A Bench by the Road in Charleston

For several weeks I’ve been trying to write what was meant to be a useful post for anti-racist parents wanting to have a non-white-supremacist visit to Charleston–something we put some effort into trying to do when we visited this past Labor Day weekend. After Freddie Gray. After Sandra Bland. After Korryn Gaines, Alton Sterling, and Philando Castile. After my whole life as the child of Civil Rights organizers for whom truth and reconciliation mattered; for whom historical memory was key to social justice.

Before today. Before Tyre King. Before Terence Crutcher. They shot him while his hands were raised, like his father taught him a generation before, because we’ve been systematically hunting down Black men for centuries. Before Keith Scott. It was a positive and hopeful trip, but I don’t feel positive and hopeful. Writing it feels more important than before, but also more conflicted.

Before this trip, I’d never visited South Carolina, even though it was right next door. My family supported the NAACP boycott of the state, so it was off my vacation radar most of my adult life. After Ms. Byuarim-Newsome blew the minds of the entire country with her incredible act of civil disobedience, removing the Confederate flag from the statehouse, the gauntlet was thrown. I’ll never forget how overwhelmed and awed I felt as I explained to my kids what she was doing.

photo credit: Democracy Now

photo credit: Democracy Now

When we were looking for a long weekend trip this year, I tried to think of some places that were in driving range and that I’d never visited. The boycott is over, and I knew nothing about Charleston.

We wanted to have fun (and we did!), but how could we shape an anti-racist experience for our family in a place so loaded with painful history? And in a state so unwilling to take responsibility for the legacies of slavery and violent white supremacy? Charleston was the wealthiest city in the South at its heyday and was the main point of entry for slaves for many years. Information like this is readily available, but tips on how to craft an anti-racist visit were harder to come by.

When Google fails, I call my mother. Usually, it would have been faster to call her first. “Oh! So many amazing people from Charleston…Denmark Vesey, the Grimké Sisters, Septima Clark. You know Septima Clark was at Highlander when…” She told me more than I could remember, so I spent a few days reading. I actually remembered the Grimké Sisters because they were on this awesome feminist card game we had when I was a kid. Turns out you can actually do Grimké Sisters tours now because of Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings.

photo credit: http://sweetgrassexpress.com/septima-clark-the-lady-behind-the-monuments/

photo credit: http://sweetgrassexpress.com/septima-clark-the-lady-behind-the-monuments/

A friend who had spent a lot of time in Charleston told me it had been a hard place for her. It was beautiful, but that beauty was built with blood money. The contemporary social legacy of that history still intensely colored her experience. The indulgence by monied whites in a tourist experience that celebrated without truth-telling depressed her. That’s the Charleston I was ready for. And yes, I could see that Charleston, but our experience was more complex than that…and somewhat more hopeful.

Our oldest child is a physically active six year old who isn’t interested in hearing grown ups talk, so we knew that we would need to mostly have our history in our heads and be ready for pithy explanations that didn’t break the stride of what we were doing, or we’d lose his interest fast.

The first time I ever talked with him about white supremacy was after Dylan Roof assassinated 9 black parishioners in Charleston at Mother Emanuel in 2015. He was five and I was crying in the public library parking lot after hearing the news on the radio. He wanted to know why someone would shoot people they didn’t know for no reason. I didn’t say mental illness or unemployment or drugs or even racism. I said white supremacy.

I talked about the crippling fear of loss of privilege, and also about how sick society is when you build it on so gross an institution as slavery; how that oppression infects all relationships in society. Owners to slaves, free people to indentured servants, men to women, Europeans to native people, parents to children. There are no relationships that come out unmarked, for both the oppressors and the oppressed. Because there has been no process of truth and reconciliation, no reparations, and no honest society-wide conversation about the legacy of slavery, these wounds have simply festered. Without justice, there can be no peace.

Because we had discussed the shootings (in words a five year old could understand), he had some context for our visit to Emanuel AME Church–the oldest AME church in the south, founded in 1816. We stopped to read the marker, to see the flowers and memorial. We talked about how whites had originally half-heartedly supported the network of Charleston AME churches because it eased the conflicts that arose within their own congregations of how to integrate (subjugate, cope with) the enormous community of black worshipers. How quickly they realized that any situation that gave enslaved and free black people the chance to gather, build community, communicate, and support each other was tremendously dangerous. They placed curfews on church activities; they began to worry that Sunday school was being used as a cover to teach slaves to read. And they were right.

Photo credit: Post and Courier

Photo credit: Post and Courier

I looked at the big bright walls of Mother Emanuel and imagined what a hopeful place it would have been–though the current building was not where Denmark Vesey preached, before he was hanged (after a hasty secret trial where he was not allowed to confront his accusers nor hear the testimony against him). The original building was burned to the ground and the congregation met in secret until the end of the Civil War. We told our son about how Vesey had been born into slavery and bought his freedom. About how he had not been able to buy his family because their owner wouldn’t sell them. About how the Haitian Revolution and the stories brought by the slaves accompanying fleeing white elites had inspired the uprising Vesey planned and was hanged for.

By chance we came across a street performance by a group of guys–almost all Black men–called Straight Outta Charleston. The ultimate showmen, they were deliciously irreverent and managed to work a mostly white tourist crowd–making them slightly self conscious and uncomfortable and fork over their cash happily, all at the same time. “Don’t be scared, we’re only going to hurt you a little bit!” Something inside me cackled with glee as they got a bunch of white bystanders to kneel with their faces mashed into the ground to wait for this…


We drove to Fort Moultrie, where I was prepared for what commentators had described as a small exhibit on slavery that could easily be missed. But in fact there were images of slaves and discussions of slavery woven into the main exhibit that could not be ignored and were powerfully worded–unabashedly laying the blame for Charleston’s success on its exploitation of slaves.





The slavery exhibit was hard to miss and, more importantly, no one was passing it by. I watched all the white patrons who entered turn down that corridor. The exhibit is well done, with original documents, powerful and truthful representations of the middle passage, and the story of a particular family through to modern times and their visit to the region of West Africa where their ancestors had been kidnapped. It was better than I expected, though it’s true I came in with low expectations. Our kids were not at a place where we could engage them with much of anything indoors as the tunnels and passageways of the fort beckoned. But we watched older kids taking time with the full exhibit.

In 1989 Toni Morrison spoke of the lack of historical commemoration of the Black experience in America:

“There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves . . . There is no suitable memorial, or plaque, or wreath, or wall, or park, or skyscraper lobby. There’s no 300-foot tower, there’s no small bench by the road. There is not even a tree scored, an initial that I can visit or you can visit in Charleston or Savannah or New York or Providence or better still on the banks of the Mississippi. And because such a place doesn’t exist . . . the book had to” (The World, 1989).

In 2006 the Bench by the Road project was launched and the Sullivan’s Island bench was placed in 2008. It is a chilling spot to contemplate the hundreds of thousands of kidnapped, tortured, and enslaved people carried to this place from across the Atlantic ocean. It is off the beaten track and utterly unadvertised. It’s directly between the parking lot and the water at Fort Moultrie and should not be missed.


img_20160903_191612323My kids were very taken with the horse drawn carriage tours, but we didn’t do one for a number of reasons. Since we walked around so much, we were still able to eavesdrop on much of the commentary. Some of them explicitly and progressively discussed slavery and race, which surprised me.

We did not visit any plantations because my sense was they were all still owned by the old white families–which might not be accurate–and I didn’t want to give them my money. While places like Drayton Hall advertise exhibits on slavery, reviewers on Trip Advisor say there’s no substantive discussion of slavery. As an aspiring homesteader, I watched the entryways pass by wistfully, but without a shred of regret. Maybe someday one will be run by and for the people whose blood, sweat, and tears created them. The drive down Highway 61 (Ashley River Road) is lovely and worthwhile, regardless.

We did not visit the Old Slave Mart because we missed its somewhat limited opening hours. But we had planned to go. I was uncomfortable about what a shopping destination it appeared to be, but the written text telling the history is supposed to be well done. We were not sure whether it would have been appropriate for our little kids, but were going to do it anyway. Instead we stopped at the entrance and talked about it from outside.

The Night Market, at the Charleston City Market, was a neat experience. The crowd was diverse and laid back. We gave our son a few dollars and helped him budget and check prices throughout the place. We learned a great deal and talked with lots of different people. The building itself is interesting, as the Market Hall at the front has a huge marker on it for the Daughters of the Confederacy. We were there at night and the kids were playing on the stairs while we waited for the trolley bus. Originally the impressive building was used as a Masonic temple, and became the home of the Charleston Confederate Museum in 1899. I can envision the complexity of booting an organization that’s controlled the space for that long, and how much more complicated that is than some other forms of historical justice (new monuments, new markers), but it still made me angry.

The “trolley bus” is a must. The DASH trolley opened in 2011 and is a free circulator through downtown. It’s paid for by the City, the SC Ports Authority, and the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau (businesses), not by CARTA. This is a more progressive financing profile that has been done for a number of downtown circulators. From the hour we spent riding around with the kids, it seems heavily used by local working class folks in the city center, as much as by tourists, which was great. When we were waiting for it once, we asked a local vendor whether it would take us near a part of town we wanted to visit and he said “no, in the rich residential neighborhoods they fought tooth and nail to keep it from coming through, so it stops just before.” Made me like it even more. There are old trolley booths on the inside of the cars and the kids had a blast.


The City of Charleston was governed by Joseph P. Riley from 1975 to 2016. While he’s best known for his long term protagonism of efforts to redevelop downtown Charleston, he also led a five day protest march from Charleston to Columbia to protest the flying of the Confederate flag in 2000. His legacy project–and we cannot wait to go back to visit it–is the International African American Museum on Gadsden’s Wharf, which will open in the fall of 2019. Hopefully the incredible excitement and momentum around yesterday’s opening of the African American History Museum on the DC Mall will be contagious. It gives me chills just thinking about how much it could change the tourist experience in Charleston. The site is where 40% of the enslaved people taken to the US were brought ashore.

The story of historical justice and the commemoration of the Black experience seems to generally be one of catching up and crowding out the racist propaganda, rather than getting it removed. Every once in a while a flag or monument comes down, but far more common is that spaces are carved out for truth telling, alongside these. There’s great debate about remove vs. rewrite and I find myself on the side of telling the truth about the racist monuments rather than taking them down, but generally that doesn’t happen either. Modifying them in any way has proven politically challenging in the extreme.

The Jonathan Jasper Wright historical marker was right beside our hotel.

The Jonathan Jasper Wright historical marker was right beside our hotel.

What is unexcusable in Charleston, though, is that the premier commemorative landscape at the Battery at White Point park has several Confederate monuments and even a huge gaping hole at a spot where several paths come together, which would be perfect for an enormous monument to the struggle for Black freedom, and yet there is nothing. It would be easy to visit that place and think not a thing about slavery.

The perfect spot, at the crossroads. The matching spot on the other side of the gazebo has a monument in it.

The perfect spot, at the crossroads. The matching spot on the other side of the gazebo has a monument in it.

Our visit to Charles Towne Landing ended the trip on a better note. It was a far more interesting place than I expected it to be. The park is the site of the original Charleston from 1670-1680, before it was moved to its current location. There is an early African American cemetery at the site, with signage that takes full responsibility for the fact that the park builders in 1970 destroyed it in their ignorance of what its contents meant. The artifacts and sites of the Native people from the area are marked and treated as central to the story. The expertise of the enslaved African farmers who made the experimental agriculture projects possible–as well as the eventually successful rice culture–is truthfully recounted. There are also exhibits about the role of women in the community, celebrating particular figures like Henrietta de Beaulieu Dering Johnston–whom I had never heard of.

Charleston is beautiful and bustling with much more than white apologists for the Confederacy, hoping wistfully for a return to an era of white dominance. Black tourists visit in large numbers, as well as increasing numbers of visitors of all backgrounds with a more critical approach to the city’s history. Under progressive leadership, the city’s tourist infrastructure reflects this reality. There is inescapable ugliness, and a delicate balance clearly struck with the old South Carolina elite that still controls so much of the economy. The Battery is a place to visit to illustrate how much remains to be done. When the International African American Museum opens, the city landscape will be strikingly altered for the better. We had an incredible trip; our kids learned much more about history and current struggles for justice than on any other trip we’ve taken, and the truth wasn’t buried as far below the surface as we expected.

Puerto Vallarta a vacation by the skin of our teeth

When the mama from Mexico City in the golf cart beside me started grilling me about how much it was costing us to stay here, I became very self conscious. The place is a 5 diamond hotel, the kind of place we never go even when we have the points for it because generally you just can’t enjoy any of the fanciness at a place like that with kids. Uber fancy hotels are also culturally not where I find the people I most like spending time with, generally speaking. But what do I know? I’ve never stayed anywhere this fancy before.

So when I told her it was free except for the cost of our food, her eyes bulged and I felt like an asshole. A friend had lucked into the time share swap of the century, I explained. After inheriting a not-so-fancy time share, they somehow found a 4k square foot, 3 bedroom suite at the Vidanta Grand Luxxe on an online swap. Then they were upgraded to a 4 bedroom after calling to confirm the details of the reservation the day before arriving.

The place was bigger than both our houses combined, plus a lot. I had trouble imagining what it would actually be like. Would my toddler get lost trying to find our bedroom?

And we were just going on a last minute whim because we could use points and our Southwest companion passes to travel for free. The lady couldn’t quite imagine it, and kept asking me how much our tickets would have cost had we spent actual money on them. In the off season, these kinds of resorts usually offer deals in the home country, which actually makes it much more interesting to be there if you are hoping for some modicum of cultural exchange while staying at one of these gated bourgtastic ridiculousnesses.

My spouse had no vacation time so he would be working remotely all week, but being on my own with kids all day is a variation on a theme. We’ve decided that traveling is an important part of our lives and our kids’ education so when the opportunity arises, I overcome my nesting urges and all my normal parent worries about all the things that can go wrong and try to make it happen. This one was a no brainer.


Our family of two adults, a 6yo, and a 2yo stayed with another parent and his two small kids in one of these unbelievable Vidanta Grand Luxxe Residence suites for a week in August, 2016. We then spent two days and nights at the Casamagna Marriott in town before heading home.

Once again I find myself in the position of saying–only more so this time–that I cannot imagine the circumstances under which paying anything close to full price cash to go here would be worthwhile. That’s not because it’s not everything a person could want in a super elite fancy resort, it’s just that I probably won’t ever be able to reconcile myself with the idea of being a super elite fancy resort type of person.

BUT! If you have the chance to swap a reasonably priced time share, or go with a friend to Vidanta for a few days, I’d say go for it.

Everything is beautiful at Vidanta, even nursing an acrobatic toddler with poor latch.

Everything is beautiful at Vidanta, even nursing an acrobatic toddler with poor latch.

My only overall knock on this place is that it is enormous. Walking most places with small kids just isn’t an option. It doesn’t matter because there are super fun golf carts and by day 3 you will be going down to explain that no, you don’t need to get anywhere, can you just ride on the back of their cart while the shuttle makes its rounds because your two year old has been screaming “Ride Cart!” over and over since 5am? They will smile and drive extra fast around the curves just to make your kid happy. But you will also gain 10 lbs because you had no idea the 800 times you walked up the stairs in your own house or to your car on a normal day actually contributed significantly to your fitness level.

super shuttle

super shuttle

One of the cart drivers told me there is a tunnel that runs under the whole Grand Luxxe complex for deliveries and staff. I asked if they made them walk, he laughed and said no, they got to ride the carts too. But we did find that room service took forever because things were so far apart. It only took us one day of breakfast coming 45 minutes after calling to start planning ahead. Four hungry kids under 6 are no f**king joke.

We had not a single food disappointment for 7 days with 4 kids. The food is priced very reasonably for a fancy pants place, we think in an effort to get people to not leave the resort and just do everything there. There’s a pretty good grocery store and pharmacy in the shopping center (called The Plaza), so we bought fresh vegetables and fruit, bread to go with the PB and J we brought from home so no one would die (good peanut butter outside the USA is always a crap shoot). Portions are big and everything was fresh and good quality. When my big kid got an earache I was able to get white vinegar and rubbing alcohol and a syringe that I pulled the tip off of to squirt homemade swimmer’s ear preventative into his ear. The concierge desk will get you anything you need from a bigger pharmacy if they don’t have it.

We tried out all the pools, which is saying a lot since there are like 397 of them (okay, just 15). All the pools (even the adults only pool that we took all the kids to one evening to play with the other kids we found there) are awesome for kids. They have these funky shelves–eight or nine feet of a few inches of water, probably for drunk people to set their glasses down on but also awesome for babies. Every pool is different, but the kids loved them all and there were safe and fun spots for each age. It wasn’t over my tall 6 year old’s head anywhere, which made it much easier for the grown ups to relax and enjoy ourselves. We really liked the rooftop pool at our building.


Residence rooftop

Mayan Palace pools

Mayan Palace

Also fabulous are the buckets of 5 beers for the price of 4. Our kids got the fancy faux glass beer cups and played games with the ice for an hour.

The water feels sort of like a bath by the late afternoon. I know I said I only had one complaint. I lied. It’s weird to swim in bath water. But this place is so ridiculous I’m sure if they could speed climate change up by cooling the pool water in the afternoon, they would, so I’m guessing it’s a worldwide tropical-pool-in-summer issue.

There’s a kid’s club, which, like the food, was not expensive. $8 for four hours of free babysitting for kids over 5, even cheaper per hour if you sign up for the whole day. My kid who won’t do things without me went with his friend for a morning. Not only did he not say goodbye when I dropped him off, he didn’t want to come home when we picked them up. They did disco dancing, made aprons, and went swimming. He told me I was a deficient mother for not packing him sunscreen (I did, he just didn’t find it because he has nascent male pattern can’t-find-s**t syndrome) or his rashguard top (I actually did forget that, but he had a t-shirt on so why did he need another one?).

We did get lost in the apartment. We tried to come up with creative things to do with the extra room at night after the kids were asleep in our bed. We enjoyed the turndown service with chocolates. The kids loved the splash pool on our porch (the porch that’s bigger than my house). The views were awesome. Even the fact that they are building a new monstrosity right next to this one was great since all the toddler wants to do is watch “Big Diggers!” all day long. We got some exercise walking from the kitchen to the bathroom and bedroom every time we forgot something while the two non-working adults tried to get all 4 kids out of the apartment every morning. Nothing got broken. There’s a washer and dryer. The bathroom was also bigger than my kitchen.

By the time we said goodbye to our friends and headed off the Casamagna Marriott we were dazed and suffering from resort exhaustion.

Casamagna is more my speed in terms of size–the beach is right there by the pool and rooms, the views are amazing, and if you want to go do things in town you are much closer (though while we were there an entire group of people were kidnapped from a fancy restaurant in town, supposedly all narco-traficantes but it helps you understand the attraction of a place like Vidanta where you have to go through 5 miles of wilderness preserve and a polite checkpoint to get in). The room was cute and functional.


from our window at Casamagna

The service was meh (asked 3 times in 3 different ways for someone to come up and unlock the mini-fridge so that we could store our fresh produce and no one ever showed up). The main restaurants have lackluster ambience, likely because they are designed for the breakfast buffet and folks don’t eat there much otherwise. The only onsite restaurant we’d recommend is the poolside one, which was awesome. The kids’ menu is the same at every restaurant and is composed of really icky food. Not that my kids didn’t loooooooove the velveeta and noodles mac and cheese and the bizarre open faced american grilled cheese. But when after two days your two year old is asking for broccoli, something is wrong.

Our kids got a cold the day we left Vidanta so we only made one foray into town. Cab prices are fixed and you confirm at the hotel before leaving, but any real cab can be trusted. We walked out to the Los Muertos pier and down the boardwalk, stopping for breakfast at La Palapa on the beach, which was super kid friendly and delightfully good.

Puerto Vallarta, as one cabbie explained it to me, has no other industry besides tourism and has not for as long as anyone can remember. It has a pretty interesting history, with even some pirate fantasy back in the 17th and 18th centuries. In the 19th century it served as a port to support the mining industry in Guadalajara. For the entire post-war period it’s been a tourist destination for gringos and development has exploded–much driven by seasonal foreign residents–since the 1990s. What this means in practice is that every single thing you encounter there is designed to support tourism. Choosing to visit this particular place means choosing to be somewhere known as a great party spot. There are lots of prostitutes and plenty of street hagglers, though we never felt unsafe in the slightest. Most irritating were us–all the drunk foreigners. We loved talking to our cab drivers and the resort workers, but didn’t have the same kind of meaningful interactions with other visitors that we often do when we travel.

But for this East Coast gal, mountains right by the sea will never get old.


“Don’t use sledge-hammer mechanics!”

I am slowly trying to curate and migrate my writing here from the couple of different personal blogs I’ve kept over the years. There was a blog I kept to chronicle our travels when my eldest was a baby and my dissertation field research took us to live in Brazil and Spain for a few years. Many of those posts were more stream-of-consciousness journaling, and yesterday I came across this piece. We had just moved to São Paulo for six weeks and finally gotten settled after having housing arrangements fall through upon arrival:

I have had a significant amount of guilt about how the babe spent about 3 days in 2nd place, competing with our personal housing crisis for attention. It didn’t help that he fell in our hotel room and got a big bump on his forehead to remind me that we weren’t doing right by him. This has resulted in me trying extra hard to be patient and to remember to not force him onto my schedule when I don’t have to. That, in turn, has resulted in several half hour long episodes perched precariously on the edge of a bar stool scooched up as close to the closed apartment door as possible with boo on my lap while he learns to put the key in the lock and take it out again. He is remarkably good at it and has just had a couple of challenging stumbling blocks. One is that he sometimes starts out with the key upside down and on a bad day, helping him turn it right side up results in violent “mommy stop messing with my stuff” hand flapping and yelling.

The other is that he gets very frustrated that the key will not come out unless it is straight up and down in the lock. This one has been hard for him to learn. But I find that when I start out without an agenda, it’s a truly amazing experience. I watch him learn, and he IS learning. He carefully puts the key in the lock, sometimes trying several times, sometimes getting it in a little bit and then wiggling it for a while until it goes all the way. Then he turns it left and right and pulls. Nothing happens. When he seems frustrated I just explain that it has to be straight up and down to come out, and show him. Sometimes when he gets it, he’s really excited. Other times he just takes it in stride and begins again.

I’m not totally sure why, but every time it makes me think about my dad. My dad, who was unwilling to produce female offspring who didn’t know how to use basic household tools. One of the lessons I remember him gently giving me over and over again was about not forcing things. He always said “my dad always told me ‘Don’t use sledge hammer mechanics’.” His father taught him wood working and how to fix things and they would spend the summers doing repairs on their house. It has been one of the best lessons for just surviving around the house. When you get frustrated with a jar that won’t open or something that seems too difficult, make sure you have the right tool for the job and then don’t force it. You will almost always get better results if you stop, take a deep breath, and continue slowly and methodically with the proper instrument.

In retrospect, I find it amusing that this advice came from a guy who regularly did ridiculous things like chop off the end of our picnic table when he needed a piece of wood for something, instead of taking the time to find what he needed. We had a great family story (that he always denied) from when I was about 5 and we were having a picnic in the back yard. We saw a fly and he said “now don’t just go swatting around or you’ll miss it and make a mess.” Then he got the swatter and waited until it was sitting on the edge of the cream corn to thwack it, sending bits of sticky corn flying in all directions. The fly buzzed off happily.

But it was still good advice. So when my little guy flaps his hands wildly, yanking the key and grunting in frustration, he quiets down as soon as I bring my hand up to turn the key into position before slowly and gently pulling it out. I tell him, “don’t use sledge hammer mechanics angel,” and think of my dad.

When I re-read this post I can see hints of the parents we would become. The satisfaction of backing off and watching a child learn without my intervention. I am so much better now about leaving them alone and not trying to “fix” what they haven’t yet mastered.

I can also see so clearly the circumstances that led me to choose to be home with my kids after finishing my degree. These trips were the first time that we had no childcare help from family, while both trying to work full time. It was the toughest time of our lives as a family.

My initial reaction was to roll my eyes at myself for feeling guilty that our son had taken a back seat to the saga of finding housing, which had been an immediate and pressing need. But the unstated context was that to get my research done–which was time and place sensitive and necessary for my degree–I needed him to take a backseat nearly all the time. He was 13 months old and an only child. He didn’t like that and didn’t cooperate. Because we were moving around every few weeks to different cities, we weren’t able to make childcare arrangements. It’s why we started screens so much earlier than I had wanted. Neither my husband nor I got more than the bare minimum of work done, not to mention sleep or time with each other.

I felt guilty because it was three days of being second place…after months of being in second place, with all my instincts raging that this was the opposite of what we all wanted and needed as a family. This was when I decided I would finish my PhD (because the big sacrifices had already been made), but then I was done. When I finished, we restructured our life and housing to be more frugal so we could afford to lose my already meager graduate stipend.

I no longer stress about the times I need to put my kids second in order to deal with a crisis because they come first most of the time. I know it’s not so simple for many parents, nor what all families need or want. But it was what worked for us and it’s surreal to look back on this time of uncertainty when we had no idea what to do. I want to give myself a squeeze and say “don’t worry, you are going to figure this out.”

I also laugh at the notion of our human tendency to preach when we struggle to practice. Not using sledge hammer mechanics is not just good advice for home repair, but for raising kids, too. I fail often, but it’s still great advice. My kids work so much better when I don’t try to force them 🙂

St. Louis a surprisingly special trip

When we decided to visit St. Louis for four days over Memorial Day weekend I wasn’t over-the-moon excited. I was looking forward to some quality time with dear friends we hadn’t seen in years, with their baby we’d never met. I knew next to nothing about the area except that racist cops got away with murder there and no one who knew the place seemed particularly surprised. And we are not baseball fans.

But we love to travel and there’s always something exciting about going somewhere new.

All trips with kids are "special." I call this one "trying to rent a car with kids."

All trips with kids are “special.” I call this one “trying to rent a car.”

It turned out to be an incredible trip and we came away with a few tidbits to share. We spent time in the county and walking around downtown. We explored Forest Park and the zoo, the state history museum, the Wabash, Frisco, and Pacific Railroad, City Garden, the Gateway Arch, City Museum, Union Station, the St. Louis Transportation Museum, and the Laumeier Sculpture Park (kind of). We missed the botanical gardens, which was supposed to be cool. We rode the Metrolink and went to Sauce on the Side (twice. omg).

This is a great city for families. You should stay downtown and go on a holiday weekend. St. Louis is not, at the moment, a major tourist destination so on holiday weekends it experiences a net loss of population. You’ll have the town more to yourself and things like the arch and the zoo that are often crowded or hard to park at on the weekends will be more accessible.


the area below the arch is being transformed into a museum and public space to be completed in the next couple of years.

Some things to watch out for:

  • You can drink anywhere, just about. Including in the front passenger side of a moving car, for example. While it’s nice to be somewhere that you can carry your beer around while chasing your kids, it’s also good to be aware of if that would pose difficulties.
  • People don’t breast feed in public so if you aren’t used to that and are a nursing family, be ready to perform a “protego” shield charm around yourself (as my mother says) and get your guard up. I mostly just got dead eyed looks from exhausted mothers of newborns who had just come out of the bathroom after nursing their baby on a toilet and didn’t know how to deal with me sitting there with my tatas al aire. I almost cried but just gave long distance hugs.
  • St. Louis is highy segregated by race and income. Most of the major investments in public infrastructure and up-and-coming public spaces are on the western/southern side of town. We spent a fair bit of time in these spaces as well as downtown, where most of the people we interacted with were people of color. Those were the richest, warmest, and most memorable interactions we had during our trip. St. Louis is one of the most segregated cities in the country and if you are paying attention (or if you aren’t white), you’ll notice. You can read more about the history of segregation in St. Louis herehere, and here, as well as many many other excellent places.

The Zoo


It’s free! My friend announced jovially as we entered “socialism at its best!” (she’s a political theorist). The two ladies who I thought were there to tell me where to pay (but were really there to help if I needed to find things) looked unsure whether to call Homeland Security or not. We moved on.

It has trains. And animals. The Forest Park that surrounds it is lovely and walkable and we did it for a mile and a half with kids in strollers. Parking is normally horrific on the weekends but was fine for us, no lines or crowds either.

IMG_20160528_145126700The History Museum

Its restaurant is fancy but the café has coffee and normal food and there are a set of tables out of the way of everyone else so if you–like us–choose to park there with babies for several hours of napping and boobying, conversation, and coffee, you can be pretty anonymous.

It’s not a children’s museum (even though there is a section for little kids) and if your kids start running people will give them the stink eye and tell them to chill. Your spawn may or may not take heed.

Time to go! My, what a nice fountain they have out front!


This recently renovated downtown space was our absolute favorite. It’s beautiful, accessible, alcohol free, well supervised with life-guardy type city employees, and really diverse. When our 6 year old tore up his leg running across the stepping stones, parents we’d never interacted with came to check in with us and wish him well. We went two days in a row. Every city should do this.

Gateway Arch

It’s as cool as you would hope but might worry it wasn’t. Order tickets online at the website, they leave every 10 minutes. It’s very retro and funky inside and there are all kinds of opportunities for exploring engineering with kids as you go. Looking out from the top is neat and you feel sort of like you are on a space ship.

Union Station

We walked from our hotel to the Metrolink and took the train to Union Station. There are stroller-friendly elevators and everything was easy to manage. The trains aren’t super frequent…it’s not a city whose population today would merit a subway system. But the city and its infrastructure were designed for a lot more people.

Union Station in St. Louis is considered one of the most beautiful central stations anywhere. It was turned into a mall in the eighties and is currently a hotel. But it looks like a freaking castle and is enormous. Renovations are currently underway to shift toward restaurants and entertainment, which should be a more vibrant use of this incredible historical space.


City Museum

This place is unreal. Really really unreal. If you have a toddler you may ask yourself whether it is a good idea. Do it. You might give yourself a concussion trying to keep them from doing something ridiculous, but you won’t regret it. If you can remember it.

The brainchild of sculptor Bob Cassilly, this place was built from salvaged materials all over the city. And by salvaged materials I mean things like the enormous marble façade of a school. It has a very Tim Burton-esque feel about it. If your kid is afraid of heights or loud noises, this is probably not the place for them. The more likely scenario is that your children will be in heaven and you will nearly die of sensory overload. The place is meticulously constructed and you will not find a spot where a small person could fall through, but everything is made of metal so any bumps or knocks will be hard. If it’s raining the roof top will not be open. They don’t do reciprocal memberships and it’s often packed. But this was the most unique and memorable thing we did.


Wabash, Frisco, and Pacific Railroad

We are a family of train lovers, so we always seek out train activities anywhere we travel. This 12 inch railroad runs live steam and diesel on Sundays, May through October. It’s lovely and unlike many of these types of railroads, the trip is long enough to really be worth it. Also good for putting babies to sleep. The line can get long so try to get there for the first train or so.


St. Louis Transportation Museum

My husband waited until we were on the way to drop the bombshell news that this museum has a Union Pacific Big Boy. There are only 8 remaining of the original 25 and we’ve been waiting years to see one. The museum is a bit outside town and there’s not much else there. It’s in full sun so try to go first thing in the morning. While some of the locomotives are under a covered shed, that was even hotter. They have a garden railway and bumper/pedal train for kids, which were all fun.

The collection is first rate, with the best signage I’ve ever seen. For nerdy engineering types, you can actually see all the locomotive parts well labeled. If you care, they have cars and airplanes too, but our kids were singleminded.

Our toddler cried bitterly when it was time to go, wailing “choo choo!” in the saddest way. His big brother (who has never let him touch one of his G-scale electric trains) decided to gift him his Polar Express. We didn’t really believe it would happen, but it was the first thing he did when we got home.

Laumeier Sculpture Park

We parked there to nurse through a 3 hour car nap. The kids refused to leave the car when they woke up, but it looks neat from the parking lot and has clean bathrooms.

Where we stayed

We stayed at the downtown Hyatt, which is literally under the arch. Hyatt’s are our favorite in general because they focus on quality food, with quite a few local and organic ingredients (every one we’ve been to grows its own culinary herbs–this one in a hidden spot on an interior roof I only found because I was looking for it). We travel on reward points and the Regency at the arch is an awesome deal. It’s only listed as a Category 2 so we could get an executive suite for cheap. The layout was great and very toddler friendly.

The lounge serves amazing food with healthy options so we ate many meals there for free (lounges vary tremendously hotel to hotel and this is the best one we’ve used). The lounge also has a spectacular view of the arch. Everyone there was great and the brew pub downstairs keeps local drafts on all their taps (beers in the lounge were $3 craft brews!).

St. Louis for the win! We can’t wait to go back.

Following my bliss, inspite of myself

When I was young my mother used to talk to me about “following my bliss.” It was eye-roll worthy in the most adolescent way. I was a pragmatist and a realist and cynical and tough. I did not do bliss-following. I didn’t care if Joseph Campbell was some sort of genius. If my mother suggested it, it could not possibly be a good idea.

I still have a slightly allergic response to the phrase, perhaps because it just sounds so…mushy. I do not do yoga. I do not meditate. I do Useful Things and am Very Efficient. I am a planner; I always think wayyyyyy ahead. Following your bliss sounds like something a long haired hippy does while wandering barefoot through a field of wildflowers. The very image makes me itch. Who does that? There are chiggers and ticks and copperheads and how do you plan for health care needs or retirement just chasing bliss (whatever that is) wherever it leads?

Yet when I sat down to write this post about gardening (yup, that’s where this was headed. We get there eventually), I was surprised to find I had misrepresented my own story…to myself. My biggest and best life-altering decisions had, in fact, been made by following my gut when it was in sync with my heart, which is really the crux of what Campbell meant about following your bliss.

When I was 21 my then-boyfriend and I planned to walk the Camino de Santiago during the summer. Five hundred miles in 28 days across northern Spain. He was from the Basque Country and had walked parts of the Camino with his own father as a teenager. We trained together, walking 15 or 20 miles in a day along the roads and paths in our town. Then he found out he couldn’t get the time off from his lab. It was terrifying, but I decided to go by myself. It had become something I needed to do.

On the way to Spain I was robbed of everything I owned except my backpack of clothes and gear for the Camino. After a harrowing adventure securing a new passport and ticket with no identification and no money, I finally arrived…and promptly came down with the worst stomach virus I’ve ever had. I was forced to seek refuge with my boyfriend’s family, the only people I knew in the whole country. After 5 days in bed I had  lost all the stamina built up from months of training. His mother nudged me out of the house to walk around the village and I was exhausted and ready to crawl back in bed after ten minutes. But there was no more time. I had to go or not; I couldn’t postpone indefinitely. The trip had an end date.

I convinced my boyfriend’s sister to drop me off at the tiny village of Roncesvalles at the French border with no money, no cell phone, no credit card, and my insides glued together with Fortasec. I got up at 5am and walked 15 miles the next day. Other pilgrims offered me food because they thought my diet of plain bread was due to lack of money, which was also true. The first day a couple from Barcelona saw my feet and showed me how to sew a loop of thread through a blister after treating it with iodine in order to keep walking without getting an infection.

Going alone was the best thing I could have done. I saw in ways I would not have with a partner and interacted with others in ways I would not have, had I gone with company. The people I met became dear friends. Those 28 days remain the most formative of my entire life. It was–literally and figuratively–a moment of choosing a path, and one that would have been so, so easy to say no to.

Three years later, I made another unlikely, uncomfortable, path-shifting decision. I was about to move to Chicago to work with an amazing scholar in a PhD program I was deeply excited about. I had found a roommate and we were apartment shopping. But I had just fallen in love with a hometown boy. After two weeks dating we knew. He was going to commute between North Carolina and Chicago to be with me while I was in graduate school. I was on my path!

And then one day I was out for a run and, on the side of a busy road, I just stopped. My life with this person was the path. Why was I continuing on the old path as if nothing had changed?

I decided in that moment to stay in my home town and not go off to school. I felt my brain doing somersaults. All my plans and expectations shifted in the blink of an eye. A week later we moved in together. He was so excited he promised never to eat fast food again–a promise he has mostly kept (except on our wedding day when his friends kidnapped him and took him to Bojangles).

I thought everyone would think I was crazy. Mostly they did. I had to arrange a meeting with my most beloved professor and tell him why I wasn’t going off to school, despite the wonderful letter he’d written me and all his advocacy on my behalf. He encouraged me to apply to the local R1 universities and find a way to make it work if graduate school was still what I really wanted (it was and I did).

I worried that my mother would worry about me giving up my life plans for a man. It was just about the least feminist thing a girl could do. But I should have known. My mother smiled and hugged me and said “I wondered whether you might consider staying.” She for sure figured I was following my bliss, but probably knew better than to say it.

I do not look back on these experiences and tell myself I should be a more impetuous and spontaneous person. They do not make me want to buy an open ended ticket to somewhere wild and hope it works out. Most of what has gone well in my life has been the result of good planning and research. But when it came to getting the really big, scary decisions “right,” planning and research only got me part way there.

There have been big decisions since then: choosing to have a baby while in graduate school, asking my family to uproot itself and travel with me for my dissertation, choosing to finish my program even after realizing that I did not want a career until after my children were bigger (if then), choosing not to work for money, having another baby…but all of these life choices were less loaded because the overall trajectory seemed “right.” The stakes were lower because of these pivotal moments where I gave myself permission to find out how strong and capable I really was and take a chance on what I really wanted.

What got me thinking about my mom’s well worn advice to follow my bliss was my gardening problem (told you we’d get here eventually).

Today I went to visit the backyard of our old house, which I fenced off when we let go of the house and moved further out of town. My gardening makes no sense. It is a liability. I spend way too much time on it, and when I am honest with myself I know this to be actually, truly true. My partner is more supportive than I could ask for and only periodically complains that on the weekends he doesn’t see me. I don’t need him to point out that paying for childcare so you can grow food is inefficient. Or that when I say “I just need to go grab a couple of herbs for dinner” it is for sure going to be at least half an hour. Or that maintaining a second large garden 15 minutes away from where we live is ridiculous. I tell myself and everyone else that it’s to save money, to be more self sufficient. None of that is untrue, but well, it kind of is.

What is real is that I don’t listen to the radio when I drive out there because my mind needs empty space. When I open the fence and stoop under the branches of the huge magnolia and into my secret garden, full of song birds and color, everything else disappears and my burdens fall away. Today I worked for three hours in a drenching rain. I worked until my fingers hurt. I didn’t think about anything except pulling weeds and planting sweet potatoes. It’s rare that I get alone time in the garden because I’m with my kids full time. When I head home after gardening alone it’s like coming up for air after being underwater for a long time.

I am not a religious person, or even especially spiritual. I find dirt and stars amazing and that’s enough wonder for a lifetime. I still don’t do yoga or meditate. Campbell suggests that doors will open to your path when you find your “sacred space” and give your mind uncluttered room to connect with your soul. I find it hard to get past all the mysticism, but once I do I can see the moments in my life when I’ve been in that place.

The long hours of solitude on the Camino were a concentrated dose of what I’d attained in fleeting moments throughout my childhood. Dancing vigorously. Doing physically arduous yard work for my dad. Sitting in the silent woods behind my mom’s trailer in winter. Playing hide and seek with my sister in the corn field across the road. Nights around a campfire in the mountains. The natural world and empowering physical effort were clearly at the heart of this. But now I’m busy so often I no longer make these opportunities for myself. Except that I’ve found a way: in my garden.

I’ve been “following my bliss” without realizing it, in spite of my disdain for the concept. I would call my mama to laugh about it together, but I think she already knows. Maybe I will anyway.



Maximizing the Magic: Harry Potter World with kids

We are super not theme park people. Neither my husband nor I have ever been to Disney anything, nor have any desire to go with our children…for a number of reasons (being feminists, coming from a Jewish family, coming from a communist family, coming from a poor family…there are probably a few more). But Harry Potter is near and dear to me and so many of our friends loved their Harry Potter world experience without reservation (and we could do the hotel, hotel food, flights, and admission with reward points), so we decided to give it a shot.

We have literally never heard a bad thing about it, except for the lines. We thought we had nailed it by going in the off season. Unfortunately, as clueless homeschoolers who pay no attention to the school calendar, we didn’t realize it was spring break until too late. Even with the extra bustle, it was just about one of the most fun things I’ve ever done with my family.



one of several spots where wands purchased at ollivander’s can perform real spells and make magic.


I got my yummy butter beer and pumpkin juice here where the lines were shorter. a very tired looking mom of 3 got in line and asked me, very seriously, at 10:30am “but do they have REAL beer??!!” oh yes. oh yes they do.


There are some excellent posts out there that helped us prepare for our early April excursion to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (here, here, and here). I won’t reinvent the wheel. Here are the extra tidbits we learned and things we loved, plus the WHY of why some of those travel tips we got mattered, or didn’t.

  • Stay in the park. Because we were booking a rewards trip with credit card points, we did not have this option. But next time we will choose a hotel in the park, regardless. While the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress is one of the nicest hotels in Orlando, it’s 20 minutes away. We spent a lot of time driving, dropping off, picking up, and paid a lot for parking. The hotel shuttle times were infrequent and inconvenient so that part of our plan was a bust. We did not end up wanting to explore Orlando in our down time, so next time we’ll also forego the rental car, which staying in the park would allow us to do. The money would be a wash.
  • The non-transferability of tickets is for realz. To save money, we only bought a ticket for my husband and 6 year old. We thought the one and a half year old’s needs would dominate the experience and it was a birthday trip for our big kid. I was going to hang out at the hotel pool with the baby. But if your spouse gets sick and you show up to see if you can use your spouse’s ticket, there won’t be much they can do, though they will try. We knew tickets weren’t transferable, but everything online was about people trying to sell them. We thought, with the same name and to accompany a child who can’t go alone, they might be able to do it. Guest Services was amazing and in the end they helped me buy a highly discounted one day ticket, but their computer system literally will not let them make changes like that. The physical space is designed to accommodate everyone–they really want it to be easy and fun–so next time we’ll get tickets for everyone and take the baby.
  • Get a multi-day pass. This trip will be expensive no matter what. If you want it to be memorable with kids, getting a multi-day pass is key. Three days was perfect (we deal hunted and got the 3rd day free and the whole thing discounted). The first day you are learning the ropes. You will make mistakes, miss things, and figure out what you really want from the experience. Because you have a third day, the second day will probably be the best. It’s low pressure, you can take your time just going with the flow. This was our magic memory day, and it would have been enough, but we couldn’t have done it without a buffer day on either side. The third day was for doing whatever was left.
  • Go morning AND night. Everything we read said to go first thing in the morning. This is kind of true for like 30-60 minutes at the very beginning. But if you are chasing small kids who aren’t going to do the scary rides anyway, the lines are hard to predict and sometimes ebb and flow in odd ways, so it may not matter as much. There are a lot of people all the time, just be ready. The waiting times app was super helpful. What’s guaranteed is that being there midday blows. It’s hot, your kids are tired, and it’s the busiest time. I think people don’t suggest evening with kids because they think it’s a non-starter. But if they’ll nap and you can let the schedule shift, it’s worth it to go in the evening. Everything there is more magical in the late afternoon light–the smoke from the Hogwart’s Express, the view of the castle, the shows in Diagon Alley. Our best day was the day we were all there together from 4-8:30pm. Those are the memories that tingle (seriously, the place tingles).
  • Enjoy the lack of drunks…and drink the beer. Universal has this figured out. Yes, they serve alcohol, but don’t be afraid to hang out with kids until closing. Their one person-one drink policy likely helps. And they take it seriously. Like, when your husband is standing beside you holding a squirming toddler they will not let you walk off with a beer for each of you. But if you look like you might cry they will get someone to carry your drinks for you. Which leads us to…Drink the house draughts. There are different house brews at the Three Broomsticks and the Leaky Cauldron. They are really good. Please do not order Newcastle.
  • Expect and enjoy awesome service in the park. We interacted with many Universal staff people every visit and we never had anything but stellar experiences. They take their time with you, and somehow it never seems onerous if you are waiting while they take their time with someone else. When your kid buys a wand they will, with a straight face, ask them how old they are to be sure they aren’t using an anti-aging spell. At the Knight Bus the driver will chat for several minutes and take pictures with you. At Guest Services (which is Universal Studios, not HP specific) during our admissions debacle, the sweet and fabulous young woman talked with my son about Harry Potter, pretended to be levitated by his well executed Wingardium Leviosa spell, made him a birthday name tag and gave us 4 passes to bypass lines because it had been such a hard morning. When part of the back patio of the Leaky Cauldron was closed off (by gentle people, no gates or barriers) for a special party, we chatted with the staff as we tried to keep our over-sugared kids out of the area. They nonchalantly told us it was the CEO of Universal Studios Japan. We apologized for our kids being super wild, they said “no worries, they are having fun and that’s the point.” Everyone we asked for help was cheerful and all about making the experience awesome for the kids. No one will ruin this for you. There were even pee-free toilet seats every time we needed to go. I am hard to impress, and I was impressed.
  • Don’t take little kids on the rides. Despite what park staff may tell you, none of these rides are really for young kids. Especially if your kid is on a diet of limited screen time and doesn’t play video games on a big screen tv. It will be sensory overload. Two different staff people told us the Gringotts ride would be fine for our just-turned 6 year old because there was only 1 drop and it wasn’t that fast. These things are very subjective. Our kid is adventuresome and not afraid, but it was too much. He didn’t get upset or freak out, but he didn’t have fun. The rides are awesome, use the kid swap rooms and you’ll enjoy it a lot more.
  • Budget time and energy for getting in and out. It takes a good 20-30 minutes just to go through security and get to Diagon Alley/Hogsmeade. It will seem twice as long when your big kid is exhausted and wants to be carried.
  • Don’t be afraid to take a stroller. They’ll help you with it on the train and it may save your life. Carrying anything more than nothing requires using the lockers for the rides anyway, so you might as well take what you need.
  • Take snacks and water. As long as you don’t have coolers or big cold bags it’s fine. There are often long lines for food and it’s pricey (but pretty good in Harry Potter world). You can Uber to the grocery store when you arrive in Orlando and still save money.
  • Give your child a budget. Our son took his own saved up allowance and birthday money to spend. We gave him $10 a day to spend at the park. He managed it all himself and we were hassled to buy things exactly zero times. We set that expectation months in advance so he’d have time to save, but kept the per diem as a surprise. It worked like a charm.
  • Go between spring break and summer vacation, or just after schools start in the fall. There are hurricanes in the fall, it’s busy at Christmas, the southern hemisphere comes in January, Daytona events mob the park in February and March, spring breaks are all over the place around Easter…but there’s a sweet spot in late April/early May before summer, and again just after school starts in September (but obviously don’t go Memorial or Labor Day weekends). Try to go during the week, this is so much better than school!

We had a million small things not go right on our trip, but none of them were the park. It was so, so good. You will not be disappointed.


Costa Rica: Tulemar with Kids

I’ve written several posts about our trip to Costa Rica this winter. It’s hard to say forcefully enough what a beautiful country it is and how exceptionally friendly it is for families. Because it was a rewards-points-financed vacation, we stayed at more resort-y places than we otherwise would have. But Tulemar is basically the perfect resort for people who don’t like resorts.

The Gist of It

Tulemar is ranked the #2 resort in the world for families on Trip Advisor, and for good reason. It is an incredible combination of a full service hotel with a much more private and natural setting than a big resort, as well as more space. The staff are lovely and, like everywhere else we’ve been in Costa Rica, great with children. The beach is glorious and the wildlife is better than what you’ll see while chasing tired small people around Manuel Antonio National Park. There are a few things that were a challenge with a toddler, but for this region and this type of tourism, it is definitely the best place out there.


Our Stay

Tulemar Bungalows were built in the 1980s on a 33 acre property overlooking one of the secluded crescent shaped beaches typical of the southern Pacific coast of Costa Rica.


Tulemar beach

They are in the process of updating the bungalows with microwaves and full fridges and flat screens (though why anyone would stay here and want to watch TV I can’t imagine, but regardless it’s tastefully done). The bungalows are the most economical option of the properties that are part of Tulemar/Buena Vista, though still not cheap (we did the trip on Barclay Arrival reward points and stayed in Bungalow #114).

The shared amenities of the community are great. There’s the main pool and restaurant, side by side. That pool is often busier and not as good for families as there is no shallow end. But there is a family pool a short walk downhill. Or you can call the shuttle, which will take you anywhere at any time (and the shuttle drivers are wonderful with kids). The family infinity pool has a couple of fun features including a waterfall, a separate toddler pool, and ledges most of the way around. There were other families there every time we visited, which was nice since we were all ready to exchange children by then.

Mostly, though, the ocean. We didn’t even visit the pools until we’d spent two full days at the beach and were tired. I’ll get to the beach in a minute. You can walk down but do not try to take a stroller or walk the real little ones, it’s steep and too long for them. But the shuttle will pick you up and drop you off. You can also order food on the courtesy phones from any of the pools, your room, or the beach and they’ll bring it down. On the weekends they set up a restaurant down at the beach and you can eat and watch the sunset. It was a hot mess with our toddler but no one cared and we had a lovely time. The food is great.


you learned that the stroller was a no go, but mama still thinks we should use our own feet. buahahahaha. too bad you can’t hear whining in a photograph

The bungalows are awesome for families. There’s a trundle bed in the living room, enough room for kids to spread out their crap, and the bedroom has plenty of space. The spaciousness and view are where Tulemar beats even the nicest rooms of a fancy resort, hands down. Monkeys climb on the roof (and might try to come right in the window if you open it) and birds perch on trees right outside. The look out over the ocean is breath taking.



his quiet time spot

A few things to look out for with kids. If you are anything like us and don’t let housekeeping in until you can’t live in the room any longer, and then have to clean and put the furniture back in place before they can come in, well you can’t do that here. Because you can’t throw toilet paper in the toilet (you can in big, new installations, but that’s an exception, this is the norm), you really do want them to come every day because you don’t want to be in a tropical forest with dirty toilet paper ripening for more than a day.

If you have a small toddler, there are a few inconveniences, but none of them were that big a deal. The beds are attached to the headboard and can’t be moved. I’m sure hotel managers don’t want to think about people pulling the furniture around, but if IMG_20160206_164853527_HDRyou’ve traveled with small children you know that making a big family bed is sometimes the only way to sleep. There are also no high places in the bungalows. The counters are low everywhere. So when your toddler decides that dumping the potty trash is awesome, you may find yourself setting it up on top of the bathroom light array to get it out of reach. Just remember to get it back down before you need to use the bathroom :).

Finally, if you have a child that gets up horribly early in the morning, there just isn’t anywhere to go to let everyone else keep sleeping. It’s dark and you are in the middle of the jungle. People will be at the restaurant doing stuff by 6am and you could watch them and get in their way, which they will be very generous and sweet about, but what will you do for the 2 hours before that? Again, not a big deal but different from staying in a hotel where there are things open and happening 24 hours a day.

Basically, Tulemar is wonderful for families, but just a smidge adventurous with a very small toddler. It’s in the mountains on the side of a cliff, so everything is climbing up and down. You will be carrying the toddler a lot and they will fall a lot. We don’t care about the falling. The carrying was also no big deal for our friends with normal sized children, but since our 20 month is the size of a 3.5 year old, we called the shuttle a lot more than we might have otherwise. Ultimately, there are very few places in the world besides your own home (if that, let’s be honest)  that are any kind of comfortable to be in with baby-zilla.

Now, let’s get to the good stuff. The beach. Oh my god the beach. The physical beach is amazing but Tulemar also makes it easy to enjoy with kids while still feeling secluded. There is alabaster and jade and agate all over the sand. Every available shell has a hermit crab in it and they flow along the sand, getting out of your way, like a little scuttling wave. The kids were happy for several days just chasing crabs.


hermit crab fiesta


There’s a neat circle of rocks that makes a wading pool protected from the waves at low tide. I thought they built it for kids, and was very impressed. But I did some digging and it turns out this land was a Quepoa indigenous settlement about 950 years ago and the pools are turtle traps that have been there nearly a millenium.


turtle traps of the Quepoa

Parts of the beach are shaded long into the morning, which let us stay out much longer than we otherwise could have. The water is warm and wonderful. There are baby toys, boogie boards, towels and chairs, kayaks for guest use–all free. The rip tide is real and the waves are unpredictable, a feature of this entire coastal area. It’s a big deal, and easy to be overconfident. But if you stay vigilant it’s fine. We took our fearless 20 month old out past the breakers and jumped the swells while he cackled. Our 5 year old wore a puddle jumper and hung out in the surf and breaking waves, hooting and yelling for hours. Luckily we were nearly alone on the beach most of the time.


All the wildlife you can see (if you are lucky) in Manuel Antonio, you can see at Tulemar. If you have little kids, skip the park and just hang out at Tulemar beach. The gardeners and staff would come get us to show us howler monkeys, sloths, and other critters. They are as knowledgeable and the pace is much more enjoyable. We had an amazing time and would go again in a heartbeat!


How to take a responsible Costa Rican mangrove boat tour

A few days ago we (4 adults and 4 kids, 1.5-5yo) went on a boat tour of the Damas Estuary near Manuel Antonio National Park. There are a lot of tours to choose from, but fundamentally you want a place that will tell you NO if you ask to touch the monkeys (or other wildlife).

It’s so tempting to want to participate in the observation, but these rich wildlife habitats are already stressed, so let’s not push it. The guides are also under intense economic pressure to please tourists, so it’s crucial that you, as a visitor, take the lead in setting expectations. Let your guide know from the start that you know it’s not okay to touch the wildlife, particularly not the sociable capuchin monkeys. And don’t pressure them to take you closer for photo ops. If the animals are disturbed, the animals are disturbed. It’s their house and it’s possible to enjoy them without being all up in their business. Take a good camera and a pair of binoculars.


Sweet bats resting under an old train bridge




Little Whiptail lizard


Majestic Mangrove Black Hawk, just checking us out





We booked our tour through the concierge at Tulemar Resort and our guide, Jason, was excellent. He had been a rafting wildlife guide for 10 years before starting to do the mangrove tours. The company is called Avenatura and if you are in the area it’s easy to book. The concierge at Tulemar made it clear that the guides only take you out at high tide, so there’s no flexibility with the start time–you go when they go. That’s a first sign to look for when booking your trip. We’ve heard of guides taking people out at low tide when the mangroves were barely navigable.

In our case that meant leaving at noon (naptime!). Jason picked us all up and brought us to a small restaurant hotel just outside the mangrove forest for a delicious lunch before heading in.1-IMG_8578-001

He stopped at the side of the road and grabbed a leaf off a tree. “Costa Rican toilet paper!” He laughed. One side was rough and the other velvety soft. He asked our kids what color the leaf was “olive!” but he smiled and rubbed the leaf between his fingers. When he took his fingers away they were blood red. It was a teak leaf, he explained. The red came from iron and was used by indigenous peoples for paint. Now, as we know, it’s a valuable export wood for all kinds of other reasons.

We talked local politics as it was an election day. He answered our pent up questions–why were the buses so much fancier than we’d seen other places in Central America (and honestly, even in the US where public transport in most places is a lame afterthought)? He explained that the Costa Rican government recently began requiring that all buses be from the year 2000 or more recent, and have a set of features and safety standards. As a political science PhD, this was my kind of tour guide!

When we arrived he checked everyone’s shoes and said that, because it was a new moon the water was a foot and a half higher than normal at high tide and the little sand bag pier was a bit under water. Our fearless 5 year old walked out holding Jason’s hand, but the boat figured out how to pull up to shore so we didn’t have to wade.


Jason made a few too many jokes (for my taste) about us all being eaten by huge snakes if we fell overboard, but was an incredible guide. He had a great sense of humor and was wonderful with the kids. When they got rowdy he said, “eh, it’s pretty shallow, but here’s a picture of the poisonous snake we saw yesterday, that was something we hadn’t seen in a long time” and showed us a little brown snake on his phone.

The wildlife was incredible. There were so many birds! Jason explained the different types of mangrove in the estuary–white, red, and black–and the differences in their appearance. His explanation (all in English) of the way the roots take in salt water, process it, and return the excess, as well as “breath” creatively in low oxygen environments, was eloquent. He talked about the number of species that live in the tropical forests here and in the mangroves, and why maintaining them is so important.

One of the first birds we spotted was a Roseate Spoonbill. Jason said “ooh, it’s been 8 months since we saw those here. Look, there’s the female, that one is the male, see how he’s more apprehensive about us and beginning to posture?” He explained that the babies are born white, but turn pink from eating mollusks.


Because we were trying to keep our 5 year old from mimicking someone else’s 8 year old who was hitting trees with a long stick and trying to grab the branches, as well as keep our 1.5 year old from jumping overboard to see things, I can’t remember all the names of everything he showed us. As a side note, my husband did not see any wildlife because he was on the toddler while I took photos and managed the big kid. For young toddlers, you’ll have to weigh for yourself whether it’s worth it to take the whole family (also no carseats for the drive out). But it was still one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.

Jason caught a tiger face crab with quick fingers–tiny little thing–and held it up for us to see, then tossed it to a lizard on the shore to convince it to unfreeze so we could spot it.


This was when I really began to get a sense of the dance these guides do. How to make the experience interesting and memorable for foreign tourists in a way that doesn’t invade too much. We came across another boat full of kids and a few adults where the guide was mashing banana into one person’s hand after another and calling down capuchin monkeys to eat off their hands.


What your guide should not let you do

Jason said nothing, but did not follow suite. I switched to Spanish and quietly asked. We aren’t supposed to be touching the animals are we? No, he replied, and actually held up a laminated sheet with ten reasons not to feed the monkeys written on it, and began to explain. We have bug spray and sunscreen on our hands. We have our own gut bacteria and microbes. We make them sick. He said “look at that monkey, see how it sniffs the hand before eating? That’s a monkey that’s had a run in with sickness from eating off a human hand before and now knows to smell for things that seem off. It can make them very very ill.” He went on. Some of these monkeys have rabies, so if you get scratched by accident you can also get sick. But they are ultimately in the most danger. He said softly “tourists just always want to feed the monkeys.” And shrugged. I was grateful no one in our group had asked, it was obvious that they face a lot of pressure to please visitors.

As we were starting to get tired (they’ll tailor the length of the trip to your group’s stamina) Jason reached out and grabbed a fern from the bank, laid it on his arm, and asked my 5 year old to slap it. The underside of the fern left a sort of chalky tattoo, it was lovely and the children were thrilled.

The mangrove boat tour was awesome, and we are so glad it was an option and feel lucky that–without knowing ahead of time the environmental issues or thinking it through at all–we landed a responsible guide. There’s so much to see!



Can you spot the Iguana?





Cherrie’s Tanager


Great Blue Heron



Costa Rica: The 10th Day

I am predictably tired of travel by day 10. It’s totally consistent, like a light switch. I’ll be fine and then all of a sudden all I can think about is my garden and my bed at home. It’s hard to think beyond exhaustion when the toddler thinks 4am is a good time to wake up and the kids keep falling out of bed in the middle of the night.

If we had this trip to do over again (which we will do our best to make happen!) we would reverse our two long stays–do Tulemar first and Los Sueños second. Tulemar is in the Manuel Antonio area and the amount of adventuring options is incredible. We couldn’t miss the opportunity to do a few amazing outings. But even without kids several days of that will wear you out. With kids, well, as I write my husband is passed out on the couch while the baby naps and the big kid does quiet time. We are pooped.

Because this is a coastal area with big rocky cliffs overlooking alcove beaches, in a tropical forest, it attracts folks interested in active tourism. Now, toddlers are *interested* in active tourism, except on the uphill parts, when they want to be carried. They are keen to run on slippery rocks at the bottom of waterfalls that you carried them 2 hours on horse back to get to. And kick their horse to trot when they’ve never ridden before.

Almost every single thing we have done has been a ridiculous success–especially given the company–which continues to amaze me. But it would have been strategic to follow this up with 5 days at the flat crazy resort where you just waddle across the lawn to the pool, fall in, and stay there all day. With free childcare. Live and learn.

Today was the closest we’ve been to a fail, and even then only because we had the rest of the trip to compare it to. The baby fell out of bed twice last night (the big kid once the night before) and then got up for the day at 4am. We threw back tiny cups of coffee and tried to pull ourselves together to go to Manuel Antonio National Park. We leave the area tomorrow and after 4 days we still hadn’t been. We were tired and the kids were exhausted after the previous days’ adventures (a full day horse back ride out to Nauyaca waterfall yesterday and boating out in the Mangroves in the heat of the day, at nap time, the day before). But we knew we’d feel regret if we missed it…since we were literally staying on its doorstep.


Big kid’s first time on a horse!


Nauyaca falls


Great Blue Heron in the mangroves


Mangroves at new moon high tide

Manuel Antonio opens at 7am. We couldn’t find any reliable information on whether or not it was stroller friendly but we were guessing not. The kids kind of ate. It’s all a blur. We sort of packed the diaper bag and trudged out to the car. It was a quick ride. The toddler had accidentally been put in his carseat with a mouth full of cheese toast and had taken it out and stuffed it into the colored pencil case his brother was using to draw Ron Weasley being smashed off his horse in the final chess match of the Sorcerer’s Stone. I hold it up accusingly “what is this?” and he looks at me like I’m a moron. “Num-a-num.”

The entrance to the park is fairly chaotic, but if you are planning to go with small children and you have a sturdy jogging stroller, for the love of everything you hold dear, TAKE IT WITH YOU. The main path is flat and wide, if rocky. Nothing a jogging stroller can’t handle. And the only thing we did right was to go at 7:30am because by the time we rolled out of there, passing out from heatstroke after having to carry both children the entire way (because of course if the 5 year old tells you before you leave the house that he has no interest in going and you make him go anyway and then don’t take the stroller and he is so tired he can barely keep his eyes open…well the mommy guilt for leaving him in the dust in a foreign country when he refuses to walk is not good, so you’ll carry all 60lbs of him), there were lines of sweaty tourists waiting outside the gate. They have a daily quota and by 9am they were maxed out and only letting folks in for each person who left.

We made it to the first main beach, Playa Manuel Antonio, sat panting for half an hour, then went back. We saw two brown throated three-toed sloths, tons of capuchin monkeys, a few howlers, some beautiful blue morpho and postman butterflies, an interesting spider, and a raccoon. It actually makes me feel better about the trip just writing it all down.

The density of easily visible wildlife is considerably greater at Tulemar beach where we’ve been staying, likely because it’s much more secluded. We’ve seen all those lovely critters several times over the past few days. It’s a lot more fun to spot the occasional creature than to hurriedly try to see as much as you can before everyone implodes. And by the time we were leaving at 8:30am, the walkways were totally packed and barely passable and the noise levels were pretty high. The beach is beautiful, but there are lots of beautiful beaches.


Beautiful big old trees at Playa Manuel Antonio


Capuchin monkeys are the most outgoing


“Doo doo-WAH!” as he waves his magic stick


This raccoon had an ouchy and stopped to rest on the sidewalk


Termite nest, which we can spot without a guide thanks to the Kratt Brothers


Brown throated three toed sloth!

This place is gorgeous and amazing…it’s just that there’s lots of gorgeous and amazing in Costa Rica and we were not at our peak capacity for enjoying the scenery. I’m pretty sure I’m the only one that saw the sloths because my husband was blinded by sweat and trying to keep the baby from walking off the edge of the raised walkway (no guard rails). It speaks volumes of the trip as a whole that this was the least successful day.

We limped home to regroup. We did not want to eat the pathetic stuff in our fridge left from 10 days of picking up bites here and there. The baby fell asleep in the car on the way home but woke up screaming when we arrived. Take two! We got back in the car and drove the short way to El Avión, this super cool restaurant with great food where we ate the day we arrived. It was 11am. They don’t open until noon.

First world problems, we can do this! We headed to Café Milagro, a place we’ve been wanting to try but whose two parking spots have always been full. Ah, it was great. Fish tacos, an ingenious kid’s menu that includes a salad with honey on top (what better way to get kids to eat greens? First kid’s menu I’ve ever seen in my life with something green on it). We got a delicious salad with roasted red pepper and avocado with a banana vinaigrette. The baby devoured it, we had to get another one.



“Hmmm, honey, does the baby’s face look like it’s getting red again around the mouth?” “It’s just the heat.” No, it’s not the heat. The toddler is having the same contact allergic reaction he had at El Avión when we ate there. It didn’t bother him and went away in 2 hours, but I really wanted to know what it was. Oh look, and this time it’s worse and it went all the way into his eye and turned it pink. Fascinating. Last time I guessed it was mustard because the other things he’d had–mango and shellfish–were things he’d had before. I got the ingredients of the dressing (sneaky me, gonna make that baby at home, it was amazing!) and sure enough, mostaza.

The big kid had an enormous banana split and we let him watch My Neighbor Totoro on the tablet. The baby had been charming everyone so we’d met every other diner and all the wait staff by the time we were done. He dragged a crate around the whole place for 20 minutes and I followed along, enjoying the cuteness. But I was getting tired, where was my husband? Oh, trapped by the former tobacco plantation owner from Virginia and debating gun control. I suggested amicably that they agree to disagree, as it was ramping up and I could see the racist commentary was about to start. Once they dropped a “wish the thugs would all just kill each other and then we’d be safe” I left and ordered a beer.

I love me a good Imperial, but it was a special occasion so I ordered a bright red beer made from flor de jamaica and called it a day. It’s 1 o’clock.


Costa Rica with kids: Los Sueños on reward points

One of the hardest things about making use of someone else’s review is to know where they are coming from in terms of expectations and preferences. I’m not a resort person and I have a hard time fathoming paying cash to stay at a luxury place like Los Sueños. But I’m picky about food and service when I’m staying somewhere nice. We spent 5 nights at Los Sueños in early February, 2016 with a 19 month old and almost 6 year old.


The Gist of It

This place is wonderful and we are having way more fun than I was expecting. If you are normally a crunchy treehugger (like me), you will need to suspend some aspects of your righteous indignation to enjoy yourself here…but not as much as you might think. This is a wonderful place for children and an easy place to be a grownup having fun with your children. If you can do it on points, DO IT!! If you are able to pay cash for this kind of luxury, then by all means do that too. We could never have, but it’s not like there’s some alternative fancy hotel we’d be spending $400 a night for instead, it just wouldn’t be happening.

Our Stay

The key selling points for this place are the pool, the service, and the food. The pool is amazing. It’s an interconnected system of pools, lazy rivers, waterfalls, and even a swim up bar and café. The salt water is warm and the chlorine is at an absolute minimum–cold water and chlorine are what I hate most about swimming pools so I was actually happy hanging out with my kids all day in the water, a novel feeling for me. The hotel spaces in general are awesome. We ran into the General Manager one morning and chatted about the space. He explained that they had found people weren’t using the lobby so had totally redone it with more lounge-esque furniture, board games, PS4, etc to make it more inviting. It worked. You’ll feel welcome everywhere.



When staff are unhappy and turnover rates are high, you can tell. People won’t look you in the eye or be comfortable chatting and the basic maintenance has no rhythm, which is where a lot of service problems come from. This place runs like a well oiled machine and while there’s really no way to know what the reality is like for staff (Costa Rica has high unemployment rates, which keeps wages low as jobs are in high demand), every single employee we interacted with engaged us with confidence and openness. They talked and played with our kids, they answered questions with certainty, and we got everything we needed. We were there long enough to see some of the same folks over and over and enjoyed talking with everyone. The place is adequately staffed, so no one seemed stressed or acted hurried.

The rooms are expensive, but once you are in a room they don’t nickle and dime you for everything else. They don’t care if you bring outside food and drink to the pool, they offer tap water at the restaurants if you want it, no one looks at you oddly for washing your own clothes and hanging them to dry on the patio, etc. The kid’s club is awesome and offers four hours a day of free childcare for children over 4, with fun activities (arts and crafts mostly). Unlike a lot of hotels they don’t have the attitude that you must have come to get away from your children so they should keep them at all costs. We felt comfortable leaving our big kid precisely because they escorted him out to find us whenever he was ready to rejoin us–once out at the pool, once back to our room. It was a really pleasant surprise.

We tried nearly all of the eating options: room service, the coffee shop, the upstairs bar, the pool bar, and the main restaurant. The food was really good at every one, and I am picky. The food is fresh, not overly fried and fatty, and creative. It’s also different at each locale so you can try lots of different menus. The buffet breakfast is pricey, but you should do it once. I don’t even know where to start with how good it was. Local specialties, creative and delicious versions of the stuff foreigners are used to, fresh fruits and juices, really good coffee. I saved room for a huge fresh belgian waffle with thick whipped cream and fruit after two plates of incredible local fare. Yum.

Useful tips for making it fun, easy, and more affordable

First, if you can avoid arriving on a Sunday afternoon/evening we would recommend that. On busy beach weekends the main highway from the airport to Los Sueños is turned into a one way road back into the city. It was a nasty surprise to find our GPS trying to send us constantly to Highway 27 and every time to find it blocked. We had printed a map and also had one from the car rental place so, combined with stopping three or four times to ask directions and eventually calling the hotel and being emailed back road directions, we got there. But the trip took twice as long and me and the big kid were both horrendously car sick from the winding mountain road by the time we arrived.


at least the view was nice 🙂

It’s easy to keep eating costs down (relatively, it’s still a resort) with a few tweaks. Stop at the really nice grocery store just outside the entrance and stock up on yogurt, vegetables, fruit, beer, whatever you need. If you drink tap water at home, drink the tap water here. The different restaurants have different food and different prices. Some of it is resort prices, but not all, and even when you do pay for the nicer places or room service, the quality of the food is incredible and is easily comparable to what you’d pay at a restaurant for that same food at home. We ate breakfast several times with the kids early in the morning at the 24 hour coffee shop, where food is served at the counter and you can sit anywhere you like. It’s cheaper than everywhere else. The kid’s portions are large and the upstairs bar has a kid’s menu, so we often ordered food for our kids and then just grazed on their leavings or shared a salad. Generally we tried to do two meals a day, with snacking in between, which made it more affordable.

Explore the area. There is less cool stuff to do nearby than in some other places, this is a place you mostly go for the place itself. There are all kinds of adventure services but they were pricey. We went to Pura Vida Gardens, which was neat but we’d recommend going in the early morning to make the most of it, as it was very hot. It’s very accessible for small children and the elderly. And if you double the weight capacity of your jogging stroller and burst a tire, for $2 you can get it fixed at the Bike Doctor in Jacó (if you have small children, this is probably the only thing you’d want to do in Jacó. It has several nice restaurants, but also a lot of prostitution and nasty men’s clubs to service tourists).

As we are foodies and were headed to Manuel Antonio rainforest after our stay at Los Sueños, we focused our explorations on food. Puesta del Sol is an awesome local fish spot (get the whole red snapper, or whatever the bilingual wait staff say you should get). You can walk down the beach to get there. We went at sunset and our kids took over the juke box while the mix of local and foreign fisherman cheerfully tolerated their antics. If your kid will only eat hamburgers, they have that too.

Dolce Vita and Lanterna Ristorante Italiano–in the marina complex–are awesome. Dolce Vita serves breakfast, lunch, and evening dessert and coffee. Lanterna is just for dinner. The food is great–they make their own yogurt, granola, bread, etc. We saw lots of folks stopping in to pick up orders of fresh bread. Lanterna is a nice restaurant, but they welcomed our kids in a way that, if you have small children, might make you cry at the end of a long day. The food was exceptional and their pastas are all homemade. That was our one evening restaurant splurge and it was worth it. The kids loved sitting outside watching the lights on the boats in the marina and throwing nuts and leaves into the water.


the marina

There are some special things not to miss. Climb the big tower from the lobby to watch the sunset. The view is incredible. Our kids ran up barefoot, us with grocery store beers in hand, and had a delightful visit with the retired golfers we met up top. On the ground level there’s a huge hanging boat with messages in old glass bottles attached all the way around. It’s sort of tucked away, but really neat. The hammocks are amazing and are in shade most of the day. They are really comfy. So are the massive outdoor beds you can hang out on. For free. The beach is a hidden treasure of soft, black volcanic sand. It’s not fancy. It’s public. It’s almost completely deserted and warm and gentle. We spent three afternoons there through the spectacular sunset.


top of the tower


black sand at the beach


sunset swim


enormous leaves!


jasper, shell, and coral


nearby Playa Hermosa

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sunrise with papa on the beach beds

It was greener than I anticipated. All the food packaging and take out containers are biodegradable. The lights are all LEDs. Yes, it’s a golf course and a ridiculous use of water to keep all that stuff green in the dry season. But the gardens are all native plants and they did a better job of appropriate watering than any place I’ve ever been. All the watering happened between dusk and dawn–if your kids don’t get you up at 5am you won’t even see it. There are trees everywhere, shading parts of the pool at all times of day as well as keeping the playground in shade. Key for enjoying the day with little ones.

Two mornings we saw a mist of something puffed out over the grounds making a vaporous cloud. My little organic heart lurched and I wagged my finger at my husband and said “I knew it, covered in poison!” I saw a gardener and asked if it were a chemical spray. He said in surprise “Oh no, they fumigate with diesel fuel to prevent mosquitoes.” Sounded gross, but not as gross as poison. I was fascinated. It left no residue, no smell, and there were honey bees, birds, and wildlife all over. Turns out it’s a common practice at resorts and while you don’t want to stand in the grass while it’s happening, it’s about as benign as such things get. I want to go home and spray my yard with diesel fuel all summer.

Oh, finally, the critters. So many awesome critters! The iguanas are huge. They like to lounge on the roof of the poolside bar so that’s a great place to catch them. There are all kinds of birds around. Mapaches (raccoons, though cuter than ours, or maybe that’s just me) sometimes explore at night.


little crabs


observing the wildlife in its natural habitat


pelicans diving for fish


iguanas chomping


squirrel eating almonds