Guerrero, Mexico

The girls taking the public transportation to the swimming pool with their cousins. (February 2015)

Tlaxcala, Mexico

Erika picking out pan dulce at our favorite panaderia. (January 2015)

Bend, Oregon, United States

Our family photo taken in Drake Park with all three of my daughters (October 2014)

San Francisco, California, United States

Enjoying the beautiful view from the top of Twin Peaks (July 2015)

Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico

Exploring the ruins of Palenque during our Great Mexican Road Trip. (May 2014)

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Settling into Santa Marta de Tormes

Whenever we try to accomplish things in a new environment, we limit it to one or two things a day. We have been trying to keep to a routine so that the girls have the time and space to adjust to a new home without more stress than necessary. Our little rental for this week has been perfect. Santa Marta de Tormes is a small town right on the outskirts of Salamanca so it is very easy to get around town. I have our rental SUV for a week so we turn in the car and the rental apartment on the same day. That gives us a total of 7 days to find a new home and get ourselves situated before we move on to the next phase in our lives.
Our next priority was food. We did not want to spend all of our savings eating out and the apartment cupboards were literally bare of everything except some condiments. There is a mall that lies right on the outside of town called El Tormes with a Mercadona grocery store on the bottom floor. The girls were excited to find some familiar cereals to pick out as they are not heavy breakfast eaters. The hugest difference that we have found is that there are NO FRUIT flavored cereals like Fruity Pepples, Crunch Berries, anything! I see a lot of Choco Krispies, Honey Smacks, and cornflakes in our future mornings. Most of the time we spent walking up and down the aisles and taking everything in, the prices, the selection, what compares most to the ingredients that we are used to. We learned that when you are in the produce section, you have to put on a plastic glove before touching any produce and if it is a bulk product, you weigh it in that section and get a price sticker on it before approaching the cash register to check out.
You can't enter the store with any bags or backpacks so there are lockers that cost .50 centimos to 1 euro to secure your belongings. When you go back to retrieve your items, your coin is returned when you insert your key. The shopping carts operate the same way. You put a euro in the shopping cart handle and it unlocks from the cart in front of it. When you return it to the cart corral, the coin is returned when you plug it in. I wish I could capture a picture that would clearly illustrate the fine art of Spanish parking lots. Those white lines on the ground are just a suggestion. Feel free to park at any angle in any direction and occupy as many spaces as your tiny car is able to.
Initial thoughts, everything is sold in small packages/quantities. It is still easy to spend a fortune at the grocery store if you don't pay attention to the unit of sale. Here everything is sold by grams and liters as much of the world besides the United States uses the metric system. I will post an idea about the different costs in the near future. Wine and chocolate are pretty cheap so I'm happy over all. It is hard to find the right ingredients to make the foods that we are used to so it's a learning process. Milk is sold in cartons that do not require refrigeration until you open them. It takes me straight back to living in the Middle East when you got a little box of UHT milk with your equally little box of breakfast cereal in the DFAC (dining facility).
Our search for a long term rental was a relatively short process. There are tons of websites like www.idealista.com, www.milanuncios.com, and Facebook groups for your region to help you find a home. You can pound the pavement and find apartment rentals plastered all over the streets too. We walked around town and called many numbers without any luck. I wanted a 3 bedroom piso with a bathroom and central heating so our utilities wouldn't be a big shock. An agent with Tecnocasa took us to see a three bedroom apartment that looked like it had gotten trapped in the 60's. We were advised that we wouldn't be able to get a written contract for that one though because the owner wasn't technically allowed to rent it. It is one of the requirements that we need in order to register ourselves in our town so we can get our residency cards. So that was a quick decision, thanks but no thanks.
As we walked away from that lovely offer, we decided to duck into an inmobiliaria's office and see what she had available. She had a 3 bedroom with individual heating for 350€ and a 2 bedroom with central heating for 440€. She took us to see the 3 bedroom first and that was all it took. I wanted an extra room so we could host friends and family and the girls fell in love the moment they wanted into the second bedroom. It has this "lovely" black chandelier and a gorgeous of the river from all our windows. We decided to head back to our flat and think about it before committing to anything. Jose tried calling a few more phone numbers that we collected while walking back but nothing was turning up. We talked it over and ended up walking back after siesta time and letting Cristina know that we'd like to take the piso. She called the owners and set up a meeting for the next day at 10am to meet in her office and sign all of the documents. There was no type of credit check, references, or anything. She mentioned that I was a veteran and that was all it took. The owner is in the Spanish military and he said that was good enough for him.

So we arrived in Madrid on Saturday the 5th, drove to Santa Marta de Tormes on Sunday the 6th, found our apartment on Monday the 7th, signed the contract on Tuesday the 8th, and moved in on Friday the 11th. We had to pay one month's rent as a deposit or fianza, a  real estate finder's fee of 211€, and a prorated first month rent of 221€. The utility bills for the gas and electric will be delivered to the piso every two months and could average 250-260€ for gas and 60-80€ for electric during the winter months. This is now our new home for the next 10 months! Our new landlords are turning out to be the best part of the deal. They have been absolutely fabulous from day one and I look forward to getting to know them and their family more in the upcoming months.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

From Madrid to Santa Marta de Tormes

I had set the alarm for 10am when I finally fell asleep last night but my internal clock woke me up at 8am and I quietly slipped downstairs to use the internet while the family slept. I  peeked out into the street to make sure that the rental car was still there and it was, note still tucked under the windshield wiper. We left the apartment around 10am to go in search of rope to tie down the luggage securely for the two hour drive to Santa Marta and to get some food in our stomachs. I ducked into the first Chinese market and asked for "soga", Mexican Spanish for rope. She shook her head and we were back on the hunt. We stopped at a cafe in the Plaza to order some breakfast. Everyone here is smoking and we can't get away from the smoke. The girls managed to find a couple tables without ashtrays on them so we took that to mean the nonsmoking section off on one side. Jose ordered breakfast for us.
I was in search of the infamous Spanish tortilla that I have heard so much about for the last few years. I didn't know what it was called but there were a couple tortillas on the menu on the wall. José ordered the tortilla de bonito for me. It is a mistake that none of us will ever repeat again. It was served on a baguette with what appeared to be scrambled eggs with tuna mixed in. I ate it because I was hungry but I did not enjoy one bite of it. I hate fish and I only eat tuna under certain circumstances, this not being one. José and Mia were quite happy with their breakfasts. They love their ham and eggs and the french fries are just extra. Wasps were buzzing around and taking to partake in our bacon and tuna egg sandwich as well and I was all too happy to let them. The girls, on the other hand, were trying to hide under the table. Erika didn't order anything to eat, just her orange juice so they left her alone.
Aside from the cigarette smoke, I enjoyed sitting out in the plaza and people watching. Erika was a little chilly so we walked back to the apartment to grab her hoodie and boy, was that fun! The note was missing from the windshield of the SUV so I went to open the door and grab her hoodie. An older gentleman stepped out of the building in front of the vehicle and proceeded to give me an earful that I was unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, not able to understand due to the Castellano accent and he was not very happy at all. Erika grabbed her hoodie and we hopped in the car to move it down to the street until we were ready to leave. I don't think they like tourists in this neck of the woods, especially ones that park their rental cars 3 feet into your driveway. Who in the heck wakes up early on a Sunday morning and drives somewhere anyway?
Ms. Erika on the other hand is still very emotional and upset about moving here and leaving her family. It has made this journey very hard for me because no mother wants to see her child unhappy but I know that it is going to get better. She can't see beyond the here and now and it's like her world has come to an end. This isn't the end of my travels and at some point, she will have to make the choice if she wants to stay behind and be without her mother and sister or if she wants to come. Personally, my mother moved us so often that I never had the chance to develop strong emotional attachments to anyone so moving was never this emotional breakdown. Erika wasn't quite this bad when we moved to Mexico last year and by month 3, she was quite happy and having a great time. Let's hope it doesn't take that long this trip!
We walked over to the fountain in the plaza to explore a little while Jose was waiting to pay the tab. Erika was able to smile through her tears thankfully. This has been a long journey to get here so far and I'm sure the stress is adding to her emotions as well. After José paid the tab, we wandered into another Chinese store and we decided to look for rope instead of asking for it. We finally located two bunches of cord that they use for clotheslines. Here it is called "cuerda" like a cord so the first gal probably had no idea what I was talking about when I asked for a "soga", oops, live and learn. Then it was back to the house to repack all of our suitcases and rearrange them so we could make the ride as comfortable as possible for the next leg of our journey. We must have looked a sight carefully laying out a blanket on top of the SUV to protect it from scratches and loading up all of our bags.
We managed to get the two largest suitcases and my old Army duffel strapped onto the top and everything else stuffed inside. The girls have their carry on suitcases on their floorboards and the back is stuffed to the roof with a small space for me to view through. Thankfully it was pretty easy to find our way out of town and onto the highway to Salamanca. I didn't realize that they have toll roads here, similar to Mexico. It costs around 15 Euros from Madrid to Salamanca and I'm not sure if there are free routes as well. We went through a long tunnel 3km long so we didn't bother trying to hold our breath through that one.
We found our next AirBnB rental fairly quickly and the owner met us within a matter of minutes. It was a small two bedroom apartment located on the 3rd floor. We used the very small elevator to haul all of our luggage upstairs and settle in. The view out the living room window is the rooftops of all the surrounding chalets. I've reserved the place for a week to give us a chance to get to know the area and find a long term rental for the family.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Arriving in Spain

The flight from Iceland to Spain was relatively painless. Mia was given another children's meal pack for free and this time it was breakfast style. Erika ordered the mini hamburgers while Jose and I enjoyed another ham and cheese baguette. Jose and the girls were able to get some good sleep but I have the hardest time sleeping on a plane. It's unfortunate since I am the one who also needs to hit the ground running since our complete plan is safely stored in my head and nowhere else, not the smartest plan. We landed in Madrid around 10:30pm and went to collect all of our suitcases. We didn't have to pass through anything that resembles immigration or customs. In the airport, you have to buy a token from a machine in order to collect a luggage cart. I needed two carts so two tokens. We didn't have any Euros yet since we had just landed and most of my credit/debit card managed to get blocked by the banks, just when I needed them most. I had to walk all the way across the large baggage claim area to find a working machine that would finally cough up two tokens for me.
I know that everyone in the baggage area was looking at us with a mixture of amazement and sheer horror, much like an exhibit in the zoo. Everyone else is traveling with one large suitcase and a cute backpack or carry-on and we're loading up the Uhaul of baggage carts while using our fingers and toes to count all the suitcases so we don't leave anything important behind. We landed in Terminal 2 and had to find our way to Terminal 1 without having any prior knowledge of the airport. Do we walk? Is there a courtesy shuttle? Call a taxi? Fling ourselves on the floor kicking and screaming? Oh no far worse than that. We have to push our 450# of luggage all the way to Terminal 1. It's conveniently located in the same area, just a long way down the stretch and it has multiple levels too. They kindly provide a style of moving sidewalk that goes at a very long slant before two floors. It was working perfectly until it stopped while we were only halfway up. I had to push that cart all the way up the ramp until I reached level ground again. I'm sure I was smelling quite lovely at this point after traveling for 28 hours straight by this time.
We finally found the rental car window for Europcar and I joined the line of three other people waiting for service. I'm messaging back and forth with Pilar, our AirBnB host for our first night here in Madrid. I thought we would be arriving to her piso around midnight and it quickly becomes apparant that that is not going to happen. I waited in line for over an hour before my five minutes at the desk where I quickly signed the paperwork and received the keys for a Skoda Yeti. I was worried that it was not going to hold our luggage and we were either going to be stranded or paying for a monster sized rental car to get us to Salamanca. Thankfully it had luggage racks and combined with the bungy cords from Iceland we got everything strapped onto the SUV and off to find the piso.
I found the piso without too much trouble but what I couldn't find was a parking spot anywhere near it. We unloaded all of the suitcases into the living room and I squeezed in the motorcycle sized parking spot between a driveway and curb. The front of the SUV stuck out a few feet past the red line so I was stressed. I wrote a note and left it on the windshield asking them to please knock on our door before calling the tow truck. We stayed up for a couple hours unwinding and then crashed pretty hard. Tomorrow was the big day, finding our way to our new home.

Monday, September 7, 2015

A Long Layover in Iceland

Our plane landed in Keflavik, Iceland just past 6:00 in the morning local time. My challenge was to keep everyone awake for our 10 hour layover and our internal clocks were set to 11pm at night. Our first stop was immigration and we got the first stamp that welcomed us into the Schengen zone. The blond agent spoke great English and said that she had previously traveled to Salamanca and that it was a beautiful area and to enjoy our year in Spain. Customs was a choice of to declare or not to declare but no forms or agents or anything so I assumed we had nothing that needed to be declared in our carry-ons. As soon as we reached the main lobby, there was a young blond man holding up a list of people with reservations for Thrifty car rental and he provided us with front door service to the off site rental office. This was very much appreciated as it was very cold, wet, and windy.

Erika had been in tears since landing when I realized that going horseback riding was going to be out of the question. She's homesick and fighting this move at every chance she gets. She's not making things any easier for herself and instead she's making the experience less than great for the rest of the family. It might have been a mistake to let the girls bring their cells so they can stay in touch with everyone back home. She keeps texting Grandma and crying all over again.

After we checked out our car, a red little 2016 Ford Fiesta, we started off towards Reykjavík about 45 kilometers from the airport. We use T-Mobile for our cell service at home and it now includes free unlimited data and text messaging around the world so it was the perfect plan for us. I could only get messaging to work on my phone and Jose got messaging and data to work on his. I pulled over at the entrance to Keflavik to get my bearings using the map (gasp!). We hopped out of the car to take a quick picture with metal figures that looked like children. The wind was blowing a fine rain at this point.

When we reached Reykjavík, we drove in circles trying to get our bearing on the map. My co-pilot needs some serious navigation lessons. I've been my mother's navigator since I was young so I forget that reading a map does not come naturally to everyone. We found our way to the top of the hill where the church Hallgrímskirkja was located and ran out to take some pictures in the rain. I asked a man walking through the plaza where we might be able to find a restaurant for breakfast at this hour but he said nothing was open except for a bread store down the road and gas stations.

It took a few minutes to drive around and find the "bread store."  It turned out to be quite a busy bakery called Sandholt with a cafe in the back. We decided to dine in and use the WiFi to plan our next step. The kids selected pastries along with hot chocolate. Jose got a sandwich of egg salad and bacon along with a cappuccino. I ordered the quiche of feta, basil, and sun ripened tomatoes with my hot chocolate. The girls didn't like their drinks because they are stronger and richer than the American versions.

We decided to go find one of the local thermal pools and relax in the hot waters. We looked into going to the famous Blue Lagoon but it was fully booked and cost 35€ per person. The local pool was closer to 35€ for two adults, two kids, four towel rentals, and one swimsuit rental for Jose. We picked out Árbæjarlaug as it had great reviews for being a family friendly location with a water slide for the girls. There were lots of signs to guide you through their rules. The first was to remove your shoes before entering the locker room and there were plastic bags to place them in. Next, all the lockers are free. Just place your items inside and remove the key. Everyone is required to take a cleansing shower without any swimsuit on before getting dressed and entering the pools. There is an indoor pool with a water canal to the outside pools so to can easily go back and forth. Each pool was labeled with the approximate temperatures of 37°-38°, 38°-40°, 40°-42°, and 42°-44°. I have yet to learn my Celsius to Fahrenheit conversion so I started off in the coolest water and worked my way all the way up to 40°-42°,that was plenty hot for me! It was still cold, windy, and raining but we felt great sitting in the bubbling waters. The girls love swimming pools wherever we go so it was the perfect alternative to going horseback riding.

We soaked for a couple hours and then headed into Reykjavík to find ice cream and souvenirs. I had read about a place called Eldur and Is and it ended up being a few blocks away from the church and restaurant this morning. We found a parking spot and got out to walk around and explore. We found the ice cream parlor at the end of the rainbow, literally.
The Skólavörðustígur street is painted like a rainbow in honor of Reykjavík's Gay Pride festival that takes place every year in August. We walked around and found our souvenirs and postcards. We found the post office which was closed so the girls wrote their postcards against the door and we popped them into the mailbox. Then it was time to find our way back to the airport and drop off the car. We filled up the gas tank and I found some bungee cords when I went in search of some rope to tie down our suitcases once we hit Madrid. I forgot that small detail in our packing. Off to hopefully get some shut eye on this last leg.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Closest Call Yet

Today has been one of the most stressful travel days yet and we're just getting started. I made the biggest rookie mistake ever and forgot Jose's passport at home. Seriously, what kind of traveler does that?? They were all put away yesterday but I had to run to our room and grab them when I checked us in online for our flights as it asked for our passport details.  My mistake is that I didn't put it away exactly where I got it from. I slipped it into his passport wallet, only he didn't bring that this trip. I didn't realize my mistake until we were already 45 minutes from town and no extra time in our schedule. I called Mom in a panic and she was still at our house so she checked the wallet and there was one green Mexican passport. So we pulled into a parking lot in Madras to wait for our rescue. 

Even with me driving well over any posted speed limits, we still pulled up to the airport right at the baggage cutoff time of 2:40pm, one hour before our flight. To my surprise, there were several people standing in line?! It turns out that their systems had crashed and people couldn't be checked in so we were saved by technology, or the lack there of! All of our seven pieces of luggage to check were right on the mark except one and it was close so she let it go. Our carry-ons were another matter though. I hadn't realized they were limited to 10 kg. or 22 lbs. so we had to do some quick shuffling and we ended up checking Jose's carry-on with all the heavy stuff. Unfortunately, that included both laptops of the girls, our DVD camcorder,  and a big bag of Reese's. The line to get through security was very long so I was still panicking. We made it to the gate and then I worried that we'd have issues with our backpacks and carry-on but thankfully no. We made it in the plane and the departure was only delayed about 15 minutes. 

The girls were each given a pack when they boarded with a blanket, pillow, and headphones. For our meal service, Mia was given a complimentary meal as well that contained dried fruit, cookies, and a pasta with chicken dish. Their cutoff for child is 11 years old so Erika wasn't going to get one but the stewardess returned in a few minutes and said there was an extra one so she got one at all. I think another child probably turned it down. We ordered a ham and cheese baguette for the girls too and it was served hot so the cheese was all gooey like a grilled cheese sandwich, yum. The girls drank Appelsin which was an orange soda and I ordered them a Kleina which is an Icelandic twisted doughnut. I would compare it to thick fry bread that isn't sweet. I got two bars of Icelandic chocolate, milk and dark. The entertainment system was pretty great. A good selection of movies, TV shows, informational shows about the different regions of Iceland, kids activities, and more. Economy seating had WiFi available for 7€ but we skipped that. The girls and Jose slept for several hours which is good since we are landing at 6:07am local time, 11:07 pm our bodies time. 

Preparing for landing now, wish us luck! We have reserved a car for our 10 hour layover and I hope to take the family to ride the Icelandic horses. More to come later.

 

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