Fun Stuff

July 18, 2014

PERFECTAMUNDO

On what I deemed Machu Picchu Monday, I had the opportunity to walk with our guide, Fabrizzio, on our way back from the Gate of the Sun, Inti Punku. We weren’t discussing the Incan Empire, the design of the terraces or the fact that you can tell the level of a importance of a place in the citadel by the construction of the wall, which honestly is an entire blog post in itself. Instead, Fabrizzio asked how I was feeling after our five-in-the-morning wakeup call and long day of hiking both Huayna Picchu and the Gate of the Sun, a total of at least 10 miles of stair climbing. I answered with a simple, “Todo bien,” or, in English, “It’s all good.”

My knees and quads were tired as could be and my backpack, though getting lighter with every gulp of water, weighed on my shoulders. The heat of the sun radiated off my back and I could only hope that my sunscreen had done its job. At the same time, I could not have been anything but completely and absolutely content. Our day in the cloud forest was absolutely unbelievable. We had watched in awe as the morning sun burned off those low-lying clouds, revealing the mountains that surround Machu Picchu. We caught our breath while resting on rocks at the summit of Huayna Picchu, taking in the 360-degree views of the Andes and snacking on pretzels. And at that moment, a cool mist with floating raindrops was giving us new energy for our final descent to the valley.

So yes, todo bien.

Fabrizzio then taught me a new phrase, a Peruvian phrase he said was popular and suited that moment exactly. “Perfectamundo,” he said, “describes what you are feeling.” Perfect world. It couldn’t have been more true. At Machu Picchu, todo es perfectamundo.

Huayna Picchu hike

Huayna Picchu hike

Fabrizzio explaining the terrace farming

Fabrizzio explaining the terrace farming

Walking down from the Gate of the Sun

Walking down from the Gate of the Sun



July 16, 2014

New UNESCO World Heritage Sites and a Bit About Selection

South China Karst

South China Karst

After a recent 10-day meeting of the World Heritage Committee, a number of sites have been updated or newly added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. We’re proud to say that many of these sites are found within countries we have the pleasure of visiting on our family adventures – but before we get into which ones those are, you may be wondering what goes into the process of selecting a site for such an illustrious honor.

According to UNESCO, “To be included on the World Heritage List, sites must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one out of ten selection criteria.” These criteria range from naturally occurring phenomena to sites of vital cultural significance and shining beacons of human ingenuity. The decision process is not taken lightly; every site on the list has very rightfully earned its place, whether for “exceptional natural beauty” or “conservation of biological diversity,” cultural/historical significance or for being a quintessential example of human creativity.

At this recent meeting, an extension was added to China’s “South China Karst” World Heritage Site, praised for its unique and breathtaking karst formations, “including tower karst, pinnacle karst and cone karst formations, along with other spectacular characteristics such as natural bridges, gorges and large cave systems.”

Among the cultural sites newly added to the distinguished list: the “Andean Road System” that runs through Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru; the “Grand Canal” in China; the “Precolumbian Chiefdom Settlements with Stone Spheres of the Diquís” in Costa Rica; and two sites in Turkey – “Pergamon and its Multi-Layered Cultural Landscape” and “Bursa and Cumalikizik: the Birth of the Ottoman Empire.”



July 11, 2014

Who In the World Are the Gamels?

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The Gamels all set to begin their journey!

Our friend Chris Gamel, professional photographer and educator, is officially off on his yearlong journey around the world with his family. While Chris documents the adventure in photography, his wife, Noemi — a pediatrician and children’s fantasy writer — will be providing weekly blog posts for all you adventure lovers out there to follow along! Below is the first of many:

Standing at the passenger drop-off curb at Cincinnati Airport with just a carry-on backpack and small shoulder bag, I turn to wave goodbye to my sister. My husband, two children, and I are left on the curb feeling excited and terrified at the same time. We are catching the evening flight to Miami, and then headed to Lima, Peru on the red eye. I am filled with a sense of irony knowing that the day after celebrating America’s Independence Day, we leave the country to embark on a year-long trip round the world (RTW). We will not step foot on American soil until next July.

I will be writing a weekly blog post for Thomson Family Adventures documenting our adventures. Chris, my husband, will provide the photography. Before we embark on this journey, we wanted to introduce ourselves.

Chris is an award-winning nature photographer and digital media educator. His varied skill set and PhD in wildlife biology will provide a unique perspective of the natural history and cultural experiences we encounter on this trip.

Kara, our 12-year-old daughter, is an aspiring filmmaker who loves science, writing, and drawing. She is looking forward to visiting Japan.

Tristan, our 7-year-old son, is an avid tree climber who loves futbol (aka soccer). He is looking forward to seeing the Great Wall of China.

Noemi (that’s me) is a pediatrician taking a break from the rat race to write diverse children’s fantasy novels, travel the world, and reconnect with family.

I hope you will virtually join us on our RTW experience. Who knows? You may just catch our wanderlust bug!

More posts from the Gamel family:

Serendipity in Huacachina, Peru

Shopping at the “Mercado” in Cusco, Peru 

Axo Pachamama! 

Cristo Blanco in Cusco, Peru

Machu Picchu

Wait! I Thought I Spoke Spanish!

Welcome to the Witches’ Market

Why We Loved Salar de Uyuni



June 25, 2014

Cuba’s Culinary Revolution

Arroz-con-Pollo

Arroz con pollo — a Cuban staple

Currently in the middle of an exciting cultural shift that will someday be a notable chapter in world history, Cuba is an intriguing place – to say the least. Its increasingly celebrated cuisine serves as a microcosm of this momentous shift, and of the curious little island nation’s culture in general.
At its core, Cuban food is a medley of elements from cultures around the world, much like the Cuban identity in general. Its flavors are influenced by the culinary traditions of the island’s indigenous Taínos (a branch of the Caribbean’s native Arawak people), colonial Spanish settlers, the large population of people brought from Africa, and other more recent additions. As in many Latin American countries, rice and beans are common staples, as are chicken, beef, and pork. Many dishes also feature plantains and one of several varieties of root starches like yuca or potatoes. Soups and stews are also favorites, and the fact that Cuba is an island results in a heavy dose of fresh, deliciously prepared seafood.

The Republic of Cuba has seen its share of government restrictions. Those restrictions, while certainly still there, have been loosening lately – making way for some remarkable changes in the art, music, tourism, and gastronomical scenes. For a long time, the supply of ingredients was rigidly controlled by the government, as well as who was and wasn’t allowed to own and operate private restaurants. Given the tropical crops found on the island and the cooking influences from all over the world, the potential for a top-notch culinary scene was always there, but until recently, your family would have had a much easier time finding tasty Cuban food at an expatriate-run restaurant in Miami than in Havana.

Well, the doors are opening now… Varied meats and produce that recently weren’t available are now plentiful, herbs and spices are finding their way into local dishes, and the paladares (private restaurants typically operated out of families’ homes) are increasing their once-limited selections. Talented chefs that left Cuba for more professional freedom in other countries are returning to be a part of this culinary revolution, and more Cubans are choosing to pursue cooking careers in their native country. There are countless factors that make right now a thrilling time to discover Cuba – with the transforming world of Cuban cuisine undoubtedly high on the list.



June 5, 2014

Spotlight on a Stellar TFA Family

Larry zip lining in Costa Rica

Larry zip lining in Costa Rica

Since Thomson Family Adventures first came into existence over 15 years ago, it’s been clear that our adventures attract a special breed of family travelers. Thomson travelers are the type of families open to new and exciting experiences; they love to learn from the great, big world around them, and they’re committed to the people, wildlife, and natural landscapes of the countries they visit.

I’d like to highlight a man whose family epitomizes that special something TFA clients have, and the reason we love what we do: Larry Taylor. Larry and his wife, Mina, brought their teenage grandson on one of our adventures to Costa Rica in March of 2013 – a trip that provided us with one of our all-time favorite photos of Larry zip lining through the jungle. We just received another batch of fun photos from the Taylor family’s recent trip to Belize, along with some heartwarming anecdotes of cross-cultural interactions with local Maya children.

Larry and his family are the type of people that have that inspiring spirit of adventure we love to see. I had initially intended to make a quick Facebook post about one encounter they had in Belize, but decided instead to go a little deeper and give the consistently cooperative, enthusiastic Larry Taylor a call to find out a little more about him and his family and how travel and adventure play into their lives.

The Taylors live in San Diego, which has proven to be the perfect location for a family as physically active and ecologically conscious as they are. Larry walks two miles every morning, and loves to meet friends at a café by the beach at the end of his walk. His wife runs six miles every other day, spends two hours at the gym on her “off” days, and has been known to run marathons– not exactly a couch potato! The mellow, 17-year-old grandson they brought to Costa Rica and Belize is a true Southern California boy who loves to surf, snorkel, swim, and lifeguard.

Larry was born in California and lived all over the U.S., growing up in an Air Force family. He met Mina after she moved out west from her hometown of Brooklyn, New York, and it didn’t take her long to evolve into a lover of the outdoors amid gorgeous West Coast weather and scenery. They’re an ideal pair of world travelers; Larry’s a naturally curious history buff, into the people-to-people politics of things, geography, culture, nature, and geology (which is actually what his undergraduate degree was in). He worked in government for 18 years, taking measures to eliminate air pollution. In his personal life, Larry is still admirably active in fighting the ill effects of climate change and trying to protect the environment – he’s currently working to install solar panels in his home, and he recently ripped out his front yard and replaced the grass with rocks as a way of saving water.

Mina worked as a clinical psychiatric social worker in a hospital, helping patients who were going through crises, so she’s very much a people-person. Ever since she retired from that career four years ago, they’ve made it a point to travel as often as possible, and they never miss an opportunity to get out there and meet the locals, snorkel the reefs, test out the zip lines, and seek out those truly special travel moments that happen organically and unexpectedly. Larry loves both the structure and flexibility of our Thomson Family Adventures, as well as the unique chance to bond with his grandchildren while someone else handles the logistics and arranges a solid collection of activities for them to engage in together, instead of just dropping the grandkids off to do their own thing.

He shared several phenomenal examples of that togetherness making for some special memories, and of the beauty of unplanned events during his past family adventures. In one such anecdote, Larry told me:

“In Belize, the local guide took us out to a reef (all three of us love to snorkel; our grandson is a surfer and a lifeguard, so he’s a great swimmer, and we still love to get out there and join him!) He took us out to a spot where he said he’d show us some turtles, but what we didn’t know was that when we got there, the ocean floor would be covered with literally thousands of conch shells under the 40 feet of crystal clear water. The guide dove down and grabbed two conch shells and started banging them together. He told us that works as a dinner call for the loggerhead turtles, because the fishermen pound them against the decks and sides of the boats to get the meat out, so the turtles know when they hear the banging that bits of meat will fall out into the water for them to eat. The dinner call worked, and some beautiful loggerhead turtles showed up, and soon after eight to twelve harmless nurse sharks came over. That type of knowledge is what’s so great about the local guides we’ve had on Thomson trips — they can take us places and show us things non-locals wouldn’t know about.”

It’s those surprises – the unforgettable occurrences that can’t be written ahead of time into any itinerary – that keep the passion for travel alive in the Taylor family, and in all the wonderful families we’re lucky to have had on our family adventures.

The family ready for action in Belize

 

The Taylor family in Costa Rica

The Taylor family in Costa Rica

Maya children in Belize

Maya children in Belize

Teen grandson canyoning in Costa Rica

Teen grandson canyoning in Costa Rica

 



June 3, 2014

Cap and Gown—and A Map of the World

rodica daughter graduation

Rodica and Emily at graduation

As I watched my daughter Emily walk across a flower-bedecked stage in New York last week, dressed in cap and gown and surrounded by fellow students and professors, I flashed back to her very first steps… taken in her grandparents’ backyard at a barbecue, to the similarly excited applause of our family. Twenty years between these two momentous “first steps”—–a blink, it suddenly seemed.

We traveled a lot as a family during Emily’s childhood and teen years—to national parks, Alaska, the Sea of Cortes and Baja, Costa Rica, and to Europe to visit family. My work took me traveling, too, and whenever I could, I brought her with me. It was part of my goal as a parent to show her that she was part of a larger world, that travel builds bridges and friendship, and that the goodness of people prevails in the unlikeliest of circumstances.

A few months ago, she told me that she and a friend were planning a trip to Thailand shortly after graduation and when I asked if there was something I could contribute as a graduation gift, she grinned at me sideways and said, simply: “miles.” Girl after my own heart!

It made me so happy that our earlier travels together whetted her appetite to explore and learn more about our big, beautiful world… those of us addicted to wandering share a special secret: the world doesn’t get smaller the more you travel, it gets bigger. Traveling with our children opens up their world to them—with the added bonus for us of that tried, and ultimately true, cliché, “a lifetime of family memories.”

There are many milestones between that first step as a child and the one that leads to the edge of the known world that Shel Silverstein so marvelously described as, “where the sidewalk ends.”  And that’s where I expect my own daughter’s story awaits to unfold … where her imagination meets the horizon, somewhere out there on the map we all call home.



January 29, 2014

The Power of Soccer Balls

DSCN6058

The soccer balls arrive in Peru!

 

Soccer is a universal game around the world; we see it everywhere we go.  Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador, Brazil – soccer is a language that needs no translation. (In Tanzania the kids often use an old balled up sock for a ball, and even barefoot they can score the heck out of the American kids).  So it is no wonder when guests of Thomson Family Adventures traveled to Peru in August they saw a huge need for decent equipment.

On their return to Maryland, Karen Druffel and the Elkridge Youth Organization (EYO Sports)  began a fun project to deliver their generous donations to the village they visited. Due to issues of customs and taxes we knew we couldn’t just send 10 soccer balls in one batch – and so we parcelled them out to our future travelers to take them in suitcases  to our local colleagues in Peru, who then took them to the kids. Thank you to everyone for your part in this glorious gift of generosity.

See their joy!

 

 

DSCN6059DSCN6060DSCN6063DSCN6065



November 4, 2013

Chris Gamel Pro Photo Tip – Rule of Thirds

Capuchin monkey in Costa Rica, by Chris Gamel

Quick Tip for better photographs: Use the rule of thirds.

When creating a picture, many photographers place the subject right in the middle of the frame.  It’s easy, but it is rarely the best option.  Instead, consider using the rule of thirds.

The rule of thirds is a simple, yet powerful way of placing a subject in the frame.  To apply the rule of thirds, imagine a tic-tac-toe grid over your image.  This gives you 4 intersection points; places where two lines intersect each other.  Photographers call these intersections “points of power.”  The key to the rule of thirds is to place the most important part of your image on one of the points of power.

This image of a capuchin monkey (taken in Costa Rica) is a perfect example of the rule of thirds in action.  The monkey is the most important part of the image, so I placed her directly on top of the top, left point of power.  Why does it work?  I have no idea, but artists have been using the rule of thirds for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

So, how can you use the rule of thirds to improve your next photograph?

Join Chris on a special family photography adventure in Costa Rica or Peru and put the rule to use!

For more photography tips and wildlife images, visit Chris Gamel’s website.



October 14, 2013

Photo Tips From Our Expert, Chris Gamel

Click the photo to see trips with Chris

How many times have you come back from a trip, but been disappointed by the photographs you captured?  You are not alone.  Creating images that accurately capture your adventures is difficult, but it can be done.  Here is a quick photography tip that is guaranteed to improve your images.

Quick Tip for better photographs: Fill the frame with your subject.

Too often we try to include too much in our images.  Amazing events are unfolding in front of us and we want to capture everything.  The problem is that while our eyes are great at ignoring visual distractions, our cameras are terrible at it.  To greatly improve your images, try this little trick.  Ask yourself what you are taking a picture of.  The fewer words you use to answer that question, the better.  Once you have identified your subject, fill the image frame with it.  Usually this means getting closer.  Fascinated by the dexterity of a local artist’s hands, get closer.  Want to capture the look of joy on your child’s face just before she zip lines through the rainforest, get closer.  Want to document that hungry look in the lion’s eye, get closer…..well maybe not.  In this case, it might be better to not get closer and to use a longer lens (you didn’t think wildlife photographers were crazy, did you?).

For example, look at this elephant image.  As she approached, I asked myself what it was that captured my interest.  The answer was obvious, an elephant was walking directly towards me!  Once I decided that the elephant was the subject, I zoomed so that her face and ears filled the frame.  There result is an image with impact that reflects my personal experience.

Now back to you.  How can you fill the frame to create better photographs?



July 30, 2013

A Heartwarming Tale of Rescue on Safari!

The magic of an African safari is something no family can fully prepare for. Everyone’s experience is different, loaded with spontaneous cultural and wildlife encounters that couldn’t possibly have been written into an itinerary – that’s what makes a safari in Tanzania remarkable.

A prime example is the unplanned wildlife rescue mission undertaken by the Hartz family on their recent Tanzania Active Safari for Families with Teens. Jennifer, Eric, and their four teens were riding along in their safari vehicle, wildlife viewing in the Eastern Serengeti Ecosystem, in the private nature refuge that Thomson guests have exclusive privileges to visit. Suddenly, they spotted a Kori Bustard (a large, mostly ground-dwelling bird) hobbling along with something sticking out of its back.

They followed the bird in their rover, hoping to help in any way they could. Upon closer inspection, the Hartz family and their driver realized that the poor thing had been struck between the shoulder blades by a Maasai arrow. Hunting on this property is strictly prohibited, but somebody had attempted to make an illegal dinner out of this Kori Bustard. The family, along with their guide and driver, removed the arrow as carefully as possible, applied Neosporin to the wound, and patched it up to the best of their ability. Afterwards, they sat back and watched as the bird went on its way, concerned but gratified in the knowledge that they probably just saved its life.

That uplifting tale of chance and compassion is exactly the type of thing that makes a safari such a special family adventure. In addition to saving an unfortunate Kori Bustard, the Hartz family had plenty of other wonderful experiences… a bike ride into a village quarry near Gibb’s Farm where bricks are hand-made by local workers, and a rewarding encounter with friendly and enthusiastic Maasai children, to name a couple. But this unexpected act of kindness and teamwork is something that will surely stick out as a particularly fond travel memory!