Friday, January 6, 2012

A Year in the Life or Two: How long should your sabbatical be?

This would be an easier decision if I had a train

When we had decided to do take a family sabbatical, we figured we'd go for one to two years. Then it got down to planning time. So…one year or two years? For many reasons, not the least of which is money, you pretty much have to plan that one, even if you are whatever, dude, life's a wave; ride it! kind of people like we can be. So we started talking about what a year vs. two years would be like.

Since our first, and really only legitimate, con to taking the sabbatical was tearing the children away from their beloved grandparents, any trip longer than a day was a downside to a longer stay. And despite many people misunderstanding this adventure by asking, "What's so wrong with where you live that you'd want to leave," we really do love where we live and a longer time away would be just more homesickness.

And if we were not going to be making money while there, every month was an added expense. Of course there are few places in the world that cost more to live than Vail, Colorado. Our cost of living in Ecuador was half that of Vail, and that was, in many ways, living better than we do at home (e.g. lots of travel, really nice apartments, eating out).

But we ultimately decided on just shy of two years. (The just shy part was timing to catch the end of Vail's summer, which is the best time of year, despite being a ski resort.) We picked the longer term because we kept reading accounts of others who had taken time off. Whether families, couples, or singles, we kept hearing over again from those who went 10-14 months that they were heading home right when they were getting "in the groove."

And besides, we thought, we could always shorten the trip for any reason--much harder to extend it. And shorten it we did.

So exactly what "the groove" was for people was expressed in different ways, but as we had a 14-month trip, we can now count ourselves among the regretful groovers. We really felt like we were just getting the hang of everything when we left. Things like...

The most obvious thing to get comfortable with is language. Would I already be belaboring a point to say once that so much of life depends upon being able to communicate? When learning a language it is both frustrating to to get your point across and exhausting to continually be pushing yourself to do so. We forget that the brain uses calories like any other organ, and the more it's working, the more it uses. Trying to learn and use a new language as an adult is the most intensive brain calisthenics I've ever experienced. Though the only difference in frustration between an adult learning and a child is we were just barely able to keep from throwing ourselves down on the floor in a tantrum. Most of the time.

But just before we left some friends had a going away dinner party in our honor. And we spoke Spanish the whole evening! And our brains didn't hurt afterwards. Granted they were speaking a bit more slowly and clearly than they might otherwise have, but it was a great feeling.

And you can talk all you want about the value of close friends and family, but until you have only several that you can actually communicate richly with, you will never appreciate them enough. Of course we made friends there, and many of them spoke English, but it was generally a struggle for them as well. So our very close friendships were limited to those who were very comfortable with English. But just at the end, as we were really communicating, we started to develop a closeness to many that was cut short by our departure.

Ethnocentrism, a fancy term I learned in college and am only now using in a legitimate way, will also frustrate even the well-edjumacated person who knows for a fact that just because you can't understand a cultural idiosyncrasy doesn't make it wrong, bad, illegitimate, or stupid (stupid, stupid, STUPID!!!). I know that...for a fact (it's me, it's me, it's me, it's not them). The "island time" trait of Ecuadorians I've discussed before to arrive late, not show up at all, never plan for anything, make (in our estimation) half-hearted efforts, was eternally frustrating to me. A gringo friend then told me, "It's because they live in the moment; today is the only day they'll ever live in." After that it was much easier for me to live with, even if I could never truly appreciate it, as my genes and my own culture developed under a regime of planning and time management. Poor me.

And so we had come to a place of acceptance for the way things are, without trying to figure them out. Fatalism can often serve one well; and sometimes it's the only thing that can.

No matter where you go in the world food will be a challenge. Sure Italy is safe with pastas, pizzas, vegetables, sauces, but did you know the eat things like maggot cheese (Sardinia), raw snails (Sicily), and pork blood cake (Tuscany)? Ecuador's got its share of exotics as well--cuy (guinea pig), corn drink fermented with spit (some jungle tribes' version of chicha)--but for the most part, the challenge in Ecuador is the general plainness of the food. I called it the Midwest of South America (apologies to both), as Ecuadorians play more to the blunt instrument that is the tongue (salt, sweet, sour, bitter) than the velvet glove that is the nose.

But again, even if we never developed a taste for cute, furry pets, we absolutely learned to appreciate some specialties, such as soups, mani de dulce (candied peanuts), chiflas (chips, but from banana, not potato), maiz tostado ("inside out" popcorn, where the fluffy, oily part is inside the large kernel--OK, I was the only one who liked them; as Teddy said, "I have to drink a glass of water for every kernel I eat."), pastel de tres leche (a wet cake made with sweetened condensed milk). I could go on, but I will finish by saying that food was satisfying without being too often tempting, and both Di and I both lost weight.

We don't even know enough in our own culture to be able to take for granted the importance of knowing how things work. It never occurs to us to realize that things don't have to work the way they do, and if they changed tomorrow we'd all be wandering around like a sheep without its flock. And because Ecuadorians are in the running for the worst mass communicators on the planet, learning how things work is not a quick or simple thing.

But we know which buses go where now (local and interprovincial); how much taxis and food and market textiles should cost; where to find street signs (when present); where to get newspapers, bus passes, mobile phone credit, good coffee and bread; how to get propane (only sold in tanks--no central gas distribution system); and how to street haggle for many of the things we needed.
Alas, our trip was cut shorter than we planned. That was mostly due to finances, but to be honest, I think homesickness weighed in there somewhere. Still, our advice to those considering a sabbatical: Two years! You can always cut it short, but remember that you can regret cutting it short, but you will never regret sticking it out.

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