The Cost? Not as Much as You Think!

As we planned our one year around the world trip, the number one question contemplated by all, but asked by none, was “How can they afford this?” The reason no one asked us this is because in America, it’s just not polite to talk about money. Therefore, the question was not asked to us, just about us. Friends would ask this question to other friends. Those who knew my mother would ask her. People speculated about the cost of this adventure and how it was possible we could afford such an “extravagant” trip. Only one friend, right before leaving, was brave enough to actually confront me and ask me to my face, “How much is this going to cost you?” My reply, “Not as much as you think.”

We live in a very nice home, in a very nice neighborhood in the very affordable city of Cincinnati. We drive a twelve year old minivan and a six year old Toyota Matrix. Our children go to public school and my husband’s favorite clothing store is the local thrift shop.  We own only one TV and the number of other electronics in our house is minimal; and many of those are dated.   We are far from poor, but we are hardly what I would call rich. We make very conscious choices about how we spend our money, making sure our resources go to the things in life that are important to us. Travel is one of those areas we deem important.

Taking this trip was not a spur of the moment thing. It was a seed planted in my brain almost 20 years ago. I can’t say we’ve been consciously saving for this trip that long, but certainly, saving is in both my and my husband’s nature. So money had been meticulously saved for years: for retirement, college education, a rainy day, or maybe even a rainy (or not so rainy) year. When in 2006 we decided to attempt to make this trip a reality by June 2008, we knew money was not going to be what would hold us back.

In India, You Can Live Cheap!

While saving is not difficult for us, it became even easier once the goal was set.  A daily latte at $4.00 is easily forgone when you know that a week’s worth of coffee will pay for one night accommodation in Thailand; a bottle of wine, a ferry ride in Tanzania and an iPad will buy you an entire month in India.  I believe most of us would be amazed at how cheaply we can live when the sacrifice is justifiable.

And just as there are different ways to live our lives, there are all different ways of traveling.  We are not the camping, eating take away out of the supermarket kind of family, but neither are we resort type people. We are somewhere in between – and, of course, there is a lot of somewhere in between.  But we travel like we live our lives; frugally, spending bigger dollars on what’s really important to us.

There were all sorts of ways we kept the cost of our travels low.  We found that by planning out the trip in advance, we were able to save a lot of money, being more organized about our travel. We would meet travelers who hop scotched around, back tracking and circling, creating a need for more flights than would otherwise be required to cover the same countries. We were also able to take advantage of air broker discounts by advance planning. We paid for one flight from Auckland, New Zealand to Buenos Aires, Argentina, which enabled us to stop in Tahiti, Rapa Nui, Chile, and Santiago, Chile. I’m not talking about a stop over, I’m talking about anywhere from an eight to a twenty one day stay in each of the three locations, all on one airfare!

Our 3 Bedroom Apt. in Quito Cost Only $180 Per Week

We rented apartments in any country we visited that had one available to rent.  Not only did it give us a lot more space but typically it was cheaper than a hotel, and, it had a kitchen!  Being able to cook our own meals was a huge cost savings.  We packed lunches and snacks for our day trips and carried our own water bottles so as not to have to purchase expensive drinks along the way.  We took advantage of free museum days and other free activities and festivals discovered along the way.

Can it be done for less than what we paid for our year long adventure?  Yes, without even trying really hard. Avoid the splurges, eat in all the time instead of eating in restaurants, take fewer flights and use more overland transportation (which is not always a guarantee of saving money), don’t buy any souvenirs, don’t ship home the souvenirs you’re not buying, stay in less expensive accommodations, camp, spend more time in less expensive countries and little or no time in the expensive ones.

Before you dismiss the whole idea as a financial impossibility, you need to consider all the things you are not spending money on over the course of the year while you are travelling.  I’m talking about the cost of living at home. In our case, this included: food, eating out, vacations, entertainment (movies, theater tickets, ball game tickets, concerts, etc.), summer camps, clothing, violin rental and lessons, dance classes, skiing lessons, gasoline for our cars, insurance for our cars, phone, cell phones, utilities on the house… Have you ever really thought about how much it costs to live? If you add up all the expenses you won’t have for a year and subtract it from the cost of life on the road for a year, you will discover that your year abroad is just not as expensive as you think; it may even prove to be cheaper!

Some people figure out a way to take their jobs on the road with them.  We, however, quit our jobs in order to travel.  Therefore, our biggest expense was not what we were spending; but what we were not earning by being gainfully employed for the year.  Keep in mind you are not giving up your whole salary, only that portion you actually get to keep. You have this gross salary figure (what you would tell someone you make if they were rude enough to ask). But you really don’t get to keep all of that, do you? Federal Government gets some and the State Government and even your City Government gets a piece of the action. Social Security wants their share as does Medicare. And, if you are paying for a portion of your health insurance, you don’t get to keep that money either. You end up with a net figure – the amount written on your paycheck. That is the amount you are giving up. Still a huge loss, but maybe not as big as you first thought when you were thinking in gross terms.

In the end, the numbers can’t even begin to determine the value of such an experience.  If this is something you want to do, you can make it happen.  And, of course, you will discover the adventure is PRICELESS!

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Having traveled around the world for a year with my children, I will be the first to tell you that if your expectations of travel with children are the same as those of travel without children; then you shouldn’t venture any farther than your own backyard  with your kids.  That said, I would also be the first to tell you that Elaine Ee’s article in CNN GO, 5 Rules of Traveling with Kids, is nonsense.  Maybe the essay is meant to be “cute and sassy,” but she definitely gives the impression that if you don’t plan a vacation around the kids’ wants and needs, you are heading for disaster; and that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

While I could make a case against any and all of the five of points in her article, the one I take the most exception to is the one titled “Travel to a Destination that Serves French Fries.”I whole heartily agree with this statement, if your original intent was to go to France.  But if you had your mind set on someplace else, I wouldn’t let the lack of French Fries, or for that matter, any other typical American Kids’ foods, stand in your way.  The reality is, your children will do just fine wherever you go.

You may beg to differ.  What could I possible know about your children?  You’re right; I know nothing of your children, or anyone else’s.  But I know mine…

Lots of Options but My Child's Not Eating Here

I was blessed with a daughter who is a picky eater.  Trust me, I use that term loosely.  I’m talking a child who is a vegetarian who doesn’t eat vegetables and only a limited number of fruits; a girl who won’t eat pizza since she doesn’t like red sauce; someone who doesn’t eat rice because it has a funny texture.  I mean really, no rice?  You won’t find any food more benign than white rice!  I believe Avocet (my daughter’s name) is in my life for having committed the sin of judging other people’s parenting habits with respect to food, prior to being a parent myself.  Paybacks can be hell!

Eating in a restaurant is a challenge with Avocet.  No hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken nuggets or pizza are going to work for this girl.  So if eating in a restaurant here in the United States is a challenge, whatever made me think we could travel around the world for a year and not come home with a malnourished child?  Nothing!  But I knew I wasn’t going to let my daughter’s eating habits keep us from making our dream come true.

Avocet & Her Peanut Butter - Zanzibar, Tanzania

The first trick was to relieve her of her fear i.e. that of having nothing to eat.  As we researched our itinerary, I would read about the foods of the regions to Avocet.  Invariable there was one food per country she could hang her hat on:  pancakes in The Netherlands, pierogi in Poland, empanadas in Chile etc.  We would also tell her about restaurants we discovered that served “American Fare.”Of course, that wasn’t a huge comfort since American restaurants were a stressful and often unsuccessful dining experience here in the U.S.  Still, her tensions started easing; but not completely until we presented her with her security blanket – a large jar of peanut butter.  Avocet carried a jar of peanut butter with her around the entire globe.  She wouldn’t finish up a jar until a replacement had been purchased.  We learned to say peanut butter in quite a few different languages and were able to find it in every country we visited with the exception of Argentina.

Italy's Version of Bread & Cheese - Rome

Given the fact that almost all countries have some form of bread and cheese:  grilled cheese, cheese toasty, Panini, cheese empanadas etc., Avocet became a connoisseur in this area.  She also learned how to order pizza without sauce (pizza sin salsa in Espanol) in multiple languages so she could order a white pizza; another form of bread and cheese.  Pasta with only olive oil and garlic, know in Italian as Pasta Aglio Olio, was another standard and once again we learned to order this in a number of languages.  Frankly, I was completely bored with her diet, but she was just thrilled to be eating!

If we had to eat three meals a day for 365 days in restaurants, I don’t know if we could have done it.  Fortunately, eight out of the twelve months we traveled, we stayed in apartments, which enabled us to cook our own meals.  It is much easier to find a variety of healthy (or semi-healthy) foods for a picky eater in a supermarket, than it is in a restaurant.  If we were willing to splurge, we could often find American products, like cereal, which we bought when it wasn’t too great of an expense.  Since we were saving money by not eating in restaurants, we could justify the luxury a little more readily.

Dinner: Papas Puree - Valparaiso, Chile

At a minimum, we knew Avocet could obtain her calories from sweets.  She has almost never met a dessert she didn’t like.  And, after all, cake is just bread with a little added sugar right?  For the most part, we didn’t have to sink that low, but there were a few Nutella and bread meals here and there.

In the end, we made it clear around the world with a healthy and still growing daughter.  She even picked up an appreciation for additional food items along the way, like cucumbers in China.  Avocet learned she could venture out of her own backyard and not starve and we reinforced our belief that our children’s needs should be considered when making our travel plans but not control them.  Everyone came out a winner.

And, it was all done without a single French Fry!

When it comes to a difference of opinion with Elaine Ee’s CNN GO article, I am not alone.  See what others have to say…

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Este blog es para mi sobrino Arik. 

Mi tiempo en La Antigua es asodo.  Yo fui en La Antigua aprender Espanol y Yo aprendi Espanol: no una cantidad inmensa pero mucho.  Mi gusta Guatemala mucho.  El pais es muy bonito y las personas son muy simpaticos.  La Antigua tiene mucho proponer y yo creo cualquier personas les gusta aqui mucho.  Adios La Antigua.

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I’m not a big Facebook user.  I’ve only searched for a “friend” once, mostly relying on others to find me.  And if they don’t, that’s OK too.  I enjoy popping on now and then to see what’s going on or to post a status, but I find Facebook to be a big time sucker, so I do try to avoid it most days.  But sometimes it’s priceless.

I belong to a Facebook group called Families on the Move.  It’s for families who have, are or will be traveling long term.  It’s a wonderful group where families support each other in their travels, offer tips, create joint venture writing projects, ask questions…It’s a wealth of information rolled into one neat customized package.  Prior to my recent trip to Antigua, Guatemala, I placed a post in my Families on the Move Group:  “I’ll be in Antigua from January 5-23, if anyone will be traveling through, would love to meet up.”And sure enough, there was a reply.


Marina lives in Antigua as a US expat.  She is married to a Guatemalan man and they are raising their two children here in Antigua.  She is an expert on travel in Central America and maintains a blog and website on the area as well as offers travel services for those seeking help in planning their Central American trips.  (  And, she responded to my Facebook status regarding meeting up in Antigua.

On a cool Wednesday night, Marina met up with me at a restaurant here in town.  She brought along three of her friends (also expats) to join in the “festivities.”For three hours we shared food, wine and “women talk.”It was like having a mom’s night out, Guatemala style; it was a delight.  And, it was all possible because of Facebook!

In the past, I met many people when traveling, but it was all by chance.  Never could you plan on meeting up with a person somewhere in the world unless you already knew them.  With Facebook, you can create encounters before you even know someone.  Clearly you have to be careful, but the opportunity exists for amazing adventures.  Facebook is helping to make the world a smaller and friendly place.

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New Hope for the Maya Daughters

When we took our year off to travel around the world, there was no question in my mind that our children would learn more being out of school than in.  So what ever made me think it would be any different for me?  Here I am in Antigua, Guatemala to study Spanish, but it’s the day I played hooky from school that I learned the most!

As a guest of Penny Rambacher, Founder and President of Miracles in Action, I attended the inauguration of a new school in San Martin Jilotepeque, 61 kms. from Antigua.  Before you begin to imagine what this new school looks like, it’s a good idea to understand that while this pueblo is only 61 kms. from Antigua, it took almost 2 1/2 hours to get there, only half of which was on paved roads.  It’s also important to get a glimpse of the old school.

Old School at San Martin Jilotepeque

Here, at the old school, there was just this one room which serviced 48 students from first through sixth grade.  There were only dried corn stalks for walls and a roof which does nothing to keep out the rain.  There was only a dirt floor which turns to mud in the rainy season and only a few benches for the kids to sit on.  There was no money for school supplies i.e. pencils, pens and paper.  Through the generosity of Miracles in Action, a 501(c)(3) charity, the pueblo now has a school that looks like this.

The New School with Two Classrooms; Now with Desks and Chairs

We were greeted by the entire community lined up to welcome our entourage.  A path of pine needles was layed out for us, the Mayan version of a red carpet.  The Maya are a shy people but they welcomed each and every one of us with smiles and interest.

The majority of the community does not know how to read or write and many speak only their local language, Kaqchikel.  The one thing that was perfectly clear, however, regardless of translators, was that these people were overwhelmingly grateful and thankful for their new school and the opportunities it will bring to their children and their community.  Without this school, the future of these children is continued poverty and a life of hard labor.

A Pine Needle Path Welcomed our Group

Miracles in Action has built a total of 37 schools in the rural pueblos of Guatemala over the course of 7 years.  Thanks to the generosity of many people, Maya in Guatemala are being given a chance to move their lives out of the poverty they have been born into.    While Building schools may have been Miracles in Action’s original intention, it didn’t take long to realize that a school with a teacher was only one small step in helping these people.  The tasks to provide school supplies, teacher resources, clean water, sanitary latrines and fuel efficient wood burning stoves quickly became part of their agenda.  Miracles has also taken it upon themselves to provide fair markets for some of the handicrafts produced by the women of these villages.  All of this is a daunting task which Penny pursues with patience and grace.

Girls Raising their Hands to Pledge to Stay in School through 6th Grade

This particular school was possible through a generous donation by Paula Latshaw in memory of Nadine Alexander, a school teacher of over 50 years.  Paula’s family joined her on this special day to rejoice in the occasion.  I had the honor of “tagging along” to witness the festivities and to help distribute school supplies to the students of the new school.  Each student received a new backpack, pencils, pens, crayons, a toothbrush and a toy; the first ever for most of these children.  While I can’t be sure, I would venture to guess that many of those children went to bed with those backpacks as clearly it was now their most prized possession.

Penny Rambacher with Guatemala's Future

Many people look at the woes of the world with sadness but hopelessness.  They feel there is nothing they can do to change things.  Fortunately, Penny never took on that attitude.  She is clearly making a difference in the lives of many; as can you.  Please check out Miracles in Action and help make a difference in the lives of the Maya of Guatemala.

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Volcan Toliman - Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala

Many say it’s the most beautiful place in Guatemala; others say it’s one of the most beautiful lakes in the world.  Either way you look at it, Lake Atitlan, in the Western Highlands of Guatemala is stunning.  The deepest lake in Central America is huge and guarded by three volcanoes, Toliman, Atitlan and San Pedro.  In between the volcanoes are the mountains of the Western Highlands. 

La Launcha (Boat) - Lago de Atitlan

A curvy and sometimes dangerous road takes you from the cities of Antigua or Guatemala West.  A local bus or a direct shuttle will get you there in about 2 1/2 – 3 hours.  That puts you into the town of Panajachel, the largest city surrounding the lake.  While you can stay in Pana (for short) with its ample infrastructure of hotels, hostiles, guest houses, restaurants and shops, many head to one of the many pueblos (towns) that surround the lake.  Some of the pueblos are accessible by both land vehicles and boat while others are accessible only by boat.  I caught a boat to Jabilito, a pueblo accessible only by boat with 2 hotels, a couple of restaurants and an indigenous population of about 600.  Here the stark contrast between the sophisticated accommodations and the shear poverty of the locals is a disheartening reality. 

Club Ven Aca - Jabilito, Lago de Atitlan

After breakfast on Saturday morning, I decided to explore some of the other pueblos on the lake.  A 30 minute boat ride took me to the pueblo of San Pedro.  Unfortunately the lake was feeling a little feisty that morning and it was a rough ride (Thank God for Dramamine).  San Pedro was much larger than Jabilito and hosted not only the locals but hotels, restaurants, gift shops, Spanish Schools, tour operators…. 

La Nina y se Perro - Pueblo Jabilito

From San Pedro I headed to San Marcos, a much smaller pueblo.  Unfortunately, the water had gotten rougher, not calmer and I felt grateful and lucky to be hitting dry land.  San Pedro looked like it was caught in a time warp – a town for hippies who missed the 60′s or for those still living in them.  There wasn’t much to keep me in San Pedro other than my anxiety about getting back on the water.  But as my accommodation for the night was back in Jabilito, it was back to the docks.

The water had calmed a “little” and I took the 20 minute boat ride back to my pueblo.  Having had enough of the Lake water for the day, I donned my bathing suit and headed down to the restaurant which sports a small infinity pool and hot tub.  This water was a little more my style.

The lake has plenty to offer if you have the time.  There is hiking, climbing volcanoes, horseback riding, SCUBA diving in the lake, boating, exploring the towns surrounding the lake and of course experiencing the Mayan culture as the lake is in the heart of the Mayan World.

Mayan Wall Art - Pueblo San Pedro; Lago de Atitlan

Now I am back in Antigua for my last week of Spanish classes.  The good news is I’m off the water.  The bad news is, the boat is still rocking.

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The "Classroom" en el Jardin

While I have had an interest in Antigua, Guatemala for a long time, it has not been one of tourism; it has been for the purpose of studying Spanish.  Antigua hosts about 100 Spanish language schools.  Well, maybe not 100, but possibly as many as 50.  Guatemalans speak slowly and clearly making it a perfect place to study Spanish.  And with Antigua having eternal spring weather and great infrastructure, it makes an obvious choice for many who desire to learn the language.

Mi Maestra (Teacher), Heidy

Remove any thoughts you have of Spanish classes from your head – this is not your high school’s Spanish Class.  For one thing, it’s not a class; it’s Spanish lessons – as in one on one lessons, just you and your teacher.  It’s also not in a classroom.  So far my lessons have been in the garden.  But your lesson could just as easily be walking down the street, in the market or on a field trip.

And speaking of field trips, so far I have been to an archaeological museum, a textile museum and a macadamia nut farm all with my Spanish school.  And, of course, while you are traveling to and from your destination, as well as while you are at your destination, you are speaking, yes, you guessed it, Spanish.  Once a week the school hosts a lunch for all the students and teachers complete with Salsa lessons and the opportunity to make tortillas (not as easy as you think).  It was a wonderful communal experience.  Tomorrow night the school is hosting a dinner; looking forward to it.

El Almuerzo (Lunch) en la Escuela

I have studied 6 hours a day on some days and 4 hours a day on others.  You have the opportunity to study up to 8 hours a day, 6 days a week; you create the schedule you desire.  The more hours per day you study, the cheaper per hour it gets.  And no matter what schedule you pick for yourself, the hourly rate is way cheaper than what you would find at home.

In order to expand your Spanish educational opportunities, the school can arrange for you a home stay.  You will have your own room in a local Guatemalan home along with three meals a day, everyday except Sunday.  And for this opportunity, you pay the bargain price of $130/week US.  Yes, that price is for your accommodation and meals.  I can’t live at home that cheap.  Of course your host family will not speak English, so having a home stay increases your opportunities to speak your newly learned language.

Cooking Tortillas for Lunch

I’m currently studying at the Don Pedro de Alvarado Escuela de Espanol.  I can’t say whether this school is any better than any of the other schools since I have no comparison.  What I can say is I’m having an incredible learning opportunity!

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In 1994, Marty and I travelled to Mexico.  As we drove out toward the Yucatan Peninsula, I found myself amused by the mixture of the new along with the old.  We passed by the Mayan huts and looking inside we could see people laying in their hammocks watching TV.  Only dirt for a floor and thatch for a roof but clearly the TV was deemed a necessity.

Now, 18 years later, I find myself amused by the same dichotomy.  While here in Antigua, I am not staying in a hotel but instead at the home of a local family.  I have no hot water to bathe with; the toilets can not handle paper so all paper must be put in a waste basket and not in the toilet and I just hand washed my clothes in a stone sink, but, I have WiFi  Internet access in my room.

In the town of Antigua, you can find any number of places to have a cappuccino or a very nice meal.  You can stay in a luxury hotel.  But next to those first class places, you may find a store or home with a corrugated metal roof or front.  You see people who clearly are living a third world lifestyle but they all have mobile phones. 

It’s fascinating to see how the world is changing and which changes carry over into other countries.  Sometimes it seems strange to have some of the “new” luxuries of life and yet still be faced with the “inconveniences” of what we first world travelers would deem old or archaic.  Yet, it gives us an opportunity to stop for a moment and evaluate what we deem a luxury and what we deem a necessity. 

So as I take my very cold shower I ponder the question of the 21st century:  “Would I rather have hot water or would I rather have Internet access.”  And then I decide that a cold shower is not so bad after all.

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Antigua and Volcano Agua

Nestled in a valley (a 5029 foot valley)amid three volcanoes: Agua, Fuego and Acatenango, is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Antigua.  The former capital city of Guatemala, Antigua is now the country’s tourism showpiece.  Dozens of Spanish language schools operate in this city making it a contemporary hotspot for global visitors; but don’t let that fool you, Antigua is 100% Guatemala.

Calle Del Arco - Antigua

The sidewalks are narrow and the streets are all cobblestone making it a little challenging to walk and look around all at the same time.  Eventually you decide to trust your footing and you pick your head up.  When you do, you have streets lined with pastel colored buildings amid the backdrop of the verdant volcanoes and countryside.  Many of the buildings are in pristine condition while others are falling apart.  But even those that are falling apart have a colonial charm draped in bougainvillea or other greenery.

I came to Antigua to study Spanish and anticipated streets filled with gringos.  Wrong!  Sure there are many tourists or expats in the city but the streets are filled with Guatemalans, not gringos; a very nice surprise.  I have been here three days now and have only had my first English conversation this morning – with a Mayan anthropologist over breakfast. 

La Merced

The focal point of the city is most certainly the Parque Central.  It’s the gathering place for locals and visitors alike.  Busy most any day of the week, it becomes packed on the weekend when there is live music and villagers selling handicrafts.  I spent two hours there today sitting on a park bench, knitting, listening to music and talking to my new friends Cindy and Cindy.  Practicing Spanish with kids is perfect.


Otro Cindy

Today is day four of my nineteen day adventure in this city; stay tuned.

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When I was in my teens and 20′s, I travelled alone.  My friends all thought me brave, intrepid; but I just thought of it as easy.  When you are a party of one, there is no negotiating, no compromise.  I went where I wanted to go, when I wanted to go and how I wanted to get there.  There was no emotional baggage to deal with other than my own (and I was used to carrying that).

Then, in my early 30′s, I met Marty who I would eventually marry.  Our first trip was a cruise; totally not my style and I get sea sick, but it was a holiday gift so who was I to refuse.  By the end of the week I was in such desperate need of space that I remember sitting separately at the airport while waiting for our flight.  I was grateful at that moment that I lived in Washington, DC while he lived in Cincinnati, OH – we would be going home to different places! 

But that was over 20 years ago.  Now we travel every where together.  And since 1998, we have traveled as a family with two daughters in tow; until now.  Now I am in Antigua, Guatemala for 19 days by myself.  I came down as a get-a-way.  An oportunity to drop my familial obligations and be responsible only for me.  And to study Spanish.   Here I am able to experience once again the freedom of being on my own: to do what I want to do, when I want to do it, without compromise or sacrifice. 

But now it’s different.  This time I have left loved ones at home and I miss them.  This time I am much older, without the energy and drive to push myself to do things that in the company of others I might be more inclined to do.  And this time I am more aware of the loneliness that comes with traveling on your own since I have now had the opportunity of traveling with others.

So, today is day two.  I am off to go study Spanish for six hours and then explore Antigua for a little bit.  And, I guess, as I explore Antigua and Guatemala for the next 17 days, I will be exploring myself and rediscover who I am in the absence of those I love.

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