Reentry: things that are freaking us out

After two years of hard living, the camera is at the shop, but no one wants to slog through a total wall of text. So, here's a pic of our friends Nomi in Baja.

After two years of hard living, the camera is at the shop, but no one wants to slog through a total wall of text. So, here’s a pic of our friends Nomi in Baja.

A list.

Cheese curds. We now live in Wisconsin, where fresh squeaky pieces of cheese are coated in something delicious and deep-fried. To be clear: this is a basket of piping-hot cheese, to which you add more fat. It is tasty and amazing, but it’s also possible to cram a half a pound of hot cheese into your mouth in about five minutes. This should not be normal.

When you wash your hands, water keeps pouring out of the sink the whole time. Even when you’re soaping up, singing the happy birthday song in your head to make sure you’re killing off all the germs, the water just keeps coming. Sometimes, it’s even hot. That’s insane.

Traffic. People just sit around in their cars, not even moving much of the time. They can’t go into the back and make a sandwich. People spend hours of their day like this, and think it’s normal.

Streets and sidewalks are SO CLEAN. And wide. And smooth. How much money do we spend on this?

Kids have activities–music lessons, computer camp, sports. These activities cost a lot of money, and need to all wedge themselves seamlessly into a schedule. I’m remembering that I used to spend about 20 hours each year just planning out the kids’ summer–researching options, laying out the calendar, polling the Smalls for interest, coordinating with cohorts. This no longer seems like something a rational person should do.

American libraries are palaces.

We no longer care so much about Analyzing All of the Options. In the past, if we were making a major purchase, we’d do research for days–checking online reviews, asking friends about their experiences, looking up all the pricing options within a hundred miles. Now, after two years of having extremely limited options, we just get stuff. Did we get the best possible van, with the most options, for the least amount of money, that will last the longest and most improve our quality of life? I dunno. We just got a van. Similar actions are playing out with the car, new clothes, where we want to go to dinner. Turns out, none if this stuff is life or death.

Traveling down the street is a non-stop cataloging event. “That place is still here. Looks like this place folded. The Terrible Restaurant Location is still empty. Ooh, look–new bakery!”

We are still able and eager to strike up a conversation with any willing person we run across, and we fear that this skill will fade and we will lose the pleasure of these random interactions. In the last week, we’ve learned about a bank teller’s family car business, discussed the implications of online research with a librarian, met a fellow Minnesotan at a red light while we tried to direct him to a particular grocery store. Each of these little interactions connected us to the world, and were completely normal when we were traveling (especially in Spanish-speaking countries, when we were always looking for excuses to speak with locals), and are not common for most Americans, I think.

Dishwashers. How cool are they? Amazing!

One final incident that just happened, and illustrates how much my thinking has changed: today, F and I ran across a car accident minutes after it occurred. The driver had hit a big old ash tree, and the front end of her BMW was totaled. We pulled over, gently convinced her to stop trying to drive away, and tried to figure out how to help. I pulled her car out of the street, called her son on my cell phone, and offered to drive her where she needed to go. She’d hurt her wrist, her airbag had deployed, and she was obviously shaken up, but she didn’t want an ambulance or a ride to urgent care. AT NO POINT did it occur to me, hey: maybe I should call 911. Instead, my brain flipped into problem-solving mode like I was in the Panamanian jungle with another boat that had run aground.

Fortunately, another driver also stopped and reminded me that, hey, we have other people who can help this person. Once the police arrived, it became very obvious very quickly that, of course, my first call should have been to them. Turns out, this lady was on her way to pick up her Oxycontin prescription; she was undoubtedly driving impaired. She needed a professional medical evaluation by someone much more qualified than me. Giving her a ride home would have been extremely stupid on my part; and of course, it only crossed my mind as we were driving away that we were a hair away from being hit by her car instead of the tree. So, this is what it’s come to, folks–the hardwiring of my brain is clearly altered, and it’ll take more than a few months of pizza delivery to settle back in.

Shell beach. We didn't spend much on souvenirs for ourselves, and we didn't get a ton of gifts for our many friends, but we've been carrying around shells from Mexico and Panama to hand out to kids.

Shell beach. We didn’t spend much on souvenirs for ourselves, and we didn’t get gifts for our many friends, but we’ve been carrying around shells from Mexico and Panama to hand out to kids.

Soft landing

We’re working slowly towards reentry over here.

The last month has been a continuing whirlwind of visits–to family and friends, from Colorado to Minnesota.

The Colorado Contingent

We lucked out in Denver; Michu’s brother was visiting for his son’s lacrosse tournament, so we got to spend time with them and learn about the crazy-town sport of lacrosse. Did you know it’s totally legit to pummel your opponent with your lacrosse stick? We also had friends in town for an art fair, plus family, plus friends who are like family.DSC_1679

In between visits, we found time to do a little hiking and camping at the Crags, outside of Colorado Springs.DSC_0060

1,000-year-old tree

1,000-year-old bristlecone pine

Burn restrictions were such that we weren’t even allowed to light a camp stove “outside.” We rigged up a stove in the van, kept the doors and windows open, and hoped to avoid both a ticket and asphyxiation. This was the official point where we decided we were sick of living in a van.

Fortunately, Minnesota was the end of the line for van life. Although we’re still using it as a gear containment unit, we’ve been sleeping indoors for almost a month on beds and couches and aerobeds of family. We’ve been doing all the summer things: lake visits, grilling out, corn hole tournaments. Everything seems a little off, though; we’re anxious to be settled, and ready to have our own home base.

Peak Minnesota.

Peak Minnesota.

Action shot at the corn hole tournament

Action shot at the corn hole tournament

Serious mini-gold analysis

Serious mini-golf analysis


Michu checks out a jet ski for the first time...

Michu checks out a jet ski for the first time…

...closely followed by similar land-based shenanigans.

…closely followed by similar land-based shenanigans.

There’s much that we can’t do yet, however. We won’t have an official address until mid-August, which may well disqualify us from voting in the upcoming primaries here in Madison; Michu’s job, while enthusiastically hiring him back (yea!), won’t be able to work through all the necessary paperwork for a bit; we can’t finalize the kids’ school stuff until mid-August. It actually looks like our move-in date, school registration, and final boat sale paperwork will all happen on the same day, so hopefully Michu can schedule a day-long orientation or something on top of it.

Meanwhile, we’re dipping out toes back into Madison. A few nuts-and-bolts things to check off–another vehicle, music lessons for the kids–but mostly hanging out with old friends. We’ve done a couple of excellent drop-by surprise visits that included actual double-takes–very rewarding. It’ll be a while before we’re up to speed, but that’s probably just as well; we move pretty slowly these days, and there’s only so much we can get done when the lure of beers on the porch beckons.DSC_0085

The big post about money: what did two years of cruising cost, and why?

It’s really weird to not be keeping track of our expenses any more. We might have to pick it back up, once we’ve landed back in real life; it’s been interesting to see where we’ve spent the money each month. Right now, we’re flying blind–charging a hotel room here, a restaurant meal there–but for two whole years, we did our best to track every penny.

The family at the start of the trip. We were all trying so hard not to cry!

The family at the start of the trip. We were all trying so hard not to cry!

A few things we straight-up did not track: the kids’ allowance ($20/month, paid by their abuela and spent immediately on Kindle books); gifts (we didn’t want any snoops figuring out how much we spent on their birthday); souvenirs (we spent essentially nothing on this for our first year, but loosened up during the second). We also ended our tracking on May 31; costs associated with hauling and storing our boat, plus any additional expenses for the subsequent sale, aren’t listed. We won’t even have a tally on those costs until August 15, when our sale is finalized, so we left it out altogether.

One caveat, before we start: by October of 2017, we’d sat down as a family and confirmed that we wanted to limit our trip to two years. We had the money to squeak out a third year, especially if we pinched our pennies in Mexico, but we all agreed that two years was the right amount of time for us. That loosened up the purse strings when it came to things like addressing the oil leak in the engine, inland travel, and restaurant indulgences. Our costs for the second year of cruising could have easily been lower, but we were more relaxed about expenses.

Let’s break it down:

Free dock space on the Erie Canal

Free dock space on the Erie Canal

Marinas: $9,969.79; highest month, Dec. 2017, $1273; cheapest, $0, four months. We stayed in marinas waaaaaay more often than we’d expected. Early on, it was because we were not as awesome at anchoring out, and wanted hot showers or wifi; later, we were parked for engine work, inland travel, or because it was more convenient for visiting with family. We never expected to spend this much on marinas when we were planning our budget. The peak expenditure was when we settled up with Marina Chiapas for an almost two-month stay, plus a little dock space at the Acapulco Yacht Club.

Cost of all the pastry? Best not to ask.

Cost of all the pastry? Best not to ask.

Grocery: $15,271.56; highest month, Nov 2016, $2015.56; cheapest, $75.17, Feb 2017. This total doesn’t included stuff like beer and paper towels, shampoo and zip-locs–it’s just food. It does include market produce and buying stuff off boats from the Guna. Man, we lived off that pre-Bahamas provisioning forever; I think I still have baking powder in the van from Florida…

Not a sufficient supplement to the grocery budget

Not a sufficient supplement to the grocery budget

Restaurant: $6,295.17; highest month, Jan 2018, $448.54; cheapest, $49.42, July 2017. I’ve heard that it’s cheaper to eat out in Mexico than to buy groceries; that was not our experience. It is, however, worth eating out as much as possible, because the food is amazing. Our biggest month for restaurants was when we had three weeks of family visiting us, in a pretty touristy area. Worth it.

Laundry: $858.55; highest month, March 2017, $102.50; cheapest, $0, one month. That seems like a lot of money to have spent, considering how often I did laundry in a bucket. Jamaica was crazy-expensive, and I was making up for months of bucket-washing, which made me feel like everything needed a real wash. Once we hit Mexico, we generally dropped our laundry off, and it came back all folded and weird-smelling and impeccably clean. Consider these numbers if you’re on the fence about installing a washing machine on your boat.

One way to cut down on the laundry bills: washing the clothes in the dinghy after a hard rain in Guna Yala

One way to cut down on the laundry bills: washing the clothes in the dinghy after a hard rain in Guna Yala

Ice Cream: $523.43; highest month, Oct 2016, $61.50; cheapest, $0, six months. An embarrassingly low total. Currently trying to compensate.

Supplies: $5,634.83; highest month, Nov 2016, $1264.70; cheapest, $0, Feb 2018. This was such a weird. catch-all category for us. We tried to make it about purchases that were not boat parts or grocery, so it included a violin, a new laptop, drugs that should have gone into a “medical” category, homeschool supplies that should have probably been “education”…very slush-fund-y. Sorry about that. The top month was during our mega we’re-leaving-the-US provision, and included a backup iPad that proved to be very important.

Free music with the new violin

Free music with the new violin

Pump Out: $139; highest month, July 2016, $55; cheapest, $0, 18 months. Remember when we had to pay for this? Mwah, hahahaha. We found that the East Coast often had services that were subsidized by the state or the municipality, while the Great Lakes charged a ton. Free pump-outs all along the Erie Canal, though. It was such a relief not to have to worry about this once we left the US.

Boat Parts: $7,755.47; highest month, Sept 2016, $1599.90; cheapest, $0, 3 months. That total included all the parts for our engine rebuild, plus exciting components like oil filters. The top month includes a new outboard. I’d like to say this category could have been much cheaper if we’d had another year to prep the boat, but it could also have been more expensive if we hadn’t done so much boat work before we left. It is what it is.

View from the top of the Empire State Building: Free, if you don't use the elevator.

View from the top of the Empire State Building: Free, if you take the stairs. We chose elevator.

Boat work: $5287.64; highest month, Feb 2018, $1410; cheapest, $0, 17 months. We didn’t often pay to have work done on the boat, but when we did, it cost us. The decision to have our bottom painted by professionals was entirely based on our decision not to squeeze in an additional year of cruising–that was our top month for expenses in this category. That’s right: it cost us more to have the bottom painted in La Cruz than to have the engine completely rebuilt in Chiapas.

Booze: $833.65; highest month, Nov 2016, $125.76; cheapest, $0, 2 months. I’ve got to believe this number is waaaaaay cheaper than your average cruising boat, among those who drink alcohol. Most of our booze expenses were for local beer, consumed on the boat. We also weren’t around other cruisers for much of Central America, which cut down on this expense. Finally–remember when I got really sick in Costa Rica? I stopped drinking for about two months, and am still only up to one beer or a glass of wine. Cheap date.DSCF0329

Water: $197.98; highest month, March 2018, $43.49; cheapest, $0, 12 months. We spent money on water in Mexico, Panama, and the Bahamas. We went out of our way to find water only twice that I remember. Would it have been more convenient to fill our tanks with a watermaker? Absolutely. Would it have been worth the expense? Nope. Of course, I’m not the one who donned a full wetsuit for the two-mile jerry jug runs to fill our tanks in Georgetown…

Communications: $3,515.33; highest month, March 2018, $401.80; cheapest, $0, two months. About $2,250 of this was for our Iridium GO! sat phone service; while it is theoretically possible to surf the web with our unlimited sat phone data plan, we really just used it for texting and weather. About $500 was for website maintenance and access to Predict Wind. That means we paid about $765 for two years of all our international and local phone service plus internet access. You should have it so good.

Transportation: $3397.80; highest month, Jan 2017, $880.10; cheapest, $0, 4 months. That includes car rentals, long-distance buses, water taxis, pedicabs–everything. We never hopped on a plane. We also gradually relaxed our stance on taking a cab vs. schlepping home 1000 pounds of groceries. Side note: cab drivers are excellent resources, both for improving your Spanish and learning about the local narco traffic.

Representing a different kind of free...

Representing a different kind of free…

Diesel: $2803.90; highest month, Dec 2017, $334.54; cheapest, $0, three months. Our diesel costs went up significantly once we hit Mexico; the cost per liter is higher, and there’s less wind. We’d read enough honest tales from other cruisers that we weren’t surprised how much we used our iron genny.

Dinghy gas: $141.25; highest month, June 2016, $30; cheapest, $0, 16 months. Kind of funny to list right next to our diesel expenses. Our new outboard was insanely efficient. It was also tricky to get our dinghy up on a plane with more than two people in the boat, so it’s possible we did less bombing around than other people.

Stove fuel: $690.02; highest month, Nov 2016, 131.99; cheapest, $0, six months. Oh, stove fuel. You were frequently such a pain in the butt. I have a hard time imagining what, in land life, will feel as satisfyingly wealthy as the feeling of having five gallons of stove fuel on board. Maybe home ownership? Maybe.

Garbage: $48; highest month, March 2017, $36; cheapest, $0, 19 months. We mostly paid to drop off garbage in the island countries of the Bahamas and Jamaica; in Jamaica, it was an additional fee to the marina bill. It’s possible we also got sneakier about dumping it in random street garbage cans.

Hotels: $977.50; highest month, Feb 2017, $270; cheapest, $0, 18 months. This includes hotels, hostels, casa particulares; but not our stay at language school in Guatemala, which was included in the school fees.

Smithsonian: free!

Smithsonian: free!

Edutainment: $2775.94; highest month, Nov 2017, $788.13; cheapest, $0, 6 months. This is a combo “Education” and “Entertainment,” since we’re unable to decide where entrance fees to the Met land. So: movies, museums, tours, etc. The big expense was the week at language school in beautiful Xela.

Customs/immigration: $2001.99; highest month, Jan 2017 $426; cheapest, $0, 15 months. We visited nine countries, not including our own. The easiest entry: Canada, with a call from the pay phone.

Medical/dental: $375.23; highest month, August 2017, $192.30; cheapest, $0, 21 months. Medicines like antibiotics and ibuprofen somehow ended up in our “supplies” category, but let’s say that was only about $40. The bulk of this expense was getting our teeth cleaned in Costa Rica. Also, did I mention, Michu is an ER nurse? We were well kitted out. Furthermore–everywhere outside the US, medical and dental care is actually affordable.

Price per sunset: no one knows

Price per sunset: no one knows

Insurance: $254.90. What’s that, you say? That’s what you pay every week of your life, when you combine your auto, health, life, and homeowners’ insurance? Yeah, I hear you, and we’re headed back in that direction; but here’s how things were for us when we traveled. First off, we were paying for homeowners’ insurance, but that was all balled up in our rental expenses/income, which we didn’t include here. No car. No life insurance. We only carried boat insurance through the Bahamas (most of which we paid for long before we left, and so didn’t include on the total), and boat liability insurance when we reached Mexico. As far as health insurance goes, we purchased completely terrible insurance through the government Marketplace, and our tax credit covered our monthly premium. It was essentially useless to us, except for catastrophic events–ER visits, or a condition that would have required returning to Wisconsin for treatment. Anything else we paid out of pocket.

Canal fees: $1104. So, we transited the Panama Canal as cheaply as possible. We withdrew the cash from our Schwab account, so we didn’t suffer any fees getting our money; we took repeated free shuttles from Shelter Bay marina (well, I guess the marina wasn’t free, but still); we didn’t use an agent; we scored free line handlers (and made new friends in the process). Our cash deposit against complications or fines was returned in full within two weeks of transiting. That is a rock bottom number for getting across Panama, people. Also included: the sum total we paid for a 10-day pass through the many locks and bridges of the Erie Canal–$20! At least, I think that’s what we paid. I went to verify the price on their website, since it’s not clearly labeled in my notes, only to learn that all fees are waived on the Erie Canal this year in honor of their 100th anniversary.

Federal locks in the US are free! Except for the taxes...

Federal locks in the US are free! Except for the taxes…

Bank fees: $256.02. You guys. I am the worst with bank fees. They were way more than this piddling amount, but they’re buried in bank statements and credit card bills, and I’m just not going to dig them out and add them all up. We were the most successful at avoiding fees when we used our Charles Schwab account to withdraw cash from an ATM, but we weren’t always that organized, and sometimes the only credit card that worked at the Supermercado Rey was one that charged a fat fee. Just…take this number and maybe triple it.

Ok, ready for some big numbers?

Year one: $38,508.95

Year two: $34,195.49

Grandest Grand Total: $72,704.44DSCF0379

The numbers aren’t quite going to reconcile; there are a few weird items not included in the itemized list (why did I only record paying for propane for the grill once?). Of course, there will be things we missed; we’re not robots. Still, it’s pretty darn close.

The embarrassing truth? We thought we’d be able to keep it to around $2000/month. A mere $24,704.44 over budget.

So yes, we spent so much more than we’d planned. But one important thing to realize: we never got to the point that we were like, Man, I hate living on this boat!! Yeah, we spent more time in marinas that we expected, but maybe that’s what we needed to do to stay sane.

Oh my god. It just looks like so much money, when you lay it out like that. And what do we have to show for it? A few molas, a molcajete shaped like a pig, a cool screen saver of a breeching whale. An unaccountable education for our kids. Strong family bonds. The knowledge of how to do something both unusual and difficult. Two whole years of intense, vivid, irreplaceable memories of our family being together.DSCF0320

We are different. We are the same.

At one point in our trip, we were discussing the current political situation in the US with some Germans, and the woman cautioned her husband to watch his choice of words–they didn’t know exactly how we stood on things. The man replied something along the lines of, “Honey, these are traveling Americans!” He expected us to have a broad perspective, and not embrace the current xenophobia that seems to have taken hold of so much of the US.

Traveling Americans, hanging out with the locals

Traveling Americans, hanging out with the locals

DSC_2521We’ve avoided talking politics in this little sailing blog, but of course, as we’ve returned to the States, we’ve been discussing it more and more in our real lives. And while we won’t get into a dissection of immigration policy here, we will say that one of the reasons we took this trip with our kids was for them to really understand the common bonds of humanity.

DSCF3599We’ve been excited to explore cultural differences, but at the same time, our kids know that their teachers in Guatemala are just regular people, like their parents–even if they live in a country with machine guns outside the Taco Bell. They know that kids in Guna Yala like sugary Zuko drinks, just like they do. They know for sure that not understanding a language, or speaking it poorly, does not mean you’re stupid. And I’d like to see you try to convince them that Mexicans are lazy–I’ve heard the rebuttal straight from my daughter’s mouth, and you’re going to lose. Demonizing an entire group of people based on their nationality or the color of their skin is never going to fly with my kids; that’s a permanent lesson that can’t be unlearned.

Not everyone in our family speaks English.

Not everyone in our family speaks English.

Calling groups of people animals, denying desperate people the right to apply for sanctuary, and separating families at the border is not ok with our family, and deserves to be said out loud, in this space.DSC_1952

At the same time, we’ve been surprised by some of the folks we’ve traveled with in the cruising community. When we made our plans, and thought about the people we’d meet, we didn’t account for the different politics of fellow sailors. We’ve traveled companionably with people at the far opposite end of both the religious and political spectrum from us. What we’ve found are people whom we genuinely like. We’ve also found a great deal of fear, a torrent of misinformation, and feelings of disenfranchisement. Traveling by sailboat can expose you to not just the different cultures of foreign countries, but the different cultures of your own. It’s helpful, as we reenter the current civic scrum, to remember the human nature of our friends on the other side of the fence.

Driving is terrifying

One of the major cultural shifts we’ve had to press through: remembering about cars. The couple of times we’ve rented cars over the last few years have been pretty scary, but some of that could be attributed to different driving rules (hello, Jamaica and Bahamas), along with reprehensible roads. Back in the US, things should be just as we remembered, right?


Driving a car is straight-up terrifying. It took me the better part of a month to get behind the wheel of Iron Van–Michu’s been doing a hero’s work, schlepping us around the western US. Not only is the van big and unwieldy, I can’t adjust to the speed of travel. 80 miles an hour in Wyoming? That’s insane! My mind can’t bend around the impossibility of avoiding a crisis at that kind of speed if anything were to go wrong with the car, the road, or some unknown variable.

Yellowstone-specific variable: megafauna

Yellowstone-specific variable: megafauna

And so much could go wrong. Cars are complex machines, and so much of the mechanics are hidden. I could tell you a dozen different ways to slow down our sailboat, but with the van, our options are: brakes; downshifting. That’s it, and what’s really happening is going on out of sight, so we just have to hope that everything functions properly as we descend 3,000 feet down a mountain at 60 miles an hour.

Meanwhile, who knows what the other yahoos on the road are up to? On the boat, we assume that every other vessel is not paying attention; it’s a real possibility that another boat is just using autopilot and not keeping a close watch, or won’t spot us for some reason, and we keep our distance. If we really don’t understand another boat’s intentions, we call them up on the radio to clarify what’s going on, and make sure they see us; if they’re broadcasting on AIS, we can even give them a shout out by name. On the highway, we’re RIGHT NEXT TO PEOPLE, traveling at close to warp speed, and we have no way to talk to them. Chances are also pretty high that whoever’s driving next to us is under the influence of some kind of chemical–booze, opiates, you name it; overly tired and not making good decisions; or otherwise not on top of their game.

Sometimes, the good decision involves hitting a traffic cone at top speed. We lost a reflector, but you should see the other guy.

Sometimes, the good decision involves hitting a traffic cone at top speed. We lost a reflector, but you should see the other guy.

On the boat, we did all we could to ensure our safety–and that was a lot: Watching the weather; making sure the boat was maintained; keeping a close watch; changing the way we move through the water depending on conditions; traveling in safe, well-charted areas. Traveling by car, we try to apply the same principles, but so much is beyond our control; driving on a highway is largely a matter of faith.

Throughout this trip, people we love have worried for us. They worry about pirates; they watch hurricanes; they’re concerned about the boat sinking. Hands down, across the board, our chances of death or injury has always been highest in cars. This little jaunt home, across the US by interstate, is the most dangerous part of our trip.

Peak benefit: the van is a much safer place in a storm, particularly if you're not moving. Hail storm at Yellowstone.

Peak benefit: the van is a much safer place in a storm, particularly if you’re not moving. Hail storm at Yellowstone.