Imagine dedicating a year to exploring Latin America. That’s exactly what my friends Keith and Michele Bailey did. This month as part of my Warmer Than Canada series highlighting other families’ gap years abroad, I was fortunate to interview the Baileys. I met Keith and Michele seventeen years ago in the mountains of South India at Kodaikanal International School. We overlapped there for two years as teachers, working with students from all over Asia, hiking through rice paddies and montane shola forests, and living in old stone houses infused with eucalyptus-tinted mist. Since then, Keith and Michele have continued to teach in international schools, with the exception of this last year when they took a break to travel through Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, The Galapagos Islands, Colombia, and Peru.

Chatting with Keith and Michele was such a pleasure—it gave me a great taste of what makes each of the countries they visited unique. As a professional French teacher, Michele is a natural with language, so she dug right into learning Spanish, and Keith is the most talented photographer I know, so he found all sorts of new material for his art (more of that below!). I hope you enjoy their stories and photos as much as I have.

KATIE QUIRK (KQ): Before we dig into your year of travel, would you be willing to share a bit about your professional background: what countries you’ve taught in, where you’ll be headed next academic year, and what appeals to you about teaching abroad?

KEITH AND MICHELE BAILEY: We taught in state schools in the UK for a number of years before teaching in southern India, where we met you. From there we moved to Mumbai for three years and then onto The International School Manila for ten years. This month we’re starting at a new school: The International School of Dakar, Senegal. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed our time teaching abroad as it’s given us the opportunity to discover new cultures by living in different countries. International schools tend to have culturally very rich and diverse classrooms where students are encouraged to celebrate and share their cultural experiences and develop respect and appreciation of other people’s ideas. Staff rooms are equally diverse.

KQ: This last academic year was different from your usual professional adventuring. You truly hit the road. What made you decide to commit a year to travel? 

BAILEYS: We felt that after 62 years of teaching experience between us we wanted to recharge our batteries and escape from some of the routines of working life – especially the obligation to get up so early each morning (5:15 in Manila). While there’s a reassuring stability associated with school timetables and school calendars, we wanted to discover what it was like not to have our lives run by school bells and schedules. We’d taken every opportunity to travel during school holidays, but they never seemed quite long enough. We also wanted to take the time to follow our hobbies and interests without having to squeeze them in between marking, preparation, teaching and after school activities.

Michele visits with an alpaca near Lake Titcaca in Peru. (Photo credit: Keith Bailey)

KQ: How did you plan your year? Did you have particular countries or destinations in mind, learning goals, or simply the plan not to make a plan?

BAILEYS: We wanted to be flexible in our planning but put aside about six months for travel in Central and South America. We knew we couldn’t ‘do’ every country so we had to prioritize. We felt Cancun in Mexico would be a ‘soft entry’ to Latin America before venturing into Guatemala and beyond. We wanted a mixture of urban and natural landscapes and Keith had a boyhood dream of visiting the Galapagos Islands. We planned some of our travel around festivals such as Day of The Dead and The Festival of Saint Thomas. Michele was keen to extend her language skills by taking Spanish lessons and also wanted to get a taste of a range of activities such as cooking, dancing, weaving and yoga.

We generally picked a few key towns or cities and stayed in them for a few weeks. Although we were living out of suitcases for the whole trip, we didn’t want to be packing and unpacking every other day. We wanted to find time to relax, visit and re-visit places at our own pace. Routine was really dictated only by when we got hungry or opening times of museums or festival timings. When it was hot, siestas also helped structure the afternoon.

KQ: Your letters and photos provided me with snapshots of your adventures–struggling to drive a rented golf cart with failing brakes in Mexico, jamming on the harmonica and trying to explain childbirth in limited Spanish in Guatemala, being swarmed by hummingbirds in Costa Rica, getting fed up with sea lions taking all the good park benches in The Galapagos, and sledding down sand dunes in Peru. Such varied and vivid memories! Would you be willing to give us a few words to describe your experiences in each country?

BAILEYS: Sure, we’ll give it a try:

  • Mexico – touristy, colourful, Day of The Dead, Chichen Itza
  • Guatemala – religious madness of Chichicastenango, breathtaking beauty of Lake Atitlan, vicious jungle mosquitoes, strong sense of tradition and culture, being back in the classroom – but as students, volcano views, very welcoming
  • Nicaragua (we stayed in Granada for only a week) – tired and worn colonial buildings
  • Costa Rica – expensive, wet, hummingbirds, group Spanish and yoga lessons
  • Panama – no ships in the canal (!), authentic street tour, very laid back Caribbean coast, hitchhiking, no wi-fi, hotel in dangerous area of Panama City
  • Colombia – beautiful colonial buildings of Cartagena, great street art, a taste of Africa in Palenque, Spanish and dance lessons, slightly edgy (Bogota)
  • Galapagos – very hot, amazing wildlife encounters, great walks, pleased to have opted for self catering rather than a cruise
  • Peru – full of pleasant surprises, Peru Hop coach system, buggy ride on sand dunes, mild altitude sickness, train journey to Machu Picchu, excellent food, good value
A sea lion waits patiently for scraps at a fish market in the Galapagos. (Photo credit: Keith Bailey)

KQ: You took a number of classes over the course of your travels. What were some of the highlights for each of you?

MICHELE: Weaving made me appreciate the amount of work and skills required for each completed item of cloth. Now I don’t try to bargain too hard when buying from local artisans. Peruvian cooking proved to be very adaptable for me as a vegetarian. I really enjoyed the artistic presentation (and taste) of the food. And although I was the oldest person in the dance classes, I still had a lot of fun and am now able to throw a few shapes on the dance floor.

KEITH: I confirmed what I think I already knew – I am a poor language student and I don’t like doing homework. I thoroughly enjoyed the first week of shared Spanish lessons with Michele, but once we went to one-to-one classes, there was no place to hide and the experience was quite stressful. The GoPro sessions were a better fit for me—it was good to be set little projects and be taken to local villages for assignments.

KQ: What stood out most to you as a photographer, Keith?

KEITH: I particularly enjoy street photography, rural landscapes and wildlife. Guatemala seemed to tick the first two boxes in particular. The villages of Lake Atitlan provided a glimpse of locals in traditional costumes and it’s difficult to beat Antigua for colonial architecture and views of active volcanoes. The festival of St Thomas in Chichi was a riot of noise and colour. The ruins at Tikal are very impressive as they rise from the surrounding jungle. For wildlife encounters of the close kind The Galapagos was a clear winner, although it was also exciting to see the hummingbirds of Monteverde. Some places had very obvious photo opportunities like Machu Picchu. I was also impressed by the colourful street art we saw in Columbia, Guatemala, Panama and Peru.

The Baileys encountered abundant street art, including this mural in Bogota, Colombia.  (Photo credit: Keith Bailey)

KATIE: How about you, Michele, as a professional French teacher and student of Spanish, what were some of the highlights? 

MICHELE: I was struck by many things as I learned Spanish: the complexity of the language; different teaching styles; the challenge teachers face in keeping all students involved and engaged; and the stress involved in learning a new language for more reserved people who may fear speaking out because they don’t want to make errors or be judged. Most of all, I enjoyed being able to apply classroom learning to real life and using Spanish as a tool for interaction with local people.

KQ: If you could return to one place from your travels and stay a while, where would that be?

BAILEYS: Lake Atitlan, Guatemala (it’s unanimous!). There’s so much to see and do there, the atmosphere is laid back, the weather is fantastic, and the locals and expats are friendly. We got a real sense of local culture in some of the villages and in general the area felt safe and comfortable.

The view from the Bailey’s apartment in Antigua, Guatemala, included an active volcano. (Photo credit: Keith Bailey)

KQ: If you were given another year to explore–and money were no issue–how would you spend that year?

KEITH: I would use the UK as a base but take my camera to different religious and cultural festivals around the world. I’d probably escape the English winter on the shores of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.

MICHELE: I would want to use the UK as a base but visit new destinations in South America with a view to becoming more fluent in Spanish and undertaking more humanitarian work. I’d meet up with Keith on Lake Atitlan to escape not just the English winter but also the fall out from Brexit.

KQ: Thank you so much for taking the time to share some of your stories, impressions, and photographs. Are there any last bits of advice you’d like to offer?

BAILEYS: We would recommend all teachers consider having a ‘gap year’ from teaching reasonably early on in their career. We’ve only ever worked in schools, but we imagine professionals in other career tracks would benefit greatly from the experience, too.