Soaked Socks

Hiking in socks is a thing.

Who knew?

The powers-that-be (really, the guides who do this multiple times a week and have a much better understanding of the trek conditions that I do) suggested shoeless as the way to go. I am paying good money (really, it is good money, as I paid in USD from my American account and not bolivars from my Venezuelan one) for their wisdom, so crazy as it may be, an adventure in socks seemed like the perfect way to kick off the weekend.

Have a little faith.

We defied death and made it to Canaima National Park in our mosquito of an airplane, bypassing the normal overnight stop needed to get to the wilderness. This extra bit of time afforded to us by taking the private plane let us go on an adventure almost as soon as we set (socked) foot in the small town that is the gateway to Angel Falls.

After dropping our bags in our hotel room and giving the hammock outside a quick try, we met up with Joe (you know, Jose from this blog entry) and headed out, uncertain of our destination. All we were told was to wear swimsuits and socks- we would be leaving out shoes behind.

Those are slightly odd instructions, but not ones that I gave a whole lot of extra thought to. We quickly changed, ate a fast meal, and hopped in our first boat of the weekend.

It was a short paddle across the river to a set of six waterfalls (less when the water is higher and they merge into one another) that were our destination for the afternoon. Pulling up to the base of one, we were told to ditch the shoes and come ashore, as we would be hiking in socks for the afternoon! (Man, I am glad I had on cheap $2 socks from Old Navy. Jumping ahead a few hours, those socks went directly into the trash bin back at the hotel. They were not made for the rocks and roots and rivers of Venezuela! It was a worthwhile tradeoff.)

We headed up a trail that while quite steep, was short and not too painful. (The next day, I would have given most anything to have that first trail back!) With a single pathway ahead of us, we followed it up and over a ridge, quickly finding ourselves BEHIND a waterfall! Standing there with massive amounts of water thundering down just mere feet away, our own stocking feet standing in puddles made from the heavy mist (it was more than a mist but less than the falls itself- like a steady, never-ending rain) was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. (We had many of those over that quick three-day weekend.)

The word magical conjures up the idea of unicorns and rainbows and fairies, but that really was not far off from the feeling of standing behind the waterfall, removed from the world, transported to another, more enchanted place. It would not have been a huge surprise to see a unicorn grazing on the moss of the falls or a fairy flutter through the mist. There were definitely rainbows! Everywhere we turned, the light was bending into colorful arcs and swaths as the water-soaked air swirled around us.

While I could have stayed in that hypnotizing cavern forever, after a dip in the falls to “wash away the city” we headed up the path to the top of the falls. Because it is the start of the dry season in Canaima, we were able to get up over the ridge and look down on the waterfalls and river below, a panorama of the space that was incredible to take in. I stood on a rock with water flowing around me on both sides, over the edge into the waterfall we had just been standing behind, and down into the river where it foamed up into a roiling rage before settling in to be the calm river below.

Blinded by the sun heading towards the horizon, we had one last stop on our afternoon outing. After an easy climb back down the rocks, we made a tight turn away from the original waterfall and headed down a narrow, steep path. Once again, mostly rocks and roots, my socks took a beating. (It was at this point that I noticed the first hole and realized that my cute polka-dot socks were on their last adventure.) This last path emptied us into a tea-colored chest-high pool churning with the water from the falls above.

What is one to do but wade on in?

While the guide waited with his trusty companion (Ra, his Rottweiler, was with us much of the weekend), Thad and I headed on in, fighting against the current to stand beneath the thunder of the falls. (Joe insisted that there was no possible way for us to be washed over the edge of the falls, even though we were still al level up from the river. He promised that the boulders made a complete wall between the ledge and us. I believed this about 90%, but still kept a leery 10% skepticism and clung to rocks as much as possible.)

In general, I am a fan of a strong stream of water in the shower and this was a perfect massage of water beating down from above. (Don’t get me started on my dislike of those “rainfall” shower heads that have become popular in the last decade. I do not like them. Yes, it is a lovely and soft experience, but I want the dirt sandblasted off of me in the shower! And those gentle rainfall ones are terrible at getting the shampoo out of my hair. I need more power than that. Water pressure, please!)

Tired and ready to wrap up the day, I was happy to see our boat at the bottom of the last waterfall. Getting to where we were currently standing was quite a steep downward climb, so I wasn’t super thrilled at the prospect of doing that again, uphill, and still in socks, but alas, it is the way of hiking- wherever you go down, you must go back up. (Am I the only one who spends the entire downward hike thinking about how I’m going to have to come back up each and every step?) Today was my lucky (?) day though! Just as I was mentally gearing myself up for the return journey, Joe announced that we were going down instead- down the rock edge of the waterfall.

You know, that place that there is no trail and is not meant for humans (in socks!) to descend.

Following closely on Joe’s heels, trying to use his exact same path, over the edge of the rocks I went. It was mostly me skootching on my rear end, trying to stretch my legs as far as they would go to make connection with the next slightly-horizontal surface. With everything wet and mossy, it was just a matter of trying to make the slide from rock to rock as graceful and undramatic as possible. (I only cracked my knee once this time around, and no not-so-friendly words fell out of my mouth, although they did cross my mind a few times.) Finally, my socked feet hit solid (although pebbly) ground and into the boat I clambered, thankful to be in one piece, with nothing more serious that a few knee scrapes and a pounding heart.

I’ve done my fair share of hiking, but this was definitely a first for me. Leave the shoes behind. Venture out in socks. It’s the traveler’s version of dancing in the rain.

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Photo credit: T. Ross

The Mosquito Ride

At dinner the other night, we were talking about airplane rides (not an uncommon topic when you get a crew of Foreign Service folks together-usually it amounts to complaints about seating assignments and which airports have the best lounges) and a colleague mentioned that he preferred small planes to big ones because the way he figures it, if we each have our designated “time to go,” it is MUCH more likely that someone on a flight of 300 will have their number called up than someone on a flight of twenty. Usually I would say I tend to prefer the bigger planes that take turbulence a bit better, but this definitely gave me a new possibly perspective! I feel like there are still some logical loopholes to be sorted, but now I will never get on another big plane (you know, like this coming Saturday!) without closely inspecting my fellow passengers to see who might be the downfall (literally!) of us all.

There were definitely super low chances of this being an issue last weekend when we flew to Canaima National Park, the home of Angel Falls. I have flown on some small planes before- to the Maldives, to the Arctic Circle in Iceland, and even the planes in and out of Boise are not large by any stretch of the imagination, but we took small to a completely new level on this last trip. Mosquito-sized is not an exaggerated description. Our plane had six seats- two for the pilots (I was very happy to see redundancy there!) and then four passenger seats. As I crawled into the back row of the aircraft, it did not feel much different from clambering into the backseat of a two-door sedan- other than the sedan probably has more legroom.

Flying internationally really does not bother me much at all. I like to settle in to my window seat, put on my plane socks (yes, I carry plane socks- my feet FREEZE on airplanes), pull up my hood, wrap a blanket (or two if I can finagle an extra) around myself (do you see a theme here?) and settle in with my book. My decade of teaching middle school gave me a champion bladder, so I can often go hours upon hours without stirring from my little cocoon in the corner. I love the idea of having nothing but time to read in front of me and I am the best window seat-rider because I never pester the other passengers to get up. I can usually wait until there is an opening to go take care of business.

Casual and cool was not my bearing last weekend.

Take offs in the mosquito (I’ll no longer refer to it as a plane- it barely counts!) were actually better than I had anticipated, because it was amazing to watch the city go from being a hustle and bustle of (struggling) economy to being miniatures that look as if they belong to a model train set. But, as soon as I lost the fascinating visuals, reality set it. I did not at all like being above the clouds, where all there was to see was white fluff and blankness through the front window. It did not help that going through clouds can be slightly bumpy and while I am sure the bumps were minimal at best, to me each dip of the plane wing felt like we were going down, headed for a crash in no-man’s-land that may never be found. I tried to keep my cool, but inside I was a knot of nerves! (I blame this initial hour of total clenching for the fact that when we landed in Bolivar City two hours later, I had to pee worse than I have ever had to go in my entire life. That giant teacher-bladder may go the distance, but it does not have staying power against nervous spasms!)

Landings were fantastic, not because they were the smoothest touchdowns ever (they weren’t), but because it meant I was back on solid land and could breathe again and unclench every muscle in my body.

I thought I would be able to get in some good reading time when we were above the clouds, but my brain just did not want to focus on the written word. Logic did not win out the day. For some reason, I was much more comfortable just doing nothing, keeping my focus on the plane and every movement of it, rather than giving way to the world of Los Angeles’ library as depicted in Susan Orlean’s newest publication, The Library Book. I think a part of me believed I possessed The Force and was keeping the plane aloft by sheer personal determination! (Side note: I finished The Library Book a few days ago. It is the perfect holiday gift for the bookish friend in your life! Check out the review here.)

Regardless of my flying issues, which really are minimal when I am in a plane sized for adult human beings, that little mosquito did provide one of the most AMAZING flights I have ever been on in my life.

On Sunday morning, after our Saturday trek to Angel Falls and back, we were ready to squeeze into our humble transportation and head back to Caracas, but wanted to do a flyby of the falls first. When the flyby was discussed, I imagined swinging fifteen minutes out of our way (yes, that fourteen-hour trek the day before was a mere fifteen-minute detour up the river) and then heading towards Bolivar City- our refueling point.

I was wrong.

More than wrong.

The pilot that hopped in the front seat on Sunday morning was not the main one from Friday, but our “regular” guy was in the co-pilot position, so I figured we were just taking this other guy back to Bolivar or Caracas. Not such a crazy thought.

I was wrong.

More than wrong.

I am pretty sure the new captain works at Canaima part-time, when he is not employed by Hollywood as a stunt pilot.

Really, it is probably best that I had no idea what was coming my way.

What I thought was a quick trip up the river to see the falls from a different angle looked something like this:

-Skim up the river, below the tree line, banking heavily to the right so that we could get photos of the smaller waterfalls just beyond the airport

-Continue up the river, still below the tree line, buzzing a boat of tourists headed on the trip we did the day before (much to their delight- there were lots of hoots and hollers from below- hopefully full of mirth and not pure terror!)

-Fly fifteen minutes until Angel Falls is in sight, skimming by the edge of the waterfall and then looping back so the opposite side of the plane got a similarly death-defying view of the sheer cliff-face

-Circle about again, this time over the lip of the falls (On Saturday, I asked our guide to tell me what was at the top- no need to ask that question again!) to see the crazy, craggily rock formation that make the shelf of the plateau

-Not ready to head to Bolivar just yet, make another loop to skim over the surface of the plateau, low enough that it felt like we were driving, which make going off the edge feel as if our car was cruising over a cliff, rather than just a plane continuing on a straight path (this moment took my breath away!)

-Finally, wanting to give one last heart attack to his American passengers, our dear pilot decided to shoot the gap between two VERY close cliff-faces, a space that from my position just behind the wings looked like mere feet of clearance on each side

At times, we banked so hard in our turns that I worried about the latches on the plane doors. I am not sure my tightly cinched lap belt was up to the task if the door flew open under my weight!

When I wasn’t clutching my metaphorical pearls in fear, I had to laugh, as each crazy maneuver was followed by our pilot turning back with a huge grin on his face, giving is the thumbs up, as thrilled as he could be with his Sunday morning flight. That old saying about finding a job you love…? This guy has definitely never worked a day in his life!

As the plane settled back onto the runway and came to a stop outside the hut that served as the Canaima National Park airport (still not the smallest we have ever been to!), I must admit to feeling a bit sad that our crazy plane ride was over. I spent most of it terrified, with adrenaline pounding through my veins, but the flight was the most spectacular that I have ever been on and even with my blood pressure still well-above normal, I was already missing the thrill.  (With that said, I think it would take a bit of peer pressure to get me back up there a second time. Saturday morning cartoons taught me that “knowing is half the battle” and now that I am in the know about what an “Angel Falls flyby” means, I might make the logical decision to opt to stay on the ground!)

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Photo credit: T. Ross

She’s a Weeble that Wobbles

We have discussed my lack of athletic ability more than once in this space and everything I’ve said before holds true- this one is not Sporty Spice. But, as I have also noted in the past, I have a very hard time passing up the opportunity to see what is on the other side of the mountain, across the next river, or around the big bend. These two proclivities do not mesh well together. The second forces me to sign up for all sorts of weird outings, while the first then just turns me into a disaster during said adventures.

Last Wednesday, during my weekly check-in meeting with my boss (I pester her about spousal employment and she tasks me with making sure our newcomers are all getting solid starts in Caracas), we were chatting about Thanksgiving weekend plans and she mentioned that her dad was going to be in town for a visit and that she had chartered a plane to Canaima for the weekend. My response, a very normal one I should think, was “Wow! That sounds amazing.” A prompt reply of, “We’ve got two open seats, want to go?” threw me off my game a bit, but after a (I can only imagine) crazy laugh, I said I’d ask Thad and get back to her ASAP. Of course, I wanted to go and since it was my boss doing the inviting, I knew my leave request would be approved, so it was just a matter of whether Thad could get Friday off on super short notice with a holiday weekend looming in a short-staffed office.

He did.

We went!

Writing is all about using words to eloquently paint a picture for the reader, but I am at a loss for how to describe the scenery at Canaima National Park. Amazing is too pedestrian. Breathtaking is closer to the truth, although my lack of breath could be a byproduct of the sweltering rain forest at 90% humidity and not a wisp of breeze. In alphabetical order, here is what I thought of our trip to Angel Falls and the surrounding area: astonishing, awe-inspiring, gorgeous, grandiose, heart-stopping, impressive, magnificent, stunning, thrilling…the list could go on and on, but you are starting to get the idea.

Getting to Angel Falls takes effort, but I feel like it is Mother Nature’s way of charging a toll for access to such stunning sights. Our day started with a 4AM alarm, fumbling into clothes for the day (I slept in my sports bra figuring that would save me about seven and a half precious seconds in the morning), and stumbling across the courtyard to the outdoor restaurant where our guide (Jose, or “Joe for short” as he liked to say, saving us an entire syllable all day long) forced a bit of bread into us before heading out to find our boats. (Now, I am a morning person and I am almost always starving as soon as I get out of bed. I can easily dig into a bowl of Lucky Charms at 5:30 in the morning, but for some reason the thought of a bit of bread and some hot chocolate at 4:45 roiled my stomach like an electric whisk.)

By 5:30, still in total darkness, we were loaded into a boat (boat might be a bit overkill- it was a long wooden canoe with an outboard motor on the back) and headed up the river in search of the falls. Half an hour later, the sunrise over the water was spectacular and the rays of sunshine were a welcome relief. While the morning wasn’t cold, we were wet from the time we sat down in the boat until the time we changed at the hotel fifteen hours later and damp is almost always chilly. (Jumping ahead to 6:30PM, I was quite thrilled to be met on that same dock by a guy with a thermos full of hot chocolate and a tray of mugs on the other end of this adventure.) Late November is the start of the dry season in Canaima, so the river was low, meaning a couple of required portages throughout the day, but in all honesty, they were a nice break from the (literally) backbreaking wooden benches in the boat.

Hours later, after riding the log plume-esque trip for 120 kilometers up river, we arrived below the base of Angel Falls and looked up the sheer cliff-face to where water starts to plummet over the ledge. After unfolding ourselves from the boat and stretching out as many of the kinks as possible, we made quick pitstops in the forest to take care of some business (remember friends, always squat so the pee goes DOWN the hill- thanks outdoor Idaho time for that important life skill) and then it was onto leg #2 of the trip: hiking.

Going back to where we started this blog entry- I am not sporty. I can sit in a canoe for hours and marvel at the astounding beauty of nature, keeping an eye peeled for parrots and toucans, but hiking is my downfall in life.


I just have no stamina for it. I can walk on a flat (or even flatish) path all day long and be as happy as a clam. (What a weird phrase in this context. Now all I can picture is a clam that has creepily grown legs out of his shell and is hiking on a dirt path through a pine forest. I think I may have nightmares tonight…)

As soon as I have to go uphill, it is all over for me. Granted, it is fun for about ten minutes, scrambling over rocks and picking footing through rain forest roots, and then I am over it. Just done. My legs get wiggly, which means I slip and stumble more. I slip and stumble more which means I crack my knee on rocks and end up with an enormous bruise more. I get a huge bruise and maybe blurt out a not very nice word that starts with an “f.” And then I learn that the Venezuelan woman in front of me on the trail, who doesn’t really speak any English, does know the bad words. And somewhere along the way I just want to sit down on a stump and cry. Hypothetically, of course.

But here’s the thing: if I sit down on the stump and wait for the group to pick me up on the return trip, I miss whatever is on the other side of the mountain, across the river, and around the bend. And I can’t skip out on those things. So, I say some naughty words, I rub the bruise on my leg, I mumble and murmur against the guide (who is scaling the hillside like a mountain goat at a trail-runner pace) and then I wipe the sweat from my forehead and take another step. And another. And then another.

Eventually I will make it to the top of the hill, which is the bottom of Angel Falls. I will be last. I am always last. But it doesn’t matter- the view is the same whether you are the guide’s pet (that’s like a teacher’s pet, right?) or the caboose of the team. (This is not entirely accurate. I was not last. Thad was. Not because he is a wimpy hiker like me, but because he always brings up the rear to make sure I don’t get totally left in the dust. Or maybe to make sure I don’t get picked off by a jaguar. Or maybe just to make sure I don’t sit down on the stump and never get up again. Whatever the reason, when we hike, he always waits on me, when he could be that’s guide’s pet at the front of the line. He definitely takes one for the team on these excursions!)

I hear a lot of hikers say that they hate the downhill side of the hike more than heading up. I’m definitely not a member of that camp. Going down definitely uses a different set of muscles, but it also uses a different set of skills, one that I have mastered: gravity. No matter what happens, you are going to be headed in the right direction. Sometimes that will be a graceful assent and at others (more often in my case) it will be a clumsy and erratic slip and slide down the trail, but whether on my feet or on my butt, I’m going to get from point A to point B in record time. (At one point in the day, Thad said I was like a Weeble because “Weebles wobble, but don’t fall down.” Well, I proved that wrong, both when I cracked my knee on the rock headed up and then when I smashed that same knee into a rotting stump on the way back down.)

Covered in dirt and wet from a combination of sweat, waterfall mist, and rain forest condensation, I made it back to the boat loading area and was never so happy to see those torturous wooden benches in our personal log plume ride. We had four hours (and two more portages) ahead of us, but I didn’t care. Give me a broad board to put my bony butt on and I’m ready to head those 120km back to home base. We saw the sun rise over the horizon in the morning and watched it set over the opposite one in the evening, with the splendor of Angel Falls sandwiched in the middle. It was a long day and a painful one in many ways, but those bumps and bruises and bites are worth being able to say that I’ve trekked to Angel Falls and checked a pretty big box off my bucket list in a rather spectacular way.


Up (2009)

Carl Fredricksen: [Having arrived above Paradise Falls in South America, miles from where they took off] Don’t worry, I’ll get you down, find a Bus Stop.

[cuts off the strings to some of the balloons, allowing the house to descend down]

Russell: Whoa, that’s s gonna be like a billion transfers to get back to my house…

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Photo credit: T. Ross

Reise, Viaje, Travel…It’s Great Anyway You Say It

When taking a trip into the mountains outside Caracas, the assumption is you will see some gorgeous forest, probably some fantastic tropical birds, and maybe some fertile farmland as you get beyond the borders of the city. You would not be wrong on any of these fronts. However, the prospect of lederhosen and greased pole climbing and polka dancing probably would not show up on that same travel checklist.

And yet…

Sometimes travel is all about timing and you never know when you might stumble across a hidden gem on the road. This last weekend was a long one so we decided to use it as a chance to get out of Caracas and see a bit more of the country. (It is hard here. I have never lived in a country for so long and seen so little of it. Usually, by three-months in, we have been all over the place, but for multiple reasons, getting out and about in Venezuela is a challenge.) We planned to go to a town that is a favorite of embassy folks- Colonia Tovar. This little oddity is about two hours outside of the city (only about 30 miles on the map, so that tells you what the road up the mountainside is like!) so it makes a nice overnight stay. Colonia Tovar is a “German town” and it is a well-deserved moniker. Visitors who make it up the winding (and pitted) road to the top of the mountain are greeted with a picturesque view that looks straight out of Bavaria. Everything from the buildings to the main church square to the menus full of bratwurst scream that you have accidentally crossed the Atlantic and ended up not only in a different country, but a different continent!

Colonia Tovar is small. We walked the downtown circuit in half an hour or so, but just the fact that I walked the downtown circuit (and would have felt comfortable doing so solo) was a nice respite in and of itself. We get to stroll very little in Caracas (again, for a variety of safety and security related reasons) and it felt good to just set out from our cute little bungalow and wander town. Of course, as a tourist destination, (I think “destination” might be a bit grandiose at the point, but there was a time in Venezuela’s heyday where this little town was THE place to go on the weekend for a resort spa and change of scenery), the main streets had lots of little “stuff” stores on them and no one loves “stuff store” wandering more than I do! I often feel no real need to buy souvenirs or trinkets when we travel (I have this blog and Thad’s photos to jog my memory), but I do love to look. If there are six stores along a street, all selling the same sets of wooden wall hangings, ceramic coffee sets, and slightly creepy rag dolls, I will still go in EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. You just never know when there might be a treasure lurking behind the kitschy home décor, kitchen non-essentials, and nightmare-inducing toys. And while I didn’t find anything that I had any desire to take home with me, I did enjoy just having the opportunity to potentially spend money! (We actually did buy a hammock that Thad carried around town bindle-style, but it was as a favor for another embassy family. That one purchase- made in dollars, not bolivares- was the extent of our weekend shopping, other than food.)

Speaking of taking things home, I actually did find one thing that I very briefly contemplated taking home: a little (okay, big) friendly street dog. Now, don’t get me wrong. As much as I love animals, there is no way I am going to touch a mangy dog eating trash on the side of the road, but this guy was clean and obviously living the high life on leftover German sausages. He was reddish-brown, longhaired, and quite well behaved. Not able to pass him by, I spent some time petting him and chatting him up as Thad paid our breakfast arepa bill on Monday morning. Knowing that it was time to part ways, I said goodbye to my new buddy and headed up the road to check out the couple of street vendors selling fresh fruits and veggies before we loaded up to head back to Caracas. (We were hoping to find some chicken or eggs, both of which have once again become quite scarce in the city, but that was a no-go. We walked away with two containers of berries and a bag of salchichas.) A few minutes up the road, Thad tapped me on the shoulder and gestured over his own.

Guess who was on our hook?

Yup! My new friend Fido.

Apparently, a couple of pets and a few kind words have the same power as a formal pet adoption. This poor dog followed us all over town and almost back to our cabanas before we were able to shake him. I felt terrible; I am pretty sure he thought he had found his forever home! What he did not realize was that adding a pet to our nomadic family would cost me thousands of dollars each move and as much as I love them, that kind of money to ship an animal is just crazy-talk. (Lots of Foreign Service officers and families to just this every two to three years and I do not fault them for it one bit. But, for us, I can’t justify those kinds of dollars every move cycle. Although, throw a corgi into the mix and you would probably have me sold.)

Unfortunately, I do not get to write about Venezuela travel as much as I would like but hopefully those posts will increase in number once our car arrives and gets plated by the MFA. This country has some spectacular places to visit and we want to see them all before our two years here are up. (It is amazing how quickly two years at a post flies by when you are trying to book trips to all the highlights of that country. The same thing happened to us in China and Malaysia. There are just not enough vacation days to see an entire region in a mere twenty-four months!) Until we have wheels and achieve maximum (limited) mobility, I will have to be content with what I can get in the area and keep an eye to future travel opportunities, both inside and outside Venezuela’s borders.


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Photo credit: T.Ross

My Porpoise in Life

As a nervous swimmer, I wasn’t entirely sure that I was not going to drown, but it didn’t matter. I quickly determined that donning a pair of flippers and hopping into a cove with dolphins was worth the risk. You could have upped the ante on that one and I probably (okay, let’s be honest, definitely!) would have made the same choice.

You see, I’m a pretty responsible person. I got my first job at sixteen, working at ShopKo in the lawn and garden department and then transferring to jewelry when the season ended. I went to college at seventeen, study abroad in the Dominican Republic at eighteen, and then married at nineteen. I had my first middle school classroom by the time I was twenty-one, owned a house at twenty-two, and started my first master’s degree at twenty-three. Needless to say, I’ve never been one to shy away from the responsible choice.

Unless, it comes to animals.

Dangle the possibility of touching an animal, or better yet hanging out/playing with almost anything in the fauna world and the possibility of poor choices rises dramatically. (Okay, in my book, there are a good number of creepy-crawlies that don’t earn the label of “animal” and are absolutely not a part of this equation. No spiders. No snakes [although snakes HAVE unwillingly happened].)

Most of the time, my animal encounters are in safe and organized arenas, but they don’t have to be. If I can get close to it, I will. When we were in Perth a few years ago, we went to Rottnest Island, home of the absolutely adorable quokka. These crazy little creatures are just wild around the island and when we stopped to hole up in the shadow of a bush after a brutal bike ride, we found friends who also were using the same shrub-shade. Knowing that I was famished from the heat, I figured these guys were as well, so I shared my water bottle with them. Yes, I let the marsupials drink from the same bottle I was using. I am sure there are no diseases or possibly problems with a bit of a saliva swap. We’re all friends here!

A couple of weeks ago when we took a little trip out of Caracas to Curacao, animals were the top of my to-do list. (Animals, followed closely by cheese shopping. Luckily, both boxes were checked.)

I’d done a bit of online research before (basically avoiding working on things I should be doing) and found a small aquarium in Willemstad. The aquarium itself didn’t seem like much to write home about (and in proved not to be in person), but their handful of flamingos and a few random fish tanks were not the main draw. Instead, it was DOLPHINS! (As cool as fish can be, mammals always win out over fishes.) The aquarium website offered up a couple of dolphin options, including one where the participants stood on a platform in the water, but that didn’t seem nearly engaged enough for me. Instead, I opted for the one where you don a pair of fins and bail into the cove with the dolphins for an hour of chillaxing.

As a non-proficient swimmer, I was a bit nervous about this choice. I tread water okay in a pool, but that has very finite edges and bottom and I know what is around me. In elementary school, I took years of swim lessons, first at the local city pool and then private lessons when I repeatedly flunked out of the public sector. (Those initial ones were the ones when parents signed me up for the first two weeks of June at the 8AM slot, in Idaho. That is not outdoor pool weather! I blame the early-stage hypothermia for my failures.) When it comes to oceans, I am even less confident in my abilities and am pretty much always convinced something is touching me. (It doesn’t help that when I was getting my SCUBA certification, on the first open water dive, we got caught in a super strong current and even the dive master had a terrible time getting back to shore and had to call the dive off. I was pretty sure I was never going to make it back to the beach and the Tioman Island vista would be the last thing I glimpsed on this earth!)

With survival in question, I grabbed my flippers and headed for the dock. Not even possible drowning was going to keep me away from those dolphins.

Facing death by the sea was worth it for an hour with my new dolphin buddies.

Luckily, my giant flippers were quite proficient at keeping my head above the water. (I was surprised at how terrible a swimmer one could be with the help of flippers. This is key to keep in mind for future oceanic excursions!) I spent the next hour swimming, dancing, having water fights, and just generally hanging out with my new BFFs. The younger of the dolphins was just like a big, slick puppy. It didn’t take more than about one stroke down his side and he’d flip over on his back to get a tummy rub. The first time he did it I was afraid I had broken my dolphin! (You break it, you buy it, right?)

Unfortunately, I did not get to take my dolphin home with me at the end of the day. That would have been the best door prize ever! It doesn’t matter though, because I spent the morning swimming with dolphins in a cove on Curacao. There’s not much there to complain about. Caracas might not always be the easiest gig I’ve ever had, but experiences like this one make it worth the frustrations of not being able to find sandwich bread, my car still being in Miami three months after getting in Venezuela, or trying to figure out how the bolivars that I transferred last week are now worth a fraction of their previous value.

At the end of the day, none of it matters.



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The Year of the Pointy-Yellow Costume

I’ve written about it before, but it is worth noting once again: Halloween is not my favorite holiday of the year. As a matter of fact, it probably ranks as one of my least favorite, with maybe April Fool’s Day beating it out for worst-ever. (April Fool’s Day as a middle school teacher was definitely the worst.)

With that noted, I don’t hate everything about Halloween. I love little kids in costumes-toddlers and younger elementary kids in creative outfits are fabulous. This year I saw an adorable bumblebee (who would not let me borrow her wings), a little doctor, a fantastic flamenco dancer, and a couple cute skeletons. And nothing makes me a happier than to see little girls in non-princess costumes. A good friend sent me a picture last week that I must have pulled up on my computer twenty times one afternoon. Her little girl (born when we worked together in Kuala Lumpur) had costume night at dance class. With all the little princesses sitting in a circle, her adorable dancer stood out from the pack of ruffles and tiaras, as a fat, fuzzy, yellow chicken. Don’t get sucked into the world of pink and princess and fluff! Be you. Be a chicken. That’s my kind of girl.

You’d never know my general disinterest in the holiday judging by my schedule this last week: three Halloween parties in seven days (in a country that doesn’t even celebrate it, no less). Partially, I think it is the draw of an American holiday when we are overseas; things that we don’t put much effort into while in the U.S. suddenly take on a new level of interest. (For example, trivia nights were huge in the D.C. bar scene, but I went to exactly one during our two years in the District. Now, we try to get to the embassy trivia night every single month. It doesn’t hurt the prize is often a collection of consumable goodies.)

Party #1 was at the Hard Rock in Caracas. (Yes, Hard Rocks are still a thing! Who knew?) They hosted a costume party with a live band- Hair Force One. Hair Force Once is an 80s cover band that one of our embassy officers plays in, so whenever they are featured at the restaurant, we see a good community turnout. The theme of the evening was 80s, although costumes were all over the map, including several folks who opted out entirely. (Even I am not that Grinchy!) With not a lot of 80s-options in my repertoire, I did do a bit of shopping when we were in Curacao a few weeks ago. (By the way, there are definitely blog posts coming about that. Blame all these Halloween parties for having me to busy to actually write them!) I was surprised to find a Claire’s in the mall there, so picked up some ridiculously neon dangly earrings and a rather large hairbow to match. (As a side note, can we talk about Claire’s for just a moment? Has it always been geared towards the pre-teen crowd or am I just getting old? It has never been high quality, but it does seem that it was in the 14-16 year old range when I was frequenting the mall on weekends in high school, but the one in Curacao felt solidly in the 8-10 year old range. Were those enormous hoop earrings I rocked in 6th grade just not as cool and mature as I thought they were? Claire’s Curacao has made me question many things about my middle school fashion choices.) Add to that a neon star-covered blouse that came from a French boutique (that I totally now plan to wear regularly to work and not as an 80s reference!) and a pair of black pegged jeans and a whole lot of pink blush and blue eye shadow, I was ready to go. (BTW, pegging Lycra-infused skinny jeans is not an easy task! Either I have lost my pegging skills of yore or my pants are made of something entirely different these days. It took multiple attempts to get the peg to take!) The band was great, with the only downside of the evening being that the venue didn’t really have a dance floor and it is awfully hard to sit in your seat during anthems like “Living on a Prayer” and “Sweet Dreams.” I mean, it’s Bon Jovi. I love him so much I braved the crowds in Kuala Lumpur to see him in concert. (I went to the Bon Jovi show with the not-a-princess-but-a-chicken-instead’s mom.)

Part #2 was the one that kept me up nights ahead of time. It was the embassy Halloween party, an event we opened up to the kids of both our American officers and the local staff. On Monday before the party, we had forty kids RSVPed. 40 is doable. By Wednesday morning we had 100 kids on the list. Okay, that’s a lot, but still manageable, although I was starting to worry about my cupcake/cookie count. And at 4PM when trick-or-treating kicked off, that 100 was well-short of the actual attendance! While the event was open to the kids of staff members, I’m pretty sure a whole lot of neighbor kids, nieces, nephews, and maybe even distant cousins made it onto the list!

To prepare, my office sponsored a door decorating contest within the embassy. I was thinking they’d put up some cobwebs and a ghost or two and hand out candy to the kiddos that came door to door. (My office put up some cute Halloween garland and a not-at-all-spooky “boo” sign that my wonderful mother shipped as a surprise holiday package earlier in the month. I thought we were doing okay.)

Nope. I was very wrong.

Door decorating became office-wide decorating with massive amounts of creativity and effort. One office went with a Coco theme, which looked super cool on Tuesday afternoon when I wandered by. They brought in huge piles of fresh flowers to decorate their alter and the entire floor smelled wonderful (although a little bit like a funeral.) BUT, they were not done. Wednesday afternoon as I was putting the finishing touches on plans, (i.e. hanging arrow signs so that the ghosts and goblins didn’t wander off the trick-or-treating path into the marines office or through a server room) I heard music coming from down the hallway, so took a quick wander to see. Coco went full-on-authentic. They HIRED a mariachi band for the afternoon! That’s right, the office hired a band to come in and play as a part of their Halloween decorations. It was amazing and also a huge distraction and I couldn’t walk down the hallway without stopping to listen for a bit. (This definitely threw off my afternoon schedule!)

Not to be outdone, another office (same floor) went with Pirates of the Caribbean as their theme. They moved all sorts of office furniture to turn their space into a giant ship, all-inclusive with a brig, lots of booty, and photo booth for the kids. And their Jack Sparrow was on-point! This band of pirates was a hit with the kids and became a bit of a chokepoint in the trick-or-treating route because no one wanted to leave the wonderland that they had created. Who wouldn’t want just one more picture with pirates and props?

Embassy Caracas had full-buy-in for Halloween this year!

The regular evening thunderstorm rolled in just before 6PM, which meant the bounce house had to come down and served as a perfect way to head people on their way, although it was time to wrap it up anyway since we ran out of popcorn and cotton candy and cupcakes and cookies and Coke by that point. (Also, I’m pretty sure that the accommodating officers who volunteered to man the bounce house will never have children. An hour of that and you’ve got a lifetime of birth control in the bag.) Full of massive amounts of sugar (high quality, shipped-in-from-America-candy), we sent both the American and the Venezuelan kids home to their parents for what I am sure was a fight over eating real dinner and going to bed at a decent hour. If that’s the case, I call it a job well done!

Party #3 was an event in and of itself- an adult version of what happened on Wednesday. Our chargé de affairs (Caracas does not have an ambassador- Google that one if you are interested in the political details) hosted a party at his place on Saturday night- one that had well over 100 people in attendance, all in spectacular costumes. Hair Force One played again (having an officer in the band helps!) but then later in the evening, things took a turn to the more local when a salsa dance group showed up and took things to a whole new level. It was amazing to watch the crowd come alive. Two women wearing little more than feathers and high heels were accompanied by a man whose hips definitely did not lie! (I took this chance to fade my #2 pencil into the background, never a big fan of audience participation.)

While I don’t love dressing up in costumes, I figured if I were going to do it (and I kind of had to) I should follow the in the footsteps of my dear chicken-friend and go full-on ridiculous. No sexy-this or sexy-that or super fancy princess-y getup, as none of that really fits me. Instead, I opted to be a giant banana and a oversized #2 pencil. Both were hilarious. (At least I thought they were hilarious and that’s what really counts.) So if there is any takeaway from Halloween 2018, it has to be this: random yellow objects make the best costumes!

Now, it is time to move onto the ever-present-issue of procuring Thanksgiving turkeys overseas (I don’t really want to admit how much I paid for turkeys each year in Asia!), trying to organize a turkey-day turkey bowl and maybe even a community pie event in the evening. Why do one event when you can do three? In the U.S. people may feel like fall skips right from Halloween to winter Christmas, but in an embassy community, we go hard for all American holidays!

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