January 3, 2009

discovering roatan, honduras

A well-kept secret of the Caribbean is the Honduran island of Roatan. Located just off the northern shore of Honduras,westbaybeach Roatan is part of this affordable Central American country but with the laidback feel of its more expensive Caribbean neighbors. Spanish is the national language of Honduras and English-speakers are hard to find on the mainland. Not so on Roatan, where English is widely used. In fact we used our Spanish so little we often forgot we were in a Latin American country.

Roatan is accesible by direct flights from several US gateways including Houston and Atlanta. At present direct flights run only on the weekends, so be sure to look closely at flight itineraries before booking your hotel stay. You can get to Roatan any day of the week via the Honduran mainland or other Central American countries but those flights are notoriously late (think hours and hours) so a “short stop” could add significantly to your travel time. We opted for a Saturday to Saturday trip to minimize travel time. We (Steve, Beth and 22-month old Grace) traveled from Portland, Oregon direct to Houston, where we met up with my husband’s parents (traveled from Ohio) and my husband’s brother and his wife (from Chicago). From Houston we flew together directly to Roatan, less than 3 hours from Houston on Continental. It was a much easier flight with a toddler than the all-day trek last year from Portland to Turks and Caicos (stops in Dallas and Miami made it a 12+ hour day).

First the pros of Roatan. Roatan is stunning. It’s water is turquoise blue and crystal clear. The fish and coral are brilliant in color and diversity. It’s famed for its scuba diving and snorkeling, in part because both are so good and also because it’s very, very cheap to dive in Roatan compared to just about anywhere else in the world. It’s actually cheaper to become a certified diver in Roatan than in the U.S., although if you’re traveling with little ones keep in mind that someone will have to watch the kids if they’re too young to dive themselves. Travel with non-divers like we did if scuba is on your agenda.

Scubadiving is not the only inexpensive pasttime on the island. Just about everything is affordable including food, hotels and transportation, a real plus for traveling families. The seafood on Roatan is fresh and delicious. There are lots of things for families with little ones to do such as swimming with dolphins, bio-parks with ziplines, interesting animals and flora, glasswater boat trips and of course playing on the beaches with their shallow warm waters and little waves.

It’s easy for families to get around the island as well. Taxis are readily available and affordable, although agree on a price before you get in. Your hotel should be able to recommend reliable taxi drivers and tell you what it should cost to get to a destination. Our taxi drivers were always friendly and most spoke at least a little English, although one spoke only Spanish. Their taxis were well-used and worn, and don’t expect seat belts. We rented a van for part of our stay. It was cheaper than taxis for the days we were doing a lot of driving, since we were such a large group (7 people) plus we could use our portable Eddie Bauer car seat for our daughter. There are several rental agencies on the island and none of them seem to have well-maintained vehicles. One van broke down on us in the middle of nowhere but three different cars stopped to help us, including a taxi driver who took us back to the rental agency for a new, equally decrepit van. Don’t expect luxury in any kind of island transportation, but since it’s a small place you can’t get lost and there’s always someone driving by to help you out.

Thinking about our broken down van brings me to the downsides of Roatan. First, the beaches. There are some beautiful beaches on the island but they are all plagued by sandflies. Our visit to Roatan in November fell at the end of the rainy season, when the flies (and their friends the mosquitoes) are at their peak. They were horrible. So long as we had insect repellent slathered everywhere we were fine, but the instant we went in the water and washed it off the insects were vicious. As I write this post a few weeks after our return I still am suffering from a few itchy bites. We’ve heard they are not nearly so much of a problem during the dry season (earlier in the year) but don’t go in the rainy season expecting to lounge peacefully in the sand.

Another downside of the rainy season was floating garbage in the crystal blue water. As part of Honduras, Roatan is a developing nation and the garbage was a visible sign of the poverty that exists beyond the luxury resorts. Garbage is thrown in streams and rivers and, when heavy rains come, that garbage is washed out to sea and into your resort. Some days there was none, other days the water was full of slicks of plastic bottles and plastic bags. Our resort did a great job cleaning up the beaches on a daily basis but they can’t control what’s floating in the water and it did spoil some attempts at swimming. Again, we heard this problem is almost non-existent during the drier part of the year.

Overall our family loved Roatan. It was the right choice for our small family reunion, with the perfect balance of things to do and nothing-to-do. The people both at our resort and throughout the island were laidback and genuinely friendly. It’s a beautiful place but we recommend it for seasoned developing nation travelers, not for those accustomed only to luxury resorts. Even the nicest accomodation on Roatan can’t shelter you from the realities of it being part of a very poor country. For us this was a plus. It meant an authentic experience and the knowledge that our travel was supporting communities that rely on the income from tourism. But it also meant some inconveniences along the way and a few adventures (such as a broken-down rental van).

Watch for subsequent posts reviewing our excellent accomodations at Barefoot Cay as well as our list of things to do and eat on Roatan with kids.

grace

December 19, 2008

deck the halls—small

After the bubble burst in Silicon Valley early in 2000, people embraced frugality as the new decadence. Many cut back on personal spending in a variety of ways—brewing their morning coffee at home, mowing their own lawns, cleaning their own homes, and stretching the time between haircuts. I’ve heard my friends and colleagues taking those measures again lately, but this year is different. Really different. As we all know by now, the depth and breadth of the current economic crisis is much greater than the one that hit California almost nine years ago. It has clobbered every industry in every country on the planet. And the hits just keep on coming.

Knowing this, what can we parents do to educate our children (and ourselves) as well as protect them through what will likely be a long road to recovery? Further, can and should we start that process during the magical holiday season? It’s tempting on the one hand, because it’s such a rich opportunity to teach lessons of money management, geography, cause and effect, you name it. But, on the other hand, it sure feels “Scrooge-y” to dwell on circumstances completely out of the control of a preschooler, and worse still to somehow “punish” him for it at Christmas time. I read somewhere that parents will cut back their budgets everywhere else first before they touch toys or other holiday presents for their children. Childhood is viewed as sacred and so are the holidays that cater to young spirits.

I am all for supporting the traditions that contribute to the holiday magic, but not surprisingly, those traditions cost money. Lights on the house and Christmas tree and the energy to help them glow? Check. Said Christmas tree along with a wreath for the front door? Check. Presents for everyone? Check. Extra runs to the grocery and wine stores for parties and entertaining? Check. Holiday cards? Check. I love all this stuff, and it would feel totally alien to cut back at this time of year, but it is just stuff after all.

And, like all parents, my husband and I want to set a good example to our son. Part of that role is being responsible and thoughtful about what we spend money on, what we bring into our home, and what we give away. A small way we’ve tried to do this is by including him in some of the holiday preparations and shopping this year. We all went to get a Christmas tree together, of course, but this year we got a live tree, which we will leave in a planter and then plant in the yard after Christmas. We hope to save money on a tree next year, not to mention avoid cutting down a tree altogether. I understand that in parts of Europe, people decorate large, live, community trees as opposed to cutting down individual trees. I like this tradition.

For presents, my son and I discussed what his cousins, who are his age, enjoy and are interested in right now. For one cousin, it’s ballet. For another, it’s construction and yard work. His oldest cousin is a budding scientist and especially into reptiles. Together my son and I have tried to choose just a few gifts that will pack the most punch. All month at bedtime we’ve been reading books that tell old tales about winter celebrations from around the world. I’m always struck by how excited the children in the stories are to receive the simplest things—oranges, almonds, paper kites, or bamboo flutes. There are no expensive electronics or cartoon-branded gadgets, and it is so refreshing!

Another way I’ve tried to manage our expenses is to literally work for our presents. Part of the reason I decided to contribute to the Tea Collection blog starting in August was the company’s generous offer to exchange gift certificates for blog entries. I figured the entries would add up, which would contribute to getting some great outfits for our growing family (lots of cousins, with more on the way). It truly has been a memorable process and a thoughtful, methodical approach to gift-giving. In addition to the fun I have had writing about my family, travels and recommendations; it’s been incredibly satisfying to buy great quality, beautiful clothes for the littlest relatives in our lives.

So, even with the little things we’re trying to do around our house this season, will the random Snoopy make its way into our son’s stocking this year? Probably. That is OK, because I just want him to learn that while presents are precious and should be appreciated, the people who love him, thought about him, and worked hard to earn the money to buy or make that item for him are so much more precious and deserving of his appreciation

cozy at home

With two young children before me, dreaming aloud of gifts Santa Claus may bring in a couple of weeks, practicing carols in music class at school, and plotting how many nights they may be able to unroll their sleeping bags by our Christmas tree, we have the holiday fever, certainly. But with my husband in Afghanistan on a long-term military assignment, my heart is also a few beats behind pace, knowing that our family’s celebration won’t be quite complete without him.

My first instinct was to plan on spending Christmas Eve and Day at my grandparents’ and parents’ houses, respectively, as I did when growing up. Extra company, distractions, good food… Isn’t it natural to want our elders to look after us when we’re feeling vulnerable?

But my little ones have let me know they’re pretty sure that our own home (where they’ve always spent this special time) is the right place to be. “How would Santa Claus know where to find us if we aren’t here?” “What if Santa stops here and there aren’t any cookies for him or treats for his reindeer? Will he come back again?” They’re looking at me to be the one to keep things steady for them, I realize. No surprises, except the ones we might find under the tree, are very welcome right now.

So, I think we’ll make ourselves cozy at home. Maybe the kids and I will make fondue on Christmas Eve (also our 10th wedding anniversary) after we bake cookies for Santa. I’ll plan a special brunch for Christmas morn. The big leather chair my husband favors will be empty then, the kids’ smiles and present-opening fervor captured on video for him to savor later, but we will make the most of our celebration, anyway, and hope that we get the chance to bridge the distance between us with a long phone call.

“Let there be peace on earth,” a prayer commonly made at this time of year, seems perhaps further out of reach than it ever has before. But this family is committed to working toward that lofty goal, and we dedicate the separation that our family is enduring to the world in an effort to create peace. While we enjoy our own traditions in these holiday festivities, we will remember those in the world that need to feel the warmth that is fostered in our home and hearts.

an amazing heirloom you can create

I walked into my friend’s house one day and noticed a huge wonderful oil painting of a mother and a father standing with two children standing in front of them and a small child on peeking over the shoulder of the father. I told my friend Liz, “Wow I love that painting, is that new?” She replied “No. That is my family; I am the one on my dad’s back. We had it done when we were little and my mom just gave it to me.” I thought how wonderful that piece of art was and how nice to have it passed down.

Recently I was in a business in San Francisco that had an installation of local artists paintings and I fell in love with one of the artists style. I initially thought it would be great if he could do a portrait of my 5-year-old daughter, Olivia. That is when I had my epiphany. I contacted the artist and commissioned him to do a family portrait. The key was that he is a local budding artist so he is affordable. While I was creating a memory for her I decided to incorporate a fantastic family journey we experienced, hoping to further instill her experience in Egypt from her then 4-year old mind. Now she sees the painting on a daily basis and couldn’t possibly forget sharing a camel with her father while riding next to her mother on her camel in the Sahara desert past the Pyramids of Egypt and the Great Sphinx. I can visualize 40 years in the future, my daughter explaining to her friend “that is me, the little one sitting in my dad’s lap.”

December 12, 2008

a gift that gives back

Buying gifts that give back to the world is incredibly fulfilling. Every year I like to donate something in each of my family member’s names to Heifer or get them little tokens of global beauty at Ten Thousand Villages. Here at Tea, we have a great way to give back this season. Our Global Fund for Children line features our “For the Little Citizens of the World” tagline on bodysuits and tees. We are also carrying some of the inspiring, globally oriented books published by the Global Fund to share with your little citizens. All the proceeds from the sales of the Global Fund for Children line go back to an organization doing amazing things for little ones worldwide. To learn more about the Global Fund for Children visit www.globalfundforchildren.org.

souvenirs and little citizens

This is #5 of an ongoing dialog of our travel which included 4 countries and a 4 year old. Please check the prior archives for the previous sagas.

We flew across the Red Sea leaving Saudi Arabia and landing in Egypt. After having worn my abaya for nearly a month, I must admit I didn’t want to take it off. It becomes comfortable … oddly enough. There is something comforting in being able to keep to yourself and be private. There is something nice about losing the button off your pants prior to a fancy dinner and it not mattering in the least because you are wearing an abaya anyhow. I was told that women often leave the house in their pajamas because no one can tell. I did not remove my abaya and headscarf until we landed in Luxor which included one prior stop. I figured I would be ripping it off first chance I got but it didn’t turn out that way.

The tombs and temple complex Karnak at Luxor were amazing and we preferred it to Ciaro and the pyramids. If it is even possible for one super amazing city can be topped by another even more super amazing city. We were repeatedly informed that our 4 year old would not remember any of our trip. One male friend who had traveled there recently informed me that “Egypt would be a little dry for her, no pun intended.” None taken. We hoped that she would remember this once-in-a-lifetime experience that she was having at 4 years age. We did not have a plan to help us force the experience into her long-term memory but a serendipitous plan slowly unfolded.

As a side note I must explain I have spent the last 20 years working with people with Acquired Brain Injuries (ABI). One man I worked with was an alcoholic and a roofer which is a really bad combination. Odds are you’ll slip off the roof eventually. People with ABI have very little or no short-term memory but can happily discuss anything in that happened years ago because it is in their long-term memory. Every day I would tell my client the roofer the same joke which goes like this, “My dog can talk. I asked him what was on top of the house and do you know what he said?” And every day my client would shake his head no. I would tell him the punch line and he would laugh like he had never heard it before. One day, as usual, I told him the joke and when I said, “do you know what the dog said?” my client then blurted out with a hearty laugh and replied “Roof!” I had made it into the long-term memory somehow. This is the principle I am using to help my young child remember a fabulous travel experience. Although I am not repeating it every day, I am sure she is thankful, I incorporate information from time to time and ask her open ended questions that makes her pull up information from her experiences to answer the questions. Hopefully I am slowly placing it into her long-term memory.

Olivia stuck out like a sore thumb in Egypt just as she did in Saudi Arabia. Although there were plenty of Americans and Europeans in Egypt, they were all Grey-Hairs as Egypt is a vacation destination reserved for AARP-ers. Olivia learned to yell “No Touching!” in Saudi Arabia as the men ran to her ready to pinch her cheeks. In Egypt it was different because they ran to her giving her presents. This was especially odd in that every person we came across in Egypt had their hand out wanting to be paid. Luckily for us, the man who rented us camels to ride to the pyramids fell in love with her immediately. He instructed us to “wait right here” and ran off returning with a statue of the pyramids and sphinx. He gave it to Olivia and told us that he was also going to give us his son to marry her and that he, himself, was a Texan. Texas was a big theme in Arab countries. Many people asked if we were from Texas because we had a Texas accent. My husband is from San Francisco and I am from Northern California.

This little statue was the building block for us to create a long-term memory for her. We created a shelf in her room with one souvenir from each country she has traveled so that she sees it often but subtly. This is where the pyramid and sphinx sit. She began reading a book series from the library called The Magic Tree House so we purchased the one in the series called Mummies in the Morning for her personal collection. It is amazing how much Egypt stuff (for lack of a better word) is available. So we integrated a little here and a little there…Egypt playing cards, Egypt action figures, Little Einstein’s Egypt play set. Just enough to intermittently jog her memory. It lends many opportunities for discussion and open-ended questions such as “remember when you woke up in Dad’s arms and you were in front of King Tut’s Mask in the Egyptian Museum?” Or “I remember that mommy mummy that had her baby mummified with her” to which Olivia quickly corrects me and says “No Mommy, that wasn’t a baby it was her pet baboon!”

 

 

plies and the tumbe

Bleary-eyed from lack of sleep and coffee, I stumbled into preschool today with Milo.

Approaching the building we heard the familiar lilt of Jingle Bells…in Spanish. And there she was – a black-clad Elvira-esque character leading the kids in ballet moves. Plie, arms up! On tippy-toes, arms down! Now CORRE CORRE CORRE and stag-leap across the room! One! Two! Three.. Leap! Quatro! Cinco! Seis… Leap! FELIZ NAVIDAD A TODOS! Hooray!!! The room was festooned with garlands and Christmas tree construction paper art and menorahs and hand-turkeys and stars, and looked every bit the global festival.

It struck me that we – here in the city, in 2008 – are wildly lucky to be able to step into a crazy, mixed up scene like this and feel right at home. Our children will feel even more so, as diversity is imprinted in their spongy minds as the natural order of things.

Growing up in a small town in Western Massachusetts in the 70s, my parents and I spoke reverently of “Other Cultures”, for people who lived elsewhere, looked funny, and had strange habits and different languages. Our great hope was that we’d be able to travel to – even to live, for a time in – a Foreign Country, to Learn their Customs. Foreigners were positive, to be sure, like museum pieces to be admired and studied; but I never knew I could really know a kid who wasn’t mostly like me.
Of course I grew up, and traveled, and lived abroad, and forcibly re-programmed myself to approach the world differently. Those early reactions still linger, though. When I travel, it is still with a residual hesitation (Am I going to point my chopsticks the wrong way? Will I shake someone’s hand improperly? Should I bow? Will I stand out more if I dress in their clothes, or mine?)

It is – therefore – with overwhelming pleasure and pride that I watch my 2 year old plie and stage leap and chatter just as easily with his Peruvian friend and the Indian girl, and little Marcello from Italy, and Tumbe from Kenya, as though it were the most natural thing in the world. Which it is, really.

making christmas memories

The holidays with little ones can be crazy. Just getting presents bought, wrapped and shipped, and Christmas cards out on time can be about all a new mom can handle. And for the past four Christmases our family has been doing the bare minimum to get festive. Only half the decorations come out, very little baking is done and gifts are bought online to save time.

But my oldest is almost five, and this year I decided it was time to start making some memories and teaching Christmas to my kids. It was clear they were understanding more and more about Santa. But I wanted them to get the whole holiday in more than just a commercial context. So that meant a little reflection on my part. What things are important for me to share about this season with preschoolers?

December can be filled with shopping and spending or it can be about savoring the lights, colors, songs, smells and tastes of this month. Because once January and February comes, it continues to be cold and it’s back to business as usual.

I had read in a Wondertime article about a mom who did an activity a day with her kids during Advent in lieu of candy/gifts everyday. We’ve done the candy Advent calendars and still do because it’s just fun to have chocolate, but this year we took our wooden Advent calendar and filled it with fun things for us to do together as a family. Things that, for me, make the season what it is. So here are 24 days of activities:

Make paper snowflakes and decorate the windows
Learn/sing some traditional Christmas carols
Decorate the house with decorations
Make a gingerbread house
Make Christmas cookies for a friend
Celebrate St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6)
Decorate the Christmas tree
Read a Christmas classic
Do something nice for someone we don’t know
Look at Christmas lights
Bring food to someone who needs it
Go see The Nutcracker
Celebrate St. Lucia Day (Dec. 13)
Attend a Christmas event
Make popcorn garland
Read the Christmas story
Make hot chocolate
Go ice skating
Watch a Christmas movie
Make a Christmas paper chain and hang it
Hang lights up in the house
Family game night
Buy a toy for a child who doesn’t have one
Unwrap/open one present each

By doing these, our family gets some dedicated time together. But we’ve turned Christmas “chores” into fun activities. I even had them wrapping presents and helping to stamp the Christmas cards.

Celebrating St. Nicholas Day and St. Lucia Day are important for me to incorporate in some way during the season. Saint Nicholas imparts the real Christmas spirit of giving–which is what the season is about. After living in Germany as a child for a while, this became a familiar name, but the tradition has been lost. St. Lucia Day is a Swedish holiday, one we learned about while living there. While not celebrated so much at home anymore (more at school), it’s still a wonderful way to celebrate the season.

We’re less than halfway through the month, but the kids still run to the calendar each morning to see what we’ll be doing for the day.

Linda Kerr writes at Baby Bunching, Monkey Business and DC Metro Moms.

global wonders series

If you’re looking for a new way to introduce your little citizens to the great big world, a new video series may be just the ticket. The Global Wonders animated series takes kids around the globe exploring cultures throughout the States and abroad, including in Mexico and India. The characters’ play dates feature cultural lessons, language jams, music and even talk about a variety of holidays. It looks like music CDs and videos featuring Italy and China are coming soon. Enjoy world hopping with your little ones and let us know what you think!

December 5, 2008

gift idea: global snacks

One of our writers, Dana Lightstone, mentioned briefly this week a set of great books to talk with your little citizens about culture around the globe. Amy Wilson Sanger’s World Snacks board books include Chaat and Sweets, Mangia! Mangia!, Lets Nosh and Yum Yum Dim Sum. They make great gifts for your kids and for other friends who are raising little citizens. What better way to teach the next generation about the great big world than through fun phrases and pictures of yummy food? Maybe you can even get them excited about joining you at your favorite neighborhood restaurant.