because we don’t know how long we’re going to be gone, or where we’re going to fly home from.”
She looked at her computer for a few seconds then explained that if we’re not allowed to enter Nicaragua because we don’t have departure tickets the airline won’t be responsible for getting us back to the US.
“We understand,” I said. “We’ll assume that risk.”
She finally quit asking questions and gave us our boarding passes.
It was chaotic when we got out of the airport in Managua. Dozens of people were leaving at the same time and taxi drivers pounced. They were like a flock of pigeons descending on a pile of seeds thrown on the ground. We were pecked at from every direction.
We had heard stories about the hassle of taking a taxi from the airport. It could be dangerous, or they might tell you the hostel you booked has gone out of business and take you to a place they get a kickback from instead. The shuttle from the airport to a hostel was the one reservation we had made for the entire trip. We landed at ten PM so really wanted the assurance of having a secure pick up.
Our shuttle wasn’t there. We looked everywhere, up and down the lane outside the terminal, and it wasn’t there. We didn’t have a phone to call the hostel, so we reluctantly took a taxi. The driver didn’t pull any of the tricks we had heard of, but the trip was long and he took several side streets through rough parts of town. The thought crossed my mind that we might be in trouble, but he delivered us safely, straight to the hostel.
We got settled into the room at eleven PM. My wife, Shawna, got Bell to sleep in her pop-up tent on the floor.
We were on our way.
Travel had become the defining element of our relationship. Shawna and I had been together for a lot of years but it was really more meaningful to measure our duration as a couple by the number of miles traveled than by time. We had spent extended periods living and traveling on four continents, on very tight budgets. We didn’t make a ton of money but understood that a dollar goes a lot further in many parts of the world than it does at home. A plane ticket costs the same amount whether you stay for six days or six months, so we maximized the value by staying as long as possible.
When we finally decided to have a baby it was on the condition that we would continue that approach and try to live with fewer material possessions. When our daughter was a little over a year old we started our trip with one seventy-liter pack with clothes and toiletries for all three of us – including cloth diapers – one day-pack with books and a few toys, and a shoulder bag for snacks.
We had a very vague itinerary. When we left the United States we knew we could stay as long as six months, but promised ourselves we wouldn’t consider it a failure if we came home sooner. With a small child, we found it essential to be able to deviate from the plan and not cling to expectations, and we knew it was going to be difficult. Our budget was fifty dollars a day for all of our food, transportation, shelter and recreation, so we weren’t going to be living the easy life. It was going to be work, which was the way we liked it.
After the first month traveling through Nicaragua I was ready to go home. I spent two of our first three weeks in bed with food poisoning, leaving Shawna to care for Bell on her own in fairly uncomfortable environments. Bell woke up multiple times each night and was up for the day by six AM, so we weren’t getting nearly enough sleep. Having a baby is really hard even in the comfort of your own home. Doing it in a war-scarred region, having no friends or family around to help and no permanent place to stay, is almost inconceivably more difficult.
On week-five we arrived on the island of Ometepe and couldn’t find in-door accommodation, so Shawna and I slept in hammocks with Bell in her tent on the ground. I felt like a terrible parent and started to question our decision. I had been really irresponsible to quit a decent job to come on this trip and had trouble remembering what the purpose had been.
Shawna was ready to return home, too, but we never told each other. We powered through and kept going.
After six weeks in Nicaragua, we spent six weeks in Costa Rica – more expensive, but much easier traveling. We got to visit both coasts and worked on a farm in the mountains for a few weeks. Costa Rica wasn’t our favorite part of the trip but was a great rest before going on to Colombia.
We were under budget after three months so we rented a small apartment for a couple of weeks in Bogotá for some much needed privacy. Bell made new friends each day in the parks and we made tasty meals each evening. Colombia was incredible. We spent two months there and didn’t even make it to the Caribbean or anywhere near the Amazon. We could have easily been there for another couple of months and still not have experienced all the country has to offer.
With a month left in our trip we decided to go into Ecuador. We hadn’t planned on traveling there because we weren’t confident we could make it that far. Once we could see the end of our trip approaching we started feeling much more adventurous. With no real plans we made decisions day-by-day. We got well off the standard path and pushed our limits physically and emotionally, and had the time of our lives. We visited difficult to reach places, took strenuous hikes, and reached a level of minimalism I never dreamed possible for us.
We were relieved to be home after the journey, but I’m so grateful we took the opportunity to do it. We spent most of each day together and faced more unique challenges than I could count. It was an amazing bonding experience for us.
We look at photos together now and tell Bell all the stories we can remember. She learned to walk on Big Corn Island and hiked in the Andes a few months later. At least half of the first words she learned were in Spanish. She never had more than a couple of toys at any given time and was totally content with that. Most importantly, we successfully initiated a new member into our team, and are working on plans for our next expedition together.