October 8, 2012

Travel With Kids: Nick Cannon Family Day Event - Red Carpet Arrivals...

Travel With Kids: Nick Cannon Family Day Event - Red Carpet Arrivals...: Nathan and Seamus of Travel With Kids TV show on PBS got to meet Nick Cannon host of America's Got Talent at Kuboo Family Day. Red Ca...

Nick Cannon Family Day Event - Red Carpet Arrivals

Nathan and Seamus of Travel With Kids TV show on PBS got to meet Nick Cannon host of America's Got Talent at Kuboo Family Day.

Red Carpet Arrivals Kuboo Family Day Santa Monica Pier

Many celebs were on hand from Nickelodeon and other shows were on hand along with Nick Cannon for the launch of the Kuboo.com virtual world at the Santa Monica Pacific Park event.
Nick Cannon Red  Carpet Arrivals

Nathan and Seamus Travel With Kids PBS TV Show
Red Carpet Arrivals

Nathan and Seamus Simmons Travel With Kids PBS

Nathan and Seamus Simmons Travel With Kids Red Carpet Arrivals Nick Cannon Family Day Kuboo.com

Nathan Simmons Seamus Simmons Travel With Kids

Kuboo.com Family Day Event With Nick Cannon 

Nick Cannon Family Day Event for Kuboo.com arrives at the Red Carpet

Nick Cannon meets with the press at Family Day Event

Nathan Simmons meets Quinton Aaron from The Blindside

Press and Paparazzi wait for Mariah Carey to arrive meeting with husband Nick Cannon at family day. Most press were there to get some comment on the Mariah Carey Nicki Minaj "feud" on American Idol. Nick Cannon was great and dismissed the "drama" and focused on Family Day and the Kuboo.com virtual world launch event.

July 25, 2012

Out of Africa... an outstanding Safari Adventure in Madikwe South Africa

Sundowners on Safari

Close your eyes and imagine the safari of your dreams…what does it look like, elephants trumpeting, gathering around a watering hole? Lions guarding their kill from a jackal? Giraffe loping along gracefully eating from acacia trees?  Think about all that in Day 1 and you have our experience in Madikwe Game Reserve

Road to Madikwe from Johannesburg
Located 4 hours drive-time northwest of Johannesburg along the Botswana border, or a short flight to a small airstrip, Madikwe Game Reserve was established in 1991 covering 185,000 acres. Encompassing a wide variety of terrain - wide savannah, rocky cliff areas, bumpy mountains, and brush Madikwe is famous for its abundance of wildlife including 66 mammal species including all of the Big Five and is popular with families because it is one of South Africa's few malaria-free reserves.  

Our drive from Johannseburg takes us through small villages where people still make their living farming.  Young kids gathered around the water pump wave and smilie as we drive by. Goats wander the sides of the road. A small outpost marks the entry where a sign holds the park "unaccountable for death or injury"…hmmm - should we be worried.  But the guard at the gate offers a warm welcome and we're off down the bumpy dirt road. 

As I look out over the trees, my mind plays a trick on me…every tree looks like a giraffe or elephant - what great camouflage for them. But then, I do a double take, it is a giraffe! It's slim, graceful neck raising its head to the tallest tree where it delicately nibbles the leaves with its extremely long tongue.  Around the next bend we find a watering hole where a couple of elephants and zebras take an afternoon drink.  Soon the rest of the elephant herd arrives - about 30 in all - and they take to chasing the zebras and impalas from the water leaving a dusty cloud behind them as they trot around the hole.  Within our first mile into the reserve - and not yet technically out on safari, just on our transfer from Johannesburg to the lodge - we have seen elephants, giraffes, zebras and impalas.

Safari Lodge Room
At Madikwe Safari Lodge we are greeted by friendly staff who offer cool, damp washcloths and juice to refresh us from our journey. After a short rest in the common area, which is open to the surrounding brush, we are shown to our bungalow, which is luxurious. A fluffy white bed and living area open with huge glass doors to a wide porch overlooking the brush.  On the path to the room, the boys spot elephant dung and the attendant confirms that elephants occasionally make their way through camp, which is why we must travel with a  guard at night. Adventure in the making! The boys are ecstatic!

After tea and treats, we head out on our afternoon safari with Andres.  His warm, open style and dry humor gels perfectly with the boys and his unending patience for answering all their questions makes for a peaceful - and quite informative - ride for all the guests. The boys love the open-top safari jeep and the raised seats make it easy for everyone to see.  As we start out over the bumpy road, pounding through the bush Nathan comments that it is like the Indiana Jones ride in Disneyland. He says "I never knew if that was real or just for fun, but now I know that's really what it feels like on safari". 

Lion with a kill
We "rollercoaster" past impalas and zebras, birds of all types, a bull elephant in musk - a time when they secrete oil to attract female elephants - that the driver stays his distance from because they are unpredictable, and then comes that National Geographic moment… we stumble upon two male lions with a fresh kill - a wildebeest. One lion appears to be dead asleep and the other puts on a bit of a show for us - yawning and grooming himself - then walks to the other side of our jeep to take a rest - laying within ten-feet of Seamus.  As we watch the lions to each side of the jeep - both within ten-feet - we spot a jackal sneaking in from around the other side of the bush trying to get a sample of the wildebeest. As the jackal sneaks closer and closer, darting forward and then back in a jittery dance, the lion who had looked to be dead asleep leaps up and chases the little dog like creature off. It happens so fast it makes us all jump!

Sunset on Safari
As we leave the lions to their resting, we head just down the road and Andres pulls over, sets up a table and offers us "sundowners" drinks and and appetizers in the bush. We enjoy our treats as the huge red sun ducks down the horizon beside an acacia tree - an idyllic African scene. The boys wonder what the lions are doing - since we left them less than 1/2 mile back up the road. I joke that they should walk down the road and find out. Luckily they didn't because within 100 feet of driving back down the road, one of the lions walks towards us from the other direction. Andres says they too use the road as it's easier than walking through the bush. We find the other lion busy chowing away pulling the wildebeest into the bush for better protection - guess he didn't want to share. I'm glad they gave us blankets and told us to bundle up because as soon as the sun goes down it gets really cold! We are received back at the lodge with a steaming cup of hot chocolate.

Up close with rhinos
Day 2 of safari starts out bundled under thick blankets with warm water bottles. We plow through the thorny bush and down a dusty road across wide swaths of tall grass turned a golden hue by the rising sun where we happen upon four rhinos - a male, two females and a calf. The bull steps forward to protect his brood and stares down the front of the jeep. He walks towards the car kicking dust along the road coming within ten feet of where Seamus sits in the front seat. Andres says not to worry…he's just marking his territory - showing us who's boss. And sure enough after a few minutes of cold stare-down, he turns back to his family. Just down the road, Andres pulls up to a cliff where baboons scamper through the trees. He jumps from the jeep and scouts the area on foot, a rifle strapped over his shoulder for safety, telling us that an old bull buffalo, who can be quite dangerous, sometimes hangs around. Upon the "all clear", we jump off the jeep and the kids have a blast exploring the area on a mini-foot-safari.

During the afternoon break, Andres gives parents a chance to relax at Madikwe Safari Lodge while he teaches the boys how to shoot their catapults (slingshots) and how to track animals using their dung. There is also an Eco Center with snakes, spiders, scorpions and more so that kids can learn about some of the smaller animals in Africa.

Giraffe Crossing
The afternoon safari offers giraffes and warthogs. We cross a bridge covered with about three-feet of water where impalas and zebras drink lazily in the sun. Up another hill, we are arrive in an entirely different terrain - a forested area lining a stream - where monkeys and baboons swing through the tree creating all sorts of havoc.  After watching some elephants gathering around the watering hole, we break for sundowners and an amazing sunset view with some friends from home who are staying at a nearby lodge.  The kids have fun playing together, exchanging stories and roasting marshmallows.

With Rosenbaums having "sundowner" overlooking
the African plains
Breakfast in the Bush
Day 3 of our Madikwe safari finds us tracking a lion who is apparently roaming his whole territory and moving very fast. After watching warthogs muzzle into the ground for food with their prickly snouts, we break for a bit of food ourselves with brunch in the bush. Madikwe Safari Lodge has set up tables and barbecues in a clearing and is serving up eggs and bacon in style.  After brunch, we head over to the dog den where twelve wild pups chase their tails, topple over each other and rest in the shade. In the afternoon, we find our lion who lazes in the shade of a tree, barely bothering to lift his head for a glance as we pull up.  We end the night watching a rhino and a bunch of guinea fowl at a watering hole. During sundowners the kids pretend to be animals as other safari jeeps going by comment on the "wild animals".  At dinner that night in the boma - a sandy area surrounded by campfires and lanterns - Andres tells us other stories from safaris past and growing up in the bush.

The safari is everything we expected. But more importantly in the new way of "plan every moment of a trip" way of travels, it was so much that we didn't expect... and that creates the most memories, the best stories. The spontaneous and unplanned is what travel is all about. The kids have an amazing time learning about all the animals - and getting to see them so close-up and their wild habitat - we are all fascinated watching the majestical wildlife, and most importantly of all we enjoy a true adventure together!

For more information on a family safari adventure in South Africa, contact Destination Southern Africa.  Terry, the owner, is from South Africa and has traveled there many times with his own children and knows all the best places to stay and things to do!

Playing with new friends from London at the lodge. No video games or TV!

Driving to the lodge in our taxi!

Looking for lions

July 15, 2012

Soweto South Africa: A History, The Street Life & Some Playtime

"Mayibuye Afrika!", meaning "Let Africa come back!", a phrase often shouted in the decades long fight against apartheid, the laws of segregation put in place by the ruling minority of South Africa in the 1948 - which ended just less than 20 years ago, rings in my head as we wander the streets of Soweto, the township in which the freedom struggle was born, with our kids. I've just finished reading Nelson Mandela's autobiography "A Long Walk to Freedom" and am not sure what to expect from this once crime-ridden area of extreme racial tension near Johannesburg, but I am about to find out.

Soweto, which stands for South West Townships was created by the ruling Apartheid government as a place to re-locate black citizens outside of Johannesburg. We are about to head into the center of Soweto with our two children Nathan, 11 and Seamus, 9. Our guide - arranged through Destination Southern Africa - Lynda is from Soweto and takes us to three areas - the three layers of Soweto.  There is the "wealthy" area where blacks were able to own property before Apartheid and then, with major restrictions (like paying rent on your own property), during apartheid. The brick homes look similar to what you find in the USA with walled yards, garages and gardens. He points out that this area is backed by hostels, which is transitional living between the slums and a better life.  These government subsidized dormitories don't have running water - a pump supplies the community as water is considered a human right and thus supplied by the government at pump stations for washing clothes, dishes or themselves outside. There is no electricity. This is slowly being replaced by new housing with modern amenities.  Lynda is proud of the progress, but he is quick to tell us that all of Soweto is not like this - the next and lowest layer of the of the onion. 
Nathan and Seamus playing with kids
from un-official settlement in Soweto

Soweto Township South Africa
After a stop at the Freedom Monument and a nearby lively street market full of friendly faces selling everything and anything your could need, we meet a friend of Lynda's who grew up in an unofficial settlement - a shantytown in Soweto called Kliptown - and now works with Kliptown Youth Program.  He is about 20 years old and speaks passionately about the importance of education to improve quality of life. He offers to show us this lowest end of Soweto. He leads us through narrow dirt streets which wind through tiny corrugated shacks that look as if they could fall over like a stack of cards.  The small, dusty alleyways are full of kids and some of the poorest of Soweto packed into a beehive of interesting Third World real life that our kids get to experience first hand. He points out fences made from old mattress box springs stressing that everything is used again and again - recycling out of need vs environmental purposes. Walls are pieced together with scraps and boxes and wires. Kids with no shoes wander past as they smile huge grins and give us the "thumbs up" sign. The kids find a group of local kids plain with a top and are invited to join in the fun. 

Nathan and Seamus playing with kids
at Kliptown school, Soweto
Finally, our guide leads us to a school - the school he attended as a small child. A few small rooms and a place for naps and lunch, a bowl of rice.  His principal, Mrs. Mfaxa, greets us with a huge smile and a warm hug for her former student as our kids instantly make new friends. They share everything they have with them instantly.  He tells us that attending this school under her guidance has made all the difference in his life. Mrs. Mfaxa invites us in for a look around and Nathan and Seamus are instantly swarmed by groups of school kids aged 2 - 5.  They sing songs for us, play chase with Nathan and Seamus, grin from ear to ear and teach the kids the Zulu thumb handshake.  

Though they live each day with nothing - most in a small one-room "house" with walls so thin you can hear neighbors on each side, dirt floors and mats instead of beds, they seem happy.  They find joy in a simple top or a can tied to a string.  They use their imaginations. They crave to learn and value education, most walking a mile or more to school each day. And according to our new friend that craving does not go away.  Education is their hope…their hope for a better life. And it is that hope among the youth of today that is so different than their families from just a few years ago when the youth lived in fear - fear of persecution, fear of arrest and even worse.

Kids at Pastoral Centre Pre-School and Creche in Kliptown
We say goodbye to the dozens of smiley faces and singing kids we met in the dusty slums of Soweto's "un-official settlement" and head to where the student uprisings began just a few decades ago.

Seamus looking at memorial at
Hector Pieterson Museum
Just down the street from Kilptown, we visit the Hector Pieterson Museum.  This museum is on exact the site of the 1976 student uprisings that brought the apartheid struggle to an international level in the media. On June 16, 1976, students, frustrated by a system that offered no hope, staged a peaceful protest. A new government rule, added to an already failing "Bantu" school system (for black South Africans), stated that all classes must be taught in Afrikaans - the language of the Afrikaner minority who controlled the government.  The only place in the world that spoke in Afrikaans was South Africa. The students wanted to keep learning English instead of a language foreign to them - a language they said which was that of their oppressor. They marched down the street from their school with signs, singing and chanting, joined by children from other schools. As they neared the end of the street they were met by police who threw tear gas and open-fired into the crowd. Many children were injured and died that day, including 13 year-old Hector Pieterson; a day that brought the struggle to the attention of the world (a picture of a boy carrying Hector's body and running from the police was published around the world), and started protests in Soweto that would continue for more than a decade. 

Danny showing kids bullet holes in
windows from Regina Mundi Church
During this time students - or any blacks - were forbidden to meet in small groups. The youth of Soweto turned to the sanctuary of Regina Mundi Church. Danny, a local who lived through this turbulent time, points out bullet holes and broken down altars, where police had broken up meetings using mass force. Nathan and Seamus have lots of questions for Danny about what it was like to be in school back then and what happened when the police came to the church to break up the meetings, which he answers perfectly engaging them on their level.

Seamus watching a street performer
with new friends in Soweto
Nelson Mandela had already been in prison for over a decade when he heard the news of the Soweto Uprising. He weeped for the children, but understood their frustration. Upon release from prison in 1990, Mandela moved back to his house at 8115 Orlando West in Soweto.  Also on this street, just a few doors down, is the home of Desmond Tutu, the first black bishop of South Africa and a freedom fighter in his own right; two Nobel Peace Prize winners on one small street! Mandela House is now a museum on a wide street lined with outdoor cafes, shops, street performers and a fun, funky vibe. As we have lunch on a patio, Nathan and Seamus meet local kids and start up a game of tag.  Their laughter is heard through the streets - bouncing past the once tension-filled racial relations in this area.  With smiles and handshakes - they know nothing of the struggle that happened long before their birth, and it shows. 

Although it can be difficult for kids to experience the poverty and the violent struggle of students to obtain today's freedoms in South Africa, open lanes of communication can help. We constantly talked to them about what they were thinking and how it made them feel and ended up having some in-depth conversations that will remain in my memory forever and furthered our family bond. Meeting happy, new friends and interacting on a child-level - playing, laughing, etc - also helped them join in the hope that resonates in Soweto today.

"Let Africa come back!"…for a new generation filled with hope for a better life it has. Although there is some work to do - to assist the poorer areas, to equalize educational opportunities - progress is being made. And most of all, their exists hope for black, for white, for poor, for young - opportunity is knocking!

The "Un-Official Settlement" area. Nathan and local guide in the background.

Playing Tag with kids in Soweto Township in front of Nelson Mandela's home

April 19, 2012

Yesterday was one of the best days yet! i got to go on the best tour ever called Kipu Ranch on Kaua'i Island with Outfitters Kauai

Indiana Jones Rope Swing

Kayak Tour
I could not believe the sights that i saw! i got to go kayaking with the guides and we played splash wars and we saw where they filmed a scene in indiana jones! then we docked. we took a hike that was about 10 to 15 minutes. we came up to a rope swing that went into a waterhole that looked about three feet deep well i jumped and it was about 10 feet deep. i went again and again and again and again! then we went to a zip line that was giantormus (big) and then i went and it was so cool! then we went on a tractor ride to lunch. then we went on another zip line and that was a tandem one so two people could go at one time! the next zip line you did not have a harness!.....the line was only 15 feet high and wen you drop you fall into water! a deep pool. there was also 2 high jumps into the big one is 18 feet high the small one is about 12 feet high. i highly recommend this tour group its all about the fun to them. that makes it super duper fun to you!
Zip Line

by: Nathan S. , 11

April 7, 2012

March 13, 2012

Discover the World Through Community Theatre

True, traveling is usually our thing, but I recently discovered that much of the same spirit of adventure - exploring the world, discovering new places, learning about different characters - comes into play (pun intended) at the community theatre - although on a different scale. As Nathan and Seamus embrace their new roles in Alice in Wonderland, I am amazed by the lessons they are taking home from the theatre - public speaking, problem solving, thinking quickly on their feet, adapting, community service and more!

“Hold onto wonder while you can”…the first line of Gerry Cullity’s opening song “Wonderland” in Desert Stages Theatre’s production of Alice in Wonderland pretty much sums up the theater’s philosophy. Kids off all ages marvel at the imaginary world created in each production at Desert Stages and that’s before they ever reach the stage. Executive Director Laurie Cullity (aka Miss Laurie) offers an atmosphere of fabulously controlled chaos in which kids revel. It’s like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory meets Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium and yet amazingly she produces an incredible show when it’s all done.

In Gerry Cullity’s Alice in Wonderland, Nathan and Seamus, from the television show Travel With Kids, join a cast packed with the quirky, colorful characters that fill the pages of Lewis Carroll’s book…plus some. Miss Laurie says “it’s like a clown stage…we pack in as many kids as possible” wanting them each to have the chance to imagine, create and perform. In this production, characters range from an innocent Alice (“Alice hands!” Miss Laurie cries) to darling pearls fluffed in layers and layers of tulle to a bubble-spewing caterpillar. Nathan plays a Battling Squire while Seamus is the Queen of Hearts’ Guard. Each lead part is quadruple cast to give each child a chance to be in the spotlight to build confidence and presence before a crowd.

You can sense the excitement as opening night draws near. I hear one Pearl squeal “There’s a real audience out there…with REAL people!” The busy backstage buzzes as kids don colorful costumes and make-up, sing from their very souls, and put on a performance that could match the very best of community theatre. You can feel their stomachs turn with delight as they line-up at the dressing room doors, after a break-a-leg chat from Miss Laurie, and ready themselves to enter the wonderful world of acting.

While there are plenty of chances for kids to be in the spotlight, it goes beyond that at Desert Stages. “It is amazing to see children turn from this inward focus to an outward sense of community.” states a quote from Gerry Cullity displayed in the lobby. During each play, kids are expected to join the community to clean up the theatre, re-paint every wall and floor, re-organize countless costumes and props, and clean every nook and cranny. It gives children a sense of responsibility. They take ownership of the theatre; this is THEIR place. As well they should, not only are all the plays in the junior line-up performed by children, they also run the tech booth – lights and sound effects, and assist in directing and choreography.

With so many children participating, it’s a wonder how Laurie Cullity keeps track of them all, let alone directs them. But direct she does. Miss Laurie maintains absolute control and still takes time out to console a crying Knave of Hearts or applaud a Flower’s perfect bun. One moment she’s talking paint with a teenager and the next she’s assisting Nathan with choreography for his battle scene.

Gerry Cullity’s original songs also give the kids a chance to express themselves with catchy tunes in various genres. From a blues singing Cheshire Cat to a hip-hop version of “Walrus and the Carpenter”, the array of songs matches Carroll’s fantastical and imaginative vision of Wonderland. The whole audience, no matter their age, will be tapping their feet to the beat. Nathan and Seamus can’t seem to stop singing them, even recording them and texting to friends. In fact, Cullity’s songs are so memorable that the songs from last spring’s “Peter Pan”, in which the boys played pirates, still top their playlists.

The intimate theatre-in-the-round at Desert Stages means every seat is a good seat making it a perfect place for kids to experience their first…or fifty-first show. The fantasy of Alice in Wonderland runs now through March 25 and will surely have you grinning from ear to ear like the Cheshire Cat. More information or tickets at www.desertstages.org

March 1, 2012

Plant The Seed: Travel to the Places that Inspired Dr. Seuss

Known for his outlandish worlds and colorful characters paired with rythmic rhymes, Dr. Seuss is one of the best known children's authors in the world. His books have come to life in movies and on-stage bringing with them a flair for the fanstastical - afterall who can forget Jim Carey as the "The Grinch" tapping his furry fingers, grinning his wide, evil grin and pacing around talking to himself like a madman. This March, we can expect more of the same with the release of the animated film "The Lorax". Danny Devito plays the grumpy, and quite impish, main character sputtering famous lines such as "I speak for the trees" ensuring this will be classic Seuss fun. Just as intriguing to me are those Seuss landscapes - puffy pink and yellow trees, rainbow colored bushes, crazy sizes and shapes. It's "Those Tuffula Trees! All my life I'd been searching for trees such as these." that drives Seuss' main character to set up shop in "The Lorax". But what inspired the crazy shapes and colors of the landscapes on Seuss' pages? Where lies the muse of his imagination?

Living in San Diego, just north of the Baja Peninsula in Mexico, Seuss' landscapes were inspired by the unique flora of the Sonoran desert. While filming Travel With Kids Baja last February, we had the chance to visit this desert, in which many species are unique, and it was like a Seuss story jumped right off the pages...wild shapes and colors punctuated an otherwise void and flat landscape. Opposites constantly contradicted eachother in this psychadelic landscape where prickly cacti shelter fluffy flowers. One of the kids' favorite, the towering telephone-pole-like Boojum trees, grow wildly almost exclusively on the Baja peninsula. Their branchless shape, stretching and knarled, surrounded by tiny green leaves and topped with a spray of twigs is Seussical in every way. Other cacti spring from what seems incredibly hostile soil in all shapes, sizes and colors - many appearing to defy gravity as their limbs curl in every direction.

Although we did not see any Brown Bar-ba-loots or Humming-Fish as populate the pages of "The Lorax", we did encounter another equally fascinating creature - the Gray Whale. During the months of January - April, the lagoons along Baja's Pacific Coast are packed with Grey Whales who come to shelter while courting and mating, birthing and raising newborns. These lagoons have long been a safe haven for the whales who make the longest mammal migration on earth, traveling thousands of miles from the Arctic Ocean. We visited Scammon's Lagoon, near Guerrero Negro, about midway down the Baja peninsula with Andiamo Travel . After a short launch ride past colonies of seal lions and huge mounds of salt (the salt flats here are the largest natural outdoor salt facility in the world), we hear spray and are covered in what the kids call "whale boogers" - the mist that rides the wind after a whale surfaces and exhales. Soon enough we are surrounded by whales and it's difficult to tell who is watching whom. One whale gets so close to the boat, you can see his eye peering up through the water - it's no wonder they call them "friendlies". The whale seems very curious and drifts closer, seemingly...and then actually...within touching distance. Nathan reaches over the side of the boat, and with a little help stretching over the side from another passenger, reaches through the water and gives the whale a little pat. Esther, co-owner of Andiamo Travel, says they never get within touching distance unless they want to be. She recounts numerous occassions where a whale lingers just out of reach, but this one hangs snug to the boat allowing both kids plenty of time to pet him.

The Gray Whales are making a come back thanks to their position on the endangered species list for so many years and the Baja Peninsula remains a pristine and remote outpost little touched by tourism. In addition to the desert and ocean life, there are many small towns and missions to visit. At the start of the road that runs down the peninsula are the cities of Tijuana and Ensenada and at end of the road lies Cabo San Lucas, a mega-tourist development with its own share of exciting family-friendly activities (and a nice respite from the rustic life along the peninsula), but in-between there is much to explore and discover. But go now, before a Once-ler comes along and starts cutting "Those trees. Those trees."!

For us Mexico has been a safe and fun adventure, but just in case, we always purchase travel insurance. We have used it for delayed luggage and medical mishaps and its worth every dime...even just for peace of mind. Consult A Doctor is a wonderful service offered by CSA Travel Protection that links you to a network of doctors on the road. Yes, they do sponsor our show, but yes we do use their services and have had excellent experiences with them as consumers.

December 5, 2011

Celebrate Globally

Celebrate Globally

Countries the world over celebrate winter holidays. Although much of Christmas has been commercialized, there are still many holiday traditions that remain unique to different nationalities, giving the world a special diversity. Many of these traditions utilize natural resources making them green by design. Mixing some of these worldly customs into your own traditions, not only adds flavor to your holidays, but can turn the season a bit greener.

The Salutations

Instead of sending holiday cards, which are a great tradition but use a lot of paper, people in parts of the British Isles go from house to house caroling. A tradition that was brought over to America in its early days, but has since fallen out of popularity, caroling parties are making a bit of a come back. Greeting neighbors with songs of joy and love for a happy holiday season is much more personal than cards and it can be a fun family or group activity. We were invited to a caroling party last year. The hostess created little song books and handed them out to all the kids and parents. We were served hot chocolate and cider and off we went a caroling. Everyone had lots of fun, and neighbors even joined as we strolled along.

Delivering of Sweet Treats

In the United States, many people exchange homemade baked goods like cookies, fruit cakes or bread, but delivering all these treasures means spending a lot of time driving from house to house and burning a lot of fuel. In Canada, they have a solution. Instead of delivering the cookies from house to house, one family hosts a cookie party. Each family brings ingredients for one type of cookie and the bowls and mixers necessary to make them. Then they meet at one house and spend the day chatting and baking cookies. A recent tradition is exchanging butter cookies for Chanukah, so this tradition can be incorporated as well. At the end of the party, each family goes away with a variety of cookies to enjoy at home or share with their neighbors. It saves gas and makes cookie-making into a fun, new family tradition.


In Nigeria, they use palm fronds to decorate the house. In fact, many cultures use greenery beyond the evergreen to decorate. In Sweden, they use apples. In the desert, we have the benefit of having green plants through most of the winter. Using some trimmings after pruning live plants outside is easy on the environment and can make for a festive house. Last year, I trimmed the citrus and sumac trees and placed them in vases around the house just before our holiday party. I have to admit, I am a sucker for tradition when it comes to the fresh cut pine tree at Christmas. But, in some parts of South America, instead of decorating a fresh evergreen tree, they decorate a large, or cluster of medium sized, dried branches. They string it with lights, paper flowers and other ornaments. It reminds me of one of my favorite Christmas trees growing up. We had decided to spend Christmas in a cabin in Telluride, CO but didn’t arrive until late Christmas Eve night. The stores were all closed and because of a large snow storm, getting off-road for a live tree was out of the question. We found a large bare branch of an aspen tree and with some help from the extra clippings from our neighbor’s pine tree, which we tied to our branch, we created a homemade Christmas tree. It wasn’t the Norman Rockwell version of a Christmas picture, but it was the one our family remembers most. The point is, Christmas trees can come in all shapes and sizes, it’s more about the love that goes into it, then the color of its leaves. We could learn a few things from our neighbors to the south…the bare branch makes for an interesting display and is much easier on the environment than a fresh cut tree or something synthetic. In the desert, many people take it a step further and go native…decorating a live cactus.


In many parts of the world, holiday gifts are handmade works of love. This tradition not only shows the gift recipient how much you care, putting in hard work and time, but it decreases the footprint of the gifts you give. If you think about store bought gifts, not only just the materials used, but the process to get the gift from raw form into its present form and the transportation to get the gift from the factory to you, and then multiply that by the number of gifts each person gives and the number of people giving gifts and you end up with a huge impact on the environment. While making your gifts won’t always be a good fit (I’m not saying no toys for the kids this year), it’s definitely something to think of when the children are giving gifts. Here are some ideas from other countries.

Plant a seed. In Malta, they plant wheat seeds weeks before Christmas, so that they sprout just in time for the big day. In that island country, they use the sprouts to decorate for the holidays, but it could just as easily make a good gift.

In Japan, they decorate with paper lanterns, which can easily be made using colorful tissue paper and small wooden rods. Painting on the tissue paper can make each gift unique.
Papier mache is always a good green project in that it uses old newspapers and water and flour for glue. In Venice, Italy, the papier mache mask is traditional and easy to make using a balloon as your form.

Homemade candles are a nice gift to give for Chanukah or Kwanzaa. You can make candles rolled from beeswax or get melting wax from a craft store and dip your own candles. You should make nine candles for Chanukah (eight for lighting and one shamus or lighter candle) and seven for Kawanzaa, three red, three green and one black.

For more information on holiday traditions from around the world, visit www.theholidayspot.com. For more information on our family travel television series, which immerses in cultures from around the world, visit TravelWithKids.tv or "LIKE" us on Facebook

October 25, 2011

The Cyber Sharks Are Circling: Ways to Keep Your Kids Safe On-Line

Many people are surprised when they see our kids snorkeling with sharks or flying through the forest canopy on a zipline. “Isn’t that dangerous? Weren’t you worried about their safety?” they ask. The answer is no. These activities take place in a fairly controlled environment with a history of safety records. Plus, I am there looking over their shoulder making sure everything is alright. The sharks that do worry me are the cyber sharks. The tough kid at school being mean; the stranger approaching them with candy…with the advent of technology, these villains now enter our home. And with technology changing so rapidly, it’s hard to keep up. How do I keep them safe from something I don’t even fully understand…texting, sexting, cyber bullying, cyber predators? It’s all kilobytes to me.

The first key to keeping them safe on-line is to talk to them about what is appropriate to share. Don’t share more than a first name. Don’t tell an on-line friend where you live or what school you attend. But as much as we tell them, does it ever really sink in? I was watching a YouTube video made by a child from my kids’ school. She was walking around her house, filming her room, her pet hamster, giving a constant narration about her life. It all seemed innocent enough until she held up her report card. Not a big deal right? Just a kid venting about grades and school, but the report card envelope had the school logo and the child’s address on it. When I paused the video, I could see where this kid lives. I’m sure it never even dawned on her that she was sharing information, but there it was as clear as day. Directions for any predator in cyber space to this girl’s house. As much as we tell them not share information, there are ways the information is released without them even realizing it. So what can we do as parents? According to the University of Oklahoma Police Department, who released a brochure called “Keeping Kids Safe On-Line”, parents should:

- Know their child’s email username and password
- Keep the computer in a family area where supervision is easy
- Talk to the child about what is discussed and what sites they are visiting
- Tell the child to log off and tell a parent immediately if they feel at all uncomfortable with something happening on-line
- Give feedback to sites and service providers about inappropriate content or advertisements
- Warn your child about how easy it is to pretend to be someone you are not on the Internet and the dangers that go with that.
- Tell your child to inform you if anyone ever asks them to meet in person.
- Invest in a program that provides parental controls for on-line use.

So, beyond talking about it, which is always good, how else can we protect them from technology? Travel With Kids recently partnered with a company called MouseMail.com that offers filtering programs for e-mail, texting and social media. Parents and kids can work together to create an approved list of contacts and parents have the ability to check on their child’s activity. The filtering system also scans all the incoming e-mails, texts and social media posts for inappropriate content. If the system detects bullying, sexting or other inappropriate scenarios, an alert is sent to parents. Inappropriate emails are actually diverted to parents before they even reach their children. I am really impressed by what this company is doing to help parents keep kids safe on-line. The program allows kids to take advantage of technology while offering parents the tools to protect them from the dangers that lurk in the cyber sea.

As my kids get older and enter the on-line world, it gives me peace of mind knowing that there is someone who can stay on top of the rapidly changing technology and help me protect my kids from the cyber shark, so I can focus on enjoying my time snorkeling with the real ones who are far less dangerous in my opinion. For more information on this program, visit MouseMail.com

September 22, 2011

Travel With Kids TV show comes to the ROKU Player: Travel With Kids Channel

Roku player users can now purchase the Travel With Kids channel from the channel store for a one time fee of 4.99 to view all 4 seasons of the show!

Roku streams netflix, hulu, amazon on demand and dozens of other channels right to your TV.


August 10, 2011

The Great Leap Forward

The Great Leap Forward...that's what they called it when Chairman Mao pushed the Chinese populace to export more food (to the point of which the general public was starving) and melt down steel for export (which had peasants thowing everything metal...including necessary items such as cooking pots and tools into the fires) so that China could import factory and military technology to modernize their country. The plan was a fiasco ending with countless dying of starvation and many of Mao's own camrades turning on him. Too much too fast at too large a sacrafice. However, when traveling through China today...high speed trains darting through city after city of high rises past world monuments in the shadows of modern marvels, you have to wonder if this is the China Mao had envisioned. And in the process of leaping, has China missed out on something along the way? We crossed China by train this summer to find out.

We started our trip in Shanghai - a thriving metropolis with sky scrapers in quirky shapes (one with a spire engulfed by a giant ball, The Pearl Tower and one with a giant open square in the middle, The Bottle Opener) lit up in every shade of neon imagineable. Kid-friendly activities range from an aquarium with "the world's largest underwater acrylic tunnel" to a massive science museum with Disney-esque displays on rainforests and robots. Expansive concrete squares and walkways were surrounded by designer shops with neon signs and upscale eateries, but there was something missing - Chinese history and culture. There are parts of Shanghai that nod to the past...the French Quarter, the Bund, the Yu Gardens area, but most are tourist attractions, not living history.

None-the-less the kids loved strolling down the paths and feeding coi fish in the Yu Gardens and bargaining for Mao merchandise (a watch with Mao's hand waving as the second hand or a general's hat from the Red Army) by the gates. The dumplings at the stalls nearby were outstanding (Nathan - our ten-year-old's new favorite food) but the line to get them was just as outstanding...they're very popular and there are A LOT of people in China! The people of Shanghai are very modern...in Western dress, with mobile phones, eating at Western fast food chains and moving at break-neck paces...unfortunately no one has schooled them on Western manners as lines are non-existent (people just tend to surge forward in a swarm-like fashion) and spitting is rampant (although signs are posted everywhere warning against the practice as it spreads germs), but it's all part of the fun of foreign travel, right? After Shanghai, we decided to head up the Yangtze River to the interior of China to see if this modernization had spread into the countryside. We purchased China train tickets through ACP Rail before we left and they delivered them to our accommodations in Shanghai.

On the overnight train from Shanghai to Chongqing, we got a bit more of the non-line formation as the crowd pushed forward on the train platform as if Justin Bieber had just walked by. We held back a little and found that we could board the train just as easily after the rush as over and we had assigned cabins anyway, so what was the point of pushing? The kids loved the train journey! Although not many people spoke English (only one or two people and very limited at that), Westerners were a bit of a novelty...more than one person during our weeks of overnight trains asked why we didn't fly. In addition to getting to see the countryside whiz by the window

and meeting locals, immersing in the culture, another benefit to overnight trains is that the price includes a night of accommodation....and the kids thought the bunk beds were pretty cool. Everytime the kids walked through a compartment the whole crowd would turn and stare and that's when the pictures started as well...about once or twice per compartment, someone would ask us to sit and take a picture with them. The kids thought it was great...just like being famous. They also liked the bunk beds in the train compartment (we traveled on soft sleepers which were private compartments with four beds and air conditioning). We didn't pack much to eat thinking we could eat on the train, but the options were very limited. We did hit the fruit cart for bananas a few times and had Ramen noodles.

In Chongqing, we boarded a ship for a three-night journey with Sanctuary Retreats down the Yangtze River through the infamous Three River Gorges. As many of you know, one of the world's largest dams, the Yangtze River Dam, was constructed in this past decade in an effort to control flooding at produce hydro-electricity, an effort which caused the relocation of millions of Chinese people and flooded over many historic buildings and sacred places. With the change of scenery and relocation of towns, we wanted to see how this leap forward had affected the countryside. In the first stop on our cruise, the cruise director had arranged for our group to visit both a traditional home and a new home for people who were relocated. The traditional home was obviously more rustic - dirt floors, simple furnishings, limited electricity - life as always. While the modern apartment into which families were relocated had air conditioning, glass windows and tile floors, but the inhabitant said the biggest draw back was that she was separated from her neighbors - a leap away from traditional community - and she missed that. At the end of the journey, a wide slab of concrete juts a mile and a half across the Yangtze with much controversy. The Yangtze River Dam is the largest construction project in China since the Great Wall (Mao would be proud as it was he who originally suggested a large dam here during the "Great Leap Forward").

The dam has been the source of much heated discussion due to its relocation of almost 2 million locals and the environmental impact of displacing that much water. Although the soaring limestone cliffs are less soaring now (the water was raised by almost a football field) they are still spectacular and a journey through the gorges is well worth doing.

Our ship docked in Yichang where we boarded an overnight train to the political heart of China, Beijing. The center of Beijing is the vast cement slab of Tiananmen Square which is guarded over by a massive portrait of Chairman Mao (hanging from the entrance to the Forbidden City - the last home of the emperors of China and one of the few ancient sites that was not plowed over during the Communist take-over).

Tiananmen Square was originally built for the people, but today, due to riot control, security is tight, there is no filming and it is closed at night. The square is surrounded on two sides by Communist/government buildings. The third side is lined with Western fast food chains (Mao is probably rolling over in his masolaeum, which is in the center of the square) and the fourth is the Forbidden City.

The soaring red doors, colorful murals and curled up corners of the buildings in the Forbidden City is quite a contrast to the gray cement rectangles of the Communist era buildings nearby...a leap right over any local architectural tradition. The kids enjoy wandering through the narrow alleys of the Forbidden City.

They meet kids snacking on chicken feet (a common snack food here in China)

and are asked to have their picture taken over and over again. They are starting to get the idea of why famous people become reclusive. But it's short-lived so they're happy to oblige. We learn about the emperors and empresses that live here and what life was like in the royal court.

If there is a feather in the hat of Chinese progress, it's their hosting of the 2008 Olympic Games. About 45 minutes out of the center of Beijing, we visit the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube - landmarks from the games. The kids are delighted to find the Water Cube, where Michael Phellps set so many records, has been repurposed into Asia's largest indoor water park. So they hop in, sliding down two story slides, hopping around the wave pool and joining the locals as they "splash attack" various other patrons.

The other highlight to our trip to Beijing is a visit to the other great construction project in China...the Great Wall. The wall runs over 5,000 miles from northeastern China following near the Mongolian border. We had been approached in Tiananmen Square by an English speaking driver to hire a private car for four of us, which turned out to be cheaper than taking an organized tour. Badaling is the closest wall access to Beijing, but it's very crowded, so we head to Mutianyu about 50 miles from town. After weaving through trinket sellers, where Seamus enjoyed tasting amazing dried fruits, we found a chairlift to the top of the wall. The chairlift looks like something from a 1950s film set in Switzerland with rickety chairs with narrow seats, but the views are incredible and the kids thought it was lots of fun. I'm glad we decided to take the chairlift too because once you are at the top there is plenty of hiking along the wall and the kids would have been too worn out by the intial hike to do too much exploring. The kids had lots of fun imagining they were Chinese soldiers and the huns were attacking as they ran up steps to the watchtowers that connect the walls, peering out narrow, stone windows through the forest where the wall bumped and dipped along the form of the mountain terrain winding off into the distance. After a couple hours appreciating the wall, it was time to head down, but instead of hiking we took the luge.

You read it right...they have a long metal slide with go karts that wind down the mountain side back to the base. Cheesey tourist attraction...yes, but not something you can pass up with two little boys. It ended up being a neat way to get down...gliding quietly through the forest.

If Beijing is the political capital of China then Shanghai is the capitalist and financial capital, but how does Hong Kong fit into this modern country? Our last stop in China showed us that not much has changed in this British enclave...at least on the surface. You still have to go through immigration to and from China, they still use different money...you get the idea. The one thing that I noticed was different from last time we were there, which was just around the time of the British hand over, is less British pubs. We stayed at Park Hotel Hong Kong in Tsimshatsui - an area lined with mostly Chinese restaurants and great shops selling everything from fashion clothes to Chinese trinkets. The kids enjoyed a surprise trip to Hong Kong Disneyland while we were there. The park is set up very similar to the original, although it is smaller with a few rides missing. But they enjoyed the Jungle Cruise ("It's even better than the original with fire and water geysers!" says Seamus) and of course, "it's a small world", where the no-lines culture hit a feverish pace as visitors pushed to board the little boats standing back to belly, filling in every bit of space. At night we enjoyed gelato at the top of Victoria Peak overlooking the city lights.

With the massive construction (cranes on almost every building it seems) and cities popping out of what used to be farmland, and two more dams in the works, even bigger than the Yangtze River Dam, it seems China is still taking a huge leap forward. Where it will end up, especially in this world's economy, is yet to be determined. But if you want to see ancient China with its winding hutongs and rice fields, and travel through a foreign country where few speak English and squid on a stick is a popular snack (even in Disneyland) then you best go fast as they may soon leap right beyond the cultural divide.