This morning, while wandering around my online neighborhood, I came across a post on The Wide Wide World reflecting on Obama’s first inauguration and experiencing it from abroad. It made me pause and try to remember where we were, seeing as we were also on our big trip at the time. I let my mind slide through memories, but I couldn’t find the one I was looking for. I could clearly remember election night—sitting on the couch in a hostel in Managua, one we’d searched out specifically because they had a television; being the only Americans there, but not the only ones watching and waiting for the race to be called; the nervousness as the results started to come in, followed by the amazement of realizing that what we had hoped for was happening; the bottle of champagne—but I couldn’t summon the inauguration. I knew we were in South America, but that’s as far as I could get.

So I stood up from my desk, stepped over to my bookshelf, and pulled down the bulging Moleskine where I’d chronicled our days. I flipped to January 20, 2009. Next to the date, I’d written “Cuenca, Ecuador.” My musings on the day were a mere half of a page. I had recorded only the facts: Except for breakfast, we didn’t leave the room all morning, instead watching the inauguration on CNN Espanol. We got lunch at a set menu place. We went to a site where ancient ruins were being excavated. We bought our tickets for a bus on to Quito. Description was left to a bare minimum.

Cuenca Cathedral

Yet that’s all it took, and I was there again. I was in Cuenca, with its cobbled streets and its colonial architecture and its enormous blue-domed cathedral, with its river and its stone bridges and its parks rich with bright green grass. I was on the roof of our hotel, spreading jelly on a piece of bread, debating whether to drink the coffee they’d brought us or to ask for tea, looking down and across the street to a market, where enormous pots and pans and shiny kitchen items of all sorts filled booth after booth. And I remembered the night before and the narrow sidewalk on a dark street that we walked down to a pizza place with a mural of Rome painted on the wall. And then I was in the room, with the sagging mattress and the thin, bare white walls and the TV showing the inauguration and DC, our home until we’d left for that trip. And I was feeling a little bit homesick for it and a little bit sad that I was missing this moment, this historic moment. And I was wishing the announcers would just shut the hell up and quit translating the speech into Spanish, which I wasn’t fluent enough in to follow. And I could almost taste the soup we had for lunch, sitting at the table in the back, the only non-locals in the place. We had no idea how it worked, but we sat, and the waitress came and simply put two bowls of soup on our table. No menu, no questions. What they had was what they had. After the soup, there was chicken and potatoes. And then dessert, which we didn’t expect. And fruit juice, which was, of course, a little bit too sweet. And the bill was something like $2 for the both of us. And at the ruins, I was disappointed that there weren’t any artifacts and that I couldn’t really make out what the place had looked like back before there had been cathedrals and colonial architecture. And I remember. And I remember. And I remember.


Strange, I think, how the mind works. How there are memories hidden away within it that remain hidden until something—a smell, a sound, a bare-bones accounting—triggers them and then they are there, whole and perfect and as fresh as if the moments being remembered were yesterday and not years prior. Strange, I think, and wonderful too.

2012 In Review

So, hi. Hey there. It’s been a while, huh? A year and a half. I know. In the blog world, that’s the equivalent of, oh I don’t know, the span from the Jurassic era to the present day? Essentially forever.

There are reasons and there are excuses, but for now, I’m just going to write. Not overthink it. Just write. Over time, I’ll have more on what you can expect from this blog going forward, but for now, I’m going to jump in with a year in review post. It seems like a good place to start on the last day of the year.

January 2012
After the usual craziness of the holidays, we spent January quietly, easing into the new year and working around the house. After two years in our house, we had a better idea of how we existed within our house and began to make changes to it and imagine bigger renovations. We found that we were craftier than we ever imagined ourselves to be–dying couches, reupholstering chairs, and sewing pillows–but don’t expect an Etsy shop from us anytime soon.

February 2012
We hopped down to Houston the first weekend in February for the Rice Alumni Baseball Game. Though the game itself was cancelled due to weather, Jeff had fun catching up with his former teammates, and I was able to spend quality time with my college roommates. We also got our biennial fill of Tex-Mex and kolaches. At the end of the month, we started in on our biggest home project to date—built-in bookshelves for the living room.

March 2012
We finished the bookshelves just in time to host a dinner for my 31st birthday with some of the great friends we’ve made here in Durham.  A few days later, we took the celebration abroad, traveling to Turkey with my brother Gregory. We ballooned over Cappadocia, stepped back in time at Ephesus, and ate our way through Istanbul. Then, after just enough time at home to do our laundry and re-pack, we went west to Colorado for a long weekend of skiing at Breckenridge with five friends from our DC days.

April 2012
March thoroughly exhausted us, so we stayed home for most of April, though we did make a late-in-the-month jaunt up to Chicago. Our plan was to help my brother Gregory paint his new house, but the closing was delayed, so instead we just had some Windy City fun, which included eating ourselves silly, admiring the architecture, and catching up with Jeff’s former teammate and roommate, Philip Humber, who had just a week before pitched the 21st perfect game in MLB history.

May 2012
For a Kentuckian, May means one thing: Derby time!  So Jeff and I made the pilgrimage home to join my three brothers, twenty something of their nearest and dearest twenty-something-year-old friends, and tens of thousands of other people in the infield. We saw a horse (I think) and a whole lot more and, of course, had a ridiculous amount of fun. We ended the month of a much quieter note, canoe camping on the Cashie River. It was beautiful and relaxing and a great way to welcome summer.

June 2012
In June, we kept our explorations local, bribing judges at the Beaver Queen Pageant, kicking back with picnics at music on the lawn, and  enjoying bikes and brews at the Tour de Fat. We also had lots of visitors, with my parents visiting in early June and Jeff’s sister Paulina visiting in late June, which translated to eating at lots of Durham’s excellent restaurants and our first visit of the summer to the NC shore.

July 2012
For the first time since we’ve moved here, we spent Fourth of July in town, celebrating at Festival for the Eno and with a cookout at our house. At the end of the month, we braved the traffic on I-95 and hit DC. Jeff attended the AIDS conference (his lab work at Duke focuses on HIV/AIDS), I visited old trails and hiked some new-to-me trails as I updated the Take a Hike DC book, and we were able to visit with many (but not nearly all!) of our DC-area friends. We said screw you to I-95 for the return trip and instead made our back back via Skyline Drive in Shenandoah and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Longer but so much lovelier!

August 2012
A wedding took us back to Louisville in August and allowed us to spend a great night out with friends. As we’ve gotten older (and as many of my friends have become parents), it’s become harder and harder for all of my hometown friends to get together (and stay out late), so weddings are welcome opportunities to pretend we’re younger and crazier than we are. We spent the rest of the month doing favorite summer activities—Bulls games, beach trips—and then spent the last weekend taking a river kayaking class.

September 2012
One thing led to another and in September, we expanded our kayaking repertoire with a whitewater kayaking class, learning to wet exit, roll, and read rapids. We also celebrated Jeff’s 31st birthday with a backyard cookout and then a trip to the Florida Keys. It was an uncharacteristic trip for us in that we spent a lot of it relaxing (so nice!) and the rest of it diving. The waters were warm, the fish were plentiful, and for a couple of days, the boat was all ours, so it was the perfect vacation.

October 2012
After almost three years in North Carolina, we finally made it to Great Smoky Mountains National Park for a fantastic weekend of hiking and camping. It was early October, so the leaves hadn’t yet peaked, but the colors were still lovely and the weather was perfect. Mid-month, Jeff flew off to San Diego for an Infectious Diseases Society of America conference, and I went home to Louisville and hung out with (some of) the family and (a few) friends. We ended the month riding a metric century in the Habitat for Humanity Bike Ride. Though Hurricane Sandy passing by meant it was windier than I would have liked, the weather was far better than the freezing rain we biked through during last year’s 100-mile ride (the 63-mile distance was also much nicer).

November 2012
We were thankful to spend Thanksgiving in Seattle, per tradition, with Jeff’s parents, his sister and her husband, and family friends. We were also able to spend a great day with two of our favorite couples, one of whom welcomed their first baby just a few days later!  For most of our stay, Seattle was rainy and gray (per usual) but we acted like locals and ignored the weather and enjoyed dim sum in the International District, a walk through downtown, and a visit to the relatively new (and quite awesome) Chihuly Garden and Glass.


December 2012
December was a month of celebrations with a department Christmas party, dinners and drinks with friends, our annual holiday party, and then our yearly trip home to Louisville for holiday madness with my family, which included family gatherings, way too much food, games of every sort, bowling competitions, and my mom double-fisting it at the Buffalo Trace distillery tour (see photo for evidence). We did manage to sneak a quick trip to Charlotte into the mix, with the purpose of furniture shopping. We didn’t end up buying anything, but we found some cool shops, neat neighborhoods, and good eats and are looking forward to another trip to explore the city further.


So that’s it. That’s where the year went. That and work and writing and teaching ESL and hanging out with friends and an occasional lazy Sunday. Put it all together and another year is gone and a fresh one is waiting on the doorstep. We’re off tonight to raise a glass with friends in a toast to all the good of 2012 and to the hope and promise of more joy, more peace, and more adventure in 2013. Let us be thankful!

In Memoriam: U.S. Space Shuttle Program

When I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut. You too? I guess at some point, most of us children of the Space Shuttle generation (the first shuttle lifted off on April 12, 1981, one month and two days after I was born) wanted to be astronauts. But it wasn’t a passing fad for me. I wasn’t one of those kids who had an ever changing list of things I wanted to be. I never wanted to be a doctor, a nurse, a veterinarian, or a firefighter. I wanted to be two things and two things only: a writer, which I am on my way to being, and an astronaut, which I will never be.

I held on to that dream of being an astronaut long after most kids give up on childhood fantasies. As a Governor’s Scholar (yes, I was and still am a nerd), I studied astronomy. When Story Musgrave showed hours worth of slides of photos he’d taken on his shuttle trips, I sat starry-eyed while the kids around me dozed. When I interviewed at Rice University, I answered a question about what interested me about Rice with “its proximity to NASA.”

To me, there is nothing more fascinating than outer space. It is the last frontier, the ultimate travel destination. If I could go anywhere in the world, I’d go to space. Unfortunately, however, I’m not an astronaut. Turns out, if there’s one academic subject that doesn’t come easily to me, it’s physics. Turns out, I don’t have great eyesight. Turns out, I’m a good bit claustrophobic. Turns out that even though I went to college on an engineering scholarship, I came out with English and German degrees.

Despite all that, there’s always been a part of me that thought, maybe, perhaps, I could still do it. An ember of the dream still lived in me. “Next time,” I thought, thought I’m not Hindu and am not sure what I mean by “next time.” But turns out, even if I had been exceptional at physics, and had ace eyesight, and loved tiny spaces, and was one of those terribly lucky people chosen by NASA to train as an astronaut, I still might never had made it into space. Tomorrow, if all things go according to plan, the U.S. Space Shuttle program will hold its final launch. Tomorrow, at 11:26 a.m. EST, an era ends.

Sure, there will still be space flights (by the Russians or by private agencies and perhaps down the road again by NASA in other spacecraft), but there’s something terribly sad to me about the Space Shuttle Program ending. It’s as though we’re shutting down hope and magic and impossible dreams that maybe aren’t entirely impossible—at least the hopes and magic and dreams and “next times” of nerdy kids like me.

Tomorrow, though I am swimming in an ocean of work (see, lack of blog posting for months), I will stop and turn on the TV and watch the shuttle launch and pretend for a minute that I am there in person, that I am on that shuttle as it counts down for a final blastoff, for its final view of Earth from the magnificence of space.

Godspeed, Atlantis, Godspeed.

(Endeavor, the second to last shuttle to launch, lights up the night as it sits on the launchpad at Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, as seen from across the water in Titusville. I’ll relay the story of how and why I was in photo-taking distance of the shuttle in the middle of the night in my next post [which, the good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise {and the edits don’t bury me}, won’t be months from now.])

So You Want to be a Freelance: Five Reasons to Make the Leap

Last week, I tried to talk you out of freelancing with a list of five reasons freelancing is not all sunshine and roses. Maybe I made some of you give a little prayer of thanks for your 9 to 5. If, however, you’re still thinking freelancing might be the life for you, here are five reasons to further convince you to take the plunge.

1. You can work when you want.

With an office job, flex hours usually mean that you can take every other Friday off if you work nine hours every other day or something like that. You’re still expected to be in the office during “regular business hours,” which typically begin somewhere between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. and end somewhere between 3:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. As a freelancer, flex hours mean you can literally work whenever you want. Morning person? No problem. Get up before the sun and be done by lunch. Unable to cope with sunlight until noon? No one’s going to stop you from starting work post the midday meal. Got a little bit of vampire in you? Well, the night’s all yours. If you want, you can change your schedule every day. You can refuse to even have a schedule. You’re welcome to do your grocery shopping at 2 p.m. on Tuesday and hit the gym at 10 a.m. You can go for a walk or a bike ride or just cartwheel around the neighborhood if you like. There are no time limits on lunch breaks. As long as you complete any work you commit to on time, then no one actually cares at what hour of the day you get it done.

2. You can work wherever you want.

Say goodbye to the generic office or, even worse, the cubicle, and set up your work space wherever you want. I find it nice to have a dedicated work space (decorated to suit my taste, of course), but I certainly don’t work there all the time. When the temperature parks itself in the 70s and the sun is bright and the birds are chirping, I pick up the office (aka my computer) and relocate to the back porch. Sometimes I’ll throw the office in my backpack and take it to the Duke Library. I’ve worked from a hammock and on an airplane and in a hotel room and during a long car ride. If it gets as hot this summer as it did last summer, I’m setting up shop in a kiddie pool in the backyard. The options are endless. While I personally remain fairly rooted, an entire army of “digital nomads” are marching all over the planet, working from wherever they can find a wireless connection.

3. There’s no dress code.

Though a lot of offices have become more casual since the days of the dot com boom, most workplaces still maintain a certain standard when it comes to wardrobes. Bathing suits are generally frowned upon. Pajamas as well. Nudity is definitely a no-no. But when you’re working at home you can wear (or not wear) whatever the heck you want, which means you don’t have to spend any of your hard-earned money on a work wardrobe. Wear whatever you find most comfy or most inspirational and go with it. No one’s going to know.

4. You get to choose your assignments.

While working in an office, most of us don’t have the freedom of telling our boss that the project (s)he just presented to us really isn’t what we’re looking to do at the moment. Or that our plates already full, and there’s just no room for anything else. As a freelancer, however, you have the liberty to choose assignments that interest you (as well as work for people that you find pleasant to do business with). Sure, when first starting out as a freelance, you’ll probably take most anything that comes your way, but as your business and reputation grows you reserve the right to be picky. Maybe you want to stick with one specific niche. Maybe you want to try your hand at a whole range of opportunities. The choice is yours.

5. Your income potential is open-ended.

Now, I admit it, this one is a bit of a double-edged sword, since open-ended could mean $200 dollars (or less) or $100,000 (or more). However, there’s something I find fun about being able to pick up a new project and with it a couple thousand dollars. As a salaried employee, new projects don’t come with new pay (except perhaps an occasional bonus). You pretty much know up front what you’re going to be making for the year or until your next review. And while it can be a bit scary as a freelancer not to have that security, it’s also exciting when you find yourself making more than you predicted you would.

Fellow freelancers, what can you add to this list? What is it about the freelance life that makes it your preferred lifestyle?

*The observations in this post and all other posts about freelancing are based on my experience as a freelance editor and copy writer (who does a tiny bit of travel writing on the side). I do think that they apply pretty universally, however, to the freelance experience.

So You Want to be a Freelancer: Five Reasons to Reconsider

I’ve been working entirely as a freelancer since we returned from our trip in October 2009. Nice, right?

Well, actually, until recently, I wasn’t entirely sure freelancing was the life for me.  To be honest, the first 1.5 years of my freelancing career were a bit rocky. I was underemployed to put it optimistically, and I actually missed a fair few things about office life. However, in the past couple of months, I’ve decided that freelancing is indeed what I want to do. It didn’t hurt that my hard work finally began to pay off with contracts and freelance work, but it was a stint back in the office as a contract worker and a subsequent offer for a full time job that made me realize I am actually right where I want to be (or at least on the right path).

What I have learned since starting out as a freelancer, however, is that freelancing is not quite the peaches and cream that you imagine it will be when you sit in a cubicle daydreaming. It has plenty of positives, believe me, but it has its share of negatives as well. So, for those of you considering making a jump into the murky depths of freelancing, let me try to talk you out of it. Here are five reasons why you  might want to reconsider.

(If they don’t make you change your mind, tune back in next week for reasons why freelancing is indeed the bee’s knees and then a subsequent post with tips on how to make the leap to full time freelancer.)

1. It can be lonely.
As a freelancer, it’s generally you, your desk, and your computer (or whatever it is you work on). Sure, you can take your work anywhere you want—to the back porch hammock, the coffee shop down the street, or a beach on the Carolina coast. There might be other people around in those places, but let’s face it, the guy working on his novel at the coffee shop probably isn’t looking to be interrupted by some dude he doesn’t know. As a freelancer you don’t have a coworker who you can commiserate with about a project or convince to go on a coffee break with you. There’s no cubicle wall to peer over, no office to pop in on. And while you might be free to go for a beer at 2:30 in the afternoon, your office-dwelling friends probably aren’t, and really, afternoon drinking by yourself is cause for concern. As a freelancer, you need to be either really, really good at alone time or have a pool of freelance friends to drink with mid-afternoon.

2. The work can be inconsistent.
As a freelancer, the best type of work is that in which you’re guaranteed a certain number of hours of work per week. Unfortunately, those gigs are few and far between. Instead, what you tend to find is a lot of project-based work, which basically translates to a couple of days or a couple of weeks of intense work and then a good few weeks of no work from that particular client. Ideally, when one client’s work dries up, another client’s work kicks in, but in reality, what seems to most happen, is that all your clients need all your time all at once. And because each client is your boss and because you want to keep your boss happy, you can’t really call a meeting and say you’re overwhelmed and ask for a bit of help with the workload. (This is especially true as a newbie, when you’re taking all the work you can get and don’t yet have the luxury of being selective.) In the end, this means you’ll have some weeks where you’re working ten hours a day every day of the week, weekends included, and some weeks where you’re lucky to work one full day. Your only constant is irregularity, so if you thrive on a schedule and routine, you might want to reconsider. Every day is a brand new game in the freelance world.

3. And thus the pay can be inconsistent.

When I worked in an office, #2 was true for me there as well. Some weeks I had a ton to do; other weeks I spent most of my time reading blogs. The thing is—and this is a big thing so pay attention—with an office job they pay you even if you don’t do a damn thing all day. As a freelancer, that’s not the case. You only get paid for the hours you actually work. Which means some weeks you might be pulling in the big bucks, and some weeks you  might not get paid at all. If you live hand-to-mouth, this is a not a good thing. It’s also a hard thing for budget keepers, because you never really know how much you’re going to make. Also, as a freelancer, you’re going to have to chase money more often than you’d like. Not all clients are good at paying on time. There’s no direct deposit every two weeks. There’s a check here and a check there, here a check, there a check, definitely not everywhere a check. Give some good hard thought to your comfort level with this kind of financial uncertainty before telling your boss you’re no longer interested in receiving a check from him.

4. Your hourly wage is not nearly as big as it looks.

When you tell people what you charge as a freelancer, you often get looks of amazement, as in “Wow, that’s a lot of money.” And on first examination, it often is. However, if you live in America, you immediately need to knock 15% off that number. That’s how much you have to pay in self-employment taxes to cover the portion of things your employer usually pays for, such as Social Security. Now you have your base pay, from which you will still have to pay income tax (on a self-reported quarterly basis). The self-employment tax is entirely different. Then consider the fact that you’re not getting health insurance, life insurance, paid vacation or sick days, and no employer contributions to a retirement plan. Figure out how much those things are going to cost for you to cover yourself. Divide that out and subtract it from the rate. Then look at the number. It’s not so high now, is it? Now this isn’t to say that freelance pay is bad. It can, in fact, be very, very good, depending on what field you’re in and what clients you find. But when you’re setting your rate, be sure to factor in all the oft-overlooked costs that will be coming out of that money. It’s more than you think.

5. You must constantly look for work.

Job hunting sucks. It’s always a relief to get a job and be able to tuck that resume and reference list away in a drawer and forget about it. If you’re a freelancer, however, you don’t get to do that. Your resume and references should be getting a constant workout. The nature of freelance work is that it is fluid. You never know when work from a client is going to dry up or when a client  might decide it’s easier for them to hire someone in-house to do the work you’ve been doing as a freelancer. To avoid being left high and dry, freelancers must constantly be looking for work, following new leads, making connections, and maintaining relationships with current and previous clients. During both weeks when you have five hours of work and weeks when you have fifty hours of work, you’ve got to keep up the hunt. It’s hard work, and you don’t get paid for it, but you’ll end up not getting paid at all if you don’t do it.

Photo Friday: Hawaii’s Waterfalls

What’s more tropical than a waterfall? Sure there are plenty of waterfalls in nontropical locations—take Niagara Falls, for instance—but when I think waterfall, I think of a tropical climate, complete with orchids, colorful birds, and palm trees. That just seems the appropriate place for waterfalls in my opinion. Hawaii appears to support this theory of mine, as it is home to a plethora of beautiful waterfalls that come in all sizes and shapes (and occasionally varying colors too, thank you rainy season mud).

Being waterfall fans (come on, who doesn’t like to see gushing water jump off of a cliff?), we searched out a selection of waterfalls on our visit.

On Kauai, we first visited Opaeka’a Falls and Wailua Falls, both of which you can drive up to. Much better roadside attractions in my mind than a giant ball of twine.

We then saw more of Kauai’s water wonders on a visit to Waimea Canyon. We viewed many of the falls from a distance, but we earned the right to get up close and personal with Waipo’o Falls on a challenging hike through the canyon. Honestly, the view of the falls is better from afar, but it was a scenic hike. And from a distance, my parents could not have practiced their American Gothic pose while standing over a waterfall. Worth it.

The Hilo side of the Big Island is well known for being wet, which might be a downer for some, but on the plus side, it means you’ll find lots of waterfalls. Just a bit north of Hilo, Rainbow Falls is a well-established tourist spot, but even when a tour bus full of cruise ship passengers pulls up at the same time you do, you can still get some uninterrupted views. It’s quite powerful in the rainy season months, but it’s also quite brown thanks to all the run-off.

Well worth the $15 admission fee, the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden overflows with beauty. Nestled amidst all the flowers and trees and ferns and other tropical plants is this lazy little waterfall.

Battling for the tile of most noteworthy waterfall in Hawaii is Akaka Falls,which plunges 420 feet into a pool.

It’s practically impossible to go to Hawaii and not see a waterfall unless you plant yourself in Waikiki and never leave. With many waterfalls either right on the road or just a short walk from it, plan to pull over for the view.

Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah: Zip Lining on Kauai

I like to think that I’ve done a fair amount of adventurous things in my life. I’ve jumped into a glacial river and gone hydrospeeding down it with nothing but a little piece of foam to guide me through the rapids. I’ve stepped into crampons and climbed a wall of ice. I learned to scuba dive. I’ve soared over Victoria Falls in a microlight. I’ve rappelled down a waterfall. I’ve rafted (and in part, swam) down the Nile.

In short, I like to do things that fall a little bit on the adventurous side. Until our trip to Hawaii, I had not, however, gone zip lining. I was way behind the curve.

But thanks to my mom (yep that’s right, my mom), I’m all caught up.

Now my mom likes to have fun and try new things, but she’s not the queen with a capital Q of adventure. Yet when I was making our Hawaii itinerary and asking for suggestions, she kept throwing out zip lining. At first, I thought she was kidding. Then I thought it was weird that she just kept bringing it up. So finally, I asked her if she was serious. Turns out, she was. My mom really wanted to go zip lining. So I did a little research, made a few phone calls, and the next thing I knew, zip lining was on the itinerary.


We woke up to gray skies and rain on the morning we were to go zip lining. Not exactly what I had in mind as I pictured myself soaring over the valleys of Kauai. But we were on the Garden Island, after all, and unfortunately none of us are sweet enough to melt in the rain. So we forged ahead.

Weighed and then outfitted with harnesses and helmets, we jumped in an old Army-style vehicle to bump our way up to the top of the valley we were going to zip line down (and which was the same valley where Tropic Thunder was filmed). The rain came and then went, teasing us but never clearing entirely. We were meant to get wet it seems. And boy did we ever.

But honestly, the rain didn’t affect our fun one bit. Though clouds surrounded the valley, we still had beautiful views down the valley, lush with trees and rivers. And zipping over it all turned out to be a great rush and not the least bit scary. As someone who isn’t super fond of heights, I wasn’t sure how much I’d like zip lining, but even on the tallest, longest runs, I didn’t feel a bit of fear. It was really just plain fun, and I’m glad I can now add zip lining to the list of adventures I’ve been lucky enough to have.

As for my mom, well, I think she’s been looking for her next chance to clip on, leap off, and zip away. We might have an addict on our hands.

*Sorry for any blurry pictures. Taking photos of moving objects in pouring rain is tricky.

*We went zip lining with Kauai Backcountry Adventures, who we would highly recommend.  The staff was fantastic—both very knowledgeable and very fun—and the course was great fun.

Photo Friday: Tasty Hawaii

Right near the top of my list of reasons I love to travel is the opportunity to eat local specialties. This is true of whether I’m going to New York or New Delhi. Everywhere in the world, as far as I can tell, has its own special cuisine—something they do better than anywhere else. Hawaii, of course, is no exception. Here, in words and pictures, are my favorite Hawaii eats.

(Please note, I am not much of a food photographer. This is primarily because I am a top-notch food eater, and I either get so excited about my food that I forget to photograph it at all or I get so anxious to eat my food that I fail to take a good photo. I’m sorry.)

No trip to Oahu is complete without a trip (or was it three? or four?) to Leonard’s, home of the island’s most famous malasadas. For all of you sad souls have never had one, malasadas are Portuguese donuts. Best eaten straight from the grease and piping hot, traditional malasadas are served covered in sugar, though at Leonard’s, you can also opt for malasadas stuffed with chocolate, custard, haupia (coconut milk custard), or the flavor of the month (it was pineapple in February, macadamia nut in March). Expect lines out the door at Leonard’s, but don’t let them deter you. The malasadas are totally worth it.

Another Hawaii must-have is shave ice (note: it’s called shave not shaved ice). To be clear, shave ice and snow cones are completely different things. Shave ice is about one million times better than snow cones, because of the way that the ice is shaved very, very finely with an incredibly sharp blade so that the ice actually absorbs whatever flavoring is added to it unlike with a snow cone where it all drops to the bottom. It’s very common in Hawaii to eat your shave ice with ice cream or red beans at the bottom. I’ve never tried the beans, but the ice cream is a fun choice because it gets all the leftover syrup and thus makes for a tasty treat. As for flavors, I like to stick with the tropical choices, including liliko’i (Hawaiian for passion fruit), mango, and pineapple. Probably the most popular shave ice shack in Hawaii is Matsumoto’s on Oahu’s North Shore. I’ve had it and can vouch for it, though this time we tried Aoki’s and I would rate it just as highly.

I’m a big fan of seafood, especially when it’s served in a casual atmosphere, and it’s hard to get much more casual than the shrimp shacks and trucks dotting the islands. The biggest collection of them that I am aware of is in the vicinity of Kahuku on Oahu. These “restaurants” keep things simple with a small menu that basically consists of shrimp served in a couple different ways (with butter and garlic sauce, with cocktail sauce, with a hot and spicy sauce). They’re delivered in a styrofoam container with the common two scoops of rice, and there’s really nothing to do but dive in and get messy. The shrimp are ridiculously huge and delicious. The only negative is how long the wait can be. This is not fast food; waits of 40 minutes are not uncommon. But, hey, you’re in Hawaii. This is island time. Get used to it. As for recommendations, I’ve tried both Giovanni’s Aloha Shrimp Truck and Romy’s Kahuku Shrimp Shack and can vouch for both of them, though if you’re a fan of spicy, I’d suggest Giovanni’s. Their spicy shrimp live up to the billing.

I’m a sucker for farmer’s markets, so of course, I made it a point to seek one out in Hawaii and I’m definitely glad I did. We happened to arrive in Po’ipu on Kauai on the day that the farmer’s market was being help in nearby Koloa. As we pulled up, I thought that there must be something else going on in the park where it was held, because of the overwhelming number of people, but nope, people just take their farmer’s markets seriously on Kauai. (There was a gate keeping people out until the designated start time, and there was a huge crowd waiting at it, so to get the good stuff, get there early.) The market wasn’t huge, but the offerings were delicious, with a special emphasis on the tasty fruit grown on the island. We loaded up with apple bananas (my favorite!), oranges, grapefruit, papaya, pineapple, starfruit, and tomatoes, all of which were awesome. I highly recommend seeking out a farmer’s market while in Hawaii. Each island seems to have a near-daily farmer’s market, though they rotate locations (every Monday in one town, every Tuesday in another, etc.).

Sadly, I didn’t get photos of the other food we enjoyed in Hawaii, but on our list of favorites was the ahi tuna (just barely seared; so good), Kalua pig, saimin and other noodle soups, the Korean barbecue, and the sweet bread rolls.

Other restaurant recommendations include:

Nico’s on Pier 38 (Honolulu): Casual seafood right on the pier. Get the ahi.

Pizzetta (Koloa): The pizzas are really delicious. Pasta servings are large and tasty as well.
Scotty’s Beachside BBQ (Kapa’a): The brisket sandwich was really good, and I loved the baked beans. Nice view as well.
Duane’s Ono-Char Burger (Anahola): We only had the milkshakes were (nice and thick), but I’ll go back for the burgers next time.

Kona Inn Restaurant (Kona): If you’re looking for a splurge, I enjoyed the classic Hawaii atmosphere here. The view is good too, and the ahi was excellent. If you opt for the mud pie, share it with the whole table. It’s ridiculous.
Kona Brewing Co & Brewpub (Kona): Fun atmosphere, good beers, and good pizzas.
Bite Me Fish Market & Grill (Kona): Right in the marina, Bite Me does the seafood proud. Picnic-table eating with a view of the water is teh way to go. (Don’t opt for a salad here. They’re very sad.)
Thai Thai (Volcano): Food options in Volcano are extremely limited, so if you’re staying in Volcano bring food with you or be prepared to drive down to Hilo. Or you could just eat all your meals at Thai Thai, where we found excellent curries and stir fries.

*Be sure to check out other Photo Friday fun at Delicious Baby.

A Hawaiian Snow Day: Visiting Mauna Kea

If I told you that we were snowed on while in Hawaii would you believe me?

You should. Because we were.

One of the coolest things about the Big Island (Hawaii) is that it is home to 11 of the world’s 13 climate zones. You can literally experience almost every climate in the world on a visit to the Big Island, and I think we may have accomplished that. I can say with absolute certainty that we experienced the Big Island’s coldest climate on a trip to the summit of Mauna Kea, an extinct volcano that is now home to some of the world’s most important astronomical observatories.

Though anyone is welcome to summit Mauna Kea (so long as they are in a 4WD vehicle), we were treated to an extra-special tour of the volcano. A very good friend of Jeff’s family (with whom they shared a duplex when they lived in Hawaii) runs the visitors center at Mauna Kea, and he gave us a personal tour of the place.

Our tour began in mid-afternoon with a stop at the visitors center, where we went on a short hike and checked out a few exhibits, lingering for about an hour to give our bodies time to adjust to the altitude. We’d come from sea level up to just over 9,000 feet, and we had another 4,000+ feet to climb. The road to the top is a long and windy eight miles that must be driven with proper care (especially because it had snowed three feet (!) the day before). Once at the top, you’re greeted by a rocky red barrenness and a collection of observatories that look like miniature Epcots. It’s what I imagine Mars will look like when we get around to colonizing it. Here, researchers representing eleven different countries operate thirteen uber-high-tech observatories. It’s a pretty cool sight. Even cooler is the fact that you’re just about at the top of the world’s tallest mountain.

Sure, sure. I’ve heard of that place called Everest, but they count differently there. Their mountain is the tallest if you count its height from sea level, but if you count from the actual base of the mountain (way the heck under the ocean), Mauna Kea wins. Which means I can now join the ranks of great mountain climbers, because I have hiked to the summit of Mauna Kea.

The trail to the summit is not long, but it’s not easy.

With the summit at an elevation of 13,796 feet, you get winded pretty easily as you trudge up to the top. It didn’t help that the snow was slippery as heck thanks to the previous day’s snowfall and the snow shower that decided to show up just as we hiked up. It sure felt as cold as Everest up there!

But we all survived the hike and the whiteout that moved in on our way back down and thus lived to see another day’s sun set.

Thanks to the thin atmosphere atop the mountain, sunsets are pretty spectacular. We weren’t sure we were going to actually get to see one, however, due to the crazy cloud cover that had moved in, but it miraculously cleared, treating us to a phenomenal display of vibrant color.

With the sun officially departed, we crawled back down to the visitors center to warm up and have some dinner. We then enjoyed the spectacular show put on by the night sky. The sky (when clear; it went back and forth from crystal clear to clouded over while we were there) was so filled with stars that it’s almost impossible to tell one star from another. It’s as though the sky itself is a blanket of stars. Just standing and staring up at the sky was amazing, but the visitor center ups the ante with a collection of serious telescopes that magnify stars, galaxies, and more. I’m a bit of a stargazing geek, and I have to say that the stargazing at Mauna Kea ranks among the world’s best. (Which might explain those observatories…)

A bit off the beaten visitor path, Mauna Kea offers a really unique experience for Hawaii visitors. The only down side to a Mauna Kea visit it that it’s really, really cold (seriously freezing temperatures). Normal Hawaii attire is not going to cut it. But is it worth it to pack a pair of jeans, your thermal underwear, and a coat for a trip to Hawaii? I’d say definitely.

Photo Friday: Snorkeling in Hawaii

There are so many things to love about Hawaii, but to me, one of the best things about a trip to America’s 50th state is the snorkeling. Even though I’m now a certified diver and can go cavort with the fishes deep under the sea, I still get really excited about snorkeling in Hawaii. Honestly, aside from large ocean animals like sharks, rays, and whales, you can see snorkeling almost everything you can see diving in Hawaii.

So what makes snorkeling in Hawaii so awesome? First, the waters are stocked with all kinds of sea life. You really do feel like you’re snorkeling in aquarium. This is not a case of oh look there’s a fish. Oh another one. This is a case of “Oh my God I am completely surrounded by fish. There is absolutely nowhere for me to look and not see a fish.” Second, the waters are amazingly clear. Visibility is awesome. Third, the water temperature, while not as warm as some tropical destinations, is plenty pleasant. And fourth, there are just so many places on the islands to go snorkeling.

Hanauma Bay is probably Hawaii’s most famous snorkeling spot, but it’s not my favorite. It can get pretty crowded, and with so many free places to snorkel, I have a hard time justifying paying to do it. On this trip, we skipped right past Hanauma Bay. The place I would not recommend skipping, however, is the Captain Cook Monument on the Big Island. Hands down, best snorkeling in my opinion. There are so many fish and so many types of fish here. The visibility is stellar, and the reef is pretty cool too. I’d also recommend Poipu Beach on Kauai for a good general assortment of sea life and Kahaulu’u Beach on the Big Island for turtles. But what are words when it comes to snorkeling? Definitely not as good as pictures. So without further ado, here’s some of the sea life we encountered while snorkeling in Hawaii.