I HATE being unprepared! As I stated in a previous blog, when I plan vacations, I like to have it jam packed so I can really see everything. My favorite part of planning trips is doing the research and planning the itinerary. Christina and I poured over the Lonely Planet: Belize Guide. We knew we wanted to snorkel the reef no matter what. Going through the guide, we stumbled upon a place called Tobacco Caye. A tiny little island that sat right on the reef. It had three different lodging accommodations provided for it. After additional research, we found out we could stay in our own little cabana hanging over the water for $75 a night that included all three meals. This alone was already a win in my book.
When we got there, I couldn’t believe how amazing it was! The island was about the size of a football field allowing for nice leisurely walks around.. The residents of the island were incredibly kind. Listening to the ocean at night gave me the best three night sleep of my life (which was needed after many restless nights knowing Trump was going to be sworn in as president). The kicker was hanging out in the hammock at the back of the cabana after snorkeling all day. All of my worries and stress washed away. It was a nice reminder to always do your homework and study, especially when planning a trip. You won’t regret it.
While going for my master’s degree, I wrote my final paper on growth mindset. I believed in growth mindset and knew it was great for my students. I taught them how important it was to change the internal language they were using with themselves. Moving from phrases like “I can’t” and “I give up” to “this make take some time and effort” and “I can” or adding “yet.” Obviously, repeating these phrases to and with students caused them to be ingrained in my own brain.
A few months later, I was out in California visiting my sister over winter break. They had just received a ton of snow for the first time in a long time so we were definitely taking a trip up Mt. Shasta to do some skiing. At this time, I hadn’t skied in ten years and the last time I had, I was still a physically fit high schooler who was running 5 plus miles every day. To say I was nervous was an understatement. I had never skied outside the midwest, which is basically bunny hills compared to the west. On the very first run of the day, I was falling all over the place with my skis going every which way. My skiing muscle memory was based on the artificial snow with an inch of fresh snow at most. The snow on Mt. Shasta was up to my waist in some parts. I had no idea how to handle those pockets. After a few more tries, I spent the rest of the day at the ski lodge sipping hot chocolate feeling defeated.
When we made our trip to Yosemite, we had a whole day planned of skiing at Badger Pass. After my ski day on Mt. Shasta, I was apprehensive about skiing Badger Pass. On the way up the ski lift, the growth mindset self-talk was running through my head. I knew I could do it and had to listen to the feedback that my body and the snow was telling me. I couldn’t give up! I started slow going down the first run. By the end of the day, I was zooming through trees and going down almost every run. Growth mindset is incredible! There really is power behind changing your words and pushing through the struggles. As Kevin Garnett says, “anything is possible!”
At the rice terraces, the host of the place we were staying was a character to say the least. He had these old records nailed to the wall. Instrumentals of modern pop music played from a record player inside. On the facade of the building, chairs and tables were faceted to the wall so if you were laying on your side it would like the right side up. There was also a rat in a cage, which he was painting blue. He very eagerly showed me his blue rat and wound up the cage on the string letting it spin. He got quite a chuckle from that and enjoyed my reaction as well. Throughout the day he would bring out different homemade liquors for me and my siblings to try. He was always laughing and had a smile on his face.
On one particular night, which just happened to be Christmas, he made us an incredible dinner. We had encountered a Greek and Dutch traveling duo who he also invited to join us along with his friend from the village. Everyone was telling stories with my brother rapidly translating everything. The drinking and fun continued throughout the night. At one point, the host motioned for us to follow him outside. He jumped up and grabbed onto the rafter above and spun himself over. He motioned for me to do the same. I cheated a bit and used a railing to propel myself over, but he seemed satisfied nonetheless. He then pointed at the Dutch fellow and encouraged him to give it a try. The Dutch traveler was having zero success. For whatever reason, he decided to go into a handstand. How this was going to help him scale the rafter I have no idea, but it resulted in his foot going through a window. And that was the only time I saw our host frown. He made sure the Dutchman wasn’t injured and ushered everyone off to their respective sleeping quarters. He refused money for the window and appeared satisfied that no one had lost a foot.
The next morning, we went for a hike. We didn’t see our host or his friend. By the time we got back from our hike, our host was up and putting together a bamboo sheet to cover the window. He put it up and put a poster over it as if it was his plan all along. He was grinning from ear to ear as he gestured for me to admire his handiwork. Then through translation of my brother, he remarked on how impressed he was with my drinking abilities. When his friend turned up a few hours later, he also remarked on my apparently impressive feat. Our host continued to share food and joke with us for the rest of our time there. He never stopped smiling and seemed to find joy in everything around him. I’m sure the view didn’t hurt or getting to meet fun travelers. He had a great friend he enjoyed spending time with. I need to make a better effort to be like my host and find joy in the little things in life. After all, even if someone puts their foot through my window, everything is going to be okay in the end.
When I travel, my itineraries are typically packed to the brim. My trip to China, however, was planned by my sister, Christina. It was the first time I let off the reins and let someone else plan the trip. During this trip, one of our stops was at the rice terraces. The first day, there was a lot of hiking and checking out the view points, which is something I was used to. After a cold night of sleeping on a heating pad that made one feel like a lizard clinging to a heated rock, we did a bit of hiking. By afternoon, we found ourselves back where we were staying. We were invited to sit and drink tea with the owner of the place we were staying and his friend. Sitting there, enjoying tea, getting told the tea would make me less fat, and looking out at the rice terraces was incredibly relaxing. It wasn’t something I was used to doing on vacations (relaxing… not getting called fat). It was a wake up call to sometimes sit and appreciate where I am and who I’m there with. How many people get to sit and share tea at such a historical place? It made me feel very thankful. I’d do it again in a second.
As a child you may have been told, “don’t talk to strangers!” which is a great rule to have as a kid, but as an adult traveling, talking to strangers can lead to some pretty incredible things. My grandpa would talk to everyone when we went out and about. As a kid, I would always hate it thinking it was embarrassing not fully realizing he was fishing out a cool restaurant to check out or a great deal on something that usually pertained to the Cubs.
After watching my grandfather do this for years, I finally worked up the courage to try it myself. In Belize, I talked to everyone mostly asking, “what is one local dish I must try before I leave?” What I was quickly finding out was that every section of Belize had very different food. In the south, the food and culture was based around the garifuna. Most of the people spoke a sort of creole. In Belize City, everyone spoke English and the main dish was rice and beans with stew chicken. In Orange Walk, being so close to Mexico, Spanish was used regularly and there was a heavy influence of Mexican food. That’s where we found out through talking to locals that we HAD to try Orange Walk chicken tacos. These were thinner tacos that were rolled up. We were directed to a tiny hole in a wall place that sold 3 tacos for $1. They were amazing! The next day while talking with our local tour guide for the Mayan Ruins, he told us we must try “relleno” which is a Mestizo dish. He drove us to his sisters house and got us a “to-go” container of it and stopped by the local tortilla factory for fresh tortillas after. It was an incredible experience!
Every place I’ve traveled, I’ve talked to every friendly looking stranger that’s walked by. It usually leads to something delicious and you’ll make a friend. The worst that happens is you get a weird look, which you can laugh about later or you get talked into having your beard braided… but that’s a story for another time.
In my younger years, my parents would probably describe me as a picky eater. As a child, my diet consisted of Kraft macaroni and cheese or salami with american cheese sandwiches (I once bumped into my old elementary school lunch lady while in high school and she asked if that was still my lunch… it was). Maybe it was me being a creature of habit or maybe it was being a picky eater.
After becoming an adult and making money, I knew I wanted to travel and see the world. I blame most of this on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. Seeing all of the food an amazing sights made me want to travel and eat everything. This was in contrast with my usual consumption of things I was familiar with. I had been to Mexico and Canada a few times but that cuisine isn’t drastically different from things you would have here in the United States. So of course my first international trip was to… China. China was my first great lesson, and now life policy, of trying EVERYTHING!
First night in Beijing, I walked down to the nighttime food market. There, on sticks, was scorpions still moving around. Was I thinking there was no way that could taste good? Sure. Was I also thinking that I should eat it solely because I dropped a ton of money to fly around the world? Also, yes. So I did what any reasonable person would do and ordered the largest scorpion possible. The first bite… was surprisingly like eating unseasoned pumpkin seeds. After getting through a bit of it, I decided it wasn’t my thing and moved onto the next reasonable thing. I ordered a stick full of tiny small ones and let me tell you… they were so freaking delicious! They had the perfect texture and a little bit of sweetness to them. When I met up with my sister and brother in Guilin, I ate something called octopus balls with fish flakes. The flakes sort of wiggled and waved. Why? I’m still not sure, but you better believe they were delicious. So were the: cuttlefish balls, donkey, bamboo shoots, all varieties of cabbage, the “royal butter” flavored Doritos, the prawn flavored Lays chips, the random flavors of Oreos, the red bean soft serve ice cream, durian ice cream (durian is actually banned from airplanes because of how bad they smell), and the radish on a stick being sold outside a bus station bathroom in a dirty alley (this is what vaccines were created for right?). I’m sure I’m leaving off a bunch of other things I’ve ordered off the street and eaten, but I cannot stress enough how delicious all of it was.
It was incredibly liberating to burst out of my food bubble and introduce my pallet to a whole new world of flavors. I ate my way across Iceland and Belize. I’m still trying new wonderful things like: venison tartare, bio-luminescent squids and octopuses I can’t pronounce and a whole slew of other things I can’t pronounce. Anyways, heed my advice and TRY EVERYTHING! As my old graphics tech teacher from high school used to say, “you can’t knock it til’ you try it.”
My grandpa is the best guy I know. He taught me how to fish, how to do a scorecard at Cubs games, that chocolate is the best flavor, how to drive, and appreciate the outdoors. He was a 6th grade teacher and then a high school teacher at Downers North. He was the one who told me I should become a special education teacher. If you read my March 1st blog post, you might know this is also the grandpa that waterboarded me into listening to him at the age of 5. Seriously, he’s just the best guy!
But of all the memories I have with my grandpa, the one I might like best is sharing shrimp pizza with him at the Cubs Convention. He started bringing me when I was in the 4th grade. I’d like to think he did it because he loves me and he knew I needed some 1:1 attention coming from a big family without a positive male role model, but some of me knows, deep down, that he needed me to go into the “Kids Only” line to get autographs for him that he wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else. For example, he asked me to have Andre Dawson sign “MVP ‘88” on a bat of his. Andre asked how I knew what year that was and when he figured out the bat was for my grandpa he only signed his name. This only made it more hilarious when I got Dawson to add “MVP 88” on a mini bat later that day. Anyways, after a long day of autographs, we went to the restaurant in the hotel where the convention was being held. We both agreed that a pizza sounded great. Apparently, I was obsessed with eating shrimp when I was younger (it’s brought up at most family gatherings) so that was the topping we went with. IT WAS AMAZING! I highly recommend everyone trying this at least once in their life. Anyways, we would sit there and eat pizza and chat about whatever. Ernie Banks even had dinner at the table next to us once. Overall, it was great one on one time with a grandfather and his grandson and I’ll always cherish those memories.