Archive for February, 2010

February 28, 2010

A story from the Great Wall

Mira (with Tommy) on the Great Wall of China

Back in August 2005 my daughter Mira and I had quite an adventure in China. Mira was 15, and had always wanted to go to China; her fascination with finally being there made her game for anything. And we did everything, in a constant state of WOW. There is so much to absorb in China – it is so different, so completely OTHER from anything we’d seen before or have since. I think we laughed for two weeks straight.

We flew 14 hours on a nonstop from Newark to Beijing. Our bodies were completely confused by the 12 hour time difference, but that made an early morning start in Beijing perfect for Mira who would never dream getting up at 6AM – unless it felt like 6PM! This being before the Olympic clean up, the air was thick with pollution. The sheer numbers of people was mind boggling, bicycles careening with cars through major 8 lane intersections with no traffic lights. Terror would make us want to close our eyes – fascination made us keep them open. We joined the throngs shuffling through Tiananman Square where hundreds, maybe a thousand, were already lined up to pay their respects to the tomb of Mao. Then on to the Forbidden City where the architecture of endless hall after hall is astounding. First you pass through the Gate of Imperial Supremacy (formerly the Gate of Supreme Harmony) which is in front of three grand halls. Each name is sweet in the saying of it, and part of learning each name is hearing what each used to be called — so that each hall has at least two and in some instances 5 names. Now, I don’t want to ruin the surprise if you’re planning on visiting, so I will just say Mira and I were particularly enthralled with the Imperial Garden with its Hill of Accumulated Elegance, now known as the Hill of Accumulated Beauty. Sadly we were not allowed to take the time to accumulate either beauty or elegance while we were there, even though I fear we were in desperate need of both.

But the real point of this story is about how our need to feel connected through our favored technology is never left behind behind. even when we think we’ve left it behind. For me it’s usually email (how many exhausted evenings did I waste trying to connect in the ‘business center’ of each hotel, instead of going straight the bed??) For Mira it was her newly acquired cell phone, a precious tool in her arsenal of accoutrements. Looking back I see how silly it was of me to even suggest she leave it at home – after all, at work we field calls from grown men and women who can’t part ways with technology even though they know better. They just have to be constantly connected with the job they are taking a vacation from. Oh well, I suppose that’s a topic for another posting.

Change scenes: We have driven out of the smoggy city to a section of the Great Wall. We rode a cable car to the top of the mountain, walked past vendors roasting crickets (or something crunchy..) and selling t shirts, then climbed many steep steps to the top of the wall itself. Whoa, what a sight! It is here, gazing off as far as we could see over rolling hills, following the snake of the Great Wall slicing the landscape that I hear a familiar sound. Wait, is that Mira’s cell phone RINGING? IN a split second I am thinking: I know she brought the phone to China, but why would she turn it ON. Why would it be in her pocket and not the hotel safe? And why would it be RINGING? We are on the GREAT WALL, in CHINA, in the middle of nowhere, without a cell tower or electric socket in sight. How can this be…

I tell her she can answer it, but she has one minute. My heart pounds with the worry of how much this is going to cost me. Here is how the conversation goes:

Mira: Hi Nora!

Nora: Hey Mira, how are you doing?

Mira: Oh I’m good

Nora: Hey, I thought you were going to China

Mira: Yeah, I’m here now, standing on the Great Wall

Nora: WHAT?!?!

So there you go, in a world where a Western flush toilet can be hard to find, you can get better cell phone service than in some parts of the USA.

PS – our cell phone service was with Verizon, we did not have any special add on for international service, and the cost of that one minute call? A 60 cent roaming charge.

February 12, 2010

What the kids think

sealion and personOne of the things I like best about family travel is seeing the world through my children’s eyes rather than my over exposed ones. So whose better review than the kids’?? These sisters from Conway MA both had a blast last winter in Baja. These reviews are strictly unedited and in their entirety — Really, some of the best thoughts come from our children….

Age 9: You just have to go to Baja Mexico! The climate is hot and dry, so bring sunblock. The guides are good story tellers, know lots of stuff, are funny, and may even wear an orange wig. You’ll love the amazing waterfall hike with steep granite walls. through an oasis and mud up to your knees. If you like eating you just might like stuffed chiles, refried beans and tortillas. Ever cooked a pepper over a flame? If you feel hot just take a dunk with a seal lion pup. You maybe can touch him with your hand or he may nibble your flipper. Maybe the sound of the grey whale blowing is your style of music. If you’re an outside kind of person, you’ll love Baja and all the interesting sites you’ll see.

Age 7: On the trip to Baja Mexico you’ll have a great time… horseback riding on the beach listening to crashing waves. Hiking in the mud near a fault line but beware of the Jumping Chaya! Making pottery on a ranch with pigs running around. Playing beach soccer in deep sand with bare feet. Joking with a guide who once was a clown. Relaxing on the porch in a hammock. Swimming in a wetsuit to play with wild sea lions. Whale watching to look right into the animal’s eye. And searching in the desert for million year old shark teeth. So go to Baja and have fun. You might even see Baja snow.

February 2, 2010

How to Travel with Kids

Family Fun

Family Fun

Family travel is an amazing gift for everyone in your clan. Head out into the world ready to see it through your children’s eyes, and you will learn even more than they do.
If you are a grand parent, parent, or family friend traveling internationally with a minor child there are many things to be aware of in your planning; sometimes even the obvious gets overlooked. Here are some things to consider..
Before you go: First be sure you have your legal documents in place – with ever increasing security, every rule is being enforced.

Everyone needs a passport – For children under age 16 not only must you show up in person to apply for their passport but both parents must be present. Believe me, this can take some advance planning, especially if the parents are divorced.

-Your passports must be valid for 6 months beyond your return date – if not then you must renew them before you travel.

-If you are a single parent or taking along your child’s friend you must have a notarized letter from the absent parent/s authorizing you to take them out of the country. The letter should also stipulate that you may seek medical care for the minor in the event of an accident or illness. Chances are you’ll never need to show this — but if asked for it and you don’t have it this will end your vacation!

Next, do your research on where to go, keeping your child’s age and interests in mind. For instance, Peru is a great destination for hikers and culture lovers, but with no easy access to beach or wildlife it may not be that interesting for a 6 year old. There are plenty of destinations that children and adults will both love, so don’t press your agenda onto your kids – there’s always next year.

-Consider how long to go for. Most small children, and even some older ones kind of freak out of they’re gone from familiar territory for a long time. A week to 9 days (Sat – Sun) is a nice place to start. Save the 2 – 3 week vacation for when your children are feeling more confident and adventurous. It’s always better to go home wanting more, than to feel you’ve stayed too long – for all ages!

-Do you know what diseases are prevalent where you’re going? Visit a travel clinic about a month before you go. Located in most major hospitals these clinics are staffed by MDs who specialize in travel medicine. They’ll be sure you’re up to date on your routine vaccines (probably your kids already are for school, but what about you??) as well as advise you on what other things you should consider for your destination. They have all kinds of vaccines on hand that your regular doctor doesn’t, and your health insurance likely will pick up the tab.

-Did you know if you’re visiting rainforest it will likely rain?? Do your research and go prepared. Pay attention to any advance information sent by your travel agent or tour company, and read up on your destination. Computer savvy kids will love to help with this part of the planning.

-When you pack, be sure to have a few first aid items, a lot of hand sanitizer, baby wipes (incredibly useful), your choice of pain reliever and of course Pepto Bismol. Don’t forget the antibiotics the travel doc prescribed. Pack some familiar things from home. Maybe it’s a jar of peanut butter, snack bars, or favorite crackers – I promise there will be a moment when they will save the day.

Pack only what you can all carry. It’s no fun to haul a million heavy bags, and when the bags are too full the kids can’t find anything anyway. Stock up on lightweight, quick dry clothes, and look for the one pair of shoes that works for everything. There are some great water compatible shoes you can add socks to and voila – a walking shoe! Be minimalist – but lots of socks are a must.

-Let each child, young or old, carry a day pack in which they have their own re-useable water bottle and a zip-lock bag containing a small pack of tissues and one of wet wipes, a small bottle of hand sanitizer and a few bandaids. A cotton bandana has a million uses, and can easily be washed in the evening and dry by morning.

-Let your bank and credit card company know you’re traveling — it’s not fun to be in Paris and have your card rejected at the ATM

Once you’re on the road…
Pace yourself. Whether you’re traveling independently or on a group tour be sure you have time to enjoy the hotel pool in the afternoon, or to relax before dinner. With older kids you want plenty of action – but they need hanging out time too, and everyone enjoys the time to be flexible and spontaneous. Don’t over schedule your vacation

-On the other hand, do schedule one good activity a day. Having it on your itinerary helps avoid the negotiations about ‘what to do today’ and makes better use of your time. You don’t want to go home feeling like you did not accomplish or see anything!

Utilize local guides and drivers. Not only do they know where they’re going, they make the most of your experience and a good guide can impart information to your kids that they might never absorb from their own parents.

-If you have a lot of driving to do, break up long drives with breaks along the way. Make a 4 hour drive take the whole day, and have some fun along the way.

-You can never have too much bottled water or too many snacks with you. Thirst and hunger are the number one cause of Travel Crankiness. Be sure you are fully stocked before you head out in the morning. Wash hands frequently!

-Number two problem is exhaustion and information overload. This takes us back to planning your itinerary; be sure your toddler gets to nap in a comfortable place, your teenager gets to chill by the pool, and your guide doesn’t drone on for hours about the ancient dynasties of China.

-At the end of each day have a recap session with your kids. Whether it’s journal writing, sketching, or conversation over dinner, come together to talk about what you saw and felt that day. Can’t think of a conversation starter? Try asking what was the favorite thing, and the least favorite thing of the day, and write them down. Sharing these new things you’ve all found together will help build your lifetime memories, and you will come back to these memories for years to come. I know my family does.

In short: Be flexible, be prepared, and wash your hands. Keep your kids happy and you’ll be happy too. Bon Voyage!

February 1, 2010

Two Left Shoes

the evidence

the evidence

If you caught this one in our August 2008 newsletter, forgive me for repeating it – it just happens to be my favorite travel story.

Flexibility is key to any good adventure and I can hardly think of a better example than this: our friend Sam, at the tender – but never awkward – age of 14, packed for a family safari in a big rush. She ended up in Tanzania with two left shoes. Since she’s an admirably light packer they also happened to be her only pair of shoes, except for flip flops. We were unable to find anything in her size before leaving town for the remote national parks, so Sam cheerfully donned those two left shoes every time we went out. She wore them without complaint or apology for two weeks, and always with a smile.

Needing some follow up, I wrote to see how things are now she is back home. To which my friend Sam wrote: “Yes… my feet have recovered. I actually had to wear two right shoes for a while because I was at my mom’s house and the two left ones were at my dad’s house. So maybe that helped, too….”

I know there is something to be learned in this story – something about packing, and humor, and the value of never letting the unexpected interfere with your good time. Maybe we should all wear two left shoes as a reminder.

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