Monday, February 18, 2008

New Latitude.....Same Attitude

As a four year old I had no words for it, but I knew that something big was happening. It was a hot summer evening and I felt weird – some odd combo platter of emotion…dread…excitement…fear? I couldn’t tell. But I knew that my six brothers and sisters were thrilled, and that my mom, though she was smiling, was feeling something else, something much more sinister.

Around 6pm my dad burst through the door with a puffed up chest and a mischievous smile. “Pack up the kids Doris” he bellowed, “We’re going on vacation.” It was a Friday in late August, commission check time for feed salesman in small town Southern Minnesota, and it had been a good week. My brothers and sisters were jumping and hollering. “Whoo Hoo! Vacation! I get Mom’s lap.” “Hugh-ungh you got it last time.” My mother got this odd look on her face – something between fear and homicidal mania.

You see vacation to our family was not some rustic, cozy cabin in the north woods on a lake – or even roughing in a tent with a camp stove. Our vacation home was an old abandoned farmhouse in the middle of a cricket-infested field in southern Minnesota. It had no electricity, no indoor plumbing, no bedding, no dishes – and my mother was to pack up seven children, supplies, equipment, and food at 6 pm on a Friday night so that we could arrive before dark. How she went 55 years without smothering that man in his sleep I will never understand.

Packing the car was an exercise in advanced geometry and triangulation. Nine people, food, sheets, towels, supplies, and Poncho – the nervous, incontinent, motion sick terrier were all to fit into the midnight-blue Buick Roadmaster. We were lap-sitters, the lot of us, four in the front and five in the back. As the baby of the family, I got to ride in back window of the sedan along with Poncho, and it was my job to yell “CAR” whenever I saw one approaching or trying to pass.

What would turn out to be our very last visit to the abandoned shack began just as all the others had, with frenzy and excitement and undeniable dread. And now it was nighttime – dark as pitch. I was curled up with my sister on an army surplus cot built for one. We were a tangle of clammy arms and legs, sweaty brows and musty old blankets, waging a sleep-war for the only pillow. It was a hushed symphony of cricket chirps and sleep murmurs. Then everything changed.

At first I could only hear the huffing. This was not the rhythmic familiarity of my dad’s snoring. No, whatever was breathing like that was definitely not human and it smelled horribly of musk and mold and decay. Satan’s perfume. I heard my mother’s voice.

“Ellis” she whisper-screamed “there is a BEAR in here!”
“Just go back to sleep. It’ll leave” my dad replied.
“GET IT OUT OF HERE!” She was no longer whispering.
“How in hell am I supposed to do that? I don’t have a gun.” He said.
“You want me to chase a bear?”

Muttering curses like Yosemite Sam, my dad hurled himself out of the bed and made all the noise a 5 foot 4 inch, 145 lb man could make. He shouted and flailed and banged on whatever was near him, completely blind in the darkness. My nine year-old brother Jimmy took an inadvertent cuff to the ear and howled out in pain. This started a chain reaction of screaming and falling to the floor from seven children and a very small, very frightened terrier.

The commotion died down when Mom lit the gas lantern and we looked around the cabin. No bear, no boogeyman, just that unholy, lingering odor.
The door was standing wide open and we held our breath as Dad bravely advanced on the door, and beyond it, the wild, ferocious animal that had nearly massacred his family.

There at the bottom of the steps sat a very confused, very hairy golden retriever, panting and huffing with his head tilted a little to one side. “Well there’s you bear Doris, there’s your god damned bear.” My father shook his head, quenched the light, and went back to sleep.

Fast forward 35 or so years and I am in a lovely hotel with my husband and three kids. We have a pool, a beach, a kitchen and air conditioning. “C’mon you guys, this will be an adventure.” I coaxed. I had met a man named Christian who was building a resort on one of the undeveloped outer cayes in Belize. His resort wasn’t open for guests yet, but would be very soon. He was looking for someone to market the resort in the US, and I, being a travel agent who was already marketing a hotel on another caye, I was a natural choice. He offered free accommodations for the weekend.

We packed a boat with provisions and took the two hour ride to Long Caye Resort. As we docked the boat and unloaded, I noticed that my husband had this strange look on his face. He didn’t seem nearly as excited for this adventure as I was. “Jeez” I thought. “Where’s your sense of fun?”

The cloud of mosquitoes descended on us almost immediately. I’d never seen anything like it. They were as thick as fog, buzzing and biting like the frenzied vampires they are. At once they were in my eyes, up my nose, in my mouth and ears. Choking and swatting, we jumped into the ocean to escape.

“Careful of the stinging jellyfish ma’am.” Christian, our host announced. “They’re everywhere.” We snatched the kids out of the water and put on long sleeves and pants, hats and bandanas. Trouble is, it was about 106º and humid. Everyone was miserable, sweating and itching like crazy. “Quick – inside the hotel” I offered.

Christian showed us to our rooms – a 10x10 box with no cross ventilation, no screens on the only window and gaping holes in the unfinished roof. It did have a ceiling fan, and I was hoping that after the sun set the mosquitoes would abate and the breeze of the fan would keep us cool.

“You have electricity right?” My husband accused.
“Yes, of course.” Replied Christian.

And he did. Except, he forgot to mention that the generator was turned off every night around 10 pm - turning the 10x10 hot box of a room into a sweltering, buggy oven. We passed that hideous night taking turns trying to cool off in the shower down the hall – fully clothed.

The next morning we were up and out of there before our host was even awake. I was appropriately contrite about my mis-adventure. However, on the way back I asked my husband if we could stop at another island just a little further south. I had heard about a resort that some American had built and then abandoned. Apparently he had been in trouble with the law and had to flee country. “We should stop and take a look.” I said. “I guess it’s brand new and just sitting there empty for anyone to use. We could stay the night. It would be an adventure!” He just looked down and shook his head.

How that man has gone 22 years without smothering me in my sleep I will never understand.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Photos of Kids in Paris

To see photos of where it all began - taking the kids with - click here

To read essays from my other travel adventures click here

Paris 2003 As The Taking With Begins

“WOW! You’re an amazing woman!” he blurted. His eyes flashed with admiration as a giant smile washed across his face. Realizing what he’d just said, how he’d just proclaimed his private feelings, he shyly dropped his chin and glanced down. I have never heard more enchanting words. Sure we were holed up in some dimly lit café in Paris, the epicenter for passionate outbursts. But the fact was this was not some dashing young suitor. This was my 13 year old son, thoroughly impressed with my ability to get him a coke and a hamburger in my halting college French.

Two years ago I took our sons, 10 and 13, to Paris over their Thanksgiving break. Those who didn’t think I was crazy surely thought I was stupid. I admit I have an uncommon love for Paris and all things French, and I probably painted a slightly biased picture in their imaginations (hot coco and chocolate filled croissants for breakfast!). But truly, Paris is a wonderful travel destination for children. The secrets? Stay close to a metro stop. Keep museum visits short – less than an hour. Never get too hungry or too tired. Forget shopping – except in the toy stores which are delightful. Keep it fun and active.

At first a sunset cruise on the Seine, directly upon our arrival seemed like a horrible idea. Two jet-lagged boys on a guided tour sounded like a recipe for disaster. As it turned out we were practically the only people on the boat that chilly November evening, and my boys were so tired they were incapable of round 27 of “He’s Touching Me – I’m Not Touching Him”. As the sun set, the twinkling lights of the Eiffel tower reflected in their eyes. They were awed by the sights, the sounds, the thrill of this new city.

The next day at the Louvre my boys displayed an astonishing amount of art appreciation. The secret here was telling them the dollar value of the art they are meant to appreciate. I didn’t know it myself of course, but gave them fantastically inflated numbers that made their eyes grow big and round. Plus, somehow they got the impression that if the even seemed to be considering touching the art, before their fingertips could brush the canvas, they would be shot by guards who dressed as tiny old French ladies in big coats. These women were everywhere in the museums, always alone, and staring at young children with menacing glares (Think Granny from the Bugs Bunny cartoons with an enormous hound’s-tooth check overcoats and maybe…… just maybe, an M16 hidden in the folds). They didn’t believe me of course, but when they saw how well-behaved and fearful the French children looked in their tidy little uniforms and precise straight lines, they did wonder.

We saw all the greats, Mona Lisa, Water Lilies, Winged Victory; but we never spent more than 30 minutes in any museum or between snacks. It worked wonderfully. In fact, due to the untold hours that each had spent playing some computer game called Age of Mythology, they recognized the Greek and Roman God sculptures much better than I. Don’t think I didn’t revel in the admiring glances from other parents as my young boys, in their turtle necks and corduroys said “Mom, look! It’s Aphrodite and Eros!” Ah yes, the value of a classic education!

The food was incredible and not terribly expensive. My boys squeamishly tasted pate, fois gras, and escargot. They hated it of course, but now take pride in telling people that they ate liver and snails in Paris – just like fear factor! We usually ate from street vendors and bakeries at impromptu outdoor picnics, keeping restaurant visits to a minimum. Their favorite activity was our self-guided hot chocolate tour of Paris. They kept a journal, and rated the delicious concoctions at each café. The very best, at Café Flore en I’lle, was served in 2 separate steaming pitchers, one of milk and one of liquid chocolate. It was the distinct winner, and my boys were consumed with creating the perfect mixture. I got to rest my feet and enjoy views of Notre Dame from our cozy table by the window, my sons on either side of me with matching chocolate mustaches.

Best of all though, is that when I embarrassed myself, as I do in every place I visit, my children were spared the humiliation since they didn’t understand the language. We were visiting a glorious little chapel called St. Chapelle. While inside, I set down my guidebook and camera to tie my son’s shoe, and accidentally walked out without them. Just as we were leaving, I realized my mistake, but the doors had been locked behind us and I couldn’t go back inside. I wandered around searching for security when I came upon a small cluster of young policemen. I asked them in French “Please, can you help me?” Then realized I didn’t know how to say that I had “left” my things inside. So what came out was “I have a book and a camera inside, can you help me?” (Complete with my most charming smile).

Well, I thought it was odd that the policemen all smiled sheepishly, hands in pockets, and looked at their shoes. They shot sideways glances at one another, and seemed embarrassed, on the verge of laughter. Again I pleaded “I have a book and a camera in there. Can you help me please? It is closed and no one is inside.” (Again the smile).

Finally, after much gesturing, I got one of the men to understand me and he kindly helped me retrieve my things. We left without further incident.

As I was falling asleep that night I was trying to understand my failure with the language. Then it dawned on me. The French word for book is “livre”. I had been saying “lit” which means BED! I had been begging these men “Please, come with me inside; no one is there. I have a BED and a camera; come with me now! No one is around.”

Don’t get me wrong here. It wasn’t a week full of meaningful moments filled with famous, awe-inspiring artwork while the sparkling lights of Paris reflected in my son’s eyes. There were plenty of excruciating rounds of “I Know You Are – But What Am I” “I Did Not – You Did Too” and the perennial favorite “Nolan Children Family Smack Down”. The point is that with humor, a sense of adventure, and lots of activity we had an unforgettable time together.

And not that I’m counting, but twice……TWICE they told me they thought I was amazing.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Or....Perhaps Go Alone

Just three months after returning home from my “around the world” trip and it happens again… itchy feet, restlessness, agitation. I’ve got another case of wanderlusties and I need get on a plane. Luckily my friend Adrienne emailed with a plan. “Five women, a beach in Mexico, four nights, exceedingly affordable. Who’s with me?” She wrote.

I didn't know these women (aside from Adrienne) and since I would be meeting them in Mexico, I would do the traveling alone. Perfect. I love to travel alone. It allows me to indulge my favorite guilty pleasure, people-watching. Sometimes this is the most entertaining part of a trip. Once, at an afternoon Jimmy Buffett concert in Wrigley Field I got separated from my friends. Rather than trying to sift through the partying parrotheads*, I sat in the bleachers and watched the shenanigans unfold.

I got to see “Wow This Beer Stuff Tastes GREAT” guy, muster enough liquid courage to dance with “Third Prettiest In The Group” girl. “Jumping’ Waving” couple were having a blast together, but seemed unable to synchronize the sipping of their beverages and were rapidly becoming “Soaking Jumping Waving” couple. My favorite was “Happy Dancing Alone” dude. He was a young, smiley guy who danced his way around the entire stadium walkway a dozen or more times. He nodded greetings to anyone who made eye contact, and toasted every glass he could reach without breaking the song’s rhythm. And every woman who crossed his path was gently twirled, winked at, and bid adieu with a bow or a two fingered salute. That dude knew how to travel alone.

My husband deposited me at the Minneapolis airport that -15o January morning and lovingly bid me farewell with “You suck, have fun.” I felt washed with a familiar, heady excitement. It reminded me of a time nearly three decades ago, when clutching a temporary driver’s license in my 16 year old hands; I went out for a drive. Alone.

I was the first to arrive at the hotel, and as the room wasn’t quite ready, I had to wait. So I flounced off to the restaurant for lunch. I couldn’t have been happier sitting in that beachside café eating fish tacos and drinking a cold beer - alone. The waiter spent a good deal of time talking with me. Maybe he felt sorry for me having to dine alone. Silly boy.

After lunch I holed up on a beach chair, still dressed in my warm “from up north” clothes and watched the waves roll into shore - alone. I saw “Annoyed Underbreath Mumbler” husband applying sun block to “You’re Not Doing It Right” wife’s back. Just a few chairs down were “Starry-eyed Honeymoon” couple. She was lying back in her lounge chair, eyes closed, sporting a white bikini, a beautiful tan and a blissful smile. He was smiling too until he spotted “You’re Not Doing It Right” wife, and then wordlessly began to glance from her to his new bride with something between fear and realization on his face.

Adrienne arrived with the others and we all set about the business of getting to know each other. Now I have been married to “Center Stage” man for 20 years, and am very comfortable getting to know new people through him. He generally initiates the telling of our funny stories and is mostly responsible for creating the first impression. He is a charming guy and people generally love him, but it I liked creating a different first impression - alone.

The long weekend turned out to be an exercise in sunning, lounging, eating and drinking. I enjoyed getting to know new people, but also myself in some small ways. We had political discussions I wouldn’t normally have and I heard myself expressing opinions I hadn’t voiced before. We enjoyed funny conversations which gave me the opportunity to tell stories and use witty lines my husband has heard dozens of times. But with this fresh audience, I got the laughs I hadn’t heard in awhile.

In addition, I got to be an observer as much as I wanted. One morning, I witnessed "Drunky McLushenstein Experiences Hangover Regret” kid (young construction dude from Chicago) trying to recall the interaction he apparently had with “Early Rising Trolling Cougar” (much older VERY romantically interested woman). He shuffled by my lounge chair, wearing swimsuit and dark sunglasses, head hanging and feeling so ill that he couldn’t even manage to lift his heals. He was emitting a low moan and I could smell the mixture of Coppertone and stale beer from 10 paces. She was in the pool shouting his name and waving frantically. “Jim, Jim, JIM! It’s ME, OVER HERE!” He looked toward her, whispered under his breath “Awww #%&!” (very naughty word). He sighed deeply, turned and crept over to the pool to try to sort out what he’d done the night before and face the music.

And also, as much as I wanted, I was alone; exploring the grounds, walking the beach, coming and going as I pleased without having to check with any one else’s schedule.

This experience got me thinking. Are there other women like me somewhere? Women who, from time to time would like to travel with the safety and companionship of a group, but also with the option to be alone? I’m not talking about a woman’s retreat, a therapy or enrichment group or some team building experience, but rather just a group of women who like to travel together – alone.

If this sounds like you or someone you know, drop me a line at

Who’s with me?

*Parrotheads are fervent Jimmy Buffett fans who go to concerts wearing beachy costumes like coconut bras, grass skirts, and any manner of silly head dress. They tailgate the event, are likely drink too much, and dance like no one is watching. I have never been a parrothead….and I will never do it AGAIN!

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Eden Campus

Eden Campus is successfully running a Certificate in Marketing under the auspices of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University; however, from 2008 Eden is entering into a partnership with Junior Achievement and will run their entrepreneurial certificate course.

In their Foundation Year, using curriculum from Junior Achievement South Africa, the 2008 intake of students will be taught the fundamentals of entrepreneurial community enterprise business through the Enterprise Dynamics and the Mini Enterprise Courses. Numerous add on modules that will teach specific elements of business will also be taught, including: Banks in Action, Job Shadow Internships, International Marketplace, Success Skills and the economic impact of the HIV/AIDS Pandemic. At the end of the Junior Achievement programme, students will be required to sit The Cambridge Examination, an internationally recognised entrepreneurial qualification underwritten by Cambridge University.