Travelers

December 3, 2012

Fabulous Photos! #3 – 2 – 1

Winners of our 2011 – 2012 Photo Contest!

Biking in Yangshuo, China

That’s Number 3 above, by the Basile Family

Next is # 2 below, the crab by the Hacohen Family

Crab in the Galapagos

And finally, our #1 winner, by an overwhelming margin I might say, is this beauty from the Weissman Family Safari:

Wise elephant in Tanzania



November 12, 2012

Great Things Our Kids Make Happen

Emily and her friend Otis

I want to share with you a story about a fabulous girl named Emily. Emily lives near Boston’s MSPCA–Angell and she likes to play with the animals waiting for adoption. Emily loves animals – she has a real passion for all feathered and furry creatures. She couldn’t stand the thought of neglected and abused animals and so, at age 11, she is determined to do something about it.

Emily created a website to fundraise for the MSPCA-Angell. Her mother Belinda may have done the coding, but Emily did all of the thinking and writing and photography planning. I love animals too, so I think Emily is a hero! Not only has she put her time and effort into something she believes in, her cats Marty and Max both came from the MSPCA shelter. They are so happy in their forever home with Emily.

To see her new creation and learn more about Emily visit The Animal Helpers. If the spirit moves you please make a donation, or think about supporting a similar organization in your town.

(Just be careful if you click on ‘Adopt An Animal’… you might end up with a new friend yourself!)

To tell us a story to share about the cool things your kids think of please email me at moo@familyadventures.com



November 1, 2012

Meeting the Maasai; Part 3 of a Family Safari

a blending of cultures

Following is part 3 of Ed Prutschi’s story of his familys’ Thomson Family Safari in July 2012. For more photos go to http://lawandstyle.ca/the-crime-traveller-in-africa-part-three/. You can follow Ed on Twitter @crimetraveller

He’s wearing an Obama toque.

The cracked, weathered face and hesitant gap-toothed smile don’t take me by surprise. I succeed in keeping my eyes from fixating on the dangling fleshy earlobes that hang like ropes of silly-putty from his elongated ears. But I can’t get past the swirl of black knit cotton emblazoned with the American President’s name that sits atop his shaved head like an inverted soft-serve ice cream cone.

I’ve travelled over 12,000 km from America’s shores but party politics knows no bounds. Or maybe he just wants to keep his head warm during the cold African nights.

***

Taking a break from the game drives that have become routine on our safari, our truck jostles and bumps across the barely passable dirt track until we arrive at a dense thicket of thorn bushes arranged in a circle. We are joined by a guest guide who loftily introduces himself to me as “Johnston, your Maasai ambassador.” Johnston is a living breathing example of the incredible contradictions apparent in the lives of this semi-nomadic pastoralist tribe. He is rail thin and clad in the distinctive red cloth and beaded adornments of the Maasai. Around his waist, a belt loop grips a wicked-looking machete while on his other hip is strapped an Android-powered smart phone. Leaning on his wooden staff, he switches easily between English, Swahili and Maasai. University educated in nearby Nairobi, Kenya, Johnston tells me he hopes to develop a career combining his ambassadorial skills with environmental and wildlife protection.

We bend our heads and follow Johnston under the low-hanging thorn branches that mark the entrance to the Maasi boma(village) we have come to visit. It’s immediately apparent that these Maasai do not lead an easy life. Their homes (known asmanyata) are built of thatched wood held together by a mixture of mud and cow dung that dries into a kind concrete after baking in the hot sun. Slabs of corrugated steel sit as makeshift repairs to an occasional leaky roof. We are invited into one of themanyatas. The blackness inside takes on a palpable physicality as we choke on the remnants of the hundreds of cooking fires that have been lit here over the years. Young children wander about the village caked in dust, barely clothed, and swarmed by flies. And yet, to say that the Maasai are “poor” is an over-simplification.

As I talk at greater length with our guides, I learn that some tribes have amassed substantial wealth. This is particularly true for those tribes on whose land the gemstone Tanzanite has been discovered. Wealth itself cannot be measured by Western standards when speaking of the Maasai. Although some talked of trying to save enough money to purchase a motorcycle or a phone, the true measure of prosperity in their community is the size of one’s cattle herd. Several days earlier, as we drove between the lush environment of the Ngorongoro Crater towards the vast flat plains of the Serengeti, we were stopped on the dirt road for many minutes as a group of Maasai shepherded a line of humped Brahmin cattle that snaked into the distance as far as the eye could see. One of our guides, a Maasai himself, whistled softly from the front seat of the truck and tipped his head in respectful acknowledgement as they filed past us. “That is a very rich man,” he said.

But standing here in the middle of this isolated village with no running water, electricity or medicine, it is apparent that the Maasai we are visiting today face tremendous challenges. Despite efforts by the Tanzanian government to push the Maasai into embracing modern assimilation, most members of the tribe are fiercely protective of their cultural traditions. While the government has succeeded in discouraging the hunting of lions that long formed a coming-of-age right for the Maasai, polygamy is the norm and ritual circumcision is still practiced around the age of thirteen. An awkwardly painful procedure for men, it is widely accepted as genital mutilation and torture when practiced on women, as the Maasai still do. I ask one of the men about the hardships of Maasai life, expecting complaints about food, schooling or healthcare. Instead he replies through my translator, “The biggest problem we have now are the leopards. They come each night and try to eat our cattle.” Um, right. Leopards.

Whereas Johnston seems casually at ease with us, the Maasai villagers keep a safe distance from our group at first, staring at us with bemused expressions that I can only imagine mimic closely the bewilderment our own faces reflect back at them. I train my camera on a group of young children. No one mugs for the camera, or even smiles. Johnston explains that while he leads groups like ours several times a month, each batch of tourists is taken to a different boma. This ensures that the fees paid by the groups are shared equally across the many different villages but also has the side-effect of creating a dramatic cultural experience for both sides. I ask Johnston when the last time a group like ours visited this boma. “Probably never,” he answers.

My daughter snaps a pic on her iTouch, stretching out her arm to show the children her shot. They step back reflexively. But then, slowly, necks crane forward to stare. Whispers and giggles begin to break out. The adults inch forward a bit leaning over their children to see what all the fuss is about. Ten minutes later I may as well be at a bar-mitzvah. The entire tribe is laughing and shouting loudly as they take turns posing for pictures. The adults start lining up kids in different combinations motioning for us to take more shots. I comment on the beauty of a man’s beaded earring and next thing I know, he’s clipped a pair to my lobes.

The following day, a group of the Maasai come to our tented camp and allow us to join them in traditional Maasai singing and dancing. One of the tribe’s elders is surrounded by the children in our group as she relates an ancient folk tale to the kids in her native tongue. Although Johnston is translating line-by-line, most of the meaning is relayed through her incredible intonation and wildly exaggerated body language.

In the afternoon, we visit a nearby women’s cooperative where the females of the tribe work with wire and beads to craft souvenirs. Shopping in the middle of the Serengeti was not what I expected when I departed for Tanzania, yet we happily leave behind some much-needed greenbacks and return to our camp laden with necklaces, bowls and decorations.

In the end, it is the many contradictions of the Maasai that make them most fascinating to me. A young warrior juggling his wooden spear in one hand and his cell phone in the other; an elder, her broad shoulders hunched under the weight of dozens of beaded necklaces, relating ancient Maasai myths to my daughters while sipping a bottle of Sprite to quench her thirst; and of course, my Presidential Maasai leaning on a crooked wooden cane in front of his manyata wearing an Obama hat atop his head.



October 30, 2012

A School in Tanzania: Part 2 of a Family Adventure

Children of Tanzania

Following is part two of Ed Prutschi’s story of his family’s adventures on our Thomson Family Safari last July. For more photos, go to http://lawandstyle.ca/the-crime-traveller-in-africa-part-two/ You can follow Ed on twitter @crimetraveller

We’re driving along a reasonably well-maintained two-lane highway outside of Karatu, Tanzania. The smooth rush of asphalt beneath the thick tires of our Land Rover feels like a soothing balm to my jarred fillings and aching back after four days of bouncing around the bush trails of Arusha and Tarangire. Our driver turns off the highway onto a rust-red dirt road and begins picking a path through the stones and discarded bricks. A large dog, clearly a recent victim of the highway — its skull split open like a cracked melon — oozes fresh blood into a ditch beside the road. I’m trying to block the wretched sight from my nine- and seven-year-old daughters when they are distracted by the piercing cry of Wazungu! Wazungu! A small band of children, led by a pantless child in a dusty blue sweater who looks no more than three, are running beside our truck crying out in Swahili “White people! White people!”

We are on our way to Ayalabe primary school — a visit that has been in the works for nearly nine months. With the assistance of our superb tour operator, Thomson Safaris we were connected through their charitable arm to two students at the school close in age to my daughters. My girls entered into a pen pal relationship. They would craft a short note in English which we would email to Thomson’s Boston office that was then forwarded to their office in Tanzania. In milliseconds, the message travelled the 12,000km between Boston and Arusha. The timeline expanded there considerably as the e-mails had to be translated into Swahili, printed out and delivered by staff on their next trip to Karatu. Then the student would write her own reply which would eventually be picked up again by Thomson, brought back to their Arusha office for translation and emailed to us. At times it felt akin to speaking through tin cans attached by an epically long string.

In all my months planning this trip, the focus was firmly set on maximizing unique wildlife encounters. The fact that Thomson would arrange a school visit registered as an interesting sideshow to my primary travel objectives. But now, nine months later, we were only a few hundred metres away from the school and my mind was filled with mixed emotions and apprehension. What does a 30-something English-speaking lawyer with a big screen TV in the basement, an Xbox, and a few too many pounds courtesy of three (or more) square meals a day say to a nine year old Swahili girl who just spent two hours walking over 10 kilometres on an empty stomach through grassy plains and along dusty roads just to get to school in the morning? What would my sweet over-privileged white girls have in common with their pen pals?

Our trucks pull into the school’s driveway and the scene is pandemonium. A sea of uniformed children clad in purple and blue come rushing out to greet us. They crash over the vehicles like waves breaking on the surf, jostling to get a view of the visitors through the dust-caked windows. The entire school, 475 students, has been given time off in anticipation of our arrival. I crack open the door of the truck, pushing it slowly to avoid shoving any of the children aside. This must be what Justin Bieber feels like. The school’s principal, a distinguished looking man who stands out from the mass of children in his lime green button down shirt, clamps a powerful grip on my hand and introduces himself.

The principal leads us on a tour of the grounds beaming with pride as he shows off the newest classrooms built with the assistance of our tour company’s charitable arm. With corrugated tin roofs and stone floors bursting with thin wooden pews for the 45 students crammed into the class, they are simple but functional. I immediately think of my daughters’ classrooms back home in Toronto, each equipped with state-of-the-art internet-enabled digital SmartBoards. The class I am standing in now doesn’t even have electricity. The box of simple school supplies we carried with us (pencils, highlighters, crayons, sharpeners, erasers) seems particularly meagre at this moment but is accepted as if I had handed over gold bullion.

The principal is addressing the class in Swahili. I am assuming he is introducing us as he points to each member of our small group in turn and I recognize the word “America.” When he gets to my family I hear “Canada” and then a long pause followed by blank stares from the assembled students. He says something in Swahili, the word “America” again, and then cups one hand on top of the other as he repeats “Canada.” I’m guessing the True North may not be on the Tanzanian primary school geography curriculum.

The class rises, hands on their hearts, to give a stirring rendition of the national anthem followed by a song in English exhorting the listener not to pollute the earth. Our girls are finally paired up with their pen pals. They stare at each other blankly for an awkward moment before the principal motions for them to shake hands for pictures. They look like tiny diplomats fresh from a treaty signing, clasping each other’s hands in a formal pose. The entire school then spills out onto the soccer pitch. A ball is tossed on the red earth and the principal produces a whistle. Suddenly, 475 pairs of legs are hunting for that single ball. I am at a loss to distinguish between the teams — if there even are any. It’s pandemonium of the best possible kind.

As the morning progresses, groups of kids break off. I spy my wife, the speech pathologist, surrounded by a throng of children who are teaching her how to count in Swahili. My daughters are leading long lines of school kids as they shuffle along the periphery of the soccer field. They’re each holding hands again with their pen pals but this time the stiff formality of the photo op has been replaced by a genuineness and warmth. My heart melts. I bring my camera up to my eye — as much to conceal the tears welling up there as to document the moment with a photograph — when I feel a hard tug at the back of my shirt.

“Pitcha? Pitcha!” The boy mimes the act of taking a picture and I turn towards him and snap away. I rotate the digital screen to face him and he smiles at his own image. In seconds I am mobbed. Dozens of children are shouting “Pitcha! Pitcha!” They paw at the camera until I finally relent and let one take a photo of me with his friends. Then my newly minted photographer goes into full paparazzi mode holding down the shutter and snapping dozens of photos of anyone he can find.

It occurs to me that — accounting for my camera, lens and external flash — I’ve just placed a piece of technology whose value might exceed the gross domestic product of the entire school into the hands of a 10 year old.

Too soon our guides are calling and we are ushered back to the waiting trucks. We roar off in a cloud of red dust and to the waves of hundreds of hands. As if to highlight the gulf that separates Western privilege from the difficult but rewarding life eked out in rural Tanzania, we drive only a few short kilometres up the very same road as the school before arriving at our opulent lodging for the night — the truly decadent and amazing Gibbs Farm. Sitting on our giant four-poster bed, the gauzy mosquito netting pulled aside and a roaring fire crackling in our bedroom, I reflect with my kids on their visit to Ayalabe. My seven year old is humming a Swahili tune she had learned while my nine year old updates her wildlife checklist in her safari journal. In three hours at a school half way around the world, my girls have gained knowledge they could never have obtained in a lifetime back home.



October 15, 2012

17 to Infinity: It’s a New World of Travel

Wachirathon Waterfall, Thailand

Family celebrations don’t stop just because the kids get older. Think of all the reasons: High school graduation. College graduation. Admission to college. College graduation. Admission to graduate school! Graduating from grad school. A job offer! Before they go to work for 80 hours a week. Celebrating a job well done…..

Or it’s Mom and Dad’s wedding anniversary… the 25th. The 50th. The 60th.

Or big birthdays! Their 21st, or 25th. Our 50th. 60th. 70th. 80th.

All of these occasions are times we want to gather together with family, to share and appreciate the memories we’ve built over the years. And to make new memories to carry forward. Maybe you want to be with just your family, or maybe you want to join other families at the same stage of their life. Either way, it is a pleasure to have someone else do the dirty work, while you relish the anticipation of the adventure ahead.

As our kids get older we have more flexibility to travel at the fringe of peak season, and to enjoy more sophisticated encounters. Why not take advantage of this new stage of life and learning, and explore the world together?

Family adventures are not just for kids anymore.



September 17, 2012

What our Guests are Saying….

Seeking in the Galapagos

We offer all of our potential guests a list of references, people who have traveled with us and are willing to share their experiences. Today we heard from a favorite guest who had recently responded to such a request about our Galapagos MultiSport Adventure. She decided to share it with us as a thank you for her wonderful Thomson Family Adventures. Here is her review in its entirety (and no, she does not work for us!):

“Hi there…

It sounds as if you are in for a treat and an adventure! I cannot say enough good things about the Thomson Family experience. The Ecuador/Galapagos trip was the second I made with Thomson. The first was on Safari with two of my grand girls, the second, the multi adventure Galapagos, with my grandson. This past trip was wonderful as the first.

The Thomson guides are terrific. they are dedicated to making this an extraordinary experience for you and your family. They pay attention to your needs. They are interested and interesting. They keep the kids busy and informed.

The accommodations are first rate as is the food. The trip in general and the daily adventures were well planned and tight but with time to fully enjoy each experience. We loved the multi sport as we did something different all the time.

I was not looking to go from island to island, living on a boat and so found our trip fabulous. We loved our accommodations in beautiful inns and hotels, and the opportunity to camp on the beach for one night! Swimming in warm waters with baby seals coming up to your face piece was awesome. There are always guides with you on land , on sea, and in the water…

Jake, my grandson, was waterlogged much of the trip but whether it was exploring places on foot, horse or kayak, or hanging with the other kids (a blessing so he didn’t have ‘just me’ all day plus the delight I had in enjoying a Vodka in the bar some late afternoons upon arrival) he was fully occupied.

Is it worth the money..Yep. As a grandmother who does extensive traveling with her 9 grandchildren and knows what it takes to plan a trip that is an adventure in and out of doors, I travel with Thomson to non-European locations (as they don’t as of yet travel there) as they do all the planning and heavy lifting. For my Thomson trips, we simply show up.

I doubt whether, when it comes to places like Africa, Galapagos and the like, if I would have the wherewithal to know of the special places they book for us..find to feed us at,..or even how to get to camp on a Galapagos island. I also love the day we spend at a school, sharing our language and enjoying the similarities and differences of our schools and lives. The children become so involved with each other many of them end the day walking us to our bus and still talk through the window as we pull away.

I hope I have answered all your questions. Feel free to contact me again with anything else. If I do not hear from you I will assume you are on your way to a trip your family will always remember..

Midge Gordon
E Greenwich, RI”



September 11, 2012

Tanzania: Hippos, Lions & Elephants, Oh My!

The hippo pool!

The following is a reprint of Edward Prutschi’s story about his Thomson Family Safari July, 2012. Ed is a criminal defense lawyer in Toronto, and wrote this article for Precedent Magazine. Be sure to check back for part 2!

****

It’s 4:46 a.m. on the Serengeti plains in Tanzania, Africa. I’m lying on my back staring at the roof of my tent. The unusual-for-August torrential lightning storm that swept across the savannah earlier in the evening has almost entirely subsided when I hear the piercing cry of a wounded animal just metres from my tent’s entry flap. I stare through the screened canvass window into utter blackness. The kerosene lanterns of our camp and the small bonfire have both long since burned out.

I feel a sharp pain stinging my left forearm as a human hand extends in a vice grip. Apparently my wife heard it, too.

We now stare together, unblinking and unmoving out the window. We can hear a distinct chuffing sound. It reminds me of the tiny sneezes my cat back home in Toronto used to make as he licked at his food bowl. Typical feline sounds. Except these aren’t tiny.

I can make out the cast-iron bell on the small wooden night table beside me in our tent. “Ring if you need anything,” our camp guide had said before we tucked in for the night. What if I need a pride of lions relocated from the stoop of my tent? Do lions react well to ringing bells? I wish I had asked these questions six hours ago.

The chuffing is getting closer. We can make out the sound of grass bending and snapping. Something is purring loudly. I think my arm is bleeding now. The sounds continue for the longest 12 minutes of my life.

In the morning, we emerge from our tent to a glorious African sunrise. Next door, I poke my head into the tent of my nine- and seven-year-old daughters. The decision to allow them to bunk together in their own neighbouring tents in the middle of the bush for the past week now seems a bit ill-considered. Yet, they’re sound asleep. As I poke and prod them to get ready for today’s game drive, they claim to have heard nothing last night. No buckets of rain. No lions. “Can we have hot chocolate for breakfast?” Suddenly my concern seems misplaced.

I shuffle over to the dining tent, noticing for the first time that these safari camps lack any sort of fencing. I accept a cup of steaming Tanzanian coffee from our guide, Charles, and can hear eggs frying on the propane grill out back. The memory of three hours ago feels cloudy and fuzzy in my mind. Did we really hear what I thought we heard? Must just be a silly tourist dream. Maybe I have malaria, I muse when my reverie is interrupted. “Did you hear the lions hunting that zebra?” Charles is gulping his own coffee with a big grin on his face. “Pretty amazing. They were so close! Would you like more coffee?”

On a Tanzanian safari, even when you can’t see anything at all, the sights are absolutely awe-inspiring.

And what we saw was absolutely incredible. In the days before my nocturnal brush with nature, we watched in rapt amazement as a lioness zig-zagged madly at high speed in a failed chase with a wildebeest who had strayed a few feet too far from his herd. My girls’ eyes popped out of their heads when we came across a massive male lion sitting regally in front of a fresh buffalo carcass. The buffalo’s face had been eviscerated and its entrails were spilled out over the golden grass as the lion tore strips of flesh from its belly. Further down the road our luck with lions continued as we stopped within three metres of a honeymooning pair. The male mounted his lioness and the two took turns roaring at each other, completely ignoring the sounds of human jaws clanging off the metal floor of our safari trucks.

We stopped at a fetid pool overflowing with gargantuan hippopotami stacked on top of each other like a giant fleshy Jenga tower. The hippos slapped the water loudly with their powerful stubby tails giving off regular guffaws sounding eerily like Jabba the Hutt laughing to the entertaining contortions of slave Leia. Every so often an errant hoof accidentally pressed into the face of some hippo lower down on the tower and all hell broke loose as the pool erupted into a seething cauldron of hippo madness. Giant mouths flexed open as if on hinges to reveal stained yellow teeth the size of steak knives.

One day the kids committed to counting the number of elephants we could spot. They gave up at 176. We hadn’t yet stopped for lunch.

He came for the wildlife but fell in love with the people. Stay tuned for part two in this ongoing series as The Crime Traveller introduces you to the children of Tanzania and the Maasai tribe. Follow Ed’s criminal law commentary (@prutschi) and The Crime Traveller’s adventures (@crimetraveller) on Twitter, read his Crime Traveller blog, or emailed@thecrimetraveller.com.



August 24, 2012

What Travelers Say to Those who Listen….

Lions sharing stories

Word of mouth is the original Social Media, and we love it; it remains our finest source of new travelers. We’ve been talked about on planes, on cruises, at camp. I’ve heard about referrals shared at high school reunions and around the water cooler at work, at a knitting class and a book club meeting.

Today I received a little story from a family in the midst of booking their family safari with Thomson. This is what Laura from Chicago told me:

” A friend of mine just came back from a safari in Tanzania. She took the one organized by (a well known competitor). I told her that I was taking one too, with the kids, but I didn’t mention Thomson. She said that at the airport she had met a woman who just raved about her experience with Thomson, talking about how nice the accommodations were, and how wonderful the guides were. This friend recommended Thomson to me, saying that she thought it would be better than the one she went on! It sounds like you’re doing a great job there, and we can’t wait to go!”

Thanks Laura, we look forward to sending your family off on an unforgettable trip of a lifetime. Don’t forget to talk us up at the airport!



August 3, 2012

How Good Can it Be?

Action on the Mediterranean

I try to speak with each family when they return from their Thomson Family Adventure, but sometimes it just doesn’t happen. I’ve always known it’s never too late to hear the stories and see the photos, but today I got a great reminder of that. Here’s the email I received from Lisa in Virginia who traveled with her family last summer to Turkey:

Dear Moo,

I know its been almost a year since we came back from Turkey and I’m just now getting around to sending you our pics and thoughts. Time really gets away from you. I guess the best way to sum up the trip was when it was time to plan this year’s vacation, both my kids and my husband all said, “Can we go back to Turkey?”

It was an absolutely amazing trip and I can’t thank you enough for recommending it. Every single person we told that we were going, or had gone, to Turkey had the exact same reaction……Turkey??? with a look on their face somewhere between confusion, disbelief, and “are you serious?” Which was coincidentally my same reaction when you suggested it. If I had had to name a top 20 list of places to visit, I can pretty much guarantee that Turkey would not have made the list.

Now, looking back, I can say that I have never been on a more enjoyable or diverse trip. I’m sending just a few of our favorite pictures for you to post or pass on to anyone else who may have the same uncertainties that we had.

My daughter, 10 years old, downloaded an iPad app to learn some Turkish before we went, and she was right in the Grand Bazaar bartering away for what she wanted. It was such a thrill to see a foreign culture through the eyes of our kids. Even our son, who is bored by everything it seems, had a phenomenal time. I was surprised, but they both said the 5 days on the gulet was their favorite part.

Thanks again for the wonderful, unforgettable vacation.

Lisa



July 31, 2012

Look Who is Multi Sporting in the Galapagos…

Karen, Elaine, Rachel, and Ben - Let's Go!

Meet Karen and her fabulous kids Rachel, Ben, and Elaine. They’re excitedly getting ready to explore the Galapagos Islands in December. They’ll fly into Quito and spend a few nights on the mailand. They’ll horseback ride, hike, and visit the Equator, small villages and famed Otovalo Market. Then off to the Galapagos Islands for a unique land -based discovery: kayaking, snorkeling, communing with fascinating sea life and watching soaring birds like they”ve never seen before. With two nights in a hotel and two nights camping under the Southern sky, plus a private catamaran to cruise the best spots for snorkeling this is a fantastic, up-close way to play in these islands. They’re looking forward to being a small flexible group, avoiding the crowds, finding unique adventure in out of the way places.

Now, who wouldn’t want to join them?

You can!!! December 25 – January 2. Call us now!

800-262-6255