However, here we are in Manizales, Colombia, and I keep thinking about how grateful I am that we’re doing it WITH kids. They really make all of this that much more awesome.
Let me explain.
- Kids get all of the attention
- Kids make it easier to meet people
- Kids set a reasonable site-seeing pace
My thinking on this is within the context of our experiences living in Central and South America (Ecuador, Costa Rica, and now Colombia) over the past three years. When we started living abroad with our children, they were 2½ years old and 9 months old. Now, they are 5 and 3½ years old.
1. Kids Get All the Attention
I like to describe myself as an extroverted introvert. I first learned this term in my early nonprofit days when our small staff would do personality assessments in an attempt to be more mindful of our strengths as a team. It was pretty touchy feely and the "F" in me totally loved it.
Anyway, even though I can definitely step up in social situations, my default is to avoid crowds, small talk, and being the center of attention.
So, it often pushes me beyond my comfort zone when I venture out into the community when we are living in a foreign country. Despite my brown eyes, brown hair, and feeble attempts to dress just the tiniest bit less gringa, I can never fully blend in.
That’s a good thing, of course… and definitely one of the more compelling reasons to travel. Those of us living in a culture where we aren’t the minority learn a lot by putting ourselves in a context where we are.
But with that said, I prefer walking around town with my kiddos more than I do by myself. Despite the inconvenience of having to stop and pick every single dandelion we pass, it’s so fun to be out and about with them because most people notice THEM and not me.
Marcella, especially, in a culture where dark eyes and dark hair are the norm, gets a disproportionate amount of the comments because of her blue eyes and blond hair. People have actually stopped their car in the middle of the road to shower her with compliments.
As her mother, that’s kind of fun.
Except the couple times it really wasn't. There have now been TWO times our taxi drivers have almost gotten us into an accident when they veered into the other lane because they were busy smiling at Marcella in the rearview mirror. (That sounds kind of creepy, but it wasn’t. It was, however, terrifying).
The same women who never return a friendly smile to me at the grocery store will light up with all sorts of love and compliments for the kids when they’re with me.
I’ll take it.
2. Kids Make it Easier to Meet People
Okay, this is closely tied with my first point. When the kids are with me, they get all sorts of attention and people seem to just open up and want to talk.
In the past, most of the locals that I met and interacted with when living abroad were guys. It's pretty obvious why they were willing to deal with the language barrier. Oddly, that type of interaction never happens to me now with a kid at each side!
Living in foreign countries, the kids have helped us make expat and local friends alike.
In Ecuador, we pretty quickly plugged into a fantastic expat community because we reached out to someone whose contact info was given to us before we got there. They had kids so I messaged and said something like, uhh… what’s it like to have kids there? That was our first trip abroad with Leo and Marcella and I had no idea what to expect. Even though that couple’s children were much older than ours, the link was made and we went from there.
The kid thing is also arguably what led to us befriending two of our very favorite people, Chad and Kari Carson. They had also moved to Cuenca sometime within the range of our first three month stay there. Our (now) mutual friends Mike & Theresa introduced us, thinking we might get along because our kids were similar in age.
When we returned to Cuenca the following winter, they had then been there for over a year and we got to witness the Spanish skills their girls had attained simply by attending local schools. That experience gave us the confidence to try living abroad longer than just 3 months at a time in order to give our kids a shot at obtaining a solid bilingual foundation.
In San Ramón, Costa Rica, I was able to meet and befriend fellow expat moms. The expat community there is very active, and they have a weekly meetup at one of the local coffee shops. We met really wonderful people at those meetups who were mostly of the conventional retirement age, but it was two younger women there who I was immediately drawn to because they also had kids. From there, we established something of a group with a few other moms in town that they knew. That little community was excellent for establishing a sense of stability while we were there.
Here in Colombia, my closest friend is someone who reached out to me on Facebook because of a question I had posted about preschools. Because she has the most laid-back and joyful personality, the friendship has been super easy from there. She also happens to be fully bilingual and tolerant of my questions about the correct way to say things in Spanish.
Also, one day when I was in a cab with the kids we drove by a family that looked like they probably weren't from Colombia. I did a little double-take and made a mental note… hmm, wonder who they are! This city is small enough (and the expat community is small enough), that it didn’t take long before we actually met. Oh, you’re expats in Manizales with little kids? We should definitely meet for a beer! Now, with few exceptions, that has become our usual Saturday afternoon. And, I think their 6 year old daughter is officially Leo’s first crush.
I also owe my fun volunteer mornings at a family's organic garden to the presence of my children. The owners of our first Airbnb rental invited us out to see their property just outside of town because they thought it would be fun for our kids. They were right, Leo and Marcella had an amazing time. So did I, and when I offered my continued help in the huerta, they took me up on the offer. Now, it's probably my favorite day of the week when I get to dig in the soil surrounded by mountains and coffee trees while also practicing my Spanish. Thanks, kids!
And finally, it was the fact that we have two little kids that prompted me to ask some of the parents from our apartment complex about how trick-or-treating works around here. On Halloween, we met up with them and many of the other families to run up and down the 10 stories in each of our conjunto's four apartment towers while about 20 kids of various ages crowded around each door shouting, "triki triki Halloween!!"
The kids had SO much fun and that night led to a new friendship with one of the families. Just last weekend they invited all of us out to their finca (country home), where we gathered with their extended family to share meals and swim with the kiddos in the pool.
It was really special for our family to be invited into their world, and the 2 full days of pure Spanish were fantastic for our 2nd language practice. While Michael and I lamented to each other about the myriad little mistakes we made, Leo and Marcella were totally unfazed as they laughed and played and talked all weekend with their two little girls.
3. Kids Set a Reasonable Site-Seeing Pace
When I was in my twenties, a group of friends and I traveled to Europe. Our EuroRail Passes made it affordable to travel to a number of cities and countries by train.
Armed with a hardcopy of the Let's Go travel book, we squeezed in as many sight-seeing stops as we possibly could. After we had ticked off some of the top priorities for any given city (The David, The Louvre, a specific dancing scene from The Sound of Music, etc.), we'd move on to the next.
That, obviously, is not how we travel with two little kids. Things have slowed waaaay down. Now it's all about embedding ourselves in another culture and digging into a daily life.
This is good for me because I still have an internal drive to see as many things in as many places as possible. What we're doing nowadays is what most people call slow travel. We've traveled abroad, but we're living in a long term rental and plan to be here for many months.
Now, a weekend "trip" will likely be something as simple as getting some supplies for a school project at the local mall or going to one of the city's many beautiful parks. A few weekends ago our big event was riding on the city's cable car. The kids loved it which meant we loved it too.
On days when one of them is ill or we just can't seem to get our act together early enough to leave with time enough to be back for lunch/naps, we just stay home. The kids play, Michael and I catch up on some reading, maybe we go down to the apartment playground for a bit, and that's about it.
Of course, we do still make plans to venture beyond Manizales. But with two little kids to consider, we make those trips quite judiciously.
The first year we were in Cuenca, Ecuador, Marcella was not even a year old and Leo was only two and a half. Anywhere we went required a pretty long ride. We made one 4½ hour drive on a shuttle bus that took us to the city of Vilcabamba.
It was worth the trip to be surrounded by the lush green mountainside, but the drive was not easy. I sat in the back with the two kids in their carseats (which, yep, we had lugged all the way to Ecuador to end up using only that one time) and spent the entire trip trying to keep them entertained, or holding Marcella's head from flopping back and forth as she slept while we wound our way along the mountain roads.
Besides the nearby national park Cajas, that was probably the only big trip we made during our three months in Cuenca that first winter. The next winter in Cuenca, we only did one trip about an hour and a half away with a friend whose family owned a hacienda (estate) in the countryside. For that trip, Michael took the kids on the bus and I rode in the car with our friend. It was glorious!
In Costa Rica, our kids were a little older and we made several large trips around the country over the course of our 4½ months there. We created so many fantastic memories from those travels despite the challenges. But the kids missed quite a bit of school.
Here in Manizales, we're trying to be more careful about not pulling them out for a week at a time because they have been making such exceptional progress with their Spanish acquisition while embedded in an all Spanish environment.
We have used their school calendar to plot out some trips that we'll be doing while we're here, aligning with long weekends and our travel in and out of the country for the holidays. In particular, I'm really looking forward to the few days we'll spend in Medellín right after their school closes for the winter break.
All that to say, we do get to go out and see the sites of the countries we visit. But just not as many. And at a slower pace. We pick and choose the adventures we think will give us the broadest experience of the country without too much hullabaloo. That may not be the most exciting way to travel, but it feels very authentic.
A couple weekends ago, I took the kids to one of the city's greatest public parks, El Bosque Popular. People were spread out along the huge swaths of rolling green space under the shade of gigantic trees, playing soccer, picnicking, or joining the 100+ people participating in an outdoor Zumba class.
The kids and I set up at one of the play areas where Marcella did what she loves to do, sit back and observe. Leo made himself a friend in the nearby giant sandbox. I sat nearby and watched as my now arguably bilingual boy laughed and smiled with this little girl, negotiating their combined efforts to build a sand castle in his second language.
That was all I really needed to see of Manizales for that day.
Life Abroad with Kids is Arguably More Awesome
Admittedly, the first winter we traveled, the kids were really too young to form memories that they'd carry with them into adulthood. It was mostly about us I guess. Although, really, I've never felt like the time they've spent experiencing a different language or a different culture has been in vain, even when they were so young.
Now that they're 5 and 3½ though, it's really all about them. What Michael and I get out of the experience is completely worthwhile as well, but we probably wouldn't be living abroad for so long if we weren't trying to give our children a solid foundation in Spanish before they start kindergarten.
If I had been asked even 4 years ago if I would ever consider living abroad with two little kids, I'm pretty sure the answer would have been no. I mean, parenting is challenging enough. Parenting abroad sounds so much harder!
Now, as I sit here in this nice little cafe, writing up this post while my kids learn and play with their Colombian classmates, I am so grateful we made the decision to live abroad with our children. This is the experience of a lifetime for all of us. And for Michael and me, it's even better because we get to share it with Leo and Marcella. They are the best part.