Mike DeSa is a travel journalist, husband, father to three rambunctious boys and former U.S. Marine Corps infantry officer. After nearly seven years of service and a combat deployment to Afghanistan, Mike and his family decided it was time to walk a different path. They left everything behind and are currently in the midst of a seven-country, seven-month trip across South and Central America. To keep up with his family’s travel around the Southern Hemisphere, you can follow them at #dclandromomania on Instagram and dclandromomania.blogspot.com.
Mike recently took time to answer a few questions about his trip for us from his current stopover in Cuenca, Ecuador.
IndependentTraveler.com: What were the most essential things you packed for this trip?
Mike DeSa: The two items we’ve used the most are our waterproof, shockproof and compact-sized camera and our ruggedized laptop. As writers and people who love photography, we knew we needed to invest in a computer and camera that would endure the abuse of this trip. We also needed clothes for warm, humid weather as well as cold and possibly snowy climates. This necessitated several vented fishing shirts as well as zip-off pants that could easily be converted to shorts. Jackets with a waterproof outer shell and a zip-in fleece liner have been perfect for all the cooler climes we’ve encountered to date. Katie and I each have camping-style backpacks that allow our hands to remain free to hold onto the kids through busy bus terminals or airports. For a more detailed list on what we brought, read our Huffington Post blog post.
IT: What’s been the biggest challenge so far?
MD: We assumed the biggest challenges would be mental, such as coping with homesickness. A month in, the biggest challenges have actually been physical, such as traveling on a budget — more specifically, the constraints of that budget to buy the food we crave and the unavailability of some ingredients. When we wanted a certain dish back home, we usually went to the local supermarket and picked up the ingredients, or ate out. Here we’ve found that we can’t always find any ingredient we want, especially in smaller towns, so it’s made whipping up a favorite dish like lasagna or chocolate chip cookies very difficult.
It must sound irrational that our biggest challenge so far during a seven-month, seven-country trek around the Southern Hemisphere with three kids is not having chocolate chip cookies on demand, but our love of food is a big part of our joy as a family.
IT: What has been your favorite moment with the boys so far?
MD: Hands down our trip up the Napo River into the Amazon. We started with a long motorcanoe ride upriver; the low profile of the boat offered a unique perspective like that of gliding on top of the water and was perfect for spotting several different types of Amazonian birds along the way. When we arrived, our guide Gary (a native Ecuadorian) led us on a short walk through the jungle to meet a local woman, Martha, who provided us a demonstration on harvesting and cooking yuca as well as making some of the world’s finest chocolate.
Our favorite part of the tour was the making of chocolate from scratch. Gary cut a cacao pod right off the tree, and while he explained the history of the plant and the origins of its famous delicacy, we all chewed and sucked on the seeds, which tasted just like cotton candy. We then helped toast and peel the beans, and the boys got to drop them into the grinder. The product was fresh, 100 percent unsweetened chocolate! The look of joy and anticipation on the boys’ faces as they watched the paste slowly squeeze from the grinder was one we’ll always remember.
Martha then added a little fresh cane sugar and water, and the most gorgeous smell rose from the pan as we watched our favorite treat boil together before our eyes. Fresh bananas and strawberries accompanied the chocolate, and we all spent the next 30 minutes dipping, spreading and smearing chocolate everywhere. We highly recommend taking this trip with Michelle and Gary at La CasaBlanca if you’re ever in Tena.
Photos: 11 Best Ecuador Experiences
IT: What’s the best way to fund this sort of long-term travel?
MD: My wife and I saved as much as we could throughout my seven years in the Marine Corps, enough to fund this trip and search for a family investment. The best financial advice we can offer to a family looking at something like this is to start early, constantly evaluate what you’re spending money on and live within your means. Before we left, we did a great deal of research on the cost of living in different countries in South America and built a strict budget. We’ve made some minor tweaks to it since we’ve been here, but for the most part it’s been fairly accurate.
Once we hit a limit on meals out for the week or souvenirs for the month, that’s it — no more spending. Since our trip spans so many countries with varying costs of living, we had to find ways to save in preparation for the more expensive countries, such as living at a WWOOF operation or staying in a hostel. It may not always be the most comfortable living, but the experience of the trip makes the sacrifices well worth it.
Ditch the Hotel: 10 Cheaper Ways to Stay
IT: What can people who don’t travel with children learn from your trip?
MD: Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something you love with the people you love. Children or not, create an adventure around something you’re passionate about. It could be a hunt for the best fish and chips in England, a treasured temples of the world quest or rescuing sea turtles in Honduras. We built our trip around a search for investment opportunities and tourism as well as our love of food. We brought our children because they mean everything to us and we wanted to teach them about the world they live in. Whatever your ideal adventure is, do it with the people you love, build it around your passion and remember that you’re never too old to learn new things.
9 Creative Ways to Save for a Vacation
To read more about the DeSa family’s trip, check out our sister site, Family Vacation Critic.
— interview conducted by Sarah Schlichter
Before we jump head first into 2014, we’re taking one last look back at the year that was. Of all the travel tips and trends we covered in 2013, there were a few that got our readers ranting, raving or simply laughing. Read on as we count down our 10 most popular blog posts of the past year.
10. Air New Zealand did it again. The airline known for its creative and hilarious in-flight safety videos came out with another winner in November, this time featuring the inimitable Betty White.
9. We reviewed and gave away dozens of travel products in 2013, but the biggest hit was the ultra-innovative Suitcase That Beats Bed Bugs.
8. When an Asiana Airlines plane crashed at San Francisco Airport in July, it spurred us to wonder: Where Are the Safest Seats on a Plane?
7. It isn’t often that we can bring readers good news from the travel industry, so when T-Mobile Eliminated Roaming Fees for Cell Phone Users Abroad, we and our fellow travelers rejoiced.
6. Few things get travelers more riled up than the topic of kids on planes. This year saw several Asian airlines introduce child-free zones on some of their flights — and while many of our readers were supportive of keeping kids as far away as possible, one parent took a different tack in her controversial Open Letter to People Who Hate Flying with Kids.
5. Turns out that even a so-called “travel expert” makes the occasional packing blunder. See what happens When a Travel Writer Ignores Her Own Advice.
4. A guest contributor from a currency exchange service shared his best practical tips in Buying Foreign Currency: Get More Bang for Your Buck.
3. Our post on 5 Signs You’re Not a True Traveler stirred up some strong emotions in the comments section. Reader Christy said our list was “spot on,” while Clare accused us of “imposing [a] very restrictive idea of what an experience must be.” What’s your take?
2. On a long, boring flight, leafing through the SkyMall catalog is always entertaining. Readers got a good laugh from our list of 9 Useless Items You Can Buy at 35,000 Feet, ranging from a mounted squirrel head to a porch potty for dogs.
1. Catching Zs while crammed into a tiny airplane seat is always a struggle. Could the perfect travel pillow help the cause? We reviewed four of them in Travel Pillow Challenge: The Quest for Good Airplane Sleep.
The Weirdest Travel News of 2013
— written by Sarah Schlichter
When it comes to kid-free zones on planes, Asian airlines continue to be trailblazers. A year after Malaysia Airlines introduced child-free sections on its A380 planes, Singapore Airlines’ low-cost carrier, Scoot, is following suit. USA Today reports that fliers can pay $15 to sit in the new “ScootinSilence” section in the front of the economy cabin, where seats have extra legroom and kids under age 12 will not be permitted. Another Asian carrier, AirAsia X, also recently added a kid-free “Quiet Zone.”
Although no U.S. airlines have instituted similar measures, kid-free zones seem to be a growing trend that could catch on around the globe if they continue to be popular in Asia. Our own Traveler’s Ed has spoken up in favor — check out 10 Reasons Every Plane Should Have a Family Zone. Meanwhile, contributing editor Erica Silverstein offers a parent’s perspective on how we can all just get along when both adults and children are in the same cabin: An Open Letter to People Who Hate Flying with Kids.
Do you think more airlines should add child-free zones? Speak out in the comments below!
— written by Sarah Schlichter
Not everyone gets the chance to travel with a parent while both parties are pretty much in their prime. My father and I were lucky enough to have this opportunity on a recent 12-day Crystal cruise from New York City to Reykjavik, during which we shared a stateroom. We finished the cruise with a closer bond between us and a greater understanding of who the other is as an adult.
But we also discovered a lot about how — and how NOT — to travel as a parent/adult child combo.
Here are four lessons we learned during our 12 days:
1. Decide bathroom etiquette on day one. A frantic “no, no, no” from my dad at two in the morning when I almost walked in on him in the loo was the kick in the pants we needed to come up with a plan. It can be as simple as knocking on the door.
2. Pre-empt assumptions before they start. You may not mind if strangers assume the relationship between you and your parent or child is something else, but my father and I found it uncomfortable. We learned quickly to introduce ourselves as father and daughter to avoid any awkwardness.
18 Ways to Keep the Peace with Your Travel Companion
3. Keep your opinions to yourself. Though this works both ways, the lesson was most prominent for my dad. “Your daughter [or son] is an adult,” he says. “She doesn’t need or want you to treat her like a child or have you offer your opinion on most issues of daily living.” So if you think your child is eating something they shouldn’t or should be wearing a sweater because you’re cold, keep those thoughts to yourself.
4. Make time for yourselves. Traveling together for more than a day or two can feel like a lot, whether you’re sharing a room or not. To make sure you each get enough “me” time, do a few things separately. You don’t both have to do the same tour or go to the same museum. Spending half a day apart makes the coming back together again at dinner that much more fun as you share what you each did.
Poll: What does your travel companion do to annoy you?
— written by Dori Saltzman
Every so often you see a travel article about people who think babies and kids should be banned from air travel or moved to a separate section of a plane. These curmudgeonly business travelers assert their right to a library-silent, no-wails-allowed flight. They outline a mile-long list of grievances from squirmy infants grabbing their iPads and magazines to kindergarteners kicking the backs of their seats. As if the disappearance of people under 12 — make that 18 — would make flying so much more pleasant.
To everyone who has shot daggers at the bedraggled parents with the crying baby, daring them to even think of sitting in their row, I’d like to present the view from the other side. As a travel professional, who has flown many times with my son in his two years of life, including a solo cross-country flight without Daddy, I have learned many new things about flying since I became part of the diaper set. Here are some tidbits I’ve gleaned that might make you think differently about flying with babies onboard.
Families need to travel. I spend 40 hours a week writing/editing/talking about travel. I would be a hypocrite if I suddenly stopped flying just because I had a kid. My family lives across the country, I love to explore new places, and I want my son to be exposed to a variety of people and cultures. I’m not going to do that solely within road trip distance — and nor are many other families.
You can predict where babies will sit. Smart parents choose seats in two locations on a plane — the back of a domestic flight and the bulkhead on international flights. While most travelers avoid the back of the plane, parents flock there for easy bathroom access and extra time to hunt for dropped pacifiers while everyone else deplanes. International travelers book bulkheads because this is where the in-flight bassinets hook up so babies can sleep on long-haul itineraries. Kids will be scattered throughout airplanes, for sure, but avoid these two areas or you’ll really be in the baby zone.
10 Reasons Every Plane Should Have a Family Zone
Babies will not scream the whole flight. Except in rare cases of illness or colic, babies do not scream nonstop for an entire five-hour flight. They’re most likely to cry while you’re still on the ground, likely because parents are delaying their next meal until the airplane takes off because nursing or sucking on a bottle helps with the pressure change. Once the airplane levels off, it actually becomes baby heaven — white noise plus vibration is the magic combination that makes most children sleepy.
It’s toddlers you really have to worry about. Babies can be soothed and older kids understand threats (and the power of in-flight movies and video games), but if you’re going to fear anyone, be afraid of toddlers. They’re willful, mobile and vocal, and do not respond to logical arguments. And they love to throw things.
Don’t blame the parents. At least, don’t blame them until you see them ignoring disruptive children. Most moms and dads I know freak out about being “that family” on a flight, so they come prepared with new toys, stickers, coloring books and toddler apps to distract young ones, and they’ll start shushing the instant a disgruntled peep emerges from their child. I’ve even heard of parents handing out goodie bags and drink coupons to their neighbors on long flights. So please don’t judge sight unseen.
Airlines don’t make it easier for families. Airlines might roll out the red carpet for their super-duper-elite fliers, but kids don’t have expense accounts. Many carriers will not guarantee families seats together in advance, seating 3-year-olds with strangers while Mom is two rows back. Frazzled parents are left to beg the gate reps or flight attendants to facilitate swaps. (Please move if you’re asked. If you think flying with kids is bad, try sitting next to a preschooler who is half a plane away from her parents.) Also, not all airlines let families with small children board first. We are really trying not to bump into you as we drag kids and carry-ons down narrow aisles, and don’t mean for our children to be in your face as we quickly stow our bags, but there’s nothing we can do about our Group Four boarding placement.
Kids are curious. You may think it’s annoying that my son is staring at you over the back of the seat, but he’s likely fascinated with your beard or your colorful shirt or your electronics. Babies love to stare; they’re not trying to be rude. If you’re feeling friendly, engage a kid who finds you fascinating — peekaboo is a winner every time. It will buy a harried parent a moment of peace, and you’re guaranteeing no screams for at least two minutes.
The Hue and Cry Over Babies Onboard
Kids are just acting their age — please act yours. Little kids aren’t miniature adults. Their growing brains can’t understand the need to sit still and be quiet in public. They learn by being curious and exploring their environment, and don’t understand why certain things and people are off limits. And, depending on their age, the only way they know to express themselves is by crying. You, on the other hand, are old enough to hold down a job and book your own plane tickets. You should be mature enough not to throw a tantrum when your seatmate isn’t to your liking, to understand that a kid being a kid is not the parents’ fault, and to realize that making someone else feel bad will not make you feel better or improve your flight. So grow up. I’ve been more bothered by adults’ B.O., rude manners, snoring and incessant attempts at conversation than any baby’s vocalizations — and you don’t see me trying to get those people kicked off my flight.
— written by Erica Silverstein
Mother’s Day is just around the corner. (You did remember, right?) Before you reach for that supermarket bouquet, why not consider treating your mom to something a little more special this year — like, say, a trip?
Here at IndependentTraveler.com, we’re big fans of traveling with Mom. Jodi Thompson recently wrote about her trip with her mother to the Grand Canyon, while I’ve taken my own artsy mom gallery-hopping in cities across the country, from San Francisco to New York City.
Of course, there are a few places you might not want to take a parent, as we wrote last year. See Seven Places Not to Take Your Mother for our no-go list.
Have you traveled with your mother? Moms, where would you most want your kids to take you?
— written by Sarah Schlichter
The idea has been discussed for years by travelers who’ve spent one too many flights listening to wailing children or enduring the pitter patter of little feet slamming into their seatbacks — and now it’s going to become a reality. Malaysia Airlines will institute a child-free section on its flights between London and Kuala Lumpur, starting in July.
CNN reports that families with kids under 12 will automatically be assigned to the family-friendly lower deck of economy class aboard the airline’s A380 planes, while the 70-seat upper deck will remain kid-free (unless there are so many families that the lower deck fills up). The lower deck seats 350 passengers.
This move follows the airline’s decision last year to bar infants from first class on its 747-400 routes.
The Most Annoying Airplane Behavior
Many parents will likely be upset by Malaysia Airlines’ policies, but I actually think the carrier has found a solid compromise. The double-decker planes allow families to have access to the larger main cabin, while those of us who’d rather travel with grown-ups only have a little nook of our own — a quiet car, if you will. (Of course, there’s no guarantee that adults on a flight will actually behave like grown-ups!)
Whether Malaysia Airlines will be copied by other carriers remains to be seen. Personally, I doubt that the idea will gain mainstream acceptance. As an Air Transport Association spokesman explains in The Hue and Cry Over Babies Onboard, “This is an industry that’s working very hard to return to profitability. No way is any airline going to discourage someone from taking one flight over another. I just can’t see that happening.”
— written by Sarah Schlichter
Imagine you’re 6’1″ (like me), a tad claustrophobic (like me) and no fan of air travel (I think you know where I’m going with this). Now throw in a packed flight from Philadelphia to Miami, and a young couple and their boisterous 18-month-old (“Sadie just loves to chat!”). Top it off with three hours of jostling, screaming and general unease — and those were her parents.
It could have been worse. At least the kid settled down for half an hour to ogle a “Yo Gabba Gabba” DVD, which I also found relentlessly fascinating.
I love kids. I do, really. But I’ve never been cornered in an airline seat for so long with a raucous child, who was so adorable it was almost easy to brush off her antics. And her parents were (somewhat) sympathetic to my plight, going as far as to offer me a napkin when an exploding juice box ended up splashing my face.
As luck would have it, a colleague headed in the same direction on another flight had a child seated near him, though with far less intrusion. (Ok, he was asked to switch from one aisle seat to another to accommodate the family, and was rewarded with a snack and a free cocktail for his effort. Envious? Me? A little.)
The New York Times recently addressed this very issue, reporting that some people are pushing for separate sections for families onboard planes, and others are pushing for kid-free flights. Let’s face it: This has been an issue forever, and the article’s 350-plus reader comments attest to that fact. The Times went to Air Transport Association spokesman David Castelveter for his take on the childless flights, and he wasn’t too encouraging: “This is an industry that’s working very hard to return to profitability. No way is any airline going to discourage someone from taking one flight over another. I just can’t see that happening.”
I can’t see it either, and I don’t really want to resort to that anyway. Kids are kids, and I probably squirm more during a flight than anyone. Over the long term, it’s the adults (drunk, loud, obnoxious, obese, etc.) who cause more vexation on a flight than anyone.
As for kids, I have a few tricks to ease the pain when I’m seating near some rowdy young’uns:
Keep your cool. Don’t scowl, mutter, grumble, etc. The kids aren’t going anywhere, and being angry for hours on end during a long flight is a waste of energy.
Engage with the parents. They’re going to be your true allies, and they feel your pain more than you realize, so offer an encouraging word or hold baby’s binky while mom and dad wrestle him into his seat.
Say something. Sometimes parents don’t realize that junior is kicking the back of your seat, so let them know. Nicely. (If they knew it all along and brushed it off, shame on them.)
Bring earplugs or an iPod. When the going gets rough, try to tune it out.
How do you cope when trapped at 32,000 feet next to a crying child?
Read More: Avoiding Children While Traveling
— written by John Deiner