Monday, August 29, 2011


The flight from Ecuador to Madrid was a killer – not so much while we were actually on it, but dealing with a combination of lack of sleep and problems adjusting to the time change really wiped us out.  We arrived at about 4am our time having had very little shut eye.  We had to clear customs, change money, shoulder our packs and find the cheap bus into town (40 mins).  From there we walked around until we managed to locate the apartment we had reserved ahead.  Ecuador had been a good first choice country because they use the American dollars for currency and we know some very basic Spanish.  Spain kept us in Spanish, but introduced us to the Euro (ouch) as well as the need to conquer public transportation.  Mark’s iphone and mapping apps have definitely been coming in handy.

We have been finding budget apartments (looking on vrbo and flip key) are cheaper than even the cheap hotels because European hotels generally refuse to allow 4 people in a room – even when the kids are younger than ours.  So that means we must pay the room rate times two.  Hostels aren’t usually a great option either because they charge per person and times four that really adds up as well.  The apartments also usually have wifi, full kitchens, more than one room and when we are lucky an outdoor space.

The apartment in Madrid was kind of depressing, but in a decent neighborhood, and what saved the day was a great little sidewalk cafĂ© right outside our door that gave us our first introduction to tapas (my favorite thing about Spain).  Also it had a washing machine and so we spent most of those first days doing our laundry and trying to get over a bad case of jet lag.  

We did make it to the Prado Museum though and enjoyed that.  Last minute train tickets to Lisbon and or Barcelona (our first choices) proved too expensive, but I finally located a cheap beach destination (Valencia via the 5 hour slow train). 

The Valencia apartment proved more to our liking.  Even though it was tiny and smelled somewhat of mildew, it was cute and just a 5 minute walk from the beach.  Mark and I slept in a tiny loft and the kids had the futon and living room.

The city of Valencia itself, Mark said, reminded him of Long Beach but in a good way, and I agree.  We even went to Spain’s version of the aquarium there.  It was a bit of a cross between that and Sea World.  We splurged for those tickets but it made for a fun day.

Staying in budget in Europe in August was definitely a bit of a challenge, even in Spain. We are for the most part eating one main meal a day (at about 9pm currently) and making do the rest of the time with a snack here and there.   Mark did cook us a really good spaghetti dinner one night that made the kids especially happy.

Tomorrow we fly to Morocco.  There will be yet a new currency and not a single language we know a word of.  It should be a challenge, and we are really looking forward to a new landscape and culture.  We will be there about 10 days before flying back to Madrid to take an overnight train to Lisbon, Portugal where we will stay for a week.  From Lisbon we will fly to Paris.  After that we will head to Frankfurt Germany where we are looking forward to staying with our good friends the Buzbees.

It is now very close to the end of our first month on the road.  That is already 1/9th of our trip!  It is too early to make any major generalizations, but for the most part we are managing well and getting along.  While we miss people and even things from home (most often food), we don’t wish ourselves back there - yet.

Monday, August 22, 2011


Quito is the capital of Ecuador and sits at almost 10,000 feet above sea level.  It was so strange flying in as we are used to seeing cities situated in valleys with mountains rising around them.  Quito however sits on what looks like the sawed off tops of mountains with deep crevices separating the different parts of the city.  We were warned our lungs would take a few days to adjust to the altitude, and mine definitely did.

We arranged before we left home to hook up with the Quito Iglesia de Christo (Church of Christ) and the EQEB (Escuela Quitena de Estudios Biblicos) to meet some fellow Christians, learn about the work they do there and hopefully help out a bit.  We weren’t sure though quite exactly what to expect.  It turned out to absolutely exceed all of our expectations.  Our contact Kent Marcum was in the states while we were here, but made thorough arrangements for us.  For starters the hotel he reserved for us was super nice - two large rooms with a connecting door and large corner windows with an inspiring view of the mountains.  Then the staff at the school (thank you Joshua and Byron) were so welcoming.  Our assignment turned out to be painting the exterior wall and fence of the lovely colonial style building that belongs to the school.  That was a bit intimidating as it is a very pretty building and I certainly didn’t want to be responsible for messing it up!  Luckily we have Mark who knows his way around a paintbrush.  He quickly took charge, and Wilder, Peyton and I just did what he told us.  In the end we were tired and sore and proud of our work.  We also enjoyed meeting many of the students of the school and members of the church and learning about all of the work they do there.

In our free time in Quito we caught up on our internet work (school for kids and travel planning for me), toured the President’s Palace and Quito’s Cathedral and also scaled the very impressive Basilica (the kids said it was more fun than a Disneyland ride – I wussed out and waited where the stairs turned into what looked like scaffolding).  We also ate some good meals and continued Peyton’s tour of around the world ice cream.  We have figured out that food has become a big focus of each and every day.  We spend a lot of time figuring out where we will get it and trying to make sure it doesn’t cost too much.  Then it turns out that whether or not we like it can really affect our mood.  I think that between our activity level and the relative scarcity of food we are keen to eat, we have definitely already lost a few pounds (so for those of you betting – you now know who is ahead).  This of course is not at all unwelcome!

On the last day, before we caught our flight out to Madrid, we attended services with the congregation at Quito.  Much to the embarrassment of the kids, I found myself getting teary eyed during the song service.  Something about 500 Ecuadorians singing hymns I’ve known since childhood translated into Spanish and in enthusiastic acapella unison just filled my soul to overflowing.  I tried to explain later to the kids how that will invariably result in water leaking from my eyes, but somehow I don’t think they got it.  I will just have to hope that something on this trip will affect them similarly, even if the evidence isn’t quite so visible.

We are headed now for Madrid, Spain.  We’ve made a reservation at an apartment in the heart of the city for the first three days.  After which we hope to book train tickets to Portugal before catching our flight on August 30th to Morocco.  In the meantime however we are NOT looking forward to the 12 plus hour trip in coach seats!

Thank you so much for all of the emails and comments on Facebook.  We are so happy to hear any news of home, and your encouragement makes all the difference.  I think I can report that we have finally got our trip legs and are looking forward to whatever comes next.

Friday, August 19, 2011

7 Nights on the Beagle

We ended up being happy with our splurge on a expedition cruise of the islands, as well as with our choice of boat.  The Beagle is a beautiful 105 foot sailing schooner built in England in the 1970’s with teak decks and wood accents everywhere.  We were told by our naturalist guide that it is currently for sale for 3 million dollars.  We had two cabins, 1 a bit larger than the other but both very well appointed and comfortable.  The shower was even good, which is something we are already appreciating.  Much like when I hit the airport hallway, when we climbed on board I felt instantly happy.  Just sitting on deck felt decadent – to me at least.  The rest of the family took some wooing, especially since the kids were still fighting a combination of sea sickness and the side effects of the sea sickness remedies we tried.  (I used the patch and never felt sick to my stomach).

We were kept pretty busy the whole week, and it was without a doubt the world’s best science lesson.  Most days there were three activities.  In the morning we would dingy over to the island we had navigated to while we slept, and hike among the amazing resident birds and mammals.  The most remarkable thing about the Galapagos is that the animals have absolutely no fear of humans.  This means that many of the photos you see I took without using any zoom.  Then there is the fact that most of the species of birds and animals don’t exist anywhere else in the world.  After our hike we would return to the boat for lunch.  After lunch we would snorkel, often in deep water around a free-standing rock formation. There was lots and lots to see each and every time - turtles, sharks, eels, sting rays.  The best however was undoubtedly the sea lions.  They loved to play with us.  They would even grab our fins and tug on them – they reminded us of aqua golden receivers!  In the afternoon we would motor (or sail when lucky) to another spot to do a wet beach landing and tour another part of the island.  Back at the boat we would have cocktail hour, dinner and then fall exhausted into our bunks.  We were usually awoken however sometime past midnight when the big swells rolled us around in our bunks.  A couple of nights Mark and Wilder played poker with some of our fellow passengers.  It won’t surprise anyone that knows Wilder that he cleaned house!

Though being on a boat for a whole week felt a little difficult sometimes, overall it was a great experience and an excellent start to our RTW.  Next stop Quito.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Guyaquil, Isla Santa Cruz and Isla Isabela

Guayquil, Isla Santa Cruz and Isla Isabela

Our flight connected though Atlanta and arrived in Guayaquil all without a hitch.  We had concerns about catching a taxi at midnight to our pre-reserved hostal as there had been a lot of media reports about tourists being assaulted and robbed in them.  We thought we looked a lot like fresh meat. In any case the taxi driver must not have thought so because everything went ok and we arrived at our destination unmolested.  Those first two nights were the only reservations we had made for our time in Ecuador.  I found the place highly recommended online, and we ended up being very happy with our clean and cute room with a private bath, a great location, an ocean view and a loft with two beds for the kids.  All this set us back about $100 a night.  As food in Ecuador is very cheap, we had no trouble staying way under budget and averaged about $150 per day.

My plan after those first days in Guayaquil was to get air tickets to Baltra, the main airport in the Galapagos, and try to get a bargain on a last minute cruise boat from there.  For those of you that don’t know, cruises in the Galapagos are outrageously expensive.  Most boats carry only 16 people and the cheapest (somewhat scary) boats post rates of over $2500 per person for 7 nights.  Lonely Planet recommended the last minute option but cautioned it might not work in high season (August) and when you have a group larger than 2 people.  In any case we didn’t end up finding out whether or not it would have worked for us as we discovered that without having purchased the air tickets in advance there were none available for almost 2 weeks.  Turns out that the boats and the airlines work together such that the only way we could get airline tickets last minute in high season was to book a cruise.  Working though an agent on the island that was also recommended online (Jenny at Moonlight) we were able to book a 7 night cruise on a first class boat called the Beagle, which was set to depart on Aug 9.  Buying them a week ahead scored us a rate of $1250 each which was barely more than 1/3 of the published price.  This was still outside our budget, but we decided a Galapagos cruise was one of our top priorities for our trip.  We had previously agreed to make this type of decision according to the following priorities:
1-  Education
2-  Family time/bonding
3-  Service.
We couldn’t really think of a better science education than the cruise in question.  Once we decided and booked the cruise, they released air tickets, and in this way we were able to get a flight to the islands and spend 5 days there prior to boarding our cruise.

As mentioned previously our first accommodation was very nice; unfortunately our first night on Santa Cruz was pretty much the opposite.  I hadn’t booked ahead, and our budget combined with high season found us in a pretty seedy place for a grand total of $50 for two rooms. Mark and the kids thought they were “fine” but I wasn’t very happy.

  So I got busy online again.  Turns out we ended up with two good choices for the next few nights.  Jenny at Moonrise graciously offered us her personal vacation home with an ocean view for a nominal charge (basically just to pay the maid).  Who ever heard of a travel agent doing that?  She indicated though that the Tsunami had caused some damage, there were a few mice (my friends are laughing here) and no hot water.  At the same time I found a house on Flip Key with a very responsive homeowner that offered us a three bedroom house for less than ½ of what it normally rents for.  Sold!  We spent the next three nights enjoying her very high end, US standard house while exploring the island at our leisure.  It came with a washer/dryer, free wifi and a very large selection of dvds and set us back a mere $85 per night.  Since it rained a lot those first days the kids made us watch an entire season of Criminal Minds.  This was not of course terribly educational, but I figure it did meet the family bonding criteria.  In the end we had trouble tearing ourselves away from this lovely house.

What we left for was a 2 day (actually 1 day/2 night) tour of Isla Isabela.  Our cruise wasn’t scheduled to go to Isabela and we were hoping to see penguins there.  In hind site it was far too much to try to fit into less than 48 hours.  We learned we are best avoiding tours in the future, even when they are possibly cheaper than doing it independently, as being in charge of our own schedule and where/when we spend money we’ve discovered is very important to us.  On the bright side, it turned out to be a stellar start to my “Around the World Fitness Plan” as the first scheduled activity was a volcano hike that was advertised as 6 miles round trip, but turned out to be in excess of 11, half of it up hill.  I made it, but barely.  Then after 5 ½ hours of hiking, instead of resting we had 10 minutes to change before heading off to a snorkeling session and a 1 hour nature walk.   
                                                                                                            The food was of the tour variety, which was disappointing to us because up until that point we had been finding very inexpensive tasty food with lots of choices.  The biggest bright side however ended up being two families that we met on our tour.  One was from England (hello Carol, Troy and Evan) and one from Seattle (hi to Bruce, Lynette, Tinnly and Trevor).  They were all fun and it was great to get to talk to someone besides each other.  In a really freaky coincidence, it turns out that Lynette is a professor at Seattle Pacific University and is leading students in studies about the effect of world travel on individuals.   She graciously agreed that I might contact her after our trip to pick her brain about my own dissertation.  This was super exciting to me.  The kids were just happy to have other kids to socialize with.  Mark and I enjoyed other grown up company as well.

The worst part about the Isla Isabela trip though was neither the hike nor the tour food.  The worst part was the “speed boat” you had to take to get there and back.  I was picturing something not unlike the Catalina Express.  This was not remotely close.  Our boat held 22 passengers packed very tightly in an indoor/outdoor space with two oversized outboard engines on the back.  The 2 ½ hour trip there and back was enough to make us want to swear off boats for the rest of the trip.  It was cold outside, hot inside and crazy bouncy and wavy everywhere.  Wilder and Peyton were both sick, and on the way home in particular I was so afraid for our safety (big swells that often made us air born and a constant spray of water that left us chilled to the bone) that I resorted to singing hymns to myself for the duration.

Now that we survived the trip and are back in Punta Ayora, none of us is too keen to board another boat.  I have read lots though about what a nice boat the Beagle is and also that the cruise boats travel slower and are therefore less sea sickness inducing.  I have high hopes then that the Beagle will redeem our impression of boats as a safe and comfortable mode of transportation.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


As I lay in bed the night before our August 1 morning departure, I was having trouble remembering why I thought this whole idea was a good one.  I think all of us were.  An especially teary-eyed (or actual sobbing in the case of the teen girls) bon voyage party thrown by our best friends really took a toll on us.  The bottom line, I came to understand, is that our comfort zone had a very firm grasp on us.  In the end leaving felt like tearing ourselves away from everything we knew and cared about.  Luckily though at that point there was no turning back.  Equally good was the fact that, for me at least, that feeling only lasted until the next morning when we cleared security at LAX.  As we started down the long hallway to the gate, I found myself smiling and I developed a spring in my step.  I remembered then that I love traveling, that it is a fabulous adventure and a top-notch education all rolled into one.  I felt ready to go.