Friday, April 15, 2016

Some Travel Practicalities and Planning Tips

Any time I mention our travels, I get asked how I found and arranged everything. i wish I had some amazing travel secrets, but I don't. The Kid and I have done two huge trips now - Guatemala in 2015 and Honduras in 2016. I found everything through simple google searches. Language schools are scattered throughout Central America, and most will arrange homestays. Here are a few tips:

1. Make sure your paperwork is in order. Many countries require that your passport not expire for at least six months after you enter. If only one parent is traveling, you may need a notarized form from the other parent stating that you have their permission so as not to be suspected of kidnapping your own child. (Though I have to say, no country has ever asked to see this paperwork, even when it's required. It's a little disconcerting.) If the country you are entering requires a vaccination record, you'll need to have that as well.

2. Medications. Some people travel with half a pharmacy in their bag. I only bring prescriptions, ibuprofen, children's Tylenol, and an anti-diarrhea medicine. Don't forget to check with your local doctor's offices beforehand about any recommended travel vaccines or anti-malarial medication.

3. Money. ATM cards are easiest in most parts of the world, but there are some where ATMs aren't as common or aren't as safe. You'll need to tell your bank that you're traveling, as otherwise many prevent foreign transactions as a fraud prevention measure. Traveler's checks have fallen by the wayside and aren't widely accepted in my experience. Some countries will only accept U.S. cash if it is perfect condition (not even the tiniest tear or ink mark on the bill).

For the trip to Honduras, I remembered to bring my bank card and a credit card. I remembered to make sure my bank knew I was traveling so my card would work in Honduras. I remembered to make sure the ATMs locally were safe to use (some parts of Honduras are well known to have skimmers on machines). And yet, I still forget to see what type of cards were accepted. The ATM did not accept my MasterCard. This means I could make charges at most tourist places, but I couldn't get cash. Damn it. Almost everywhere operates on a cash basis there except for the pricey tourist places. Even some of those are cash only. Fortunately, my husband was still in the U.S. and Western Union works. It barely even costs more than ATM fees, though the lines are definitely longer.

4. Pack lightly. Very, very lightly. Especially if you intend to move around from place to place, you want to be able to carry all your bags in one load.

5. Research before you go. There are so many travel sites online. Trip Advisor is a great one for hotels, restaurants, and activities. 123teachme is a well known site listing Spanish immersion schools, but it is worth noting that schools pay for inclusion so it is nowhere near comprehensive. Guatemala365 is specific to Guatemala, but with the same caveat about not being comprehensive.

As for what to research... It can get overwhelming. So, here's another list:

1. Where to go in general. What countries sound interesting to you? Do you want a small town or a city? A beach? Mountains? Forest? Are there activities that are important to you? What is your budget and can you manage in your areas of choice? These can be very specific to your family - we learned by experience that a place with no open spaces for playing was not a good choice for us, even though the area gets fantastic reviews from others. Now we know to ask about public green spaces!

2. Which language school? Some areas have a lot of choices, some just a few. Find all the reviews you can. Most areas copy the basics from each other - if the standard in that city is for classes to be 1-on-1, all the schools will do it that way. If the standard is to have group classes, all the schools will do it that way. Homestays are not common in touristy areas, but they are commonly available elsewhere. Prices are pretty standardized in some areas and quite variable in others.

Once you narrow it down, email each of your top schools to ask any specific questions. Our questions always include whether homestays include more than one student (more students means hearing more English), whether we can be sure of being placed in a homestay with other children present, and how the level of instruction is determined.

3. What else is there to do? You don't want to spend all your travel time finding ways to keep occupied. Besides, you may have very limited internet. Have a decent idea of other activities in the area and going rates. But don't try to fill up every minute of your time in advance. You'll get ideas from locals and other travelers once you arrive.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Honduras: Week 5

Roatan! How beautiful, and sunny, and beachy! Never mind the fact that I got burnt each day despite putting on SPF 70 every hour and buying a long-sleeved rash guard! It was gorgeous and I never wanted to leave.

There were hermit crab races for charity:

There were fire dancers:

There was this beach only a block from our hotel:

The Kid went parasailing:

She played with monkeys:

We saw so many starfish!


We took an all-day boat tour and had lunch on a private island:

And then... we returned home. I miss paradise.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Honduras: Week 4

Our last week in Copan Ruinas!

We started it out by touring a coffee farm. Neither The Kid nor I had previously had any idea how coffee was grown. It turns out to be grown on little trees on steep mountainsides. This was an interesting trip that managed to keep both of us engaged - perfect for our last big Copan excursion!
One coffee berry, squashed open to find the coffee bean inside

Lots of coffee bushes! Oh, glorious coffee!

I'm super pleased with our Spanish progress. I'm now able to speak in future and past tenses as well as present. The Kid has unlocked the mystery of conjugating verbs that previously eluded her and is much, much more comfortable actually using the Spanish she knows. I call that a definite success!
My daughter's teacher, during a class time trip to the park

This week was *really* hot! Three days at 95+ degrees! It's been so long since I lived without air con that I just forgot how miserable those temps can be. We spent a lot of time indoors to be out of the sun. Even ice cream would have melted too fast to eat.

We had only been out to one restaurant plus out for some snacks, so we splurged one day on a nice restaurant lunch. It was an awesome treat!

On Friday, we left school after just two hours and headed to the bus station. We had a 7 hour bus ride in front of us, which turned out to be 8.5 hours. Ugh. The Kid did great, just played on her iPad pretty much the whole time. I get carsick if I try to use a tablet or read a book in a moving vehicle, so I spent the ride watching Honduras go by out the window. We then spent one night in a hostel in La Ceiba before taking the ferry to Roatan the next day. That afternoon, we finally got to see my husband again! He met up with us for this week in Roatan, along with a family friend. Impressions and stories from Roatan will be coming next week!

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Honduras: Week 3

Allergies? Seriously? Other than mild seasonal allergies, The Kid has never shown any sign of allergies. Until now. Of course, at home, I could think about what new thing had been introduced just recently. But here, there are lots of new things. Where would I even start?

We'll probably have no idea what caused the crazy rash that covered most of her body. It was red and itchy, started slowly on Friday and by Sunday was covering her. At that point, we went to the pharmacy and asked for something for allergies. There is no wandering the aisles of a pharmacy here like at home. You walk in, there is a counter, you tell them what you want (in whatever Spanish you have), they give something to you, and you pay. As it turns out, what they had was liquid loratadine (generic Claritin) with dosing instructions in both Spanish and English. I would have preferred Benadryl, but took what I could get. Whether it was the medicine or the rash resolving itself, it did get much better in the days to follow.

After a cool weekend, the weather heated back up. I like the warmth, so no problem for me! The Kid was happy for the excuse to go for ice cream in the park. Ice cream bars cost around 15 lempiras (US$0.75) and a small ice cream cone costs 5 lempiras (US$0.25). Tuesday was hot enough that the ice cream would have melted before it could be eaten, so we opted for licuados instead. Licuados are fresh fruit, sugar, water, and ice blended together and absolutely wonderful.

Climbing trees is a great pasttime no matter what the country!

As before, school is great but uneventful. The Kid is learning to conjugate irregular verbs. I'm learning how to use the past tense. We get a lot more practice now in our homestay. We talk to people at the table over meals. The Kid plays with the seven year old. (The seven year old goes to the bilingual school and is reasonably fluent in English, but happy to operate mostly in Spanish with The Kid, so it works well. They start with Spanish and if there is difficulty, they try flipping into English.)

On Saturday, we headed to the hot springs. Soaking in warm water for three hours was a bit much for The Kid, who kept wanting to move around and splash, so I felt like I spent all my time trying to corral her and zero of my time relaxing. The night before, it rained, making the rural roads muddy and difficult for the van driver to navigate, meaning the "40 minute ride"each way turned into an 80 minute ride each way. Overall, I have to say between the long ride and corralling The Kid, this excursion was more of a bust. We did both like the natural mud bath.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Honduras: Week 2

Week 2 started with a bit of a stomach upset for me. Nothing major, just traveler's sickness. Still, it meant very little food for about two grumpy days. The Kid seems to have an iron stomach.

Still, we had plans. Sunday, we went to Enchanted Wings, a small mariposaria (butterfly farm). It was pretty, totally worth the quick trip.

Monday morning, The Kid and I had a talk about our "B&B homestay". We had both enjoyed our homestay last year in Guatemala and were pretty disappointed not to be living with a family here. During the first week, The Kid played with two other kids here, but they both speak fluent English. The adults were too busy working to spend much time letting me practice my Spanish. We had specifically wanted to live with a family, not a hotel. After classes, we talked to the school director, who promised to look into other possibilities for our homestay.

School was uneventful. Every day, we went and learned new things. Every afternoon, we did our homework. We're definitely learning more and more.

Studying in the garden after class

Friday, we moved to our new homestay. There was an awkward conversation with the first homestay trying to explain that we liked them and didn't want to hurt their feelings, but wanted to live with a traditional family while in Honduras. The new homestay was exactly what we hoped for! We settled in immediately, had some wonderful soup for lunch, and started learning names. That afternoon, we walked about this new part of town with a couple of local children, including the seven year old granddaughter of our homestay mom and a neighbor. Oh, I wish I were better at mental mapping!

The one downside to the new homestay - they do not have Internet. It's been a while since I've been without internet for any appreciable amount of time and I forgot how isolating it can feel. There is Internet at the school, but not much time in which to use it.

Saturday, we went to the bird sanctuary. In English, it is known by the name Macaw Mountain. To the locals, it is El Parque de Aves. Either way, it was an absolutely gorgeous place to walk through the forest. They have a number of very nice, large cages for a variety of parrots and toucans, obtained either as unwanted house pets or confiscated by the government when found in illegal trade busts. There is a small breeding program to reintroduce macaws (guacamayas) to the nearby ruins, where there is already a flock thriving.

With a macaw at the sanctuary

Some of the flock of macaws at the ruins

We capped off that visit with a stop at The Tea and Chocolate Place (el luger de té y chocolate), an amazing place that grows absolutely everything they sell - the plants for the teas, the cacao for the chocolates, any herbs used... All of it, and all organically. The Kid ordered the best hot chocolate either of us had ever had, ground cacao unfiltered in the milk and just a touch of sweetness. We took advantage of the unusual selection to buy an Equinox present for my husband and a couple small presents for our homestay family. I also squirreled away a package of freshly ground cacao to make more of that amazing hot chocolate at home!

Lots of freshly roasted cacao beans!

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Honduras: Week 1

The Kid and I traveled to Honduras for five weeks! Some of our adventures from week 1:

Getting there: a plane from Indy to Miami and then another to San Pedro Sula. Our plane arrived too late for the last bus to Copan Ruinas, so we took a hired car. This made for a loooong day of travel! We woke around 4am and arrived at our destination around 7pm (6pm local time). I exchanged some money, which seemed totally sketchy as it was exchanged by some guy standing in the airport holding onto a big wad of cash and a calculator, but this is apparently the actually official way to do it.

We had a cheap upgrade to first class! Woot!
When we woke and took a look around, we discovered that our "homestay" was actually a small B&B. Hmmm. We had been looking forward to staying with a local family, as we did in Guatemala last year. We debated but decided to give this place a shot. The owner's 6yo granddaughter comes around frequently, which is a big plus for The Kid.

Our "B&B homestay"

We took a walk and found that this parque centro had a lot of kids and a tiny bit of green space - major improvement over last year! Plus someone selling little ice cream cones for only 5 lempiras ($0.25).

The parque central as seen from the second floor of a nearby coffee shop
Monday was our first day at Escuela Guacamaya. The Kid gets two hours of one-on-one instruction per day and I get four hours. Really, 3 1/2 hours and a break. Day 1 included each of our instructors trying to figure out what we know, which can't be easy with the odd hodgepodge of Spanish learning we've each had.

Throughout the week, we've been thrilled with the teaching we've had. The Kid already has the usual "kid basics" down - colors, foods, animals, basic nouns - and they've been working a lot on verbs, expressing opinions, etc. there's lots of game playing and she has "homework" for the first time. Most of the first week has been closing holes in my own knowledge, increasing vocabulary, and trying to work on my horrendous accent.

All of our meals are provided at our B&B homestay, but we have gone out for some snacks. Ice cream bars are available in most of the little stores for under US$1. We had this feast of a huge piece of torta, a cup of Honduran coffee, and a licuado (smoothie) for US$5 at a cafe downtown.

Torta and drinks

On Saturday, the end of our first week, we visited the Mayan ruins that the town is named for. In addition to the ruins themselves, The Kid was thrilled to finally get her first tuk tuk ride of this trip! A tuk tuk is kind of like a three-wheeled, semi-enclosed taxi. They're cheap and plentiful, but we don't take many because it feels too lazy!

After the ruins, we had a late lunch at Pizza Copan. That's right, American food! I forget how awesome comfort food tastes after a week of eggs, beans, and tortillas.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

New Goals: A Side Effect of Child-Chosen Classes

As I talked about a few posts ago, The Kid gets to choose two classes per six-week session of school. We brainstormed a big list of things she might want to choose for classes based on current interests and things she has randomly mentioned.

She really, really wants classes with other kids. There are no academic co-ops available to us. She knows about online classes, so she asked to be able to take one of those - online kids are definitely better than no kids! After some exploring, The Kid decided she would like to try a class through Athena's Advanced Academy next fall. So, yay, I won't even have to teach all her classes next fall!

Most of Athena's classes have similar prerequisites - a minimum reading level, being comfortable speaking in an online classroom, the ability to give 4-5 sentence responses to forum questions. She's got the reading levels and the ability to talk (boy, does she ever!). But she's a hunt-and-peck typist and when I told her she would have to write her answers in paragraph form she asked me what a paragraph was.

Per our new scheduling, she gets to choose two classes for spring and two for summer, so she has already chosen that spring includes typing and summer includes paragraph composing. Yay for being able to set goals!