Saturday, April 4, 2009

Now We're All Infected

By Louise

When I was a sophomore at university, I needed to escape my five, suddenly insane, sorority-pledging roommates. Rather than take the easy route and switch dorms, for some reason unbeknownst to me, I signed up for a study-abroad program in London. Six months later, I returned home a different person. I had seen a whole new world; none of the pettiness mattered anymore, I had discovered that more important things, such as Indian curry and pints of beer, existed. I had been bitten—quite severely—by the travel bug. Infected, I knew in my heart there was no hope for recovery. I would forever crave the excitement, the unknown, the unexpected challenges one faces when visiting a place for the first time.

My infection lay dormant for a short while. I knew it would return when the circumstances were right; I could feel it in my blood. And then I met Andrew. He was highly contagious. Feverish, in fact, and I was immediately re-infected. The next thing I knew I was making tea out of the back of an old Land Rover in the middle of the Zairian jungle. Since then, we’ve both suffered numerous outbreaks. After each episode, we would return home happy, yet wondering when the next fever would hit.

Without even realizing it, Andrew and I found ourselves planning for this latest trip. We would pull the kids from school and travel for five months. The rest, as you all know, is documented on this blog. Now, 12 hours before we board a plane home, I sit here wondering what we have done to our children. We pulled them away from all that was familiar, we tried to make them speak a foreign language, we fed them rodents and insects. Will they be all right? Will they be able to return to life as they knew it, or will they be constantly wondering when the fever will return?

10 Things We're Really Glad We Did

By Louise

1. Buenos Aires. Love this city.
2. Patagonia: glaciers, mountains, whales, and half a million penguins.
3. Dancing until 3am on New Year’s Eve.
4. Ecuador.
5. Zip lining it over a gorge: Louise defying her fear of heights.
6. Going on a night hike in the Cuyabano rainforest in the Amazon basin.
7. Eating cuy asado (roasted guinea pig), lemon ants, and termites.
8. Seeing boulders fly down Volcan Arenal in Costa Rica.
9. Spotting a pair of bare-necked umbrella birds.
10. Changing our itinerary to come to South Africa and spend time with Malcolm.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Contest! Penguin Challenge!

Take the Penguin Challenge!
Can you tell the difference between the
Argentine and South African penguins?
Look carefully. Which is which?
Post your answers below.

Penguin A

Yes, I know I'm cute.

Penguin B

Hey, outta my way fish face!

Visit South Africa

By Graham

If you like the idea of swimming with penguins, hiking mountainsides, surfing, and trying new foods, then Cape Town is the place for you.

Cape Town is a large city at the southern tip of Africa. It is surrounded by mountains and is right on the water. Some mountains give you a look down at the city of Cape Town and the ocean, such as Table Mountain. Table Mountain looms over Cape Town. It is the biggest mountain around Cape Town. It is great to hike Table Mountain.

Make sure to come in the summer only. The summer in South Africa is at the winter of America.
If you want to learn how to surf, Muizenburg Beach is a good place to do so. It is easy to learn how, because the waves are small, fast, and will carry you a long way. Along Muizenburg’s beach edge are numerous surf shops, where you can rent a surfboard, or have surfing lessons.

Swimming with penguins is also a great experience. There is a colony of them at Boulder’s Beach. On the path down to the beach, they are all around you. They paddle through the water and rest on the rocks. The penguins look like short people.

You can drive 1 hour to the wine country, where there are acres and acres of vines. They grow up the mountainsides and along the roads like endless sheets of green.

If you like the idea of doing all of that, why don’t you? All you have to do is order plane tickets.

I Am a Mountain


As Told To Katharine

I am a mountain, my rocky cliffs are covered in huge boulders. Dassies run on me, lizards scitter all around me, hikers hike on me. Geese soar through the sky like planes above me. I have beautiful sights to see. I can see pine forests, cars whizzing past on the roads, towns busy with restaurants, people hiking on my rocky trail, animals sitting on my big rocks, and other mountains. I can also see four other mountains Elephant's Eye, Lion's Head, Devil's Peak, and Steenberg. On the other side I can see the Atlantic Ocean.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Bathroom Humor?

La-tee-da, I'm a Hadeda!


As told to Katharine

I am a hadeda, hopping along the golf course and sticking my long thin beak into the soft dirt that is filled with brown grubs. The pretty blue sky above me is filled with big puffy clouds. Every yard owns pools, trees, flowers, and the thing I hate most of all . . . CARS!!!

Yesterday my friend and I were walking across the road when all of a sudden the pool doctor came zooming up behind us and knocked my friend Bob off his feet. I don’t think the pool doctor knows how to stop.

I have decided to go for a fly. First I stand up on my tippy toes and flap my wings so I lift. Once I am high up in the sky I will fly to the top of the mountain. The mountain is pretty with its rocky ridges and plants. I fly to the top of the mountain waiting for the hot sun to change to the white moon.

Bob, just before the pool doctor got him.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Change We Don't Want to Believe In

By Louise

Many years ago, my older brother and I were walking around the town where we grew up. We headed to a local bar that neither of us had visited for years. Pushing open the door, I immediately noticed that the place had changed. I don't know what I was expecting, but I was disappointed. “See, you can never go back,” my brother said. At the time, his comment struck me as incredibly pessimistic. I had returned to many places, from New York to California to South Africa, and loved each subsequent visit.

Four years ago, we took the kids to the Osa Peninsula, a remote spit of land on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, near Panama. It was a magical two weeks. We rented a home built of bamboo; it was essentially a two-story tree house. At night, bats flew through the kitchen, hoping to sample uncovered fruit. Mornings, we woke to the sounds of howler monkeys as they moved through the trees outside our bedroom windows. We swung from hammocks as scarlet macaws cracked open fruits from the trees that circled the house. Walking a few yards in one direction took us to the beach. The opposite direction put us in the middle of the jungle, with its butterflies, birds, lizards, and monkeys.

The road leading to our house was atrocious. The closest town was miles away. We didn't have access to a car, only a taxi that had to be ordered (along with our groceries) by radio. We felt remote. Alone. Special. The experience made such an impression we vowed to return when the children were older.

While planning for this trip, we were excited to end our travels in Costa Rica again. With images of our previous trip burned in our memory, we decided to spend two months exploring the country. We planned science lessons around volcanoes, rainforests, tropical fish, and coral reefs. Because we had been there before, we decided not to return to the Osa Peninsula.

When we arrived in Costa Rica we were surprised. The Pacific coast, even the southern Nicoya Peninsula, was too developed for our taste. The northern plains around Volcan Arenal were wonderful, but, if I’m honest, it felt like Adventure Disney. Too many Americans and Europeans. Too many zip lines, resort hotels, and tour operators. Whereas in Ecuador we had felt like travelers, here we were just more tourists. I probably shouldn’t even pass judgment on Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast. Terrible floods in December and January meant that the beaches were covered in dead trees, the water was polluted, and there was trash everywhere. Around Cahuita, swollen rivers had turned the ocean brown, killing our dream of snorkeling over the area’s coral reefs. And what of our plan to learn Spanish in five months? With English practically the first language in Costa Rica, the plan was swirling straight down el baño.

We were mulling over our situation—during our 10th consecutive day of rain and overcast skies—when Andrew received an email from his mother in Cape Town. His father, Malcolm, had suffered another in a series of small strokes. Over the past year Malcolm’s memory and speech had been on a decline, but the latest stroke had seriously affected his ability to care for himself. Pat, who is Malcolm’s sole caretaker, sounded a bit overwhelmed. We weren’t expected back in Virginia for another month, so there was no doubt in our minds about our next move. Three days later we were on a plane heading to Cape Town. Everything happened so quickly that the flight and our first few days here felt surreal. One minute we’re wondering how we got it so wrong in Costa Rica and the next we were seeing how Malcolm’s health has gone so wrong in Cape Town.

Our decision to cut our trip short was the right thing to do. Cape Town continues to be a wonderful place, but things have changed. While the city, flanked by beautiful mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, will always hold a special place in my mind, the most important thing about it—our family connection—has changed forever. My brother was right. I hate that.

Inflight Movements

By Graham

I broke out in a sweat. Bleegh...! My mouth filled with the airline's disgusting meal of chicken in cheese sauce.

We were on a flight heading from Atlanta to Dakar, Senegal. It had been smooth flying up until the pilot exclaimed we would be hitting major turbulence. Groans escaped from people all over the plane, including me. What is going to happen to me? Will I vomit or not? When we hit the turbulence, the plane shook. It felt as if an elephant had just rammed into us. Every time we bounced up, my stomach dropped. I felt like a soda being shaken up. Up, down, left, right, we were flung.

I started searching for vomit bags, but there were none. Luckily, my mom had saved some of the plastic bags from the blankets we received. She hurled them at me, and I hurled into them. She called a steward to bring more plastic bags. When we got out of the turbulence, the bags weighed as much as a melon. When we touched down I still felt sick. But since I had vomited up all my food, I could not vomit any more.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Riding the Waves a Quick How To

By Graham

1. Wax three quarters of the board starting at the tail. The more wax you add the easier it is to grip on with your feet.

2. When paddling out on your stomach, make sure you are centered on your board. Let your feet hang over the tail and do the crawl with your arms.

3. If a big wave breaks right before you, push down on the front of the board and dive under it.

4. When you see a good looking wave make sure it is not going to curve over and fall on you. Turn your board and start paddling about three seconds before the wave reaches you.

5. Have your arms under your chest in a push up position.

6. When the wave has caught you, push up with your hands and bring in your legs so you are standing. Make sure to have your knees bent, and ride it in.

7. If you fall off your board be sure you do not bump your head on the under side of it. Also, if your board is further out to sea than you are, pull in before a wave knocks it at you.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

25 Ways To Annoy Your Parents

By Graham

1. Repeat the same sentence again and again. Really, repeat the same sentence again and again. Repeat the same sentence again and again.

2. If you have sibling annoy them so much that you annoy your parents too.

3. During the night, when everyone is sleeping, take your mom’s best tube of lipstick and draw a mustache or goatee on her face.

4. Walk around your house creating a big racket. Stomping on a second floor is best.

5. Sing in your worst high-pitched voice.

6. Fake laugh at anything your parents say.

7. Fart.

8. Fart some more.

9. Make gagging noises and pretend to throw up.

10. Rock on your chair.

11. Talk so fast that your parents can’t understand you. When they try to speak, talk even faster.

12. Interrupt a conversation with an occasional, What? Who? When? Where?

13. Walk around the house saying, “Vat eeez up my leetle friend?” With a bad French accent.

14. Poke your sibling in the stomach repeatedly.

15. Repeat every word your parents say.

16. Talk about disgusting things during dinner.

17. Talk about disgusting things all the time.

18. When you ask a question never wait for the answer, just ask another question.

19. Pay no attention to your sibling for a whole day.

20. Jump on the beds screaming, “Hallelujah!”

21. Do your loudest burp in your dad’s ear.

22. Ignore everything your parents say and then whine when you can’t have what you want.

23. When the moon is full act crazy. Go around the house moaning and speaking in a blood-thirsty tone.

24. Drop your dirty clothes on the floor and leave them there.

25. Every once in a while throw up your hands and say, “I Love Myself!”

Warning: Use these methods at your own risk. I don’t want to get in trouble.

Monkey in My Face

By Louise

Dios mios! Cielos! My family has turned into a bunch of whiners. They’re all complaining that they are doing all the writing and I haven’t done anything. If I weren’t stuck with them for the next month... The reality is, I can’t keep up with Andrew’s humor and our kids’ stories. I’m not sure what to write about, plus I’m feeling a tad grumpy.

See, we knew our luck had to run out at some point. Yet the loss of our travel kharma still managed to take us by surprise and has left us all feeling a bit irritated. What happened? This last house we rented was way off from the owner’s description. Before you all start muttering that we’re a bunch of idiots to believe any online rental offer, let me just state that this was not our first rental. It was our tenth and our first dud.

Still, I know some of you are thinking: Why even consider renting in the first place? To put it simply: Kids, convenience, cost.

Before Graham burst onto the scene, we promised ourselves that kids would not stop us from traveling. We’re also realistic and knew that the way we traveled would have to change. No more staying in those, ah, character-building places (to use Andrew’s words). Moving around a lot wasn’t going to happen either. Eating out every meal? Sounds like fun with a toddler in tow. Not. And of course, there was our budget. Can you spell T-I-G-H-T?

So, starting a decade ago, we started renting vacation houses and apartments online. It meant taking a leap of faith and trusting the photos and write-ups. Lo and behold, every single place we rented was just as pictured, until this one.

Last month, northern Costa Rica was shaken by an earthquake. Downed trees and other debris made the Rio Sarapiqui and Rio San Juan un-navigable. Coincidentally, these were the same two rivers we had planned to explore for a week using local riverboat taxis. The boats were no longer running. We needed a Plan B, so we turned to our favorite Internet rental agencies for help.

We had recently spent a week on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, but we felt that the area was too built up and expensive. We could have spent another week in the area around volcano Arenal—we had a lot of fun there—but it was also beyond our budget. Instead, we decided to head to the Caribbean coast, where we had already rented a house on the beach for our last month. With high season in top gear, most of the rentals were booked, but then we happened upon a place called Mono En La Cara. It promised everything from a fully equipped kitchen to Internet service. The online description said they even had satellite TV and a DVD/CD player. We really haven’t missed TV, so that was no big deal, but it did lead us to believe that the house with ocean views in the middle of a tropical paradise was going to be of a certain quality. We emailed the owners (who live in Allentown, PA) and they responded. They sounded nice, so we made the arrangements.

A couple of days later, we boarded a bus to Puerto Viejo, on Costa Rica’s southern Caribbean coast, close to Panama. I should mention here that a few travelers, including some Costa Ricans, told us we might want to rethink spending five weeks on the Caribbean coast. Their warnings began: “Oh, the Caribbean coast… You don’t want to go there. The water is rough. The place is filthy. Snorkeling? Ha! You won’t see any fish because the reef is dead. It’s like going to Jamaica…” It went on and on. Their comments struck us as strange because all our earlier research suggested just the opposite. We’re laid-back travelers, not tourists, as the kids will tell you, so we pushed these warnings aside. We had our sights set on kicking back in a tropical house while listening to Caribbean sounds as we cooked up coconut curries and drank rum cocktails.

We boarded the bus and headed toward the coast. Arriving on the coast at Limon, the warnings turned to reality. Just 70 miles from our destination, garbage started appearing along the road. Intense rains had caused flooding in some areas and the rivers flowed with murky brown water that poured into the sea. Andrew and I stared out the bus window in horror. What had we done? The area was totally unlike any other part of Costa Rica we had visited. It looked as if we had entered a third-world country, not a tropical paradise.

Trying not to panic (while listening to Graham’s running commentary about the brown ocean and the plastic bags lining the road) we held tight. Puerto Viejo was still miles away to the south. The situation could change.

And so it did. The ocean at Puerto Viejo was clear and gorgeous. The high-tide line was littered with branches and coconuts, not garbage. The town was busy, filled with restaurants, shops, and enough American and European tourists that you couldn’t swing a surfboard without knocking one over.

The problem: the house. Not only was the area around the house not as described (picture a large pile of abandoned construction material in the middle of the yard, and the special outdoor eating area filled with scraps of wood, paint rollers, a rusty wheel barrow, bags of garbage, and two splinter-filled benches). As for the fully equipped kitchen, maybe in PA this doesn’t include pots, chopping knives, cutting board….oh the list goes on. Internet service? In our dreams. And the only music we heard was from the neighbor’s hammers. Follow up emails from an Internet café to the couple from PA were duly ignored. But we did notice that they managed to go onto their website and reword their listing pretty darn fast.

With all this said, we have enjoyed our week — outside this depressing house — in Puerto Viejo. The kids are learning to surf. We’ve knocked coconuts out of trees. And taken long walks on the beach. We are keeping our fingers crossed that the place we’ve rented for our last month is true to its word. Meanwhile, I hope I’ve got my family off my back about not writing. Now it’s time to put a little lime in the coconut and drink it all up.

My Dad: A Champion!

By Katharine

Some caterpillars can be very dangerous. Here in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica, they call caterpillars worms. On the beaches of Puerto Viejo grow almond trees. A butterfly lays her eggs in an almond tree and a few days later the worms or caterpillars are born. The caterpillars fall out of the trees and land in the sand. These caterpillars look like fuzzy sticks with hairs.

If a person accidentally steps on one of the caterpillars it squirts poison into the person’s foot. In 25 minutes the person’s body will be in complete pain. I have heard it feels as if you are on fire. The pain goes away in four hours on its own. But, if you go visit the Worm Bite Specialist, the pain will go away in five minutes with a special shot. The Worm Bite Specialist is also a regular doctor.

My Dad went to the Worm Bite Specialist because Dad’s ears were plugged and he could not hear well. We walked into the doctor’s office and sat down and began to read a magazine, when a man walked in. The man was so fat he looked as if he was going to have six babies all at once! He immediately started a conversation. We found out in the first five minutes that he was 70 years old and from California. When his mother died she left him a fortune. He told us about his money, cats, and about being robbed a lot.

No wonder he gets robbed a lot, he cannot stop talking about his money! Thankfully the receptionist called us into the doctor’s office. The office had a breathing mask, an oxygen cylinder, and bandages. On the shelves were lots of papers. First, the doctor handed my Dad a bowl which Dad put up to his neck. Next, the doctor took a syringe pushed water into Dad’s ears. Then he took a pair of tweezers and stuck them into my Dad’s ears and pulled out a piece of wax. The doctor was being funny and called the piece of wax ‘brother’ because it was so big. After that, he pulled out sister wax, mom wax, and dad wax which completed a small family. Last he took out the grandpa. It was a piece of wax the size of a marble. It was yellow, big, and GROSS! The doctor said my Dad was the champion of the most and biggest wax in all of Puerto Viejo. I am proud of my Dad!


Turning Blue

By Graham

The sky was overcast. It had started to drizzle. We were hiking on the slopes of the dormant volcano Tenorio toward the Rio Celeste.

The air was muggy and thick. Tall trees loomed over us, barely letting light in. This is the primary rainforest. Small dirt trails wound around tree roots and plants. The rainforest around Tenorio was different from other rainforests we have visited; it was a ton wetter. Moss grew everywhere, and giant tree ferns with monkey-like tails grew next to the path.

A little way in, the jungle thickened. We heard the sound of rushing water. We had come to our first obstacle. A small river, which we had to cross by hopping stones, flowed by at a fast pace. We stumbled across.

The trail became muddier, steeper, and narrower. We started to slip and slide. I noticed a hole in the ground and walked over to see what lived in it. YELP!!! I jumped back. The air coming out of it was super hot. The steam came from lava warming an underground river. After that, we saw many more steam vents, reminding us that we were hiking on a volcano.

I heard the sound of rushing water again. We arrived at another river, and my family froze like statues. The river water was the most gorgeous bright blue, unlike the blue that you see in oceans or lakes. This blue was formed by a chemical reaction of copper, carbonates, and sulfur coming from underwater volcanic vents. A waterfall, with a sound like thunder, shot out of the green jungle and fell into a blue pool below.

Further upstream we saw where a volcanic vent added the copper to the clear river water, turning it blue.

From there, we started to walk to a natural hot spring. The trail became so steep and slippery it was nearly impossible for Katharine and me to climb up. We were starting to tire. As we crossed a log bridge with no rails, Katharine lost her footing. Slurp! She fell into the mud. As Dad tried to pull her out, I walked on. Soon I was calling for help because I had fallen off the bridge and my foot was stuck in the mud. As I tried to pull my foot out, my shoe nearly came off. When I looked back at Katharine I burst into laughter. She was covered in mud.

The hot spring bubbled up from a hole in the rock at the edge of the blue river. Park rangers had used boulders to create a small pool where you could relax in the hot water. We stripped down to our swimsuits and bathed for a half hour.

On the way back to our car, the guide suddenly stopped. He whispered that he had spotted the bare-necked umbrella bird. It must have been our lucky day. The umbrella bird is very rare to see. The guide had only seen it once, two years earlier. We had been dying to see an umbrella bird ever since we mistook a crested guan for one while hiking in another park. The bird had a mohawk array of head feathers and a big red wattle. Behind it was the female; she was all black. The birds flew all around us, even right above us.

When we emerged out of the forest we were so tired we could barely stand. After seven hours of walking we were ready to go home.

Some people pay extra for mud baths.

This time, the hot air isn't coming from Graham.

Blue lagoon. Donde esta Brooke?

Where the river starts to feel blue

The author considers his next masterpiece

Monday, February 23, 2009

Pigs In a Blanket

By Katharine Frances Barbour

It was a dark and stormy night when we finally reached our hotel, Leaves & Lizards, overlooking Costa Rica’s Arenal Volcano. It had taken nine long, hard hours to get there from Samara.

The owners of Leaves & Lizards also ran a farm across the road. After we looked around the hotel, we headed toward the barn. It had nine horses and about fifty chickens and four turkeys. I was most interested in a cement stall in which stood a pregnant piece of bacon. Well, it was not bacon yet but if my dad had a knife we would have had a nice breakfast. The pig was as big as a full-size refrigerator. I didn’t want to go in the stall because I was afraid of getting crushed to death.

The owner, Debbie, said that the pig might have its babies that night. She promised that she would wake us up if that happened. The next day, though, the pig still had not given birth. So, we set off to do chores with the caretaker, Carlos. We collected the eggs, and fed and brushed the horses. We could not milk the cow because it was away getting bred with a bull.

Every time we returned from a hike or a trip, we would look in and see if the pig had had her piglets. Four days went by without any piglets, but on the fifth day she had them. Thirteen little piglets, three girls and ten boys. They were brown, pink, pink with black spots, and brown with black spots. When you picked one up, it would scream like crazy. They sounded like human babies. I thought they were adorable.

I sat in the stall with the piglets for hours watching them. They would fight over milk and get squashed by each other. They fell asleep drinking milk. My favorite piglet was the first born. He was pinkish-white and the size of both my hands. He was one of the weakest, probably a runt. He would try to get milk but he wasn’t tall enough to reach it, so he would go to the bottom and get squashed.

Debbie said that the strongest piglets would go in a different pen after six weeks, and the runts would stay for a couple more weeks with their mom.

On the last day my brother and I got to milk a cow. Milking the cow felt really cool because the udders were like jets. When you squeezed a teat, the milk would shoot everywhere. We got 2 gallons of milk. Debbie and her husband Steve will make cheese, butter, and buttermilk with it.

Miss Piggy,um, where's Kermit?

Jamón, Proscuitto, Serrano, Cappacola, Chorizo, Smithfield...

I'm calling him Bacon!

Boston Butt?

Udderly fascinating.

Ant She Sweet

By Andrew

I’m starting to worry about our children. While we were in Ecuador, I was tickled to see the children attack strange new foods with gusto: They would have made an anteater proud the way they hoovered up lemon ants in the Amazon jungle; a jaguar could not have dismembered a guinea pig with greater élan. If it moved, they ate it, mainly because the locals seemed happy to eat it, too.

With our shift to Costa Rica, I thought that such adventures were behind us. In many ways, Costa Rica could qualify as the 51st state. San Jose is a neon blur of McDonald’s, Burger Kings, Taco Bells, and Pizza Huts. Tour buses disgorge hordes of American and European visitors at the country’s major sights; expat Americans have built homes in every little beach hamlet. And, distressingly, our Spanish has ground to a halt because everyone seems to speak English rather well—certainly better than we speak Spanish.

I fully expected our kids to start ordering hamburguesas y papas fritas at every stop. A little American-style cholesterol to clear the palate. But no. It seems our kids have gone wild. Mowgli and Baloo have arrived in Costa Rica.

A week ago, we took a boat tour up the Rio Negro, on the Nicaraguan border. On board was a large family from Buffalo on spring break and a couple of newlyweds from Orlando. In many ways, it was a gentle repeat of earlier adventures. A guide pointed out howler and capuchin monkeys, caimans, sloths, and a wide variety of river birds.

Toward the end of the trip, the captain nosed the boat into the bank so we could disembark to look for roseate spoonbills in an adjoining marsh. The spoonbills had obviously run away with some dish, so we traipsed back toward the boat.

Graham suddenly gave a small cry, not dissimilar to the noise made by my mother upon opening a box of chocolate truffles. He bent down and picked up a dried acacia seed pod on which a few ants were visible.

“Can we eat them?” he asked the guide.

The guide, obviously unaware that our children were raised by wolves, misunderstood the question.

“The seeds? No, you cannot eat them. But look inside.” He broke the pod in two and termites poured out.

“We call these carrots of the forest,” he continued. “The indigenous people eat…”

He got no further before Katharine snared some termites from the pod and prepared for inhalation.

“No!!!!!” screamed a young university student from the Buffalo family, grabbing Katharine’s hand and wrenching it away from her mouth.

A look of utter confusion crossed Katharine’s face. Had she committed some breach of etiquette? Should she have offered her elders the termites first?

The student, who obviously felt that she had saved a challenged child from imminent harm, held Katharine in a vice-like grip while giving us an accusatory stare.

“Do they really taste like carrots?” asked Louise. “The last ones we ate tasted like citrus.”

Sensing that she was holding the cub of a deranged and possibly dangerous family, the student sprang away from Katharine, who immediately declared that it was snack time.

Graham and Katharine set about the termites, comparing tasting notes, while the student did dry heaves in the leaf litter by the boat.

Two days later, we were hiking with our guide through thick primary forest on the slopes of Volcan Tenorio, one of Costa Rica’s many dormant volcanoes. We stopped to examine a bullet ant, a very large specimen named for the extreme pain caused by its bite—and its sting.

“Can I eat it?” asked Graham. Slightly nonplussed, the guide explained that the mandibles of the ant would surely give your lip or tongue a nasty bite, to say nothing of the ant’s stinger.

“What if we ripped off its head and bottom and just ate the middle bit,” queried Katharine.

After that, the guide picked up his pace noticeably. I think he was worried about being caught in the rainforest with us after dusk.

Go With the Flow

By Graham

We were walking on a small trail winding in and out of the Costa Rican jungle. In the distance we could see our destination, Volcano Arenal. One of six active volcanoes in Costa Rica, Arenal looks just the way you would imagine: It’s a perfect cone. Rain forest covers the lower slopes, while higher up the mountain is bare volcanic rock. Steam pours out of the crater at the top.

About halfway along the trail, we heard a sound like thunder. What could it be? Was it a storm? Emerging from the jungle, we came face to face with a wall of volcanic rock. It was about 20 feet high and was formed during an eruption in 1992. When we reached the top, we all gasped. We had a great view of Arenal. We hiked over the old lava flow until we reached the end of the trail. We could go no further because of the danger of being caught in an eruption. I climbed to the top of a very tall rock. There I sat and watched the mountain.

Suddenly, I saw dust billowing up on the right flank of the volcano and heard the rumbling noise again. An eruption sent half-molten boulders bouncing down the mountain. They sounded like a wrecking ball destroying a building. Because we were so far away, the boulders looked like little black marbles, but they were actually about the size of a tractor-trailer. A massive cloud of dust and smoke exploded behind them.

We all thought of how painful it would be to be flattened by one. Now we are excited about hiking the dormant volcano Tenorio.

Monday, February 9, 2009

La Selva

By Katharine and Graham

It was night. We were walking through the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador with only a flashlight to guide us through the darkness. Without street lights it was hard to see. Trees loomed over us casting scary shadows in all directions. We heard screeches, clicks, squawks and croaks as we walked. The trail thinned. We tripped over logs. The guide spotted something that could give you nightmares. It was a six-inch insect called a spiny lobster. It was brownish-red and had a pointy rear. It is the biggest insect in the rainforest.

With so many bugs in the rainforest, it's amazing to see the biggest one. For now it is the biggest, but new bugs will be discovered, some very small and some massive. We walked on. Bats flew overhead and insects crawled at our feet, making us jump. It was scary. Suddenly, the guide stopped. He said he smelled jaguar. We all went quiet. Maybe we would spot one. Our luck failed. We knew it was too good to be true. Later on we came across a tarantula the size of a baseball. It was brown and black and camouflaged with the trees. We thought it would crawl off the tree and onto one of us.

The next day, we were paddling in a big canoe in search of the anaconda our guide had seen before, when a big splash nearly tipped the boat.We were really startled. The guide said it was a manatee. Later we found the anaconda in a hollow tree. It was 23 feet long and as thick as a man's waist. Our guide knew it was that big because he had seen it out of the tree. Anacondas are one of the world's largest snakes. They constrict their prey and then swallow it whole.

To be able to see all the animals that we saw, people need to stop cutting down the rainforests. If all 3.5 billion acres of rainforest are cut down, the world would be an entirely different place: The climate would change, there would less food, and tons of animals would go extinct. All this could happen in just 40 years. The rainforest gives us 80% of the food we eat, including rice, cloves, pepper, bananas, peanuts, yams, oranges, cinnamon, sugar, onions, vanilla, pineapples, lemons, and coconuts. They also provide lots of medicines. Why would anyone want to chop them down?

Sabias Que:

50% of Earth's animals live in the rainforest.

Rainforests act as an air conditioner; they store and absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen.
More than 20% of the world's oxygen is made by the Amazon rainforest.

You can help save the rainforests by recycling, buying reusable bags, and storing food in reusable containers; in winter, turn down your heat and wear a sweater, and don't leave water running when not using it.

Spiny lobster. Best served a la meuniere.

Tarantula, up close and personal.

Pygmy marmoset, smallest monkey in the world.

16-foot anaconda, the smaller of the two we saw.

Ain't bad. In fact, tastes like lemon pie. Lemon ants. Yum!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

How To Eat Your Pet in Four Easy Steps

By Louise

Andrew was right when he wrote that our family will eat almost anything (see previous post). When we saw the paunchy, lip-smacking host of a Travel Channel show tuck into cuy asado, an Ecuadorian specialty, we knew that we had to taste it, too. For months we talked about it. Would we get to choose our own live victim (as the TV host did), or would we just eat what was served? The family was split on the live-dead question. Being softer, gentler souls, Graham and I decided that we did not want to bond with our dinner–we would eat what was served. Plus, we did not want to wait a long time for a freshly plucked...guinea pig.

That's right, in Ecuador, the guinea pig is no mascota, it's lunch. So, after our wanderings up and down Rocafuerte Street, we were ready to sit down for some real chow. We wanted rodent and we wanted it badly. Unfortunately, in spite of the TV lip-smacker's assurance that cuy was readily available in Quito, we couldn't find least not in the fine establishments we frequent (please see earlier posts). So we hit the road.

We boarded a bus to a town called Baños (that would be baths, as in hot springs, not toilets). We didn't actually travel by bus for four hours just to eat cuy; we went for other stuff, too. Like taffy. And rafting, zip lines, bridge jumping, and the thermal baths. I guess the town figures if you're ready to zip yourself across a gorge, fling yourself off a bridge, and hurl yourself at rapids on a raging brown river, you need some solid comfort food, such as guinea pig. How right they were.

Enough chatter. Here it is, in four easy steps how to eat your pet:

Step 1: Examine before you purchase. Grab tightly behind the neck: Is there a enough fat on the critter? Are its haunches meaty? Squeezing is good. Pinching better. Ignore the squeals.

Step 2: Before you start cleaning your purchase, light the fire. It should be hot, but not too hot--you don't want any flare ups. Carefully thread your cuy onto a hand rotisserie. Someone will need to turn it often so it doesn't burn. Season with salt and pepper. Brush with melted fat, paprika, and garlic.

Step 3: Baste often. When the cuy is brown and crispy it's ready to eat.

Step 4: Enjoy with rice and potatoes. One cuy is plenty for our family of four.

Tastes like chicken! No, pork! Chicken! Pork!

Surprisingly, Katharine did not eat this.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Riding the Porcelain Honda down the Avenue of Volcanoes

By Andrew

Compared with Buenos Aires, which is essentially a European city, Ecuador poses a worthy intestinal challenge. The food is exotically different, the hygiene rudimentary, and the water laced with hostile pathogens. Prominently displayed on the CDC fact sheet on Ecuador is a stark warning: "Do not eat food purchased from street vendors."

Being a stubborn family of limited imagination, we took this as a direct challenge. No sooner had we set down our luggage than we headed out the door on a gustatory tour of Rocafuerte Street.

We hadn't progressed more than 10 yards before we spied a vendor surrounded by a knot of laborers. Having finished a snack just 10 minutes earlier, Graham was understandably famished. He galloped across the street, peered into the vendor's pot, and uttered the one phrase that we have truly mastered: "Que es?" The answer, ceviche de chocho, helped us not a jot.

The pot was filled with what looked like mutant cannellini beans, while our knowledge of ceviche extended only to marinated, raw seafood. Raw. Street food. Sure, why not? The lady ladled some of the beans into a bowl, tossed them with a salsa of lime, cilantro, onion, and tomato, and topped it all with toasted kernels of corn. Only later did we learn that chocho is the bean of the Andean lupin. Whatever. It was very, very good.

At times, our family struggles with its table manners. When the food is both tasty and limited, however, it just gets plain ugly. Ravening dogs with a bratwurst make less noise than the snarling, snapping melee that ensued.

Pausing long enough to wipe some tomato off Katharine's ear, we zigged across the street to snag a couple of empanadas de viento, pastries that puff up like a balloon when they are fried. Topped with sugar and stuffed with a little queso tierno, they provided a delicious, greasy counter-balance to the acidic ceviche.

Back across Rocafuerte we went to the next vendor, who was tending a charcoal brazier. Wafting through the clear mountain air was the unmistakable aroma of grilled chicken feet. As owner of 30 chickens herself, Katharine is "the decider" on all matters fowl. She picked out the biggest patito, which was duly presented to her wrapped in a paper towel. Clutching this gnarled talon, she wandered down the street, nibbling absentmindedly. Dressed in her sober brown poncho, she looked like Madeline as conjured by Edgar Allen Poe. I half expected her to scratch her back with her snack.

Meanwhile, displaying admirable peripheral vision, Graham had flagged down a rotund indigenous woman laden with a huge tray of some sweet that resembled Great Stuff Foam Filler, albeit topped with raspberry sauce. It wasn't ice cream, it wasn't sabayon, it was... "Uno, por favor," said Graham, who at night dreams of waving fields of sugar cane. It was some kind of fluffy meringue, so sweet that I actually heard my molars scream.

We worked our way down Rocafuerte Street like pinballs, bouncing from one vendor to another, from one side of the street to the other: Pan chocolate, skewers of mystery meat, banana fritters, humitas (a type of tamale), on and on...

Just when it appeared we were losing steam, we chanced upon a juice joint that was cranking out freshly squeezed glasses of orange, pineapple, mango, passion fruit, carrot, coconut, plus a host of fruits we had never heard of. The first glass of maracuya was heaven, which prompted a second, followed by a glass of mango, then some carrot juice. After two months of all things beef, we wallowed in Ecuador's fruity goodness. In five minutes, we consumed more fruit than the average family consumes in a year. The quantity of fruit alone would have torpedoed the digestive tracts of most mortals, yet we pressed on.

During the course of our walk, Louise had spotted several vendors selling giant seed pods that were easily three feet long. Imagine a snap pea grown at Chernobyl and you get the picture. After a long discussion with the vendor that cast serious doubt on Louise's ability to work at the UN, we understood that we needed to break open the pod and suck on the seeds inside.

We spent the next half hour at home with knives, scissors, and various power tools before we cleaved our way through the pod's leathery hide. The black seeds, about the size of a New York cockroach, were couched in a feathery white fluff. Apparently, this was the good stuff. We each popped a seed into our mouths and sucked away. It wasn't bad--cotton candy meets vanilla pudding. Graham, Katharine, and I sucked one seed each, while Louise whomped into several more.

You have probably realized by now that our family has no business in a place like Las Vegas: We're not very good at playing the odds. In Russian roulette, for example, only one of six chambers is loaded with a bullet. In our street-food version of the game, we loaded our only chamber with a dozen culinary bullets. You do the math. From a hygiene perspective alone, we could just as easily have knelt and licked Rocafuerte Street.

It was only a matter of time before Houston was notified of a problem. And Louise, who is very competitive, had to be first. Between frequent trips to the bathroom, she reviewed her list of food suspects, eventually fingering the guaba seed pod, the only hermetically sealed food that we had consumed. Go figure.

Even if we hadn't hoovered up the better part of Rocafuerte Street, we knew this moment was coming. Before our trip began, Louise and I had pinpointed Ecuador as the country where our family would battle traveler's diarrhea, otherwise known as Delhi Belly, Montezuma's Revenge, or Abu's Blueberry Squishy. But we would sooner have stayed at home than not eat the local grub.

We did set some ground rules, however. Outside Quito (the water in the city is apparently fine), we employ the same street-food rules that we used on our year-long Africa trip: (1) Only eat where others are eating; (2) No raw salads; (3) No cooked foods that are cold; (4) No unboiled water.

If you're going to eat local foods, though, you have to face a simple fact: Sooner or later, you will end up riding the porcelain Honda.

Over the next three weeks, we devoured roasted pig, mote, and humitas while standing ankle deep in je ne sais quoi at the animal market in Otavalo; we wolfed down llapingachos and empanadas while admiring llamas at the sprawling market in Sasquisili; we sucked the snot-like innards from little fruits ripped from the banks of the Rio Pastasa as we rafted down the rapids; and we feasted on bowls of seafood ceviche in the Quito market, accompanied by huge glasses of batido made from babaco (a star fruit the size of a rugby ball). If locusts had suddenly ascended the Andean heights, we would have sneered at them as rank amateurs. Only bull-penis soup eluded us.

When explorer Alexander von Humboldt first saw Ecuador's central valley, sandwiched between the twin cordilleras of the Andes, he named it the Avenue of the Volcanoes, in honor of the eight active volcanoes whose snowy peaks loom on either side. If Al were to return today, he would be interested to find new volcanic activity in the valley itself, centered on a colonial house in Rocafuerte Street.

Yes, we have sometimes paid a price for our market munchies. At any given time over the past three weeks, at least one person in the family has suffered from seismic rumbles or lava flows.

Katharine, bless her heart, generally eschews the splashy explosions that garner all the media attention. She displays her seismic perturbations via side vents and fumaroles. Make no mistake, these can be as destructive as any Krakatoa-style event. You may have seen the National Geographic film about a lake in Africa where animals come to drink and then simply drop dead from the poisonous fumes. Watch carefully and you will see a cute little girl sitting by the lake, reading.

Generally, we have traveled around Ecuador by bus. With journeys averaging three to four hours and no bathroom on board, we have been forced to develop a contingency plan that goes beyond simple sphincter-clenching. We briefly toyed with the idea of going local after we watched a young boy poop in a shopping bag held by his mother. Since neither of us could agree on who would be left holding the bag, the idea was quietly dropped. Instead, at a predetermined emergency signal, we will simply shout "Bajo!", grab our bags, and exit the bus en masse. Buses run fairly frequently and we would rather wait a few minutes than be caught in a prolonged squeeze play.

Three of us (Louise excepted) recently experienced significant volcanic activity at the same time. Unhappily, it coincided with our stay at an ultra-green eco-lodge tucked away in the mountains. The food was vegetarian, everything was recycled, and the en suite toilets were "dry." A dry toilet is essentially a long drop, with one key difference: After each visit to the toilet, you shovel wood shavings (stored in a handy bucket by your side) on top of your work and walk away. The idea is that the toilet is an odor-free composter that saves water and provides a rich fertilizer for the inn's fruit trees.

When the earnest American inn-keeper built the toilets, he couldn't possibly have envisaged that Cotopaxi, Pinchincha, and Tungurahua would all be staying in the same room. By the end of the first day, the mound of wood shavings in our toilet would have led any sane person to suspect that a rabid beaver was loose down there.

As for the smell, the wood chips were about as useful as Lady Speedstick on a skunk. The maid simply stopped coming into our room; she left whatever we needed outside the door and then ran. I briefly considered torching our hut and asking for another room, but the inn was full.

If only the horror had ended there. A week earlier, we had made the mistake of instructing Graham and Katharine to monitor their stool for signs of blood, which can be a symptom of something serious. Unfortunately, every stray tomato skin now led to screams of horror and demands for parental inspection.

After two days, neither of us were inclined to go into that wood-chip nightmare without a full Haz-Mat suit. So when Graham called to us, we stared at each other aghast. Fortunately, Louise lost the coin toss. Seconds later, she came reeling out of the bathroom, fingers clawing at her eyes, her face frozen in a ghastly rictus. She fell onto the bed, adopting a pose eerily reminiscent of the bodies found at Pompeii, their horrified faces preserved forever in volcanic stone.

Graham's voice followed her out of the bathroom: "Mom, I think we need more wood chips."

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Day At the Market

Sasquisili Market

Me llamo Llama.

Paper or plastic?

Not sure what's going on here. But the cows look like they're winning.

Juicy fruit, ain't she cute!

Bricks of sugar. Sponsored by the ADA.

OK, no artificial coloring or flavoring here.