Posts Tagged ‘Travel’


Saturday, January 23rd, 2016

The Galapagos Islands are a world of extremes. For any land animal to have survived here, it had to adapt to some seriously harsh climates, and do so only after having swam, drifted, or flown many hundreds of miles to arrive. The sea is teeming with life and it’s a fish eat fish world out there. Penguins swim effortlessly through the water to chase fish, giant manta rays scoop plankton by the pounds, and schools of shark populate every nook and cranny.

When we first arrived at the Galapagos, we were drenched in sweat and hard pressed to find a reasonably priced meal for a hungry family of five. We’d already paid $500 bucks just to step foot on the islands and $15 for the steamy 45 minute bus ride was just another indicator that we weren’t on the mainland anymore. By the time we arrived at our hotel, Semilla Verde, where we had certain expectations based on the price and those expectations were not met, we were wondering what in the world we were doing in the Galapagos.

Ah, sweet expectations there to disappoint again. Fortunately once I clarified what my expectations had been, the hotel quickly made some adjustments to accommodate us. However, this really seemed to anger the woman who ran the hotel (think giant house made into bed and breakfast). Through gritted teeth and forced smile she explained to me how I had been wrong in my expectations as she simultaneously changed things to please us. Now I’m one of those demanding, privileged and hard-to-please tourists. Guess I cannot escape myself no matter where I go. The air was heavy with heat and moisture and now all our hearts were heavy, too.

We quickly decided we needed to get out of there for some fun, and we visited Las Grietas, a giant crack that mixed sea water with rain water and offered a cool reprieve, though it was packed with people and populated by biting flies. The next day we had a good time at Tortuga Bay and acquired sun burns to prove it. After a couple days of being on the island, we started to look for a “last minute” cruise, notorious for good deals for the traveler with some flexibility. By very good fortune, we were able to get on a last minute cruise… literally the last 120 minutes possible…. as we found space on a first class yacht that was leaving the port in 2 hours.

The cruise itself will go down as one of the most memorable experiences of my family’s life. It was also a welcome reprieve to the heavy feeling hotel and the endless decisions that are made when traveling with emerging plans. Of course the food and the accommodations were spectacular in and of themselves.

However, the amenities will not be what we will remember. We will remember how we played. And it wasn’t the crew that reminded us. It was a sea lion.

It was off the coast of Rabida, with it’s red sand beach, that we encountered our first playful sea lion. It was a young one, as the mother had been with it prior to our arrival and she seemed to take the opportunity to let us entertain her cub while she got some other things done, because we didn’t see her again. A Galàpagoan play date.

The young sea lion swam circles around us, seeming to dare us to swim as deep and spin as gracefully as she. The children tried, plunging clumsily down 6 feet and floating to the surface to grab the much needed oxygen. The sea lion started to bite our flippers, gently grabbing the ends in her mouth and giving a tug. This incited squeals from Rubi, who was part startled and part delighted. We followed that sea lion for nearly an hour, seeing the different coral is showed us, and trying out our diving and spinning and upside-down swimming skills.

We returned to the boat exhilarated. That playful sea lion demonstrated to us what is meant by the commonly heard statement: “the wildlife are not afraid of humans on the Galapagos.”

It was off the coast of Santa Fe that another encounter with a playful sea lion reminded us of the power of this type of interaction. While snorkeling with a sea lion, Brady reached out to touch it (against his better judgement, as this is frowned upon in the Galapagos). The sea lion is an agile swimmer and dodged his attempt successfully in spite of the close proximity. It was 20 seconds later that the sea lion swooped up from under Brady in a spiral swimming motion, only to reach out her fin and touch Brady. “Ah-ha!”, she seemed to say. “I got you!”

Of course most humans love to interact with wildlife in this manner, and it is clear to us that these encounters were the highlights, even as we also saw blue-footed boobies diving into the water like bullets, sea turtles with their easy pace in the water, and sharks nonchalantly swimming past us with their distinctive swagger.

Yet, the power of play goes beyond that between a human and an animal. The power of play between humans is a phenomenon that can change one’s experience as well.

We were dining in a small restaurant very near our lovely hotel on Isabella where we would ultimately spend a week. The restaurant has black gravel floor and only a few tables. The woman waiting on us was juggling a fussy one-year-old by switching between carrying him and putting him in a playpen. Anyone who has raised children knows that the play pen works to contain a child, but never to entertain him. His fussiness escalated into yelling after being in the play pen, and though his pleas did not bother me, I empathized with the mom who was trying to work and I wanted to help. After all, those days are long gone for me and will likely only return if I ever have grandchildren.

I tentatively approached the playpen. My food had yet to arrive and the mom was in the kitchen cooking. What else did I have to do other than entertain this little boy? The play pen smelled sour, like spilled milk and soiled cloth. I approached the baby gingerly, knowing not to come on too strong to a little human who prefers his mother above all else. I showed him how my empty water bottle made sounds when I tapped it against the gatorade bottle in his pen. I picked up his stuffed animal and made it walk along the perimeter of the pen, making animal sounds, slowly moving to the child’s foot, where the stuffed animal bounced happily. The child began to grab for the empty water bottle and the stuffed animal. Victory! I’m in.

A silly game of peek-a-boo brought on smiles, and that near-laughter of a baby that makes adults act super silly in their attempt to get the prize. The boy picked up soggy crackers from the crevices of the damp blankets in the pen, and I made chomping and “yum-yum” sounds on his behalf. His interest in his gatorade bottle peaked and after seeking permission from his mom, “¿eso es para beber?”, I gave him a couple of swallows. Jack pot! That cold sugary drink hit his mouth and we were instant friends.

My food arrived and I returned to join my family and the atmosphere in the restaurant had shifted, at least for me and the boy. The mom was smiling and the boy was no longer crying. My family seemed relieved that the approach to the pack-and-play had been a success and not an embarrassing mom-flop.

The magic of the playful encounter was yet to show itself, though. At the end of the evening, as we left the restaurant, the boy blew me kisses with his mom’s aid, as she moved his hand from mouth to air with the word “besos, besos” in a sing-song tone. I blew kisses, too.

The next day we saw the family on the sand streets of Isabella, standing on the corner next to the shops that board up for most of the heat of the day. I said “¡mi amigo!” and the family smiled broadly and began encouraging “besos”. We blew kisses to one another in passing.

That evening when we returned to the restaurant (hey, why mess with it when you got something good…), we were welcomed enthusiastically by the woman who was working. Though she was not “the mom”, and “the boy” was not there, she seemed to know us as she beamed at us. After dinner, she even gave us free desert! Oreo ice creams all around. And dinner that night was substantially cheaper than the previous two nights had been.

That playful encounter between me and the child may or may not have been the catalyst to a lighter atmosphere in a dimly lit restaurant, or a smaller bill on a very expensive island. It certainly was fun, regardless of the outcome.

A few days ago as I was sitting on the patio of La Casita De La Playa, the hotel we will hate to leave this afternoon, I watched Frigates play with a piece of plastic. The way they swooped about in the air, tossing it from one to the other, reminded me of the Frigates I had seen flying behind our cruise yacht, fighting over a fish one had caught. But this was not a fish! This was clearly a piece of blue plastic. Surely they must know this was not a fish. Yet they approached the actions just as they did when it was a catch. Playing? They must be playing.

This morning as Brady and I took a morning jog along the sweltering hot 4 KM stretch of white sand beaches sprinkled with lava rock and iguanas, we saw a Pelican swoop down so low to the water that his wing touched the surface. I’ve seen Pelicans fly close to the water, then dive down in a clumsy plop and come up to swallow their catch whole. It’s entertaining to me, and a lot of effort for them. This was different. This pelican didn’t dive and didn’t appear to be looking around, he was simply flying along with another pelican, close to the water, close enough to just skim the surface of the shallow glassy ocean water with his feather. Playing? He must be playing.

The Galapagos have taught us a lot. We have learned how life has adapted in marvelous and shocking ways to this hostile land environment. We have learned how the islands are sinking back into the ocean even as volcanic activity creates new islands. We have learned not to trust taxi drivers with the purchase of boat tickets and how to find affordable food to eat in a town that gets monthly boat shipments from a mainland 100s of miles away. Perhaps the lingering lesson that we will carry forward with us is the power of play. Playfulness is connection. It’s laughter, it’s wonder, it’s spontaneity and it’s risk. It’s a force of life, as important as working and eating.


**** I’ll try to post a blog full of photos soon. It’s very hard just to get this text uploaded right now!


Friday, December 11th, 2015

Last night Rubi came down with a fever and we put her to bed on an empty stomach (her choose) and a dose of baby tylenol (little 9 year old only weighs 60 pounds). Jai declared that he would not go to school without Rubi.

Better together

Better together


The night before, Jai had a great time cruising around Mindo with his local friends. At one point he sprinted into the house, declared “can’t talk, can’t listen”, and ran upstairs. His face was red, his hair damp with sweat. He had paused long enough only to slip his blue crocs off his socked feet. By the time he descended the stairs, we had extracted from him that the snack bar at the soccer field was open and his friends were buying snacks and he had every intent of buying one also.

Don't forget to grab your TP BEFORE you go into the toilet room, or you'll regret it.

Don’t forget to grab your TP BEFORE you go into the toilet room, or you’ll regret it.

This morning he was a different person. Tears. Refusal to eat. Moving at glacial speeds when it was time to brush his teeth. He insisted that he could not go to school without Rubi. My heart was torn. Part of me wants to tell him, “it’s okay, you don’t have to go.” Part of me wants to tell him, you have to do it, you must learn to do those things that you think you can’t. Part of me just wants to say, “forget it, everyone can quit school.” The part of me that focuses on responsibility and “doing the right thing” wins and we strong arm him into going to school. He goes on an empty stomach (his choose).

Jai showing his tough guy side. A real tough guy sits behind him. I see this (very old) man walking around Mindo in his fatigues. This evening he was also wearing a plastic cape.

Jai showing his tough guy side. A real tough guy sits behind him. I see this (very old) man walking around Mindo in his fatigues. This evening he was also wearing a plastic cape.

Jai has been spreading his money around Mindo quite consistently. He’s declared how happy he is that he’s “old enough to go shopping alone.” The town of Mindo is ran by the children. The children serve pizzas to tourists in their grandparents’ restaurants. The children lead their younger siblings around town, unaccompanied by an adult, even as the younger sibling is just learning to walk. The children ride bikes down the middle of the street and buy candy unencumbered. When the community boxing ring is not occupied by muscular men bouncing around in sweats, the children hang from the ropes and wrestle in the ring.

More creative architecture. A house on the river!

More creative architecture. A house on the river!

Last night, I saw a boy, barely 3, playing in the dark street, alone. He had what looked like a bone…. a round bone with the center hollowed out. He was pressing it into the dirt, trying to see what shapes he formed, then wiping them clean with a large brown leaf. His play was like my children’s play. We bought plastic shapes and pre-made play-doh dyed into different colors. We set them up at our kitchen table and videotaped their play as they pressed shapes and used a variety of little purchased tools to create. When they were done, I’d clean up their mess.

I love what the people do with wood and windows

I love what the people do with wood and windows

Are my children coddled? Are they made to do what is hard? Have we reached a middle ground? I cannot decide.

Insert photo of interesting architecture

Alas, it is Friday. This weekend marks our second week here. Tomorrow Brennan and I will travel by bus into Quito to do a bit of Christmas shopping and learn the bus system in a low pressure situation. Then Saturday night we will attend a community event to raise funds and show support to a local woman whose son was diagnosed with leukemia. I imagine his mom would like to coddle him.

Insert photo of river

I Am About to Fall Off the Edge of the Earth

Tuesday, December 1st, 2015

I am standing in the middle of the earth and feel that I am going to fall off the edge. There’s something about walking up to the brink of an entirely uncertain situation and peering out toward the experience that makes a person weak in the knees and queasy in the gut.

The view from my bedroom window this morning

The view from my bedroom window this morning

Today we visited the school here in Mindo. We walked amongst many children in uniforms, hustling up hill toward the gated entrance to the school. After asking permission from the guard, we entered the grounds composed of concrete buildings with pictures of the pope painted on the outside walls. We were here to learn about enrolling the kids in school.

The first man we spoke with had a warm expression and tidy appearance and he welcomed us into a large and simply furnished room. We explained our situation and asked for admission for the children. He seemed surprised, though interested and willing. He then brought in a woman, who looked quite stunned and hesitant. We mentioned our Ecuadorian friend and Mindo-contact, Nelly Patiño, hoping that the ground work she had laid for us via e-mail a few months earlier may clear the way. After we explained our intention and they figured out what grades the children, we were told that indeed, the children could attend school there. Yes! We’re in!

I was asked to write the kids’ names and ages on a piece of blank paper and I handed it over. I was told to drop them off promptly by 7 and return to get them at 12:30. As we walked away from the school, one of my children was in tears and the other two had lumps in their throats. I may have floated my way out of there; floating like a rafter on swift moving water without a paddle, not floating on endorphins.

Slightly dazed, we walked to the store that would hopefully sell us the requisite uniforms, but it was closed. We asked for information from a woman who was sweeping the street in front of a building nearby. She was 5’0”, had almost no top teeth, and was wearing a t-shirt with the pope’s picture. She was genuinely happy to meet us and though we didn’t learn much about why the store was closed, we did learn that she used to live in Loja, she is scared to swim in the river here during the winter, and she thinks my kids are going to have stories of Mindo to share when they return home.  I only caught 40% of what she said, and I laughed heartily when she laughed (which was often). I think she is a wise woman and she certainly put a smile on my face.

We took a pit stop for a coke. Not eco-tourism, but instant energy.

We took a pit stop for a coke. Not eco-tourism, but instant energy.

Once there was no more task before us to occupy our minds, we had no choice but to return to the angst of tomorrow. Yes, tomorrow my children walk along the precipice between security and danger. Tomorrow they walk into a school where they know no one and don’t speak the language. The anxiety settles back in like a rock in my tummy and a leak in my heart.

I decided to take a walk and as I passed by a hostal where I had used the WiFi the previous nigh, my phone beeps. It’s a message from our friend Nelly who grew up in Mindo. She’s asking how things are going. Sweetness starts to trickle back into my bones. I share a bit of my anxiety with her and she reassures me and gives me the phone number to Molly, who lives in Mindo, speaks English, and whose daughter attends the school. I then read a What’s App message from my friend CJ, who lives as a foreigner in Switzerland. She is reminding me to keep in touch with my original intent, and to take things one day at a time. The leak in my heart is being repaired through friendship; through a sense of connection that is spanning enormous distance.

I returned home and called Molly, who was once American but has lived in Ecuador for 16 years and birthed both her daughters here. She agrees to host us at her place, a beautiful hotel called Casa Divina, and welcomes us to come for a visit around 3 PM. Her daughter, Davina, is in the same grade that Brennan will be in and I am hopeful that some connection may be ignited, that Brennan will feel slightly less alone tomorrow.

The family then heads out for a stroll through Mindo. The kids are lobbying hard to rent bicycles at the local rental shop and we’ll pay heftily for long term access, but at this point I’m willing to crack the wallet wide for their happiness.

The bicycle rental shop was closed, so instead we head toward the local pharmacy located up the street from the closed uniform shop. I want to ask for information about where to purchase uniforms. The woman working there has a round face, salt-and-pepper hair, and a playful smile. We watch her measure a girl for a skirt that looks much like a school uniform. After much pieced together Spanish, Q and A, and exploration, we leave her store with three pencils, three notebooks, three pencil sharpeners, and a plan to return tomorrow to buy each of the kids one version of the uniform that they need; grey sweat pants and a grey sweat shirt. The rock in my belly has dissolved by her helpful hand. Her genuine interest in helping us, and her patience with my Spanish and need to reiterate each point to ensure I understand, are a balm for my nervous system.

Finally, we end our afternoon by riding in the back of a pick-up truck, our taxi, up to Casa Divina to meet Molly and her family. The pick-up takes us over a surreal crystal clear river and past bamboo wider than my thigh. We motor up a gentle hill, past bamboo huts and hikers taking photos of tropical flowers. Once we arrive at the meticulously clean Casa Divina, we are welcomed and offered coffee. Molly attended the U of O and her niece is visiting from Portland. Ah, my people.

Resisting the urge to immediately log onto their WiFi, of which we are deprived of in our current living situation, we settle into the soft seating and soak in the tranquil surroundings viewed through the enormous windows in the otherwise wide-plank wooden room. Molly is a tall and centered woman, perhaps wary of entertaining travelers, yet warm and generous with information. Her adolescent daughter offers some obligatory information about the routine of school, then stays on her tablet the majority of our visit, laughing generously at funny moments of the conversation she otherwise does not seem to be paying attention to. Molly’s husband is a native-Mindo-man, a naturalist guide, and his sense of humor puts us at ease. He encourages Brennan to just bring a book with him to school, since it will be boring to listen to a lecture in a language one doesn’t understand. Molly and her family are so kind, they offer us a sense of being connected to something bigger here in Mindo. We leave feeling curious and connected; our motivation restored.

As I write this it is dark again in Mindo. The rain is coming down on the corrugated metal roof and it occurs to Brady and me that it is the perfect white noise by which to fall asleep. The thunder is rolling with a gentle might over the hills and the lightning is periodically flooding my room, reminding me that we are always connected to something bigger than our own individual lives.

Today we have walked on the edge of the world even while firmly planted on its ecuador. Though we started the day early with a sense of impending disaster, as the day progressed we were reminded of the kindness and gentleness of the world. The balm of generosity; not of material goods but of hand, heart and mind. The storm that has rolled into the hills of Mindo is but a metaphor of our day. The soothing nature of rain mixed together with the thrill and risk of thunder and lightning. Today I am almost fell off the edge of the earth, but the people of the earth offered their gifts to keep me grounded here, if just for today.

“I Will Not Go To School!”; Staying In The Comfort Zone

Wednesday, November 25th, 2015

The kids are not that excited to be moving to Ecuador for three months. While my hubby and I have done our best to hear their anxieties and share our excitement, they’ve clung steadfastly to their narrative of not wanting to go. We’re asking them to make a huge change.

We have many motivating factors for living in Ecuador. They include exposure to a different way to live life and the accompanying worldview. We want that jolt out of the daily routine and to gain perspective on our life that only major change can offer. We chose a location where few residents will speak English so that we will be forced to speak Spanish. We are intentionally stepping out of our comfort zone with the purpose of growth, fresh perspective, and learning. We have our own anxiety for sure (namely the size of the insects), but we’re saying “bring it on!”

Meanwhile, the kids are happy with status quo. They like they’re beds, bikes and buddies. They were looking forward to the Battle of the Books competitions, the field trip to OMSI, the Winter SnowBall party at school…. and of course…. Christmas! They keep saying how bummed they are that they are going to “miss Christmas”. I’ve asserted that Christmas does indeed happen in Ecuador also, albeit differently. Bah humbug.

Some days are easier than others. Some days the kids can joke about why they don’t want to go to Ecuador. Our nine year old twins, Jai and Rubi, who have a fairly good command of Spanish (thanks to their public school dual-language immersion program), will reassure our oldest, Brennan (who has zero Spanish), “don’t worry, we’ll let you know what the kids are saying when they talk about you”. I don’t think it’s too comforting to Brennan.

Other days are more painful. There have been tears, refusals to get out of bed, and an insistence that “I will not go to school there!” from our oldest child. He’s taken to crying out in his sleep at night, dreaming of some unknown factors, dreaming of the unknown.

Stepping out of the comfort zone is hard. Neuroscience shows that our brains interpret emotional and interpersonal pain in the same ways that we interpret physical pain. Separating from the known and leaping into change can cause true, visceral pain.

Knowing this, it becomes clear why some folks cling to status quo and resist change so deeply. It’s scary and can be downright painful. But sometimes staying put is painful too. We end up needing to make a decision between the chronic, low-grade discomfort of our current situation or the more acute and short-lived pain of change.

Reminds me of the Anais Nin quote:

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud

was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

Reaching for change and seeking out discomfort is fertile ground for learning and growth. Resistance is to be expected. Those of us who face change and shout (or whimper) “bring it on” and those of us who insist we “will not go” have something in common. Change brings anxiety, it’s unavoidable, and we are all going to grow.

The Land of Plenty

Monday, November 23rd, 2015

As we prepare to leave the USA and enter Ecuador, we have the privilege of buying new shoes and various comfort items, taking along extra medications and contemplating the various phone and internet packages we need to keep in contact with our friends and family back home. Look at us trying to maintain our current living standards as we prepare to live in a country with different standards of living!

The suitcases are empty and appear to be gaping, hungry caverns on my bedroom floor, awaiting the piles of belongings we will bring. And we’ll be packing “light” compared to some.

While going through my kids’ shoes, I realized that we have a handful of used Nikes we can bring along to donate to kids in Mindo, the small town where we plan to live. As I started to pack these, I realized we have plenty of used clothes that we can bring along as well. Then I posted on Facebook, asking my friends for donations, and lo and behold, we were offered 15 used Nike soccer balls! Indeed, we are in the land of plenty. We can bring two extra suitcases along with good loot to donate, and we won’t even feel it.

The Land of Plenty; the USA. As I thought about this phrase, equity, and our personal situation, I couldn’t help but sing the Men at Work song, Down Under. Granted, they are saying Land Down Under in many of the lines, though they do use the phrase land of plenty:

Lyin’ in a den in Bombay
With a slack jaw, and not much to say
I said to the man, “Are you trying to tempt me
Because I come from the land of plenty?”
And he said

Do you come from a land down under? (oh yeah yeah)
Where women glow and men plunder?
Can’t you hear, can’t you hear the thunder?
You better run, you better take cover

Damn, that’s sounding ominous.

Perhaps this song is more about travel and the oddities of being a stranger. Or maybe I’m fooling myself and it really is about imperialism. Certainly Western owned Oil companies have done more than their share of plundering in Ecuador, namely stealing oil from the Amazon, leaving the people and the environment suffering while lining the pockets of a few.

Regardless of what this song is “about”, it’s my theme song today as I reflect about travel between a land of plenty and a land with ample poverty. Travel becomes more of an oddity when equity issues are considered. I’m thankful we have loot to deliver and we plan to distribute via agencies to minimize the “gringos who are like santas” phenomena.

How will we negotiate the cognitive dissonance of being generous and social-justice-minded while simultaneously protecting our iPhones and pocketbooks full of cash and plastic? Maybe we don’t even have to travel to a foreign country to struggle with this question. We face it daily in the USA as well; there’s just something about travel that makes the usual become an oddity.