First night in Athens 

Greece has been a place I have always wanted to experience. When I got the chance this year, I jumped all over the opportunity.

It started out with 2 days in Athens. The first day doesn’t really count because it was img_2914really a blur of jet lag and acclimation.

We stayed in the Athenian Callirhoe Hotel near the ancient Acropolis. The first evening we ventured to the roof garden restaurant for dinner on top of our hotel. It may be one of those few moments in life where everything seems perfect. It was ridiculously romantic, except that my date (lil’ man) barely made it through dinner and returned to our room.
I had a drink and watched as the sun set and the lights made the Acropolis glow right outside our terrace.

The mushroom risotto was near perfect and live jazz played in the background as older couples danced. Exhausted from jet lag and feeling warm and fuzzy from ny cranberry vodka, I returned to my room feeling content. What an amazing first night.

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New York, 3 days, 1 kid

I have been to New York City several times, but it was usually for work or to visit a friend, and I had always avoided the tourist traps. One thing I’ve noticed as I travel with a child is that I tend to gravitate towards a lot more tourist destinations.

Being from Kansas, New York City is a very big awe-inspiring place. I was excited to see it through my sons eyes. It began with fighting the crowds in Time Square to get on a bus tour. I found it completely overwhelming with chaos and people. I found it interesting that my son did too, however Karl thrives off of the energy and loved every second of it. After 2 1/2 hours of touring the downtown loop, we walked through Hells Kitchen and found a small hole in the wall Italian restaurant. After a good dinner and a drink, we were exhausted and retreated back to our hotel for the night.

Day 1

The next morning we set out to explore the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.  I had looked online before traveling to New York to see about getting passes to go into the crown of the Statue of Liberty. It was already booked three months out. I read that pedastool tickets were work first come first serve and could be bought at the ticket office. 

I quickly learned that standing in lines is just part of visiting New York City.  We waited in a long line to buy tickets to the Statue of Liberty and then another line to go through an airport-like security. Then we stood in another line to ride the ferry. The ferry was jam-packed and we couldn’t make it to the top level which was open air. Once we reached Liberty Island, we search aimlessly for the entrance into the Statue of Liberty. What I hadn’t understood it was that there is no entrance. Our tickets were only good for the grounds around the statue and tickets could no longer be purchased to enter inside for the pedastool. I heard many people asking how to enter as well so I knew I wasn’t the only one. It was a bit of a disappointment, because all we could do was walk around Statue of Liberty.

We did go to the information Center where we got the worksheet for the Junior Ranger program. We walked the grounds among the crowds of people answering the questions. My kiddo was sworn in and received his badge as a junior ranger.

We headed to Ellis Island. We were starving, so we decided to grab a bite to eat in the café. It was outrageously crowded so we decided to just grab cold food from the cooler instead of standing in line to order food. We were lucky enough to find a dirty table to sit at.

Ellis Island was very educational and we thoroughly enjoyed the museum. Parker asked lots of questions and I got goosebumps in the giant room where I knew my own ancestors had once stood as immigrants hoping to become American citizens. I got so much more out of this than visiting Lady Liberty.

We returned to the city and hurried to get ready for the theater show Stomp which I had pre-bought tickets for. This was by far the highlight of our trip. There was so much energy and fun in this. I’m not sure if I enjoyed the show more or watching the look and the smile on my son’s face. He was completely enthralled.


We finish the evening with A funky little restaurant in the East Village.  

Day 2

The third day we decided to go see the American Natural History Museum. It was an easy sell to my son, because he seen the movie Night at the Museum. Only after arriving and looking for the Genghis Khan exhibit, were we told that 90% of what is in the movie is fictional. It was a bit of a disappointment, but there was so much to see. We spent several hours wandering through the dinosaur skeletons and the history of the different cultures. You could easily spend more than one day here. Without seeing the entire museum, our feet were aching and it was time to leave. 

We walked around Central Park and pet some of the horses that were attached to carriages. Sweaty, hot, and a bit exhausted we decided to go to Ground Zero. It was tough to explain to my son what the significance of this place holds. I explained about the Twin Towers and how they had been destroyed when terrorists flew planes into them. This led to a deep conversation about evil and why someone would want to do this. 

I was actually very surprised at how emotional this place made me. There are two memorials where the towers had stood. They are fountains that flow into the ground and the names of the victims are displayed in metal along the side. On the name of each victim, a rose is placed on the day of their birthday. Upon seeing the roses, I became a complete and utter emotional mess. I watched a man gently touch a name with a trembling hand and bawl. I could literally feel the tragedy in this place.


We moved from here to Battery Park. We watched some of the street artists, and then took a break under the shade tree enjoying a frozen lemonade. It was a nice reprieve from the heat and walking.

We decided to end our evening with dinner in Hells Kitchen. Instead of researching a restaurant, we decided to just walk along the street and read the menus until we found something we liked. After another amazing dinner and a few drinks, we headed back to our hotel for a restful sleep.

Day 3

Our intention for our last day in New York City was to make the most of it. Honestly, we were just exhausted. We got up early to eat breakfast and then to go play tourist, but we all began dragging our feet. We ended up just taking our time packing our bags and relaxing in the hotel. We decided before lunch to walk down Canal Street where we were told we could get cheap deals on souvenirs. I found it incredibly overwhelming with all the traffic, litter, and people. We walked through Chinatown and the smells physically turned our stomachs and crowds jostled us.

We walked to Katz Deli, one of the oldest delis in New York City. It was crazy busy, and they had to be making a killing at $20 per sandwich. After lunch, we decided it was too hot and we were too tired to do anymore touring. We went to the hotel and picked up our bags and headed for the airport. We hung out in the Admirals Club with free food, drinks, and wifi until it was time to catch our flight to Greece.

3 days is just not enough time in New York City. 

24 Hours of Chaos

Shortly after my back seat ride in the police cruiser, our shuttle arrived to take us to the airport. I felt naked without my phone, drivers license, and credit cards. I felt fortunate that I had my Ipad and passport at the hotel and could quickly cancel all cards.

I felt a sense of relief to be leaving. It was an amazing trip full of new experiences. Unfortunately, the last hours put a bit of a shadow over it. I was tired and grouchy and ready to go home.

As we sent our bags on the security conveyor belt, a security guard told us to grab them because we could not go through security. He had just received notice that our flight was cancelled and we would have to go back to the ticket desk. I instantly felt irritated because I couldn’t call American Airlines or receive any of the cancellation notices. We collected our bags and headed back to the security line.

By the time we reached the line, we were at least 30 people back. After 20 minutes of 17309768_10210377460725988_3139745676711094113_nstanding we finally sat down on the floor. It was nearly 10:30 p.m. so I laid out a blanket and my son fell asleep on the floor. About an hour later an announcement was made that if we had children we should stand in another line. Through the rough translation I could make out that the plane was not leaving that night and that they would assign the first hotels to people with children. I pulled my kiddo across the floor as he slept soundly on the blanket.

As the hours ticked the crowd became more impatient. People began cutting the line and fights started breaking out. Soon it became unsafe to let my son stay on the floor. I found myself become incredibly defensive and my inner mama bear was starting to show. Reluctantly I woke my son up. Yelling and screaming continued and there was no security in sight. I was at a complete loss. Without any explanation the tension grew in the entire crowd.

After a few hours we finally approached the counter to be told that we had to go to the back of the line because my son wasn’t a baby. I was furious.

Sometime around 2 in the morning we were finally given vouchers for a bus and a hotel for the night and told we would have to go stand in another line. The patriarchy of this society was ragingly apparent. Despite the fact that I was the one doing all of the talking and translating and dealing with all of the documentation, the woman behind the counter would only speak to my male companion. She handed him the documents and ignored him as he pushed them across the desk to me. I was at an all time frustration.

We found our way into another line. I felt like a zombie on my feet. I stood in disbelief as I watched 2 girls behind the counter take our vouchers and began to handwrite the information on a yellow notebook. I asked them why they were writing it down. They told me that management wanted all of the information written by hand (even though it was just printed out of a computer). I idiocracy of the nights events were weighing heavy. We finally made our way out to wait for the bus at about 3 in the morning.

When the first bus arrived all of the people waiting began fighting to get on the bus. Pushing and yelling ensued. I didn’t even try. I pulled my son to a side and told him we would wait for the next bus. The next bus arrived about 15 minutes later. There was not room for everyone, but they crowded us onto it anyway. We sat on top of our luggage for the 45 minutes ride back into Quito.

We slept a few hours before we had to return back to the airport. After a shower and some sleep I felt a little more human. When we arrived to the airport, again we were halted at security because they had no record of the flight that we were all scheduled on. At this point nothing surprised me. We waited until they finally got notice that the entire crowd was indeed waiting on a flight.

Once on the plane I finally began to relax. I was looking forward to order and logic. I have never experienced something as chaotic and frustrating as my last 24 hours in Ecuador. I loved the culture and the countryside. I could go without ever having to be in Quito again.

 

 

 

Pickpockets and scams

After spending the last day in Ecuador touring Quito, we had time to kill before our 10 p.m. flight. Fortunately, the hotel let us set up in a room off the lobby and play on our computers, talk, etc. As lunch came and went, I decided to go in search of a deli someone mentioned was a few blocks away and get us all sandwiches. I took my phone so that I could call once I got there to see what everyone wanted. I set out with a woman I had become friends with throughout the week.

We walked through the busy streets and side stepped vendors trying to sell us wares. Our conversation came to an abrupt stop when 3 men approached us trying to sell posters. They had a small child in tow. We said no and tried to side step them. They continued to get louder and follow us. Suddenly one was running backwards in front of me and one on my side. My hands were in my pockets with my hand on my phone and wallet.

In that moment, all I could think about was how aggressive they were being. I couldn’t figure out why they weren’t taking no for an answer. I was pushed by the 3 into a store corner. My hands instinctively came out of my pockets to push back. My friend had been pushed away from me and the three men surrounded me pushing. She suddenly broke through and grabbed my arm. We made a run for it and up some stairs into a small shopping center. It took a few moments to gain our composure. It was a very startling experience.

Once we regrouped we headed back out on the street to find the deli. I put my hands back into my pockets and instantly became aware that my phone and my wallet were gone. I felt like I got hit in the stomach. I have traveled all over by myself and never once had an issue. I can usually identify scams and avoid them. They had come at me so fast and so aggressively all I could do was wonder why.

I found a security guard on the corner and tried to explain in my broken Spanish that I had just been robbed. The three men were nowhere to be found. The guard called the police and asked me to wait. I sent my friend back to the hotel to have Karl cancel my credit cards and turn on my Find My Iphone app. I still had a glimmer of hope I might be able to find them.

I stood on the corner trying not to let my anger well up in tears. I decided at one point that waiting for the police was going to be pointless and prepared to leave. The security guard asked me to stay just a little longer. Within 10 minutes of standing on the corner a cop car pulled up with 2 officers. Neither of them spoke English so I tried to explain the situation again in my broken Spanish.

The police officer motioned for me to follow him and we walked back across the street looking into store fronts for the three men. A vendor on the road stopped the police officer and told him he saw the entire thing. He pointed in a direction of a park and said after the men stole my items they ran that way. We cut across the park and walked several blocks. I realized after about 15 minutes it was getting dark and I no longer had any idea where I was. I didn’t have a phone to get directions or call for help. I had no money to get a cab back to the hotel.

The police officer told me I needed to go make a report. At this point I tried not to let my fears overtake me and followed him. We walked through an entryway among motorbikes. I followed him up 3 flights of stairs. There was no lights on the stairs and for a brief second I let my mind go to worst case scenarios. I reasoned that I had nothing left to steal….and that I had no identification on me.

I was relieved when we got to the third floor and there was 10 uniformed police officers posing for a picture. I was motioned to the only desk in the room. Yet again, I had to try to tell my story in Spanish. At one point I went for my phone to look up a word in my translator app. Another time I went for my ID when they asked for my passport or Drivers License (fortunately my passport was still in the hotel with my luggage).

As I was signing the police report, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned to find my friend and another man from our tour group. They had tracked down the security guard and he told them where I was. I was so relieved to see them there I jumped up and hugged them. They quietly reiterated my own fears of the dark stairs. I was glad to not be alone any longer.

Once everything was done, the police offered us a ride back in the police car. At this point I could do nothing more than laugh as I crawled into the back seat.

*2 months later I still get notices of where my gets turned on in Ecuador. It seems it is still on a grand adventure.

Back to Quito

We arrived back in Quito late. We decided to meet up with friends we had met along the 17264850_10210179870666798_6261762905422355019_nway for dinner. At the advice of a tour guide, we went to his favorite bar and pizza place.

It was a crazy cab ride to get there through small streets and insane drivers. We were dropped off in front of our restaurant. I instantly liked the place. It had a bar feel with tables scattered throughout for diners. We made our way to a back room and sat at a long table and benches. We ordered beer and pizza and enjoyed the rest of the night chatting and saying goodbye to all of our new acquired friends.

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We tried not to make it a late night because we wanted to see tour a little more of Quito the next morning before we caught our plane back to the U.S.

We found several others from our tour at breakfast and we all agreed to tour together. Most of us wanted to go to the same places. We decided to first go ride the gondola lift up the Pichincha Volcano. We piled into a cab and set out. We paid $8.50 each for a ticket to ride the Quito Teleferi17361636_10154151629046920_1389858891764917752_n.jpgco.
We had been warned that it was too cloudy to see anything, but we decided to try for it anyway. It is one of the highest aerial lifts in the world, rising from 10,226 ft to 12,943 ft in 20 minutes. I was happy that we had a clear view of the city all the way up.

Once we disembarked, there was a large indoor shopping area. I instantly ordered a coffee. We were told that caffeine would help with the altitude sickness. Just a few minutes of walking around made me instantly aware of the altitude. My lungs felt like they were being squeezed and I felt dizzy.

17352169_10210372570363732_8474380398732351279_nWe decided to endulge in one of the tourist 17308794_10210390942223017_421669170831413609_n.jpgpictures and made a fun picture for a memory. Continuing the climb up the mountain was not even a consideration. The clouds moved in and I was having trouble catching my breath.

We headed back down the mountain on the gondola. We were happy to find that our taxi driver had patiently waited and we asked him to take us to what the locals refer to as “cupcake hill”.

El Panecillo is a 656 foot hill above the city. Again, the views are spectacular. On top of the hill sets a statue of the Madonna. We went inside and up to the observation deck.

There was a small brick road that lead up the hill to the statue. On the side of the road were local vendors selling souveniers. I negotiated for a alpaca scarf and a few trinkets to take home as gifts.

(I have no pictures of El Panecillo or the spectacular view because my phone was stolen. More about that in my next post).

 

400 year old hacienda

Our bus bumped along a small avenue lined with giant century-old eucalyptus trees. Driving
around the fountain in the middle of the driveway, we arrived in front of Hacienda La Cienega. This hacienda is one of the most historical in Ecuador at over 400 years old. It sits at the slopes of the Cotopaxi volcano. Today, it serves as a boutique hotel and restaurant, though its history has been preserved. 


Lunch was a variety of native food. The best part of lunch was when a local band came through and we were serenaded. There was even one Spanish song that I was familiar with and was able to sing along to. 

17342948_10210179874986906_7229302235458948416_nOnce our lunch and singing was over, the band displayed some small musical instruments and CD’s for sale. My son gravitates towards anything musical (or possibly to anything that makes noise) and picked out a flute. A member from the band came and gave him a quick lesson on howFullSizeRender (16) to blow into it in order to make sound.

After lunch we wandered the grounds, viewing the original church and gardens. I had a coffee and enjoyed the shade of the ancient trees.

Rose Plantation

Several times throughout our tour of Ecuador, we heard about their production of roses. They are everywhere, decorating every hotel and restaurant. A17361717_10154131007516920_916788562876517059_nlthough roses are not native to Ecuador, the country has a perfect environment for rose cultivation, and is presently one of the world’s major producers. Ecuador actually exports 400 million roses a day.

We went to a rose plantation near Latacunga.  We ventured under the giant canopy which housed hundreds of rose bushes. These were long stem roses. We could see yellow tags marking the ones that were ready to be picked.

FullSizeRender (15)We walked through the fields outside and then into the final building where the cut roses were taken and checked for quality, de-thorned, sorted, and then put into boxes to be shipped out. We learned about the workers and met several. We were given a rose as a  souvenier.

We finished the tour in the giant refrigerator (that felt a little like heaven) where the ready-to-be-shipped roses waited for pick up.

One fun fact we learned was that if you were to give a rose to your sweetheart in Ecuador, it probably wouldn’t be met with gratitude because they are so cheap. 17309627_10210366764818597_5159556340110574569_n

 

 

Volcanos and Moonshine

We headed to Banos, Ecuador from Devil’s Cauldron (about 40 km away). It’s near the active Tungurahua and a gateway to the nearby Amazon Basin. On the way there we 17352380_10210366736337885_4052340927093209023_ndrove by a village that was covered by an eruption about a year and a half ago. We saw the scarred remains of a home.

Once in Banos, we had lunch at a small bed and breakfast and spent the next few hours walking around the city. There were lots of tourist shops offering tours to the Amazon and volcano.

Banos has a very artistic flair, with artisans working in doorways and windows and paintings on buildings. It 17264284_10210172410480298_6561258471637593502_nhas a large ex-pat population, and I can see why. If I return to Ecuador, I would want to come back here.

We wandered into a a vegetable ivory shop called, El Cade. The son is the artisan, carving vegetable ivory, and the mother sat in the corner stringing jewelry he created. He gave a demonstration of how he carved a dried tagua nut into a small pitcher. The tagua nut is actually a seed from a certain palm 17353085_10210366801099504_4831787035353403146_ntree. The vegetable ivory resembles elephant ivory and was actually used for buttons before
plastic was popular. The small sculptures and jewelry were inexpensive and made for great souvenirs.

We took our bag of gifts and headed for the market. Outside vendors hacked away at sugar cane with machetes. One vendor was selling sugarcane ginger moonshine along with every other possible thing made of sugarcane. I took a shot of the moonshine and it was exactly as I had expected, enough to take my breath.

A little buzz from my shot of moonshine, I ventured behind the market and found an amazing view of the city.

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We drove away from the city and towards our lodge for the night. We drove into the Valley of Patate and then just above it to Hacienda Manteles. This place was like something out of fairytale. It was chilly and the air was crisp. The slightly smoking volcano loomed not far in the distance.

When I was shown to my room, a sheep and llama were hanging out nearby. It just added to the magic of the place. The rooms were situated so that 3 rooms were
inside one building with a little living room that had a fireplace. I took a shower and then ventured out to take pictures of the grounds. Lil’ man was playing with the random animals and running everywhere.

As it began to get dark I grabbed an alpaca blanket from my room and big bottle of beer. I had Karl meet me on the porch swing set up overlooking the volcano and valley below. Soon we could see every star in the sky. It was very romantic and peaceful.

Of course it didn’t last long and we ventured up for dinner. We served family style in the main dining room and after we sat around with everyone having drinking by the fire and chatting. Eventually our guide broke out a guitar and we all sang along. It was one of those moments that can make an entire trip. Lil’ man fell asleep on the couch and several of us sat near the fire singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. It was a perfect way to end our night.

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Devil’s Cauldron

From the Amazon we headed back up the Andes. Our first stop was at Pailon del Diablo (Devil’s Cauldron). This ranks up there with one of the most magnificent waterfalls I 17342968_10154131006901920_4458202785638714581_nhave seen. It is about 260 feet tall.

To me, the most fascinating part of it was how the waterfall received its name. The locals use to sacrifice bodies to Pachamama (Mother Earth) by pushing them over the waterfall. The devil didn’t exist in this culture, so it was named Devil’s Cauldron by the Spanish Jesuits.

The best view of it is from a very long suspension bridge. It’s a bit of a slipper steep hill to get to it. We not only crossed the bridge, but continued to walk the trail that went right up to the waterfall. It was very slippery so good shoes and rain jackets were important. We even managed to get a little wet in the process.

I had planned initially to zipline across the gorge over the waterfall. We were notified when we got there that ziplining was no longer an option. With a little prying I found out that the zipline had actually broke with someone on it about a month before. I was reassured it was only a local (as if that made it better) and that he was at the end of the zipline so he fell into the trees. 17352404_10210366508892199_2304226409322396489_n.jpg

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Hiking in the Amazon

We readied ourselves in our rubber boots and life jackets once again and loaded into canoes. We set out to hike in the Amazon. I must be honest, this is what the entire trip was about to me. Despite the stifling heat, the breeze from moving up the river in the motorized canoe 17308782_10210349316102390_2971485119377380513_nfelt fantastic. We arrived at the Misicocha Private Natural Reserve. The government closely monitors it’s protected lands, so we had to have approval to hike.

We met under a hut at the top of a hill where there were giant spiders building elaborate webs for us. Several people grabbed walking sticks and we set out. We walked through the rainforest observing many species of trees (including my new favorite tree the walking pines), wild flowers, termite nests the size of cars, and various insects. 17361542_10210366819699969_4018232383304316734_n

We came to a gorge that had a suspension bridge strung across. Before I knew what was even happening my son took off across it. He is fearless. I set out after him when he was over halfway. The bridge bounces so much that only one person can be on it at one time. It was a little intimidating.

We continued to climb in elevation, trudging through mud and watching for insects and spiders. We stopped to try some ants that our guide told us tasted like lemon. I popped a s17362792_10211715205546021_7247668252483515258_nmall ant into my mouth. I couldn’t feel the ant, but had a sudden small burst of lemon flavor. I was relieved I couldn’t feel the ants little legs crawling.

We came to a larger gorge that had to be crossed by a basket chair on a zipline. Of course my fearless son was the first to volunteer to go across. Our guide sat him in the chair and u17308735_10210349315422373_6419910977450234425_nsed his walking stick to

place between the bars to keep him in. I can say I was more than a little nervous. Once again I followed him over to the other side. The ride was so fast it was over before I knew it.

About an hour and a half into our hike we reached our destination. We came upon an ancient kapok tree. It is believed to be 400 years old. At approximately 150 feet tall, it would have taken 20 people hand in hand to wrap around the tree it was so large. This is considered an sacred tree by the locals. I couldn’t even begin to take a picture what would clearly show17342841_10210350716537400_7770539619706682147_n how large this tree is. It was absolutely magnificent. It had massive vines hanging from so far above we could not see the starting point. My son decided to connect with his inner monkey and climbed the vines. I’m sure he felt like tarzan as he swung from the vines. I will admit, I was a little bit envious.

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After I laid my hands on the tree and honored it’s age and wisdom, we hiked back towards our rafts. Our clothes were thoroughly soaked through with sweat. I stopped to spray myself with bug spray at least twice in an effort to keep the various insects off of me. I felt like I was sweating it off as fast as I was applying it.

Back at the water we boarded balsa rafts. They were modeled after the rafts made by natives. We took off our boots and anything that wasn’t waterproof. We left them in a canoe with a few souls who weren’t quite as brave. Sitting on the raft, I was instantly wet. The water was cold and very silty. The water sloshed up through the individual logs. We pushed out into the current and began to float down stream. I was the first to jump. The water felt 17424849_10211715170265139_7830998117733676427_nexhilarating. The shock of cold after such a hot and humid hike took my breath. It quickly became comfortable and I held out my arms as my son jumped.

We held onto the raft letting our life jackets keep us afloat. I had asked previous to boarding the raft if I needed to worry about any of the weird parasites you see on those freaky medical shows called terrifying names like ‘Monsters Inside Us’. I was reassured that the urethra seeking parasites were further south, along with piranhas and other potential threats.

We were greeted back at the lodge with a fresh sampling of17264253_10210343014464853_7687460539118863904_n grilled food. Just like the locals, our food had been cooked inside of palm leaves. I was given a sampling of fresh trout, grub worms, and palm. Even though I was hesitant, I decided this would probably be my only opportunity (or half desire) to try the grubs. My son and I decided to do it together. We both popped a grub in our mouths. Surprisingly it tasted like bacon. I wasn’t able to eat the entire thing because I was expecting it to be crunchy (and to spare you further detail) it was not. I was told by others that the head was quite crunchy but I had purposely avoided that part.