Would you give up your lease and board a plane to Buenos Aires with a one-way-ticket, three children, an ex-husband, a handful of hula hoops, and not much of a plan? Hooping.org columnist and freelance blogger Tiffani Michele did. I sat down with her this week to get the story behind her bold 11-week family hooping adventure through South America, so grab a beverage and settle in for an exciting tale about embracing life’s inevitable changes, extraordinary family bonding, and hooping in another language across a continent that is not yet your own.
If you’re like me you want to know first what would prompt such an excursion. You won’t find that Tiffani lacks a sense of adventure by any means. But as with all great stories, there was more to it than that. She is primarily a devoted stay-at-home mom who unschools her three children – daughters Brooke, 16, and Dakota, 8, and son Carter, 13. Tiffani and her daughters share a deep connection in the hoop and after nine years of unschooling, they’d all carved out together a lifestyle that allowed for a great deal of freedom together. With Brooke coming of age and Carter wanting to go back to school, though, Tiffani sensed big changes for her family on the horizon. Her answer? One last big adventure while her children were all still kids. Inviting her ex along for the fun meant her children would would get to share an unforgettable experience with their father, too.
Lots of birds, one big, epic stone. This is about the point in the story when I expected to learn that Tiffani was able to pull this off because she was independently wealthy or had some mad savings stored up. Nope, not at all. She just gave up her lease (and its California-priced rent and utilities) for three months prior to leaving. She lived with family and eliminated all expenses but the phones, which she enabled with international access. Good thing, because she was going to need them. Once the family landed in South America, they stayed in hostels and made their own meals, traveling through four countries in eleven weeks. Yep, with their hoops strapped to their day packs the whole way.
I was super curious about the local reaction to their hooping. I’d figured that, like in most places, people had seen a hula hoop, but not the kind of moving dance I knew Tiffani and eldest daughter Brooke to be capable of. But when Tiffani explained how common street performing is in South America, I realized she had more of a built-in audience than I’d suspected. Since people literally perform during traffic stop lights for money, she told me, this hooping family was immediately welcomed and accepted within the busking culture wherever they went. They never put out a hat for tips, but they got them anyway. In retrospect, Tiffani said, they should have taken better advantage of that! Without even trying, she estimates they earned about $2 a day, or enough for their favorite breakfast of coffee and pastries. Wherever the family went, people wanted to try the hoop. It made it easier for them to meet people and make friends along the way. So I was sure Tiffani was going to have at least one story to tell about losing, misplacing or hunting down one of hoops. But she chuckled, reminding me that she always had her eye on the three most important things in her travels- her passport, her kids, and her hoops.
When I asked about her favorite moments from the near 3-month trip, she didn’t blink before answering. Trekking around Argentina’s Patagonia mountains was near the top of the list. Especially the day they all accomplished a 22 mile round-trip hike. They divided up the food and water, each carrying what they could, stopping to picnic and enjoy one another along the way. When I asked how hoops fit into an all day-long hike through the mountains, she told me they’d hoop “on breaks. There was always energy for hooping,” she assured me. Here she was, proud momma, surrounded by the best of what nature had to offer and her family. It’s an experience that’s hard to top.
But they did top it on Dakota’s 9th birthday, atop Machu Picchu! Tiffani had been there before and it was a place she badly wanted to share with her kids. It’s the one tourist destinations they visited, preferring to mainly stay off the beaten track. But, as Tiffani explained, there’s a reason that every tourist makes their way to Machu Picchu. They hiked all over the terraced sides of the mountain, even sneaking in their hoops to get some stunning photographs. Tiffani was holding Dakota’s hand, looking down on the beauty below, when her daughter told her she’d want to be nowhere else for her birthday. Naturally, Tiffani’s got her work cut out for her to make Dakota’s 10th birthday as special.
As Tiffani was traveling with her family, she told me, she was also navigating the shift from parenting small children to parenting teenagers. “They’re so independent. I was missing the one-on-one time from when they needed me for everything. I was struggling with my role and purpose in their lives.” Against the backdrop of another culture, the family moved through these changes together. Thirteen year-old son Carter giggled slyly every time a server brought him a beer or wine glass. And young Dakota, who has strong personal boundaries, learned to accept and melt into the exuberant embraces of what Tiffani called the “huggingest culture.” And when the kids and their dad Todd went to the beach during the last two weeks while Tiffani headed to the jungle, mom felt how inescapable life’s changes can truly be. Even in the middle of nowhere, she sighed as she received texts from her eldest daughter Brooke, smiling in photos with handsome young men that had taken to calling her “Rainbow Panquque” because her hair and clothing were colorful and “pancake” was her favorite word in Spanish. After long days of hiking, picnicking and hooping, Tiffani would grab a glass of Argentina’s best wines with her ex-husband and reflect upon what wonderful lives they’d made for their children.
Every time I gasped at the “amazing” nature of her adventure, Tiffani impressed upon me that this was a “true story!” It was her story, a story that stretches what one believes is possible. On the road she met nothing but people who were doing “impossible” things. People who had hiked from Alaska to the tip of South America. Another who was unicycling around the continent. A Frenchwoman who had hitch-hiked by boat across the ocean. It was something that required a radical change in one’s mindset. While she marveled at their accomplishments, they marveled at hers. No, they protested, traveling with your kids and your ex-husband is “impossible!” This was an entirely new way to push her limits – in a hoop, with her family, and for all the previously “impossible” things she could now imagine for her future.
For those itching for their own adventure, she gave me a list of websites that help families trade lives for a short time: LoveHomeSwap.com, HomeExchange.com, TheVacationExchange.com and Wwoofinginternational.org. But for now, Tiffani and her children are back home in California, not waiting for the signs of what’s next, but actively paving out their own way where “change” now signifies “possibility”. Wherever they go next, you can be sure there will be smiles on their faces and yes, there will be hoops strapped to their backpacks.
Lara Eastburn has been dancing in meadows and singing with the moon while spinning in circles for eons at Superhooper.org. She’s also the driving force behind Circumference with online and live business and marketing classes for hoop makers, instructors, and performers.