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From Burbank to the Berry Farm

Solomon had never been on a plane before, Eliana couldn’t remember that she had. Reuben had never flown with a child, I had never flown with two. At 4:45am one morning in September, we were on our way to change all that.

A 7am flight with two small children. That’s a lot of work. Just packing the bags kept us up till around midnight. Then the theory was that the kids would stay asleep as we transferred them from bed to carseat, and once the plane took off they’d be ready for naps. But these are the Schug babies — they love adventure. Both Eliana and Solomon were wide-eyed from the moment we brought them downstairs until several hours later as we drove down the freeway in Burbank on the way to our hotel. And even that nap was short-lived. One of the wonderful things about our kids, though, is they do amazingly well on very little sleep — they’re just so excited to experience new things.

We arrived in Burbank so early — about 9am — that we couldn’t yet check into our hotel. So we stopped to pick up some vacation supplies, then had some local Mexican food for lunch. Finally our hotel room was ready, just in time for me to change into work clothes and head to the office. This was a working vacation for me, after all. While I tried desperately to focus on donor analytics with just 4.5 hours of sleep, Reuben took the kids to visit an old high school friend who lived in Pasadena. That evening we enjoyed the company in their beautiful home and had the best barbecue I’ve ever tasted. Our super-babies had by that point been awake roughly 16 hours, and with very little fuss Eliana finally put her head down on the table and declared “I want to go to sleep!”

The next morning I headed to the office again, but cut the day short so we could all meet up at… DISNEYLAND! The agency I work with treated us to the whirlwind 4-hour visit to the happiest place on earth.

Four hours obviously isn’t enough time to take in all that Disneyland and California Adventure have to offer. But, thankfully, Eliana hadn’t even realized the place existed until about a week prior to our visit. I had to explain to her, “You know that castle at the beginning of your movies? Did you realize that’s a real place? It’s where all the princesses live!”

While she did wear her pink tutu to visit the park, she was not the hyper, squealing three-year-old you might expect. Instead, she was quietly observant — barely making eye contact with us as she looked all around soaking it in and trying to make sense of it all.

The good thing about having only four hours in Disneyland, was that we were only there for the kiddie rides. While my teammates waited about an hour to get on Splash Mountain, we whisked through the lines for Dumbo, the Teacups, the Chip-n-Dale roller coaster (twice), Toontown, the Little Mermaid, a new Cars ride, and more. But there was one grown-up ride we wanted to take a turn on — Pirates of the Caribbean.

When Reuben first suggested the ride I (admittedly) made the mistake of suggesting it might be too frightening for Eliana. She heard me, and insisted she did NOT want to go see the pirates. After much reassurances, I eventually persuaded her by giving her my sweatshirt and suggesting she could put it over her head if she was afraid (remember her visit to the T-rex?). So, she did just that for the first couple of minutes. But then, slowly, she lowered the sweatshirt and started looking around. Then she was intrigued. Afterward, if you asked her what her favorite ride was, she’d tell you it was Pirates of the Caribbean. Even now, she likes to wear the eye patch I promised to buy her at the dollar store, and she’ll sing “yo ho, yo ho a pirate’s life for me!”

On Friday I had one more day at work, which would have been kind of a drag except that I love my job and I have a great team. Oh, and this happened:

Right outside the conference room window we watched the Space Shuttle Endeavour take it’s final journey on a lap around Los Angeles. It gave us all chills.

Meanwhile, my family was enjoying the perks of our fancy (for us) hotel.

Eliana was her usual super-confident self in the pool. And Solomon is becoming a little fish too — not at all afraid floating on his back and finding endless entertainment flapping his arms in the water.

When my work was done I joined them in the pool and we ordered hotel pizza and enjoyed the California evening.

The next morning we packed up and headed to the beach! We transferred to a not-so-nice, but cheaper, hotel in Redondo Beach where we could be close to our friends Eric and Patty. Here is one lesson we learned on the way — when you’ve been driving the California freeways for an hour and your daughter in the backseat starts squirming and saying her tummy hurts, pull over immediately. We were about 2 minutes away from our friends’ house when Eliana puked all over herself and her carseat. I guess I’m just thankful it didn’t happen on the way back to the airport instead.

She greeted her new friends in nothing but underwear and we moved her quickly to the bathtub as Reuben hosed down the car and started the laundry. After that slight setback, the fun could continue…

We watched OSU beat UCLA while enjoying sandwiches and snacks with the McCullums. Skipping naps again, we took the kids to the beach to play while the dads surfed. Oh, to live in a place with warm beaches — it’s so wonderful!

After washing the sand off back at our hotel room (and realizing that the TV didn’t work, for which we complained and scored an upgrade to a much nicer room for the remainder of our stay!), we rejoined our friends for a salmon dinner.

Sunday was a day for more friends and more beaches! We met my dear friend Penney in Santa Monica and were introduced to her husband, Greg, for the first time. It was so wonderful to catch up with a friend and make a new one. After brunch we walked down the Santa Monica pier, where Eliana rode the carousel and met a generic-looking Mickey and Minnie Mouse (Who we had to pay to get a photo with. Hmm.). At the end of the pier we stopped for drinks (yay for vacation!), and then on the way back we skipped the carnival rides in favor of a visit to the small aquarium underneath the pier.

That evening we enjoyed the beach again, and were rewarded with a breathtaking sunset. Although, Eliana would tell you that her favorite part was discovering that Hermosa beach has a swing set on it! Both of our kids loved swinging on the beach. After shaking off the sand, we strolled along the boardwalk, where the music was loud and the visitors lively. Deciding that this was the easiest place to get dinner, we chose a restaurant with outdoor seating and were humored by the sight of our two babies in the midst of what was essentially a twenty-something bar scene. How times have changed.

Our last full day of vacation was set aside for a visit to Knott’s Berry Farm. We arrived shortly after the park opened, and found that we practically owned the place for the day. Eliana could walk up and climb aboard any kids ride that she wanted to try. Multiple times. With no wait. Reuben and I even took turns riding the roller coasters — skipping through the railings that normally organize the crowds, and requesting the front seat with no lines ahead of us.

Knott’s Berry Farm was a good choice for this phase in our lives. The rides definitely catered to either a very young child or teen/adult crowd. So there were plenty of things to keep Eliana entertained, and others that we thought were fun. If we had been there with, say, an 8-year old, it might have been a tougher sell.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The old-town theme of Knott’s Berry Farm is fun in and of itself, and we enjoyed exploring the different “shops” and watching a couple of theater shows. In the saloon show, Reuben was even called up on stage and used as a character in the sketch, much to our amusement.

We spent the entire day — from open to close — at Knott’s Berry Farm. Solomon snoozed for a little while in the stroller, but Eliana was living it up the whole time. Our favorite rides were those we could go on as a family, which we did about 3 times each — the log boat ride (above) that we took turns with Eliana on, and the coal mine train ride (whose guide with a horrible fake old-timer accent over an even more horrible PA system was impossible to understand and endlessly amusing for Reuben and me).

By the time we strapped the kids into their carseats for the ride back to the hotel, Eliana had reached her limit. We didn’t see her awake again until the next morning at about 8:30.

On Tuesday we packed up our bags (barely meeting the 50lb checked bag limit!), and began the journey back home, this time at a much more reasonable hour. We all thoroughly enjoyed our first big family vacation. Reuben and I think we have two of the best kids in the world — happy, curious, adaptable, and fun. For her part, Eliana regularly talks about “the next time we go to California.”

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Our Summer Camping Win

Reasons why Honeyman State Park is an awesome place to camp.

#1. Because sunrise through the trees is pretty spectacular.

#2. Because our camping spot came with a built-in fort!

#3. Because there’s no shortage of sticks and pinecones to add to the toasty campfire.

#4. Because I haven’t seen sand dunes like this since I lived next door to the Sahara. (Although, the sand there wasn’t exactly surrounded by lush forest.)

#5. Because it was perfectly sunny and warm on our full day there. (Okay, I know that’s not actually a feature of the park, but it sure made me have a good feeling about it! I think my family agreed.)

And finally, #6. Because the lake is clean and lovely.

 

 

New Orleans Double Vision: Part 3 — Uncle Lionel

On the day that I sat alone, eating my muffaletta, a band was playing in the open-air restaurant. I enjoyed the background music as I watched people on the street in front of me, but I didn’t really gaze at the band much until he appeared.

Uncle Lionel.

I didn’t realize his fame and legend at the time. All I knew was that out of nowhere a skinny old man appeared, dressed rather spiffy in his cream suit and wide-brimmed hat. He was holding a cane, which also doubled as trombone — the sound coming from his own vocal chords as he slid the “instrument” back and forth in front of his mouth. He sang and entertained, looking as comfortable on that stage as anyone I’d seen, all the while appearing as if a strong wind could blow him over.

That was sweet, I thought.

Then came open mic night at La Maison. Musicians had been rotating on and off the stage all evening, taking turns leading the make-shift band, waiting for their opportunity to find a space on the crowded platform. As the emcee announced a new addition to the medley, he suddenly stopped mid-sentence. “Sorry folks, but there’s a change of plans. A legend just walked in the door.” And up came Uncle Lionel, wearing the same dapper dress including the dark shades.

There was an air of awe and respect among the other musicians, while Uncle Lionel sang and commanded the stage as if it were his own home. Which it practically was. We later learned he’s been performing in New Orleans since World War 2. I was glad that Reuben had a chance to see the man I’d told him about, and I was excited to learn that I’d been in the presence of an icon.

But my encounters with Uncle Lionel didn’t stop at two. On our last full day in the city, I was walking through a courtyard near the French Market looking for a place to sit and enjoy my sweet tea. Just before I passed by two old men sitting on a park bench, one of them called out asking what I was drinking. “Sweet tea,” I replied. It was then that I noticed Uncle Lionel was old man #2, just sitting enjoying the air, unmistakably recognizable. “What’s that?” his friend asked me again. “Sweet tea,” I repeated with a smile. “Pee pee?” he retorted, and I wasn’t sure if he was mocking or teasing me. But I didn’t care. I may be a tourist, but I know Uncle Lionel when I see him.

The Trials of a Carnivore

April 2nd, 2011 was a very long day.

It began the night before, actually, at the guest house in Lokori, Kenya, when our hard-working, ever-accommodating staff moved my bed (with mosquito net, of course) outside in hopes that I could catch a cool, yet non-existent breeze.

Yes, I spent 2+ years sleeping outdoors in Africa, but that was nearly 10 years ago. The noises and heat and dust and fear of sleeping through my alarm made me restless. I almost welcomed the 4:30am wake-up call, until I remembered that this is the bathroom I’d be freshening up in before our 4-hour trip up north to Lodwar to catch a plane to Nairobi.

Allow me a brief moment to explain the challenges of using such a bathroom. . . First, you have to find a place to put your toiletries, so that they aren’t on the floor (for obvious reasons), but also so that no huge bugs crawl on them. Having a small bag of toiletries with a handle to hang it from a bathroom door handle is a must. Then, due to the absence of a toilet seat, and a general lack of sanitation, you must hover above the toilet to do your business. While using the facilities, try not to look around too much or you’re sure to notice cockroaches, spiders, and sometimes even frogs closed inside the room with you. Best just to ignore the fact they might be there. When you’re finished, heed the warning scrawled above the toilet — “Pliz no enough water for flush use a basin.” Now there is a good purpose for the drippy shower right next to you, as it has supplied a bucket full of water for you to pour into the toilet bowl and avoid any embarrassment about what you’ve left behind.

Back to our journey. The team convened at the land cruiser, in the dark, at 4:45am. It was then that we realized our flight was actually leaving two hours later than we thought. Maybe one of us should have checked the tickets last night. Oh well, we decided, at least we’d be traveling in the cool of the day. This was the first time that I was able to sleep in the vehicle, since Kenya has some of the bumpiest gravel roads I’d ever bounced over.

A couple of hours into our journey we stopped at a transit town (basically, one road with some shacks and people scattered about) for a breakfast of bland fried cakes and warm coke. I passed, and opted for my granola bar instead.

We’d given ourselves a generous window of time to catch the flight, plus the extra two hours of miscalculation, so we had a lot of time to kill in Lodwar. Unfortunately, there was nothing at all to do. So we sat at a hotel bar, where no other people were present, and it was about an hour before a lone waiter offered us some warm juice. Mine became fly-infested so I tossed it and ate some trail mix instead.

Eventually it was time to go to the airport. All airport designers please take note: The following is not a confidence-boosting sight to see on the runway when you are an arriving passenger.

We were the first ones there, so we took seats on half-plank wooden benches underneath a small shade hangar. That was the airport, so to speak. Three workers hand-inspected our luggage and issued us our very official-looking boarding passes.

And then we waited some more. The plane was delayed, of course. Something had happened during a stop in Kainuk. I had some more trail mix. An hour past our scheduled departure time, we finally heard the sound of the plane’s engine. By then there were all sorts of official cars parked along the runway, waiting for the Japanese ambassador. Once his entourage had left, we were able to board. And once our plane took off, I was happy to order a coke — the first truly cold beverage I’d had in nearly a week.

It was striking to look down at the landscape below us — the earth appeared cracked, which it was, but these cracks were actually dried up riverbeds. The drought in the Horn of Africa is real.

I felt guilty for having my cold coke and wishing I could have a real meal. So many on the ground were going without. Such is the emotional dilemma of an American aid worker.

We were more than ready to return to Nairobi for an afternoon of being clean and relaxed. We dreamed of the hotel pool. But the flight attendant disrupted our dreams to announce that we were beginning our descent to Kitale. Wait, what? My hand-written ticket says nothing about a stop. Ugh. Well, what can I do? As they say in Niger, sai hankuri — have patience.

We waited on the plane for the new passengers to arrive, but then were asked to descend. The plane had a flat tire that needed to be repaired. I suppose that’s no surprise given that the runway is gravel and in the middle of the African bush. But, wow — really, a flat tire?

Back on board I drank another coke and continued my dreams about Nairobi. We’d be there soon, and I’d finally have a meal. After all, I’d already been awake 12 hours and had only eaten trail mix and a granola bar. More guilt.

“We are now beginning our descent to Eldoret.” What?!?!? Where the heck is that? It’s not Nairobi! Ugh! We had to leave the plane again, since this time we were refueling. (Was there really not enough to make it to Nairobi? Really really?) I left my bags on board and waited in the relatively nice terminal this time, instead of standing in the dirt along the landing strip.

When we were invited back on board, suddenly a security officer was there to check our tickets, even though there were no other planes or passengers. Here comes the part I love about Africa — being able to talk your way through anything. I stood in line and when it was my turn to show my ticket I explained that I’d left it on board the plane. I smiled, looked apologetic and was very respectful. He let me by without a question.

Finally, Nairobi. The team agreed that we would take 30 minutes to check in to our rooms and shower. Then we were headed to the most touristy of all Kenyan restaurants: Carnivore.

I will say that returning from nearly a week of working 16-hour days in hot and rustic rural Kenya, and having endured a day that began at 4:30am without any real meals is perhaps the perfect scenario for an introduction to Carnivore. If nothing else, after all we’d seen in the past week, we knew we wouldn’t take it for granted.

The restaurant is an all-you-can-eat meat barbecue. I hear they used to have exotic animals like zebra and warthog on the menu, but environmentalists have rightly limited the variety these days. Still, there are a few things you can’t get back home.

How it works is that servers come around to your table with huge sword/skewers stuck through a huge slab of meat. They tell you what it is, and carve a chunk right on to your plate. Some of the options were tame — chicken, turkey, pork, beef, lamb. Others were unique — ostrich, crocodile. And, even though I’m not picky, there were two that I just couldn’t stomach — camel and ox balls. Camel just seems too much like horse. And ox balls, well… it’s kind of self-explanatory.

Abby was the bravest of us all, and had the biggest Carnivore adventure. First, while a server was slicing a piece of turkey onto her plate, the skewer slipped and the entire turkey carcass fell in Abby’s lap. All hot and greasy. Pretty sure that would have earned her a free meal in the States.

When the ox ball server came around, Abby was the only one of us who opted in. So of course we had to tease her — her being the young, single girl eating balls, after all. But we had a question — the menu shows ostrich meatballs, so were we sure that these were really ox balls or were they maybe the less gross ox meatballs? We had to find out.

Another waiter came by and instead of requesting a piece of meat, Abby requested clarification. “Um, can you tell me what kind of meat this is?” she asked, pointing to the half-eaten ox balls on her plate.

“Those are ox balls,” he replied. And then he leaned in closer to Abby, cupped his hand at his chest and bounced it as he further explained, “You know, the male part.”

And that was the highlight of our very long day.

New Orleans Double Vision: Part 2 — There’s No Place Like Maison

Everyone’s heard of Bourbon Street. The beads, the balconies, the booze, the boobs — the street is a world all its own. So of course that was the first place Reuben and I headed after settling into our room at a nearby bed-and-breakfast. We hit the street at 10:30pm, and it was pretty tame. By 2am, I could barely absorb all the craziness I’d seen, heard, and smelled that night. It was an experience worthy of a post all its own.

But not this one. This post is about a lesser-known street, but one that is much more our style–Frenchman Street–and the fabulous time we spent there at a club called “Maison.”

Now, for someone who knows me well, it would come as no surprise that I would be drawn to a venue with a French name and located literally on French(man) street, but it was actually Reuben who was first compelled to explore the place. He’d heard it has more live jazz and blues than the dance-party infused Bourbon Street, and that it’s the place where the locals go for music. He heard right.

Frenchman Street was also not far from where we were staying, so we walked there on our second night in New Orleans. We passed by a club or two requiring a cover charge, which we were perplexed by since we’d already learned enough about the city to know that there is abundant and incredible music for free all around. So it wasn’t long before we entered the cover-free Maison.

That first night at the club, we discovered the Young Fellaz Brass Band. Their name is a pretty good description — they’re a group of young guys who (with the exception of the drummer) skip the vocals and focus entirely on their brass. Calling them talented wouldn’t do them justice — they are explosive! I wondered how their lungs could produce such a booming sound without bursting. And in the case of the trumpeter in the photo up top, I wondered the same about his cheeks.

But while it was a near-deafening sound, it was also a harmonious and rhythmic one. The kind of sound that makes it impossible to remain in your seat, and once you stand you can’t help but clap and wave your arms and dance.

We stayed there for hours and the musicians never seemed to tire. Neither did we tire of hearing their tunes.

We returned to the Maison once more during our trip, this time happening upon open mic night. Now, I’ve been to open mic nights where we live, and it’s nice to hear some live music from various artists. But you can’t even compare it to what we found in New Orleans. It should really be called open mics, plural, because instead of taking turns the musicians simply joined whoever was already onstage, flowing seamlessly into their songs and styles.

It was one of the best bands I’d ever heard–that open mic night–and the emcee told us these guys didn’t even know each other and had never played together before. I was astounded that strangers could make such mesmerizing sounds together.

Here’s a preview: Part 3 of this series will tell the tale of “Mr. New Orleans,” who briefly kidnapped the stage at open mic night. But, for now, here’s my double vision experience #2. 

On Tuesday I had an afternoon to myself and took a stroll around the French Quarter. I was drawn to the beat of energetic music I could hear nearby in front of the cathedral. As I approached I found the cheeks that still hadn’t burst, and the tuba that proved the invigorating band from Maison was giving me a street performance. I sat longer than any of the other tourists on the steps in front of the church, listening to the Young Fellaz blast their songs in the open air. I ate some pralines and drank some sweet iced tea, then I took a lot of pictures. It was a good day.

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