Growing up in Mexico and Central America

Mexico

The Weary Family is a homeschooling family of four that wanted to experience expat life. So for nearly two years they’ve been driving throughout Mexico and Central America.

They’ve now visited each country, and have things they love about every place they have stayed including the food, the clear blue water and the animals they’ve encountered.Growing up around the world: A SimpleHomechool.net series

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Tell us a little bit about your family.

My name is Mickelle. I am a former school teacher with a specialization in math. I am currently a homeschool mom.

My husband, Ken, is a technology geek and avid learner. He spent years working his way up the corporate ladder and as a result had to spend time on the road away from our family. Today he works with remote clients wherever we are.

My daughter, Ela, is 10-years old and loves all water activities. She earned her scuba diving certification in Honduras last November.

My son Tag is 7-years old and rarely stops talking or moving, except when he’s sleeping (and not always then). He is obsessed with Legos, sticks, rocks and collecting the odd objects that appear in his path.

Tell us a little bit about where your travels and where you’ve stayed.

We crossed the US/Mexico border, in our car with license plates from Washington State on Aug. 5, 2014. Since then, we’ve driven in and through every country in Central America and Mexico.  

Our first destination was Panajachel, Guatemala. I took a job at a small, International school, where English is the primary language used for teaching, for 10 months so that we could ease into expat life slowly. The kids attended the same school and, as it turned out, I was Ela’s teacher.

My husband took a year off, recharged his batteries, and spent a lot of time with the kids, especially Tag who was only in school half-days.

During that year, we spent Christmas break traveling through Panama. In the summer of 2015, we spent 3 months housesitting in Costa Rica.

From there, we spent 2 months living in Nicaragua and 1 month in Honduras.

After a bit more moving around, we have fallen in love with Mexico. So far, we’ve lived in the mountain town of San Cristobal de las Casas, spent 3 weeks in Oaxaca and 4 months in several places along the Yucatan Peninsula.

After a border run to Belize, we are now settled for the next 3 months in Playa del Carmen, where there is a strong homeschooling/worldschooling community.

Our current plan is to return to the States for a visit during the month of October. After that, we don’t know! We may head to Columbia in South America, but we’re also exploring the possibilities of Europe.

In Belize - the 10 marks that it's the 10th country the Weary family visited.

In Belize – the 10 marks that it’s the 10th country the Weary family visited.

What do you think is unique and special about where you have been living?

Every place we visit leaves us with special memories. Guatemala left us with an imprint of Mayan life – women carrying baskets full of vegetables on their heads, a lively Mercado with all varieties of fresh foods and the beauty of Lake Atitlan surrounded by several pueblos (towns) all unique in their own way.

Our up-close experiences with white faced monkeys and a three-toed sloth, both in the wilds of Costa Rica, make us laugh and smile simply thinking about them.  

The island of Roatan, Honduras, will forever be the place Ela and I learned to scuba dive and had our first adventures exploring the Meso-American Barrier Reef 40 feet under the water.

I can still hear the noise of the main square in Esteli, Nicaragua, where a loud siren sounds at 6 a.m. and noon every day, telling the workers when it is time to start working or break for lunch. Our apartment building overlooked this square and we saw first-hand the locals celebrating, demonstrating, performing and worshipping special events at least 5 days a week.

The mountain town of San Cristobal de las Casas reminds us that Mexico isn’t all hot and watery. We walked everywhere often on cobblestone roads and uneven sidewalks exploring this colonial town. My senses taste the hot chocolate with mint or cinnamon and see the small amber bracelets warding off evil spirits and protecting babies throughout town.

I associate the Yucatan Peninsula with water – Swimming in cenotes, water holes that have opened up just below the surface of the Earth; long, tranquil days lounging in the Caribbean Sea and snorkeling adventures where I’ve seen a shark, baby turtles, a stingray and a seven-foot barracuda.

While Mexico is the place my family spent 30 minutes feeding manatees at an animal rescue sanctuary, Belize is where we saw a baby manatee in the wild playing in the turquoise green waters of the Caribbean Sea.  

Not everything is roses though. South of the US is the land where toilet paper is not flushed, the internet can be undependable, and tap water is not drinkable.

Long drive days involve several police checkpoints, highways with speed bumps and cattle grazing on the side of (and sometimes on) the road. I can’t forget the kids born in poverty, begging for scraps of my left-over dinner when I eat in restaurants.

Recycling and composting are not common. Burning garbage is. Hand washing clothes is as common as washing machines. Clothes dryers, microwaves, and dishwashers are rare.

The unique and special things we see in every destination are both amazing and often sad.

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What languages are spoken there? If it’s different from English, can you help us learn a few common phrases?

The primary language in Mexico and Central America is Spanish. However, other prevalent languages include numerous Mayan dialects, Creole (along the Caribbean) and English.

On learning Spanish — I thought the kids would easily pick up Spanish. Not so. Our youngest refuses to speak it. Outright refuses. He’s quite stubborn so we have to wait him out and simply hope that there’s Spanish working in his brain that will come out some day.

Our daughter is slowly learning some Spanish, but it’s not coming easily. That said, she can order the most sophisticated desserts in Spanish. Her sweet tooth is clearly her motivation.

If we had to do it all over again, we would have tackled the language in a totally different way. We would have signed up for weekly or bi-weekly classes and inundated ourselves with it. We wouldn’t have counted on the exposure of our surroundings to have a big impact. But the kids and I have gotten by quite easily with English.

Some of our most used phrases:

  • I want chocolate ice cream. – Yo quiero helado de chocolate.
  • Where is the bathroom?  – ¿Dónde está el baño?
  • Do you have… – Tienes…
  • I am looking for… – Busco…
  • How much is this? – ¿Cuánto es?
  • Iced venti decaf vanilla latte please – Venti helado de vainilla latte descafeinado por favor

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What are some traditional foods there?

Avocados are everywhere. Tortillas, rice, beans, Tacos al Pastor, chicken dishes, pancakes, fresh squeezed juices (pineapple, orange, mango, watermelon, papaya), daily made bread, coconut water and coconut milk, fresh fruit with picante on it, corn on the cob with mayonnaise and ketchup, plantains, and limes are just a few of the foods we find all over Central America.

Tell us about the climate where you live.

The climate varies depending on how high above sea level we are living.

Many mountain towns have spring-like conditions year round. The nights are breezy and can be cold at 50 degrees F. The days are as high as 80+ degrees F.

The coastal land is far warmer, with daily highs in the 90s. Nights cool off a little, but we never need lightweight sweaters or socks.

We’ve not lived in a place with an indoor heating system. Fireplaces exist in the highlands and individual air conditioning units are often available along the coasts (but running them a lot can be very expensive).

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What does school look like for the majority of kids where you live?

Public schools are often free to attend in elementary but not so at middle and high school levels. They often have religious affiliations and students wear uniforms.

Students commonly go to school Monday through Friday for a half-day, either in the morning or in the afternoon. At mid-day, the morning students and their teachers go home and essentially another school, with different teachers and administrative staff, use the same building for the second half of the day.

Most public schools do not have air conditioning, nice desks or big, green luscious fields for recess.

Students get to school by walking, biking, driving motorbikes or taking taxis. School buses are not commonly used for taking students to and from school.

At break time, many vendors will wheel their carts near the school fence and kids can be seen buying treats such as chips, soda, fresh fruit with spices and ice cream. Often, the families of students are expected to provide all of the school supplies that the teacher deems necessary, even if the family has little money.

What does school look like for your family?

We don’t have a typical day, and there is little structure to our current educational approach.

Math – I have a supplementary set of math materials for grades 1-6 that I use when I feel Ela or Tag is ready for it. This particular curriculum, Contexts in Education by Cathy Fosnot, is meant for classroom use, includes real-world type problems and follows the constructivist philosophy. When we’re working on one of these books, we try to do 1-2 lessons a day.

Other times, I’m following where the kids are developmentally (I am trained to recognize mathematical development) and providing activities that I believe are appropriate and fun for them. However, if they ask for a particular strand, we will do that too.

Reading – We bought an annual subscription to Reading Eggs/Reading Eggspress. Tag was highly motivated to be in the more sophisticated platform (Reading Eggspress) because he wanted to be doing the same thing his older sister was doing. Therefore, he finished all the lessons in Reading Eggs (noted to end at grade 2) within a couple of months.

The kids download several books from the library each week. Ela asks me to wake her up early so that she has at least 30-60 minutes to read in the morning before her brother wakes up (and starts talking to her). Tag prefers listening to audio books, often on double-speed. My husband and I read to the kids every night, often for 30-60 minutes. 

Writing – I’m pretty much ignoring writing this year. My daughter despises writing (a result of school life) and my son isn’t ready for it. I taught him cursive simply to improve his small motor skills. When we do approach writing, it will be with a strong nod to social media and 21st Century needs.

Science & Social Studies – We chose to study the cycles of the Earth, the Moon, and the Sun last fall after Ela was asking questions about the different seasons. “Why does Seattle have winter, but Central America doesn’t?”

We’re currently studying the ocean (salinity, buoyancy, corals, animal life, water currents, etc.) because we live next to it. The entire family has been working through the video series Blue Planet.

Finally, we live social studies. We’ve lived in 6 countries in the past 2 years and visited others. They see how people live life differently. They understand the concepts of climate changes, landforms, water forms, city v. urban, etc. because travel and change is their life.  

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Are there any special festivals or traditions you’d like to tell us about related to where you are visiting?

My favorite festival that we’ve participated in is the Day of the Dead as it is celebrated in Sumpango and Santiago Sacatepéquez, Guatemala, on Nov. 1.

Long grasses, flowers, and candles are used to decorate the grave sites of loved ones where family members picnic and celebrate past family members. At the same time, groups of Guatemalans have spent the previous weeks and days constructing giant 6-meter-wide kites out of bamboo, homemade glue and tissue paper.

The kites often share important political messages about women’s rights or the environment. At dusk, many of the kites are flown high in the air where the wind eventually whips them to shreds.

The Mayans believe the kites bridge the gap between the world of the living and the dead, and allow them to share brief messages with loved ones who have moved on.

It would be hard for any other holiday to match the carefully planned architecture and colors of the kites, the beauty of the graves, and the hearts of the people and their celebrations.

When you leave a location, what do you miss most?

Usually, we miss the friends that we’ve made along the way the most. However, many of them are constantly moving and we have high hopes of meeting some of them again somewhere in the world!

I tend to miss small towns the most, those where everything is within walking distance and our car is not needed. Ela and I will miss the Caribbean Sea when we venture too far away from it.

We’ve decided that we’re island people and may need to settle on an island someday.

I’ll also miss the architecture. The beauty of historic old buildings and towns can be stunning.

Fast Facts about Mexico and Central America

Mexico's flag

Mexico’s flag

  • Central America is made up of of seven countries: Belize, Guatemala, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Panama
  • Parts of Central America are bordered by the Pacific Ocean, The Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Hang out with another “worldschooling” family in this video as they hike the tallest mountain in Central America:
    worldschooling hike

Thank you so much, Weary Family!

About Mickelle Weary

The Wearys are a family of four that left the comforts of suburban Seattle, Washington in the Summer of 2014 to experience a whole new way of living. Michelle is a school teacher and math specialist, Ken is a self-described technology geek and avid learner. Ela is a 10-year old, independent girl, and is a bit obsessed with “girl power” (her words). Tag is a 7-year old boy that rarely stops talking or moving, except when he’s sleeping (and not always then). He is obsessed with Legos, sticks, rocks and collecting the odd objects that appear in his path. Follow their travels at Sunglasses Required.

Comments

  1. James Chesson says:

    I just read your story and found it interesting to say the least. We, my fiance and I, live in the mountain town of Volcan, Chiriqui near Costa Rica. Yes, I enjoy the cool temps. My fiance is Ngobe Indian, having grown up without electricity and all that comes with it. I am curious of what your advice would be on us finding house setting opportunities throughout Mexico and Central America. We would be very interested in doing that. We did it once in Panama after stumbling onto it totally by accident and it worked out very well. After reading your story made me realize there may be many opportunities out there if we just knew how to find them. Expats wanting to take a vacation back to the states but worried about the security of their house. Please let me know if you have any ideas about it. Thanks and have a great day.

  2. Wow! What an adventurous life and education you’re providing for your children. I would love to be able to travel that way. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get anywhere with a crew the size of ours.

  3. Mary Beth Gonzalez says:

    Hi. Great story. My kids are now 12, 10 and 6. We have wanted to do something like this, but feel the window has passed due to their grades and the fact that neither of us are teachers. Also, our youngest has dyslexia and is receiving special tutoring here in Atlanta. However, I feel like the homeschooling environment could be better for him in all other aspects. Do you know of any programs or networks for Dyslexia in the homeschooling community in Mexico? We could put the other two in a traditional private IB school and homeschool the youngest. Best, Mary Beth Gonzalez

  4. Hi Mary Beth,
    If you think your youngest would benefit from homeschooling, then I urge you to go with your gut. Start the research. Take baby steps and try. You’ll soon know if it’s for you or not. There are a ton of free resources out there, and many of those resources are free. I don’t reinvent the wheel every time my kids want to learn about something new. I find something that I believe will work for us. My daughter is starting to find her own resources, and that is rewarding for all of us.
    If you know where you might want to try living, look for a facebook group in that community. Look for homeschooling groups as well as general expat groups. Search their pages for people that you think might be worth reaching out to. Ask the group if they know of any resources for dyslexia. Finally, look into online resources or someone you could routinely Skype with to help you on your journey with your child.
    Yes, I have a teaching background, but I don’t believe this is necessary to teach your child. It just gives me a leg-up and possibly more confidence. Parents are the child’s first teachers anyway!
    My best to you, Mickelle

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