The photo is grainy and worn. A rare memento that survived customs, the farm in Tennessee and a family’s purging of possessions.
The snapshot is ordinary, really: A 6-yearold girl poses in front of a fountain, eyes squinting under the bright sun, smiling toothlessly and holding balloons in each hand.
It’s the contrast of this simple portrait that shaped Wendy Dale’s life.
This was Peru in 1977. Wendy’s parents moved there when she was 4.
"I returned to the United States a pretty weird kid," said Wendy, now 32 and living in Los Angeles. "I was the only third-grader in my class who never tasted a Big Mac, had no idea who this Grover guy was and was completely baffled by the machine that you put a quarter in and got a soda can out of."
In Wendy’s travel memoir, "Avoiding Prison and Other Noble Vacation Goals: Adventures in Love and Danger," (Three Rivers Press, 2003), she explains how her parents’ unconventional travels inspired her own search for a life without material trappings, without limits, without borders.
• • •
...That was the difference between my folks and (other) families. (Other) families viewed maps as innocuous wall hangings, pretty pictures that coordinated nicely with the colors in the couch. My parents saw maps as suggestions. To a Dale, Rand McNally was an international relocation guide. — From "Avoiding Prison and Other Noble Vacation Goals" by Wendy Dale
A LIFE LESS ORDINARY
For most people, quitting their jobs and selling everything to seek adventure abroad is a nice fantasy. It’s not something people actually do. Except Richard (Dick) and Cathie Dale did. For the Dales, who moved to Mesa in 1999, home is a place that evolves. Cathie caught the travel bug early. The child of Army parents, she roamed all over the world. Dick grew up in the small desert town of Miami, Ariz., where exploring was limited to defunct copper mines.
They met at the University of Arizona. Fell in love. Graduated. Got married. Moved to California. Wendy — the first of four children — was born. Then, in 1974, Dick accepted a better-paying mining engineering job that changed everything — a post in Peru.
"A lot of people didn’t realize that we both wanted an adventure," Cathie said. "We were ready to have new experiences"
So, with little knowledge of the language or the culture, the Dales, with their 4-year-old daughter in tow, headed south.
"It was great to see how different things could be," Dick said.
". . .to see the Indian ladies with their braids, carrying babies with shawls on their backs," Cathie elaborated.
"Moving the first time was the hardest," Dick said. "When you do it once, it becomes addictive."
• • •
My mother had her doubts about the whole project, but my father remained upbeat.
"Dick, you’ve never been a farmer before. How will you know where to begin?"
"Don’t worry, pookie," my father answered in the same tone of voice that had gotten my mother to agree to the whole scheme in the first place. "I have a lot of books on the subject."
The sight of my father sprawled out on the grass in front of our station wagon reading about agriculture caused a great deal of laughter among our neighbors. After all, they were real farmers.
HOUSE ON WHEELS
Dick and Cathie had two more daughters — Heather and Catherine — while living in Peru. Then, the travel bug bit again. The family moved to Tennessee, living in a station wagon on 150 acres that Dick dreamed of transforming into a farm. In the years that followed, there were moves to South Carolina, Minnesota and Montana, and the birth of their son Rich.
In 1990, they returned to Arizona, buying a house in Tempe. They bought a small vending business. Wendy had graduated from UCLA and was writing employee newsletters for an aerospace company. Heather was at Vassar. Catherine and Rich were healthy and happy in Arizona.
From the outside, it must have seemed like the American dream: A house, two cars, a good job. But, it wasn’t the Dales’ dream.
That’s when Cathie made a decision.
"I knew something was bothering Dick. One day I went outside and he was just sitting there, looking up at the sky, staring at the planes," Cathie said.
"I knew we had to change our lives, and my first thought was to move someplace."
• • •
In typical Richard Dale fashion, he had read a stack of books, pored through magazine articles, and after some final calculations, he realized exactly what he would be giving up: middle age spent between the office and the television set, a life of sameness, of growing old with nothing but a resume and a manicured lawn to show for it. Suburban Tempe was nothing but going to work, buying things, and going to bed. My father had wanted to escape.
TICKET TO HAPPINESS
"We had heard about Americans retiring in Costa Rica and that sounded interesting," Cathie said. "But it was just as expensive to live there as it was in Phoenix.
"So that’s when we looked at Honduras and thought our money would last."
The Dales sold their house, their cars and their business, limiting their belongings to one suitcase each and hopping on a one-way flight to Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras.
"My sisters and I would get together and just laugh. ‘So our parents are really moving to Honduras?’" Wendy said. "They really did this with so little forethought. We were astounded that this was the way they chose to change their life." Catherine stayed in Tempe to finish her senior year of high school. Rich, who was 11, didn’t have that option.
Living in the poorest country in Central America had its privileges. In the U.S., $5,000 could buy a two-week cruise. In Honduras, it bought a year of comfort in a two-story, three-bedroom Spanish colonial house in the richest part of the city.
Poverty, however, was only a bus ride away.
"Seeing people who were really poor, living in huts, it really bothered (Rich)," Cathie said. "When he got some friends he found life a lot more interesting."
Rich joined the Boy Scouts. U.S. Marines, who worked at the embassy, instructed his troop. Merit badges were definitely earned.
"The Marines would use camping trips as field exercises," Dick said. "The Marines would stage a mock attack at the embassy and the Boy Scouts had to defend it."
• • •
Meanwhile, my father had been busy with a project of his own. "Jalapeno chili peppers," my mother explained. "Your father has become a jalapeno-chili-pepper farmer in Honduras."
Most people, upon hearing such news, would have reacted with some surprise. I, however, did not come from a typical family. "Again?" I asked.
My mother rolled her eyes. "Again," she said.
Wendy laughs even before recounting each story about her parents: There was the time her mother was shocked at how inexpensive medical treatments were in Honduras and said, "I went to the gynecologist and it was only $2. I’m going to go more often."
Then there was the time the family all wore Lands End clothing on a trip to Mexico and somehow convinced the company to put Cathie and Dick on the cover of its catalog. The time her mom realized her friend that worked at the U.S. Embassy in Honduras really worked for the CIA.
"I learned to keep a notepad," Wendy said, "and I wrote things down at the time. It is word for word."
• • •
Although I still didn’t know what country my parents would wind up in, I now knew that help would always just be one overseas plane ticket away. My parents had never provided me with a stable home, but now I realized they had given me something better: The ability to make any place in the world my home.
"I’m in San Jose and was thinking of popping in for a visit in a few weeks. What do you think?"
"Oh, Wendy, we’d love to see you, but it’s not a good time. We’re really busy."
"What are you doing? I thought you guys didn’t do anything."
"Normally, we don’t. But this week, we’re moving to Bolivia. Didn’t you get the e-mail?"
The four years the Dales spent in Central and South America reshaped their view of the world — a view they brought back to the United States when their money ran out.
They saw immigration from the other side — how a $35 fee to apply for entry into the United States could financially cripple a family. How even the poorest of communities shared their wealth, even if that meant a night huddled around the only television in the village. They saw how the simplest of gifts could make a difference.
"I gave a guy a $15 popcorn machine and that became his livelihood," Dick said. "He would make popcorn and sell it. It changed his entire life."
The experience also rubbed off on the Dales’ kids, for whom traveling to a foreign country seems no more exotic than moving to Arizona from the Midwest.
"I feel very lucky to have traveled so much," said Wendy, who has spent two years living in places like Lebanon, Columbia and Costa Rica. "I’ve learned that different ways of life are acceptable."
Heather lives in Cairo, Egypt, with her Pakistani husband. Catherine lives in New York City, and Rich joined the Army and will begin active duty next month.
Dick, 57, now makes his living selling gems and minerals online. Cathie, 52, has a reservations job with Southwest Airlines, where she is earning free travel credit.
"It really was my parents’ decision that inspired me to try to be happy," Wendy said.
"I played by the rules and I did everything that society told me I needed to do to be happy and they failed me. That’s when I decided I was going to travel seriously and with a sense of humor."
It is that sense of humor Wendy hopes people can relate to in her book.
"The book really is about growing up in my family, about getting closer to my mother," she said.
"Growing up, you don’t always appreciate your parents, but I realized how wonderful it was to grow up in this family."
What: Wendy Dale will read from her book "Avoiding Prison and Other Noble Vacation Goals: Adventures in Love and Danger."
When: 7 p.m. Sept. 2.
Where: Changing Hands Bookstore, 6428 S McClintock Drive, Tempe
information: (480) 730-0205 or www.changinghands.com