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family travel

Six Ways We Prepared for Panama

Our trip to Panama was a success, though there were some things that could have been better. Some of those things were entirely out of our control, for example, the traffic in Panama City. There is not much to do about that other than plan to avoid it. Planning is what it is all about, though we are not the type to plan out every aspect of a trip. Still, we did some things right and here they are.

Brushed Up on Our Spanish

Okay, maybe “brushed up” is a bit of an embellishment because we didn’t have much to start. I didn’t want to spend any money on a language course, so I chose to learn via podcast and settled on “Coffee Break Spanish” from the Radio Lingua Network. My approach was to utilize their podcast via iTunes, but they do have course materials to complement the audio. If you really want to attain a good level of fluency, I’m sure the course materials would be of great help.

One thing about “Coffee Break Spanish” to note, however, is that it teaches Castilian Spanish. In other words, it’s the Spanish you’d hear in Spain. This makes perfect sense when you factor that the course instructor, Mark Pentleton, is Scottish and the nearest place to speak Spanish is actually Spain. By and large, if you cut out the Castilian lisp, nearly everything else is the same when it comes to Latin American Spanish, and Mark points out some differences during the podcast. It was a great resource.

Michael and Amy enjoying the sandbar in the San Blas Islands.

We traveled to Puerto Rico last summer and it is easy to get by using only English. Still, we had a situation there where I needed to communicate with two Spanish-only speakers. We ended up using Google Translate to talk. I did this once in Panama as well, so don’t forget your phone!

It was rare in Panama to encounter someone with English fluency and, contrasting it with Puerto Rico, that makes sense. Personally, getting through the language barrier was one of the most fulfilling aspects of the trip and I am going to make every effort to keep practicing my Spanish skills. I’m still fairly limited to “Español Practical” as one store clerk put it, but got into some pretty good conversations with a guide and others. It was fun.

That leads to an important second piece of preparation. It’s closely related and no less important.

Found an Easy-to-Use Phrasebook

We happened upon Lonely Planet’s “Fast Talk Latin American Spanish” at the book store. It is not a Spanish-English dictionary, that won’t be near as useful. Lonely Planet organized the book according to expected activities, such as “Airport & Transport” and “Sightseeing.” This makes it easy to find what you need. It is also easy to prepare for a conversation where you know what things you need to ask about.

But you have to understand the answers given as well. The verbiage is often similar between questions and answers, and the phrasebook is helpful that way as well. With the podcasts and this book in tow, I felt more than comfortable saying, “Habla un poco Español.

Did Our Homework

There are many ways to research a trip. In this case, we spent considerable time examining the guidebook. We purchased a guide from Moon Handbooks. It had plenty of good information, but was slightly dated. In several instances, the book talked about how inexpensive everything is, particularly food. I’m certain that was true when it was published in 2011, but not anymore. Despite this one drawback, the guide was an excellent source of information on all of the sites we visited.

On the Panama Canal.

Amy contacted some existing companies through the guidebook’s information and recommendations. She did this all via e-mail. She organized our day trip to the San Blas Islands, and, later, while in Panama, managed our adventure to the Gamboa Forest and boat trip on the Panama Canal.

While she worked on those things, I rented a car and arranged accommodations. We stayed on both coasts and the owner of the house we rented on the Caribbean side was also an excellent source of information. He gave us detailed expectations of what we encountered, though we still found a surprise or two.

The short of it is we largely knew what to expect and that’s important, particularly when faced with conditions that may be outside of your life experience.

Involved the Family

Our daughter Molly takes horseback riding lessons and more than anything wanted to go riding in Panama. We found a place that seemed to be ideal: El Valle de Anton, or the Anton Valley. We probably wouldn’t have driven up there without Molly’s input and it was one of the richest experiences we had.

Molly blends with the scenery at the Nispero Zoo, Valle de Anton.

Molly and Amy rode the horses, we visited a butterfly sanctuary, a zoo with a stunning amount of animal life, went to an open air market, and ate what Amy said was “the best pizza I’ve ever had.” All this in a small town set within an ancient, extinct volcano. It is a beautiful setting and I thought it was a similar feeling to being in the Alps.

The point is we made a good choice because Molly was involved. She got more out of it as well, proudly repeating something we had said, “I’m pretty much the horse-riding expert of the family.” If anything draws us back to Panama, it will be the chance to visit El Valle de Anton again.

Learned the Lay of the Land

Depending on your mobile carrier, you may find it prohibitive to pay the costs of operating your phone in international territory. Our journey to Puerto Rico was within the domestic service area of our provider, so this was our first time dealing with this issue.

We were pleased with the arrangement our carrier had for international travel, which essentially amounted to billing in 24-hour increments when the phone was used. Still, we didn’t want to go overboard on costs and tried to keep the phone on airplane mode as much as possible.

This is where knowing a bit of the geography helped. Prior to leaving for Panama, we looked at the maps and saw where we were going, what roads we’d take to get there, and had a rough idea of the time it would take. As it turned out, our guesses on time were very rough.

When we did use the phone, Waze was the best navigation app to use. It had more reliable information on usable roads than Google Maps, which had particular trouble with accuracy in Panama City. Our Caribbean host also clued us in to this and it was important. We put a lot of kilometers on our rental car.

Prepared to Document Our Adventure

Finally, one other way I prepared was a course in basic photography. My big gift this past Christmas was a YI M1 mirrorless camera, capable of taking high-quality digital photos. Well, I didn’t want to have this great camera and not be able to get the most out of it, so I took a course through a local camera store chain.

A Geoffory’s Tamarin eats a banana we provided.

This paid off in many ways. First, the main reason for the trip was research for our book series, Molly and the Magic Suitcase. Improving my photography skills meant I could help Amy find interesting visuals for eventual illustrations. We wouldn’t have to rely on the photos of others to form our impressions.

More important was to recognize the unique visuals a place presents. Panama has wildlife we never encounter here, a terrain that somewhat resembles the California coast, and that oh-so-beautiful turquoise water in areas on the Caribbean coast. There are many, many wonderful photographic opportunities no matter where you go and a little preparation provides richer memories long after your return home. In all, I took more than 1,200 photos.

 

Those are a few things that made our trip better. We couldn’t be happier with the way things turned out. Wherever you decide to go, apply these ideas generally. It can be the difference between sightseeing and getting to know a place.

Magic Kingdom Methodology

There are blogs everywhere telling travelers how to get the most out of Disney. I’ve read more than a few and always come away with something. We returned from our Walt Disney World Resort trip just a couple of weeks ago and it was a wonderful first visit for our kids. Our method may not be unique, but I wanted to share what made our trip a success.

We’re a family of four with our six year-old daughter Molly and five year-old Michael. Their stamina (and our own) were key calculations in our decisions.

Disclaimer: I received no promotional fees or benefits from the Walt Disney World Resort. I’m a children’s book author, after all, not a full-time travel blogger.

Break Time

We didn’t stay on the property, but our condominium was very close. From our front door to the gate of the Magic Kingdom, it took about 30 minutes, including riding the Monorail (which, by the way, Molly and Michael loved!). With the short distance in mind, we purposely chose days the park was open late so we could return to the condo in the afternoon for a couple of hours.

Our kids never napped during this time, but the break from the sensory input was important. They were able to relax and recharge. Each of the two days we visited the Magic Kingdom, our schedule went something like this:

  • Arrival at park opening (8:00 am).
  • Leave park around 2:00 pm.
  • Return to park at 5:30 pm.
  • Stay to 10:00 pm.

The last hour or so was always a bit hairy. Molly spent much of that time riding piggy-back, while Michael was in a stroller. Still, we figured out that with our two days in the park there were only five attractions we didn’t experience and one of those was not available to our kids because of height requirements.

Preferred Parking

We approached the parking gate not knowing anything about Disney’s Preferred Parking. It is something that never came up in the blog posts I read over the years, and I may know why: most well-known travel bloggers stay at a Disney resort property. They utilize the on site transportation rather than driving in as we did.

Our well-used keys to the kingdom.

It was a spur-of-the-moment decision and one that was key to making our visit a great one. Preferred Parking puts you a relatively short walk away from the Monorail and ferry stations that take you to the Magic Kingdom. What’s more, in classic Disney fashion, we received complimentary bottles of water. It may not seem a big deal, but that very minor bit of “swag” made us feel good about the decision.

The close-proximity parking also meant we didn’t have to wait on a tram to get us to and from our car. I imagine that saved us at least an hour each day. There are all sorts of ways to save time in (and out of) the park.

Get the Most from FastPass+

Maybe few bloggers write about Preferred Parking, but almost all of them write about FastPass+. We weren’t terribly smart about it on our first day. I reserved a few rides only about 24 hours in advance, and I spread the times throughout the day. Well, we learn by making mistakes, right? It was probably around 8:00 in the evening before I was able to schedule a FastPass+ beyond the initial three alotted.

Crowd navigation skills are a plus.

A key to using the system as we did was having the Disney World “My Disney Experience” app on my phone. There are also the FastPass+ Kiosks located throughout the park, but we didn’t need to locate them thanks to the app (which, incidentally, will locate them for you). Instead, we arranged FastPass+ rides according to what was available utilizing the app.

Make your reservations early. If you stay at a Disney resort, you can make your first three FastPass+ reservations up to 60 days prior to your visit. If you stay off property, you can do it 30 days ahead of time. FastPass+ is a great feature, but you can get more out of it with a bit of planning…which brings us to the next thing.

Have a “Planner”

My wife Amy is a planner and always thinking about the next step. This is great in many ways, and it was a particular boon to our visit. We didn’t spend time stopped in walkways figuring out what to do next. This was always decided while in line or while grabbing a snack.

Nighttime in the Magic Kingdom.

The My Disney Experience app was a big part of this as well. Sometimes what was available via FastPass+ steered our decision, and other times it was the app’s Wait Times feature. Looking at Wait Times as I write makes me a little jealous. It’s a good day to be at the park!

You don’t realize how much time this planning saves until you’re maneuvering a stroller around people looking at a map or pointing in one direction or another. We were constantly in motion, and that brings up another useful quality.\

Have a “Guide”

You can hire a guide at some expense for your visit. The guides Disney provides get you to the front of lines and all sorts of perks. That isn’t what I mean here.

Amy has a nose for planning and I have a nose for direction. Granted, I occasionally open the Magic Kingdom map up at home just to do a mental tour (yes, I’m a big Disney fan), so I knew the park pretty well before our visit. Whatever our decision for the next thing was, I could get us there efficiently.

My wife and I make a good team in many ways, and her as Planner with me as the Guide made the day much, much easier. I think, too, it kept us from getting too caught up in the rush of things. Knowing where you’re going and about how quickly you can get there puts things at ease.

 

There are probably a few more things to talk about with our experience and I’ll save them for another post. These were the basic things that made our experience at the Magic Kingdom in the Walt Disney World Resort a special time. I’m ready to go back.

Puerto Rico and How to Help

The situation in Puerto Rico remains bad, however, an aid package passed through Congress today. The Washington Post reports an estimated 80% of the Puerto Rico power grid remains offline. Federal aid agencies are operating effectively according to personal acquaintances.

We are doing what we can to help. When our six year-old daughter learned about the hurricane, she decided to have a lemonade stand in support of hurricane victims. She raised well over $100, and many people donated sums beyond the cost of what was sold. Our thanks to everyone who stopped by for their generosity.

Amy and I also made the decision to donate all of our book earnings for October to hurricane relief. Please join us in this effort, whether through buying books or donating directly to an aid effort of your choice. The organization we chose is GlobalGiving, mainly because of the the transparency in the way they do things.

It all goes to hurricane relief this month.

We met many, many kind and generous people in Puerto Rico. When we ran into trouble, there were several offers of help that went beyond what anyone would expect. As I said elsewhere, after just a short time, you feel as if your among old friends. That is our enduring memory of the people of Puerto Rico, and it is our turn to help.

Thanks to all who choose to donate or simply help by spreading the word.

Colossal Understatement – Adventuring in Old San Juan

It was already Day Three of our Puerto Rico adventure and the beach, unsurprisingly, featured prominently. Our plan for the day was to walk around Old San Juan and see the fortresses. We knew there was a time limit to the activity because our children Molly and Michael are age six and five, respectively. Fortunately, one of the items in the condominium we rented was a stroller.

We hit the beach for about an hour in the morning, repeating a pattern from our trip to Florida earlier in the year. While there, we went to the beach pretty much first thing in the morning and, as it turned out, the habit saved the day a couple of times.

As the Day Goes – Planning

Amy and I pretty much let the kids establish the schedule. Because the sun set so much earlier in Puerto Rico than at home, the kids were generally in bed early and up at dawn. This schedule was key to the success of our trip, particularly when we moved on to Luquillo. That’s a story I’ll share in the coming weeks.

Molly and Michael (and Bear) at the Parque del Indio.

Our early days meant opportunities for more activity. After the beach we had a meal and headed out. We caught a special “tourism bus” near Parque del Indio. The bus seemed to operate exclusively between the beach areas and Old San Juan. It was a hot day and we were thankful for the comfortable, cool bus. I’ll underscore here that buses are the best way to get into Old San Juan. There is a long lane (Calle del Tren, “The Train Street”) running through San Juan that seemed for bus use only, and possibly only the public-run system.

The tourism bus did not make use of the lane, but delivered us directly to Castillo de San Cristobal with little delay, and perhaps a little quicker than the public system because it wasn’t obliged to stop in the convention district.

Largest Spanish Fort Outside of Spain: Castillo de San Cristobal

No description does justice to Castillo de San Cristobal. Considered for its original purpose, it intimidates, though in its modern context it’s simply a wonder. It towers above both the Atlantic Ocean and the old city, and in fact marks the border between the San Juan Historic District and the rest of the city.

A friendly iguana greeted us at the gate for some light fun. “Friendly” might be stretching it; I don’t think it really cared we were there, but it was a cool moment and we enjoyed watching it forage for a couple of minutes.

We took an elevator up and came out facing the east side of the fort that faces the modern parts of San Juan. I was excited about it because one of Amy’s illustrations for Molly Goes to Puerto Rico depicted our characters there. I took several photos of Amy, Molly, and Michael checking the particular garita that was a prominent feature in the illustration.

Scale view from the top of San Cristobal. Note my position in relation to the beach and street level.

The fort was modified during World War II to be a lookout station for U-Boats. As you might imagine, these areas provide stunning views, especially turning west (photo) to take in the colorful architecture of Old San Juan, with another fortress, El Morro, providing the backdrop. It was a unique experience. Amy said over and over how the photos simply cannot show the majesty of it all.

The Importance of Puerto Rico

Look at a chart or map that shows the wind currents of the Atlantic Ocean. The “Trade Winds,” you will see, blow directly from Europe to Puerto Rico. It was simply the first stop in coming to the New World. You begin to understand the importance of Puerto Rico to Spain, and why these fortifications were built.

Old San Juan is actually an island, one that sits astride the entrance to a natural harbor. It’s not difficult to imagine this as a key port not only for trade, but for repair and outfitting ships headed further west or south. As steam replaced sail, this first outpost became a little less visited, but for roughly 400 years, Puerto Rico was the gateway to the Americas.

Next up: El Morro.

The view of the greater San Juan area from Castillo de San Cristobal. Molly and Amy are inside the garrita, the small turrets that are today a symbol of Old San Juan.

Puerto Rico Adventure: Arrival

Wow! We had an absolute wonderful time in Puerto Rico and for many reasons. There is much to share and we’ll do it over the course of three, maybe four posts. I first wanted to share our arrival and first day and a half or so. This provides a few travel tips and can help you get settled if you opt for an experience similar to ours. We loved Puerto Rico and highly recommend a visit.

First Flight for the Kids

We booked an early flight. Our flight plans for the day included one connection with a fairly brief layover. Our children, Molly (age six) and Michael (age five) were great. The only squeals came from their delight and were brief. Several people napped around us (phew!).

One thing that helped Michael was his car seat. We drove to Florida last spring and it is a comfortable, familiar space to him. One thing to note: our airline required the car seat to be placed in the window seat. Check your airline’s policies on this if you choose to bring one along. Anyway, the familiarity of the seat seemed to make it a better experience for him and us.

We also had a booster for Molly and checked it with the other baggage. The booster did not count

Molly also gets a window for the first leg. This is her trying-to-smile-big smile.

as a checked bag in terms of fees. We knew we had to have both to be safe on the road, so there was never a question of bringing them with us.

Another thing that helped with our flight was a series of surprises for the kids. This isn’t original thinking, many family travel blogs recommend this. We were also successful using this tried and true method.

First Day in San Juan

The eventual arrival in San Juan was mid-afternoon. We thought having a bit of time to leisurely settle would be nice. We didn’t stay at a resort, but booked a three-bedroom unit via HomeAway. I want to share more about our accommodations in another post, but will say were thrilled with the place.

We chose to simply get a taxi after conferring with the condo owner. It was easier than we expected because the man running the taxi lane at the airport prioritized us because we had kids. Nice! On the way to the Condado area of San Juan, our driver gave us a tip on where to eat. That is yet another post, but it pays to listen!

Near sunset and it’s so bright the camera barely registered any color here.

The leisurely settling in would have to wait because the beach wouldn’t. We didn’t bother to unpack, but changed and hit the sand shortly after arrival. There are many details to share here, but I want to stay focused on a bigger picture.

Our second day was largely the same. We spent time on the beach and made it to the local grocery. Tip for the grocery: the supermarket delivered both the groceries and us back to the condo. We just had to meet a certain threshold of spending, and, actually, we tripled it.

Yes, we cooked while there, even after having some wonderful mofango our first evening. We did, however, decide to dine out again our second evening. This was our first adventure into Old San Juan.

The Charm of Old San Juan

We had no rental car at this stage. I didn’t think we’d need one in San Juan and it turned out to be

the right call. Instead, we made use of the local buses and had no problem. There is a public bus terminus in the south-east part of Old San Juan, just about a six-block walk from Castillo San Cristobal. All bus lines that go to Old San Juan end here and it’s as good a place as any to start exploring. Bus Tip 1: they take exact

Antiguo Casino, with part of Castillo San Cristobal visible behind it.

change only ($.75 per rider).

We didn’t explore much that evening, but found an excellent restaurant. Molly wanted a milkshake, but was more than satisfied with the fruit smoothies on offer. We finished dinner and to our surprise, it was dark out. Another travel note here: we live in the Midwest and the sun sets around 9:30 or later during the summer. In Puerto Rico, the sun set around 7:30. I never thought to check on this detail.

 

Waiting on a bus at the Old San Juan terminus.

We took a brief stroll on the darkened streets and saw the Antiguo Casino before heading home, again on the bus. Bus Tip 2: the lines seem to run about every thirty minutes. This is a potentially difficult situation with small children. Wherever you are in San Juan, I suggest finding a stop that serves more than one bus line.

It was a successful trip so far, and the kids were having a great time at the beach. Our third day would be a test: touring Old San Juan. Can’t wait to tell you about it in the next post.

Eating Destin-ations

What is the perfect trip? One where you experience everything possible? Our recent trip to Florida probably wasn’t perfect, but we had fun every day, discovered some new things, and made a new friend. That’s pretty much what happens to Molly and Michael in every one of our books. In that sense, it was a true Molly and the Magic Suitcase adventure.

I can’t share the whole experience at once, so we’ll keep it topical. This post features or two best eating experiences.

Magic Trip

Our goal was simple: get to the beach! We’ve been to two destinations that are within a long day’s drive of the Indianapolis area and decided to return to Destin, Florida. Destin is an area growing in popularity and the town has grown tremendously in the past ten years or so. Our initial visit was on a recommendation from a soccer teammate.

Molly, Michael and cousins enjoy the kids area at Lulu’s.

The drive was an easy one and the kids were great. We have a 2008 Town & Country touring model. It allows you to remove or swivel the middle seats and install a table. For this trip, we did both. One seat was out (90 lbs…whoof!) and the table was in. The real Molly and Michael loved the new setup and we’ve kept it since.

Magic Food

Amy and I always manage at least one wonderful food experience when we travel. This time out, we found two places we’d return to in a heartbeat.

Lulu’s is a place owned by Lucy Buffett, sister of Jimmy. The beach lifestyle is the focus with a wonderful area to distract the kids while the food is prepared. Lulu’s prides itself on using fresh ingredients and with some fish offerings you can see when and where your fish was caught, as well as who caught it.

The food itself is excellent. I usually reserve my seafood eating for when I can “see the sea.” Browsing the menu, it may look like a typical shoreside restaurant, but because of the insistence on freshness, you’re going to have a much higher quality meal here.

We started with the “Holy Guacamole!” and I selected a simple, grilled grouper sandwich. The grouper came with a wonderful mild tartar spread, clearly a house recipe. The portions were generous and everything delicious.

It was a family affair as we met Amy’s cousin Tim and his two kids. The smaller cousins had a great time playing together and, thanks to the kids area, the adults had a chance to visit as well. Parents, you know that alone is a value worth paying for and it’s another reason for us to return to Lulu’s next time we’re in the area.

First look at Hurricane Oyster Bar & Grill and what I noticed was the “Locals Eat Here” sign. I knew at that point we were in good hands.

The second place you need to know about is the Hurricane Oyster Bar & Grill in Grayton Beach, part of a larger area, including Santa Rosa Beach, known as “30A.” Whatever your first impression is of the place, your last thought will be, “that’s some of the best food I’ve ever had.” It was a superb dining experience.

Our server brought out tortilla chips along with salsa and this was our first indication of things to come. The chips were excellent. You don’t expect to praise this pre-meal offering, but I have to. They were excellent with a seasoning we couldn’t get enough of. We gobbled them up and ordered our entrees.

Fish tacos at Hurricane Oyster Bar & Grill, their photo.

The Crab Cakes were simply perfect. I don’t know how they can be so tender and not fall apart. That’s to say nothing of the flavor. I could use any superlative to describe it, but the bottom line is you must try go there and try them.

Amy had the Fish Tacos (blackened) with black beans. She was thrilled with the tacos, but the black beans are what she still talks about. The tacos brought some heat, and the flavors made you forget all about it.

Magic Days

I’ll stick to just talking about food and wrap it up here. Future posts will talk about the 30A, our activities and diversions, and our accommodations. It was a wonderful trip and I look forward to sharing the other details.

Don’t miss out on these two places, whether traveling with children or not. The Hurricane Oyster Bar & Grill is just behind Wolfgang Puck’s El Postrio in my ranking of dining experiences. Get on a plane or in your car and go now!

The Piazza at Night: An Evening in Rome

There are occasions we receive opportunities. Some years ago I received the advice, “when someone asks you to do something, say ‘yes.'” The reference was to volunteer activity. There are some moments I wished this advice came to me sooner, but then I wouldn’t be where I am and there is nowhere else I’d rather be. One occasion I said ‘yes’ was on this trip.

Day Five: Still Getting to Know Rome

The day continued after our stop in the ancient Roman Forum. We boarded the bus and made the short trip to the Circus Maximus. Today the Circus is essentially a long, flat park. During Natale di Roma (Rome’s birthday, April 21st), the park serves as a showcase for various events including battle reenactments. Our guide talked mainly about the Imperial Palace, which overlooks the grounds.

A Teen in Europe - Chris Oler Author
Southeast end of the Circus Maximus.

The Circus was essentially a huge race track with two tight turns at each end. Chariot races and other events were held there. According to Pliny the Elder, the stadium seated 250,000, but historians think it was considerably less. Regardless, it must have been something. The original movie Ben-Hur gives an idea of the thrill and danger of the races.

The Imperial Palace didn’t seem terribly impressive from our vantage point. The panoramic photo I share below doesn’t show much. It seemed like so much ruin and it was difficult to picture the splendor the palace once had. Appearances are deceiving.

When I wrote The Shield of Horatius there was a need to revisit the grounds, and in much greater detail than before. Fortunately, Google Earth allows you to explore the palace as it is now, and the Internet at large gives us access to numerous artistic renderings of the Circus and the Palace (scroll to the bottom of the linked page).

One of the things hidden by the ruins is the Hippodrome of Domitian (middle photo of the article). Scholars aren’t certain whether this was a stadium or simply a garden. Either way it shows the ruins of the Imperial Palace have more to offer than what is seen from the roadside benches on the other side of the Circus Maximus.

A Teen in Europe - Chris Oler Author
A stitch of two photos I took produces this panorama of the Imperial Palace. You’re looking at the Palatine Hill, immediately adjacent to the Forum (on the other side of the hill). In the foreground is part of the Circus Maximus. The line between the two photos is clear at grass level, but hard to pinpoint further up.

Domitian expanded the palace significantly in his day and renamed it the Domus Augustana in honor of Caesar Augustus. Augustus, ironically, lived mainly in a borrowed home. The house, like the palace later named for Augustus, was also on the Palatine Hill and is a fairly recent addition to a tour of the area. The house was discovered just 50 years ago.

We piled into the bus again and went on a motor coach tour of the city. I do remember the Pyramid of Caius Cestius, but there wasn’t time to snap a photo. Given the area, Giovanna, our guide, probably also discussed the Aurelian Walls. One other moment burned itself into memory. We drove past the Israeli embassy and I saw armed guards at the road gates. I must have been looking the right way this time because the men were armed with Uzi sub-machine guns. It seemed pretty clear they were ready for anything.

Say ‘Yes’ to the Piazza Navona

The lead chaperones on our trip were an English teacher and his wife. I never had this particular teacher for class, but his influence was greater than many teachers I did have. Much of it comes down to this first evening in Rome.

Most of the adults, you see, decided to have an evening out. Not a dinner or anything that took hours, they planned to go to the Piazza Navona. The day was pretty long and I felt the extent of our travel to that point, but was privileged to be asked along.

An artist draws Molly in the Piazza Navona, from "Molly Goes to Rome." Illustration by Amy Houston Oler
An artist draws Molly in the Piazza Navona, from “Molly Goes to Rome.” Illustration by Amy Houston Oler.

The Piazza Navona is a large square in what was once known as the “Field of Mars.” When Rome was still pretty small this was the assembly area when they needed to field an army. The same part of Rome today boasts the Pantheon, the Mausoleum of Augustus, the Campo de’ Fiori area, Trajan’s Forum, and many other sites of interest. Piazza Navona was once a relatively small (compared to the Colosseum) stadium. It hosted competitive athletic contests, as opposed to involuntary gladiator bouts. We might call it an Olympic stadium today. The area of the Piazza closely conforms with what was once the athletic field. The city market relocated here in the late 1400’s and there is a continued market today of artists.

I can’t put a finer point on this: this brief evening excursion was an important life event. If I only wrote about this and left out all the other lessons learned, the story would be nearly as complete. Well, let’s make an exception for Pompeii.

The Piazza Navona was then and continues to be a great place for gelato. Partially because of this it is a great place to take kids. We confirmed these things when Amy interviewed a former coworker who grew up in Rome and takes her kids there often. The interview was part of our research for Molly Goes to Rome.

The Fountain of the Four Rivers, illustration by Amy Houston Oler. From our first book "Molly Goes to Rome."
The Fountain of the Four Rivers, illustration by Amy Houston Oler. From our first book “Molly Goes to Rome.”

The open air market is part of the attraction, but also the three fountains. The most well known is the Fountain of the Four Rivers. It is a tradition to throw a coin over your shoulder into the fountain and you should do so with the currency of your home country. I brought along a few quarters. One thing I didn’t bring was my camera. The Canon Snappy AF was not a low-light performer, at least not with my photography skills.

My memories are certainly romanticized. I recall the lighting of the fountains, the tropical air, the imposing (due to the lack of lighting) edifice of Sant’Agnese in Agone, the few artist stalls still there from the day, and the community of travelers there to experience it all. The crowd was small and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves. Families and small groups took photos, there was a general festive feel.

We didn’t stay long, maybe an hour. It was the first bit of Europe I experienced without our large tour group. It allowed me to relax and really absorb the atmosphere. It was similar to the experience in Siena, but magnified. All this and my first instinct was not to go. Why was I asked? Who knows?! I am thankful it happened.

Molly Goes to Rome features two illustrations from the Piazza Navona, more attention than we gave any site. There is simply something more to it. It is, as others say, a place to observe today’s Rome and its culture.

A Teen in Europe (Part 5): Morning in the Eternal City…I Think

I admit to a strong bias when it comes to Rome. Excepting cities I resided in, Rome is the city I know best. It is partially because of the trip I’m writing about, but mainly because I wrote a mystery set there. Google Earth is a tool this author cannot do without. That said, most of the sites in the book I saw only on a computer. Instead of revisiting what was familiar, I set out for new ground. Besides, memory is not a reliable narrator, as I found out.

The Colosseum, Rome, Italy.
The Colosseum, Rome, Italy. A van parked near the base provides some scale.

The Stadium

Thanks to Ridley Scott many people have a better idea of the size of the Colosseum. The digital reproduction in Gladiator was amazing. No such re-creation was available in 1990. There was little to prepare us. It was, after all, built in the 1st Century AD. A reasonable mind wouldn’t expect the reality of the Colosseum. My most recent stadium experience at the time was the old RCA/Hoosier Dome, with a seating capacity of just over 60,000. The Colosseum, in contrast, had an average attendance of 65,000, with a larger maximum capacity some sources say.

The Romans had a secret for mixing concrete: they used volcanic ash. In fact, they were particular about which ash was used. The resulting product is weaker than modern concrete, yet more resistant to deterioration. I learned this just a few years ago while researching my book. This is how some of their structures remain intact after two millennia.

We set out from our hotel early. The Colosseum was a short walk. We turned the corner a half block from our hotel’s entrance and there it was, just a few blocks further. Time has not always been kind to Rome. The city lost much of its population after the collapse of its empire. Dust and debris piled up to the point where many of the landmarks of ancient Rome were buried. Because of this, our first view of the stadium was deceptive.

A Teen in Europe - Chris Oler Author
The “aura” effect is present here again. Interior of the Colosseum as it was in 1990.

The ground around the base of the Colosseum is around fifteen to twenty feet lower than modern Rome. In other words, the first glimpse (link to a photo on Wikipedia) we had of the structure was about two stories shorter than it’s actual size. When we came close enough to realize this, I was in awe. To continue the earlier comparison, my eyes told me it was at least as big as the RCA Dome, and probably larger. This was one of the things I recall telling people over and over after the trip.

Our guide Giovanna was probably relaying great information, but I was busy processing the information from my senses. I do remember her talking about the brick structures, visible in my photo at left, used to shore up the outer walls. Much of this preservation was led by the Vatican and large stone plaques (one is also visible in the photo) are placed in various spots around the structure to commemorate the efforts of particular Popes.

It was a spectacular morning. A thin cloud layer had not yet dissipated and its effect on the light of the sun is apparent in my photos. The layer diffused the light of the sun to create the aura effect you see. It was something I barely appreciated at the time, but certainly do now. Please click on the photos to get a better look.

A Teen in Europe - Chris Oler Author
The Arch of Constantine…NOT a ticket office for the Colosseum (visible in the background).

Misinformation

Memory is a tricky thing. I am certain our group was told this: “Every stadium has a ticket office and the Colosseum was no exception.” The moment I heard this we were in the grounds around the Colosseum and my attention was on the Arch of Constantine. Whether the rest of my group was looking the same direction, I don’t know, but for years I thought our guide meant the arch was the Colosseum ticket office. I told people this when they looked at my photos.

It is much easier today to research such things. Sigh.

The Roman Forum – Write It Down!

The area at the base of Capitoline Hill is generally referred to as the Forum, but there are many structures there. It was once the center of Roman civic life and there are a number of temples as well. All in all, it is a compelling location for a tourist. And…I have little memory of our walk to it or partially through it. I can’t tell you which! There is evidence I was there, though. The photo at right and below is the Temple of Castor and Pollux. The angle this is taken from suggests we were right down on the lowest level of the Forum grounds. I have no recollection of this, nor of taking this photo.

A Teen in Europe - Chris Oler
Temple of Castor and Pollux, Rome. I have only a vague memory of taking this photo.

What I do remember is walking along a small side street packed with parked cars, mostly Alfa Romeos. Whatever we were looking at was on our right and below us. We came to corner that overlooked many ruins and this where I shot the photo of the Temple. Or so I believe. Looking at a map of Rome today and using Google Earth, it is impossible to reconcile my memory with the physical reality unless the street I was standing on was excavated in the last 26 years. What I’m saying is if you want to remember something, write it down!

It is surprising how much I remember given the time span between this trip and now, but there are a few blank spots too. I will return to Rome and gather new memories, but return a third time? I doubt it, even though I could spend years, there is too much in the rest of the world I want to see! So…next time I’m bringing a journal. Next time, I’m writing everything down when we return to the hotel in the evenings. Next time, I may make notes while we’re exploring the sites. It is such a rare opportunity to see these things, I am so very thankful for it, and I don’t want to chance not recalling any of it.

This was just the first morning of my first day in Rome. My first evening in Rome was really something special and we’ll get to that next time. Thanks for reading.

Mind Blown: A Teen in Europe (A Partial Origin of Molly and the Magic Suitcase)

There are two stories important to how our book series Molly and the Magic Suitcase started. One took place in April 2012, our daughter Molly’s first trip anywhere. Michael was not yet born, but that day was coming too, less than two months later. The first relevant travel story is much older. It goes back to March 1990 and a spring break trip to Europe. This experience directly affected some of our first editorial choices.

The Teen in Europe: What Do You Expect?

Our itinerary was: Munich, Salzburg, Innsbruck, Venice, Siena, Rome (three days with a day trip to Pompeii and Sorrento), Florence, Monaco and Nice. Pretty ambitious for a ten-day trip.

A Teen Goes to Europe - Origins of Molly and the Magic Suitcase
The Nymphenburg Palace, completed in 1675. I wanted to get the whole thing, but the palace is pretty big.

So what thoughts did a near-seventeen year old have going into this adventure? There was a responsibility more than any expectation: this trip was on behalf of my family. That in mind, I asked to borrow the “nice” camera for the trip, but departed with my Canon Snappy AF (and eight rolls of film).

One significant thing was our family trips were always full of activity. In other words, I did not expect to be a passive observer.

Day One: Munich, West Germany

Yes, there was still an East Germany, though the dramatic fall of the Berlin Wall happened in the months before. We flew PanAm from Indianapolis to New York, JFK. There, we connected and boarded a Boeing 767 for the flight to Munich.

Highlights of Munich included the Nymphenburg Palace. In fact, we spent a good amount of our first day there. The grounds were sprawling and the two things I recall (and shot photos of) were the frescoed ceilings and a bedroom adorned in green (also shown at the included link). The opulence left an impression, but so did the jetlag. The entire day was a bit of a blur.

A Teen Goes to Europe - Origins of Molly and the Magic Suitcase
Partial of a fresco inside the Nymphenburg Palace. I wanted to get the gilded (?) molding as well.

We pushed on to the city center, stopping briefly in the Marienplatz to learn about the Glockenspiel at the New Town Hall (Neues Rathaus). The Gothic architecture (actually Gothic Revival) impressed and there was a sense this was closer to what I expected of Europe. It contrasted sharply with anything I’d seen in the United States. We also viewed and heard a bit about the Frauenkirche. We drove by many other sites including the Olympic Stadium. Our tour guide, Giovanna, used the bus speaker system frequently throughout our trip.

Our hotel had an indoor pool and we were anxious to use it. Its small size, however, surprised us. Other guests seemed to scurry away at the arrival of American teenagers. The hotel was fairly unremarkable and was across from a German army base. The base was the only nearby feature of any note. My first real overseas meal was in this hotel. It was food, not particularly good or bad.

Day Two: Salzburg…and I Fall in Love with Austria

We boarded the bus early the next morning and drove toward the border with Austria. This was the first of three border crossings and the one that took the longest. In the meantime, we were treated to the visual spectacle of the Alps. I left Germany with only 20 Pfennig and no Deutsch Marks as  souvenirs. My disappointment was forgotten with our arrival in Salzburg. Salzburg is the most beautiful place I ever expect to go. The cool mountain air, the low-lying Alps nearby, the complete absence of any sort of trash on the streets, and the charm of the city all contributed to a few hours that left an indelible memory.

A Teen Goes to Europe - Origins of Molly and the Magic Suitcase
Salzburg is the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. There is an annual festival in his honor.

Most of us think of The Sound of Music when Salzburg is mentioned. I love watching the movie, particularly when Julie Andrews and the kids are in the carriage singing “Do Re Mi” because they ride through the main part of the city. Whenever I see this, the feel of the air and the atmosphere of the city return.

But I was a teenager. So, instead of schnitzel or finding something more local, our group headed for…Pizza Land. Fortunately, even with the many days spent in Italy, this was the only pizza I ate in Europe. It was also very good, and in a style which seemed common over there. It was heavier with sauce and light on cheese. Several years ago I gave up dairy and now order pizza with no cheese at all. My experience at Pizza Land was not much different. There were small globs of cheese and isolated toppings, nothing at all like the flavor extravaganza we take for granted. They had the fundamentals, though. The crust and sauce were excellent.

We visited the graveyard where the Von Trapps hid from the Nazis. It is quite different from the set they built for the movie. The nuns requested no photography and I complied, snapping only a photo of a World War I war memorial, somewhat offset from the rest of the cemetery. Not too long ago, I saw a photograph of the graveyard on Pinterest. It didn’t sit well, but I suppose the nuns may have relented.

A Teen Goes to Europe - Origins of Molly and the Magic Suitcase
The interior of the Salzburger Dom. It’s a bit blurry, probably due to a lower speed film.

Salzburg Cathedral (Salzburger Dom) was one of our principal stops. The choir loft above the entrance included a beautiful pipe organ. This was of particular interest to me because the church I grew up attending was known for its pipe organ. I couldn’t compare the two instruments and certainly wouldn’t compare the churches given that the Salzburger Dom was built about the same time of the founding of Plymouth here in the Americas.

The Hohensalzburg fortress was the highlight of our brief visit. The views of the city (see below) and the surrounding countryside were breathtaking. Salzburg was an experience I will never forget. On a side note, I still have plenty of Austrian Schillings (currency).

Travel Pries Us Open

It took less than two days for Europe to conjure awe, not only in my senses, but, perhaps, my soul. That’s probably a little dramatic. What I know is this: those first hours were important. I took full advantage of our time in Rome, perhaps only because Austria was such an eye-opening experience.

Travel changes a person. It pries open a mind, reveals new experiences, and makes you want more. The thing is, you have to be open to it. It’s hard to say why I was susceptible, but there are certainly no regrets.

It’s surprising how much I remember going through this day by day. We haven’t yet reached the end of the second day, which includes an overnight visit to Innsbruck, Austria. Innsbruck was also my first cultural exchange. You’d expect, after two-and-a-half years of studying German I would be anxious to use it, but I was pretty intimidated. Part Two is coming soon!

Below is a panorama stitch of two photos to give you an idea of how the city looks from the Hohensalzburg fortress. The church in the foreground is the Salzburger Dom.

A Teen Goes to Europe - Origins of Molly and the Magic Suitcase

Pen and Suitcase: Travel as a Writer

The books we publish center around culture. In order to experience the culture, our characters travel. This blog mainly shares my thoughts on writing and about our completed (or nearly complete) projects. It makes sense to share a little about travel, particularly because of the slow realization that it plays a big role in my writing and an even bigger role in my life.

A Writing Experience

We’ll stick to traveling as a writer. Since we published Molly Goes to Rome, our family has been on two vacations. It was during one of these (in Florida) that I finished the first draft of The Shield of Horatius, the chapter book mystery that also takes place in Rome. It was a working vacation for me, but also for Amy and my parents as they all watched the kids when I went off somewhere to write. The beach was just yards away.

My first working vacation, though I didn't know it until years after. Temple of Castor and Pollux, Rome, Italy.
My first working vacation, though I didn’t know it until years after. Temple of Castor and Pollux, Rome, Italy.

Writing on vacation was not completely voluntary. I was and usually am of the mind that there can be work or there can be vacation, but mixing the two is tough. Both Amy and my parents were a little mystified why I wasn’t writing, but it’s tough to look after two small children in an unfamiliar place. My mind was wholly occupied with it because I didn’t want the responsibility to fall completely on Amy’s shoulders. We were on vacation!

They asked why I wasn’t writing and it was frustrating. “If you want me to write, I have to go somewhere. I can’t be on vacation and work, my mind has to focus on one of those things, it can’t be both.” The laptop and I arrived at a coffee shop about an hour later.

It was good work. Maybe it was the warmer weather or the setting, it’s hard to say, but the work went well and there were no creative blocks. In some way I was still on vacation and my mind was a bit more relaxed. The writing sessions were much longer than the typical efforts at home. That is probably why the last part of the book came together so quick and easy. I missed out on some fun with my family, but they were all supportive and the writing felt less solitary.

A Writer’s (Not Writing) Vacation

Travel is an opportunity to get to know new places and experience new things. The experiential aspect of travel has always been the main attraction. This includes eating local food, seeing unique and unfamiliar places, and trying activities you don’t have access to at home.

One of my previous jobs provided the opportunity to travel to California. Over a two-year period the company sent me four times in support of our products. Each time I took a couple extra days and did my best to take advantage: I drove the Pacific Coast Highway, mountain biked in Marin County, and stayed on in San Diego for a couple of days with old friends. Of all the experiences, the one most remembered is an early evening on an outdoor restaurant patio in Ocean Beach.

This was a moment the “California vibe” was all too plain and obvious. It was the moment that allowed me to understand why people are so attracted to the place and the lifestyle. It is something you can read about in an academic sense, but the experience is something fuller or more complete.

This is why we interview people for our books. Some things about a place are difficult to know without being there, or, more particularly, being from there. No amount of research can give a sense of how mangoes taste in Thailand, but to hear someone describe a tantalizing dessert and see and hear the experience played out through their body language and words…it’s the next best thing to being there. Some of the words our “host” characters use are direct quotes from our interviewees because you can’t duplicate their experience.

These are the little things that shape personalities and local cultures. A writer who travels is smart to seek these experiences. They help a character become three-dimensional and lend an air of authenticity to your settings.

Off the Path

The Colosseum circa 1990, early morning.
The Colosseum circa 1990, early morning.

This goes back a way, I think, and the benefits cannot be overstated. At age sixteen I was not into taking risks, yet I remember two moments that shaped future travel experiences. I was in Rome with a tour group from high school. We were in the city for three days and had some free time.

Perhaps it was the age, but I recall the confidence gained from using the city bus system. It’s silly, but this was a long way from home and a long way from any sort of comfort zone.

The second formative moment was setting out on my own to explore. The Colosseum was visible from our hotel so there was an excellent landmark to find my way back. I found an out-of-the-way restaurant, essentially in a back alley, and ate a meal hearing no English. The first time this happens to you it is frightening and, only later, empowering. It was a great opportunity to observe modern day Romans, but I wasn’t any sort of a writer then and had no inkling such a thing was possible. Still, it was an adventure and since then it has always been a goal to find places only locals frequent.

One such place I’m aware of, but haven’t seen (yet!), is a bar in the middle of the Nevada desert. This bar has a particular clientele, as related to me by someone who had been there many times: cowboys and soldiers. The latter were part of an Air Force facility that flew drones. The drones didn’t circle the surrounding desert, but another one halfway around the world. The cowboys were cowboys, tipping a few back after a hot day handling cattle. Many of them, I was told, were armed, pistols in holsters at their side. Ah, the story possibilities…

Red Rock Canyon, Nevada Chris Oler authorStories to Discover

There is much more in the Nevada desert just outside of Las Vegas. Excepting family vacations when I was young, Las Vegas has been my most frequent vacation destination. My wife and I have been there three times together and her total visits outnumber mine six to five. On three of those occasions, including my honeymoon, I visited the Valley of Fire.

Many movies have been filmed there. You can see why in the accompanying photo of Amy in nearby Red Rock Canyon. The vistas are incredible, vast, and in a mid-westerner’s mind, somewhat like being on another planet. It can and has inspired stories, nevermind the factual sagas that once took place, or perhaps still do.

To say such stories are embedded in the rocks is not metaphor. In the Valley of Fire there are petroglyphs and one

Petroglyphs and landscape of the Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada.
Petroglyphs and landscape of the Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada. The two photos were taken from the same spot.

set records the story of a young boy. The boy was eager to prove his manhood and set out to hunt on his own, but it was too soon. In danger, the boy was rescued by his father and a lesson learned. How much literature has been created showing the dangers of pride? Or folk tales demonstrating the virtue of patience? One such story is written in the rocks of the Nevada desert and it is a place to inspire any writer.

No Right Way

There is no right or wrong way to travel. The point of this piece is just to say when you do, be open to your new surroundings. There is always something to learn. Stories are everywhere and as many know, one doesn’t have to travel to find them, but it sure is fun.