2019 British road trip part 1
So now that we've settled into the beginning of the school year I feel ready (guilty) enough to revisit our summer pics and tales. And to celebrate the twins joining middle school, I've included some off-color humor/humour below.
We crisscrossed the isle of Great Britain in multiple directions, took a few classes, and hopped over to "the continent" for a week, but I'm getting ahead of myself. First we had to escape Bonnie Scotland which we did via the beautiful and wonderfully efficient (at least from an American's perspective) British Rail.
First stop: the medieval walled city of Old York. (The locals still seem to call it just "York," but you and I know that without the clarifying adjective it might be confused with its namesake across the pond.)
The wall at times seemed impregnable (the two gaping holes in it illustrated above notwithstanding) but the Schnackitos managed to penetrate its defenses.
The view from "the best walk in Britain" wasn't too bad either.
After our jaunt we dropped off The Eldest (he was feeling under the weather) at our Airbnb on a canal in a former sugar factory...
...the rest of us headed for Evensong at the York Minster (that big cathedral-looking cathedral a few pictures ago). The music and gothic-ness were indeed astounding.
Day 2 included a visit to the Jorvik Viking Centre which has some serious shit*!
* or faeces, if you will.
Sarah and I have fond memories of visiting York when we were young and carefree; it was great showing our kiddos the gorgeous abbey ruins, narrow twisting streets, and weird retro sweets of this wonderful town.
Speaking of fond memories, on our way south we stopped for a few days in the "Paris of the West Midlands": Birmingham! (And you always thought the "Paris of the West Midlands" was Wolverhampton!)
Those of you who know the intimate details of our courting history are well aware that Brum is where the missus and I fell madly in love with one another. And those of you who know your British architectural and industrial history know that it was ugly even before it was decimated by the Luftwafe and "redeveloped" in the harsh style of the 1960s (though some in the city are fighting to save their brutalist past). We thought it time to show the kiddos the ol' U. of Birmingham campus (where the magic happened!) and a British city without hordes of tourists.
But first we went to Cadbury World in the planned suburb of Bournville to ride a psychedelic chocolate-themed kids' ride.
I often enjoy heading out for an early morning jog when on vacay, thus scratching my exploration itch whilst allowing the rest of my family a lazy morning. Birmingham's city centre was mind-blowingly different since we lived there in 1996-97, mostly in a good way (prioritizing pedestrians over cars, wacky curvy modern architecture), but I admit it was tough to get my bearings.
Then it was off to Warwick castle.
The Eldest was super excited when he saw the huge trebuchet on the other side of the river since he had built one for science class a few months back. But by the time we walked down to it we learned that island it was resting on was closed. Luckily we were able to convince some employee to convince the "trebuchet master" to show it to us on a private tour!
Enough of this small town stuff. Next stop: the Big Smoke.
A Wee Bonnie Country
For summer 2019 Sarah and I decided to take some teaching classes in London (Sarah decided, then twisted my arm) and so we talked my parents into meeting us in Scotland before heading south to the more tropical side of Britain.
It’s changed quite a bit since we last visited 17 years ago.
Ok, you got me. We *accidentally* went to Manhattan for two hours. For reals! The tickets from Panama to Edinburgh were waaaaaaaay cheaper if we did a redeye to Newark and then another redeye to Edinburgh. I personally don’t sleep on planes (I would if I could but I can’t so I won’t) and my kin aren’t far behind in the not-good-at-sleeping-on-planes department so one redeye is horrible enough for us, but two in a row? I found out that I could reserve a couple of rooms at the Newark Airport Hilton from 6am-2pm, so I figured we could make it work. And it worked! Though I for one was a zombie that first day in Scotland with my parents.
The boys weren't, at least for a few minutes whilst wrestling on a hotel bed.
So, after a slow first day followed by 12 hours of sleep, I woke up in the Old Town of Edinburgh and ran up to Arthur's Seat.
Once the entire clan was awake the first bit of land to conquer was the impregnable Edinburgh Castle.
Next was the royal residence at the other end of the Royal Mile: Holyrood Palace, including its attached abbey which, I must say, was completely ruined.
Then it was time for an afternoon tea!
That night we took a spooky tour of Edinburgh's bloody past. But since it's so far north it was actually still day.
In case you weren't aware, Edinburgh is an amazingly gorgeous city to wander.
Yes, it really is. Let me show you.
After playing in the capital city we ventured further into the Highlands on a Hairy Coo bus tour. The Eldest enjoyed the facilities at Doune Castle, following in the footsteps of our Monty Python forebearers.
We next helped to feed the local fauna.
Our tour also took us to Glencoe, Culloden, Loch Ness, a couple more castles, and a great South Asian lunch on the Isle of Skye.
An early morning wander before Inverness (and the rest of my family) woke up...
Scotland is pretty.
After we bid a fond farewell to Grammy and Gramps, we wandered around Edinburgh one last time and stumbled across the Pride Parade (the first of three we've encountered this summer!). For our last night in Scotland, we headed to Stirling, since we just can't get enough of those Scottish castles.
And now, dedicated to my father-in-law, is a series of pictures of doors...
Thanks for an awesome time mom & dad! You are an inspiration; we wanna be like you when we grow up!
El Fin del Año Escolar
They've done it! The kiddos have successfully "graduated" from their "respective" school "divisions" and will be "moving up" to "the" next available "school" at the International School of Panama!
But first we had some happenings.
In May, The Eldest spent four days playing "Snorty" (his euphonium) with other middle school band and choir whiz kids from around Latin America in the AMIS Honor Band. The hard work the students put in culminated in a fantastic concert, and has inspired The Big O to audition next year!
For our final three day weekend of the year (thank you, election day holiday!), we took a long-overdue trip to our local mountain town, El Valle. We tried out a new-to-us
A few minutes of triumphant posing on the top of the (fairly small) mountain, then it was time to get filthy.
Although we've been to El Valle several times, this was our first visit to the mud baths. While it was fun to smear gloopy goo on our faces and watch the camo-like drying effects, the hot spring itself was not a particularly peaceful or relaxing experience. Live and learn!
Next we rushed back to the big city so the twins could present their 5th grade capstone project on the United Nations sustainable development goals. The Little Lady chose SDG 17 (partnerships for the other goals) and used Haiti's debt crisis as a case study to argue for debt relief for developing nations. It was an ambitious and abstract issue, but as she says, nothing can be accomplished without good systems and partnerships!
The Big O chose SDG 7 (affordable and clean energy) and tried to convince me to replace my wasteful windows with argon-filled double-glazed windows. I retorted that we're currently renting and the house we own back in Sacramento already has double-glazed windows (and blown-in wall insulation to boot). He was unimpressed.
But finally, after a year of hard work, it was time. Time to perform for the graduation shindig!
And of course we've already started our summer of shenanigans. I hope to post on the first phase of those shortly...
We live in a tropical paradise, so it can be a bit of a tough sell to get us to visit another tropical paradise. But if that other tropical paradise has cousins? We can make that work.
My sister and her family moved to the Cayman Islands when we moved to Vietnam many, many moons ago, and we can finally (finally!) say that we've visited them. Wanna see some highlights!?!?!
Most nights were game nights! We enjoyed hearts, spades, Codenames (did you know it's from the Czech republic?), a fun game called Dirty Board for which Uncle Doug's parents created a homemade wooden board, and of course poker.
If you've heard anything about visiting Cayman, you've heard about Stingray City. It's a sand bank in the sound where you hang out with/kiss stingrays. And not dinky ones either.
"Did you see turtles?" Yeah, we saw some turtles.
After our turtle-filled snorkeling trip, we connected with other local fauna - the world-famous Caymanian Thirsty Beach Chickies!
"Did you go on a catamaran to a fancy sunset dinner?" Why yes, yes we did!
"How was the hiking?"
"Did you eat some jerk bbq?" In the Caribbean? How could we not?
"What about other snorkeling. Did you see cool colored coral and did the ship workers catch some conch and clean the shell and give it you?" I feel like you're leading the witness here...
Given that it was Semana Santa, we also decorated and dyed some eggs.
Some more successfully than others...
Thank you so much Murphies! We had a fantabulous time in paradise!
In keeping with the current tradition of waiting to blog about a vacation until the next vacation...
First of all, The Little Lady made an awesome beeswax little dude, which ended up being popular with a local housefly.
(Note: I didn't misspell Carnival as Carnaval in the title. It's the correct Spainish spelling. I swear!)
(Note part 2: I did misspell Spanish as Spainish in the previous Note. Did you catch it?)
Secondly, the twinnies had a birthday (sort of...) which we celebrated Schnack-style. A few years back for The Eldest's 11th birthday we invited his class to make cardboard creations, and his younger siblings thought it was time they followed in his footsteps, though this time it was more explicitly violent from the start ("it'll be a cardboard war!").
And finally, you get to learn a bit about all the learning here in Panama. I ran a "Carnival Day" (or Carnaval Day as the official blurb says) for my 9th graders as part of a probability unit. Upon reflection, Carnival (or Carnaval) means something different here, so I need a new name. (Suggestions are welcome via the contact form in the upper right!) It was fun and hopefully they learned that gambling doesn't actually pay. Unless you're the casino.
Sarah and I made it to Donde Jose (a shmancy restaurante here in town) and enjoyed the graffiti in Casco.
And the kiddos waged a Nerf battle to end all Nerf battles.
Living in a catholic country, we get the week of Carnaval (Mardi Gras) off. After our fun debacle of a Popecation, we decided to just stick around for a staycation. The issue was that we of course were hosting someone for a home exchange and so couldn't stay in our house. Luckily, people like us enough to offer their place (thanks Dani and Shawn!) so we stayed in two high rise towers in the thick of the city. I took advantage of the opportunity and took some artsy modern architecture shots.
We managed to make it over to a friend's place to watch a bit of the Carnaval parade from above.
And...skyscrapers are cool.
Meanwhile the family is spending quality time...
Happy mid-April! We'll write greetings from my sister's place soon!
The Galapa...Costa Rica!
Where were you when you learned that Ecuador requires that visitors have at least six months of passport validity? Was it perhaps about four seconds ago? We learned this kernel at a bit more inopportune time and place: Tocumen International Airport in Panama City, as we tried and failed to check in for our fabulous week in Ecuador's Galapagos Islands during Popecation*.
We started the check-in process as we've done 74,843 times before, waved at our friend and her her son (who we had convinced to come with us to the Galapagos!) as she finished checking in a few kiosks away, and told them we'd see them in a few minutes at the gate. We hadn't yet noticed that our Avianca employee looked increasingly worried.
As we learned in one of the most unpleasant ways learning can happen, Ecuador is one of 49 countries that require a passport to be valid for at least six months after arrival. And it seemed that Sarah's passport was to expire in June, five-and-three-quarters months away. An appointment had already been booked at the embassy for late January, but that, of course, wasn't good enough. It seems we'd become a bit complacent with the travel planning and made a rookie mistake.
Since our house was occupied for the week by some visiting home exchangers, we couldn't just head home for a staycation. And so we had the ultimate of first-world problems: trying frantically to figure out where in the world we could fly ASAP. Flights to Paris were pretty darn cheap, but is was hovering just over freezing there and we had only shorts in our minimal luggage (and not many pants or coats at home, either). We considered half the countries of Latin America before finding a cheap flight to Costa Rica on Air Panama out of one of the old U.S. air force bases.
*Popecation (aka Vatication, aka Popepocalypse) was a week during mid-January of 2019 when the Roman Pontiff visited and Panama's Ministry of Education ordered our school to close. Most Panamanian schools were off anyway for their "summer vacation" since they follow a South American school calendar. December - March is referred to as summer here which continues to confuse us.
Before flying out, we did actually go home to grab pants for everyone (Costa Rican cloud forests are chilly!) before walking up the airplane's stairs like we were movie stars from the fifties.
Our night in downtown San Jose was the night of the lunar eclipse, though only The Eldest stayed awake long enough to see it complete. Here's his pic:
Downtown's plaza and fancy church (cathedral?) were cool, if a bit on the small side. Though I guess I'm used to my big city home.
We rented a 4x4 (which ended up being a good idea given Tico roads) and headed up to Santa Elena, just down the (poorly maintained) street from the rightly famous Monteverde Reserve.
Santa Elena welcomed us well:
Our only reservations ahead of touchdown was our first night in San Jose and the next few at the Pension Santa Elena, which was awesome. We explained to the folks at the front desk that we didn't know much about what to do in the country because of our last-minute travel snafu and they did a great job of setting us up with fabulous adventures nearby. The breakfast tacos were tops and the sleeps-five room was inexpensive as well. Highly recommended!
Our first adventure was that night on the Kinkajou Night Walk, where our guide led us around the cloud forest and we spotted an olingo, a couple scorpions fluorescing under a black light, a red-eyed fog, a tarantula, and a sleeping toucan. We also watched a sloth wake up from his 18-hour nap and slowly devour his surroundings. Fun!
Time for zip lines!
While the professional pics of us were particularly nice, the videos are all via my helmet cam!
Here's a three minute compilation video if you want a glimpse of the adventure:
(it's downloadable if it's not streaming for you)
Then we walked amongst the trees.
The wind whipped over the spine of the Americas from the Caribbean to the Pacific. The walk to the continental divide was breathtaking (literally) as was the difference in plants on one side versus the other. But our kids were more interested in digging purple rocks out of the path.
In the end Santa Elena and the Monteverde area was splendiferous. Splendiferous I say!
While a small volcanic eruption foiled our plans to go mudbathing on our way to the beach, we did make a brief detour to see the Llanos de Cortez waterfall.
The "if you visit one waterfall in Costa Rica, visit this one" experience did not disappoint.
Sámara and the warm Pacific coast would be home base for the second half of the week where we lazed about the tropical paradise.
Ok, so perhaps we did a bit more than laze about: we managed to do a kayak/snorkeling trip to an offshore island and gawked at our first sea turtles.
While the waves were not fabulous for surfing, I tried to overcome that fact and learned that, in fact, the waves were not fabulous for surfing. The rest of the family played in the water and the sand. Not too bad a way to spend a few days in January.
I realize that this blog makes it seem like we never stick around our home base of Panama City, but we actually do! In fact we just had a whole week off for Carnival (we do work every once in a while, I swear!) and stayed in the heart of the city. Check back and you'll see soon enough.
All corners of the Golden State
I'm from Riverside and Sarah's from Sacramento, so already any comprehensive visit to the best state in the union will involve a bit of legwork. But add some Tahoe skiing, San Francisco exploring, and Los Angeles "culture" it's a wonder we had time to stop and smell the taquerias. But stop and devour we did aplenty. Hence, the following is organized chrono-geographically.
Riverside, part 1
First Christmas in Riverside with Grammy and Gramps.
After breakfast Grammy and Gramps took us all to a warehouse on the other side of time for The Big O to pick out his real present.
That's right, he's now got his very own proper horn!
Downtown Riverside was charming as always during this time of year.
And then it was time to say goodbye to my childhood home and head north!
Sacramento & Roseville
Second Christmas was celebrated in Roseville with Grandma and Grandpa, Adam and Mary, and the cousins!
We then quickly bundled up for the snow of the Sierra.
While the twins and I opted for the sane technique of hurtling down a snowy hill while actually facing downhill, The Eldest decided to try snowboarding.
Sacramento & Roseville part 2
We stopped by Sac again for some formal pics with the family.
Since the awesome 1920s house was a short hop to all things wackadoo and interesante in the Mission District, we flashed back to the year 2000 with the kiddos and showed them all our favorite spots nooks and crannies (i.e. taquerias).
Oh, and I did I mention that the house had some pretty fine views as well?
Riverside part 2
And...back to Riverside we drove. No trip to my old hometown is complete without me relenting to the boys' constant requests to hike up Dopamine Hill (The Big O's monkier for Pachappa Hill). It was an especially gorgeous day to feel on top of the world.
And just before we headed back to our strange reality in Central America came the moment The Little Lady had been waiting for: watching Wicked at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood!
The only thing left to do was take a pic of the kiddos on my favorite ledge when I was their age. Thanks Grammy & Gramps & Grandma & Grandpa & Nanny & Uncle Adam & Aunt Mary & all the cousins & other relatives! We had a grand time!
And now I need to finish going through our pics from Popecation...
Considering it's now the end of January, it's finally time to hear about our pre-Christmas adventures!
Just before we hopped back to California for Christmas the twins each participated in our school's new 5th grade Model United Nations. They got to dress the part!
We also had a very special visitor at school.
Yeah, that's a fence on top of a wall separating our friend from the running track.
We watched him for for a while (keeping an eye on the little kids on the other side of the wall) before he waddled into the canal, biding his time...
Thanks for the pics Megan!
Lastly, just before we skipped the country, the Panama Schnacks ventured into new culinary, uh, ventures.
First and foremost, Sarah had a score to settle from last year's cookie baking party.
And upon finishing his first semester of eighth grade, The Eldest was given an assignment by his teacher father to make recipe for the family. He of course chose all he needs in life: a philly cheese steak.
And then, after singing goodbye to our students as they rode the school buses away to start Winter Break, we were finally going back to Cali for the first time since we moved to Central America. Extended family, here we come. (Or, came, since it's the end of January. But "Extended family here we came" just doesn't have the same ring...)
Conifers and Coconuts
Car obscenely stuffed with stuff? Check.
Podcasts and audiobooks downloaded? Check.
Reservations made to sleep in a couple of Panama's most sought-after little towns? Yup.
We took advantage of the November week off to explore a bit more of Panama. First was an eight-hour drive to Boquete, a small town in the highlands of western Panama. Our Airbnb was a tiny house in the huge backyard of a larger house. The grounds boasted dogs, chickens, and a decent amount of evidence of the aforementioned dogs and chickens.
We had the week off because Panama was celebrating its multiple independences (first from Spain, then from Colombia, and finally from its contractual obligation as back-up bassist for Van Halen). This means that there are quite a few parades during Mes de la Patria (Patriotic Month). The kicker is that participating in the parading is mandatory for all Panamanian students multiple times in their educational career (if our kiddos want to graduate from school here they will have to march when they get older) so it's quite a big deal. Our first morning in Boquete was the (first of multiple) Mes de la Patria parades, and we of course were there to document it all
The town itself is nestled in a beautiful valley, and its graffiti is nestled in between expat restaurants.
We were all looking forward to coolish weather and some outdoor adventures. Our first stop were the "lost waterfalls." (Not really, they had a map.)
Next we headed over to the local honey farm for an extensive tasting of honeys and a look at a local coffee plantation.
It was time to kick it up a notch, so we headed out with Boquete Outdoor Adventures (highly recommended!) and tackled some whitewater rafting on the Rio Chiriquí Viejo, skirting the Costa Rican border en route. It brought back awesome memories of our other whitewater trip with the kiddos on the Colorado.
While we did see some monkeys in the trees while we were munching our lunch, we wanted a closer look at the local fauna. Jungla de Panama Wildlife Refuge has that covered!
After exploring the expat-heavy local Tuesday market (I actually overheard someone utter, "where's the Paleo guy?"), we took a few more pictures of the mountain town and headed to sea level: Santa Catalina.
The long, audio-book heavy drive wore us down and we were happy to reach the end of the road. Literally.
Our hotel, Santa Catalina's Oasis Surf Camp, really is at the end of the road in the small surf town of Santa Catalina. Except it's actually just past the end of the road. On the other side of a river. Which doesn't have a bridge.
Luckily, it does have a guy who walks across the river pulling a rowboat full of our luggage and twins. (It also has The Eldest helping to push.)
Here's the "in-boat" view:
Every other time we had to cross the river it was low tide so the water just made it up to our calves. But the place was pretty gosh darn cool. We were mere feet from the surf.
A mural by our old friend Insano greeted us in town. (We actually don't know him, but he visited our school last year and taught us how to make a mural at Artsfest. So we feel like we know him. He just doesn't know it.)
Our first full day we headed out for a long and spine-rattling speedboat ride to snorkel with the tropical fish and sea turtles around Coiba National Park. Unfortunately my GoPro wasn't cooperating so I only have a few pics via Sarah's cell phone. Of course, given how many pictures are in this post, it's probably a good thing.
The next day was our beach day with an afternoon full of surfing. Since we'd taken lessons a month earlier in Venao, we were experts. And by experts I mean that we took another round of lessons.
But it really is a great beach to learn to surf. The waves are forgiving and last forever, and we all did well.
I must warn you that there are many, many photos below documenting our few days in Santa Catalina. I pared it down as much as I could, but it was incredibly photogenic.
The beach was super shallow for quite a while (a kilometer perhaps? That's approximately 7.2 miles for you 'Mericans), which meant that the tide went out forever at low tide. The wet sand was a mirror for the sky, making for amazing pictures.
And the sunsets. Oh the sunsets!
In the end, Oasis Surf Camp was pretty amazing. While the restaurant wasn't fabulous (and a bit overpriced), everything else was great, from the location to the service to the small but air-conditioned and clean rooms. We'd definitely recommend them.
The rest of November was a tangle of learnin' and Panamanian celebrations. Oh, and The Eldest ran the microphones again for the secondary musical; this year it was Shrek! (But we don't have any pictures...)
The final day of the month was our school's Mes de la Patria assembly.
Like last year, I joined in on the fun as well. (Your's truly cutting a rug third from the right.)
Again like last year, I Movembered it.
Before we get to our adventures in the Panamanian highlands, you have to check out the twins' amazing Halloween garb.
So, I'm not exactly sure why, but our school held its annual "International Day" on October 31st. Can you guess what country the twins were representin'?
That night they changed into something more comfortable...
So it's not the best picture, but the Little Lady is a medieval plague doctor (can you see her long beak and cape?), while the Big O is the scariest thing he could think of: a phone with a low battery!
A bit before All Hallow's Eve our school hosted its annual Artsfest.
The Eldest held his own with his peers (that's him under the you-fonium).
While the Even More Eldest didn't quite hold his own with the community band.
The Big O did decently on the trumpet and fun was had by all! Except, perhaps, the people listening...
It's the Schnacks!
Just a Californian family lost in Panama. Carry on.