By Betsy Hicks
Shortly after Ron and I moved in together, we began to dream big about traveling around the world. Our imagination was undoubtedly larger than our pocketbooks, but it didn’t detour our fantasies. Ron and I possess all of the ingredients for outrageous law of attraction manifestations; we dream, we reside in satisfaction, and we both are just crazy enough to believe we can do anything. While talking to a friend about our next adventure she asked, “So which one of you is the practical one who pulls in the reigns?” “He is,” I blurted. “She is,” he announced. We both looked at each other and said, “Uh oh.”
After discovering we could trade our home in exchange for free accommodations anywhere in the world we were off to the races. In August, Ron and I were sitting in our home trade in Mo’orea, French Polynesia. The home was perfectly perched on a hilltop that gave us jaw-dropping views in every direction. I was resting on a hammock and Ron was wading in the crystal blue swimming pool in our completely private, naked provoking backyard. The moment was perfect.
Ron, mesmerized by the beauty announced, “I don’t ever want to leave.”
“I hear ya,” I said, “so let’s give ourselves something great to look forward to. Where do you want to go next?”
One would think from watching our lives from a social media viewpoint, that we were retired billionaires as we jet around the world for months at a time, but we are just averagely paid workers with an insatiable thirst for affordable adventure, and gratefully our work can be done from just about anywhere with internet. Ron, our primary breadwinner, is a recruiter and his days are spent on internet phone calls and web searching. Ron and I agreed that our month in Mo’orea was successful because the time difference was favorable and knew Europe would be a timezone challenge. “What about Argentina?” I suggested. “You know, like Buenos Aires.”
“Sounds great!” Ron replied without hesitation. This is the point where usually one partner argues for the challenges that would arise, but as I previously explained, neither of us have that internal argumentative side; we go for it boldly with a determination that far outweights our fears. I decided to check out our home trade website for a place in Buenos Aires and immediately fell in love with a villa outside the city. I hit the “Like” button which, in turn, sent a message to the owner saying, “Betsy in San Francisco likes your home”. Within five minutes Alu was messaging me and we were already planning how to make it possible.
Alu became a friend and she and her husband were doing work in San Francisco and needed a place for as long as we would agree to exchange. Ron and I decided that since it was so far away, maybe a couple of months would be nice, but my concern was that I may need to fly back at least once to spend time with my autistic son who was living in a group home. That sounded expensive so we began questioning it. One month later circumstances delivered Joey to live with us full time, so now the moment of truth…do we cancel or go and bring Joey?
With a huge list of behaviors that barely allow some people to leave their home, we decided to take this extremely quirky, food allergy filled, and an unpredictable 25-year-old man who could drop to the floor and scream without warning, to a country over 8000 miles away. Dazzled by asado (BBQ), empanada’s, and the opportunity to live in summer during the San Francisco raining season, our fears subsided enough to book the tickets. We would head down before Christmas and for our other kid’s Christmas gift, we would fly them to stay with us for a couple of weeks in our four bedroom villa.
The planning seemed endless. It’s difficult enough to pack for any trip, but when you add autism, food allergies, supplements, and work supplies to the equation coupled by preparing our home for someone else to live in for two months, my lists and responsibilities had to be organized to complete all of the necessary tasks. I also had another goal and that was learning Spanish. Ron knew some French and myself Italian, but Spanish was going to be necessary despite being told that English is spoken everywhere (spoiler alert, it’s not). During each day of my planning, my sitting breaks were spent on a date with Rosetta Stone. There was one more challenge that added an additional layer of stress. Marijuana was necessary to keep Joey calm and seizure-free and it is illegal in airports and in the country of Argentina. Yes, a truly big deal that our optimism seemed to brush off. Ron’s lightly sordid past came in handy for this one as we found ways to pack the miracle oil and not be detected.
Joey’s love of flying made for a relatively easy 16-hours as we changed planes in Atlanta instead of Central America or Brazil, knowing that adding another country for a layover to save a few dollars could potentially be dangerous. He was cooperative until the last few hours were he understandably turned groggy and grumpy.
Upon arrival, his expression told me that he was moments away from a breakdown. Security took one look at his layered clothing, helmet, and more obviously, a vest that said, “Autista”, and passed us to the front of passport control, but we were early and the generous offer of our host pick up was at least 30 minutes away. When we finally connected, we sat in traffic for two hours trying to get to his home. Brutally hot, tired, uncomfortable, and hungry; I even wanted to have a screaming tantrum, so I couldn’t blame Joey for his initial outburst.
I remember entering the kitchen for the first time as our kind host ran to get us a steak to feed Joey. The unfamiliarity didn’t stop me from diving in with my mamma instincts. I went to the stovetop to do a quick pan fry. I turned it on and when it didn’t light I glanced up and saw a fresh box of matches. 400 Matches staring me in the face saying, “You aren’t in America anymore.”
Nothing transitioned easily for the first few days. I didn’t think about Joey’s need to rock and the absence of a rocking chair presented immediate challenges. He couldn’t calm himself, his unfamiliar surroundings were not adapted to his basic sensory needs so tantrums, head banging, and general moaning was constant. Ron and I tried our best to settle in with our own culture shock and feather his nest along the way. If the option was given for us to get back on a plane, we would have, but our home was being occupied.
Argentina, as a whole, does not strive for perfection (a quality I learned to appreciate). The home we were staying in, had a series of bad luck and breakdowns, the weather in our non-air-conditioned home, was unseasonably hot and humid, the language barrier was much worse than expected and everywhere we went we felt trapped because the country prides itself on its ability to go with the flow, which is not appreciated in autism. Intensifying this, the owners told us after our arrival that we couldn’t drive their car as we had planned, as the strict insurance rules in Argentina would not allow us to. We felt inescapably defeated and would often just glance at each other and say, “What were we thinking?”
If you want to live big in life, you need to take punches and be a problem solver. We did not come to Argentina to be pampered; we simply came to experience a different culture and gather what we might learn to become better human beings. Ron was an athlete all his life and I had experienced enough hardship that defeat was not an option. It was the fourth quarter, the other team was up by 20 and we were not giving up.
Argentina presented just enough delight to keep us sane. Kind people, beautiful scenery, and of course, delicious food. Small little caveats would creep in….finding a small health food store with a kind owner to help me navigate ingredients, renting bikes so we could grocery shop with ease, and the biggest of all, the relationship of Annick and Milena, two psychologists who took on the task of caring for Joey two days a week. Joey was delighted the days we would travel to Buenos Aires (45 minutes from our home) and spend the day with these delightful girls. The breaks allowed me to get to know the city without my day being about his favorite activity; watching cars and buses go by.
Three days surrounding Christmas, we went to Iguazu Falls with Joey’s twin sister Mia, and her fiancé, William. The Falls were breathtaking and Joey hiked it like a trouper. We all felt uplifted and ready to return to the chaos as we entered the tiny airport for our return trip home. “The flight has been delayed six hours,” William translated for us. Joey, already upset that he left his beautiful air-conditioned hotel room, could feel the fear in all of us and began screaming. There wasn’t a single person in the airport that would not have heard him. He dropped to the floor and banged his head as if to say, “Enough!”
As we surrounded him to keep him safe, several people came to help. As they placed their hands on Joey I was only comprehending enough Spanish to understand the word, Dios – God, but was told later they were performing an exorcism (a chapter I had not yet reached with Rosetta Stone). “Well, it can’t hurt,” I whispered to Ron, “I’ll take all the help I can get.” Although I would like to give Father Merrin credit, I am fairly certain the additional marijuana oil we gave him was more responsible for pulling out the demons, and we traveled home eventually without further incident.
For only being together two years, Ron and I share an incredible team connection which is required for daily life with Joey. The other requirement is the ability to laugh at the absurdity. Most of the absurdity occurred in the 50 or so Uber rides we took. Argentina’s inflation skyrocket in the fall of last year. Many people are scrambling to work two jobs to pay for food and shelter. Uber drivers increased, but the San Francisco company is not managing them well. Cars that can barely function were the norm and often they wouldn’t have enough gas to get us across town.
If you haven’t seen Joey in person before, just know that aside from his chiseled features and striking blue eyes, he’s quirky. He puts his arms in his jacket so it looks like he’s bound, but you can see his hands flailing out the bottom of his shirt, sometimes stuffed in his pants. He wears a helmet (his choice) and puts his shirt hood over the helmet. He also insists on sitting in the front seat. So imagine you are an Uber driver in Buenos Aires and you are picking up “Betsy” and your shotgun partner is Joey. Some went with it, others seemed terrified. “Mi hijo tiene autismo no habla pero canta,” was a phrase I became proficient in. (My son has autism, he doesn’t speak, but he sings). He would sing his little short tunes and I would sit in the back hoping we’d arrive without issues.
The last weekend of our nearly two-month journey ended with an impromptu trip to Patagonia. The two-hour flight back to Buenos Aires had been going well when shortly after taking off, without warning Joey began hitting his head. Ron and I were separated on the plane. I promptly brought Joey to the bathroom and endured a type of hell that few understand, but when I peaked out to ask for help (specifically his marijuana), Ron was right there and ready. Ron then witnessed what perfectly sums up Argentines. The flight attendant on this low budget flight asked the people in the back row if they would please move to our seats explaining that we needed help. Without hesitation Ron watched them move and take every item from our seats (glasses, phones, food, backpacks, etc.) and pass them back so that when I was forced to leave the bathroom because the plane was landing, everything was waiting for us in the last row. The airline then arranged a stairway to the back door so Joey wouldn’t have to walk through the plane. This was Argentina and this is why no matter how much hardship we endured, I will never regret my soul expanding two months.
Joey’s helmet says it all; worn out, but fully intact. I returned a different person. More confident, more able, and more in love with my partner than I ever felt possible. We did it and if the purpose of travel is the expansion, we nailed it!