When we set out on this mad adventure, we had a jumble of objectives. To learn Spanish, to have an adventure we’d never forget, to get some sun on our blue-white skin, to change directions and find a different and simpler way of living, to spend quality time with the children whilst they are young, for Al to get some solid teaching experience.
Well, we’re over 6 months in now (and well on the way to 7 months) – so it’s high-time for an Interim Review against what we set out to achieve.
Learning Spanish has been more of a struggle than we had imagined. We thought that we would be fluent by now, but we’re not. We thought that some sort of osmisis would happen – that being surrounded by Spanish somehow it would seep in. Well it hasn’t. Alison & me can both read and write Spanish pretty well (with some help from Google Translate and a lot of hard studying), and can make ourselves understood most of the time. But understanding what is said to us is a different story. Partly this is because our brains are calcified and learning is hard. Partly it’s because in the house we still speak English to each other. Partly it’s because the Spanish spoken here is very lazy spanish, with a lot of slang, spoken really rapidly (for example the letter ‘s’ is often not pronounced – so una pescadora – a fisherman, becomes una pecadora – a prostitute – a bad mistake to make when asking someone what they do!) As Al likes to say, it’s a bit like trying to learn English from a Glaswegian.
Of the children, Ben is doing best. His vocabulary is tremendous – I often ask him what a certain word means and more often than not, he’ll know. Also Ben isn’t afraid of trying out his Spanglish on his friends at school – he just banters away and makes himself understood. He’s doing fantastically well. Matthew (being Matthew) is more reticent. Like me, he tries to translate word for word which, as I now know full well, just isn’t possible. For example – Te lo dejo a ti. Word-for-word: To you it I leave to you. Pretty nonsensicle. As a phrase: “I’ll leave you to it”. Katie is like Ben – she babbles away to her friends in Spanglish and makes herself understood with a combination of words and enthusiasm. With Zach it’s hardest to know. I’m quite sure he understands far more than I do, but he only ever speaks a few odd words or phrases. The children’s accents are all beautiful; children’s hearing is far more acute than an adults and they are much better, less inhibited mimics. However fluent Al and I eventually become, we will always sound like Gringos speaking Spanish but for the children learning a second language from a young age, surrounded by native speakers, there is a good chance their Spanish will eventually be indistinguishable from “the real thing”.
Clearly a big tick against this box. Packing up our house, flying 7000km with 4 young children, riding standing up in gua-guas with 24 other people and a parrot, warm sand underneath our toes, living in t-shirts and shorts, buying chickens fresh from the chopping-block, seeing blood of said chickens run away down the open gutters, drinking juice from a coconut straight from the tree in our garden, fighting off fat chinese restuarant owners, seeing whales, learning (almost) to kitesurf. The past 28 weeks have been nothing if not adventurous.
Pre-Alison my life was pretty straightforward. Staid. Boring even. So for me, the desire to do something truly memorable, something to look back on and say “I did that….no, really, I did” was a strong factor in giving up our sensible lives back in England. We’re not sure where we’re headed next, but we’re pretty sure the adventure isn’t over yet.
Alison for her part, has itchy feet. Change for her is a given. Whether it was giving up her sensible job with Coca-Cola to travel the world on cruise-ships, living in Australia or running her own business hosting children’s parties, she is always up for a challenge and a change. She was without doubt the driving force behind our being here (as she is in so many other aspects of our lives).
Sun, sea and sand
(Clearly with 4 children and barely a second to ourselves, the other ‘S’ is never going to be a prominent feature ever again!)
Another big tick. The Dominican Republic attracts more tourists than any other Carribean island. In part this is because of the fantastic climate, the proliferation of fabulous beaches, and the warm, warm water. We love beaches and have visited more than I can shake a stick at. Sadly our local beach at Nagua – the only one we can get to by walking, is by far the worst beach we have seen. Litter strewn, including lots of broken glass, it’s not a great place to be.
Alison just loves the hot weather. For her, a warm climate with no need for jumpers, boots, even trousers (except as defense against the noseeums) is just heaven. I think that, given the chance, she would unravel a person-sized piece of silver foil, baste herself in olive oil, lie down and gently sizzle at Gas Mark 4. For me the heat can get too much – but I sure don’t miss scraping the ice of windcreens before dawn on dark, frosty mornings and I am very much looking forward to putting up my birthday hammock this weekend and letting the sun set on my cold beer.
Change of life
Before we left, we talked long and hard about finding a simpler way of living. It’s easy to talk about less money but more time – but did we really mean it – and what happens when plimsolls are no longer good enough for the kids and it has to be Nike? Less stuff to worry about – would I really be able to give up my nice car and other toys? Our lovely house in Bournemouth was a money pit – but could we really see ourselves packing up and leaving – and quite possibly never living there again? I moaned (endlessly) about my job, but could we really give up the nice salary landing in our bank account each month?
The answers to most of these questions have been a resounding ‘yes’. After our UK expenses (mortgages, life cover, etc.) and our rent out here, we live on around £15-£20 per day. Most of that is food, which isn’t at all cheap. We brought one suitcase each – and one of those was filled with books – but we live in t-shirts and shorts. We have three cooking pots and just enough cutlery, plates, bowls etc. In the UK we seriously talked about having two dishwashers – one for dirty, one always clean – and taking plates, etc, straight to the table from the latter. This seems a lifetime ago now, and I have to say that I enjoy (on the whole) our much less material existence (but oh, how I miss my car). We have a mobile phone and it rings maybe once a fortnight. I certainly don’t miss being tied to my CrackBerry.
Despite this, the verdict is out on this one. We’re having a fabulous adventure – but it’s not sustainable. What we don’t have – yet – is an answer to the longer-term ‘what next’ question – and in particular how we can start making/earning money again. Our savings are lasting remarkably well, but retirement savings are on hold and our lives will inevitably get more expensive as the kids grow up. Finding a solution to this one is the one thing that really keeps us awake at night.
Time with the Children
Another big tick here. I have seen my kids every single day for the past 6 months. Every day I am there when they wake up. Every day I see them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Every night I get to say goodnight. Three days a week I work at their school so I see them at break time and I pick them up at lunchtime on the other two days.
For me, decision time to give it all up and come here was the day when Alison said “either stop moaning about work or do something about it”. Put up or shut up. For the first 7 years of Ben & Matthews lives I spent an average of 120 nights per year away from home. I didn’t want to miss so much of my children’s childhoods.
Not that spending so much time together has been easy. Our home is small (all 4 kids share one large-ish but not massive bedroom), we don’t have a garden and there are very few places here where the kids can let off steam. Back in the UK one of Alisons’s stock answers to ‘how do you get anything done with 4 children?’ was ‘with a lot of shouting’. Well there is still a fair bit of shouting that goes on. Being together 24/7 can be a real pressure-cooker, and regularly one of us explodes (mostly Alison or me, occasionally one of the children). We’ve found out a lot about ourselves, each other, how to be together so much, how to find space where there isn’t any, how to count to ten.
We are much more a part of their lives and they a part of ours than we were at home and that has been truly wonderful. We home school them every afternoon to fill in the enormous gaps that their schooling here leaves in their education. But mostly it is informal and child-led – whatever they feel like doing we can do – and today being Friday was an easy day of water colours on the balcony; paint what you see so there were colourful skies and palm trees some parrots (apparently Katie and Zach can see parrots where others cannot!)
We have no TV here – a deliberate choice. We could have one and have 300 channels of multi-lingual programs if we wanted, but it is very liberating not to have one and TV, whilst extremely relaxing and enjoyable, can be a great thief of time and an easy answer to the children’s boredom. So without one, we read more, paint more, study more and play more “traditional” games like chess, dominoes and Scrabble – and we do it together.
Sadly, a resounding no. Al is getting great experience at crowd-control, but sadly she is learning very little about the art or science of teaching. The school – as any avid reader will know, is a basket-case. The children are out-of-control and the management team seem totally unable – and moreover unwilling, to do anything substantial about it. So Al is not learning how to be a teacher (and she could be a great one). She does not have a set of lesson plans to take to a next job (because they would be pointless here) and her faith in herself and her ability to teach has been horribly undermined. It’s only her stubborn determination not to give in, the friendships that the children have now made, and the logistic complications of moving on, that keep her – and us, in Nagua.
We have a family motto: ‘skin is waterproof’. For us this means more than just going out in the rain – it means that it’s OK to go out there where and when others don’t. We want our kids to be brave and stand up for what is right. We want them to have opportunities in life, and options. We want them to see the world through their own eyes, not just through the television. One day we hope they will look back on this time and realise that it didn’t just mean saying goodbye to family and friends, leaving our big house for a cramped 2-bedroom flat, crying at school because it’s just so noisy that their ears hurt or they’ve fallen over in the concrete playground and skinned their knees (again). We hope they will look back – but mostly forward, with eyes truly wide open and with wonder and excitement at the opportunities ahead of them. We hope that one day they might even thank us for all this (ideally in fluent Spanish, or even Mandarin….). Whether we can or will achieve all this we just don’t know, but we plan on having many more adventures along the way.