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How a family took the leap from Ballard to Guatemala

The Lewis family in Antigua, Guatemala, last spring.


I am sitting on a old wooden dock watching my children, Noah, 4, and Anya, 6, play in the reeds along the shores of Lake Atitlán. They wade in the shallow water and balance on the remnants of buildings swallowed by the enigmatic, beautiful lake in recent floods. Nearby, lanchas (small boats) sidle up to the dock to drop their cargo: women carrying Mayan weavings, turistas and local fishermen.

You should know that I’m not the type of person who sits on a lakeshore in Guatemala. I rarely find time to walk around Green Lake. And the notion of bringing my children on such a trip was equally foreign up until the day we arrived. I assumed that I had missed my chance to travel, learn a second language and live in the developing world when I got my first "serious" job as a teacher at 23.

I married my wife, Sarah, soon afterward, and as 10 years of marriage passed and Noah and Anya joined our lives, the possibility seemed more and more out of the question. Amid the busyness of everyday life, our dreams of travel were left to collect dust in the closet with the worn Birkenstocks and woven Baja sweaters of our youth. But earlier this year we were hit with a renewed sense of urgency to expose our children to new languages, cultures and a fuller view of the world while they’re still young.

I left my job, we drew up a tighter family budget, and Sarah, a physician, arranged for a leave to volunteer in rural Guatemala. We now find ourselves spending a month in language school while scoping out a more permanent location to return for three months in early 2018. As we make first tracks in this country, the little-known secret we’ve discovered is that extended international travel can be even better as fully realized adults with young children in tow.

We’ve found that having children along connects you much more closely to the local community. It is a common occurrence for someone to stop and tousle Noah's hair while sharing stories of his or her own offspring. In a place where family values are strong, children create an immediate connection.

While such connections can occur naturally, we needed a place to start. For us, the advice of parents who have already forged these paths has been essential. We made our plans with the guidance of a mother from Bellingham, a veteran of eight Guatemala trips. She recommended a specific language school to attend, a family to stay with and even travel-appropriate building toys for Noah. With young kids, the margin for error becomes smaller and trusted advice is crucial.

Even with sage recommendations and advance planning, any travel experience requires — and is enriched by — embracing uncertainty. This has required us, among other things, to adjust to different cultural perspectives on safety. Our kids marvel at the people stacked alongside luggage atop chicken buses. We explain that the rules are different here. The truth is, this trip has taken each of us far out of our comfort zone in many ways. But it has absolutely been worth it.

Last night I played futbol with my son on a concrete field with locals and some scattered expats. Noah furiously entered every scrum, to the surprise and delight of the players. Afterward, we wandered up to a street vendor and ate a plate of food for $3. We sat and watched the stars and the lanchas racing across the lake. I cannot remember a time I was happier.

I can't say that taking this type of leap is for everyone. But I can say that if we — a family thoroughly preoccupied with work, security and safety — were able to do it, it’s possible for most anyone.

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