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.

 

 

 

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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Drinking chicha with the natives

Karl and I got up at sunrise and snuck out into the thermal pools outside our room for a soak before everyone else was up. The steam rose off the pools , the sun came up behind the nearby volcano, and I sat drinking my coffee and took it all in. It was a perfect morning. We agreed17309548_10210334916422407_8751021778529238267_n that this is a place we could definitely come back to.

After breakfast, we loaded a bus and drove towards the Amazon basin.  We stopped in a small village to see the wild monkeys. They come into town on days the locals set up market in hopes to find food. We were warned the monkeys can get a little aggressive (they steal stuff) so we needed to take off hats, sunglasses, or anything shiny or colorful.
IMG_0149After a short walk across a very sketchy bridge (that I thought was a pedestrian bridge and turned out to be also for traffic), we made our way to a bunch of trees on a beach right by the market. The monkeys were playing and jumping from tree to tree. On occasion one would jump down and try to take something from someone’s neck or head that hadn’t listened to the instructions of taking these things off. They were a lot of fun to watch.

We eventually loaded back up on the bus and headed to the Amazon Basin. The lower altitude was a little bit of a relief. We made it to a place called La Punta Ahuano on the Napo River (a tributary to the Amazon River). It was pouring rain when we arrived. There was a small shelter that we all crowded under waiting for it to let up a bit before we loaded into motorized canoe to go across the river. Eventually we decided that we are in the rainforest and rain is a part of every day, so climbed onto the boats.

17362435_10211734758594835_6811658986573402061_nThe heat and humidity were intense so the breeze from going upstream felt great. The current was so strong that our boat didn’t go straight against it. We zig zagged back and forth. About 10 minutes later we arrived at Casa del Suizo, our resort set up on a hill overlooking the Amazon Basin. Yet again, I was blown away by our accommodations.

We had to climb a lot of stairs to get up to the resort from the boat. We entered next to a pool surrounded by little hu17342618_10210343014744860_389843342584525691_nts, palm trees, a bar, and an outdoor dining area. We were shown to our rooms, which were just as impressive. It was surrounded by so many exotic plants and flowers. Our balcony had a hammock that Lil’ Man and I instantly took advantage of. It overlooked a courtyard full of more gorgeous trees and flowers.

IMG_0195.JPGOnce settling in a bit, we marinated ourselves in bug spray (even though I hate it, it’s better than all the bad things you can get from a bug bite in the Amazon). We headed out for a visit to a local Quechua family in Ahuano, also called Anaconda Lodge.

img_0233.pngWe were fitted with rubber boots and loaded back into the canoes. We went to an island called Anaconda by the locals. We hiked across a muddy wet area that is often underwater. We continued our hike for about 15 minutes through high grasses and trees. Our boots sucked into the squishy mud and sweat poured down every inch of our bodies. I kept a looIMG_0138k out for any strange snakes or insects. The most interesting thing I spotted was a giant black mass on a tree. At closer look, it was a large grouping of catepillars. I have never seen anything like it.
Eventually we walked into a clearin17155347_10210350718497449_677940779364879196_ng and saw huts on stilts. We had arrived. We climbed the stairs into the hut and found a seat next to a burning fire pit. The heat was already stifling and my clothes were soaked. A barefoot woman sat on the edge of the pit.

Our guide explained that the hut was on stilts because once a year the entire area floods about 5 feet high. The fire is left burning all of the time because the smoke keeps the bugs away. It is women’s work, and they get up at 3 a.m. to start stoking the fire and making breakfast.

The woman sat in the middle of the room with yucca root and sweet potato on a board. She began to mash it to demonstrate how to make chicha, the local alcohol drink offered to guests. We were told, as she was mashing, that this 17308856_10210343037545430_1481689716924246743_n.jpgalcohol was originally created by the maker chewing the root and spitting the saliva into a bowl. This would cause the solution to ferment and eventually turn into alcohol. In the past few years, they learned that if the person making the brew was sick, everyone the drink is given too also fell sick. She then used bark of walking pine to grate sweet potato into the brew to be the fermenting agent.

Once she finished the demonstration, she passed a bowl of 10 day old chicha around for us each to drink out of. I was very happy this was no longer a saliva based solution. I was proud of Lil’ Man for trying it, too. As soon as I tasted it, it reminded me of the intense smell my moms homemade bread use to have while it was rising. It was bitter and I couldn’t have drank more than a sip.

17155566_10210343036985416_2189276111118603188_nAfter our chicha sampling, we went back to the ground where we got a demonstration on blowing darts. We were each given an opportunity to try. Lil’ Man was set on getting a blow dart set until he realized that the ones for sale were just replicas. It didn’t discourage him from trying to shoot the target several times. The blow dart gun was about 5 times bigger than him.

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We finished the day up with hiking back to the canoes and returning to our resort. A shower was required to wash all of the sweat and bug spray off. We were told that bug spray wasn’t required in the resort because ginger was strategically planted. I had no idea that ginger kept the mosquitos away.

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We spent the rest of the afternoon watching Lil’ Man play in the swimming pool with a new friend. Bats swarmed overhead and the kids seemed completely oblivious to it. I had a cocktail and sat under the ceiling fan in the hut enjoying the amazing view and feeling completely blessed.

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Into the Andes

As we headed into the Andes Mountains, we stopp17342881_10210349681911535_8591327376380371571_n.jpged in a village called Papallacta. We were invited into the home of a local family of musicians. The man of the house gave us a demonstration of how he makes musical instruments. He made a pan flute out of bamboo and string, carefully cutting each piece to the right length for the right tune. Once he was done, his entire family came out and played for us.

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While on this trip we saw several local bands play, and what I found the most fascinating is that the little ones are always included. This is a tradition passed from one generation to the next and they are included from the day they can hold an instrument.

From there, we went to our resort Termas de Papallacta. This area is famous for its thermal springs and has a magnificent view of the Antisana Volcano. It is the highest city in Ecuador at almost 11,000 feet above sea level. It’s well known for it’s thermal springs that are heated by the subterranean activity of the nearby volcano.

17202864_10210332757128426_7904056639254265890_nThis place was simply breathtaking. These heated pools were just feet from the front door of our cabanas. Lil’ Man couldn’t even wait until our bags were delivered to our room before he ventured in. These waters are known as healing waters due to the natural minerals. It definitely healed me of any stress I may have had.

I spent the little extra money and Karl and I went to the spa. Our tour manager volunteered to watch Lil’ Man while we treated ourselves. We found even more pools of different temperatures. After 30 minutes in the pools, we were taken to a sauna. We were supposed to spend 30 minutes in it, but it was so hot I cut out a little early. We were shown to a room with lounge chairs where we laid and relaxed until a masseuse came and retrieved us for a neck and back massage. I was pretty much jelly by the time the whole experience was over. Needless to say, I slept like a rock.

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