Nos Vemos Mexico

It is June 10, 2018 and I am sitting in our casita in San Pancho, Mexico cursing the Mexican government for this crazy blackout they have forced upon us. For the last week our power has been going out at 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning and does not come back on until sometime the next day. Today, it is 11:00am and we still have no power. In the winter months this wouldn’t be such a big deal, but the humid, rainy season is upon us and a fan would be so welcome right now. The cool breeze that normally flows through our house has halted leaving behind a still, sticky residue. Two showers a day does not seem quite frequent enough to rinse away the sweat and grime. We have returned to “air kisses” to say hello to friends because the normal cultural practice of cheek to cheek kisses is too sweaty and vulnerable to endure.

However, I didn’t sit down to write this blog so that I could complain about our power outages and sweat. My intension is to share news of our next adventure and some highlights of the past 18 months of our life in the region of the Riviera Nayarit. From Puerto Vallarta to Chacala we explored the many beautiful jungle hikes, beaches, and stunning vistas.

Mackenzie never has any fun

We also had the privilege to experience many cities further a field in Mexico, such as: Mazatlán, Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico City, Oaxaca City and Guadalajara. Most importantly, we met and spent time with some amazing people. People who like us, are seeking to experience life in the moment, arms wide open to whatever amazing adventures come their way.

Before I get too nostalgic and ramble on about the beauty of Mexico, I’ll start with our news. We are excited to formally announce that our next adventure takes us to Tucson, Arizona. We will be leaving our sweet home and community here on June 28th to start our northward migration. Jacob has accepted a full time job as part of the leadership team with the Tucson Tamale Company (if you haven’t tried these tamales you MUST! You can find them in Whole Foods, Natural Grocers as well as some other, smaller grocery stores. You can even order them online!). We are thrilled to help this family-run company keep their very exciting, forward momentum going strong. I look forward to finding a private psychotherapy practice to join once we get settled in our new home at the end of July.

We found two great schools for Mackenzie and Quinn. Quinn will go to a bilingual elementary school (Davis Elementary, how perfect is that?). In the end, She will probably be the best Spanish speaker in our family. Mackenzie will join a small, unique middle school (Paulo Freire Freedom School) where she will get to direct her own studies in a project-based, experiential learning community located on the Arizona State University campus. Luckily she will still have a regular Spanish class to keep up her skills too!

As for our highlight real of Mexico, I don’t really know where to begin. Today the memory that is in the front of my mind at this time of year, is one related to crabs.   Yes, that’s right. Crabs. The rain not only turns the dusty vegetation into vibrant green but it also brings out amazing flowering trees, huge toads and chirping frogs. However, the best part is that it signals the Mexican Land Crabs or Cangrejos Azules, to begin their migration from the Jungle Mountains to the ocean shore to find their mates.

I have heard hilarious tales of these crazy crabs hanging off door-frames in a sort of startling hello, sitting at the bottom pools, finding their way into toasters, and crawling into bed to snuggle up with whomever is sleeping there. The crabs are about the size of a dinner roll but their bravado is enormous. When you encounter them they often stand their ground, lift their arms up high and wide, and open and close their mouths like a hand puppet. The best stories are from people who describe the sheer volume of these crabs down at particular beaches in the area. One of these beaches is called Patzcuarito Beach and is the place Mackenzie and I ventured to one drippy morning last June, to collect our own story of Los Cangrejos Azules.

Like a scene out of a horror movie, the eerie scratching and tapping of crab claws moving over fallen leaves filled the air when we entered the overgrown, jungle path that would lead us to the beach. Peering through the palms and other foliage, we saw thousands of crabs moving like one giant organism through the jungle. With goose bumped-flesh and the flutter of anxiety in our chests we continued on our way along the shadowed path to the beach.

The normal smooth, flat landscape of the beach was lost to textured piles, mounds and sometimes hills of sand. The crabs had created little homes all over the beach. If you catch it on the right day, I understand you can witness the mass of crabs moving with synchronicity, all over the sand. What Mackenzie and I witnessed was the frequent popping in and out of their holes to find out what was disturbing their kingdom.

That is just one story. There are so many more and no way I can share all of them in this one single blog. Perhaps I’ll start writing them all out and share at a later date but for now I leave you with little flashes of my memories:

Looking out for whales on our Christmas Eve Whale watch. Amazing
  • Tacos Al Pastor with savory, thinly sliced, shawarma-spit-grilled pork tucked into handmade corn tortillas and topped with a slice of sweet pineapple for the perfect flavor balance.
  • Margarita sunsets with friends at Las Sirena’s and the numerous lost flip-flops due to forgetting how fast the darkness descends once that peachy sun plunks into the ocean.
  • The energy that buzzes in the jungle from thousands of years of ceremonies at the magical, fresh water pools near Alta Vista. The cool water cleansing more than the skin and the view from the pools of the surrounding rocks with their soft, river-carved curves, decorated with spiritual petroglyphs.

    Alta Vista Petroglyph Pools
  • The many, many days of beaching with friends, digging toes into sand, splashing in the waves, and infectious belly laughter.
  • Salsa dancing in Oaxaca.
  • Those itsy-bitsy ants and their love of secretly crawling up my arm headed for who knows where or why.
  • Mangos. Peeled like a banana, the best way to experience meaty, full-face bites with cheeks and chin that drip with the sweet juices.
  • The shock of giant iguanas that fall from trees because their even more giant brethren pushed them out. (ask me to tell you the story of the time one ran over the top of Quinn’s head! That was unexpected!)
  • Costa Verde International School: sweet bilingual performances, the most delicious school lunches on the planet, a 10-foot python slithering across the top of a wall and teachers wrestling it into a plastic tote to take it out of town.  Tales from our daughters of teachers saving students from scorpions, wasp nests and falling mangos.
  • Iguana poop that plopped in my soup. A direct shot from high above in a palm tree. I imagine he “high-fived” his buddy sitting next to him in the tree.

There have been times over the last 18 months when I was faced with the frustration of living in a foreign, developing country. Times when I have felt the pain of missing friends and family of wondering if I would ever find a family of friends in this community.  Many, many times of cursing the impatient drivers who dangerously pass a string of cars and the people who walk in the middle of the street even though there are perfectly good, empty sidewalks.

However, despite those frustrations, I fell in love with Mexico. I love the family-centered, rebellious culture and the warmth of people who would do anything to help you if you needed. I long for the music, the Mezcal, and the Mole of Oaxaca. Even though I probably complained, I love the loud, heart-stopping boom of fire cannons set off at 2:00, 4:00 and 6:00am every morning during the town’s eight-day festival celebrating their patron saint, Francisco.

I promise I’ll stop writing now and thank you for reading and sharing in our “Seize the Davi” adventures. In a way, this blog feels like a closure to a three-year adventure of travel and amazing experiences abroad. However, for Jacob and me our next chapter is just a continuation of this one and of the life we are choosing to create. A life that inspires us to keep thinking of ways to travel, stay curious and find joy everyday; especially those days when the power does not come back on until 3:00pm.

Viva Mexico! Que les vaya bien.

cobble stone street with multicolored flags hanging across.

You Are What You Speak

I have struggled with what to write, to find my voice for this post and tell the story of our lives in Sayulita for the last three weeks.  My block is partly due to the all-consuming news of the inauguration, Spanish language acquisition and because part of our story is about sickness. Stomach bugs, flu bugs and cold bugs (I’ve been down with the flu for the last three days).

As you know from my last post, landing in Sayulita was less than smooth. Turns out, according to some people we have met through the girls’ school, we are not the only family with a horror story upon arrival. It seems adversity is how Sayulita greets its new transplants. Our party hostel gave us quite the introduction to this beach pueblo and the wave of nauseous fear was unavoidable.  What did we do? Despite the numerous warnings that this is a busy tourist town, I expected a magical, peaceful vibe and this was not it. Will I like Mexico? Two days in and I was already puking and now, for the past three weeks, we have each been sick with something. Is it Sayulita? Is it back to school? Is it Mexico?

I decided its airline travel and back-to-school. There are many tourists and transplants here that traveled during the holiday break and unknowingly brought back bugs. I know it is not just Sayulita because I just read an article about the Norovirus ripping through the US. Ok, so each little bug makes the immune system stronger, right?

Mackenzie and Quinn stand in front of a blue wall with a big white fish painted on it.Other than sickness, we are also finding our rhythm. The girls started school and quickly made friends. We discovered that Quinn was in the wrong grade and moved her up to the second grade where she is thriving. Our house on the hill is an oasis and in the perfect location to get to most everything in town.  Sayulita has calmed to a buzz rather than a roar.  I discovered that the beach is gold and not just figuratively. There is a mineral in the sand that shimmers like gold when the sun hits it just right. Pyrite maybe?

Mostly our focus has been on language, not only learning Spanish but also thinking about language in general. Language is connection and division, survival and desolation, inclusion and exclusion. While walking home the other day the song, “People are Strange” by The Doors popped into my head. You know how it goes:

“People are strange, when you’re a stranger. Faces look ugly, when you’re alone. Women seem wicked when you’re unwanted; streets are uneven when you’re down. When you’re strange. Faces come out of the rain. No one remembers your name. When you’re strange, when you’re strange, when you’re straaaange.”

(its in your head now too, isn’t it? You’re welcome.)

I thought about this song, not for reasons related to the angst of my young adulthood, but for the fact that I cannot speak to the local people here on a level other than basic needs for food and shelter. I cannot really know the people and their culture because I cannot speak proficiently to the locals living it nor can I reveal my true self to them. There is so much richness that is missed when you cannot speak the language. While it is almost impossible to speak the language of every country, some statistics report that there are over 400 million Spanish-speaking people in the world. It is the second most widely spoken language after Mandarin. So then why, being a person from a country that shares a continent with Mexico, can I not speak Spanish?

Well, for one thing I chose not to learn it in high school or college when it was offered. Really, the time to learn a second language is not solely in high school; the time to start is in elementary school. When we are born, our brains are primed to learn any language, in fact, multiple languages.

English is the most widely spoken language in the world; so why should we become bilingual? For me, it is the simple fact that the ability to speak another language helps to develop relationships and empathy for a person of another culture. According to a study I recently read, proficiency with at least one other language can not only help keep your brain strong but creates an opportunity for your personality to be more open and flexible. This same study also looked at how language impacts culture and identity in German speakers versus English speakers.  Interestingly, in the Germanic language, the speaker often describes several events in one sentence and the verb for the main event is at the end. Often, this can change the entire picture that is being painted and, to fully understand, the listener must keep track of the whole idea. In general, this is how many German people view the world. They see the whole picture and take the long view when making decisions.

“Whenever the literary German dives into a sentence, that is the last you are going to see of him till he emerges on the other side of his Atlantic with his verb in his mouth” ~ Mark Twain

Conversely, in English, the action of the sentence is right up front and superfluous information is very often not included or is at the end (the woman walked to the store before going to school). Many English speakers are action oriented or focused on the consequences of the action taken now rather than the possible outcomes down the road.

We are in Mexico not only to have the experience of living in another culture for an extended period of time but also to become functional with the Spanish language.  I wonder how the Spanish language impacts Latin cultures. We have discovered that many words used in Spain are not used in Mexico. I imagine this is true for many other Spanish-speaking countries as well. Additionally, how is the culture impacted when the country becomes influenced by another language such as English?

We knew upon arriving to Sayulita, that this is a Mexican beach pueblo highly impacted by Caucasian, English-speaking ex-patriots. In fact, I noticed that if we want to speak Spanish we have to search it out a little. While we are shopping or dining or conversing on the streets with a native person, they sometimes assume we want to speak English and often will begin in that tongue. We have to press forward in Spanish, even if it is broken and takes a minute to find the words, as sort of a message that no, even if we are Gringos we want to speak Spanish here in Mexico. That sounds crazy to me. While we were living in Sevilla, Spain, I was desperate to find someone who spoke English so that I could get medical treatment but here it seems I need to assert myself in order to speak Spanish.

On my first day of Spanish class, my instructor told me that from the start, we should establish ourselves as a Spanish speaking family no matter how broken it sounds. Otherwise, we will be boxed into the category of English-speaking ex-pats and it will be assumed we don’t want to try. On the other hand, I heard that the local Mexican people want to practice their English skills too. Their ability to speak English means more money for their families from tourism.

Back of man and woman at women's march holding a sign "the heart has no borders"It is no secret that there is much controversy in the US related to Mexico and immigration. The political sound bite “America First!” might sound good but I wonder if we can take a more German approach and see the potential pitfalls of cutting ourselves off from our Southern neighbors. Becoming a bilingual country filled with diversity (not that isn’t that way already) can make our brains and hearts more flexible, more open to seeing people as potential friends rather than strangers. I can’t help but wonder if anxiety has taken hold of our country. The classic behavior trait of a person who suffers from anxiety and panic is to isolate and close one’s self off to society in avoidance of those tense feelings in the body.   However, all this does is create more anxiety because the fear of the outside world has been built up to an unrealistic level. For me, I am striving to become bilingual so that I can talk to my neighbors and be influenced by the beautiful Mexican culture. I want to be able to integrate that into our life and raise children who are open to embracing all people and able to speak with ease, to at least 400 million people from a culture other than their own.

“Our language is the reflection of ourselves. A language is a direct reflection the character and growth of its people” ~Cesar Chavez


view of our bright blue house looking up from the stairs

Sayulita Pueblo Magico

We’ve stayed in lots of hostels, we said. We have always had good experiences in them, we said. But then, we have never stayed in a hostel in Sayulita, Mexico that shares a front area with a bar who plays live music every night. Nor, have we ever stayed in a hostel in Sayulita, Mexico for the three days leading up to New Years. Oh, I had a brief thought before we left that it might be crazy, but had NO idea just how crazy it could be. When we booked, it was literally the only choice available unless we wanted to pay $250-$12,000/night and no, that is not a typo.

When we arrived at the hostel there were so many cars and people that our driver had to circle back around the plaza before he could find a safe place to pull over and let us out with our 13 pieces of luggage (yes, thanks for counting girls). In my defense, 5 of them were suitcases the rest were some form of backpack and I guess my yoga mat could be counted as a piece of luggage (“but why did you bring this mom? You never do yoga” “Well because I’m planning on changing that Mackenzie, now shut up” (ok, I didn’t actually tell her to shut up but thought it)). We walked in the front door and a very nice young man greeted me and then proceeded to show us to our room. Ok, I thought as he pointed out the AC unit and mini fridge. I can deal with this; we each have a bed and a private room. It might be loud but at least…. What? Oh, you’ve made a mistake? This isn’t our room? Ok….

He then led us back toward the front of the building into a room with beds for 7 people and indicated the beds our roommates had already claimed. Our beds would be those along the wall next to the window that looks out onto the street and the place that would become a stage at 10:00pm each night we were to stay.

Our window at the hostel and the stage taken from the street
Our window at the hostel and the stage

Oh, and by the way the window doesn’t close all the way and there is one fan in the upper corner of the room that just teases with a soft breeze (if you can even call it that). The fan was really good at drawing smoky air from the back patio area behind our room and blowing it directly onto Jacob’s top bunk bed. I guess the only saving grace was that there was a bar outside where Jacob and I could have a beer while the girls hunkered down with a movie until we were all so tired that the only thing left to do was pass out. That and the fact that when our roommates returned to the room just as the first band started we all bonded with a laugh at the ridiculousness of our situation and I no longer felt like the 41-year-old mom who stuck out like a sore thumb.

I won’t disgust you with descriptions of the bathrooms. Let me just put it this way, there were two bathrooms for a hostel that sleeps 18 people. However, our lovely hosts also allowed 4 tents in the back so lets say there were probably about 35 people by the time New Years Eve rolled around and flushing paper down the toilet is not allowed, instead, one must throw it into the trashcan. Yep, get the picture? Just to make things even better and story-worthy, I came down with a stomach bug on New Years Eve and while the party was rockin’ outside, complete with laser lights flashing in our bedroom (this band was high tech), I was puking in one of those disgusting toilets.

I can’t tell you happy we all were the next day knowing our long-term rental would be ready at one o’clock. The catch? We had to check out of our hostel at 11am and oh no, said the host (with what I imagine was a sarcastic laugh), you can’t stay in the room until 1:00 pm. We have a whole new crew of guests coming in and we must clean (good gracious, it was going to take a lot more than 2 hours to get that place clean. How bout set fire to it and start over). So, Jacob made nice with the bartender who was just opening up outside and helped her pull out all of her tables so that we could sit at one and wait (and I could die and will by body to stay calm, if you know what I mean). Then finally, one o’clock rolled around and we lugged our 13 pieces of luggage across the cobble stone roads to our casita, which was luckily only five minutes away. The last haul was to climb the 65 stairs up to our hilltop villa named Casa Naranja (although everyone in town knows it as Casa Guamúchil for the large tree nearby whose leaves are a favorite food of our resident iguanas). Thankfully it is not 65 stairs straight up; there are some landings here and there to help you catch your breath.

view of bright sunny kitchen with the word HOLA on the wall
Our cozy kitchen

Then, we were home. The party of the New Year holiday a faint noise below us. Instead of club music there are roosters and after the year of travel around the world, like the sound of the train passing by in the distance from my childhood, the morning greeting of roosters has become quite comforting. Our new home is a little oasis. Unexpectedly, our indoor living quarters are organized in a circle like living in a tower. Funny enough, Jacob has always wanted to live in a converted missile silo so this is a fabulous compromise. We get to have a house in the shape of a cylinder except it is above ground with lots of light, air, an outdoor dining room and hammock lounge area as well as a roof top patio complete with palapa.view of out door dining area with hammok

view of grass roofed palapa on roof top patio






This morning, I indeed used my yoga mat before walking the girls to their new school. The school grounds have many tropical plants and green trees, an adorable playground and smiling faces everywhere. Both girls were a little nervous but walked into their classrooms without a look back to us for reassurance. Wow, I’m impressed. I cried and cried on my first day of school after moving to a new town and will be forever grateful to my childhood friend, Gina, for noticing me and asking me to be her friend. I hope a Gina finds them today but honestly, they will probably find her first.

….and here begins part two of the Seize the Davi adventure. Thanks for reading our stories, sending us love and get your buns down here so I can show you the charming, Sayulita Pueblo Magico. (I am told the town will clear out and become tranquil again soon but at Easter time it is nuts so don’t come then.)

Picture of Mackenzie and Quinn in school uniforms of kaki skirts and white polo shirt (mack) and green t-shirt (Quinn) on first day of school
First day!
Jacob and Mackenzie follow Chi through high green rice field with Mountains in background

Big Strength Comes in Small Packages

After traveling through the cities of Vietnam with populations of 7-8 million people I found myself recalling the words in a message I received from my cousin: “should yonder mountains come a callin’ check out Sapa Sisters”. Don’t get me wrong I do love cities. I love discovering new cuisine, cafes and restaurants with a groovy vibe. I love street art and trying to understand the mind behind the painting on a crumbling wall. I love the culture that cities provide but after the chaos of Vietnam’s most populated cities, I was reminded that I am also a nature girl. My backpacking, rock skipping, tree-hugging, clean-air-loving persona screams to be seen and taken to the natural world. She needs to hear birds, watch butterflies, and feel the awe of mountains, rivers, and flowers. I need to feel the way nature fills my soul and medicates my “monkey-mind” with calm. I am not the only one in my family who yearns for nature. Our girls love the freedom of running ahead on a trail, the joy of discovering bugs, and playing in the dirt. Jacob loves the city skyline but he also loves to hike just as much as me. So, a trek in Northern Vietnam, near the Chinese boarder, sounded like just the thing to satisfy our cravings.

Low clouds ring the mountain in the distance. Green Farm land and rice terrace in the foregroundThere are no less than a million companies offering treks to Sapa where you are led through the mountains whose slopes are covered with terraced rice fields, to the surrounding villages where you stay with a local family. Treks are usually offered in one, two or three day packages. Sapa Sister’s is a tour company that is owned and run by local women of the Black H’mong hill tribe (pronounced mung). They have been leading treks around their home for many years working for tour companies that paid them extremely low wages. These women took charge of their own destiny and started a business of their own, with the promise to pay their guides and support staff what they deserve to earn. These are most definitely my kind of ladies.

(sing it Beyonce: “to all the women who independent, throw your hands up at meeee”)

We opted for the three-day trek and when we landed in Sapa and we had absolutely no expectation of what we would see or the physical exertion our bodies would undergo over the next three days. Our guide was a small, soft-spoken Black H’mong woman with a sweet disposition and I would come to be in complete awe of her strength and agility. Her name is Chi (I later found out she is one of the owners) and she embodied energy just like the Qi (Ch’i) or “life force” described in traditional Chinese medicine and martial arts. We met Chi at 9:00 a.m. the same day we arrived in Sapa. She gave us several options for the route and hesitated when we asked her to take us on the less touristic trails. She said an alternative route would make the hike more difficult. “We are from Colorado,” we explained, “we are used to hard hikes, we will be fine!” and with a shrug from Chi, we were on our way.

We meandered through narrow roads past local houses, gardens full of vegetables and limestone outcroppings. We walked through bamboo forests and thick jungles; up and down, up and down, up up up. Once we emerged into open air again we got our first view of the mountains. You know that scene in The Sound of Music where Julia Child is spinning on the top of a green mountain in Switzerland celebrating her family’s newfound freedom and in the background are even taller snowcapped mountains? Well, picture that except Asian style with fields of corn and terraced rice patties and rather than snowcapped the mountains were instead decorated with low hanging clouds. As much as I wanted to spin around and sing, “the hills are alive with the sound of music”, I restrained myself and just played out this scene inside my mind (but, I tell you, it took A LOT of restraint).

Our trail took us up, down and across the rice terraces and past farmhouses. We walked as if on a balance beam with the next rice patty below, trying not to notice the steep drop should we lose our footing. Chi helps Quinn navigate a narrow ledge through the rice field.Most of the houses we saw were made of wood and had mud floors. The “barn” for the animals was like a covered patio off the side of the house. Chickens, dogs, roosters and huge water buffalo all lived in close proximity. The water buffalo were often chained up to their stall with the rope attached to the ring in their nose. Shortly after our lunch on that first day, it began to rain. Chi had been pushing us to go a bit faster so that we could stay ahead of the storm but it was a futile effort. The rain began just was we started down a steep path through another bamboo forest. Our path immediately turned to mud. All four of us struggled to stay up right but not Chi. She bounced down the trail, umbrella in hand as if she had spikes in her shoes. She noticed Quinn struggling, hoisted her on her back, found bamboo walking sticks for the rest of us and kept pushing forward.

When we finally reached our first home-stay after 6 hours of trekking, I was satisfyingly exhausted and felt cleansed from breathing clean air. We were joined at the house by a couple from the UK who were guided by a young mother who had carried her baby on her back for the duration of their trek. The way she had her baby tied onto her back reminded me of the many women we saw in Peru with their babies slug on their backs as they worked in the field or nursed while selling goods out of their stores. Chi and her colleagues made us a huge spread of delicious food and after dinner they pulled out their colorful string and taught my girls how to weave bracelets. Our second day of trekking was much like the first although a bit shorter. The girls had now bonded with Chi and were glued to her side (or back as Chi carried Quinn several times on more tricky parts of rice patty balancing). Our second night was at Chi’s own house tucked up in the hills on a farm of her own. We met her husband and two small children who were delighted to see their mama.Chi poses with Mack and Quinn holding her blue and white checkered umbrella rice fields in background

Chi never stops. She set us up with beers and showers and then went about her business of weaving fabric on her loom (to eventually dye and make into a new jacket, what?), cooking dinner and attending to her farm animals and children. My first world, tired bones were in awe of her seemingly endless energy. As I sat watching the sunset, my mind drifted back to the scene of Chi’s colleague with her baby and was impressed at how they have created a life for themselves that allows for balance of work and kids. Perhaps this is romanticized a bit as I have no clue what happens when they say goodbye to the tourists or if they even like leaving for 2-3 days at a time to take foreigners through the mountains to their homes but from the outside they seemed happy.

Somehow it seems industrialized nations have forgotten the importance of mothers and babies. I realize that living in the US we cannot just sling our babies on our backs while we sit at our computers or nurse while we conduct business meetings; however, in agrarian cultures such as these, babies are unquestionably part of the workday. I know we can find a better balance in the US around the needs new moms and dads. I have my own stories of feeling unsupported in the workplace as a new mom and have heard countless stories from other moms who speak about the rigid expectation to return to full-time work after 8 weeks of maternity leave. It’s like we need to pretend the whole pregnancy didn’t happen and return to life as normal. However, it isn’t normal. There is a new normal. Women are expected to put careers on hold or denied opportunities because they want to stay home at least part-time while their babies are young. I wonder if we can ever return to a time when families are important again or if businesses will realize that they lose valuable employees because they are unwilling to work together to think of creative work situations to allow more time for mom and baby to be together. To have the choice to be a stay-at-home mom is a luxury and a privilege that not all moms can make nor does every mom want that for her life. I guarantee every mom wishes she could have been home for longer than 8 measly weeks after giving birth. Don’t even get me started on the rights of Dad’s to have more time off to bond with their newborns, most only get 2 weeks, if any.Jacob and Mackenzie show their purple tongues from eating wild berries from Chi

I wonder if this was one of the issues Chi and her colleagues experienced when they worked for other trekking companies. Maybe providing a workplace more sensitive to the needs of local families was part of the driving force behind starting a business of their own. I’ll never know for sure, maybe if you go to Sapa and join a Sapa Sisters trek you can ask.

Our trek in Sapa was a gift. Not only did we experience another amazing place on this earth but also how the people that live there add to the beauty. Chi inspired me to keep creating a life that feels balanced to me. From my first world lens, it looked like she worked incredibly hard (and she did) but it also looked like she enjoyed her life. She enjoyed coming home after trekking for 5 hours to sit at her loom high in the hills of Sapa, serenaded by birds, laughing kids and squawking chickens and looking up from her work every now and then to take in the scene of the mountains in the distance. It is a life in balance to her and one she created for herself on her own terms.

View of farmland and farm houses from Chi's house
Chi’s View




What Would KK Say?

I am sitting on an airplane on the way to Bali while attempting to write this article. There is occasional turbulence bouncing the plane. I hate turbulence. It makes my blood pressure rise, my tummy jump, and stories of our certain doom run through my mind painting vivid pictures I wish were not there. I close my eyes and put my attention on the sensation of my breath as it goes in and out of my nose. For the next few minutes I try to let go of the scary pictures, let go of the doomsday thoughts and try to keep focused on my breath. My mind interrupts frequently; it incessantly tells me, “I hate this. I hate turbulence. If the plane were not bouncing like this I would not be feeling this way”. Jacob gets my attention to check if I am ok but for some reason this annoys me and in a harsh whisper, I give him some snappy, dismissive comment. Then a memory pops in my mind and I think, “What would KK say?”

KK is an exuberant Buddhist Monk and one of the meditation instructors at the two-day meditation retreat that I attended while visiting Chiang Mai, Thailand. It was a silent retreat, which means that no one spoke for the entire two days. Though, I admit, I did giggle and speak with my roommate in the evening before going to bed and I am glad I did because I made a new friend from Australia. However, for the most part, I spent two days in silence learning the basic teachings of Buddhism and skills for meditation. A week later, I took Jacob, the girls and Todd and Sherry (Jacob’s Aunt and Uncle) back to the Buddhist University that sponsored my retreat. Many of the temples around Chiang Mai provide something called a “Monk Chat” to foreigners, a sort of meditation and Buddhism Q & A. Prior to Todd and Sherry joining us in Chiang Mai, we had all agreed we wanted to experience one of these Monk Chats. Because I loved my retreat so much, we decided it needed to be the one at the university temple named Wat Suan Dok. KK happened to be the chosen teacher for our chat. Later, we processed the experience at dinner (while a woman sitting at the adjacent table entertained us by producing several loud farts) and this question was born: “what would KK say?”

So what would KK say about my relationship with airplane turbulence? He would tell me that it is not the turbulence that is causing my suffering (or the woman farting) it is my thoughts and emotions causing my suffering.   I am the one with the thought “I hate turbulence”. It is this thought that causes my body to go on high alert and flood with the fight/flight hormones that induce the feeling of anxiety and panic. This, in turn, allows more and more intense stories to have power in my mind and my anxieties continue to rise. AKA: suffering. The turbulence is just doing what turbulence does; I am doing the rest.  KK would tell me that first and foremost I must practice or train my “monkey mind”. To do this I must sit in a meditation for just ten minutes twice per day, like the one I previously described. Then, when I am on an airplane freaking out about turbulence, I will have more awareness about my thoughts and emotions and improved ability to consciously choose my reaction (especially my reaction to Jacob). I will have an understanding that I am in control of what makes me suffer and with this mindful awareness, it is up to me to make the decision to let the monkey have his way and keep on suffering or calm down through conscious focus on my breath.

These concepts are not new to me. I have been using these skills for years in my psychotherapy practice under the name of “mindfulness”. What I have discovered over the years is that I, as well as many of my clients, spend a heck of a lot of time in pain about the past or in pain about the future. So much time is spent lamenting the past and worrying about the future that many of us lose our ability to experience life RIGHT NOW. I have learned that much of our stress comes from these worries and can cause depression, anxiety and panic. Instead of noticing the pain, we try to numb our suffering with substances, incessant web-surfing, shopping, you name it; whatever it takes to get away from the stories in our head, we will do it! What a gift it is to discover the calm of the present moment and use breath as the anchor to bring us back from the stories in our minds. My horrific scenes about plane crashes are an example of worrying about a future that is: a. unlikely to happen and b. I have no power over.  Mindfulness and meditation practice helps me become aware of the rollercoaster of fears created by my untrained “monkey mind”.

Living in the present moment is what we have been doing for the past 10 months. Living right now, day to day. Well, at least that is the opportunity that this trip affords us and I will admit, I have not always been there moment to moment. Sometimes I have drifted to the past full of pain or longing and when I finally came to, I realized I had missed the experience right in front of me. During our travels in Thailand I spent several days feeling irritable and snappy until I finally stopped and listened to my thoughts and realized that they were full of worries about the future and causing a bummer of a rainstorm on my parade. The end of our journey is nearing as well as the deadline for our “reentry” plan. My anxious thoughts were saying, “What are we going to do? We sold our house? What were we thinking? We have nowhere to land. What about jobs? What about schools? Will we be able to create a life that is still filled with travel and exploration?”

The timing for my meditation retreat couldn’t have been better. Not only was I reminded that I already had the mindfulness skills to calm my anxiety but KK reminded me of one very important lesson taught by the Buddha:

Life is impermanence.

Everything changes moment to moment. My anxieties are reasonable. They are trying to move me forward to a solution, however; they do not need to cause me suffering and they are impermanent if I only just let them pass. That is not to say that I shouldn’t be working on a reentry plan.  No, it is more that the worry is actually blocking me from thinking clearly and rationally about our choices. Our moms would tell you that we most definitely have a place to land should we need one and our education tells that that we will most definitely have jobs; it just might take a little digging to find the right one.

Suffering comes in many different packages from unresolved wounds, work and parenting stress, to worries about the future.  It makes us less effective and sometimes say and do things we regret.  Buddhism and meditation is not a religion per se, although many would argue with that notion but according to KK it is more of a philosophy of life. It is a way to decrease our psychological pain by understanding that we are each responsible for our own actions and reactions and any suffering that comes from those is ours. KK watered down the Buddha’s teaching by simply saying:

Do Good
Don’t Do Bad
Purify the Mind

Have a goal to practice Right Action, Right Thought, Right Speech and dedication to daily training of your monkey mind and you are on the path toward happiness and a life free from suffering. Most importantly, remember to have compassion for yourself and others as well as forgiveness of yourself and others. Sometimes the latter is the most difficult to achieve but I ask you, if you are holding a judgement or grudge against someone is that their suffering or yours? What would KK say?


We are all Monkeys
We are all Enlightened Ones

We all have suffering
We all have pain

We are all Monkeys
We are all Enlightened Ones

We all have love
We all have joy, compassion and anger
We all have the capacity for hate

We are all Monkeys
We are all Enlightened Ones

Who do I let drive the car?

~Amy D.


**the featured image is of the monks in Luang Prabang, Laos as they walk in the early morning hours for Alms collection or donations of food by the local people (there are hundreds of them walking it is really an amazing sight and so peaceful to watch).  The locals who participate in this practice do not eat or drink their own breakfast before first giving food to the monks.  The Buddha started this practice with the intention to remind the community to Give before you Get.**

Vietnam: Love and Maddness

The cities of Vietnam are busy places. They are filled with entrepreneurs who sell everything from food to clothing to knick-knacks. Most of them have a little stall inside one of the giant warehouse-like markets, smashed all together in tight little rows. Take care to keep your arms tucked in tight to your sides as you side-step through the narrow rows, otherwise you might be grabbed and pulled toward the colorful piles of stuff by an overly pushy salesperson. 91% of the population drives a motorbike and there seems no better place to park them than on the sidewalk, sometimes two rows deep as in Ho Chi Minh City. Pedestrians are forced to walk in the street and pray the speeding bikes will not clip them as they roar past. There were days when I could take a deep breath, join the fray and be energized by the frenetic energy and there were also days I felt so over stimulated that I thought I was going to lose my mind.

Within the chaos and madness, however, each city also has its charms.  Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, is the most modern of the cities we visited. After the destruction from many years of war (1955-1975) it has rebuilt itself with modern high rises and several large, fancy malls. It has hundreds and I mean hundreds of coffee shops where you can get free Wifi as well as the famous Cà Phê Sūa Dá or Caphe Den Dá. Both are best iced, Sūa Dá is iced coffee with condensed milk and Den Dá is without but both have added sugar. Take my advice and do not make the mistake of holding the sugar, the thick, strong beverage desperately needs it. I could not stomach the Den Dá but after a few Jacob developed a taste for it and sought it out daily. I immediately loved the sweet creaminess of the Cà Phê Sūa Dá, which was odd since I normally take only milk in my coffee. There was just something about it that was like drinking a shake made of a mixture of coffee and mocha flavored ice cream.   I looked forward to one every morning.

playground tucked into tall green trees in Ho Chi Minh CityHo Chi Minh City is also super kid friendly. There are several parks and playgrounds to entertain the kids and give them the needed break from experiments in street food and museums. Like most cities with hot climates, Ho Chi Minh comes alive at night, especially in the park. You can see women of every age boppin’ away at aerobics classes, couples can be found spinning inside of pavilions practicing their ballroom dances, adults and kids play Badminton, Soccer, and what looks like a game that is a mixture of Badminton and Hacky Sack.

The girls would probably say Ho Chi Minh City was their favorite because it was the only city where we found playgrounds, although if you were to remind them of the beach or the dragon bridge of Da Nang in Central Vietnam, they would probably change their tune. For most people Da Nang is only the necessary train stop on the way to the more popular and beautiful city of Hoi An. However, Da Nang is working hard to change their fishing port reputation into a high-end beach resort destination. I have a feeling that the giant golden dragon that dives in and out of the bridge between the downtown area and the beach is setting the tone for what is to come. At night it changes from gold to green to blue to purple to red. Some might say it is a bit over the top but we thought it was a pretty cool backdrop to picturesque promenade that snakes along the waterfront.dragon bridge lit up gold at night

There are also dozens of high-rise hotels under construction along the beaches of the city. It will be interesting to see Da Nang in ten years when they are all completed and then check out how many more people can pack into the small areas along the coastline that are designated for swimming. If you can manage to stake out a spot for yourself in the water it is a good time for sure but don’t expect to be able to do much else besides jump and splash in the waves. However, the throngs of people also present the opportunity for the best of the best in people watching. You can rent a beach chair with umbrella all day for a dollar and kick back to watch the sales lady meticulously setup up her tower of colorful kites blowing in the breeze or the many women who jump into the waves fully clothed.

Colorful lanterns hang from buildings and across street in Hoi AnWe only gave Da Nang two days preferring to move on to the famous World Heritage city of Hoi An and it is certainly deserving of this fame. The old quarter of Hoi An is protected from motorbike traffic certain hours of the day, which makes it a safe haven and very pleasant to walk while you visit the mythical covered bridge and many museums. The French Colonial influence of the architecture is very apparent in the boxy buildings with tile roofs. It is romantic and magical at night with cloth lanterns of every color strung across the streets. Historically, Hoi An was a trade port between the Vietnamese, Japanese and Chinese people and you can see all three of these influences throughout the old quarter. My favorite was the Chinese Assembly Hall. It has magnificent red doors and jade colored tile on the sweeping roof where statues of dragons dance on each tier.

Gate to Chinese Assembly Hall with flowering trees and bushes in front
Chinese Assembly Hall

There are giant cones of incense burning from the ceiling inside filling the room with the sweet scented smoke. Families buy these cones to remember their deceased loved ones and I’m not exactly sure but it must take at least a week for them to burn down completely.

I haven’t decided yet if UNESCO is a good thing or not. What I have noticed is that once a place receives this designation it becomes overwhelmed with tourists. This designation certainly protects the historical nature of a place and brings more money to an otherwise impoverished area but it also brings more pollution, waste and higher prices. Hoi An is a good example of the jacked up prices, especially for food, due to the coveted UNESCO designation. The restaurants in the old quarter charge sometimes double for the same plate of food you can find just a kilometer away. One woman tried to sell me a pair of shorts for Mackenzie for five times what I knew they were worth based on an earlier quote for the same pair just outside of the old quarter. I stuck to my number though and as soon as she saw was ready to walk away she finally caved (I guess haggling is part of the fun but I would rather have an honest dealing, myself). Our hotel provided free bikes and on one of our days we took a spin through the rice patties that surround the city. I have never seen this shade of neon green that radiated from the landscape and the word undulation must have come from watching the breeze blow through the soft grass of the rice fields.

Mackenzie and Quinn pose with their pollution masks covering mouth and nose
Pollution Protection

Hanoi and Sapa were the last two places we visited in Vietnam. We did a trek through the mountains and terraced rice fields in Sapa. It was truly one of my favorite experiences on our world journey so it gets a post all its own (stay tuned). Hanoi, in Northern Vietnam is the capital city. This is a city you truly have to just take in and try really hard not to get overwhelmed. It is a beautiful city with a big lake in its center that is surrounded by a lush green park (no playground) and walking trail around it. The noise from the traffic is muffled here and provides a nice respite. I gotta admit, I didn’t love Hanoi. It is by far the most polluted of the places we visited and I found the motorbike drivers to be even less patient with pedestrians than other cities. I don’t know how many times I had to stop suddenly while holding onto Quinn’s hand because a motorbike pulled in front of us to park on the sidewalk. A woman selling some kind of donuts tricked Mackenzie and me by putting the sticky ball into Mackenzie’s hand and saying, “just try” and then she charged me for it.

These annoyances aside, we found the best Banh Mi sandwich here of all the cities in Vietnam. The girls thoroughly enjoyed the famous water puppet show that originated in Hanoi. We understood nothing because it was in Vietnamese and it was slightly strange but the music was amazing and after the first couple of scenes we were all into it. We also made a visit to the Vietnamese Women’s museum, which honored the mothers and women of Vietnam by exhibiting examples of their strength and leadership.  It provided us with an understanding of the tribal women in the north before venturing further to Sapa.Walking in the street in hanoi along with a woman pushing a bike full of produce

Night trains, rice fields, jungles and overly populated cities. Vietnam was a wonderfully maddening experience, if that is possible, and I have no regrets about our visit. There is good reason the food is known as one of the best of the world’s cuisines. With the median age of its citizen at 28 years old, I have a feeling Vietnam is in the midst of growth and rapid change and I hope they receive some pressure to change their emissions laws. It will be interesting to see how this country continues to emerge in the global community. If you have any question about visiting at least go for the Bún Thįt Nuóng, Caphe Su Da and Kumquat Lemonade.

View from on top of Table Mountain to the crashing waves on rocks below

A Great Experience in South Africa

This story is about the feelings I had in a Montessori school in South Africa. This wonderful school I went to is called IMG_2976Auburn House School. In that school there were very nice people and I felt like everyone wanted to be my friend. It made me feel so happy.

One of the nice people I met was Iman, she is a kind girl who is my best friend. I am writing about Iman because on the 10th of April I was sitting on the playground and she sat next to me. Iman was very kind so I was kind back to her. One day me and one of my friends that I met on my first day (Haajir) walked over to Iman and asked her why she looked sad. She told us that some of her friends were not her friends anymore. I felt so bad that they weren’t her friends anymore so Haajir and I decided that we should do more things with Iman since she was all alone for at least three days. We then always worked with her or sat with her at lunch. I will always remember Iman because she is a really kind, loving and sweet friend!

On my first day of school I was very shy. Luckily, I knew the teachers so I thought that one of the teachers (Miss Cherry) would show me were to put my stuff. Instead, it was a girl named Bella who showed me where to put my stuff. She had lots of friends but I didn’t play with them because I felt very shy and didn’t know many of the kids she was playing with. So I decided that I would go sit on the steps by myself and wait. After awhile, I walked over to two girls one of them had braids (they call them plats in South Africa) and the other had a ponytail. They told me about the game they were playing. I became friends with them and started playing their game. It took me a couple of days to figure out what their names were. At first, I thought their names were Sydney and Taylor and then I thought their names were Sadhiv and Hacha but then I finally figured out their names were Haajir and Sadhiv. We all became BFFs (best friends forever) after that.Sign for Auburn House School with Table Mountain in the background

There is this language that we studied in class called Xhosa. One of my teachers, Miss Pili, teaches Xhosa. Xhosa is a native language to South Africa. It is actually a pretty fun language to learn. I liked learning Xhosa better than learning Afrikaans, which is another native language in South Africa. Some funny things that usually happened during Xhosa is that Miss Pili would always put funny things about one of the boys in my class on the board. One time she said he was dancing, singing and laughing. One time, Haajir and I were sitting down at reading time and reading a book about Xhosa words. We were trying to figure out what the word for fart was in Xhosa. We wanted to know because this same boy would always fart in class. No one in the whole class knew the word so we wanted to find out what the word was so that we could tell Miss Pili. The next day we did just that and we told Miss Pili what it was and she wrote down on the board and Haajir and I started laughing so hard while everyone else was looking puzzled.

The difference between the school I went to in Denver and the school I went to in South Africa is that back in USA after our teacher took attendance, we always had to sing The Pledge of a Allegiance but in the school we went to in South Africa we did not have to sing it. Another difference is that in Denver at the elementary school I went to there was only one grade in each classroom instead of three different grades in one classroom at Auburn House School. Some of the things that are the same are that we would always eat our lunch and then after that we would walk to the playground.

The five best words that describe South Africa are: friendly, amazing, best school, beautiful and lots of traffic. It is amazing because of Table Mountain. It is friendly because at the school I went to in Denver the cafeteria ladies were very strict and in South Africa there weren’t really cafeteria ladies who would boss you around. South Africa is beautiful A game of chase, mackenzie and quinn run on the green lawn of Kristenbosh Gardensbecause of all the sites you can see and all the nature with mountains. There is a lot of traffic every morning when we go to school and that is why it took 40-50 minutes to get there every morning. Some days I felt like I would vomit in the car because it was jerking around. The reason why my last word is the best school is because when I entered the school I felt really nervous and I felt like a lot of the kids were staring at me but then when I got to know it I felt like I could just walk around and be normal at the school.

On my last day of school I felt so sad and I remembered that I might never see my best friends or my teachers again. I was soo so so sad I even felt like crying. Since I came to South Africa I never wanted to leave but since I have I am glad I got the experience of being in the school.



A Taste of Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Min City is a huge city packed with people, buildings and motorized vehicles. The overwhelming volume of motorbikes at rush hour causes an involuntary jaw-drop and a test of faith while crossing the street. It seems the trick is to move slowly and steadily making eye contact with the oncoming drivers. If you do it right, they can accurately predict your walking speed and gracefully move around you. The number one rule is: DO NOT STOP. If you stop or change your speed unexpectedly, accidents are bound to happen or at the very least you will receive a good crusty (remember those? Middle school girls in my era perfected that scowling glare). The city is also home to the War Museum, dozens of interesting pagodas and a not-bad art museum. I could talk about those places and get myself and you really depressed writing about the war museum with its gruesome pictures of the destruction from bombs and impact of Agent Orange but I just can’t do it this time. I need a pick-me-up. Plus, the experience in Ho Chi Min City that caught our attention the most was, you guess it, food.

A bowl of noodle soup adorned with greens and bean sprouts
If you have never tried Vietnamese food GO DO IT. I am sure you can find a good restaurant in your city, especially one that serves the famous noodle soup called Phò (pronounced Phuh-uh). The herbaceous broth packed with soft rice noodles and meat (you choose beef, chicken or pork) is light and rich at the same time and is a perfect dish to dip your toe in the water before diving into the weirder, by US standards, flavors of Vietnamese food (I’ll let Jacob tell you about Balute, Google it and you’ll get some yummy images on your computer screen). Plus, Phò allows you to get involved with the creation of your dish by adding a squirt of lime, teaspoon of chili oil or pile of fresh Thai and Vietnamese Basil, mint and other greens. You can find Phò all over Ho Chi Min as they claim it originated there; we found a yummy one on a corner down the street from our hotel. You know you are in a good place when there are a lot of locals eating there too and they all look at you like you are an alien as you walk in and sit down.


In Vietnam, sometimes you find the best eats on the street and sometimes you find it by following the trail of tourists through review sites like Trip Advisor. Many avid travelers turn up their noses to Trip Advisor claiming the authentic experience is lost, which certainly can be seen in those restaurants around Vietnam who boast their trip advisor status with GIANT blown up pictures of the logo hanging beside their own sign. Perhaps it is true that some of these restaurants have lost their authenticity (especially those on the uber touristy backpacker streets) or perhaps using review sites is a way to find the new heartbeat in the city and the young budding chefs that are putting a modern spin on their hometown dishes.

One such place and my very favorite of all the food we tried in Ho Chi Min was at a restaurant called Mountain Retreat.Mountain Retreat Maybe it was because of their name (I needed a retreat from the city chaos by the time we went there) or the trail of red lanterns hanging down through the center of the twisting stairwell that took you up to their 5th floor digs. Maybe I loved it because it was filled with soft light from the bamboo basket light fixtures and the statues of the Buddha that were dotted throughout (you know I loved that). Ambience doesn’t always indicate that the restaurant will be special but creativity and vibe in the décor often means creativity in the food and this place did not disappoint. The Vietnamese people love their pork and you will find it in most dishes. At this restaurant we had BBQ pork ribs with a sticky lemongrass glaze. Vietnamese cuisine likes to find the perfect balance of sweet, salty, sour and spicy flavors and these ribs rang with that harmony. We also got our first taste of a popular dish called Bańh Tráng which is grilled, crispy rice paper topped with green onions, herbs and yep, pork. On the street you can find them folded up for easier consumption but here it was served pizza style. They added toasty sesame seeds to their rice paper and the creamy drizzle of a sort of aioli sauce on top pulled it all together, once again achieving the coveted balance of the 4 S’s.

Little ChefAnother of my favorite entrees in Ho Chi Minh City was Bún Thįt Nuóng or BBQ pork noodle salad. We ate this at another spectacular restaurant called Propaganda but Mackenzie and I also learned how to make it during a cooking class we took together on one of our last days in the city. The thinly sliced pork is marinated in fish sauce (an ingredient found in most dishes), lemongrass, honey and garlic and is then barbecued over an open flame. The pork is then laid atop a bowl of rice noodles, Vietnamese basil, mint, shredded Morning Glory stems and other greens. Then the dressing, whose key ingredients include more fish sauce and kumquat juice, is poured on top. As you can imagine diving into this bowl of smoky sweet pork and fresh herbs with the snap from the kumquat juice will stop all conversation at the table until it is finished. Oh, how I miss you Ho Chi Minh!Bún Chà

If you like to cook at all, I highly recommend taking a cooking class. You don’t even have to travel to an exotic location to do it (although it is a great experience if you do). There is nothing like learning the ins and outs of your favorite foods by learning to cook them yourself. For instance, did you know there is little to no wheat in Southeast Asian cuisine? They don’t grow it so they don’t use it. Everything is made from rice except the bread for the Bánh Mí, which is made from potatoes. Oh, you can find some amazing pastries in Vietnam but that is the French influence from the days of their rule.

I used to think that spring rolls were always those soft, fresh rolls filled with raw veggies but now I understand it is about the rSpring Roll Bundleice paper not whether it is fresh or fried. In my opinion, when fried, rice paper creates the best crisp of all the rolled and fried things that you can eat. If it is not made with rice paper then you are eating a Chinese influenced egg roll, which is made with a wheat-based wrapper. You can eat spring rolls in the classic way by picking them up and dipping them into that glorious sweet and spicy sauce (again, made with fish sauce). However, another choice is to ramp up the flavor by building a little bed for them first by diligently piling up herbs like Shisho leaf, mint and basil on top of a piece of green leaf lettuce. Then tie the whole package together with the green part of a green onion that has been blanched to make it pliable and THEN give it a dip and your whole spring roll world will be changed forever.

I could go on and on about the food we tried in Ho Chi Minh City like lotus stem salad with prawns or Bún Chà (another type of noodle soup and really is more from Hanoi than Ho Chi Minh). It was a great city to start us off on our food tour of the rest of the country. The cooking class gave Mackenzie a little bravery when trying weird dishes and made her a huge help when convincing her sister to eat something other than rice.   Crowds, chaos and cuisine that was our experience of Ho Chi Minh City and really a theme that ran through all of the cities we visited in the country of Vietnam.image

line of stone Bodhisattvas holding a snake, forms the railing of a bridge leading into Bayon Temple

Scratching the Surface of Siem Reap

It was hot and oppressively humid the day we visited the Angkor Archaeological Park. The heat made it feel like we were moving in slow motion and actually, slower was better to mitigate any unnecessary sweating. We made the best of it and slathered on bug spray, donned our sun hats and billowy pants (at least the girls and I had the pants, I haven’t convinced JD to purchase them yet) and then headed into an amazing day of exploration. The going rate to hire a Tuk Tuk driver for the day is 15 USD. This includes the 7.5 km ride out to the park from Siem Reap where the driver will take you around to the sites you want to see within the 402 acres of the complex, wait for you while you explore and then take you back to your accommodation.

alert: USD is accepted all over Cambodia as well as their own currency, the Reil. This makes for a confusing buying experience when you pay with USD and get some of the change back in Reil. It also causes the exchange rate to be really poor. We figured we paid an extra 2.5% with every purchase.

The famous five tower Angkor Wat temple that is most associated with Cambodia is actually just one of the over 100 temples that make up this ancient city. You can spend days exploring this park, walking through temples and admiring the carvings embedded in the walls. We chose to explore the park for only one day and with just a little research we had our plan mapped out with our top three picks.

Angkor Wat view of five towers and lawn in front
Angkor Wat

Our first stop was of course Angkor Wat, which is the largest of the temples and is the most restored. The five towers that to me look like the buds of lotus flowers are actually designed to emulate Mount Meru, a sacred mountain in Hinduism. The green lawns shimmered with magic brought by the millions of flitting butterflies and swooping dragonflies. The walls inside were ornately decorated with scenes of Hindu stories and hundreds of Apsaras, female deities, carved into the stone. I later learned that the Apsara figure is one of the most important symbols of Khmer culture. Jacob and I took turns climbing the steep steps to the upper most towers (the girls had to be 12 or older to go). There, we were able to get close enough to see the intricate details of the towers and follow the path around the top floor for long distance views of the grounds. My favorite view was pointed out to me by the giant figure of Buddha sitting in the meditation position looking out on the grounds toward one of the gates.Apsara deities carved into the stone wall at Angkor Wat

After we left Angor Wat, Lee our Tuk Tuk driver, drove us along the forested road to the Angkor Thom complex and to see the Bayon Temple. This temple is filled with towers, which have giant, carved faces of the Bodhisattva (a Buddhist figure that represents a person on the road toward enlightenment). We learned that during the rule of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge defaced many of the sacred statues and temples in the entire Angkor Park as part of the genocide and ethnic cleansing that took place. At the Bayon Temple, this defacement was very evident. Many of the heads of various figures were missing and there were large bullet holes in many of the walls. However, one step inside told me that the destruction did nothing to effect the sacredness of the space. Every stone and every smiling Bodhisattva face that looked upon us at each turn radiated with a quiet calmness.

Tree roots spill down the side of the ruins of a templeOur next stop was to Ta Prohm or the Jungle Temple. Locals also call it the Tomb Raider temple, as this was the temple that Angelina Jolie scrambled through for her movie of the same name. It definitely felt like we had been transported to an ancient time or a scene out of Indiana Jones (that one is more my speed). Nature has been allowed to run wild through the stone structures and I am so glad because the reward is the gloopy (Quinn’s word) roots that pour over the walls from trees that tower overhead. Moss and lichen adorn the walls and the smell of peppery earth fills the air. Here, too, there is a palpable silence of reverence that blankets the air and grounds (even with the many other tourists). Our driver met us on the opposite end from where he dropped us at the temple. As soon as we exited we were accosted by dozens of adults and children trying to get donations, sell us stuff or offer a Tuk Tuk ride,

“Tuk Tuk? Tuk Tuk? Hey Lady, Tuk Tuk?”

This was the first time we had experienced this level of begging and I’ll call it, one to one advertising. Like a little island oasis in the chaos, Lee waved to us from his Tuk Tuk across the sea people.

The night before our exploration of Angkor Wat we had planned to go into the park to experience the sunset that so many travel sites and people recommended. We made arrangements with our taxi driver from the airport to take us there but when he arrived at our hostel at 4pm, a huge black rain cloud had filled the sky to the north in the direction of the temples. So, as any good salesmen will do, our taxi driver convinced us to head to Tonle Sap Lake to see the floating village and the sunset from there instead. Oh, those moments when you know you have just been sucked onto the tourist conveyor belt can be just the thing you need to wake you up to find your travel legs again. We should have seen the trap a mile away but our three-month break from trekking had dulled our senses.

Nevertheless, there we were piling into a small fishing boat with a guide sitting at the front and at the back (not sure exactly why he was needed) and the boat operator. Because of the drought, the lake was actually really shallow and once we arrived to the village we could see several people wading in the water pushing their boats instead of motoring them. Even though we were ushered to a floating market and asked to pay $50 to buy a 50 pound bag of rice to give to the children of the floating school (we didn’t have enough cash so made a $10 donation instead) and then taken to the crocodile farm where our “tour guides” proceeded to drink 4 beers each and attempted to get us to join the party, despite these unfortunate surprises, the village was actually really beautiful. We learned that because it is too dangerous to be out on the water during the rainy season storms, the residents tow their homes into the jungle that surrounds the lake. For the rest of the year they bob around, their houses rising and falling with the level of the water; fishing and tourism their prime source of income (please don’t take me as insensitive to the needs of the children at the school but if your gut is telling you something is awry it probably is. Who knows how much of that $50 actually ends up going to the school because I know that bag of rice did not cost 50 bucks).

bright yellow cocoons inside a spiral basketOur last excursion into the cultural world of this region of Cambodia was to visit the Angkor Silk Farm that is located just a little outside of town. They offer free, guided tours to learn about the process of making silk (of course the end of the tour conveniently drops you at their silk shop with beautiful things to buy). The farm has several structures that are scattered around beautifully manicured gardens full of flowers and butterflies. Participants are only allowed to view two of the structures so that the silkworms’ exposure to humans and disease is kept to a minimum. The most interesting part of the process for me was to learn that the bright yellow cocoons of the silkworm actually hold the material needed for the thread. They are boiled to make it easier to extract the fibers. Sadly, if the worms were allowed to complete their metamorphosis and leave their cocoons, the fibers would be broken and therefore could not be made into silk. So, the worms are boiled in their cocoons (brutal, I know) and then after the fibers are removed, the worms are then savored as a nutty snack (the farm saves about 10% of it’s worms for reproduction). Our guide helped himself to a few and offered some to us; Jacob was the brave one. Witnessing the process from making the threads to then weaving them into fabric was truly educational and allowed us to have a further conversation with the girls about how cotton fabric is made as well.

Jacob holds a boiled silkworm in his hand
First this…
Jacob pops a boiled silkworm into his mouth
…then this







Our visit to Siem Reap was a brief glance at the surface of Khmer culture. Because of wars the Cambodian people suffer extreme poverty and live in cities and towns with little to no infrastructure. Witnessing their way of life opened up questions for me about whether or not this community can thrive in such a seasonal business that is tourism. The utter desperation of stall owners in the market, kids begging in the street and the Tuk Tuk drivers all piled up on the side of the roads unsuccessfully trying to drum up business was overwhelming to say the least. However, I feel very fortunate to have been able to see the amazing Angkor temple complex and learn a little bit about the spirit of the people that refused to be beaten as well as the strength of the spirituality that survived oppression.

Quinn and Mackenzie hold hands with flowers in their hair walking behind Jacob

Bangkok and Kids

Soon after arriving in Bangkok, Thailand, we quickly discovered that Thai people love kids. They smile and attempt to catch the girls’ attention with winks and funny noises. The women love to touch the girls’ arms and hair in a really endearing way and they are the stars in a dozen photos. Eight days in this crazy city may seem like too many for some and for folks with a shorter time frame in Thailand it probably is but we travel slowly to accommodate lots of play and rest for the girls. The week also allowed us to get in the last of our vaccinations, visas for Vietnam and our first taste Thailand.

tip: Japanese Encephalitis vaccine is WAY cheaper here than in the States and you can make an appointment online with the Thai Travel Clinic to get it done soon as you arrive

Upon arrival, we quickly realized we needed to fine-tune our gear for Southeast Asia in the rainy season (umbrella sized hats are must to protect from the sun, a water proof cover for your daypack and water shoes for those suddLine of sitting Buddhas and Mackenzine examining one of themen storms). Luckily there is no shortage of markets that sell cheap clothing and everything else you can imagine (like the entire block of umbrella covered tables piled high with bras, which gave Mackenzie and me a little chuckle).

Like most cities, Bangkok has a plethora of “must see” places to visit. The first place on our list was the Grand Palace with its numerous temples and palace for Thailand’s royalty. Across the street is Wat Pho a beautiful temple complex with the famous reclining golden Buddha who stretches the entire length of one of the temples. Street food is abundant and one must set aside any apprehensions and take part in this piece of Bangkok’s culture. We tried weird foods like the fried wanton with a whole hardboiled egg inside (Quinn loved these) and the more familiar pork Satay on a stick (Mackenzie went for these a couple of times). We also joined the electric energy of nighttime in China Town where we gorged on a tapas style dinner on the street. We loved a dish with soft white dumpling things that had a yummy sort of mushroom hash piled on top (wish I knew the name and Google won’t tell me).

Another must when visiting Bangkok is a ride on the bus like boat that runs up and down the Chao Phraya river transporting loads of people both locals and tourists. Take care to choose the boat with the orange flags as they stop at every pier. For the environmentalist in me, it was actually really depressing to watch the black smoke of the idling boat engine pour into the river as the boat waited for passengers to board. Oh, and try to ignore the plastic bottles and bags that are floating in the water, too. Otherwise, it is a cultural anomaly to behold and you must be quick getting off and on as the boat waits for two seconds and two seconds only. Here are a couple of great travel blogs/guides that I like to use for SE Asia:

Nomadic Matt ;  Travelfish;   Rough Guides

Aside from the regular tourist track we also found that activities for kids are scattered throughout this giant city and if you are willing to go just a little outside of the Central Business District, you can find some really beautiful parks. I wrote most of this post from the Funarium. It is an indoor playground sort of like a McDonalad’s play structure on steroids. It has a trampoline, ball pit, a swirly slide that is pitch black inside and one of those slides with multiple hills that is so fast it made the girls’ hair fly back, eyes widen and voices squeal with each trip. While the girls played, Jacob and I thought we would use the “free” Wifi and solidify our plans for Cambodia and Vietnam. This didn’t work out so well for us; he left almost as soon as we arrived to go search for a cell provider and purchase a sim card.

tip: when staying in Bangkok and I imagine the rest of Thailand, if you are not using your regular carrier, a sim card is a must. Many of the business that advertise “free wifi” require a text from the cell provider to be able to sign on.

We also took the girls to the Children’s Discovery Museum. If you can believe it, the city recently invested about 70 million Baht to build this FREE museum for the kids of Bangkok. It has two buildings with three stories in each that Three story playground with bridges and next connecting the rainbow colored structuressurround an outdoor courtyard with a really fun jungle themed, multilayered playground and splash pad. Plus, there is a sand pit where kids can excavate giant dinosaur bones. Inside of the museum the girls built their own city, learned about Thai culture, created art and played in a room full of mirrors. If we had more time they would have had a little Thai cooking class too (and that was just one of the buildings).

Located on the backside of the museum is Queen Sirikit Park. This is a beautiful park with several picturesque bridges that take you over slow moving rivers whose banks are lined with big trees sporting their best colorful flowers. For every one of the park’s attendees there were three gardeners, which made this a magically picturesque after-lunch walk. Most tourists come to area where the children’s museum is located to shop at the huge Chatuchak weekend market. I wonder how many of them took the time to go across the street to wander through the magnificent Queen Sirikit Park.

Another place the kids absolutely loved is called Kidzania. It is located in the Siam Paragon Mall, which is a GIANT five story, two-tower complex that caters to the high-end, designer shopper (I felt very underdressed in my blowy Thai tourist pants and tank top). On the fifth floor of one of the towers is the Movie Theater and bowling alley. On one of the rainy days, we opted to see Finding Dory. It is such a fun experience to see movies in other countries. This one gave us our first chance to stand for the Royal Anthem of Thailand called Phleng Chat. It is played before the beginning of most state and entertainment events, even TV and radio programming. After many, many commercials and previews the anthem began and we joined the audience on our feet to show solidarity for the country.

Kidzania fills the fifth floor of the opposite tower. It is an entire city built for kids. To start, they each get about 100 Kidzo (money) that can be used for beauty treatments, cooking classes (literally they can learn to make sushi then get to eat it), eye exams, and Mackenzie’s favorite, a climb up the side of a building. If they spend all their money then they need to get a job to earn more. There are factory jobs like packaging peanuts, green tea and bottling coke. Kids can work in a hospital, dental office, or vet clinic. They can be police and fire people, judges, lawyers, and investigators. Mackenzie climbs a building at KidzaniaThere is even a carwash in this crazy place. People must step aside for the fire truck and ambulance filled with kids on their way to sort out an emergency as well as move over for the slow moving tour bus. The kids were thoroughly entertained for three hours and would have stayed longer if it wasn’t closing time.

Before I end I must give a shout out to 80/20 BKK. We ended our tour of Bangkok with a fantastic meal at this relatively new restaurant located in Old Town. We spotted this place as we were walking back from the pier stop close to our hostel. The vibe we saw from the windows made an impression because we couldn’t shake the feeling we needed to go back for dinner. The menu consisted of foods that were both familiar and unfamiliar which, according to one of the owners we spoke with after our meal, is their intention. Their mission is to make classic Thai flavors and recipes feel accessible to the outsider. The owners are Thai and the chef is from Toronto. They seem to be following the trend of so many spectacular restaurants around the world: to create simple, elegant food from locally sourced ingredients. With each bite of our meal we felt the love that was put into the food. We savored amazing fresh ceviche made with delicious green mango for crunch and dried Thai chilies for spice (the chef kindly put the chilies on the side to make it kid friendly) and the cheese plate with blue cheese made in Chiang Rai (Northern Thailand). The crowd pleaser however was the brazed pork shoulder with garlic rice berry and house-made Kimchi. Garlic rice berry is black rice, goji berry and garlic and is divine. The entrée is brought out deconstructed so that you can pile the ingredients into a piece of romaine lettuce and top your creation with toasty sesame oil. Don’t you wish you were in Bangkok right now? Me too.Quinn looking out of a giant silver ball perched in a tree at the playground

Traveling as backpackers with kids has it pluses and minuses. Jacob and I don’t get to party in all night bars or catch the spontaneous train trip (frankly, I’m ok without the all night bar; hangovers are a beast after 35 much less 40). However we love to discover people and culture through food and it is rubbing off on our girls. They have become adventuresome eaters and I love listening to their dialog as they describe the food. Our kids allow us to find the spots off the typical tourist track and understand, a little more closely, the daily lives of the people where ever we go.