Thursday, March 29, 2012

Travel with a Purpose: A company to put on your radar: Earthwatch

I had lunch with Erin again last week and she asked if I had heard of Earthwatch, which I hadn't. She told me I needed to go home and look it up immediately and so I did. Not because I listen so well really but more because she really intrigued me. Earthwatch is about travel and volunteering but it's also about working with scientists and their endeavors around the world. So like basically, it's my dream trifecta! There are lots of options but recently I had a dream about working on Easter Island so this one jumped out at me.

"On this expedition, you'll help researchers examine the role of prehistoric rock mulching and rock placement in Rapa Nui gardens and agricultural systems as ways of creating a sustainable agricultural system. You'll also help conduct experiments assessing whether and how this prehistorical technology could be re-introduced on the island today."

Let me make clear though. These ARE NOT CHEAP. There are other options at varying lengths and activity levels but I haven't looked closely enough to see if this included airfare. I am doubting it. However this is a true scientific endeavor so you could probably get donations to help with your trip as well. Would LOVE to hear from anyone who has completed an Earthwatch Expedition.

Monday, March 26, 2012

French food, restaurants & Bistro Richelieu

French restaurants are expensive. Food in France is subsidized so that farmers are guaranteed a living wage no matter what kind of crop they make. This means cheese and fruit and vegetables and everything else used for making meals is expensive. Likewise, waiters are not heavily dependent on tips for income. So included in most meal prices is your service cost. I personally still add more, especially in Paris where service can be...well an American perspective. See the French love a good meal and they love to savor it. They do not want to be bothered by a waiter asking if they need anything else and shoving a check at them. So for an American who has to ask for drink refills and the check, service can seem horrid. In fact, for the French it is perfect and respectful. Cultures clash.

This is not to say you can't find an inexpensive meal at all. I mean sandwich shop fronts are open all over the city and the standby of Jambon et Fromage is ALWAYS available. And you don't look crazy walking down the street and munching on a sandwich. Everyone does it.


A sandwich and drink is usually about $5 and it's an easy way to budget lunch (of course don't forget about dessert but I'll cover that later!) And if you do sit down to eat at lunch you can usually find Prix Fixe meals that contain three courses (sometimes a drink) and aren't going to break your bank.

Dinner can be costly. The good news is that like New York restaurants are required to post menus and prices outside so you know what is available and for how much BEFORE you enter. It helps if you know French food names (or have a trusty dictionary), because they tend to START descriptions in English then add a French word every now and then. For example, I hate eating fungus. It's my one never ever food. So I am sure to know the French word for mushrooms (champignons) to avoid anything with this at all. And the French love their fungus!

Like every other country out there but America (it seems) the French also like to eat really, really late. Like 9-10 is just getting it started. Somehow these people munch on bread all day to keep themselves from gnawing their own arms at 7pm like we were about to and still stay thin. My Germanic genes however won't allow that to happen and just smelling the bread meant I had trouble zipping my pants. So I avoided the bread outside meals and we ate at 7. With all the other Americans! It's actually kind of funny when travelling to Europe. If you feel homesick eat at 7pm. Or earlier. You are SURE to find other Americans at restaurants this way!


So we happened upon Bistro Richelieu on a wet cold evening and we sat off to the side. I ordered wine and French Onion soup and something else that escapes me for my meal (I was tired at this point) and some of the best creme brulee I've ever eaten. But what made my meal the best was this:


Two of the best waiters I have ever had. The woman spoke NO ENGLISH but smiled and giggled at my atrocious French. The man spoke far better English than my French and we had a wonderful time sitting and resting and visiting with them as much as we could. Unfortunately as we were winding down the restaurant started filling up and they weren't able to talk to us much. But they were sweet and kind and these are the kind of people I think of when I hear people talk about how they were mistreated in Paris. French people don't hate Americans. They are intolerant of tourons (tourist morons) but I am guilty of that as well here in San Antonio (a tourist mecca). So please have no worries about the mean French waiter. Try out your French, show them you tried and give them a giggle over your atrocious accent. It makes the experience that much more fun!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Bucket List Revisited...Again...Henna Undone

I'm sure that many people start to accomplish bucket list items and then right when they are ready to git 'er done realize it's not what they imagined. Or even want. My trip to Morocco was surreal at times (having tea in a Berber cave kitchen while the son's cell phone rings was very Dr. No), but overall it was very real. Thanks to our fantastic guide Said from Desert Majesty, we got to see parts of Morocco most don't even imagine exist.

And so my exotic ideas of getting my hands hennaed in Morocco flew out the window. The women who sit in Djemma El Fna in Marrakech do a beautiful job of taking tourist's money and creating superb drawings on the backs of their hands. My resident friend warned me that the black henna can cause scarring so I went off into the back roads of Meraouga and Dades and Draa Valley ready for my henna moment at the end of the trip.

Until I met Fatima. She graciously showed us how to create bread, adding ingredients like my husband's grandmother (by sight) kneading and kneading until MY arms were sore. It was as she was shaping the bread that I noticed her hands. My aunt Cynde had commented on how much time and care Fatima had spent on washing her hands before and after dough preparation. But her hands looked dirty. So I sneakily asked Said about her hands and he explained that this was the true tradition of Henna. Berber women coat the PALMS of their hands with it, cover them with material or bags then sleep so that the staining appears in the morning. THIS is the Berber tradition of beauty. NOT the designs on the backs of the hands.

Also they use it to color their fingernails and I found it precious on the shy little girl they handed me to kiss (on the cheek four times each side) that I didn't want to put down. You can see it if you look hard at her fingernails. This is Sophie (the mom, who invited me into the inner sanctum so we could all see the rest of their house!), Fatima in my arms, and Eunice in Sophie's arms.


I have so much to say about my trip, but I still am processing it all. And getting all these pictures uploaded is a CHORE! Can't wait to share my hammam experience though!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Travel with a Purpose: Costa Rica Chica

I will make it to Costa Rica some day. Flights to San Jose are crazy cheap and short from Texas and I'm not really sure why I haven't gone there yet. Craig is on the fence after seeing a web page with the variety of snakes available to play with (read: run away from) in the glorious junglish atmosphere. I have mental images of him in a tree canopy refusing to come down because there is a flashy reptile on the ground. Probably I'm holding it. He once almost jumped out of a two story building, because I was trying to get him to touch a ball python. I even knew of his fear at the time. I can be mean that way.

Opportunities to volunteer in Costa Rica are plentiful. I did a google search and found pages of ideas (and even some news stories!). The one that popped up and seemed interesting is Sea Turtle Conservation. The costs seems the most affordable of places that I've seen so far. Two weeks is $1050. This is cheaper than cruising!

Actually I really like this company from what I read. Would love to do more research on it! I think I'd like to do a Spanish immersion in Chile :)

CAVEAT EMPTOR: I personally have not worked with this orgainzation. Be sure to do all due diligence in researching a group before giving them any money and travelling to a foreign country to work with them!!!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Travel with a Purpose: Moroccan women

I am slightly hesitant to volunteer to teach English in certain countries. I waffle between finding it self-centered in the belief that other people need to learn my language and the knowledge that English is a common language around the world that will help people get jobs in tourism. Many Moroccans are already bi-lingual (at the least!). However the thought of opening worlds and helping women learn to read? That speaks to me! I've volunteered here at home with children and literacy and I personally think there is no greater gift to give a person than the ability to read.  But as an avid reader I recognize my bias :)

If you have interest in visiting Morocco and making a difference in a woman's life, please look into ProWorld's opportunities in Meknes. This is an interesting company because they have built in excursion opportunities to Fes and Volubilis that are fantastic!

CAVEAT EMPTOR: I personally have not worked with this orgainzation. Be sure to do all due diligence in researching a group before giving them any money and travelling to a foreign country to work with them!!!

Friday, March 9, 2012

Camels are called "ships of the desert" for a reason

So one week before leaving for my trip I did research on how to ride a camel. Not my best preplanning move ever. I immediately went to my fitness instructor and said I needed to work out my inner thighs. A lot. In a new exercise segment she called the "Andrea workout" (which I didn't really appreciate because my name has been damned numerous times the past week) she worked inner thigh muscles I didn't know I had. I certainly hope this helps somewhat when I hold on with all my might using only my inner thighs.

Research will show you that riding a camel is not like riding a horse. I kind of already knew this what with being 9 feet in the air during the ride. This is not much lower than the roof of a house. So jumping off a camel is not really a likely method of dismounting. Their little spindly legs worry me because I am not little and I don't care that they are used to hauling hundreds of pounds of cargo across long stretches of desert.

Here is a short video to give you an idea:

I hope when I get back I can post a video of one of us showing off as well! I certainly hope we get our own camel because those sharing don't look comfortable!

Additionally, some friends of mine who lived in Saudi Arabia warned me about the rocking motion. So I have stocked up on DRAMAMINE. I will be sure to take it before we get on the camel because the last thing I want is to be sea sick in the middle of the desert 9 feet off the ground! (See also: NO TOUCH MONKEY! On Dress)

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Travel with a Purpose: Voluntourism in France

I am always surprised to see France (especially the Eiffel Tower) on so many people's bucket lists. While I love Europe, because I think it's the perfect place to dip your toes into travel, France has always been the place others wanted to go and I happily tagged along. Don't get me wrong. Paris is a fantastic place to be the typical traveler. Matt Long covers this fabulously in the fact that so much of the Parisian experience is being part of the cliche! Baguettes, the Metro, and picnics near the Louvre. The participation in Parisian life and being a tourist is really no different that what true Parisians do! There are a variety of volunteering positions in France but the ones I think are most fascinating are outside the city. And really the South of France is nothing to sneeze at either!

Concordia is a UK based company that offers farm and volunteering opportunities from construction to true archaeological work. France is an expensive travel destination so I think this would be a fantastic idea! So get your Indiana Jones on and check it out!

CAVEAT EMPTOR: I personally have not worked with this orgainzation. Be sure to do all due diligence in researching a group before giving them any money and travelling to a foreign country to work with them!!!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Off the beaten path: Berlin Treptower Park

Looking over past posts, I realized that I have left out quite a bit of my trip to Berlin with Stuart. After doing Prague and day trips basically on our own, I wanted to make sure that we had a tour guide with us in Berlin. While Prague was saved during the Nazi occupation, Berlin was so destroyed the collection of rubble from the city created a hill of debris now grown over that held a US NSA listening station.

As I've mentioned before, Berlin is fascinating in it's sense of NOW. It is difficult to walk through the city and get a feel of the past because so much of it is brand new (but rebuilt to look like the past). So without a guide, you happen upon a building you think is hundreds of years old is in reality on 10 years old (or less!). It's a trick of the eye that not all Berliners are happy with. How much is recreating history being authentic? How much of recreated history is worth the recreation? What does it imply?

Berlin is also very rule-bound with respect to construction. The red granite of the Third Reich is so disgusted that new red construction has been destroyed because of rumors that the granite came from the Nazi regime. This makes the memorial in Treptower Park that much more special.

Our guide was getting annoyed with us I could tell. Stuart (being 17 years old) was unable to show any interest in anything and I was so excited about being in Berlin that I was pretty much willing to be shown anything, anywhere. So when she took us into the former East Berlin to see the park, she seemed a little concerned we wouldn't have an interest. Finally she mentioned that this was a Soviet memorial park. Would we mind that? My response was simple. The men who died in the war were no less human, no less someone's son or husband or brother because of their nationality. I was happy to go and ponder the "other side" simply to place perspective on a war that ended five years before my son was born.

This was one of our last stops so imagine my surprise when huge stylized flags of red marble (taken from the Third Reich Chancellory!!!) were used in the memorial.


The sheer size of this memorial is amazing. My son barely comes to the base of the kneeling soldier. But that is nothing compared to the standing Soviet solder at the end of the long garden. It is hard to put this size of this in perspective and I don't believe pictures really do it justice. The soldier is holding a child and stomping on a swastika. This marks another unique facet of this memorial. Swastikas and Nazi symbols are illegal in Germany (even as Anti-Nazi sentiment!)


Let's see if a bigger picture gives better sense of size. Look at the tiny people to the right of the picture.

Treptower Park, Berlin

The park was built after the war by widows and women as so many of the German men were killed in the war. If you travel to Berlin, I strongly recommend going off the beaten tourist path and check out this memorial. It's very peaceful and quiet and a wonderful place for contemplation.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Beer, Brisket, and Guns: God bless Texas

There are moments in my life where I take a step back and think, "Only in Texas!" Most of the time this is a good thing. This last weekend I found myself in a tent, staring at a stack of white plastic boxes.


Somehow my friend Kelly and I ended up as judges for the final Brisket competition at a local cook off.


Brisket is a big thing in Texas. It's rubbed and slathered with special herbs and sauces then cooked for hours and hours. The end result is a tender, juicy meat that you should be able to cut with a fork. If you use a knife it's not good brisket. It should also have a "smoke" ring around it showing the long hours it spent on the pit. This means all the tastings will be heavy on flavor so between every taste we needed to cleanse our palates:


Our team made the finals for brisket but no award. They did win 7th for Chicken and 2nd place (YAY!!) in Ribs. Perhaps now I should mention this is NOT a place for a Vegan. I didn't see a single vegetable the whole weekend.


SO??? You say. We have cookoffs where I live, too! What makes Texas special? Maybe all the other states celebrate their birthday EVERY YEAR. Maybe other states run their flag more often than the American (factoid: The Texas flag is the ONLY state flag allowed to fly at the same height as the American flag.) But do they also run flags for battles? The one on the bottom right is the Alamo, the one on the bottom left is from Gonzales and says "Come and Take It"


But even more they hold auctions selling SHOTGUNS to a bunch of beer swigging, meat eating country boys?


It's no wonder people think they are in a foreign country when they visit Texas!

Friday, March 2, 2012

February: a month in review

This will be quick. I accomplished nothing beyond eating Kimchi with Erin and working out a lot. Not that I am complaining about that! I've found exercise to be the best stress reliever I could find! Plus I get to have an excuse for not completing the projects I need to complete. (I'm getting healthy you know, somehow that excuse trumps all.) Also just in under the wire, I watched Hurt Locker on February 29th. Am now feeling politically knowledgeable and Pop Culturally aware (three years later).

I did have a moment of finding about myself while shopping, when I realized that if you give me $88 of stuff free when I spend $17.50, I will in fact spend more than that. In fact I spent it before walking three feet deep into the store. But I'm justifying this by thinking that if I leave all this makeup behind in Africa because it gets confiscated for being TOO LOUD! I will be out $25. ($10 actually because I used a $15 gift card a friend gave me for Christmas!) Check it out! Not bad for $10!!!


And no. I have absolutely no idea where I would wear yellow eye shadow. Or that green either. Which is strangely reminiscent of my 10th grade History teacher Mrs. Freeman with her green polyester pants.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Travel with a Purpose: Ideas for Voluntourism

I've decided to start a new series called Travel with a Purpose Thursdays. I'm lazy and I don't want to have to go back through all my posts to find ideas for travel in the future and I want guests to my blog to easily find ideas if they too decide to Travel with a Purpose. So today I'm honoring a woman who has broken many barriers on her home continent.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the first and currently only female elected head of state in Africa. She was awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize with two other women for their dedication to women's causes in the world. These are women who make us proud to have two X chromosomes! Liberia is a country with a fascinating history some of it tied to the US. English is the official language of the country making travel a teensy bit easier. Though the state department makes it clear that travel here is no cake walk, I think this would be an interesting first step into volunteering in Africa.

Children Better Way (CBW) offers a variety of opportunities (from education to agriculture) to anyone who can stay for a month. Many of the positions don't necessarily deal with children. I have to admit I'm torn on this. I deal with my children at home so when I vacation usually I like to be child free, but I think I could make an exception here. I'd love to hear more about this group if you have more information.

CAVEAT EMPTOR: I personally have not worked with this orgainzation. Be sure to do all due diligence in researching a group before giving them any money and travelling to a foreign country to work with them!!!
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