Wednesday, 24 March 2010

End of the line

This is likely my last blog for awhile, at least as far as the trip is concerned. In the past two weeks I’ve been consumed by getting back to “ordinary” – moving into our new apartment, getting the kids settled in their new school, starting a job search – and have not had as much reflection as I would have liked on just how extra-ordinary our adventure was.

As I recount to people what we’ve been up to for the past 7 months, the typical questions I get are: What were the highlights? What did you learn? Would you do it again?

Let me take them in reverse order:
Would you do it again?
Yes, and I think that after more reflection, therapy and a few more weeks of school lunches, the rest of the family will share this view. We set out to reconnect with our family, to rediscover the United States and to move our kids away from their affluent comfort zone. We definitely achieved all of these things.

One of the big challenges I’m realizing as we get back to “normal” is how hard it is these days to give kids the independence and freedom that I’d like to. If you want your kids to be good problem solvers they need problems to solve. I also think of it as the judgment paradox -- In general, you want your kids to develop good judgment. But, good judgment only comes out of challenging experiences and most challenging experiences usually occur after using bad judgment. It now seems clear that it was a lot easier to give the kids additional independence and responsibilities while we were on the road than it does in our Brookline, MA apartment. I’m hopeful, however, that we’re now much more aware of what Josh and Simon are capable of, and more willing to let them take risks than we were back in London.

Would did you learn?
I learned a lot about the country, our family and my idiosyncrasies over the seven months. In no particular order:

  1. Stuff is not very important - Most of the best times we had didn’t require any of the technology, gadgets or high-end housewares that we’ve surrounded ourselves with. Now that we’re in a three bedroom apartment, with mostly borrowed furniture, I’m ruing the day when our 500+ boxes come out of storage. Simon put it best, “compared to the RV, this apartment is like a mansion; our house in London was a palace.” Once again, everything is relative;

  2. Less is more… spend more time doing less – Most of the best and most rewarding parts of the trip were when we surprised ourselves by taking a detour. We loved having extra time to see local oddities like the Green Giant statue in Blue Earth, MN, and to discover interesting towns like Deadwood, SD and its fascinating historical museum. But, for some portions of the trip we had too inflexible a schedule that didn’t allow for the random discoveries that we came to cherish. Next time we’ll plan fewer stops and leave more time for random discoveries;

  3. Eating out tastes better when you do it less often – When you don’t do things very often they are a treat made us all appreciate those few times when we did go out (and it was definitely budget friendly);

  4. If you’re going to make your 12 year old son the trip CFO, don’t give him receipts that show the Christmas presents you bought – Making Josh the trip budget manager was a tremendous success in most ways, but Wendy and I quickly learned the need to have a small slush fund that bypassed the usual disclosure requirements;

  5. In this digital world, libraries are still relevant – I have come to appreciate public libraries even more than before. Most of the towns and cities we visited had thriving public libraries which are community hubs (not to mention free wifi hotspots and great places for us to homeschool the kids);

  6. Minor league baseball is an excellent and inexpensive family activity – As major league sports have become more and more expensive and less budget friendly, we had to find alternate forms of entertainment. All of us still talk of the Peoria Chiefs vs. Cedar Rapids Kernels game we saw last September, and we’re looking forward to lots more minor league ball in the Boston area this spring;

  7. An RV can never be too large – next time I’d go for the longer length over the enhanced maneuverability;

  8. Teachers rock; I’ve always admired the people who have chosen to spend their days surrounded by children and enjoy teaching them. I never realized just how hard it is to come up with meaningful lesson plans and bottomless amounts of patience until I tried home schooling. We were never ardent home-schooling zealots, and now after seeing how hard it is to teach your own kids I think we’ve become even more ardent supporters of regular schools.

What were the highlights?
There were so many “small moments” that were truly amazing and inspiring, far too numerous to mention here. In terms of the “larger” highlights, here are mine:

  • Coolest museum – EMP / Sci-Fi Hall of Fame in Seattle, although the San Jose Tech Museum was pretty cool;
  • Biggest adventure – Traveling over 1000 miles (including 18 hours by train) to see the Polar Bears and go dog sledding in Churchill, Manitoba. Definitely worth the effort;
  • Most varied natural beauty – Hawaii (but we had to go to three islands to see it all);
  • Best modern Presidential library – Clinton’s in Little Rock (not that I’m biased)
  • Most original kids place – The City Museum in St. Louis (it isn’t really a museum, its more of a post-apocalyptical play space)
  • Best civil war site – The Lincoln library in Springfield, IL had amazing historical information that was very accessible and user friendly;
  • Best hotel room – The YWCA cottage in Ke’anae, Maui was the most incredible room with a view we’ve ever stayed in;
  • Best National Park Experience – the photo safari Josh and I did in Yellowstone;
  • Most surprising National Park – Joshua Tree was way cooler than I’d expected and we all had a great time camping in it;
  • Best snowshoe hike – Along Crater Lake in October;
  • Best freebie – Big Bear ski area in California let me ski free on my Birthday;
  • Best charity shop – The Goldmine in Sun Valley, ID; we got a like-new waffle iron for $8, we got Josh & Simon skis and boot for less than $50 each,
  • Best sunrise – Atop Mt. Haleakala on Maui;
  • Best sunset – anywhere along the pacific ocean; there were several great ones we saw;
  • Most useful piece of technology – Paying Verizon $30 /month to let my Blackberry act as a 3G modem for all of our laptops. We were able to get online just about anywhere!
  • Best bike ride – The new multi-use path from Jenny Lake to Moose in Grand Teton National Park;
  • Best quirky attraction – Largest ball of twine in Cawker City, KS.

That’s it for my family adventure blog writing… I’d like to say thank you to my faithful audience (the two of you know who you are), and hope to stay in touch.

- 30 -

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Roadside food, Facebook & Travel Guides

While I love most of the foodie blogs I read, I never thought I’d be writing one. But somehow today I’ve been musing over an amazing meal I just had, the value of Facebook and how travel can still delight in unexpected ways…

Today’s story started back in December when we were visiting the Tech museum in San Jose with friends; or maybe it started back in 1980 when I first met my friend Steven S. (or I guess we could try to imply causality back to Adam & Eve or the big bang, but I’m not trying to stretch this posting out that much).

First, let me start with the amazing meal I just had. It was at Kalama’s a small shack by the side of the road off the beaten path near Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island of Hawaii. Josh and I had just finished a great afternoon of kayaking over to the Captain Cook memorial followed by some of the best snorkeling I’ve ever done (incredible numbers and diversity of fish). Did I mention that we saw a several spinner dolphins in the bay as we were kayaking across to the memorial? Suffice to say we were already in high spirits. Somehow I find that some of the best more memorable meals are based not only on the quality of the food but the context of the experience. I still remember an A&W root beer float I had thirty years ago while on a bike trip through Vermont. I doubt it was any different, or better than the many others I’ve had since, but somehow having earned it after a long day of cycling up hills imprinted it into my memory better than the others.

The sign for Kalama’s, from the road:


Back to Kalama’s. As a vegetarian, it’s often tough to find good diner or roadside food. I’ve had numerous bad chef salads (hold the ham & turkey), grilled cheese sandwiches, pasta from the kids menu, etc. So I wasn’t expecting too much when we pulled into Kalama’s (the person who recommended it said they served a great mushroom hamburger). Not only did they offer vegetarian burgers, but they suggested I try their ‘special’ – the Spinach Nori wrap. Here’s how it’s made – first they take a spinach tortilla and then put a piece of Nori (the dry seaweed used for sushi rolls) on top. Then they add brown rice, shredded cabbage, some wasabi aioli and your choice of meat (or in my case, strips of the vegetarian patty). It’s then rolled up and the result is truly scrumptious. It’s nice to know that in a world where I thought I’d seen most of the possible sandwich combinations, creative chefs are still coming up with innovative pairings. And, according to Josh, the mushroom, bacon, cheeseburger was also great.

Whiteboard menu with the Spinach nori wrap highlighted:



But, beyond the great entrĂ©e, the dessert of shaved ice was what helped make the meal blog-worthy and memorable. Shaved Ice, for those who haven’t been to Hawaii, is the local version of a sno-cone. Finely pulverized ice (with the consistency of fluffy snow) is put in a cup and then flavored syrup is poured on top (most places we’ve been include three flavors in a serving). Josh went with the mango-lime-root beer and I had a strawberry-lemon-root beer combo. I’m sure there are those in Hawaii who can differentiate between shaved ice vendors on a range of qualities. In my mind, they all use the same syrups (although some have more options than other) and similar machinery, so the only way to differentiate is on portion size or ambiance. Regardless, this was a great shaved ice and it was too large for me to finish (Josh was more than willing to help out).

Josh’s mango-lime-root beer shaved ice:


My strawberry-lemon-root beer shaved ice:


The shaved-ice menu:

[Note: a “snowcap” is when they put condensed milk on top.]

And, if the meal wasn’t enough on its own, there was an added surprise. When we asked to use the restroom, they apologized that they didn’t have one, but sent us up the street to the Kona Pacific Farmers Cooperative visitor’s center / salesroom. Not only did the coop have nice, clean restrooms, but they had a self-guided tour of coffee and tropical fruit trees and a tasting room where I sampled (and bought) some wonderful Kona coffee (and also bought some great dark chocolate covered Kona coffee beans and sampled chocolate- and sugar-coated macadamia nuts).

So how did we come to ask Peter from Ehu & Kai’s kayak rentals about a good place to eat? The best travel guidebooks I’ve ever used are a series that’s (unfortunately) limited only to Hawaii and published by Wizard Publications called Hawaii Revealed (they have one for each island). They’re everything I’ve ever wanted in a guidebook – good advice, unbiased views of places and restaurants to avoid, insightful writing that adds history and context to the areas, etc. Every one of their restaurant and beach reviews has been spot-on, and they provide great detail on how to explore some of the more out of the way places, which is how we found out about where to rent a kayak from to explore Kealakekua Bay – they mentioned Ehu & Kai’s and we called them up. Of course, when we got to the bay there was no store with an Ehu & Kai sign (there were no stores period) so I called the phone again and the nice person on the other end told me to meet him at the end of the parking lot – our kayak was ready. In any event, the kayaking was fun (thanks to the playful dolphins en route), the snorkeling superb and when we got back I asked Peter, our kayak impresario, where to get a bite to eat. Without hesitating he told me about Kalama’s, a mile up the Nap'opo'o road (not the road we had planned to take, but it wasn’t far out of our way).

So, once again, the Hawaii Revealed book guided us well. Of course, I didn’t figure out the need to bring Hawaii Revealed on my own… The book was recommended by Laura, the wife of friend Steven whom I saw last month for the first time in 25 years. That’s where Facebook gets credit. Several times over the past year, I’ve ended up connecting with people that I would not have linked-up with had it not been for the wonders (& perils) of Facebook. My first realization of the unique way that FB can connect people was back in March, while I was still living in London and a high school friend that I was facebooked to (and whom I learned was living in Italy) mentioned he’d be in town and we should have dinner. Without FB we never would have realized we were on the same continent let alone find a convenient way to communicate and plan a nice dinner (and, back to the food theme, I even discovered a great Thai restaurant in Kensington as a result of that rendez-vous). In early December, while visiting the super-cool Experience Music Project / Sci-Fi hall of fame I mentioned how impressed I was via my Facebook status, and a few hours later got a message from a former co-worker (based in Atlanta) saying that he was arriving in Seattle in the AM and could we get together for coffee (which we did).

Finally, the week before Christmas we were visiting San Jose’s Tech museum with a friend from college (and her family) and once again I noted in my Facebook status what a great museum it was (Josh and I especially liked the modified whack-a-mole game that was called whack-a-spam). I got a message from my friend Steven’s mother (who I’m also facebooked to, a story too long for even this extended post) reminding me that Steven lived in the area and Steven and I then arranged to meet up a few days later. When we did, I met his lovely wife Laura for the first time and, in talking about our trip, they mentioned that they had spent a lot of time in Maui. As we were picking their brains on things to do, Laura mentioned the Hawaii Revealed guidebook (and gave me her extra copy of the Maui edition) and told me what a great book it was. We promptly bought the Oahu and Big Island editions at the Borders in Union Square San Francisco and the rest, as they say, is history.

So, if you’re planning a trip to any of the Hawaiian islands, make sure you get one of their guidebooks. Here’s the link to the Wizard Publications Web site and here’s the Amazon.com link to their books.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Time for introspection

One of the more challenging aspects of the trip has been finding the balance between the adventures we want to have and the home schooling / chill out time that the family needs. Today is a great example. We’re only on the Big Island of Hawaii for four days and I want to fit in as many of the “must sees” as possible. Josh and Simon, on the other hand, are concerned that they’re falling behind in school (they’re not) and feel like we’ve been doing too much and want to hang out by the pool after a morning of school work. I would have preferred to spend the morning snorkeling, the afternoon kayaking and the evening watching lava flows, but instead we’ve spent the morning lazing around, and will do a swim in the afternoon before, hopefully, heading out to see the lava flowing at night.

Have I always wanted to fit in as much as possible and been disappointed when we don’t get it all done or am I trying to make up for lost time and have lots of adventures / unique experiences while I can?

Like most marriages, this trip has required a lot of compromise and patience. I have to keep reminding myself how lucky we are to be able to take time off from work to travel; to show the kids parts of the country we’ve never seen before; to learn more about each other than we had before (and lots of TMI moments). Instead of looking at all the places / hikes / museums we’ve had to skip, I should try to focus on all of the opportunities that we have taken advantage of. As Wendy always recommends, it’s better to focus on the positives, but sometimes I can’t help but think of all the lost opportunities, too.

When we started planning this trip I thought I would have lots of time for introspection, reading, blogging, etc. Instead I’m amazed at how quickly the time flies and how little we seem to get done / accomplish on some days. I wouldn’t do it much differently if I had the chance to do it over – I would get a larger RV, do more advance planning, spend more time in fewer places and a whole host of other things that I’ll need to write down in a future blog, but overall the experiences have been great. However, I never realized how much of our lives is taken up by the pedestrian – preparing meals, driving, planning cleaning, etc. Even in incredibly beautiful places like our rented condo by the beach in Hawaii, we still can’t seem to get the ratio of interesting / exciting / thrilling to have-to / boring/ everyday more than 20% to 80%. Maybe I need to take more joy in the mundane and/or learn to appreciate that I’ve climbed so high up Maslow’s pyramid that I can appreciate how narrow the top usually is; actually, I think Maslow simply defined it as a hierarchy, but when I look at the time spent on the foundational food / shelter / clothing / sleep / hygiene layers, a pyramid would have been more apt.

Nonetheless, some of the best parts of the trip have come at unexpected moments and not been part of a greater adventure -- like today’s coconut experience. This morning, Simon found a coconut on the ground near our condo. Simon has never liked coconut (or any other fruit or vegetable), but perhaps because this was something that he found, he was very keen to eat it. So, we (all four of us) then spent a substantial amount of time, individually and collectively, trying to get the coconut open. We used a screwdriver and hammer, we used rocks, we threw it on the stone patio. After 10 or 15 minutes of trying, we’d give up and go back to our other projects, only to have another one or two of us try again for an additional 20-30 minutes. Finally, four hours after the initial tries (and with about an hour and a half of cumulative effort), Josh dealt the splitting blow with a large lava rock that was lying nearby. It’s difficult to state just how delighted Simon was to actually eat something he had found. And it was great hearing Josh and Simon argue over who deserved more credit – the one who found the coconut or the one who split it open. And, although I’ve always believed in an “eat what you kill” policy when it comes to salesperson commissions, I’d never imagined the benefits of enacting it as part of family meal planning. Simon is now so excited about the free food that him and Josh have gone off on an adventure walk to find more!

Well, the dishes are piling up in the sink, Josh needs help with his schoolwork and Simon needs consoling about something – as they say, “another ho-hum day in paradise.”

Aloha.

PS – A few readers have asked why I don’t blog more?

I don’t mean to whine but while Josh, Simon and Wendy are writing their weekly (or more often) blogs, someone has to maintain the Web site, upload all the photos, do the route planning and a number of other chores aimed at preventing our adventure from disintegrating into chaos. If you haven’t had a chance to check out the photos yet, I think there are lots of good ones. They’re neatly divided into albums by date / location and are accessible at www.flickr.com/photos/familyadventure and, they’re all geo-coded in case you want to view them on a map.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

What were we thinking?

First, if anyone has any suggestions on restaurants and any "must sees" in Honolulu, the Big Island (near Volcano), and Maui (Kihei) please send them ASAP -- we fly from Phoenix to Oahu tomorrow for 16 days.

Now, to the blog at hand.

What were we thinking? That's the question that has been coming back to me several times as I've been scavenging through all of our possessions for the past few hours. I don't know if there's a word similar to anthropomorphise for ascribing house-like qualities to a vehicle, but that's what we've done with haRVey / The Big Pig over the past several months. We've given names to the various sections / areas (the attic, the master bedroom, the kitchen, the dining room, the play room, the basement, etc.) as if it were a real house and not 220 sq. ft of living space. The basement is the large underneath storage area where we keep most of the things that we don't immediately need -- bike helmets, ski equipment, clothing that Josh has grown out of (but which we want to save for Simon), etc. And I've spent a good portion of the past few hours unpacking and repacking the basement.

As we get ready to head off to Hawaii, not having found a way to take the RV with us, we have to actually pack! After traveling around for the past six months with everything we need (from bathing suits to ski outfits) it's a bit of a challenge winnowing down what we'll need to bring. And it's also eye opening to be re-exposed to all of the stuff we've taken with us. Traveling around with equipment for all seasons can be trying at times. But, while we've used our ski equipment (twice in fact), there's plenty of other stuff that I've only come into contact a few times on this trip -- when unpacking or repacking the basement -- thus raising the "what were we thinking" question.

Baseball bats, mitts and balls -- yes our first stop was the baseball hall of fame, but how a family of four with fairly bad hand-eye coordination ever thought it would be playing multiple pick-up games around the country is beyond me. On the other hand, the ski poles which were lying on top of the baseball stuff came in handy as we hiked down the icy trails of the Grand Canyon.

Then there is all the camping equipment -- tents, sleeping bags, etc. These were conveniently stored in our large blue suitcase, which we have yet to open until today (we need the suitcase for Hawaii, not the camping equipment). It reminds me of the romantic notions we had of the RV / campground lifestyle, pitching our tents next to the RV on warm nights for a change of pace -- this has not yet happened, and probably won't so we've lugged around more stuff that will never get used. Then there's the folding picnic table that we've never used, but that came with the RV so I shouldn't complain.

Beneath the camping equipment I've found the bag of clothing Josh has outgrown and stuck inside that the snorkels and masks (which we haven't used yet, but hope to on the islands). I'm also thankful that we've packed our inflatable inner tubes that the kids use on the lake in the summer. When we left Vermont in August we had visions of many more swimming opportunities than we've taken advantage of, but the likelihood of our inflating the pool toys is finally looking up

And then there's the stuff I didn't bring that I should have; since we didn't know we'd be going to Hawaii, I didn't think to bring reef shoes (or whatever you call those rubber things you can put on your feet and swim with). Luckily, all diving equipment is 1/2 off at Dick's this time of year (for a desert city, the Scuba departments in the Phoenix sporting goods stores are remarkably well-equipped), so they're only $8/pair. Of course as I'm in the checkout line buying them I'm hoping that we'll have occasion to actually use them and that I won't be tossing them into a suitcase a few weeks from now wondering "what was I thinking?"
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Here's a picture of me unpacking the basement a few months ago -- things looked a little different when I did it in a parking lot in Scottsdale today (less snow, and no table to pile everything on).


Wednesday, 20 January 2010

A year ago today...

I was standing on the steps of the Capital watching President Obama getting sworn in;
I was optimistic about the political change that would soon be sweeping the country;
I was living in a large house in London, England;
I was gainfully employed, and financially well-off;
Our two boys attended a wonderful private school in London;

Now I’m writing this from a public library (free Internet access) in Scottsdale, AZ, chagrined by the Massachusetts Senate race (but still happy with the changed political climate and what Obama has accomplished in 12 months);
I’m living in an RV with 1/10th the space of our former home and most of our worldly possessions are sitting in a storage facility in Massachusetts (the state I will have to return to, if only to work to elect someone much better than the current Senator-elect in 2012);
I’m unemployed (happily so, at the moment) but daunted at the prospect of finding a new job in the still weak economy and concerned about what happens when the severance payment runs out;
Our two boys are now home schooled, missing their friends from London, but learning a lot on our extended road trip.

Never doubt the difference a year (or less) can make; take advantage of opportunities as they come along and never forget how fleeting time and fortune are. And, try not to look back…

By the way, as depressed as I am by the election results, I’m still bullish on life and our country (although not the 2 million MA voters who stayed home yesterday).

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Slack Season / Avoiding Tourist Traps

I just received a link from a FaceBook friend (a travel writer) running a contest asking "What's your best strategy for avoiding tourist traps and finding the authentic hidden-gem spots that only the locals seem to know about?" As I started pondering this (and considered recommending my sister-in-law’s web site www.tripsketch.com which is fabulous for finding what-to-do in a city), I realized that a huge part of avoiding the “tourist” thing is not where you go but when you go… I’ve always found the best time to visit most places is when it’s not “high” season. We just spent three weeks in Sun Valley, ID during what they call “slack” season – the time after Labor Day when people are afraid it’s too cold to go hiking, swimming and fishing (it wasn’t) and before there’s enough snow for skiing. And, not only did we feel more like locals than tourists (because we weren’t surrounded by tourists, and everyone spent more time chatting with us) but we saved money and had some memorable experiences that wouldn’t have happened amidst hundreds of other tourists – we were the only people walking along the snow-covered shore of Redfish Lake, we were able to read, without interruption, from “The Old Man and the Sea” while sitting at Hemingway’s gravesite, we got great deals at the local thrift shop (thrift stores in wealthy, resort communities almost always contain amazing bargains and would never be considered tourist traps). Many of the restaurants had “locals” specials so we were even able to eat out a few times without busting our budget.

Even better than visiting resort communities in the “off” seasons are visiting national parks outside of the peak season (which is almost always during the summer). Instead of jostling with the 500 people a day that clog the rim road around Crater Lake National Park, Oregon, our snowshoe tracks were the only evidence of visitation along the road (which closes to cars after the first heavy snowfall) on a recent sunny November afternoon. Visiting parks during the off season our kids, working through each park’s Junior Ranger packet, get as much attention and help as they wanted from real park rangers who are always happy to answer their questions and bestow numerous pearls of wisdom. On a weekday in late September (after Labor Day, but when the weather is still wonderful and the trees are starting to turn) we were the only people on a ranger-led hike through Rocky Mountain National park; having a naturalist as our family’s private guide was certainly a highlight of the visit to the park.

Even certified tourist traps can have their charm out of season. A few weeks ago we called up the Shoshone Ice Caves in Idaho, to find out when they were open, and Fred, the man who runs the cave explained they were closed for the winter but he’d be happy to give us a tour if we paid the summer prices. When we got there, he had opened up the store for us and gave us a personal tour. Fred’s family has been running the Ice Caves for the past 54 years, so having him guide us through cave and answer our questions, while slowing down the pace for our tired 7-year old, was well worth the $30 entrance fee. Of course, we couldn’t resist taking a family picture in front of the 30-foot tall dinosaur, and we were proud that both kids realized that the statue of the caveman riding on the dinosaur was historically inaccurate.

Avoiding tourist traps is not just about going places in the off-season; it’s also about not being a “tourist.” Traveling on a tight budget helps. While we were driving across South Dakota on I-80 it was pretty easy to pass up the overly commercialized pioneer/mining/ghost town re-creations that had admissions fees. On the other hand, we’ve been to Wall Drug twice in the past few months (an enterprise that would probably top most people’s list of certifiable tourist traps), and we had a blast both times. Not only did we enjoy the $.05 coffee (which is a better deal than almost any other place in the world), but we used the whole Hustead family story (how Wall Drug started out in the ‘30s by advertising free ice water to get tourists to stop in) as an opportunity to teach the kids about entrepreneurship. And, both kids loved having their photos taken on the giant Jack-a-lope. As long as you don’t spend money like a tourist, and instead spend time to discover what’s below the surface (and at Wall Drug, there’s a lot to look at), then you’ve avoided the trap and found the gem.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Learning moments / People along the way

My favorite Mark Twain quote is “never let school get in the way of your education,” and that has been one of the driving forces in how Wendy and I have tried to envision and steer our adventure. It’s not that Josh and Simon have had bad school experiences -- on the contrary they’ve been blessed with amazing teachers and schools with abundant resources. However, we wanted to ensure that Josh and Simon were also grounded in reality and this trip has been wonderful for that.

There was a great NY Times (I think) article that talked about how the times that people remember best from vacations (and probably other aspects of their lives) are when things don’t go according to plan. Wendy and I will always remember our trip to Costa Rica when our tent was almost washed away (with us in it) while camping alongside the Pacuare river; and how everyone but Simon picked up an intestinal bug in Delhi; and having to walk when the Tube was on strike / broken down in London.

One of our goals for this trip has been for Josh and Simon (and, truth be told, me and Wendy) to learn from various friends, families and strangers along the way; for us to see people living rich and rewarding lives in vastly different circumstances from what we were used to in London and for us to also learn and appreciate from the bad and ugly that we encounter as well.

As the saying goes, “be careful what you wish for…” Below are some vignettes of “learning moments” that we’ve had throughout out trek

On the overnight train to Churchill, Manitoba, Josh and I were sleeping next to each other when we were rudely awakened by a very drunk man who leaned over into our faces to warn us about the impending end of the world in 2012. Happily, we had just pulled into his station (it was around 2am) and he disembarked without further incident (at least for us) but it left me and Josh shaken. The next day, Josh was so irate he wanted to call Canada Rail to demand they stop serving alcohol on their trains. The “learning moment” bell went off inside my head and I suggested he send an email to their customer service department. Josh’s email (and the wholly inadequate response) were posted on his blog a few weeks back. Would I ever choose to put my son in front of a rowdy alcoholic on a train? Of course not. Do I think that he will always remember and has learned from the experience? Absolutely.

As we were crossing back into the US from Canada, just south of Winnipeg, the US Border Patrol agent was asking us a lot of questions (we’ve learned to answer Vermont when officials ask “where are your from?” because the full answer is to confusing). And we told him about the trip, how we had been up to Churchill to see the polar bears, etc. Wendy asked him, “have you ever been as far North as Churchill,” to which he responded, “I’ve never been to Canada and I don’t have any plans to go.” Now that was a response that just floored all of us. I didn’t even have to get out the dictionary to explain to Simon the meaning of insular. Here was a perfectly normal-seeming man, working every day on the US-Canadian border, who never had visited (and wasn’t even curious / interested in visiting) the land 10 feet from his post. The good news, from a “learning moment” perspective is that we didn’t have to explain to Josh and Simon that this was unusual. They know plenty of wonderful government employees (starting with Uncle Rick) and citizens who are not narrow-minded and who appreciate the diversity and excitement that the broader world has to offer. Still, it helped remind us, even 9 months into the Obama administration, that there are isolationist elements within the US and not everyone shares our sense of adventure. This trip is also giving Josh and Simon much better insight into the different cultures, regions and styles across our country and I think they’re beginning to appreciate how people living in small towns can be adventurous and worldly and people who are in big cities (or on border posts, or ex-presidents) can be limited by blinders.

Of course, there have been an overwhelming number of positive experiences and role models as well. Last night, as we walked into a Japanese restaurant and sat at the sushi bar (it was Josh’s turn to pick the restaurant meal that we treat ourselves to each week) Josh asked loudly, “can I please have a root beer?” The sushi chef said, “root beer goes very well with Sushi” and gained a new friend / admirer rapidly. Of course, this was not your stereotypical sushi chef, and none of us had ever met an Idaho-native sushi chef with red hair (another one of our goals during the trip is to find some red-headed adults for Josh & Simon to meet), but the sushi was excellent and we had a great conversation with him about how a ski racer from Idaho ends up learning how to prepare sushi in France before ending up back in Sun Valley.

Another great stranger that we met along the way was Betty, our photography teacher/guide in Yellowstone park. Betty is a professional photographer who spends the winters traveling in her motor home and the summers at Yellowstone guiding photo safaris. She gave Josh and I some excellent pointers on how to improve our photo taking, and also helped teach us a tremendous amount about Yellowstone during the course of our six hours together.

I could wax on about all of the other strangers (or “unmet friends”) we have met along the way who have enriched our lives, especially all the National Park Service rangers who have taught us, guided us and inspired us, but I should probably leave that for the subject of another blog.