I'm excited to announce that my latest travel article on an island near and dear to my heart was picked up by Huffington Post.
I'm excited to announce that my latest travel article on an island near and dear to my heart was picked up by Huffington Post.
Today was the first day of school. The first time, since becoming a mother almost twelve years ago, that all three of my children will go to traditional school together, at the same time. For twenty eight and a half hours a week. After several episodes of homeschooling and traveling, of book touring and then leading our two lives, one here and one on Isla de Utila, I don't know what to think about this.
All the things I thought I'd be so excited to do--go on a long run, start writing on a brand-new project--turned into me rattling around this morning with a second cup of coffee, laying out a few hands of Aces on the Bottom, obsessively checking my email and finally getting out of the house, and browsing (without luck) at the carpet store.
It's funny, in their other life, they learned to tie nautical knots to keep the boat from drifting away from the dock cleat, and leapt barefoot from the boat to their tutor in town. In the other, this past Sunday my father and brothers taught me a hasty and sloppy half Windsor for prep school ties and I obsessed over the minutiae of dress code approved footwear.
After Skyping with them early this morning, J remarked privately to me that the kids look great, though maybe a little like they're auditioning for an Annie Lennox music video. That's ok. It's part of why this two lives thing works. Hopefully, we are shooting for the bigger picture--presenting them with all kinds of options for a life, and hoping we are raising people capable of playing by the rules, (and breaking a few) and figuring out what really matters.
Last night, I wallpapered Hayden's pencil keeper (a wooden Honduran cigar box) with photos of Amigo and Sampson, the dogs he loves in both places, and a tiny cameo of his family, just in case a hip sixth grader whose side part in the photo at left was 'ironic, mom, get it?' wanted a glimpse of familiar faces.
The hoping we're getting it right is what had me up again at 3:30 am, cutting out Max and Piper's sandwiches in the shape of our stateside house's roofline, and leaving little notes on red paper where the front door would be, telling them I couldn't wait to hear about everything when they came HOME.
Here's to a great year, and all kinds of new adventures for us all.
* *** *
After five plus months away, we returned to our Vida Tranquila on Utila. In the meantime, we endured a Northeastern winter that witheld the worst of its punches, a hockey season, my Dad's heart surgery and a health scare with Hayden, which ended with a relatively seamless open-septo-sino-rhinoplasty at the Childrens Hospital of Philadelphia. Needless to say, we were all breathing easier when we met up with Captain David in La Ceiba Immigration and he said to the kids, "Would you like to see your daddy?" We were delighted to be reunited as a family, flying over the skinny strip of sea back to Utila.
We fell back into our old patterns easily. Piper and Bine had the cinematic reunion her mother and I have been anticipating, complete with momentary hesitation, full-on crushing hug, and then a thirty hour playdate. These two little alphas had one terse conversation about which one said the shells hurt her feet en route to the 'dream lot', and then quickly lapsed into a game of fairies on the porch.
I am fairly certain the only time they weren't holding hands was during their momentary spat and maybe during dinner. They dined a deux on chicken and waffles at Neptunes, chased the solar lights J installed on the dock, and I may owe an apology to Bine's mother for introducing her to the beingets with Nutella--sweet Bine picked up the plate and LICKED.IT.CLEAN.
Same old, same old
The reunion of Piper and Bine was only rivaled by the one of the kids and Amigo, the resident mascot and surrogate perro negro for the Hoffspring. After worrying for days about whether their dog would remember them (the jury is out in my opinion--he might be this glad to see everyone) they had a love fest in the marina. They have come up with a game of chase and fetch on the beach with their darling dog that I don't think any of them will tire of soon.
It is amazing also to see the changes in Lobster, the project's other dog. Abused as a puppy and rescued to become part of the crew out on the South Shore, (and the Frick to Amigo's Frack) Lobster used to be too skittish to be touched. Now, he patrols proudly with the watchmen and is eager to have our loving attention.
As before, and much to the boys' chagrin, regular Spanish tutoring is on the agenda. Piper will also be attending a bilingual school called Widsom Paradise with her friends in Town.
Neptune's! The former construction zone where the boys used to dash around playing tag has become an upscale restaurant. Neptune's at Coral Beach Village is an important part of the development we are here to create, complete with sandy beach, dock and marina, hammocks, palapa, volleyball and beach games and music.
We used to draw parallels between our life here and Little House on the Prairie. Now it's more like Swiss Family Robinson with an open tab at the tiki bar down the beach. Piper's sole vegetable consumption in the past week has been their hand-cut French fries and she has ketchup running through her veins. I am also in conversation with Jenny and Will and Brian about what we will be saying is "off the menu" when the little Hoffmans belly up to the bar (and by this I mean, the mac and cheese with the breaded topping Hayden can't get enough of, or the green bottled ginger ales Max and Camilo had me thinking were Salva Vidas complete with mock-stumbling on the beach.)
Their habanero and pineapple margaritas are to die for, the boys are crazy for their Buffalo wings and I felt a tiny tear in my eye when I saw a special on their menu of a caprese sandwich this week. Cheese and fresh, locally grown tomato and spicy tequila at sunset on the beach, and I just might be in heaven.
Because of Coral Beach Village's status as an eco resort, Neptune's only purchases fresh sustainable fish from local fisherman or the coast, and we cooperate with local law enforcement to put an end to reef poaching, because the true richness of this location is in the water out front.
To the end of enjoying the ocean, we are also loving the newly installed ladder at the end of the dock, which facilitates the ease of everyone being able to get in and explore the reef. We continue to do our daily snorkel, finding everything from an enormous horse conch to spotted eagle rays to the most delicately patterned flamingo tongue shells.
One week in -- we are excited to be back, reunited as a family and enjoying our Vida Tranquila again!
A confession: up until yesterday, I could not touch my toes. I first realized this in the presidential physical fitness challenge, fifth grade. I couldn't even come close. On a good day, I can graze about halfway down my shins. I blame this on genetics--my family of origin, with a few exceptions, are woefully uncoordinated and inflexible--and eighteen years of regular running ratcheting my hamstrings.
Because of this humiliating fact, prior to our move to Utila this past summer, I have only dabbled in yoga at eight waddling months pregnant, where any inability to reach my toes could be blamed on the human being slung around my midsection. I used inversion (headstanding) to successfully turn Max, who was breech, and the meditation time to dream about the little person I would soon meet.
Still, after the babies, with no excuse for my lack of flexibility, and the baby weight to lose, I popped the kids in the stroller and returned to running. In my late teens, I'd found this, a solitary athletic pursuit where you are your own goal setter and the only person who views your shortcomings, when you break stride going up a rough hill, is yourself. (You can read more about my relationship with running here.)
This past August, we packed up the family and moved to the South Shore of Utila, where my husband warned running might be limited by terrain, bloodthirsty bugs, island dogs and water boundaries. He suggested this was the place to try something new--with the wide ocean just steps from our front door and our new neighbor Andi had recently started a yoga studio. Yoga Utila is a grassroots organization that welcomes visiting instructors, provides discounts to Honduran locals, and donates to those in need--providing hardship families with things like electricity and medical care, and feeding and sponsoring homeless dogs. It felt like something I wanted to support. With some trepidation, I bought a mat at Five Below in the States, and threw it in my bag.
I gritted my teeth through my first few weeks of classes. The kids were with a Spanish tutor in the mornings on the South Shore so I was using the time to ride into Town by boat, write and exercise. My first class was Ashtanga, fifty percent English and Spanish, one hundred percent misery. I hated nothing like I hated downward dog--a cruel hamstring torture and humiliating arch exposure. Until you have walked through the gritty streets of Utila Town in flip flops, you have never been so self-conscious about flashing the dirty soles-that-should-be-touching-the-mat to the yogis behind you. Who, I might add, are all doing it right, like they know what's coming next, like they have done this hundreds of times. I was not listening to my breath or quieting my thoughts. I was wondering what was the difference between foreward fold and half-lift--other than that in neither of them was I anywhere near as sandwiched as I should be? And how many times were we going to keep doing these same poses--and what the hell is the difference between chataranga and a push-up?
I only went back to be polite to Andi, who was giving me rides into town, because I wanted to like it, and because it was there. When in Rome...
I tried Anusara, intro to yoga, gentle yoga and Ashtanga again. The only part I looked forward to (other than the lolling around and the little lavender pillows over the eyes at the end) was the fact that it took place on the outdoor dock of Coco's bar over the ocean and in tree pose (which I actually didn't suck at) I could enjoy looking out to the lighthouse on the reef as my drishti. And every time Andi said in the opening, "You are here, practicing yoga on a dock over the ocean in the Caribbean. Welcome the sights and sounds of the sea and the community to be a part of your practice," I realized just how lucky I was. The trouble with yoga was not the instructors or the inspiritaional location; it was me.
I still sort of hated it, even as a month passed and I realized I was improving in the tiniest of increments. It was a surprise one day when I went to a beginner's class and felt that it was too slow, too easy. Over time, my heels inched a little closer to the mat, while I cursed through my clenched teeth in downward dog. My mantra was a very un-yoga: I hate this I hate this I hate this--peppered with expletives.
Plus, to be honest, it didn't feel like a sport. Yoga didn't give me the same rush or sense of accomplishment as running, not that I was finding much of that in my ten-minute-mile stumbly, stunted jaunts runs back and forth on the South Shore, carefully watching every placement of my feet on the uneven terrain.
I confessed my true feelings for yoga one afternoon to a group of full-on converts.
"Why do you hate yoga?" A friend's husband asked contemplatively in his lovely Norwegian accent while we sipped coffee on his porch looking out over the sea.
"Because," I sputtered, "because I'm so bad at it!"
"But... you cannot be bad at yoga. You can only be new to the practice."
And then Yoga Utila moved all but their sunset classes to a real studio space over the supermercado, and three visiting instructors came to the island, which is how I ended up on a steamy Monday morning in a freshly-painted studio in an Ashtanga class with Kim Johnson from Kansas City. Because the purpose of Ashtanga is to heat your body from the inside, sweating is encouraged. No air conditioning, no fans, on a ninety-degree, humid day in the Caribbean. Kim, a former fitness competitor led the class like an athletic exercise--fast, hard, challenging, a pose for every inhale and exhale. I didn't have time to generate my loathing for down dog, because I was jumping through to triangle! It was pure exhilaration.
I have never sweat like that in my life. Not in summer field hockey camp, not in labor, not in my longest runs in Grand Cayman. Sweat ran down my arms to pool on my mat, stung my eyes and snaked up inside my nostrils while in headstand. The class went long, almost two hours, and I left feeling completely high. My experience was enhanced by having slept over at Andi's the night before where she talked me through a history of yoga/primer--complete with print-out visual aids. Going into this transformative class, I had the basic knowledge that for every bending movement, there would be an extension; so this was the difference between forward fold and half-lift!
Since then, I admit that every day, I hate yoga a little less. Kim and I have talked about how I can continue to do both yoga and running, depending on what I need, and yoga will help my running, (but running won't help my yoga). On my last class with her before she returns to the States, we all dashed through a rainy season deluge, starting out as soaked as I usually end my classes with Kim. For the first time in our opening downward dog, I felt something I had been anticipating--the soles of my wet feet, my heels, kissing the floor.
Afterwards, as we said goodbye, Kim pointed out the improvement that has come with continued practice, the ways yoga is changing my body, and my demeanor.
"Well, yes, but I still can't touch my toes." And as I went to show her, I realized I could.
* *** *
Huge thanks to Andi Ryon, for founding Yoga Utila and leading inspiring classes, to Aura for my introduction to Ashtanga, to visiting instructors Rachel and Amber for welcoming me and the boys into your classes and to Kim, for truly beginning the transformation.
I've never been a good napper. When I lived in Tarifa as a single woman, I spent the siesta hours of the afternoon taking long walks with my faithful dog and a Nikon. Peeking through arched white-washed doorways in this Spanish town with 13th century roots and heavy Moorish influence, I assembled a photo essay called Las Puertas Antiguas de Tarifa. I was thinking today that if I ever put together a photo essay of Utila, my common theme could be La parte posterior de las cabezas Bine y Piper since I spend much of my time in Utila following these two around. It's a pretty good gig.
Bine (pron. BEE-nuh) is Piper's dearest friend here. Her parents run FLOAT UTILA, the world's largest float tank (designed and built by Bine's Dad). They have one of the best love stories I have ever heard and I could spend hours sipping coffee and chatting with her mom while our kids play cheerfully.
Bine is a creative, curly-haired girl with a whimsical spirit and such a transparent, honest streak she often floors me with her direct imperatives and observations.
I'm noticing a tender innocence to many of the children of my Utila friends. On the one hand, they are exposed to so much on the streets of Town. I often wish for ear muffs for my own kids when we pass the ferry port and there's crazy shirtless Webb greeting the incoming boat with his tarantula on a stick and some pelvic thrusting as he howls, "GOT-DAMN I WANT SOME FAH-KING GRINGA PUSS-Y!" as the horrified backpacker girls scuttle past. Or there's the diabetic bum begging for soda as he urinates openly next to the cafe where we're having breakfast. Or the crackies spitting at each other in a domestic dispute, or the brash potty-mouths of the twenty-something Aussie divemasters as we pile in the bed of the pick-up truck driving out to beach clean-up.
But here there is also no TV, no commercials, no WalMart; a complete blissful lack of awareness of mainstream juvenile popculture. Maxim (5) only just learned of the existence of Batman. There is a commitment between the mothers here to maintain that innocence, and preserve some of the wonder of childhood, where afternoons are spent finding snails in the harbor, creating castles for hermit crabs on the beach or visiting bats in abandoned hotels.
Today, after Piper's BICA school and yoga and workbooks with the boys in Bundu Cafe, we followed Bine on a tour of her version of Utila. We set out with the girls' hands tucked into mine as we attempted a snake-like single-file through the narrow street, the boys running ahead, and Bine and Pip singing in the sweetest improv soprano soundtrack,
You have to be nice and caring
to fulfill your heart
and your dreams
You can't be aggressive
like a bulldog
or Piper's brothers...
FIRST STOP -- THE BAT HOTEL
This place caught my attention the first time I traveled from Utila Town to the South Shore by boat, on our way from the US. It is a distinctly dated but elegant structure clinging to the hillside over the harbor. I asked our boat captain so many questions about it--why had it never been finished? who owned it? who lived there? that my kids dubbed it "Mom's Old Hotel".
Bine skipped ahead up the steep, green-slick street of Colibri Hill past a tangle of woods and barbed wire with the promise of bats on the fourth floor and a breathtaking view of the harbor.
I was fascinated by the wild grounds that showed hints of ambition, intricate tile work and the design of future fountains and gardens.
Bine danced past laundry on moss-slick paths, past an ornate red iron bedframe and turquoise bike and tugged open the unlocked door. All four children raced up the stairs screaming and clapping.
Underfoot, decades of guano and fruit pits crunched, amidst panes of broken glass and construction debris.
It reminded me of the Disney World attraction "Tower of Terror", set in a 1940s abandoned hotel with endless attention to historical detail to entertain park guests as they stood in hours of snaking line and waited to be thrilled. Only here, as my children clapped to startle bats and climbed through broken windows to balconies, I was acutely aware that no ride inspector or first world litigious system was ensuring their security.
The view of the harbor below was worth it.
Bine's mom waved to us from the porch of their house below where she was whipping up one of her signature delicious lunches and toddler Gus was no doubt sword-weilding or plunging into their homemade boat bath in his underwear.
Back inside the hotel, the startled, nocturnal bats flew in and out as we trekked through their territory. Photos couldn't capture it, so I shot a little shaky iPhone video (in between ducking).
After I convinced the kids that dropping broken glass from the windows would be a bad idea, we followed Bine back through the overgrown grounds to lookout points. On the balcony of an outbuilding, a young couple kissed, smoke curling up from the cigarettes tucked in their dangling hands. Leafcutter ants stretched a procession a hundred yards long like a miniature landlocked green regatta.
At a fork in the road, we wound up to the Colibri Hotel with the promise of kittens, only to find they had grown into standoffish cats. Instead, we discovered a bright blue pool in a cove of palm trees, and an overloaded avocado tree that rained down its fruit in a gust of wind.
A street puppy followed Piper and Bine over the rise in the hill and down again to town, panting and smiling up at them.
A motorbike carrying a family of four zipped past, the baby straddling the gas tank in an overloaded diaper.
An elderly Honduran cowboy in a bright orange shirt bowed and chuckled as Piper and Bine breezed by him.
"Come on!" Bine cried as she and Piper opened their arms like bird wings and rounded the curve of the hill by Johnny's Water back to Town.
"I know where we can see a bulldog named Ceiba and real live green parrots!"
I hurried to catch up.
* *** *