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Are We Blowing off Christmas?

We’re skipping Christmas. Are we? I think that’s what we’re doing; I’m writing this to sort it all out. According to the calendar and Facebook, the Christmas season has been upon us (those that celebrate) since Thanksgiving. I saw the posts about skipping Black Friday shopping. My e-mail box has been full of ads for things I don’t need. I’m sure there are countless catalogs waiting to be thrown out at home. NORAD Santa Tracker has contacted me to let me know it’s almost time to track the jolly fellow’s route. “Jesus is the reason for the season” is popping up occasionally and Elf-me videos are making a comeback. Apparently, Elf on a Shelf is doing all sorts of hysterical things this year in his quest to become famous. So, if I take my cues from electronic media – the Christmas season is upon us.

Interestingly enough, there is no indication here on our island in Thailand that Christmas is near. I haven’t seen any Santas at the mall – because there aren’t any malls. People seem surprisingly relaxed. They are going about their business trying to make a living to put food on their tables. The kids are playing with strings tied around rocks; really. Those dogs at the shelter? They have no clue that Christmas is almost here; no one is dressing them up like Santa or a reindeer. They’re just glad no one put fish-hooks in their food when they were living on the street. That guy selling garden tools from his bike? I’m sure he’s headed home to his McMansion that’s wasting more electricity on that community Christmas light competition than his neighbor uses in a year. I guess the shopping frenzy will really heat up around the 24th. Yeah, I’m being sarcastic. It’s my mood today; full-on sarcasm.

I would be fine skipping Christmas this year; the part of Christmas where you buy stuff and have to go to a million parties or look like a schmuck. The problem is, we have an 11 year old. I still want her to see the magic in it all and there are some things I miss. The lights, the music, the time with family – oh, wait, we have to fly across the country for that, or at least halfway for Jim’s family – the time with friends who are now like family, the hot chocolate, the candy canes, remembering the real reason for Christmas, doing good for others, the tree and watching Lil and her friends decorate it while I sip something caffeinated on the couch – these are the things I miss and I know Lilly is missing. She’s watched the movie “Elf” about 5 times in recent days. I miss meeting a friend for coffee (if we can fit it into our schedules), I miss taking Lil and her friends to see the Christmas lights and doing goofy things.  I don’t miss having to make all the lists and the fear that I’ve accidentally skipped someone on my Christmas card list. Am I Scrooge? No. I’m seeing things differently now. By necessity, I am being forced to skip all the things I dislike about the holiday season. It’s refreshing. Christmas isn’t “in your face” here. It’s non-existent. It’s stress-free and I hope that somehow I can carry this thinking into next year as Christmas falls upon us back at home, hopefully without any weird social backlash.

This year, we will be spending Christmas in Hanoi, Vietnam. We’ll probably get a little plant (our “tree”) and make paper snowflakes. I’ve heard we can attend a church service and go to a traditional dinner. That might happen, might not. I’ll read “The Night Before Christmas” on the 24th. We’ll talk about what we’re grateful for (I know, this is a Thanksgiving conversation, but we’re a little behind). We will walk around and try and find some Christmassy things to look at, as I’ve heard there IS Christmas in Vietnam. We won’t be sending cards. Know that we love you anyway and we think of you all the time. I’ll get back on that bandwagon next year. There won’t be a ton of gifts under our Christmas plant. There may be a few things I pick up at local markets, but I’m guessing my budget will be about $20. Sweet. Maybe we’ll go to a rice paddy and see some water buffalo, or we can go into the tunnels that were used during the Vietnam War. Sound depressing? It doesn’t to me. It sounds like reality. Yes, I love Christmas – parts of it. I sure don’t love all the consumerism and the need to do so much and stay so busy and get so stressed.

I guess I’ve come to the conclusion that we aren’t actually blowing off Christmas. We’re just having a scaled-down, ultra-light version. It’s the simple things that matter. Lil and I miss our friends so much…this matters. We miss our dogs…this matters. We get to spend time with Jim…this matters more than anything. Writing this cleared a few things up for me; I’ll be missing friends and family, the holiday spirit and certain traditions. Other than that, I’m good skipping everything else that’s on the long to-do list that is Christmas. Happy Holidays!

Isla Isabela – Island Life at it’s Best

9/23/14

Waiting in the deserted airport is as good a time as any to write a blog post. Our flight has been delayed for an hour and a half and there is no one here but another couple and the three of us; a perfect time to reflect. Here’s what’s great about traveling with our little family; it’s so darn easy. No one is complaining that we have to wait or that they’ll be hungry later. It is what it is. We’ve got a bottle of purple Gatorade for crying out loud; it’ll last us for a few hours at least.  The only downfall I can find is what appears to be a certain lack of hearing that necessitates the locals playing their music (on their cell phones) loudly. The older couple sharing our airport space have their cell phone cranked; first to a medley of oldies and now to “Happy”. I’m OK with that. It gives us something to listen to. So, let’s see what I can come up with about this beautiful island.

They all left for lunch after our flight was delayed for 1.5 hours.

They all left for lunch after our flight was delayed for 1.5 hours.

Isla Isabela, the largest of the Galapagos, has been our home for the last five nights. Our trip here from Quito was a series of small simple steps:

  • Cab to airport
  • Plane from Quito to Guayaquil
  • Plane from Guayaquil to Baltra
  • Bus from airport to little boat
  • Boat across channel
  • Taxi (truck) to ferry in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island
  • Ferry-taxi from dock to Ferry (this is an awesome way to make 50 cents a person)
  • Ferry (more on this later) to Puerto Villamil on Isla Isabela
  • Taxi to hotel

The “Ferry”. When I think of a ferry, although I know it’s not right, I think of a big boat with seats and a snack bar and lots of opportunity to relax and enjoy the journey. This did not happen. None of it. Fourteen of us put on our life vests and set out on a two and a half hour journey that is the reason we are sitting in the airport today. There was no way in hell we were getting back on that boat. I’ve gotten really seasick once in my life that I can remember – and that was on a 83ish foot boat. We all took Dramamine and shared some with our new Australian friend Cara. I’m sure I said, “Keep your eyes on the horizon” about twenty times before we arrived. The waves were bad; we’re guessing 10 feet at times…maybe bigger. The boat was about 20-25 feet long. Occasionally the three outboards came out of the water as we went over a wave. I’ll give the captain credit – he was amazing. His “first mate” didn’t seem as confident. The boat travels between the island of Santa Cruz and Isabela twice a day, so I’m guessing their used to it. I made a plan with Peter, Cara’s husband, to get Lilly to safety should anything happen. It was that scary. The three of us started seeing fish jumping (didn’t happen), whales breaching (nope) and various other exciting “hallucinations” after staring at the horizon for so long. A woman and her boyfriend moved to the bench in the stern so he could barf if he needed to. He didn’t, but she did. Jim just said, “don’t look, it’s contagious.” As we arrived in the harbor, we were treated to Blue Footed Boobies and a shark. Worth the trip.

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There are no ATMs on Isabela, so we came prepared with cash to last throughout our stay. What we weren’t prepared for was the hotel bill that was only guaranteed with a credit card. Oops. I told Jim starting out that I was bound to have made mistakes. We’ll deal with them when they happen. I knew that there were about 2 places that we could not pre-pay for. Murphy’s Law states that one of these places MUST be on the island with virtually no access to cash and no credit cards accepted at the hotel. *#$@&*%!   We had enough to pay for the hotel and found a few restaurants that would accept our debit cards. Jim offered to take the ferry back to Puerto Ayora to hit up the ATM with both our cards, but after the grueling ferry ride, there was no way I was letting him do that. I felt like a drug dealer as we sat in the room that night pulling out our hidden money to see what the total was. In the end, all was fine. You don’t need much money here except for food and we had that covered. We were even able to take a tour and rent bikes. Living small has not only afforded us the opportunity to take this trip, but also the wherewithal to function in less than perfect conditions.

Lilly and I usually wake up early, so we headed out for a walk. Lil was swinging at the playground on the beach when she noticed a sea lion coming out of the water. Not bad for our first morning. He (or she) scratched his head on a lava rock wall, sat in the road for a minute and headed back in the water. We found marine iguanas (the only marine iguanas in the world live here) and their babies (born this year between January and April) sunning themselves on the pier. Frigate birds, pelicans and other birds flew around. We eventually ended up snorkeling with sea lions and a penguin, visiting a giant tortoise breeding center and riding our bikes to the marsh where the flamingos hang out. We took a tour to an island that reminded me of the beginning of life. The volcanic rock had lichen growing on it, which would be followed by moss. Moisture would collect on the moss and grasses or other plants will eventually grow. As it is, I felt like I was on the moon. Amazing and raw. No one would snorkel with me, so I ventured alone to see what I could find. I stayed away from the shark-seeking group and found lots of fish without big teeth and scary fins. We did, from the safety of land, get to see white-tipped reef sharks sleeping. This was the deal breaker for Lilly to snorkel with me.

The food here is exceptional – and I’m not a foodie. I was forced to try different things because they would inevitably be out of whatever I wanted for the night…meat one night, tempura another. We tried new things and loved them all. Like Panama, ceviche is the dish every restaurant touts.   Octopus, shrimp, lobster, calamari and fishes of all kinds made up the ceviche offerings. Seafood will never be on my menu, but Jim has enjoyed it so far.

9/27/14

I wrote that before our big adventure on the plane. Funny how you never know what’s coming. I know this is long, so I’ll stop for now and write a brief post on Santa Cruz in the next few days. We leave for France tomorrow; will arrive the morning of 9/30. Until then…

NOTE:  After losing WIFI several times trying to post more pictures with the post, I have given up.  Will make a photo post when I have stronger WIFI.

Casco Viejo and Panama City Pictures – Part 1

Isla Taboga, Panama – Pictures

The Island of Flowers – Isla Taboga, Panama

“Do you want to go look for some more sea glass?” I gave him the answer I never thought I would. No.

It’s our last day on Isla Taboga and I’m organizing pictures and thinking about what I can say to do this beautiful island justice. “If you could use three words to describe Taboga, what would they be?” Jim answers, “Enchanting, laid back.” My three would be colorful, relaxing and sea glass. Lilly’s three words are quiet, calm and hot.

Our stay here has been unforgettable and very relaxing. Our house is on a hill overlooking the harbor and a cross on a hill built in the 1600s. The history of Taboga is rich with details about pirates, a sanitarium, a shipping company and naval defense. Every night, we would look up another tidbit of the history as we sat under the ceiling fans on the deck.

The weather has been near perfect. Yes, it’s hot, but not as hot as Louisiana in the summer. The water temperature is just right. Just right for that jellyfish (medusa) to sting Lil and I. She got the worst of it. We had no idea what had caused the marks on her legs until a local told us. I felt the stings, but didn’t have half the marks she did. The medusa didn’t keep us out of the water for long though. We were back in for a swim at dusk last night.

Taboga isn’t for everyone. Yes, there is garbage. Bottles, glass (see below) and plastic litter the edges of the beach.. We only saw two pieces when we were swimming. This isn’t a sterile resort island. We are living amongst the locals, all 900 of them (although, I don’t know where they all are). There are no chain hotels here. A few inns, bed and breakfasts and vacation rentals are the options for lodging. There is a handful of restaurants open at varying hours. Cash is the only option here; credit cards aren’t taken anywhere that we’ve been. The main occupation seems to be fishing. Cars are limited to a very few and we’ve seen some golf carts and Kawasaki 4-wheelers. Cats and dogs seem to be everywhere. We’ve seen poison dart frogs, huge beetles, brown pelicans, seagulls and a few too many vultures for my liking. Lilly likes to try and catch the little lizards that come out at night.

The colors here are amazing, like in the Caribbean. Houses are pink, turquoise, yellow and every other bright color you can imagine. Flowering plants are everywhere. We saw some orange coconuts that I still need to research. My favorite color of all was the pink of the perfume bottle stopper I found on our first sea glass hunt.

Sea glass hunting here is like nothing I’ve seen before. There are pieces of glass, pottery, stoneware and ceramics everywhere. Some have markings, so I’ve been able to identify the maker and time of production. Because ships have used this tiny island as a port due to its deep harbor (before there was a harbor in Panama City), there is a lot of glass from ages ago. I found so many bottle bottoms dating from before 1900, that I had to leave them. The lip of the bottle is also an indicator of age; I’ve found a few from the early 1800s. The most prevalent color of the glass I’ve found here is amber and an army green (not Heineken green), but there is an abundance of light turquoise, clear and a light pink. The glass is thick, which tells me it’s been around for a while. I stopped collecting anything but perfect or unusual pieces a few days ago. The tops of bottles became my focus, as well as pieces with lettering. I’m always a sucker for well-worn pottery, so I have some of that too. I don’t think I’ll find another place like this in the world. There’s a reason we came here first.

Tomorrow we have a “taxi” (it’s actually Boris in his Toyota truck) coming at 8:30 AM to take us to the ferry. We will ride in the little boat for less than an hour back to Panama City, where we start our next adventure.

Who, What, Why, When, Where, How?

We get a lot of questions about The Big Trip.  Hopefully, this will answer most of them.

Who?  All 3 of us – Jim, Suzanne and Lilly.  Many people are surprised to hear that Jim is coming along.  Being together as a family is one of the main reasons we are taking the trip.  Taking the trip without Jim has never been an option.

What? Well that’s easy – a trip around the world.  We will be traveling East to West.  The thinking behind this involved following the warm weather.  We will have fall weather in Europe; our coldest climate.

Why?  Lots of reasons.  We don’t get a lot of time together as a family, even when Jim is working in Bellingham.  Life is short; we are all too aware of that.  I think the idea started when I learned of the Maldives and realized that science was saying they would disappear in Lilly’s lifetime due to increasing sea levels.  It’s possible the idea started when a professor showed my class a picture of his daughter swimming with a whale shark.  My father taught me that travel is the best education.  While kids are studying volcanoes in science, Lilly will be visiting Pompei.  Those rising sea levels?  We’ll get to discuss the impact with our host and his community in Mahibadhoo, Maldives.  I guess there are more reasons than one.  Jim and I share a love of travel; and we travel well together as a family.  Why not?

When?  We leave on 9/3/14 and return on 1/20/15.

Where?  The world – 14 countries.

How?  We live a relatively “small” life.  No new cars, “stuff” we don’t need (we don’t even own a TV) and lots of sacrifice.  Our house is 780 sf, which translates to lower bills, less room for “stuff” and simple living.  The “How” of planning includes hours of research – as many as 4 hours a day.  We are traveling mostly by plane, although there are a few ferries, trains and cars involved.  Lilly will be homeschooled while we are gone – the world will be her classroom.  This makes me grin from ear to ear.

Why “The Traveling Hamsters”?  We couldn’t come up with anything else.  People in our town are called “Hamsters”, so we went with it.  Quite frankly, I’m a little embarrassed by it – but it’s here to stay.

We leave in a little over a month.  In the next weeks, I will start posting to the blog more.  Thanks for following us on our adventure!