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The groove calls, but is elusive, considering All The Things that must be tended to these days: a persistently “low tire pressure” light on the HS boy’s car….(nail…fixed…no charge!)…hair appointment put off one week already, that can’t be put off another lest I start getting comments about my grandson when I’m out and about with my 12-year old.

Etc.

But “school” has begun, as I indicated yesterday. More math, more talking and thinking, more piano today.  Tried out a new local pizza place for lunch. Because that’s one of the many advantages in having a kid at home during the day. You can try out new restaurants with a companion, and since it’s lunch, and since there is one fewer of you than usual….it’s less of a financial risk.

Tomorrow a friend spends much of the day with us, and after that perhaps a bit more thickness will be added to the day. He indicted that as part of his History Bee prep, he wanted to understand the basics of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates, so I ordered Durant’s book and this cartoon intro to philosophy for him. I got writing done this morning before he woke up. This might work.

If you want occasional snippets of the day as life proceeds, do check out Instagram Stories. (You can only access Stories on the app, I think.)

Older kid’s school is Getting Serious About the Phones You Guys. Seriously, This Time. Just stop, okay?

We’ll see how long that lasts….

Maybe if the pedagogy stopped assuming internet reliance…that might help?

Hush, now. That’s crazy talk.

Today: St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross – Edith Stein. 

She’s in the Loyola Kids Book of Saints:

 

 

 

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The return?

Well, it won’t be daily, because I’m sure it won’t be that interesting, but since I made such a big stinking deal about returning to homeschooling, here you go – the first day:

Brother rose at 6:30 am, got himself ready, drove to school. I didn’t ask him to text me when he arrived – I figured that if something bad happened…I’d hear about it.

(I’m typing this at 7:23 on Day 2, and it’s pouring outside. Still didn’t ask for him to let me know when he got there. Go me.)

Homeschooler rose…later.

I’m hoping to use that time between the two of them starting their days as some work time. I actually did it yesterday. A good start.

M. rose and got breakfast. I then I had a phone meeting with Loyola. After that we got going, very slowly.

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Math warm-up.

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Math. Did sections 1.1-2, including the famous Richard Videos. 

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We talked about what he’d study this year and he brought up something I’d forgotten about – the History Bee. He participated in it last year through school and went to Nationals, and enjoyed it. As he competed in the nationals, he also discovered that with a little more study and aggressiveness, he could probably get to the finals…and he wants to.

Academic competitions have varied rules governing the participation of homeschoolers. I don’t know what the spelling bee rules are because I have Zero Interest in spelling competitions, but I do know that the Geography Bee requires that homeschoolers form a group that holds a qualifying competition. The History Bee at this point is a lot looser. The potential competitor just has to take the online test during the allotted timeframe, and then if he or she qualifies, they can go to the regionals and so on. I talked to one of the organizers at the National competition in Atlanta in June and he was very open and accommodating.

So…although it had slipped my mind, M had not forgotten, and was already planning his course of study. He’d noted his weaknesses in the competitions, and is geared up for filling those gaps.

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Okay!

Went to the store and he picked out an accordion file for his work.

Lunch at his favorite place.

Library:

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Home. His neighborhood buddy doesn’t start school for two more weeks, and the word came that guys were down there, so they spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the neighborhood a bit.

Piano practice. Piano non-practice. Reading (The Far Side and The Fellowship of the Ring)

Day 1…in the books.

And now, it’s my turn to work for a bit….

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Hey, it’s the beginning of August, so I guess that means it’s time for Amy to write yet another post on Our Schooling Decisions and Why We Made Them. Sheesh.

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For yes, as I have mentioned a couple of times, we are back to some homeschooling around these parts. Here’s the deal:

Older son is staying where he is, in high school. My experience with my kids and my own experience teaching is that the quality of instruction in high school improves in the higher grades, and this looks to be so in this case. A junior, he’ll be taking challenging classes in the areas in which he’s interested and it should be good. Seems to be from what I have seen so far of the course materials (school starts tomorrow) at least. He started working in a grocery store in the spring and should be able to continue through the school year, saving up for…what I’m not sure.  But he’ll have full, busy days and will be learning and will be spending his days with good friends. Worth it.

Brief recap of the younger one: in school PK-1st, homeschooled 2nd-5th, then in school last year for 6th. Very smart, self-directed kid. No learning or behavior issues. Just curious, mostly mature, and (this is important) the youngest kid of a 57-year old mom who is…over your weekly folders and gift-wrap. 

He has strong interests in history and science, and is a fairly talented musician.

So…what happened between then (my post on the first day of school last year) and now?

Actually, not “now” but…about three or four months into the experience?

Nothing huge, and I really don’t want to discuss the particulars in a public forum. There’s no point to it. We’ve shared our experiences with the people to whom it might matter, and that’s all that’s important.

It all really comes down to what Sally Thomas said in a comments section in a post of mine, words I quote in this post:

And largely what motivated us to stop going to school was the feeling that school was largely an annoying middleman that wanted to dictate our schedules for us.

It’s a deal, it’s a contract, it’s an agreement that you, as student and family, make with educational institutions. It’s an agreement in which, for it to be worth it to you, elements must stay balanced.

As in: Not everything the school is going to ask of me is going to great or even valuable. There are going to be irritating aspects of school. But all of that is balanced by what the school experience gives.

Just like the rest of life, right?

So just as in the rest of life, we make constant cost-benefit analyses. Is the good I’m deriving worth the cost I’m paying? 

I’ve written about this many times before. As I put it almost exactly a year ago in a post describing my educational background as it related to my original decision to homeschool back in 2012:

In terms of my own life with my two remaining kids at home in 2011, I was not ecstatic with institutional education, but was fairly comfortable with the agreement I thought we had reached. After all, I only had a decade or so left, but who’s counting. I’d send cooperative kids in every day and support what they were doing in school. School was then going to do its part: teach the basics, enrich, inspire a little. School was going to do no harm. School, because it was called “Catholic,” was going to be holistically, counter-culturally Catholic.  I wasn’t asking school to transform our lives, but I was expecting that school wasn’t going to waste my kids’ time or my money. School would do its thing, and then school would step back and school would get  out of the way.

Deal?

Flash forward to 2016.  Older kid was doing fine in high school. The younger one really wanted to go to school. He was curious, a little concerned that what he was doing at home wasn’t keep him up to where his peers were…

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….and he wanted a more consistent posse of friends. The school his older brother had attended for 8th grade seemed to fit the bill.

And….here we are a year later, with him getting ready for school…at home. No regrets, no bad feelings, and yes, lots of new friends made  – friendships that will be sustained through sports and other activities – but just a sort of been there, done that kind of feeling.

(No predictions for 8th grade being made at this point)

There were some specific issues, but the broad issue that I think might be relevant and helpful to others is this:

The dissatisfaction he experienced was not with any specific school, but with the whole concept of curriculum as it plays out in elementary/middle school, period. Anyone who teaches struggles with this, as well.

Let’s put it this way:

There’s this much stuff to learn about:

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During the course of  a school class, period or even a lifetime, you have time to learn this much of that:

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So…

Why learn about – or teach – one fragment rather than another? What governs those choices?

This of course, is the core educational question. What shall we learn and how shall we learn it? It’s not an easy question, especially in a huge, diverse society. It’s why we don’t need a single educational system, but countless schools teaching All The Things in any of the myriad ways or for any of the purposes students want to learn them.

Now, we can and should learn about subjects that we don’t think we need or want to learn about. That’s certainly true. This isn’t an argument for pure interest-driven learning. That produces a whole other type of narrowness and is not, in the end, actually educational.

I’m not a science or math person, academically speaking, but when I think about high school and in which classes I learned the most, I don’t think about English or history. I think about the physics class I took when I was a senior, a class I was required to take, but never would have chosen for myself. It was agony, especially for the first semester, but then, as I was studying for the mid-term, something clicked, and I ended up making an A. That experience of working through something that didn’t come naturally to me was very valuable, but I also learned something about myself – I learned that the more abstract a subject is, the more difficulty I have with it, and I experienced physics as very abstract – it wasn’t as concrete as say, biology had been. I learned this in relation to physics, but then it helped me make sense of a lot of other areas of my life, even at the point in which I was moving towards more advanced studies in religion. I knew that history was where I needed to be, not theology.

So no, I’m not saying that we all should just follow our bliss.

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BUT:

Is it absolutely necessary that a “quality” educational system be one in which elementary school students are required to learn, not just how to read and calculate, but the minutiae of all sorts of specific subjects? That they spend an hour a day learning a particular aspect of science or the humanities, are expected to keep learning about it with half an hour of homework almost every day, and are judged, in some sense, on their mastery of this particular way of learning about this particular subject?

When they are 12 years old?

Once you’ve lived and learned in Homeschool Land, particularly if that learning has been facilitated by a loosey-goosey, INFP mother whose favorite thing is rabbit trails of inquiry….you might be able to live with that bargain  for a while (I’ll put up with this if the other parts of school balance it out)…but then you might start wondering about it.

You might start wondering if rising at 6:45 and doing all the other School Things and being super tired at the end of the day because of it – too tired to practice your music in the way you want, too tired to spend much time outside, even too tired to read at night….you might start wondering if it’s worth it.

You’ve had some good teachers – even a great one. You’re glad of it. You’re grateful. You’ve made good friends. But….there’s that photography class through the homeschool co-op. And the classes at the science museum. And that writing program at the art museum – that sounds interesting. And the iron-pouring session at the historic furnace site. And you might even be able to start volunteering at the zoo.

The thing is….you like science and history and literature and even math is okay.  You read and study about all of that on your own. You learned that you’re not “behind” your peers. At all. You will study scientific and historic topics. It might not be what the curriculum committee of your state has determined all 13-year olds should know…but who cares? Is that really important?

You can be trusted to learn.

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And this, I’ve promised.

I’ll trust him to learn.

I wrote before that when I began this homeschool journey…I was convinced I was definitely Hip Unschooling Mom.

Er..no.

First, I had an older son who was very amenable to being taught. As in: “Teach me something. Thanks. Are we done? Can I go now?” He was not an unschooler at that point in his life.

Secondly…well…I’m a teacher. Life is just amazing and fascinating, and I just want to….

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BUT. THIS TIME GUYS I MEAN IT.

I told my son that except for math, this would be unschooling time. It would all be up to him. We are going to have conversations about what the typical 7th and 8th grade curricula are all about and how that feeds into the traditional high school model. He may not – and probably will not – do traditional high school – but he needs to know how that is structured and what is generally required for graduation.

It will be my job to facilitate. To find resources, to take him to the library, and so on.

Of course, much of this is determined by his sense of what he wants to do or be. There are people around him who think that music is in his future, but while he wants to keep studying piano, and enjoys it, he is pretty firm that he’s not interested in music as a profession in any way. His vision of himself in the future involves some combination of archaeology, photography and reptiles.  We’ll see.

So this is my sense of what “school” will be like for the next year for him:

Prayer/saint of the day/Mass readings or Mass

Math: Art of Problem Solving Pre-Algebra

Aside from his music lessons, homeschool co-op, science center classes, boxing and other activities…what he studies will be up to him, and I’ll help in whatever way I can. The only rule is that he must be engaged in something during the “school day.”  It can be outdoors, it can be reading, writing, drawing, studying, talking to me, whatever. But no screens (unless we are watching an educational video together), and if he can’t use his time….I’ll take over.

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Today he mentioned Spanish, for example. So I’ll get a Spanish I program of some sort – either middle school Spanish or a high school Spanish I program – and he’ll start on that with the wealth of supplementary materials out there and if he wants to, at some point, involve a tutor or an online class.

This will be very interesting. It will require discipline and self-control on both ends – he’ll need it to stay focused, and I’ll need it in order to keep that Sort Of Unschooling Promise.

Paperwork: As I have mentioned, Alabama is a fabulous homeschooling state. The only requirement is attendance records. No testing, no need to submit curriculum.  So our process will be, not planning, but recording.

I have a daily planner, and at the end of every day – or in the course of the day – he will note what he did: what he read, wrote, saw, did. At the end of the week, he’ll write up a summary, and that will be our record-keeping, which I know will be important for future reference, to prove that he actually did things.

So that’s it.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

 

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For more homeschool posts with many more Thoughts:

Balancing Equations: The decision-making that led to homeschooling back in 2011/2012

The first stage of our homeschooling…in Europe.

School at Home and Other Places….my family’s background in education. 

An INFP Homeschools

The main resources I used in homeschooling that first go round.

Homeschool Takeaways: What I Learned. 

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As promised, this is one of two posts I’m going to write on our trip to Belize and Guatemala (July 16-22, 2017) This one will be about the the practicalities, with tips and mini-reviews, and the other will be on the food, which was consistently great.

Why in the world did you go? Should we?

We went on this trip because my 12-year old has a strong and serious interest in Mayan history and archaeology, his brother was doing another out-of-town activity for the week, and I gave him the chance to pick a destination, and this – specifically Tikal – was it.

There are 2000 Mayan sites in Guatemala alone (some just one mound covering a temple, but still…), some quite extensive. Tikal is the most well known, but is close to some other very interesting sites, so we decided to make it the focus of the trip.

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There are other reasons to go to this part of the world. A lot of North Americans head down there for recreational and adventure reasons – you see more of it in Belize, which is becoming a very popular destination, not only for tanned retirees heading to fish, but families and young people as well. People go diving, fishing, caving and tubing. It’s a popular cruise ship stop. There are lots of all-inclusive resorts (including three owned by Francis Ford Coppola) and it’s popular with North Americans because the first language of Belize is English, they take US dollars everywhere, and the exchange rate is easy to figure out on the fly (basically 2:1 Belize:US).

Guatemala has plenty to recommend in this regard as well, and more, considering the geographical diversity of the country.

People also go to Guatemala for the family and cultural connections they have, and to do mission work. Our flights into and out of Belize each had at least two mission groups aboard, and I saw more than a few vans on the road crammed with blonde-haired Anglos and guitar cases visible through the back window – I assumed they were mission groups ,too. Was I wrong? Maybe, but I doubt it.

So. Should you go?

If you want to, sure!

I felt safe and, after a day or two of adjustment, at ease in the culture. Everyone is very friendly and helpful, and the sites we saw were fascinating. There were many American and European families with younger kids at Tikal – none at the other sites we visited, but then, we were mostly the only people at those sites, anyway, so…..

If Mayan culture interests you or you want to expose your family to that part of our hemisphere’s history, Tikal and the other sites are great. If you have never done anything like this before, it might be a little easier to start in Mexico with Chichen Itza and Uxmal, perhaps using Merida and Campeche as bases or Cancun if that is your thing (although crime is becoming more of a problem in the Mexican resorts, it seems, so I’m not so sure about that…).

Or, if you want your family to experience ancient American cultures…try the Southwest. No, it’s not the Temple of the Jaguar, but it’s still interesting and important to understand.

As for the other activities in the area, they don’t hold much appeal for me at this point. When it comes to outdoor type of activities there’s so much in this country that I haven’t experienced – the Florida Keys, the Rocky Mountains, the Northwest – that any energy for that kind of thing that I have…I’ll direct to those places.

How Should I Get There?

When I first started planning, I assumed we would fly in and out of Guatemala City – until I figured out how far it is from Peten, the area in which theruins that are our focus are located. It would be an 8-9 hour drive unless I wanted to fly from Guatemala City to Flores – which is expensive.

So the next possibility was Belize City, which is what I ultimately decided on. Weirdly, it was cheaper to fly from Birmingham to BC than Atlanta to BC – I mean, I’m happy about that, but that’s not the norm and I don’t know why it was so.

Another option is Flores, which is right there.  Unfortunately flying into Flores from either Birmingham or Atlanta was far too expensive. However, if you can fly, for example, out of Houston, the fare is very decent. So if you can get to a major hub in the southwest, check out the fares for Flores.

I worked this journey as two separate flights. I had enough miles to get us down there on American at no charge, but not enough for a round trip, and the AA flights back were at bad times and expensive. So I opted to fly United, one-way, back from BC. This would have been a lot cheaper if we lived in South Florida or Texas…just sayin’.

Should I Drive?

All right. It depends. I won’t bore you with the back-and-forth I went through in my head on this. Well, not much of it, anyway.

I am a very independent traveler. I like to be in control of my own destiny, at all times. The long-haul public transportation in Belize and Guatemala is confusing and not great, especially in Belize. So, should I drive? My reflexive answer was not “NO!” and in fact, I did consider it.

The real question before I went was renting a car and taking it across the border. It can be done, but it adds a level of complication to the border crossing between Belize and Guatemala that might already be fraught. You have to drive the car through fumigation portals, etc, plus there’s the documents you have to have…yeah. And then you’d have to do it again. All that.

But I will say that after spending a week being driven around Belize and Guatemala, if I were going to do anything like it again, here’s what I would do.

First, though: if you are a timid driver – forget it. Don’t even try. I’m not a timid driver, so given that I see how it all works now, if I went back, and were only going to be in one of the countries, I’d drive, with a couple of caveats.

I’d drive in Belize, no question. The roads are fine, and the driving doesn’t seem too crazy. I wouldn’t drive in Belize City, but then I wouldn’t drive in any foreign city if I could help it.

Secondly, I would sort of  drive in Guatemala. Maybe. Sometimes.

It would be considerably more challenging, but having seen those challenges, I could manage. Yes, the roads are not smooth. Yes, there are people on the side of the road, including little kids some of whom are dragging machetes because every male seems to carry a machete around in rural Guatemala. Yes, there are dogs, horses, chickens and pigs on the side of and often in the road. Yes, there are frequent and potentially damaging speed bumps. Yes, there are loads of motorcycles, perhaps 3% of which are being driven by people wearing helmets, and a surprising number of those motorcyclists are transporting small children and babies. My favorite was: 2 adults on one cycle, with a toddler in between them and a baby in a carrier strapped to the driver’s front.

But yeah, I could do it. However….

The roads leading to most of the ruins except for Tikal are terrible. Even Yaxha, which is a major site, and perhaps the most visited in the area after Tikal, involved about 8 miles of really rough road.  Even if I had the most comprehensive insurance on the planet (which is what I would have), I would be extremely tense about driving those roads myself because, well, what if something happened? I can change a tire, but you know what? I really don’t want to, especially in the middle of nowhere in a foreign country.

And since visiting sites would be our major interest…there’s no reason to spend 70/80 bucks a day on a car that I’d have a nervous breakdown driving because I’d be afraid of puncturing a tire or the gas tank or whatever. And I wouldn’t drive at night. Yeah, all that. So while I don’t particularly like being dependent on others for my transportation, it really doesn’t make any sense to do otherwise. Jesus, take the wheel.

Conclusion?

Renting and driving a car in Belize and Guatemala is expensive, and if you did this, you’d want plentiful insurance coverage (and would be required to get it if you rented in Belize and traveled to Guatemala), which makes it even more expensive.

For long distances, you can take buses, but the Belize buses are not great – don’t know about the Guatemala buses. Mexico has really nice buses, but Belize, at least, doesn’t have that kind of service at this point.

In communities, taxis and collectivos (vans) and tuk-tuks (in Flores and probably other places) are plentiful and inexpensive. Everyone, it seems to me, uses taxis to get around because relatively few people actually own cars. You have a motorcycle, probably, but if you need to carry things or take more people, you just get a taxi, no big deal.

In addition, there are plenty of shuttle services, and every taxi driver you encounter will amywelborn78nose about for more business: So…are you going to Tikal? Do you need a driver? Are you going to the airport? Do you need a driver tomorrow for that? But if you do go long distances via shuttle, build that cost in. So, for example, this past Saturday, I paid $100 (50 each) for us to be driven in a shuttle from San Ignacio, Belize to the Belize Airport, about 73 miles away, with a 90-minute stop at the Belize Zoo. I wish I didn’t have to spend that kind of money, but in the end, hiring a driver ends up being not that much more expensive than renting a car in these countries, and while you don’t have the freedom to go anywhere whenever, you have freedom from stress about responsibility for driving mishaps. Life, as I like to say, is a trade-off.

Where Should I Stay?

Again, I’m writing this for people interested in Tikal and other nearby sites, so I’ll start with Tikal.

If you look at a map, you’ll see several possibilities. People do day trips to Tikal from spots in Belize, as well as closer Guatemalan communities like El Remate and Flores. It’s certainly possible, but there are advantages to staying in the park itself.

The best times to experience Tikal are in the morning and late afternoon. Not surprisingly, those late morning and earlier afternoon hours get hot, plus the jungle is quieter during those hours, as the animals are sensible and taking a rest as well. So to experience the jungle and the ruins in their fullest, in the most convenient way – it makes sense to stay in one of the three hotels located in the park.

It makes particular sense if you’re going to do the Sunrise tour, which necessitates you start walking to Temple IV at about 4:30 am. Adding an hour drive to that would be…torture.

There are three hotels in the park: The Jungle Lodge, the Jaguar Inn and the Tikal Inn.

All are located near each other in the same area. We stayed at the Jungle Lodge, and I was very happy with the accommodations. They are separate cabins that were constructed originally back in the 1950’s for the team from the University of Pennsylvania that was excavating the ruins.

(Here’s an article published in 1970 upon the completion of the team’s work. 

Here’s a set of really interesting archival videos on the project – they are silent and just that – archival – but interesting to dip into.)

The bungalows are very clean – as was my experience in all three places we stayed. There is no air conditioning, but there is a ceiling fan. The unusual thing about this to keep in mind is that most electricity is turned off during certain hours in the middle of the day and from about 10:30 pm to 7 am or so – with the ceiling fans being on a separate generator that keeps running. But if you get up for that Sunrise Tour, if you haven’t brought flashlights (we did), you’ll need your cell phone flashlight, which probably isn’t great. You should take a flashlight anyway because you’ll need it for the walk to Temple IV for the Sunrise Tour, and if you go to another onsite restaurant in the evening, you’ll need it for walking on the grounds – there are no streetlights around the parking lot, it’s pitch black and the great thing? The stars.  I’d never seen them so bright and in such an array. It’s what I had hoped to see at the Grand Canyon but didn’t. Gorgeous.

So yes, the Jungle Lodge is more expensive than other accommodations in towns outside the park, but again – everything has a cost, and it’s up to you what currency you want to use – do you want to pay with money or do you want to pay with the extra time and hassle of being an hour away from the park? I’d say it’s worth it to spend at least one night in the park.

The restaurant at the Jungle Lodge is not what I expected and I wouldn’t recommend it, unless you have nowhere else to go (and there are other places – the other two hotels both have restaurants, and during the day, there are comedors – or small restaurants just down the road. The comedors only take cash though, so be prepared.). The service was fine and the food wasn’t terrible, but it was oddly enough, not at all Guatemalan, Central American or even vaguely Hispanic. It was mostly sort of Italian. Weird and overpriced.

In Flores, we stayed at a hotel owned by the same people – the Isla de Flores. Very nice – good sized room and bathroom. The best noise-blocking windows I’ve ever experienced in a hotel. Could have used them in Madrid where the party just gets started at midnight…

Bookending the trip, we stayed at Martha’s Guesthouse in San Ignacio, Belize. I highly recommend it. Very nice people running the place and the room we stayed in was very large, with a balcony.

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Miscellaneous Tips:

  • When you cross the Guatemala-Belize border, you’ll be immediately swarmed on either side by men offering to exchange money. Don’t do it. I had gotten Guatemalan money before we went – I usually don’t do that, but I knew I would need cash right away to buy Tikal tickets (next tip), so I made an exception this time. It might be a good idea to do the same, but there are secure ATM’s in banks all over the place – not in villages, but in towns.
  • Make sure you understand the process for buying Tikal tickets – research it or if you have a guide, he or she will explain it. Because of long lines, delays and corruption, the government took Tikal ticket-selling away from the park and you must buy them at a branch of a certain bank now – there is a branch at the border and at the airport and other places, but just be prepared. You have to pay cash and know exactly what kind of tickets you want because there are no tickets sold at the park.
  • They take American dollars all over Belize. They also took them in souvenir shops in Flores and at the shops and snack places around the Tikal park. I would advise downloading a currency exchange app on your phone to avoid conflict and confusion – you can just punch it numbers and show it to the clerk or server – end of argument. If you think you might use US dollars in Guatemala, make sure they are clean, unmarked and not too folded or wrinkled. The problem, as our guide explained, is that the Guatemalan banks will not accept US dollars that are in less than good condition – so if a vendor accepts one and tries to deposit them and they’re rejected – they’ve lost that money.
  • San Ignacio, Belize and Flores Guatemala are full of tourists. Young American and European backpackers and adventurers, retired Americans and lots of students. It’s got that kind of vibe – a mix of locals hustling to make a living, mostly off the tourists, and the tourists hoping what they’re experiencing is “authentic” – San Ignacio is much more ramshackle than Flores, though.
  • The tourist-centered economy of these places means that they’re full of tour companies. Choose wisely and read reviews. Plan ahead if you want (I did) but I think it’s easy to pick up a guide or join a tour on short notice.
  • Internet: I have a cel-phone plan through T-Mobil that provides free service overseas. The data is slow, but it’s there. I had access through my phone in most places except in Tikal. It was weird – we trekked through various other jungles that were more isolate than Tikal, and I had access in those places, but not in Tikal. The hotels all had wi-fi, but the Jungle Lodge’s service was provided only in the lobby and at the pool and it was terrible. Everywhere else, the wi-fi was fine. Now. Before anyone scolds about “just unconnect! Be free!” – listen to me.  I am a single mom, who had one minor child up in Chicago while I was in Guatemala. I needed to be available. My finances are all on me – no one else – and I needed to keep an eye on my bank account and credit card account to make sure there were no ATM or other shenanigans brewing. Wi-Fi wasn’t important because I wanted to check Facebook. It was important because most of life is on the internet now, for good or for ill, I’m the head of the household with responsibilities that are all on my shoulders, so yeah…making sure I’m in range is important. No apologies.
  • We prepared, health-wise, by loading up on probiotics for a couple of weeks before. It probably wasn’t necessary. We were very careful and never drank tap water – I don’t think most natives do either – and were fine.
  • Do take good insect repellent. I got this one, and it worked great. We were in a rainforest amid swarms of mosquitos, and they didn’t touch us.
  • What did we pack? Our clothes filled one small satchel. M wore hiking boots and packed his sandals. I took hiking sandals and tennis shoes. We each had a backpack – mine is one I bought for the 2012 trip that holds a camera in the bottom and has a laptop sleeve. I took regular camera, phone, laptop and chargers for each. We had journals and pens, and a couple of books. Two small flashlights, insect repellent, the usual toiletries and basic first aid (band aids, itch cream, antibiotic cream) that I always travel with plus Pepto-Bismol and After-Bite. I wasn’t sure about the Jungle Lodge electricity situation – I knew they turned the power off at night, and didn’t know if that included the fans or not, so I bought a small cheap cordless fan and took that. I didn’t “need” it, as it turned out, but it did add some extra breeze on those two nights.

 

Should I Hire a Tour Guide?

Unless you yourself are an expert on Matters Mayan, yes. You can get the basics about Tikal from a book, but having a good guide puts it all in context. You must have a guide for the Sunrise Tour. The other sites we saw are incomprehensible without prior knowledge or a guide. There was English signage at Tikal, but everywhere else was Spanish only, ,which is decipherable for me, but very basic. As I said above, you can easily grab a guide on site or in one of the outside towns, but I needed a guide and driver for the entire week, so I made arrangements ahead of time – based on recommendations on the TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet discussion boards, I went with Marlon Diaz of Gem Guatemala Travel. It was a great decision – he was smart, flexible, deeply knowledgeable and a great animal spotter as well.  Here’s my TripAdvisor review of his service. 

So there you go…I might add to this as the day goes on and more occurs to me. Ask questions if you like either in the comments or to amywelborn60 – at – gmail – dot- com.

 

Tomorrow: the food. And that will be it for blogging on it – look for an ebook with a complete account in a few weeks, I hope. 

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We are back in Birmingham. It was sketchy there for a bit last night. Our flight from Belize City took off a little early and went smoothly, but about 30 minutes from Houston, a flight attendant standing in the aisle next to me mouthed to another approaching her, The airport’s closed. 

Oh.

I started working out in my head where an international flight could be diverted – probably Dallas or New Orleans. Dallas would give us a better chance for getting home reasonably on schedule. If it was New Orleans, I could rent a car and drive and be home in five hours. This might work.

But no need. After a few announcements – airport’s closed…airport’s open now…we landed.

Then we got the delightful news that because of lightning, the ground crews were not allowed on the field to guide the planes in, and until lightning moved beyond that 5 mile radius, we were stuck where we were, rain beating down around us.

Welp. My only hope was that this delay would impact all flights – how could it not? – but the United app kept showing my BHM flight on time, which made no sense to me. Finally, it showed a 15 minute delay, which still made no sense, but just in case, I started researching options – there were none. No fights from any airline out of Houston in Birmingham after 7:45 (not that that were many anyway).

Oh well. The only glitch for me was that my older son, who has been at an academic kind of activity week in Chicago with a friend was being driven back by the friend’s dad – and the original plan was for a Sunday travel day. But…then J texted me with the news that they were going to hit it hard and leave Chicago then and go the whole way – he’d spend the night at their house, since they wouldn’t get back until 3 am or so. That was all still fine, but if we were delayed and couldn’t get back until noonish on Sunday….

You don’t have a house key with you.

Because you told me not to take it so I wouldn’t risk losing it. 

Right. 

No, not a huge problem, but still another annoying factor to factor in.

Well, the lightning finally cleared, we taxied and were allowed off the plane. We raced to immigration which was, amazingly, a cavernous empty space. Obviously because the airport had ceased operations for a while, but still startling to see. Through US customs and immigration in 5 minutes? I’ll take it.

Maybe there’s hope!

Or not. If you are not familiar with how to deal with connecting flights after international travel it’s this:

You have to clear US immigration, then get your bag from baggage claim, then recheck it, then go through airport security to get to the domestic part of the airport.  My app was still showing a 7:45 departure, so I was fairly hopeless at this point – because it was 7:35.

(And why did we check a bag? Because you probably know that I usually don’t. Because a couple of the souvenirs we bought wouldn’t have passed through security – a sharp thing and some liquids over 4 ounces. I was really questioning the wisdom of those purchases at this point.)

The baggage handler who would take our bag for recheck scanned things here and there and determined that we still had 19 minutes to make our flight and we might as well try. I was optimistic, based on his word, for about 23 seconds – the time it took to leave him, go up the escalator and see the security line. Pretty long. Ridiculous.

We got through, and while I didn’t think there was hope, we forged on. On the skytrain to the terminal I saw the airport Marriott and figured that would be the night I’d use the one free room I have left in that account. We departed the train, raced to the gate, and the first word I saw was DEPARTED.  I stopped dead in my tracks, disappointed but not surprised, when a guy in a beautiful crimson Roll Tide t-shirt said, “Oh, it hasn’t left yet. We haven’t even started boarding . I don’t know why it says that.”

Thank. You.

…and the flight attendant was in a very good mood, and was generous with food and drink with those of us in the back of the plane – some of them were finally getting home after some 24-hour delays out of Denver, I guess. My car started when I got to it, and the conversation between the two passengers behind me was weirdly related to my life in quite specific ways and while at first I thought, Huh, that’s weird, as time went on, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was more than weird and that maybe I’m really supposed to do the things I’ve been intuiting I’m supposed to be doing.  I mean, I could have been seated in front of two people talking about real estate or health care or their grandkids or sports, but no, they were talking about this particular thing with these particuar references. Huh.

So anyway, we got home, we’ll be reunited in a few hours, and we’ll have a week of finishing up summer work, piano, perhaps another person in the family having braces put on his teeth and then the boys go off to Florida for one more jaunt before school starts, both in another building and at home….

(I said I wasn’t going to write in detail about the trip here on the blog, and I’m not – except for two posts. I want to do a wrap-up post about the food, which was consistently the best of any trip that I’ve taken abroad – and a post with practical suggestions for those who might be considering such a trip themselves.)

 

 

Scenes from Saturday, our last day. We stopped at the Belize Zoo on our way to the airport from San Ignacio. Even the airport food in Central America is very good – at least in Belize it was. 

 

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Post title because I’m celebrating survival tonight, and because the restaurant in the photos above was built for the crew of Survivor: Guatemala back in 2005 when the season was filmed at Yaxha. Another excellent meal.

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As I noted in 7 Quick Takes…and have probably noted elsewhere, either passive-aggressively or outright grumpily, because of the 16-year old’s work schedule, this summer won’t have quite the travel theme as previous years…

But that’s fine. He needs to work and I’m already stupidly amazed at the difference in my bank account between now and last summer.

But just because three-week long trips are impossible this year, that doesn’t mean we’ll stay put. So this weekend…

Saturday was taken up with things around the house, then the earliest Vigil Mass to be found in town, since son had to work from 5:30-10:15 Saturday night and 9:30-6 on Sunday. The alternative would have been a 7 am Sunday Mass…and no one was really in favor of that, so a 4pm Mass it was, followed by dropping one off at work and then the other off at the movies and…what the house to myself for a couple of hours? Gee, when this school year ended, I didn’t think that was going to happen again until 2021 or thereabouts….

On Sunday, after dropping Working Man off (we only have one car at the moment – I have no plans to get another one until closer to the beginning of school), the 12-year old and I headed south and west a little to the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge.

We’d been there a couple of years ago, but didn’t return last summer, and so here we were.

The location is noted for the blooming of Cahaba Lilies:

The lily requires a very specialized habitat—swift-flowing water over rocks and lots of sun—and thus is restricted to shoal areas at or above the fall line. In Alabama, the Cahaba lily is restricted to the Black Warrior, Cahaba, Coosa, Tallapoosa, and Chattahoochee river systems. Plant bulbs and seeds spend the winter buried in the rocky riverbed. There the water’s current securely wedges the seeds and bulbs into the rock crevices. Leaves begin to emerge above the water line in mid-April, following the spring floods (dates are approximately two weeks later in eastern Georgia and South Carolina). Flower stalks develop after the leaves are fully emerged, with each stalk capped by six to nine buds surrounded by protective casings called bracts. Flowering commences in mid-May, reaching its peak in late May and early June, with sporadic flowering until late June.

There were still some in bloom (I didn’t get any closeups), although they are clearly at the end of the season.

The water was cold, but it was not crowded, and a little over an hour was enough for a beginning of the season sort-of-wild-swim.

I was a little nervous because the last time we were there, M had spotted a water moccasin in a rock crevice…but none this time made themselves seen.

But this fellow did:

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It was sort of amazing. We were driving down the gravel road that led to the river, when M said, “Wait…is that an owl?” When he spotted it, it wasn’t as obvious as in this photo – it was lower, and on a log across some water, in the midst of forest. I really don’t know how he saw it, but he did, and since there were no other cars coming or going, we just sat there for a few minutes, watching him – and him watching us, which he clearly was, flying up to a higher branch to get a closer look, and never taking his very large eyes of us. I had the window open, but something told me I might want to close it – he was that intent on us.

Just a couple of miles down the road, after the river, we stopped at this park – the West Blocton Coke Ovens Historic Park. It’s just what it says.

“Blocton” was so named because of a huge block of coal found at some point in the 19th century. The area – all of this part of Alabama, really – had, for a time, a large coal industry, even after the Yankees came through. All of this industry (including in Birmingham, of course) produced the foundation of many of the ethnic communities in this area – the Jewish, Greek, Eastern European and Italian roots of Birmingham are as deep as any other and go right back to the beginnings of commerce and industry here.

So, as one of the historic markers I read along the way said, at some point there was a synagogue in this small town, on the street that is now lined with empty storefronts – and there’s an Italian Catholic cemetery in the area. I didn’t have time on Sunday to look for it, but I will definitely be back at some point this summer for the search for it and for the sign that marks the location of the synagogue.

(Rabbit hole warning – here’s an article from the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities about the West Blocton Jewish community…with a connection to famed Yankees announcer Mel Allen…)

The coke ovens park was simple and well done – the walkway runs in between two now overgrown ovens (go to the webpage to see what they would originally have looked like), where train tracks would have been. Ruins of any sort are always so intriguing to me – ruins of 5th century Rome or 19th century American industry. They are a continual reminder to me not to get too attached to my own endeavors…

After that, we stopped at a roadside barbecue place – it was decent, although way to saucy for me. I generally like my pulled pork dry and let me sauce it up myself as I see fit, thanks!

Today, the Working Man had a day off, so after a decent sleep, we headed north this time, to Hurricane Creek Park. M and I had tried to go there a year ago or so, I think, but at the time it was only open weekends, which I didn’t know at the time. It’s now open every day.

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It’s pretty interesting – north of Cullman, here’s the history:

In 1961, Buddy Rogers purchased 120 acres of land in Cullman County and got to work making a dream come true. Buddy was a decorated fighter pilot in World War II who spent time after the war studying aerial photography near Denver. There, he spotted and then fell in love with a place called Seven Falls. After returning to his home in Alabama he joined the Air National Guard and it was when he was doing some aerial photography for them that he spotted an area that reminded him of his beloved Seven Falls. He went back later on foot to explore and found another natural area to fall in love with.  Just off what was then the new Highway 31, a narrow gorge dropped 500 feet through massive rock walls, cut by a clear little creek that reached its widest point at the very bottom. All around were the rock walls of the gorge, only slightly obscured by virgin hardwood forest, pine trees, and wildflowers. He decided right then and there that he would make it his life’s work to create a park out of the land.

 

And he did – even constructing a cable car system, I presume, to get to the creek at the bottom.

The park is now owned by the county, and only minimally maintained, although whatever happens seems to get the job done.  I wish I’d read that blog post cited before we went, so we could have looked for the remnants of the cable car – more ruins!

But that’s okay – we’ll be back. It was a gorgeous, gorgeous spot – one of the more beautiful and easily accessible spots in an hour radius of Birmingham.

The rest of the week? Busy stuff. All those kinds of appointments that you put off during the school year that then get piled up either right after school ends or right before it begins again in August because you have all summer to take care of it, you know.  And then a trip to Atlanta for…argh…the National History Bee….and..I can’t even with that, it’s so ridiculous.

But New York City awaits….

If you have any interest in keeping up with these adventures on a sort-of-daily basis, follow me on Instagram, especially Instagram Stories. 

 

 

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