Patty’s Essay on Greece
AH! Greece… put it at the top of your list. Why go anywhere else? And that is spoken from a crazy lady that just visited 14 countries. Our trip has been paced perfectly. We left a very short stay in China. (Read my website entry on China) and 3 months of Asia and were SO HAPPY to go to Greece and relax… perfect season, not too many tourists, perfect weather (cool and breezy and hot in midday for swimming), perfect food, Yum! – ripe tomatoes, fresh feta with a sprinkling of oregano, Greek olives, crispy cucumbers, and olive oil (and, of course, I always order French fries to top it off – I like to take a fry and scoop up the little bits of feta crumbs in olive oil!) A little glass of local wine…. maybe we won’t come home. Oh, and I forgot the view! We are hanging off a cliff in Santorini in a little darling apartment which we are eager to call ‘home’… private terrace, loft, kitchen – all white stucco with stone and bright blue trim … gazing out at that color turquoise that only the Mediterranean possesses. We are actually looking out on a caldera and cliffs of an old volcano (that the books do say could explode anytime again but no one seems to care so… neither do I!) The kids are happy. What a great place to do home schooling.
When we first arrived in Santorini, we almost didn’t stay! I had chosen this particular island because it is supposed to be one of the most dramatic islands of Greece· and it truly is! Arriving by ferry you see high straight cliffs of red and black lava rock with bright white square abodes hanging on top of the ridges with an occasional blue domed church. I like BIG dramatic landscapes and we had found it here. We were very excited to finally arrive on an “island”. For the Simon family, islands have proven to be heaven· solitude, quiet, natural beauty and lots of water. There is something about feeling like you can “possess” the entire space and know every person and place on it. It feels safer for children. We found this feeling in Cayo Cochina in Honduras, Miyajima Island in Japan and we were aching to find it again. Asia was fascinating but not a place to relax. Even though Dick and I enjoyed finding all the gorgeous, sophisticated, gourmet places, etc. we both found something was missing! Where was the traditional Greece culture that Dick and I remember so fondly 15 years ago! I have noticed that these 15-year-old memories seem to get us into a lot of trouble in a lot of countries! We were strolling down the lane and all of a sudden I said to Dick, “Look, there is a little old lady… doesn’t she look Greek!” Dick said, “There is something wrong when you are in a country and most of the people are tourists or transplants, not real local people!” Occasionally we would find those very old Greek characters with weather-beaten skin and we felt it was almost like they were hired by Disneyworld to sit in Santorini to make the “tourist” picture complete! So, we went into the travel bureaus and asked them for the ferry schedules for the tiniest island we could find called Sykinos. We laughed when all the locals asked, “Why, would you go there when you are in Santorini!” We secretly knew that was probably the destination for us.
But, today, my birthday, we are still waking up to this gorgeous view from Santorini! It has been 10 days and we just cannot leave· not yet! Each day, we decide to stay longer, finding that we need to rest, to stay in one place, to get away from any traditional culture· to just ‘be’!
Patty’s Essay on China
I just had to write about our very, very short stay in China· as I had many expectations about returning to this enormous land – one that had so captured my soul 15 years ago! I remember when Dick and I were planning this trip for our family· I had said, “We just have to go to China· after all the kids have eaten Chinese food from birth and the Great Wall – one of the wonders of the world – is there. Also, I had had a love affair with China in the month we traveled all over the place and Tibet. I will never forget the sunny clear day in Yangshuo, close to the southern city of Guilin, when Dale, Dick and I happened to follow a little boy with his straw ha down a path. He was carrying the typical bamboo pole over the shoulder balancing bamboo containers of fermenting rice wine. We were walking in that beautiful, rice-paddy lowland surrounded by small villages and the lunar outcroppings of cliff like rocks that are painted on so many Chinese scrolls. When we had followed him all the way to his small village, he didn’t want to get in trouble for bringing ‘gaijin’ (another word for ‘foreigner’ which comes from the book I am now reading – James Cleavell’s epic novel of Asia) home with him so he abruptly shooed us away. I will never forget that little adventure in the countryside.
As Dick and I continued to close in on the itinerary, he kept suggesting shortening our time there. He said, time and time again, “Patty, I know you, you are going to be very disappointed! China has really changed.” I kept saying that in a country so big, surely we would find someplace like before. Well, Dick went to a good friend’s wedding last summer and although he had a wonderful time, he came back shaking his head at me and said, “Patty, there are electronic billboards in Xian (the famous city of the buried soldiers and horses). You won’t like it.”
As it turned out, we ran out of time to commit a long period of time there. We had been to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, India, Nepal, Bhutan and Japan before our planning took us to China and we had already spent over 3 months in Asia so psychologically we were ready to go to Europe or Africa. We made a very big mistake and ended up in Beijing on a local holiday that lasted for the whole week we were there.
So, what happened?
We left Tokyo to fly directly into Beijing. I was very excited to see the differences that 15 years will do to a developing country and I brought my past memories with me as well as the excitement of showing this country off to my children. Dick just stayed quiet and watched!
We arrive at a brand new, 3 month old airport. Wow! Amazing architecture. You felt like you could be in any cosmopolitan city· so modern, so clean! We get in a taxi and I am blown away by the old mixed with the new· people (now all in western-styled clothes) still riding bicycles which used to be the only transportation of the locals but now there are lots and lots of cars on major freeways complete with electronic signage and billboards galore. Next, I see high-rise buildings everywhere· lots of modern! I was quite impressed. Our hotel was just like one in Los Angelos we stayed in so the kids were quite happy.
But the next morning proved to be a comedic nightmare! It started innocently enough. We walk down the 5th Avenue of the city looking for all the ‘cheap’ toys Dick had promised the kids· ‘BeastWars’ for Alex, ‘Beanie Babies’ for Katie, more ‘Plastic Army Soldiers’ for Ben. After all, isn’t everything made in China and sold for less! (This would prove to be Dick’s nightmare at the end!) We see fancy department stores and hoards of locals hanging out and shopping just like Americans who go shopping on Saturdays at all the shopping malls. The prices are not cheap and we find ourselves saying, “We could get this cheaper in Chinatown in Boston”. The kids beg to go in a bike-rickshaw so even though Dick negotiates a price feeling like he is overpaying – he says, ‘What the heck!” As we go to the Forbidden City, I am trying to entice the kid’s imaginations with images from the movie, “The Last Emperor”. We get there only to find out that at least a million Chinese think it is a good idea to also visit there on holiday – the lines to get tickets so long, we instantly shake our heads and want to leave, sad that we cannot get into such an amazing place. Another rickshaw makes us a deal for 40 Yuan to only go to Tienaman Square. We know we are overpaying this time but it has gotten hot and we are trying to salvage a day that is going downhill fast so we continue! It is truly amazing to watch these men veering through all the traffic and jams and fast cars and pedestrians. We arrive and are totally enraged by the rickshaw puller trying to charge us double the already ridiculous price. He is asking for 80 (our taxi at the end of the day for a farther distance is 12!) so Dick has a stand off and I try to get a policeman.
Dick did win but was in such an awful mood. As we are trying to walk in Tienamen Square· whispering to the kids the story of Mao and the massacre of students and why both occurred, we are put off once again!!! All day, every 10 seconds, if we ever tried to stop to look at a map or a store window, etc., we noticed that Chinese people would nicely come up and ask us if they could take pictures of our children. Now, don’t get us wrong, it was very poignant that strangers would like to take the kids pictures but on the tenth pose, they were getting a little weary and wondering what they heck was going on. We always remembered we were wearing our “Ambassador” hats so we always tried to accommodate with a smile but it got to the point if Dick stopped to change film, I would yell at him, “Don’t stop They will find us!” (and sure enough, they always did!)
I knew we were in trouble when every major tourist sight was so packed we could not get in, it was very hot and crowded in the shops and Katie turns to me and says, “Mom, if it is alright with you, I’ll just buy my souvenirs at our hotel! (We have always told the kids that the souvenir shops in the hotels are always the most expensive but our energy just would not get us to the markets!).
By the end of a very crazy, unproductive day, we knew we needed to get out of the city, so we decided on the ‘Great Wall of China’! We even chose a part of the wall that was 3 hours away and hopefully would not be as crowded! We hired a driver and set off· only to come up against another obstacle!
First of all, it felt great to see the suburbs and a little countryside outside Beijing. The smoggy haze is incredible but no different than other developing countries we have seen. It was also impressive to see all the building and enterprise going on all around us. We start driving into hilly country where one can see a lot of reforestation trying to occur. All of a sudden, I exclaimed, “Look, kids, at the ridge!” and there was our first glimpse of the wall and its guardhouses. You cannot help but be impressed! The kids get excited and as we arrive, Dick and I are so happy to have picked this particular spot because there is very little ‘tourist trap’ activity and the sight is beautiful. We get our tickets and start down the path. A woman and a young man asking us to take the path up instead of the cable car approach us. We decide to go on the cable car and say goodbye. The cable car got us halfway up the hill to get to the wall and when we got up there we noticed that those 2 people had walked up and met us. How strange? We still don’t notice the bags under their arms and continue on our way. But, they are really staying with us and making polite conversation. After our experience of the day before with everyone stopping us, I stop and very assertively (Dick said he was even impressed!) tell them that we do not want to be escorted or sold anything and we would really like to experience this wonderful place with just our family! How much more direct can you get? But, they do not stop and continue to follow us trying to make conversation or helping the kids down the steep parts. I am so mad and do not want to be rude so we try to ignore them and keep going. The wall itself was incredible and very steep. It is wide enough for 2 horses to go on side by side. The amount of hard labor it took to build the 1000’s miles of wall and to think that just 10 vertical feet of wall was enough to keeps out the Mongols and other enemies from invading this great land. The views were so beautiful and we picked a cool part of the day. We climbed for a few hours and at the end of the trek our unwanted companions start hard selling books and postcards. Even though we felt really bad, we said no thank you and they finally left after investing almost 3 hours of their time and climbing and walking all that way. Our adventure ended with the kids finding and catching (and throwing back!) hundreds of tadpoles in a stream.
We end the day by eating a Chinese food feast in our hotel and buying the souvenirs we wanted to get before we left! The kids did find Beanie Babies for $1.50. So, how did I feel to come back to China?
First, I admitted to Dick that he was right· China had changed in all the ways that are not my favorites as a traveler. But, I am very glad we went and even though I would have loved to see the traditional China of years gone by, I felt happy for all these people progressing in a world where everyone else is developing onward. It is like watching your own children grow up. Some changes you like and some you don’t, but you have to respect the fact that they are trying to become a better entity. And besides, I will always have my memories· the best part of traveling!!!
Patty’s Essay on the Nepal Family Trek
It has taken several weeks of “recovery’ to finally get restored enough in my mind to write my innermost thought about what the “Trek” meant to me because I started in with a full blown-out sinus/lung infection and as I was doing it – I literally felt I was psychologically hanging on for dear life. But, woven inside the days, were wonderful insights into myself and my family and my husband. Many of the things only felt because I had been sick and had to let myself only concentrate on each day and not be so much a mother or a wife but only a person who had a daunting task ahead that only myself could accomplish.
I say this because this trek really explains some of the differences between Dick and I. Dick really likes to compete with his physical self. I find it mostly intimidating. He likes to strain and work and sweat and work harder because than he feels like he has accomplished something. I do not. I only find the strain only gets into the way of the really enjoyable part of a hike which is simply just to be and take in what is around you at the moment. In the past, every step UP would be met with cussing and disgust· I would soon learn that the UP brought incredible self-satisfaction. I have the kids to thank for this.
In the course of raising the kids, Dick and I have always pushed the limits on what kind of outdoor activity we would embark on. We would gladly haul huge ‘condo’ tents and portable baby beds to camp with 3 children. We would hike 3 miles in Yellowstone and it would take us over 8 hours, sometimes having to stop in the middle of the path to ‘take a nap’ for 2 hours. But, even then, the “slower pace” brought us such delights. Once, as I was waiting for Katie to wake up at the age of 2, I was able, in the stillness, to spy a Mountain Bluebird making a nest in a burnt out tree. I watched for an hour each twig being put in its proper place. It was as if I was watching a National Geographic special. Every adult knows that when you slow down, you see more· so why don’t we all do it? As we hiked, our kids loved to find each unusual insect, butterfly, plant and sometimes we would just stop and sit and make stick teepees and rock houses. In the early years, I secretly decided that our children’s pace was the pace I really liked and enjoyed.
I always giggle when I think of some of our parent friends who each year would hear of our adventures and would say, “Maybe, next year when the kids get older, we will go camping!” (With all due respect, I feel the same way about down-hill skiing· the thought of taking 3 young children and fight putting on all the ski clothes and equipment, only to have your child say “Mom, I have to go to the bathroom!” sounds like a nightmare to me. But, I say all this because for us· the Nepal 10-day trek was a BIG undertaking, even for the Simon family, and was a lot especially when you consider that we had already been traveling for 4 months and had just recovered from traveling in India and Bhutan.
But, Dick and I just could not leave Nepal (a second time) without trekking. After all, isn’t that the real reason one goes to Nepal· this really hit home when we kept meeting ‘young’ 20 year old backpackers and felt very ‘old’ walking around Kathmandu as 46 year old PARENTS!
I am happy to say that in retrospect, we made some very good decisions that really helped the odds for success. Ten days is a long time to hike and camp much less adding elevation gain in the real Himalayas!
We had learned our lesson in Bhutan because in one day we had climbed from 2200 meters to 3700 meters in 5 and half hours· too high, too fast. We went from evergreen forests to snowfields at the top where we camped in tents alongside a mystical Buddhist monastery. We loved it but that night Katie got altitude sickness· nausea, headache, throwing up – she was pretty miserable. We did not want to repeat this scenario in Nepal so Dick and I decided on a few things:
1) We would choose a lower elevation gain, which was hard to do because the macho side of you wants to do the more glamorous Annapurna range! We chose the Langtang range in the Kathmandu Valley.
2) We decided to use a trekking company and have guides, cooks and Sherpa – camping instead of eating and sleeping in the lovely teahouses along the way. We did this to stay more in control of what we ate and how it was prepared – we did not want to get sick.
3) We took a five-day trek and turned it into a 10 to 12 day trek · doing approximately half the distance of a normal hiker would do in a day and also a day or so just to stop and rest!
4) We chose a trekking route that made it possible for Dick to continue into a higher elevation and have a little adventure of his own. I gladly stayed with the kids and we hiked down to our favorite campsite where we spent 2 nights and just played and relaxed. Dick made it down and met us. This was perfect for everyone.
It all paid off for we completed the trek and had some magical moments besides.
As I have written many friends, “Let’s face it, the Simon family is happiest when they are the dirtiest!” By this I mean, the kids like to play mostly with rocks, dirt, sticks and water.
We started by van from Kathmandu and were told it would take 4 to 6 hours to travel 200 km to Dunche to meet up with our trekking crew. It felt so good leaving the ‘city’ with its hazy air and too many people and going along beautiful terraced rice fields with red rhododendrons blooming and waterfalls falling. My soul really is happiest out in the rural farmland so I was happy to be on our way. Midway, we leave asphalt and our van bumps along on a road, I thought, was under construction. I remember thinking to myself, “Oh, they must be working on the road for half a mile!” But, little did I know, that the half a mile was the rest of the trip and the drive went from bad to worse· jolting along incredibly scenic but scary twisty-turny steep hairpin turns with evidence of rockslides everywhere and signs which warned, “Stop, Look for Landslides, than Go using extreme caution!!!” We had given Katie children’s Dramamine and put her in the front seat so she seemed all right. But, poor little Ben was in the very back seat with me and before I knew anything was wrong, Ben proceeds to throw up all over the backseat and himself. That was how bad it was. Well, we unpack some clean clothes, clean him up the best we could and also checked to see if our bags were still ‘securely fastened’ to the top of the van. We prayed we would get to our destination sooner than later. Let’s just say by the time we got to our first stop for camping, we were very ready to get out of the car for 10 days and willing to do as much walking as needed. It would be a pleasure!
We were greeted by our whole trekking crew· our tents were pitched – even our private toilet tent! Warm washing water with soap and towel was available to wash up with. The table was set – flowered tablecloth and all – and tea with cookies was served! We liked this already! After a delicious dinner of soup, fresh vegetables, curried potatoes and homemade spring rolls with fresh fruit and tea for dessert, we turned in early. We found ‘double-padded’ sleeping bags waiting for us – really comfortable and I made a mental note to add this to our camping supplies at home. The food was really delicious for every meal and I was amazed what the cook could make under camping ‘circumstance’. One night our dessert was a homemade apple pie and another night, we were presented with a chocolate cake – decorated with icing and all! The cook had an ingenious way of ‘baking’ on a propane stove· he took two pans and put chunks of raw potato in the bottom of the larger one and set the smaller on top of the potatoes that kept the pan suspended and only absorbing heat all around it. He was able to make a vegetable pizza for our American taste buds! The big joke at mealtime was supplying Ben with peanut butter and hot chocolate, Alex with the traditional Nepalese ‘dal baht’ – rice with lentils (which is what all the crew ate twice a day. They loved the fact that Alex preferred the local cuisine). And Katie would try to steal all the dried sausage off our plates at lunchtime.
Everyday our routine was waking and hiking for 3 to 4 hours and than having the rest of the day to play and relax and explore the new village we would arrive in. One day, the kids all decided that they felt like they were ‘going’ too much so we took the morning off and hung out and did our hiking that afternoon. (It is good to be as flexible as you can be. The change really helped us continue.) The first five days were basically hiking UP – so UP that when we went DOWN – we could not believe we went UP that steeply – especially three children, ages 6, 8 and 10. What was the secret? First, we go the kids pace of walking so they never feel like they are running to ‘keep up’ with the grown-ups. We take a lot of rest stops. What really keeps them going is getting them involved in telling stories. Ben would pair up with Dick and tell stories of James Bond or his army guys. Katie would make up very detailed stories about fantasy animals· what they wear, eat, give each other for birthdays, etc. These stories could last for hours. Alex would tell us about books he has read and particularly liked or tell us how he would design his own computer games.
This really saved me and kept me going when I was sick. It was so touching for me to know that the kids knew I did not feel good and so they helped me with their stories, each step of the way. Other fun activities were collecting special rocks, gathering wildflower bouquets, spying tadpoles in a pond, finding colorful exotic butterflies and monkeys· even a lone stray deer drinking from the river or just taking in the incredible majestic views of the snowy mountains all around us. At a river, there were huge boulder that the kids had a great time making forts, building stepping stone bridges and playing spy by jumping from rock to rock and hiding. At one site we were able to watch a local man splitting bamboo and making mat walls. Another village all came out to watch a villager saddle and break a wild horse.
But, the biggest hit on the trek for the kids turned out to be a nightly ritual of building their own campfire. It was like watching ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’· Ben made a tiny fire, Katie made a medium sized fire and Alex made a great big fire. We did give them all the parental warnings of getting burned and smoky eyes, but it was so much fun watching the delight in the eyes of creating something of their own. Every day they would look forward to creating another fire, adding embellishments like Alex’s stone smokehouse where he would bake his mudpies.
The trek proved to be the best place for our children to get to know ‘up close and personal’ the local children that lived in these little remote villages. There are not many children who are trekkers so sometimes when we would enter a village, a whole school of kids would come running out to greet us. The best way to bridge the language barrier was to share the few toys and books we had brought with us. Alex played soccer, Ben shared his little plastic army soldiers and Katie created little homes with rocks and sticks for little plastic bears she had brought. One day, Ben found himself surrounded by very excited children anxiously looking at each page of a ‘Star Wars’ book. Afterwards, we would talk to our kids about the fact that in many cultures, children have a lot of fun without too many toys of any kind. It was food for thought especially as images of ‘Toys R Us’ come to mind. One of my favorite times centered around a little two year old girl that curiously would come up to Ben and watch him make his fire. Then she turned and came up to Katie and touched her cheek and than giggle with delight. She was like a little mynah bird and very quickly learned the song “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” from Alex.
As we got used to our routine and knew what each day would be like, we soon relaxed and enjoyed. We met lots of young trekkers along the way and one of the most gratifying moments was when a ‘young’ hiker would compliment us on attempting this hike with our 3 children. They said it was so encouraging to see a family trek and they hoped that someday they could do the same.
We felt so good, so happy, and so proud of ourselves on Day 10 to walk into our last campsite. To celebrate, our cook bought a LIVE chicken from the locals to turn it into Chicken Curry. We handed out a deck of playing cards to each Sherpa and guide as these seemed to be the big hit. They were always borrowing our cards to play card games late into each night. It was sad to say goodbye to everyone who had made this a fantastic family memory that we will always keep with us.