I’ve been wanting to attend a Day of the Dead Festival for ages, and now that we live in California we are close to a huge one– Dia de Los Muertos at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. The Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday that celebrates and honors the lives of loved ones who have died. Elaborate altars (ofrendas) are erected to aid in the spiritual journey of the departed. The kids had watched the movie The Book of Life countless times, especially Flynn, and were excited for weeks.
The festival takes place in Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Santa Monica Blvd, within site of the hollywood sign. We had to park 15 minutes away, but when we made it to the entrance we were greeted by a feast for the eyes. Amazing decorations, whirling feathered Aztec dancers, and crowds of people in colorful costumes with calavera, or decorative skull makeup.
Near the entrance were face painting booths. The kids all got their’s done at a booth set up for little ones and I opted for the professional quality airbrush stand. It took about a half an hour and was amazing! I was so impressed with their work and because it was airbrush it didn’t smear for the whole day. They also had many different arts and crafts for the children to work on.
We followed the path around the cemetery and spent some time admiring the colorful and elaborate altars that people had created for their departed loved ones. Skeletons, old photos, marigolds, food offerings were all present at most of the altars, and family members took great pains to add details that represent their personalities and interests. There were over 200 in total. Because it was Hollywood, some were for the more well known residents of the cemetery, like Shel Silverstein and Johnny Ramone. Some were over the top and exotic, and some were smaller and modest…but all of the altars were touching and beautiful in their own ways.
We took a break for some bean and cheese papusas and margaritas (mango juice for the little ones) and sat on a big lawn people watching and listening to the excellent live music. Afterwards, more altars and a stand where people could stop draw and write messages to the departed with inky black paint on a long canvas. After a stroll through the main cemetery, we checked out the chapel and all of the elaborate paintings within. Just as the sun dipped down and dusk settled, the crowd and the energy picked up and it was time for us to leave. If we had been child-free, I’m sure the night would have been a really fun time to dance and party with the crazy crowds, but since we were with the kids we left at the perfect time! Heading out, I looked at their paint smudged, tired happy faces and vowed we would be back next year:)
This week Skye and I visited the annual North Carolina State Fair near Raleigh, NC. We had a really fun day. The weather was sunny and crisply cool and the leaves were turning red and orange. Skye got to milk a cow, drive a tractor, and learn about different types of soil and sediment layers found in the state. She would tell you her favorite part was winning an enormous plush wolf in one of the carnival games “Wolfie”.
For me, the most notable part of the day was the food. I was happy to find the staples of southern fairs to eat…corn dogs on a stick, fried dough, and hot buttered corn. To me, those are a crazy, once-in-a-while departure from our regular diet, but they are tame compared to some of the outlandish food items up for sale! Here’s just a sample…
Not pictured (but spotted!):
-Deep fried peanut butter slathered pickle
-Gummy Bear the size of your head
-Breaded and deep fried Girl Scout cookies
-“Pig Butt on a Stick”
-Deep fried Tootsie roll wrapped in bacon.
I went through a phase in about 5th grade where I was obsessed with Greek mythology. I read everything I could and knew the stories by heart. My friends and I would even play games acting out favorites in the woods, especially the Persephone and Hades myth. Yeah…I think being a 5th grade girl may have changed a bit since I was that age.
We had 2 days left in Greece (and after a fun open air theater showing of The Amazing Spiderman at the largest park in Athens surrounded by stray cats), decided there was no way we were going to leave without a trip out to the mountains to see the Oracle at Delphi.
Delphi is a sacred site in the mountains of Greece with an amazing history. Zeus was said to have originally discovered it, and it has been in use since 1400 BC. Considered the most important shrine in the Greek world, it was believed to be literally the center of the universe. The Pythia, a priestess or oracle, resided there and would provide cryptic prophesies for pilgrims who ventured through the mountains asking for advice. The Pythia and the priests of Apollo were showered with art and gold and gifts, and even kings came to her for prophesies as they made plans for war.
Never a fan of being stuck in large crowds of people while sightseeing, we opted to rent a car for the day and drive out extra early, timing our arrival for about an hour before any tour groups were to show up. The drive out was beautiful and rural, lots of lush mountains and fields of wildflowers.
When we arrived there were only a handful of people there and we had little time before all the tour buses showed up. The site was breathtaking. It sits right on a mountainside and the drop and sense of openness as you look out combined with the quiet of the place is very special. I can see why this area was chosen by the ancients as a sacred place.
We walked through the crumbling ruins and saw many appeals to the Oracle written in Greek, along with helpful signs with English translations marking some of the most important structures. One of the most interesting was the Navel, an egg shaped stone considered in ancient times to be the center of the universe.
After we finished walking through the main site, we stopped at the museum, which contains an assortment of statues and artifacts recovered from Delphi.
Just as the tour buses began rounding the corner into the lot, we escaped and walked the narrow path down to the Temple of Athena. This temple is actually the image I always carried in my head as the Oracle at Delphi, but it is in fact a separate temple about a quarter mile away. It’s another spot with an amazing view and walking among the stones and contemplating the centuries of history was very meditative.
As the summer heat really geared up and the people poured in, we hopped in our little rental car and enjoyed the scenic drive back to Athens, admiring the picturesque mountain towns, and stopping at one to have the best lunch of our whole trip to Greece!
My history of close calls with natural (and unnatural) disasters is rather extensive…
-I’ve huddled in a bathtub in Mississippi as a tornado ripped through my street and neighborhood, leveling homes and businesses and throwing a school bus on top of an elementary school (our house was untouched!). The sound was one of the loudest and scariest things I’ve ever heard.
-I left Tokyo less than 2 days before the massive earthquake and tsunami of 2011 and the place I had been staying (with my kids) was evacuated due to the nuclear meltdown. I had been feeling the foreshocks but thought they were regular earthquakes.
-My first trip ever to Manhattan happened to be scheduled a week and a half after 9-11. I went on the trip anyway and ended up feeling like the only “tourist” in the whole city. Half of the roads were still shut down and there was dust and rubble all over south Manhattan. It was eerie.
-I’ve holed up in Okinawa, Japan in our sturdy reinforced concrete home through several enormous typhoons, including a category 5 that caused a lot of damage.
-I’ve been through significant earthquakes in Alaska, scary hailstorms in Oklahoma, and hurricanes in Florida.
So, I’m a touch paranoid about them. I definitely felt a little uneasy about traveling to a tiny country with 37 volcanoes. Thankfully, no major eruptions happened during our trip, and we had an amazing time. Climbing Guatemala’s Pacaya Volcano was one of the absolute highlights of our trip.
Pacaya is an active volcano about an hour away from the colonial city of Antigua. It is extremely active, nearly continuously spewing ash and smoke. Several large eruptions over the past few decades have sent slow moving rivers of lava down it’s slopes. One especially large one in 2014 blew the top of the cone right off the peak, leaving a collapsed crater.
Most people make the hike either in the morning or the afternoon for sunset. We chose morning primarily because we have young children and they have the most energy in the morning. Also, we didn’t like the thought of navigating back down the mountain in the dark. It turns out we made a fortunate choice, because we had beautiful clear weather for the entire hike up, and low foggy clouds rolled in just as we were leaving, obscuring the views.
Our driver JB picked us up and we stopped for an amazing breakfast that included Guatemalan hot chocolate. He then negotiated the price for 3 horses and a guide for the hike up. The girls each rode their own, and Flynn rode in my lap on a horse named Chocolate, while Jason trekked up on foot.
The lower part of the hike was very tropical and lush, with several stops for historical points of interest. It wasn’t too long before we emerged from the jungle and came upon a ridge of volcanic rock. There we had a clear view of Pacaya’s peak. Tourists used to be able to hike all the way to the top before the eruption in 2014. Now it’s too dangerous.
We left the horses and hiked down the alien, barren rock field until we reached a tiny hut, the Lava Store. Here a couple of friendly volunteers sell handmade lava jewelry crafted by some of the villagers who were effected most by the recent lava flows. The kids were enchanted with the resident volcano dogs, particularly a small well fed black dog named Taco, who loves belly scratches.
The lava flows no longer glow orange, but there is still plenty of heat emanating from the vents to roast marshmallows! Others had kindly left sharpened sticks, so we got to work and had our fill of delicious, volcano roasted marshmallows. They browned pretty quickly, and tasted so good after our hike:)
We had one more ridge to climb before it was time to head down with our horses. Flynn was starting to get tired, so our wonderful guide Fausto gave him a piggy back ride up the final part of the hike. The view was incredible, and one of the sweet dogs from the lava shop followed us and kept us company.
The ride down was much faster, and we left for Antigua tired and happy from our amazing day.
One place we had to make sure to get to before we embarked on our big move from North Carolina to the west coast was Colonial Williamsburg. One of 3 major historical attractions on the east coast Historical Triangle area of Virginia (the other two are Jamestown and Yorktown), Colonial Williamsburg is a re-creation of a 18th century town. It is huge, and includes many wonderful activities, shows, and reenactments. We only had one day there, so I tried to pick a few things to do that would be fun and educational for the kids.
The night before we left, we sat in our hotel and read through the book “If You Lived in Colonial Times” and talked about each section. It’s a great book that covers daily life, medicine, food, and what it was like to be a child in Colonial times.
The number one priority for the day was to get there the second they opened at 9am and be among the first to reach the Prentis Store for the big archaeology dig. This summer, the staff decided that they would open one of their digs to the public, just a few kids at a time. The site is the Archibald Blair Storehouse, and it is real, not one of those faux digs were items are planted for kids to find. This site has been partially excavated before, so the staff knew there would be a lot to discover. We were lucky to be some of the first to arrive and after a brief speech, the kids were handed gloves, buckets, and trowels and instructed to carefully scrape away the top layers of dirt and fill their buckets.
Next came the sifting portion of the dig. all of the buckets were combined and sifted through sieves attached to wheelbarrows. This was the part that really felt like a treasure hunt to the children. Because this location had once been a storehouse, there was quite a variety. Pieces of brick, pottery, nails, glass, and animal bones all emerged out of the piles of dirt. A well formed pig tooth was the biggest hit!
The final part of the activity was to bring the finds over to a covered area and investigate and label each item. The staff had laid out diagrams and photos to help identify the animal bones, nails and pottery. A fascinating way to add context to the whole endeavor.
The day was beginning to get really hot, so we ducked into a bakery and grabbed some ginger cakes and spiced apple cider to refuel. We passed some actors dressed in pre-Revolutionary War gear and making speeches. When the kids are older and know a little more about US history, we’ll have to come back and spend more time watching the reenactments.
Next stop was the military encampment. The stern actor in charge gave us an overview of life for a colonial soldier and lined us up (after promoting Claire to Corporal!!) He then handed out smooth sticks and went through all of the steps involved with loading and firing a musket.
Next to the musket training area, another set of soldiers put us through a very detailed demonstration of how to prepare and fire a cannon. Each of the children were given a job and instructed to act out each of the steps, including the many safety measures. Flynn was excited to be the person who holds and delivers the cannon ball, and Skye used a long stick to light the fuse. The demonstration ended with a loud bang and profuse smoke as the cannon was fired.
After a tasty lunch at one of the taverns, our last stop was at the Brickmaker. We sat and listened to a description of how the clay bricks were formed and brought to a field to dry in the sun, and then it was time to take our shoes off and help work the clay.
Stomping the clay was hilarious fun. It felt like thick cold peanut butter, and the kids kept getting stuck and laughing uncontrollably. We ended up covered in mud and took to the barrels to wash off as much as we could. This was a good last stop:)
We had a big day, and yet only touched on a small portion of all of the fun that is available at Colonial Williamsburg. I look forward to getting back there in a few years when the kids are older and spending a lot more time exploring.
When we traveled to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat, Skye and Claire were 3 and 1.5 and I was pregnant with Flynn. We only had a short time in Siem Reap before heading back to Bangkok, so we wanted to make the most of it! When we arrived from the tiny airport after a relatively easy visa process and checked into our room, we were very pleased that the little lodge we had chosen was right in the heart of Siem Reap and farther from the big tourist hotels. We could walk outside the gate and straight into the bustling local markets with a quick walk to the river where many of the townspeople’s precarious residences were perched.
The next morning we woke up to what would become one of the best and most memorable days of my life. We had arranged for a guide to take us around to the temples all day, and he picked us up at 4 in the morning to get us to the prime spot by the lake in front of the main temple at Angkor Wat to witness the sunrise. I couldn’t believe how many people were there in the darkness…crowds of visitors jostling for space, local children selling trinkets, even tour groups. Still the sunrise was a beautiful, if not peaceful experience. I had been dreaming of visiting this site for years and seeing the orange sun peeking over the distinctive 12th century towers was breathtaking.
We spent the next 10 hours or so with our guide visiting 4 of the temple sites. Each of them was very different. First stop was Bayon Temple or the “Smiley Face Temple” The walls around the entryway were covered with intricate battle scenes in bas relief. Our guide described the history of the temple and pointed out facts about some of the fascinating beautifully carved images. Once inside, the giant smiling heads are visible, and there are lots of places to climb and explore. Claire was so young, we brought her carseat with a GoBabyz attachment that allowed us to wheel her around for much of the day and then carry her up steep stairways. She was quite happy in her cozy seat, and thus was able to tolerate a 10+ hour day of exploring.
Next came Ta Prohm, the “Jungle Temple”. Many of the other sites have undergone restoration in the last hundred years, but Ta Prohm was left more or less as they found it, and sits as a remarkable example of the way nature takes everything back over time. You can wander through the doorways past headless Buddha statues and find yourself in front of crumbling walls choked back by massive silk cotton trees and strangler figs. This was my favorite stop of the day.
Next we briefly visited another site, and as the guide was sharing some history with us in front of the temple, I came upon a patch of clovers that were nearly all the four leaf variety! Just a tiny patch of pure four leaf clovers in a huge field, it felt very special.
Local children were everywhere. Some were running around playing and having fun, but many were working. At the entrance to some of the temples, we were approached by kids of varying ages trying to sell us snacks and handicrafts. These little ones were lined up singing songs in the heat with a basket set out to collect coins. During our brief visit, the poverty of Siem Reap was apparent, but we also felt a strong general sense of happiness and warmth among the local people.
Finally we made it back to the main temple and gawked at the hundreds of aspara dancers carved into the walls, each one slightly different. Orange clad monks wandered along the walls, offering a lovely visual contrast to the stark crumbling stones.
Back at the lodge, we had dinner and met a young Australian woman who asked if we would like to join her English class that evening and help out. She ran a class that taught the local monks and young people of Siem Reap to speak English, so they could get more lucrative jobs (mainly in the tourist industry) than what might normally be available to them. After dinner, we followed her down to the dark little room where the class was set up. Upon entering, we were introduced to the three monks who were helping out, and I held my hand out for a moment to shake their hands, before awkwardly remembering they are not permitted to touch women. Slightly embarrassing! We had a great time at the class. Jason and I each got a turn standing up in front of the class and talked to them in English, making sure to enunciate clearly and keep the phrases relatively simple. We shared pleasantries with some of the students and talked about our jobs. Jason was a natural, and there were tons of questions for him about his job as a pilot!
Back at the lodge, we finished off the evening by getting massages from a blind masseuse, a son of one of the lodge employees. Best Day Ever!
I’ve told my husband that if there was ever a house fire or natural disaster and I only had a few minutes to grab stuff out of the house and flee, I would take my computer (and hard drives with all of our photos and memories) and our Mount Fuji climbing sticks. The saying “He who climbs Mt. Fuji once is a a wise man; he who climbs it twice is a fool” definitely rings true for me. Climbing was an amazing experience (on of my favorite ever!), but the memories of the pain of the steep descent and the stiff hobbling in the week that followed are still burned in my brain and I will most likely not be climbing a second time.
Jason and I wanted to do something special for our 4 year anniversary, and climbing Mt. Fuji was the perfect choice! At the time, we lived in Okinawa, so it was just a 2 hour flight to Tokyo and then a series of bus and train rides to the town that marks the start of the climb. We went in July, the first month of the “climbing season” where the weather is the most temperate. We decided to arrive at dusk and climb through the night and get to the summit just before sunrise.
We were fresh and full of energy as we began the hike, prepared with all of our layers, backpacks, and headlamps. Our hiking sticks that we had purchased in town were nearly bare of stamps. as we walked along the wooded trail at the lower part of the trail, a fog descended over the darkening landscape and we heard the eerie sound of a horn blowing in the distance. It was so peaceful.
It was so exciting to come upon the first hut just as the sky was really beginning to fade to night. An ancient lady sat by the open fire and carefully applied the metal brand to our staffs, leaving the burned impression. We stopped at every hut for a brand as we ascended the mountain, save two that we missed, and we made sure to catch those on the way down so there would be no gaps on the staffs.
At one of the huts, we stopped for a while and had some delicious ramen for dinner, and then we continued climbing. At this point, we saw very few people on the trail, so climbing up the ridges it felt like it was just the two of us and the silence of the moon and the stars. Magic.
The hike was definitely more challenging than I expected. We had to scale boulders and pick our way through some difficult volcanic rock fields. The staffs got a lot of use!
We got most of the way to the top and had a couple of hours to go before dawn, so Jason and I decided to pay to stay in a bunk at one of the huts and get a little sleep. Two hours later we tumbled down from the cramped bunks and began the final climb. At this point the altitude was really getting to us, and the going was slow. A few steps and then a stop for breath. The breaks became more and more frequent. As we approached the the top of Mt. Fuji, the trail began to get much more crowded. We were basically in a slow line to the summit. When we saw that the sun was coming up and the path above us was shrouded in white mist, Jason and I stopped short of the summit for a photo. Then, passing through the Tori gates we pressed on to the peak.
The descent was much less enjoyable than the journey up. It was incredibly steep and full of endless switchbacks and killer on the knees! Even though I was in marathon shape, I felt like a weakling watching the old people and school children cheerfully passing us on their way up as I torturously limped my way down. We descended as fast as we possibly could, hoping to make the 10am bus back to Tokyo and we made it with 5 minutes to spare!
A once in a lifetime experience…I will cherish the memories.
We were so lucky to have the opportunity to live in Okinawa, Japan for almost 3 years. Island fever never really set in because we had so much fun exploring the towns and beaches and enjoying all of the seasonal festivals. The people are warm, the food is amazing, and Okinawa has a charm that just stays in your heart. I very much miss it there and hope I’ll have a chance to return someday when the kids are older and Claire can see where she was born! Here are just a few of the fun things there are to do and places to see on the wonderful little island of Okinawa…
Cherry Blossom Festival – Every February in Okinawa (about a month before mainland Japan) the cherry trees burst into bloom. The blossoms here are a deep pink–not pale white/pink like the rest of Japan–and I looked forward to their beautiful display every year as a sign of the end of the dull winter season. On the north part of the island there is a festival every year to celebrate. It includes a parade with all kinds of traditional dancing and music, and blocks of food and souvenier stands. A really fun day for the whole family!
Fukushu-en Chinese Garden – Down near Naha there is a gem of a place…a lovely Chinese style garden full of intricate stonework, waterfalls, odd shaped windows and buildings (perfect for hide and seek!).
Churami Aquarium – One of the best aquariums in the world, you can spend an entire day here. They have outdoor pools and shows, a giant playground and flower sculptures, an underwater tunnel with whale sharks and manta rays.
Zakimi Castle – A wonderful castle that is pristine and almost never crowded. Kids can run around in the fields of wildflowers and climb the stone walls for an amazing view. And yes, I went through a phase of dressing them in matching outfits..
Dragon Boat Races – Each year during Golden Week (early May) there is a large festival that includes dragon boat races. The biggest one is in Naha, but there are several other races spread around the island, and they are all very fun to watch.
Okuma – A lovely escape for US service members. You can rent cabins right on the beach here. The water is clear aqua all year round, and the whole place has a peaceful aura. We spent Claire’s first birthday there and had such a nice time playing in the hedge maze, collecting pebbles and sea glass on the beach, and riding the 4 person “buggy bike” around the property.
Ryukyu Butterfly Park – A super fun little side trip. It is full of butterflies and they landed on the children, to their delight.
Cape Hedo – Also known as Hedo Point, it’s the northernmost point on Okinawa, and the beautiful view is worth the long and windy drive.
Araha Beach – A fun little beach that features a huge pirate ship playground! Kids can climb the rigging and there’s even a small zipline.
Whale Watching – January through april is peak whale watching season, and if you take a charter out during this time, you are almost guaranteed to see these amazing, huge creatures. We had a quiet trip with very few sightings, right up until the end where we ended up right next to several adult whales. The last hour was filled with humpback whales surfacing, breaching, and tail-slapping. Claire was just a baby but Skye watched them in awe.
American Village – A fun area near the military bases that is filled with tasty restaurants, a movie theater that serves beer, a ferris wheel, giant arcade, fish pedicures, and more! The photo booths are always a fun place to stop. They take photo booths very seriously in Japan and you get the full experience, including some kind of program or algorithm that makes your eyes bigger (and appears to add eye makeup, ahem, Jason).
Shuri-Jo Castle – Shuri castle is a must-see day trip in Okinawa. In addition to the intricate beauty of the castle itself, there is a tour and outbuildings where you can learn some of the history of the island and how both the Chinese and Japanese influences have shaped the local culture over time.
Toguchi Beach – Toguchi Beach is a lovely place to explore. It’s a popular spot for photographers to take family photos at sunset and early in the morning. There is a walking path, playground, and limestone caves to wander through. My favorite time to visit is at low tide. The water recedes to reveal acres of smooth stones covered with a green, spongy, moss-like plant that squishes pleasantly under your feet as you walk. Tide pools are full of interesting creatures like spiny urchins, crabs, and sea cucumbers.
Bull Fighting – Japanese bull fighting is a much more family friendly affair than in Europe. No blood is involved. The bulls just push their heads together and lock horns in a dominance battle until one tires and gives up. Then the winner is covered in a cloth and paraded around the ring as the audience cheers. Super fun and the happy energy of the crowd is contagious!
Lily festival – Every year on the tiny island of Ie, there is a lily festival. It’s just a short scenic drive and ferry ride from central Okinawa. We went in 2010 and had a blast frolicking among the giant fields of white and vibrantly colored lilies. And after we became exhausted from the May heat, a tasty little ice cream stand featuring purple sweet potato ice cream was the perfect end to the day.
Diving and Snorkling – Unfortunately, since I was pregnant and nursing for a good portion of our time in Okinawa I only got to complete a few dives. Jason explored the best dive spots a good bit though, and there is quite a variety of fascinating sea life to view. I must admit, although I really enjoyed my dives, the extremely venomous local sea snakes seriously freaked me out.
Cape Zanpa Lighthouse – The stately lighthouse is a nice place to visit, and kids love to crawl around on the rocks. Right across the street is a massive Shisa Dog guarding the entrance to the park.
Nago Pineapple Park – This is a perfectly kitschy touristy type stop, a complex completely devoted to pineapples. There’s a ride on an automated car that takes you through the park and includes a brief history and some information about pineapples. Then comes the yummy part:) They have pineapple wine and vinegar tastings, moist pineapple cakes, and fresh pineapple ice cream.
Gate 2 Street and the Sunabe Seawall – Living on Kadena, we were close to two fun and colorful areas to walk around, sample restaurants, stop at parks, and people watch. Gate 2 street was walking distance from our house and always full of colors and interesting people. The seawall area was a short drive and full of surfers and quiet cafes. Of course there are many other such areas, but those were the places we often frequented with the kids and we had all of our favorite spots.
Parks and Playgrounds – Okinawa is one of the most kid friendly places we’ve ever been. There are many and varied parks and and playgrounds throughout the island, many featuring wonderfully elaborate structures and giant roller slides. And everywhere we went, locals were sweet and welcoming to our children, often asking to pose with them for photos and fawning over their fair hair. Okinawa is a happy and safe place to be a kid:)