Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Tips Page

*Squeaky bathroom door hinges are common in hot/moist locations. Nobody ever notices how annoying they are until the middle of the night. Spray them with hair glosser (anything containing oil will work) and you won’t have to kill anyone for using the bathroom at 3am.

*Waiting for food at restaurants can be hard on kids – even teens and pre-teens. The answer? Drinking games (Don’t you judge me!) of course no one drinks – just wins or loses - but it is a good way to prep your kids for the REAL rigors of college isn’t it? Our favorites are Bunny (see video podcast Tiki Bar), Head Downer (last one to inconspicuously put their head down loses), and Rock, Paper, Scissors Family Champion of the Day. Of course these are not meant for fancy pants restaurants – but neither are children.

*When in Fiji never EVER kill the house spider. Yes I know it is huge. No, seriously, huge enough that you will worry about it making off with the beer. But you don't want to kill it. Why? Because it is in charge of killing the things you REALLY don't want in your house. Everybody sing "La Cucaracha, La Cucaracha"

*When in Fiji, making the crossing by boat from Taveuni to Savusavu - for the love of god spring for the first class ticket. The economy class lounge smells like some diabolical parmesan cheese/bugspray/vomit combo platter. This we learned the hard way. Stay tuned for the story.

News Flash: Guatemala is Hot in June - Hot But Cool

Yes, I know, cheesy title. But the heat makes me stupid - walking into street signs stupid - and it is HOT here. Crazy hot. Breathing makes me sweat hot.

We are staying in hotel Casona de la Isla on the shores of Lago Peten Itza in the island city of Flores in north-central Guatemala. It is beautiful - a colonial-style village of cobbled streets and brightly colored buildings.

I am sitting on my balcony overlooking the pool (complete with waterfall) and beyond that the indigo sparkling waters of Lago de Atilan. While waiters in their crisp, white shirts serve guests enjoying breakfast on the patio and the gardener carefully prunes an errant overhanging ficus branch. My family is asleep just behind me – in a large, air-conditioned room with 3 beds and a pullout futon – and all of this for US $67/night!

Flores, Guatemala is a lovely and inexpensive city which is mostly used as a center from which to explore Tikal (lagest Mayan ruin site in Central America). We stayed here only two nights but decided to explore the city itself.

On our arrival the kids were hot and tired and the pool was just the antidote. Then as Mike and I enjoyed a couple of Gallos on the restaurant patio, Charlie and Anna played with some local kids at jumping off the dock into the fresh water lake.

We walked down to take some pictures and met Victor, a captain of one of the small wooden boats that are used to tour the lake. We made plans for a morning tour and turned in early.

At 9 the next morning Victor took us on a wonderful tour which included a story about the Mayan history of the lake. Problem was – he spoke only Spanish. I was to be the translator for the rest of my family. In short the history of this place has something to do with Hernando Cortez, 3 Mayan Tribes, a horse, and lemon cream pie (I might have misunderstood that last part).

He was an elegant orator – gesturing languidly with great variety of timber and volume in his voice. Then he would look to me to translate – and I would just make stuff up. I think my children laughed more than he expected. He must think Americans are crazy.

We went to a very cool island zoo where we saw 3 varieties of pigs, very stinky, very dangerous, and very stinky AND dangerous. (Again, all in Spanish). Panthers, ocelots and cougars – the tri-fecta of cool animals and swinging spider monkeys made the trip worth the price of admission (US $19 for all 5 of us).

But the best was the cement waterslide/small child cannon. This thing was unbelievable and I am lucky everyone’s bones are intact. “Es muy rapido,” said Victor nodding and smiling. Screams of terror sound much like screams of enjoyment, so it wasn’t until I got down to the bottom to film my children being launched like cannon balls (a good 15 feet through the air and into the lake) that I saw the truth. Everyone left that experience with a small injury. But as with most dangerous, violent rides, they loved it.

The evening was spent meeting new people from around the world – mostly European – and playing guitar and harmonica with them. It was a blast.

You should come here. But learn the Spanish. And when you do, remember to let me in on what old Hernando did with that lemon cream pie.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Belize Diving Fun/Terror

Our time in Belize is coming to a close. Just 2 more days and we are off on our adventure around the world. Belize feels like home to me, and so it seems like we haven’t really started the “Big Gone” yet.

Charlie, Anna, and my mother-in-law Lynn all got certified to scuba dive yesterday. There is nothing quite as terrifying and gratifying all at the same time as seeing your family at 60 feet below the surface enjoying the reef.

Charlie kept changing from his regulator to his alternate air source – a skill that you are to practice OCCASSIONALLY. I would periodically look over at him and he wouldn’t have anything in his mouth and be looking for his alternate air source. He is so comfortable underwater that he would stop swimming from time to time and hang limply in the water, appearing unconscious – to get that feeling of weightlessness. Nothing like beautiful scenery accompanied by moments of terror.

Anna is becoming such a pro! She went on a dive to 81 feet, swimming through tunnels and caverns. I love this dive (at Love Tunnels), but wouldn’t have been able to do it with her if it hadn’t been for our friend and dive instructor Billy Leslie. He is an amazing instructor, wonderful with kids and nervous adults. He was her dive buddy and did such a good job taking care of her. At the end of the dive she was so proud of her accomplishment. It was awesome!

Jack has become a brilliant, confident diver. He buddied up with his brother and did such a good job taking care of Charlie and teaching him. He is a natural underwater – very graceful and self-assured. However, even with all this skill and confidence, I was still a bit of a nervous wreck down there. I don’t think I looked at the coral once - just scanned from one of my progeny to the next looking for a sign of panic or distress. There were, however, gratifying moments.

The best dive was to a sight called Esmeralda. Billy (along with other dive masters) has been taking sardines down to feed the nurse sharks for several years now, and since I first dove this sight (7 yrs ago) the sharks have become so tame! In the past the sharks would swim near the dive master looking for a treat, and the tourists would get to SEE a nurse shark. Now the sharks nose right up under their arms and swim along nestled beside them. It is quite a sight – dive master with a 6 ft nurse shark under each arm.

Billy held the sharks, turned them over and rubbed their bellies – and allowed us to do the same. The sharks go limp and stay in that position a long time. Is this harassment? It sure doesn’t look like it. The sharks swam right up to Billy and only stayed as long as they seemed to want to.

At one point Billy had one shark tail in each hand and was swimming away, shark upside down and backward and seeming to enjoy the ride. With one swish of their powerful tails they could have been gone. But they didn’t seem to want that.

Each of my kids got to hug a shark and rub its belly. Pretty darn cool. Pretty darn frightening.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Belize Jungle Adventure - With Horsepower

Belize is changing so rapidly it’ll make your eco-head spin. It has quickly changed from a quiet little country of fishermen and subsistence farmers to an enormously popular adventure-travel destination. Growth like this generally has terrible consequences for the environment but for now Belize seems to be hanging in there. Still quaint, still friendly, still filled with beautiful reefs and rainforests.

I am afraid this won’t always be the case – and so I suggest you visit as soon as possible.

I am finding more new kinds of adventures available these days, and as the sales rep. for The Blue Tang Inn (San Pedro, Belize) I need to be familiar with them all. Sometimes, however I question the environmental impact related to these tours. And although I’m not playing egg toss with sea turtle eggs or harpooning baby manatee cubs, my anglo, middleclass, American guilt kicks in from time to time.

Am I creating a carbon footprint or a giant, heaving carbon suckhole?

Filled with this uncertainty, I agreed to go on a rainforest tour, river kayak, and Mayan cave expedition. Here’s the kicker. The rainforest tour is on ATVs, and we are taking a jet boat to the mainland. (Can’t you just hear the seahorses whimpering?)

We took a 50 minute ride on the “Reef Rocket” jet boat from San Pedro. It was fast, it was scenic and it was FUN. (Look away I’m ashamed). Our guide, Raymond Boatman, met us at the “manufactured for the consumption of cruise-ship passengers” port in Belize City. (Seriously – no locals are allowed into this area of Belize City unless they are employed at a restaurant or shop there. And no tourists are allowed out).

Raymond, an educated, knowledgeable, charming Belizean guided us through the Pecary Park area of Belize. He and all of the guides employed by Discovery Tours have grown up here. This is their back yard.

He did a marvelous job with an overview of Belize (country facts) and Belize City. But it was when we started talking about his home, the area we would tour, that he really began to light up.

He told us that the people who live in this area had mostly been hunters and subsistence farmers. When Discovery Tours opened, the locals were offered the chance to “put down their guns” and earn a living by teaching travelers about their home. He said “We don’t hunt in the jungle any longer and now the animals are returning.”

The ATV thing was a blast. There were just seven of us - Mike, kids, myself, and Fanny Herstig the manager of the hotel with her husband David. The paths were well maintained the ATVs were not overly smelly or loud. But it wasn’t really a tour – more a thrill ride.

The tour part came when we went into the cave. Our guide made certain that we didn’t do anything, apart from our presence there, to disturb or disrupt more than necessary. Now I have been on a few cave tours in Belize in the past, but this one was quite different. Raymond taught us about the history and geology of the limestone caves in Belize. He talked about which portions of the cave were still “alive” (actively creating stalactites and stalagmites) and which portions were dead. He made us aware that even something as small as touching the tip of one of these formations could kill it. He made us appreciate the “life” of a cave in the same way we do the life of a reef.

And of course, there were great pieces of Mayan pottery to photograph (no touching). We learned how the Ancient Mayan’s used these pots for ceremonies –conducted in caves because caves were considered an important conduit between this world and the next. It was cool and spooky – especially when the bats flew by and the scorpions scuttled past on the ceilings.

The day ended with lunch and a leisurely kayak down the river with beautiful scenery and bird watching.

Environmentally irresponsible? Maybe.

Vastly educational? Definitely.

Fun? Bet your deep fried spotted owl it was!

Friday, June 15, 2007

Lobster fishing in Belize

Tony invited me (Mike) fishing today. June 15th is lobster open – in keeping with Belize’s ecologically friendly culture, the people decide to let the “bugs” have a bit of a honeymoon from January 15th – June 15th every year. Today, the honeymoon was over.
I woke at 4am – let me re-phrase that- 4 !#@!%$!@#%!#$% am. On the dock at 4:30 – with masks, fins, and a couple of bottles of water. We were off the dock before sunrise. We boated about 15 minutes to the area between two section of Hol Chan marine reserve. As the sun came up, we started to look for the “traps” that Tony and his father put down.
Lobster traps in Belize are more like come and go as you please hotels for Lobster. Pretty much a 6’ x 8’ square made of timber, with corrugated aluminum on top. The traps lay in about 15’ of water, and serve as ideal resting place for lobster, crabs, skates and scorpion fish.
Upon arrival, Charlie would jump in, and signal if it was worth a go – it almost always was. We’d all jump in with “Hook sticks” 4’ long sticks with very large barbless fishing hooks taped to one end. The trick was to dive down, and position the hook underneath the lobster, and jerk backwards, hooking a point under the hard shell, and before the tail meat.
At this point, if you have done everything correct, you now have a writhing, angry underwater cockroach on the end of a stick. Also, it will occur to you that you are out of breath and 15’ underwater.
Because the hooks are barbless, the angry bug will squirm off if you don’t grab it. Understand, however, that nature has pretty much designed these creatures to be among the most “un-grab-able” in history. Mostly pointed, sharp and pissed off.
And they make this “cruck cruck” sound that reminds you of how content they were to be safe and secure under their hotel, and how unhappy they are with a hook up their ass.
The boys hooked 10+ for every 1 I could get on the boat. It’s tougher than it looks.
Sometimes, they’d catch two on the same breath.
I like to see them try this being twenty pounds over -weight and out of shape. That’s all I’m saying.
Actually, I did get the hang of it, and managed to pull 5 lobsters off of one trap. Almost held my own. (Tony only got 13 that time.)
At 7am we had our first beer. At 10am we had garlic bread, sausages and hot sauce and baloney. We finished up at about 1pm.
Lobster sells wholesale about $22 BZE ($11 US) per pound. All in all, we probably took in 40 pounds – not a great day, but definitely fun.

Mom Don't Read This...

I nearly lost my entire family on a scuba dive yesterday at Hol Chan Marine Reserve (Mayan for wave bye bye to your children as they are swept out to sea). This is a dive I have done many times and I was a little disappointed that it might be boring. It’s hard to be bored when you’re terrified.

Mike, Jack, Charlie, Anna, and I were partnered with a newly certified dive master and two dive masters in training. With the combined experience we all have, I thought this would at least be an easy dive.

The boat was tied to a buoy in a very shallow spot (about 3 ft of water) and we were able to stand on the ocean floor - near the boat to put on our gear. It was a comfortable start to a familiar dive.

As we approached the channel, swimming now, I noticed that the current was unusually strong. Generally if there is a current, you are supposed to swim against it during the start of the dive, and with it on the way back. But that wasn’t what happened and we were quickly swept into the channel. Nearly out of control, we tumbled along the channel wall, bumping into rocks, coral outcroppings, and each other.

As with most bad dives, there were a series of problems; Anna’s mask kept leaking and fogging, Charlie wasn’t able to stay down, and my ears wouldn’t clear. It was uncomfortable at best.

We reached the end of the channel in about five minutes – normally a 20 minute swim -and turned around to come back. At this point the dive became terrifying. The current was so strong I had to kick with all I could muster just to keep from being blown backwards, out into the open ocean. Charlie was kicking as hard as he could and was still making negative progress. Jack seemed to be doing ok, but Mike and Anna were nowhere that I could see. I was in a full blown panic.

I was gulping air and looking to the dive master to help Charlie. He needed someone to tow him and I was no good to anyone. The best thing to do in this situation is to sink to the bottom, hold onto the rocks or sand, and crawl your way back – and that is what we did. Hand over hand, kicking as hard as I could without exhausting myself, and trying to keep my family in front of me so that I could see them.

Once out of the channel the swimming was easier and we found Mike and Anna who had cleverly turned around earlier in the dive. Though they were ok, Anna was crying and had a nasty scrape from some fire coral.

In the end we all made it out safely if rather shaken and injured (coral scrapes). As with most experiences like this there is supposed to be a lesson right? For the life of me I can’t think what it would be. What it did was make me thankful. Thankful that even without this wonderful adventure, I have all I need in my safe, healthy family. Maybe that’s the lesson right there.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Home Again Home Again Jiggity Jig

We arrived in Belize to warm welcomes from old friends. It is so comforting to go to a place where they know you by name. On our first day we saw our friend Tony on the beach cleaning and barbecuing freshly caught fish. He invited us to share with him and his friends. Tony is an amazing cook and we jumped at the chance.

I tried BBQ fish roe (egg sack) for the first time. It looks suspiciously like a large, fat worm, but as with everything that Tony makes, it tasted wonderful (though one bite was all I thought I should take).

Then our friend Thomas invited us, along with four other guests of the hotel, to his home for dinner. Thomas is a guide and fisherman, and though he and his family (wife and 3 small children) live very simply, he opened his home to us and fed us all – a delicious meal of BBQ chicken and fish, potatoes, salad and bread.

His children are a delight and read me several books –which they kept neatly on a shelf with all of their other toys. His wife was sweet and gracious and welcomed us to her home with all the charm for which the Belizean people are famous.

The kids have been kayaking, swimming, and fighting (in that order).

We are anticipating Father’s Day this Sunday. Thinking I will give Mike what he wants most – to be left the hell alone for one goddamned minute :)

Couple of funnies from the kids – Jack was fidgeting and pacing around the room picking up various things on the table and playing with them. It was driving Mike crazy. Jack said “You know if Dad goes to hell it will just be a series of people parading in front of him, playing with his stuff and leaving the door open so the mosquitoes get in.”

Mike laughed, turned to me and said “Well, at least we are going home soon”

Buckle up babies, this might be a bumpy ride.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

A Journey of 35,000 Miles Begins With a Single Cancelled Flight…..

The gods of travel are laughing at me. I often go on about how much I love travel, even the airport, even security, even other crabby travelers. Friday was a true test of that mettle. Arriving two hours preflight at MSP, it was obvious something was seriously amiss. The crowd was murmuring and scowling with heavy sighs, eye-rolling and frantic phoning. Then an agent got on the PA. Flights to Charlotte and Philadelphia had been cancelled. Something about weather. Something about no other flights today. Something about all hope being lost forever.

The good news…we are carrying paper tickets which make it easier to transfer to another airline. The bad news…we are carrying paper tickets – a big, fat stack of them, and agents tend look at these things and freak out. This agent, though I am sure he meant well, kept getting distracted if something shiny entered his peripherals. This situation would send over the edge. I was sure of it.

Then Channel 5 Eyewitness News showed up. “Tell me” the reporter pried. “How does it feel to be standing in an unmoving line for 2 hours?”

“Gee Sparky, it feels just like an ice-cream enema” would have been the appropriate response.

The better news is that Mike got on the phone almost immediately with an angel straight down from heaven. Her name is Andi, she is from the US Airways international rate desk, and folk songs will be written about her.

She found us another flight on American Airlines, leaving the next day, confirmed the seats, and then sat on the phone with Mike for the TWO HOURS it took for us to get to the front of the line. She wanted to make sure that the agent would know what to do with us, with this complicated trip, with this fat stack of handwritten, paper tickets. She is a Super Hero.

Extremely long story short – we stayed in Minneapolis that first night, and watched Mike’s interview on the 10 pm news with Sparky the Channel 5 Eyewitness News reporter. They cut the part about the ice cream.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Why On Earth...

We’re a week out. In 7 days I will be getting on a plane with my husband of 20 years and three teenagers. I won’t set foot back into my house for 5 ½ months. I’m nervous and jerky and nauseous, but not out of fear of going – out of fear that something will prevent it.

Being a direct descendent of gypsies and horsetheives, it is my nature to wander. But this is a wander in the extreme - even for me. And though we have traveled together many times in the past, an argument could be made that this trip is, at best, ill-advised.

Mike (hubbage) has, in the past, been referred to as “sound sensitive", and suffers from the 4pm itchy, cranky, nasties.

It was once suggested by teachers, doctors, and experts that I keep a tidy schedule and predictable routine for the benefit of child number two.

Youngest child can be rashy and prone to motion sickness.

Our oldest, has known the exact combination of education and employment necessary to achieve his goals, along with the accompanying time table, since early in his second year of life.

We have a dog.

So why do it? Because we believe that the best way to change the world, to get people to stop hating and killing each other is to meet them - to see the grandmothers and the babies and fathers and mothers - to eat with them and laugh with them; play music with them and worship with them.

Do I think this trip will change society? No. But I do believe it will fundamentally change us. And that’s all that I need for now.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Come with us as we travel the world with our three children

Traveling the world with our teenagers…

Our family is leaving on June 8 on an adventure that will fundamentally change each of us. My husband of 20 years and 3 teenagers 16,13,11 (boy,boy,girl) are traveling around the world.

We will be living in Belize, Guatemala, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, China, Tibet, Austria, Greece, Switzerland, France, Italy, Czech Republic and Ireland over the course of the next 5 1/2 months.

We are a real family of 5, married 20 years, paying our own way. We are adventurous, scuba diving, bungee jumping, canyoning, zorbing, and we get through the tough or trying times by making each other laugh.

The travel will be “middle-class” – not backpacker travel, but not high end. We have done all of the planning, booking, prepping and packing by ourselves with the help of generous friends. . The concept – around the world in 5 months with teenagers. How does a family survive that much time together? How do teenagers leave their lives and friends and activities for such an intense learning adventure? How can we do this on a budget? How does this apply to every other family? The focus is exposure to cultures, customs, and foods, and creating global citizens by learning from other families throughout the world.

I write a travel/humor column for a regional magazine. My blog – – has previously published articles about our travels. We plan to home school the children during the trip – with 6 languages and dozens of cultures to learn about.

We leave June 8th.

Come along.