Monday, July 17, 2017

A European vacation without the trip across the Atlantic-Quebec

Want to do a "trial" European family vacation without crossing the Atlantic?  Head north to Quebec, Canada. Right now the U.S. dollar is very strong in Canada and it's a quicker flight than even the closest European cities.  Montreal, Mt. Tremblant (darling ski village - are you in Switzerland or Canada?) and Quebec City are full of fun for families of all ages.

My husband and I were fortunate enough to live in Montreal for a year and a half many years ago, and thoroughly enjoyed the culture, the people and the European-esque feel, particularly in the Old Town/Port (Vieux Port ), Notre Dame de Grace neighborhoods.  We are still good friends with many of the people we met while living there.

Brush up on your French.  It's still the main language, but in Montreal, everyone speaks perfect English.  I always enjoyed speaking my high school French while grocery shopping or in a restaurant, only to have someone reply in English - smack down!

In Old Town, meander through the cobblestone streets (St. Paul St. is great for restaurants and shopping) and imagine being in a town in France or Belgium.




The Montreal Subway is a great way to get around town.  It's easy to navigate and very reasonably priced.  Plus, you'll find the underground city, now known as RESO, that connects the stations with  restaurants, bars, shops, businesses, even a library and movie theater.  You can access almost any point downtown via this maze of tunnels.The bitter cold winters necessitated this great respite from the elements.


Kid-friendly:
Right at the port, the young and old will delight at the Montreal Sciences Center - excellent exhibits and hands on activities.  For a more outdoor experience, Voiles en Voiles is a ropes course in a pirate ship - there are zip lines, obstacle courses and climbing walls.





















Get a View:
Hike or drive to the top of the city's namesake Mont Royal, and stop at St. Joseph Oratory, a beautiful Church dedicated to St. Joseph. the grounds are lovely, and there is a creche museum, featuring beautiful "birth of Christ" renditions from all over the world.  It's a great view as well.  And, for a higher look at the city, check out the old Parc Olympique, home of the 1976 Summer Olympics, where you can ride a funicular up to the top of the Montreal Tower, the iconic angled tower.  Nick and I once did a 10k race through Montreal and the finish line was in the Olympic Stadium which was really cool.

Come hungry:
Atwater Market is a culinary cornicopia of vendor stalls filled with fresh produce, flowers, pasteries, meats and cheeses.  There are restaurants around the periphery of the market, so you can eat on-the-spot as well take home some amazing local food.  I wouldn't call myself a foodie, but this is a must-do destination and a feast for the eyes, ears and nose.


You can also pop in a bakery for a baugette, crave a crepe (Chez Cora is our favorite - several locations and enormous crepes), find a fondue restaurant, or polish off some poutine, Quebec's unofficial official dish.  And, St. Viateur is famous for their amazing bagels, after all, you'll walk it off through this very strollable town.






Head North:
There are the most charming ski towns just northwest of Montreal - you'll feel like you're in Europe. During the winter and parts of spring, winter activities abound at Mt. Tremblant (the biggest town), but St. Sauveur and Mont Olympia are darling and great for beginners.  In the summer, many of them have zip line courses, alpine slides, water sports and other outdoor activities.

Now Head Northeast:
Quebec City is perhaps the most European-like town in North America.  It's teeming with history and gorgeous architecture, and is the only walled city north of Mexico. Simply wandering its streets is an experience in itself.  Take in the views of and from the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac - a castle-looking fortress that sits on top of a hill overlooking the St. Lawrence River.  Staying there will cost you, but at least walk up the hill to enjoy the picturesque vista and enjoy a cafe au lait.

And the exquisite Musee National des Beaux-Arts is a great history lesson in the of art and culture of Quebec.

I've seen really good airfares to Canada recently.  U.S. adults do need a passport, but those 16 and under can use birth certificates.  Best to check for sure before you travel.

I love Canada no matter the province  -- I have been lucky to live in Quebec and travel to British Columbia, Ontario and Nova Scotia.  Quebec is unlike any other place in North America.  If you want to save money, or not travel quite as far and still experience a European adventure, it's a an excellent surrogate and unique destination.

Bon voyage!








Sunday, July 9, 2017

Indiana - Where the Bison Roam

With respect to Brewster Higley who wrote the lyrics to "Home on the Range", buffalo don't and haven't ever roamed in North America.  But, bison have for thousands of years (buffalo are the mammals in Asia and Africa), and were named the national mammal of the United States in 2016. So, we decided to celebrate Fourth of July weekend by seeing some bison in their natural habitat in northwest Indiana at Kankakee Sands Preserve, about 1 hour, 45 minutes northwest of Indianapolis.



The Nature Conservancy purchased the 7,200 acres at Kankakee Sands about twenty years ago. It was once one of the largest marshes in North America, but the natural habitat was stripped and turned into farmland at the turn of the 20th century.  The Conservancy has preserved as much of the original land as possible and restored the rest by planting native grasses and flowers to resemble the prairie land that once was home to thousands of flora and fauna not seen in decades.

In fact, there is a bison jumping over a log on the Indiana State Seal.  However, the Governor's website still calls it a buffalo.

What makes their conservation of this area so unique is that they introduced a herd of bison to the field in November 2016.  The bison are a keystone species which means that other specials in an ecosystem largely depend on them.  A great infographic by The Nature Conservancy explains it. They are also the largest land mammal in North America.

There are now 32 bison, with several calves born this spring.  They are thriving in the land as it was hundreds of years ago.

Unfortunately, the bison were too busy munching on grass far away from the trails and lookout points, so all we saw were some puffs of dark brown in the distance.  However, a volunteer with the Nature Conservancy gave us some background on them, answered our questions and let us touch some of the hair that they had rubbed off on tree stumps, which felt more like cotton than wool.


Still, the area is beautiful and there are grasses and flowers that I haven't seen before.  You could almost see the oxen-pulled covered wagons across the prairie.

We saw a couple of copper colored lizards racing around, too.  Other than a short trail that runs alongside the parking lot, there's no other vantage point to see them, which was a bit of a disappointment.  They are enclosed by a 8 or 9 foot fence with electric on it.  And, signage makes it clear not to jump in with the bison.
Although we were bummed not to see the bison up close, we had another stop on the way back to Indy to see some other mammals native to the United States. We headed to Wolf Park in BattleGround, about 10 minutes from Lafayette.

Established as a research and education center, Wolf Park has wolves, coyotes and foxes.  As wolves have a 1/2 mile long flight distance (the distance they want to flee from seeing a human), it was difficult to do research on them (before the days of wifi, wireless cameras and GPS).  So, they hand raise the pups from 10-weeks old so that they are acclimated to humans.

A guide took around their grounds for a 45-minute tour, describing their habits, how they are raised and their care.

And lo and behold, they also have a herd of bison!  These guys were a lot closer and you could see the big male and a couple of copper-colored babies.  So, all was not lost on our quest to see bison on our adventure!


Wolf Park was just the right about of talking and walking to keep my boys interested. They also have a small education center and gift shop.  They do a lot of seminars and lectures about wolves and other canines.  And, I'd like to go back for their Howl Nights, when you get to go and listen to their trademark sound and learn more about this behavior.  It was great to see these gorgeous creatures in a natural habitat.


We capped off our day with a visit to the Triple XXX Family Restaurant in West Lafayette - great burgers and shakes, and best of all, their homemade root beer.  

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Traveling Back in Time - Colonial Williamsburg

Despite his travels all over the world, my husband's most requested destination over the last twenty years has been Colonial Williamsburg, and some how we haven't made our way there yet. However,in planning our recent trip to Washington D.C., we decided to take a short diversion to check it out (about a 2.5 hour drive from the City).

Perhaps it's my renewed interest in colonial times thanks to my obsession with BBC favorite Poldark, or seeing Nick's enthusiasm about going, but I was excited to don my bonnet and petticoat and travel back 300 years.

Prices were a little steep - although similar to a day at an amusement park - with $25.99 ($12.49) for kids) for access to just four sites and the grounds and $40.99 ($20.49 for kids) for access to everything.  My only regret is not renting costumes for the boys to wear around.  You can rent costumes for kids and adults at the vistor's center to get a more authentic experience.

After checking out the visitor's center and getting our tickets, we ventured out to see the early settlers in their tradtional 1700s town.

With just a day to explore, we opted just to walk the grounds and historic areas, watching tradesmiths artfully execute their crafts and touring the homes and buildings.

The guides in the houses were wonderful teachers and captured the attention of both the adults and children, providing great history and details without it feeling like a lesson.  Of course, the kids were most fascinated by chamber pots and grossing out at the prospect of using them!

In one house, they had set up traditional Colonial children's toys, wooden spools and wollen balls (like mini bowling), the ball and cup game and some other items.  Our boys quickly made two friends and they spent about 20 minutes on the floor creating their own versions of the games, giving me pause to consider tossing out all electronics and noisemaking toys in lieu of spurring imagination with rudimentary toys (although I'm guessing 20 minutes may have been their limit of not having legos or ipads to play with).


Most of the people who perform the traders are masters in their art.  You can purchase jewelry made by the silversmiths; buy ginger cakes and baked goods from the bakery that still uses a wood fire oven.  Most of them do a beautiful job explaining how they create their wares and engaging the kids. Some of them stay in complete character the entire time.

My 9-year old really enjoyed seeing a demonstration of a musket being fired and the blacksmith explaining how they would fashion tools and other items with the traditional forge.


A highlight was a kids area where they could play games that Colonial children would've played, making marbles out of clay, blowing bubbles,a hay maze and even milking a fake cow.,





There are several interactive programs and sessions as well. They have an area where kids can be "archeologists in training" at a site that housed a store of some kind.  They are digging up the basement to determine what the store sold. You can also watch a trial, Or, put your kids in the public stocks.  Nate the Adventurer had something to say about that...



To be honest, our trip planning wasn't the best for this leg of our journey.  I would've been better off determining a plan of attack to make the most of our day in lovely Williamsburg.  Instead, we loosely followed their map as we walked along, going into the various shops and buildings as we came to them.

I would also make reservations for their restaurants.  We had quite a wait for lunch.

Still, it made for a very nice day and a living museum offers a unique experience and great memory for the boys.  And, we walked in the same footsteps as many of our nation builders like Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and James Madison, can't get much closer to history than that.

And perhaps my 9-year old said it best.  He felt like he had "traveled back in time", which is probably as good a complement as a historical site could ever get.

Monday, May 22, 2017

In Getting Lost, I Was Found in Japan

My first overseas experience  - studying for a summer in Japan - was a life changing experience.  Although my family had traveled extensively in the U.S. and Canada before that trip, I'd never traveled alone and never been in a country outside of North America.

I got lost a lot that summer in Japan, but it helped me become more self-reliant and self-confident.  That trip incited my love of travel and discovering new cultures and lands.

One of my favorite travel sites, We Said Go Travel, published a piece I wrote about me being directionallly-challeneged and how in getting lost, I was found.


Monday, April 24, 2017

Traveling Overseas with Junior Journeymen

My husband and I traveled and lived all over the world before having kids.  It’s in our souls, and has kept our marriage interesting, challenging and wanting more. So, we want to pass that wanderlust and appreciation for different places and cultures along to our boys. In fact, it’s natural that we’d want to journey around the globe with our kids.  Our first days as a family were spent overseas. Our older son is from a very remote part of Southern Vietnam and our younger son is from a mid-sized city in Southeast China.

Aside from some in-country travel with our boys before heading back to the U.S. after their adoptions, the only other travel we had done until recently has been in the U.S. (which, don’t get me wrong, has been great and there are thousands of phenomenal trips in the U.S., but we also love going overseas). But we hadn’t ventured overseas just yet because we wanted to wait until they were a little older (6- and 8-years old on our first big overseas adventure).

Turns out, they’re great ages to explore the world.

Yes, we just returned from an awesome trip to Britain and Iceland, but before we escaped to Europe, we had an Asian advenutre.

On a Sunday in February 2016, an incredible air fare to Japan popped up in my newsfeed (even cheaper than flying to Utah to visit my husband’s family). 

“Let’s go to Tokyo for Spring Break,” I suggested. My husband asked how many mimosas I’d had with brunch.

After a brief back-and-forth about cancelling our trip to Orlando and heading to the Far East instead, the next thing I knew I was on a popular travel website inputting my credit card number.

As soon as I booked the tickets, I started sweating literally and figuratively over the decision. Were they old to remember it? To fully appreciate it? To deal with the stress of overseas travel? Were my husband and I equipped to deal with the stress of overseas travel with two kids under eight and still make sure everyone had fun? It was one thing for the two of us to travel to a foreign country, how would we navigate with two littles in tow (and one who still liked to be carried when he was tired)?

My nervousness fought with the thrill of going back overseas and having my kids experience a wonderful culture and country. My heart beat out my head.

The kids navigated the complex subways like they had been doing it since birth, popping out their subway passes and sending them through the machines with masterful ease; they visited temples --learning to thank Buddha by lighting incense and giving offerings and purifying their hearts with water from the Chozuya fountains; tried on samurai armor and watched a sword demonstration; loved the thousands of vending machines that served everything from Aloe Juice to sodas to underwear and pizza; and tried authentic ramen, devoured Japanese pastries and turned their noses up at sushi (and discovered that McDonald’s and Coca-Cola does taste different in other countries). We oohed and ahhed over the gorgeous cherry blossoms and saw people get shoved into their trains bursting at the seams. And, and we did get to Disney, after all–Tokyo Disney.




We really had a great time (despite a few snags like a horrific hotel the second night and Alex hitting his head on concrete at Disney). My husband and I satiated our overseas travel bug (actually, I think we fed it and now it wants more) and our boys saw and experienced a wonderful land and culture that not many American kids their age have. And, I hope that the bug bit them just a bit as well.

When we first arrived, I kept pointing out how different everything was from the U.S. – the signage in Kanji characters and not English, not hearing English, driving on the opposite side of the road, etc. to which they seemed less than impressed. I recall being disheartened that they weren’t marveling at those differentiators as I still did (even as someone who had studied for a summer in Japan and vacationed there a few years ago). 


However, my now 9-year old will occasionally say something like, “Mom, remember in Japan?...” or “when we were in Tokyo…that was epic.” and I instantly remember why we took the leap to journey to the Land of the Rising Sun. Those memories will be with all of us for a lifetime and will fuel our desire to see more of this incredible world.

UPDATED: Overjoyed that this post is also over at We Said Go Travel's awesome web site.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Do as I say, not as I do

I'm writing this one-handed, not the easiest task. So,please forgive any typos or misspellings. 

You see, I broke my wrist..on vacation...hiking around a volcanic crater...in Iceland.  

I had just completed a bucket list item of riding an Icelandic horse, the purest breed on earth with DNA dating back 1,100 years ago.  A horse lover and rider, I have always wanted to experience their gait that no other horse can produce.  We road along the foothills of mountains dotted with lava fields and i had a smile on my face the whole time, among the most amazing things, Ive done.



My sweet and patient husband kept my two young boys busy in the farm's waiting house.

ou main goal for the day was to drive the Golden Circle, a 180 km loop that hits some of southwest Iceland's most famous and beautiful sites. 

We were visiting a majestic site, Kerid, a crater formed from an extict volcano with a rainbow of colors  - a clear cerulean lake at the bottom, unusual red volcanic rock around the sides with varying shades of green moss from chartruese to forrest.  


It had been misty, so it was slick, but the trail around the crater didn't seem too bad.  Still, i was quick to continuaaly remind everyone to "be careful" and "slow down."

i had just taken a lovely photo of my three boys and we were continuing our walk around the circumference when I took a bad step on some very slippery mud and landed squarely on my left wrist.  i heard a sickening snap and knew it wasnt good.

Still, I put on my big girl panties, sucked it up and journeyed on our hike, besides, it was the only way back to the car.

We found a restaurant to get some ice, but by the next stop, Geysir, with incredible hot 
spring spouts, and where the term "geyser" originated, I knew i needed a doctor.

We used Google maps to find a health clinic, and there was one about 15 minutes away.  But they didn't have a x-ray machine, so we headed back to Reykjavik.  

Hospital #2 didn't have an x-ray machine either (and I later learned that it was a heart hospital), but they directed us to one that did.

Luckily, Icelanders speak impeccable English, so I had no problem getting treament or understanding what was going in.  I was examined, x-rayed and casted within about 2 hours and the hospital was just like getting treated in the U.S., except for the price tag -- a very reasonable US$590.

Here are a few things that I did learn:
1.  Always have access to your passport.I recommend securing your original passport in your hotel safe, but carry a copy or have a photo of it on your phone at all times.  Healthcare providers will have to have the information to give treatment.

2. Travel insurance is worth the cost.  i bought some very inexpensive coverage (i think around $20 per person) when I purchased our airline tickets, mostly to protect us in case luggage was lost or flights cancelled, but having my kids with me, also made me more cautious. if you have a chronic condition or have health challenges, you might consider purchasing a more comprehensive plan, but most are under $100 per person that include medical evacuations and coverage up to $15,000.

i have also filed the claim under my private insurer and am curious to see what they pay, if any, but the travel should cover the full amount,

3. Go ahead and seek treatment.  I fell on Thursday and we were scheduled to leave on Friday.  A couple of times, I considered toughing it out until we got home.  That would've been a really bad decision.  yes, it was a giant inconvenience, but hopefully it saved me from surgery or further injury by getting seen in-country.


It does make for a good story. i have been clumsy and accident-prone since childhood, so I could have just as easily broken my wrist my walking down the stairs in my house, but i now have a story souvenir.

i felt quite foolish falling, but i did feel better when the nurse handed me a brochure in English about breaking your wrist.  I guess I'm not the only English-speaking idiot to venture to incredible Iceland.




Monday, March 6, 2017

Using Basketball Skills in a Chinese Hospital

We were in Fuzhou, China, a small-by-Chinese-standards city of about 7 million people, on the Tawain Strait - the sliver of ocean between Taiwan and southeast China. And, our hands were full. My husband, Nick, and I were there adopting our then almost 3-year old son, Alex. I noticed that he had a low grade fever when we first brought him up to our hotel room the night we received custody, but I attributed it to stress and the fact that he had about four layers of clothes on, even though it was 70 degrees. He was eating fine, and was generally happy save the fact that he was getting used to the two strange faces who were now caring for and loving on him.

We were busy doing adoption paperwork, going to appointments, strolling him around the lovely lake and park that was outside our hotel, and visiting some of the sights of the Fujian province, known for their amazing Banyan trees and temples.

But then, he spiked a fever -- this time it was high – and started throwing up. I gave him some Tylenol, and it would bring down his temperature temporarily, but then it would spike back up (and wasn’t keeping anything down). Magically, there was a health clinic at our hotel, so we took him in. The doctor said he had a "cold" (via our Chinese guide/translator Penny) and to give him warm tea. She also admonished me for putting him in a lukewarm bath. After twelve hours, he was no better, so we took him back to the hotel doc. She told us she couldn’t dispense a prescription for him, and we still had no true diagnosis. Dissatisfied with her recommendations and nonchalance, we headed to the nearest hospital.

It just so happened that it was a critical day in our adoption process. We had to get some paperwork finalized and get his passport to make sure we’d stay on schedule to avoid a week-long delay due to Chinese New Year which was quickly approaching. And we had a flight to catch that afternoon to another Chinese city to finalize his U.S. visa and additional forms.

Nick had warned me about Chinese hospitals before. He went to a few of them when he worked in Shanghai and always said that if one of us got really sick, that we needed to get on a plane to Tokyo or Hong Kong as soon as possible. He’d see people smoking in the stairwells; once rode in an elevator with someone who was getting a blood transfusion; and saw that cash handed over via a handshake always meant you’d be seen first and get better service.

Still, we had a sick baby and no other viable options. We called a cab and headed for the nearest hospital.

We knew it would be challenging, but my fears were realized when, a block before the hospital, traffic was at a standstill - it was because all of the cars were trying (unsuccessfully) to get to the hospital. So, we hopped out of the car, I hoisted Alex on a hip and walked the rest of the way.

I don't think I ever quite understood the term "sea of humanity" until I saw the droves of people trying to get into the front doors. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people were crowding every inch of space, shoulder-to-shoulder. It was the Black Friday for healthcare -- with people jamming into doorways and hallways. And instead of duking it out over Cabbage Patch Dolls or iPads, it was getting in line to see a doctor or nurse. Whomever shoved and jostled his way to the front of the line (and held his ground), was seen. Being passive did you no favors and it might mean waiting for hours.

I felt like I was underwater – moving through the maze of hallways, a fuzzy soundtrack of Chinese yelling, moaning and various bells and alarms and an acrid, sweaty smell permeating the air.

People were laying on gurneys in the hallways with bloody gauze, sallow skin and lifeless eyes. Others were sleeping on the floor or falling out of wheelchairs. I get queasy seeing fake medical procedures on TV shows, so I kept my head down and trudged along, sidestepping a body here and there with Alex still stuck my hip and his face buried in my chest.

I took Alex down a "quieter" hallway to wait while Penny and Nick registered. Poor Alex was very unhappy because of the noise and all of the people, and because he didn’t feel well. I was on the edge of a panic attack, swallowing bile and gritting my teeth, pacing with him and swaying with him to calm both of us down.

Alex and I were standing outside of a "transfusion" room that looked like something out of a 1960's mental institution (i.e. One Flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest). There were poles with hooks that dropped down from the ceiling where bags of fluids were hung. People sat below staring into space while their treatments were being done. I'm not sure if these were blood transfusions, chemo or what, but I kept our distance.

About 10 minutes later Nick and Penny grabbed me and said we could go in the pediatric room to push our way through to the doctor.

Imagine the world’s worst game of Musical Chairs – that’s what we were facing. Everyone was crowded in and around an 8 foot by 10 foot room. There were about 20 people and their sick children huddled and focused on one small area – the doctor sitting at a desk with a computer and a single chair. She examined each child as everyone else hovered over her and waited their turns – kids whimpering and coughing, parents growing impatient and hunkering down in position to move forward as soon as the chair was empty.


I played basketball for seven years in elementary and high school so, I elbowed and hip checked my way through several “defenders” to get to the physician (meanwhile holding a 30-pound little boy and trying not to have either of us breathe in God- knows-what-germs. Everyone else had on surgical masks!). I was close to my goal and waited anxiously while the doctor was examining another child, an infant with gauze around her head.

The baby was so tiny and weak. It pained me to think about how sad it would be to think that this was the only way for your child to be seen by a doctor, even with what appeared to be a fairly serious condition.

A combination of mother bear and competitive basketball player came over me. I knew that we had to get in and out quickly (with our flight leaving in five hours including a 90-minute ride to the airport), I strategized that I needed to continue incorporating those former basketball skills once more as soon as the mother got up from the chair. I noticed a father and his child ready to pounce in the seat, so I took my nice, wide American birthing hips, blocked them out, hooked my foot around the leg of the chair, pulled it toward me -- legs spread apart and elbows out in defensive position - and sat down. 

Victory!

The doctor was stunned, but not extraordinarily so, as I’m guessing other Chinese had employed this tactic before and started examining Alex and asking our translator questions. After about three minutes, she handed me some paperwork -- a prescription for Ceclor (a wonderful antibiotic that isn’t used in the U.S. anymore), vitamin B6, and Tylenol.

We ran out of there as fast as we could (while we were sitting there a mom and her toddler daughter came in and the poor little girl had an IV bag hooked up to her arm). Nick and Penny went to get the prescriptions filled while Alex and I maneuvered our way outside and away from most of the people.

We made it back to the hotel in time to pack our bags and meet the police officer who had Alex's passport. A few minutes before the police officer arrived, Alex threw up all over the two of us. We rushed into the bathroom, and Nick ran downstairs to find an extra change of clothes for me (I already had some with me for Alex).

I was able to clean him up pretty well with baby wipes and clean clothes. My cleanliness, on the other hand, was harder to achieve. Vomit leaked down into my bra and under my boobs. I wiped it off as best as I could and changed clothes, but my chest still smelled like sour milk and bananas through the long drive to the airport and flight. Luckily, my gag reflex is pretty weak.

The best part was that the Ceclor was a miracle worker, and Alex’s fever broke within two hours. And no more puked on boobs. We made our flight with time to spare, and we were all a lot happier.

Thanks to my first and best basketball coach, my dad, for teaching me some great moves on the court. I had no idea that I could use them off the court and in a Chinese hospital.
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