Micah and Gretski Lieberman of Ashland and their two preteen girls recently spent nearly two months in a city where mostly Spanish is spoken, lived in a small, one-bedroom house, had to have their drinking water and cooking gas delivered, carried their garbage to a collection point about 10 minutes away and walked everywhere — up and down steep, narrow alleys.
They can't wait to do it again.
"As long as it's Spanish-speaking," Gretski said of their No. 1 criterion for choosing destinations for the family's adventures.
They immersed themselves in the culture and lifestyle of Guanajuato, Mexico, Ashland's sister city, which has a population of more than 150,000 and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
They went prepared. Micah, 44, had been improving his Spanish. Gretski, 43, is nearly fluent. And 10-year-old Maya and 7-year-old Asia already knew some Spanish before the trip.
Neither parent is a stranger to traveling.
"I lived in Spain for a while," Gretski said.
"And we've spent a lot of time in Mexico and Central America," Micah added.
"We always wanted to travel with the kids," he said. "The main obstacle was taking them out of school."
A chance meeting at Zoey's Cafe in Ashland with Asia's reading teacher provided the impetus for the trip. They learned that the teacher and her husband had spent six months in Ecuador with their two school-age children. After grilling her with lots of questions, they decided an extended trip wasn't so impossible. Micah knew he would be able to get some work done by telecommuting.
Maya and Asia, who attend fifth and second grades at Helman Elementary School, took homework with them on the trip. And their parents, both former teachers, home-schooled the girls in the early mornings.
"I took math and writing assignments," Maya said, "and I did a report on the Aztecs."
Asia took math and spelling homework with her and kept a journal about her experiences.
School in Mexico
While in Guanajuato, the children attended classes four hours a day, five days a week at Escuela Mexicana, a Spanish-immersion school. It was a five-minute walk to school, but a 15-minute walk home because of the steep incline.
The family took a side trip to Mexico City, about four hours south of Guanajuato, where they saw Aztec ruins.
"Then we went to Teotihuacan, where there are still big pyramids, and climbed to the top of one," Maya said. It was a thrill for her after studying the Aztecs at school in Ashland.
The Liebermans rented a small, one-bedroom, multilevel house they found through the Vacation Rentals by Owner (VRBO) website. Later, they were surprised, when reading the guest book, to discover that friends of theirs — and several other Ashland residents — had stayed at the same house.
"It wasn't cheap," Micah said. On that note, Gretski offered some advice.
"Before you rent," she said, "go to a B&B, scout out the place and maybe get a better deal from the locals."
They arrived in Guanajuato Dec. 2. After settling in, they discovered an open-air market a few minutes away where they did a lot of their food shopping.
"It was very affordable," Gretski said.
"Yes, as long as you're not buying imported, if you stick to local stuff, it's crazy cheap," Micah said. "We ate lots of fresh vegetables and fruits — lots of tomatoes, carrots, papaya, avocados, etc."
The kids' favorite treats were hot chocolate, "liquidos" (fruit-flavored drinks) and "huevos Azteca" (eggs with tortillas, tomatoes, beans and salsa).
The highlight of their stay in Guanajuato was Las Posadas, a nine-day celebration ending Christmas Eve, observed mostly in the evenings.
They especially enjoyed the custom of visiting neighbors.
"Each night, we went to homes in our neighborhood," Micah said. "We knocked on doors, and when they asked who was there, we said, 'Mary and Joseph.' They would reply, 'No room in the inn,' in song but finally would invite us in."
As guests, they observed Las Posadas traditions, often around a nativity scene.
The Liebermans are practicing Jews, but they found no synagogues to attend in Guanajuato.
"We took our own candles for Hanukkah, but we visited a lot of cathedrals and churches while we were there," Gretski said.
There were lots of parties and celebrations throughout the city during Las Posadas. The girls really enjoyed the breaking of pinatas.
"The pinatas had seven horns for the seven deadly sins," Maya said.
When they were finally broken open, it got frantic.
"You had to fight for your life for your candy!" she exclaimed.
Fireworks were a part of the celebration, too. But nobody in the family liked the noise and smoke of the big firecrackers.
"Bombs!" Maya said.
Making new friends
Besides attending a local school and getting some home schooling as part of the bargain, the girls enjoyed making new friends in the neighborhood, most of them about their age.
"We played games like Red Rover, only they called it Paloma Paloma," Asia said.
The family soaked up the history of the city, learning that it was the birthplace of the Mexican Revolution, with the first battle of the Mexican War of Independence fought nearby.
"The city is beautiful," Micah said.
Guanajuato, at an elevation of 6,600 feet, is home to many colonial mansions, churches and civil structures of pink and green sandstone. Homes are painted in bright colors. Numerous, small plazas dot the city. Most streets are no more than alleys paved with cobblestones, too narrow for cars to pass.
The city is located in the center of the country and is the capital of the state of the same name. Silver was discovered nearby in the mid-1600s, and it has been the leading center of silver mining in the world for 300 years.
They said they felt safe in the city.
"I feel more hassled in the Ashland Plaza than I did in Guanajuato," Micah said.
The trip offered more than cultural experiences and sightseeing. For Gretski, the draw was the simpler life.
"At home, we're overscheduled," Micah agreed. "Away, there were no obligations."
They liked the slower pace and the opportunity to show the girls what life is like outside of Ashland.
When they take another trip south, it likely also will be in the winter, for five or more weeks. But there is one mistake they won't make again.
"We overpacked," Micah said. "Next time, we won't take so much stuff. You don't need it."
Jim Flint is a former Washington newspaper publisher and editor now living in Ashland. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.