I was a virgin to Jamaica. And with a crazy hectic schedule I hadn’t had the time for preliminary research. (I actually prefer it this way.) I go in blind, with no feedback or opinions and can allow my artistic personality to sense everything without bias. At first I was taken aback by the similarities with West Africa: corrugated steel, cement blocks and a native economy that was more advanced than I had seen in Liberia but not quite New York. My best advice? Go off the beaten track in Montego Bay, Jamaica. And watch your children flourish.
I’ve had the experience of traveling to the French leeward island of St. Barth, located 35 miles south of St. Martin in the Caribbean. I’ve never been the same since. The white sand on 22 beaches with shallow reefs coupled with the 2,500 acres of marine reserve make this a pretty special place. For a family vacation, we’d advise looking into a villa. At 2-4 bedrooms, sharing with extended family or a group of friends is a fabulous way to experience ‘les Anses’.
Sibarth represents the best villas on St. Barth and has created a collection of villas that are perfect for a family vacation. Despite its jetset reputation, St. Barth is a perfect family destination with calm beaches, casual beach-side restaurants, and water sports such as snorkeling and paddle boarding. But the jetset reputation also doesn’t hurt. Nor do the Parisian influences. Bon Voyage!
San Pedro, on the island of Ambergris Caye, Belize (Madonna’s ‘Isla Bonita’) is stunningly gorgeous with epic snorkelling and perfectly spiced food. No wonder this was where the Material Girl longed to be. I travelled in March with my family and the kids were given a rare look at a country whose scenic beauty rivals it’s poverty.
The pride exuded by the islanders was life-altering. I watched a woman and her son shovel seaweed into wheelbarrows on her day off. The houses in the poor community of San Mateo are mostly nestled in water and the seaweed is dumped into the pools in hopes of eventually producing earth. We watched men wrestle goats onto a golf cart as the animals wouldn’t cross a bridge on foot. We saw unprotected ruins in the wilderness where there are still artifacts lying around. Iguanas, crocodiles, BBQ to die for and several encounters with sea life made the two week jaunt the memory of a lifetime for the whole family. The trip begins with a flight from the mainland on Tropic Air over turquoise water and islands that dot the ocean. It’s almost as if someone has written calligraphy using tiny islands.
20 Tips for a Family Trip to Ambergris Caye, Belize.
1. Wahoo’s is a must to witness the Tuesday night chicken drop. You bet on a number and sprinkle lots of feed on the desired area of a square board covered in numbers. If the chicken defecates on your number, you win. Endless giggles from the kids. You can also purchase T-Shirts that say ‘Chicken Security’.
2. Check out Coco Locos on Monday for the cribbage tournament and every night for bocce on the beach overlooking the ocean. Marlon became the most popular bartender on the island for the splash of grenadine he swirled on the kids’ pina coladas.
3. Bring school supplies from home to the Holy Cross Anglican School. There is a list of needed items on their website and the kids are eternally grateful. The students will teach your kids some pretty cool games during recess.
4. Buy wood carvings on the road and make sure they are wrapped well for the trip home. Fins of the beautifully carved sharks tend to break.
5. As the only sports bar, Feliz is a hoot and has the most gorgeous candy-coloured stools. Ask to play the dice game.
6. Fidos has great burgers and if you’re lucky you will catch some local dancers practicing on the beach.
7. Head to Wild Mangos early for lunch if you want a seat. Save me some armadillo eggs. I went back over 4 times to devour them.
8. Brunch at Estel’s is fab, and the whole restaurant has sand on the floor for barefoot enjoyment. The town playground is also next door so you can sip a Belkin while watching your kids play.
9. If you’re a McDonald’s fan, the Road Kill Cafe has managed to duplicate the taste of the famous burgers – using mostly organic and free range beef I might add. (As a McDonald’s All-Access Mom I saw the natural beef and burger processes with my own eyes and giggled to see the taste replicated with Belizian organic ingredients). Karaoke on Thursdays is a blast.
10. Crazy Canucks is the place to be on Sunday, if only to witness the weekly horseshoe tournament. You’ll want the boneless wings. Locals will scamper up trees for you and bring you fresh coconuts. They will also make you a helmet out of a coconut shell. Crazy Canucks is right.
11. The Hol Chan Marine Reserve and shark/ray alley are must-dos. You pay a fee as you enter the reserve by boat and the reef is so shallow that the fish life is the best I have ever seen. My son saw sharks, turtles and a 7-foot moray eel in the first 4 minutes of his first foray into snorkelling!
12. Rent a golf cart – it’s so fun!
13. Have your kids play with locals in the park at the town square. You’ll be shocked at how language and economics make no difference in the games.
14. Belize Zoo/Western Belize: This trip usually begins with a flight on Tropic Air to the municipal airport, where you connect with a shuttle bus which takes you on the Western Highway for a visit to the wonderful Belize Zoo, maybe a quick peep at Belmopan, Belize’s mini-capital, lunch and perhaps a tour of Xunantunich, a Classic Period Maya site.
15. Altun Ha Ruins: You go by boat across to the mangrove cut, where you transfer to a van to visit this Maya site, which dates back some 2,000 years, on the Old Northern Highway. There is an abundance of wildlife, such as monkeys… for the more leisurely who would rather see the jungle, cool off, enjoy swinging like Jane and Tarzan, and perhaps get mood mud treatments and lunch at Maruba Spa.
16. Caye Caulker: A day trip to Ambergris Caye’s “little brother” island can be done by air or boat. If the latter, the trip is usually packaged with a snorkeling tour. One of the best trips to Caulker is on the Winnie Estelle, a classic island trader. Several catamarans also do this trip.
17. Lazy Croc BBQ is a north of the bridge must. Eat your BBQ as you watch the crocodiles swim in the lagoon. The cuisine is authentic and the atmosphere totally relaxed. Just keep your feet out of the water..
18. The Palapa Bar is a two floor palapa attached to the mainland by a long dock. Tied-up innertubes are serviced by a bucket that is sent to you filled with Belkin, and kids are able to draw all over the furniture, floors and walls with sharpies.
19. The sand is extraordinary for castle building. But beware – the tide will rise and you may have some disappointed kids the next day.
20. Finally? Hop on a catamaran and ask the crew to jump in and make you fresh conch cevice straight from the ocean.
With the explosion of farmers markets and the locavore movement, everyone is interested in knowing where their food comes from. One&Only Palmilla in Los Cabos, Mexico, is taking the concept a step further. The new “Palm to Popsicle” program lets kids at the resort see the journey of a coconut from a palm tree, to the kitchen, and into a freshly made popsicle.
As an official “Coconut Hunter,” when a child spots a ripe coconut in a tree, a gardener will cut down the coconut. They will then head into the resort’s kitchen where the children will work with a chef to break open the shell and then help to make a fresh popsicle from a straight-from-the-tree, hyper-local coconut. Children can take home the recipe for their coconut treats.
One&Only Palmilla Coconut Popsicle
2 cups of fresh coconut water
2 cups of chopped coconut “meat”
1 1/2 cups of unsweetened coconut milk
2/3 cups of pure agave syrup
2 ounces of fresh lime juice
Grated zest of one lime
Step 1: Place all of the ingredients in a blender and blend at medium to fast speed for one minute.
Step 2: Fill a popsicle mold and place in freezer; when half frozen, remove from freezer and insert popsicle stick.
Step 3: When completely frozen, loosen the popsicle by running warm water over the outside of the mold. Enjoy!
We have a pretty soft spot for travel. And Africa. But especially for including your children on educational and exciting journeys. Safaris aren’t just for adults anymore – and we have a hunch that taking kids early on these African expeditions will positively affect them (and our planet) for many years. andBeyond’s WILDchild program takes kids to Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa, and creates daily missions and excursions for children in the care of rangers, trackers, babysitters, and cooks. BTW, the ‘Poo Walks’ have nothing to do with Winny.
If you’re a gourmet-loving Mom, you have a great excuse to expand your repertoire. Jacada Travel gourmet tours take you to the tastiest corners of the earth. The Gourmet Series offers luxurious, private guided food-focused adventures featuring exciting itineraries to Peru, Argentina, South Africa, and Chile. Either as a girl’s trip or a family bonding experience (where everyone else learns to cook!) you will see and experience spectacular tastes and sights. And with summer’s line up for exciting festivals to bring forth the finest cuisine, it’s a great time to indulge in a trip created to appeal to all of your senses. You deserve it – take our word for it. JacadaTravel.
It has been several days since my return from Liberia and I feel as if I am missing a big part of myself. The kids’ faces and gentle touches to my hands are constantly in my thoughts, and the friendships formed with the local Right To Play volunteers and staff are ones I will cherish forever. Conversations with Olympians Clara Hughes and Rosie MacLennan motivated me to become a better human being, and experiencing so much poverty with fellow parent Lori Harasem made me play even harder to generate smiles from the kids.
The adults and teenagers we met had experienced terrible things in their lifetimes with a war that ended very recently. Some had lost parents and raised themselves. Most had a loved one who experienced sexual assault. And every adult associated with Right To Play worked tirelessly to restore hope for the next generation. Every day the same volunteers (many had no employment themselves but chose to devote their days to teaching children through Right To Play activities) emerged into an empty space and performed magic. It was like a slow motion film. The waiting children would all turn, smile and organize themselves into a ‘great big circle’ so they could begin. The rhythms of their responses to the leader of the game formed a percussive music. The empty, litter-filled space had become vibrant and full of life.
Looking back on the experience, there is one thing that resonates: hope. Despite dire circumstances in every community we visited, the smiles, cooperation and respect for one another was extraordinary. I was brought back to the basics of life: drink fresh water, keep your clothes and environment clean to prevent disease, help your neighbour. A young boy bathed meticulously in a large bucket by the side of the road. A woman carrying a huge bundle on her head picked over potato leaves in a market to find the best choices for her family. A twenty year-old on a motorbike saw the Right To Play sign on our van and gave me a huge thumbs-up. It was all about hope.
The new department of women and family in Liberia has made women’s rights a priority and there are billboards against the abuse of women and talking about seeking immediate medical help if you are assaulted. Those were jarring to see. But one sign on the side of the road resonated. This one advertisement was a definition of ‘Mother’: a person who ‘makes something out of nothing’. That is exactly what I witnessed. These women generated a meager income buying bleach in bulk and selling it in small bags, buying a case of water packets and a block of ice and hoping for extreme heat so they may sell a few individual bags of water to quench thirst in their community.
Right To Play has never taken a parent ambassador to a field visit and it was a profound experience. I felt like an Olympian with the amount of interest directed toward me! But I was clearly not nearly as disciplined or accomplished – I wasn’t great at playing the soccer games (I fell flat on my face in front of 300 kids and sprained my hand). As a parent, I felt a powerful connection to the children and parents. Right To Play has everything covered for the children who are able to participate. But the kids whose parents don’t prioritize play are missing out. Many parents keep their children out of school to assist with washing or to take a long walk to wells for water. I felt that not only could I connect with the kids as a parent, but talking to the parents was so important. Their eyes would light up when I talked of my kids or asked for instruction on making a baby wrap out of a piece of towel.
As a mother and publisher, I can make a promise. I will never stop supporting the incredible work done by Right To Play. My kids are now playing the games and I intend to do everything in my power to support the organization because it spreads hope. And it is clear to me from meeting the people of Liberia that hope is all one needs.
After hours of games – in one spot 40 kids had been selected to participate and over 300 showed up – I was able to really see the theories behind Right To Play. It is genius and the youth of Claratown, Monrovia, Liberia showed me the learning and laughter produced by Right To Play. I keep thinking of the parallels it has to the theatre sports of my youth and university years, teaching attention to detail, conversational abilities, control of the body and leadership. After every game (not a soccer match, but a shorter activity such as ‘What time is it Mr. Wolf’ or ‘Find the person in the circle who is leading the activity’ or ‘find whose hand the stone is hidden in’ – there is a very deep discussion about the lessons learned. Some games invite you to state your name proudly as you go around the circle. I did that one in theatre school continually. Others ask you to say the name of a country or boy’s name in a metronome-like tempo – the trick being you can’t repeat one said already. Bails of laughter resounded when I hesitated and shouted ‘Britney’ for a girl’s name. They all thought I was perfect, as I was white. But no. You should have seen their faces when they had to mimic an action and I chose the Gangam Style jumps!
There are also other games that I played like Mosquito Tag that teach about issues pertaining to the local culture: sleep under a mosquito net, reduce garbage and don’t leave water standing. In others, we talked about the meaning of discrimination, segregation and equality. With the smaller kids we worked on left and right, body parts, physicality and focus as well as healthy eating (the fruit salad game!).
It was so special to have the opportunity to speak with locals. They think we have no problems in North America. I explained the homeless in Vancouver, the sexual assault, poverty and murders throughout our country. They were shocked. I talked about food banks and violence and they realized that perhaps we are not as shiny as we may seem. I watched them cook and set up individual businesses buying bleach or grain in bulk and selling it in small packets for a profit. This was not only a poverty-stricken society, but almost operated as if it were 1800 – the cell phone charging stations aside.
After two vigourous play sessions, I attended a two and a half- hour forum on drugs and youth. It was lengthy and – wow – the West African accents are hard to understand! But I was floored. These youth leaders – from teens to mid-thirties – arranged this event with guests. Our Canadian group of 7 were special attendees. But the mayor and governor of the region also attended. And two representatives from the Drug Enforcement Agency. I hadn’t been in such a formal atmosphere since student government days at Queen’s. The Queen’s students had nothing on these statesmen. Points were discussed, debated, restated and analyzed.
I came to a realization. This conversation and articulation was the next logical phase of the Right to Play programs in which I was participating. After being kids, people become youth leaders and then full-on volunteers who run groups all over Monrovia. In Westpoint there were 9 circles of at least 40 kids. The leaders were better than most counselors I have had in my life (don’t make me tell you how many). And they were jobless. They volunteer their time because they realize that if they don’t, their community will implode once these kids reach a certain age.
At the meeting, six-time Olympian Clara Hughes spoke for our group about her drug use as a teen. A pin could have dropped. These topics are not discussed in West Africa. There are trucks that sell shoe polish to ensure appearances are tidy and yet there is no affordable way to go to the bathroom. She then talked about determination and the blessings she received by having leaders, coaches and trainers. And how, despite her difficult past, went to to win Olympic medals for Canada during both the summer and winter games.
History was made at this meeting. I kept thinking of the French Revolution. Seeing fourty people who have been through a recent war, and whose brothers and parents now suffer the effects of cocaine and marijuana, I could feel change bubbling within the room. And these people all experienced Right To Play programs after being through a horrific war. I would argue that my children cannot articulate in public the way the children involved in Right To Play programs had as we ‘played’. And at the meeting? I wish I could hire the whole lot of them to negotiate for me and run my company.
After the discussions we were blessed with African drumming and dance of some local children outside the building. There was a 3 year old who couldn’t control herself and followed along. The hope extended from inside to out.
In case you missed the first travel article focused on West Point it is archived here.
I walked into my Right To Play circle and felt insecure. And then a little boy looked at me. His name was George. George Washington. Seriously. This is Liberia. And we held hands and he showed me what to do. I couldn’t really understand the thick accent of the group leader and I kept doing everything wrong. I started to relax and got into it after one of the kids squeezed my hand. I had just come into one of the poorest slums in the world on a slow road with people everywhere. West Point, Monrovia. I had No Idea. It smelled of fish and feces. Fruit was carried in buckets on heads and babies on backs. And I hadn’t really regrouped yet. After 36 hours of travel, I landed in the dark in an unknown country. My family was worried for my safety (Google Liberia and you see only images of the recent war). I didn’t really know what to expect. But I trusted Right To Play. And so I should have.
We played short games that I could only relate to my many years of theatre (which everyone joked was a form of therapy). The games taught trust, learning and self-revelation. In one we were a team acting as a dragon. With arms around the waist of the person in front, the head of the dragon had to catch the tail. Many of us ended in the sand but before falling, we moved as a group, anticipating the collective movement. In another – I think we call it ‘telephone’ in North America – a phrase was passed around the circle and the final person announced what it ended up being. We talked about discrimination and judgement.
After the final game we did an au revoir, kind of like ballet class when you thank the teacher and your peers. Clap clap head bend, clap clap head bend, clap clap, blow kisses! (In a fab rhythm of course). Giggles and laughter all around.
Walking out of the games area we went into the harsh reality of these kids’ lives. The uniforms always make people look so wealthy. (But I did notice a tear in the back of George’s shirt that needed mending.) I saw a pile of other kids not enrolled in school who were not participating in the Right To Play programs that day. (There are special play days for all the children in the community including those who do not go to school). They wouldn’t make eye contact and were yearning to be a part of the action. The games. The learning. Very different from the kids who just told me the definition of discrimination with confidence and big voices. My heart broke.
We past corrugated tin houses down the 3 foot-wide dirt pathways. To visit the school. The whole thing was the size of one Vancouver classroom, but with 6 classrooms, grades K-6 plus the principal’s office (all labeled with cardboard). The kids were packed like chickens (but still grinning) and Right To Play is currently raising money for a new school. These are the lucky kids. Many of their teachers are Right To Play leaders as well, using the curriculum for the phys-ed portion of the day. Boys, and girls were all hankering to get into my photos. And to, of course, see the result shown on my fancy SLR screen.
We then wandered through more alleyways to the beach. En route I was offered some local fare. Manioc. Crisped beans. Porridge. Fish from the boats off the beach. You see, there is no power here. No water. Fish is the staple (thank goodness for boat launches from the beach) and it is caught and dried. Huge barrels burn with wood to cook and preserve the treats from the ocean. This was the first smell.
Descending on the beach, after running into a woman cleaning up garbage (since Right To Play began, some community members have formed a volunteer group to make the area more habitable), I looked at the extraordinary view, white sand and clear water. I only found one shell. It was like the beaches of the Bahamas. And then I realized what the second smell was about. I saw a few dark spots and got warned about where I stepped. My head was spinning. And then there was a young boy. Probably 6, he pulled his trousers down as he squatted. And then there were three boys doing the same. Their families couldn’t afford the 5 Liberian dollars for the use of the new latrines (ones on stilts that dump into the ocean). Many women are pregnant here and families on average (I would guess) for the area – 4 kids, 2 adults. That’s about $1US per day to use a toilet with privacy. And the average income? $1.25. Beach it is I guess. I walked through the latrine runoff in order to get back to our vehicle as I watched many kids play in the water. These people need a well.
The women carried babies on their backs – a feat I was astounded about. One used a towel. We go back Thursday and I am getting up the confidence for a lesson. The men hung in groups, a few manned stores and many scowled at my camera. (Understandably many feel that I am about to exploit their plight to make money in the West by taking a photo with my expensive SLR).
And that was only the morning. We drove out – 6 of us, silent. The cockroaches and malfunctioning AC in the hotel room seem pretty good right now. I want to play with the kids again.
I am packed. The technology is charged (and needs its own bag). My sneakers are ready to go. And there is only 1 pair of wedges in the suitcase (I couldn’t go cold turkey). To have been given this opportunity is astounding. In a few days I will participate in an all-female Liberian kick-ball tournament, meet representatives of other organizations that support Right To Play’s efforts in Liberia and chat with families and children in more than 5 communities in Monrovia.
The mayor of West Vancouver has sent a letter and dozens of pins and my communities are brimming with support and well wishes. Facebook. Email. Phone calls. Twitter. Personal hugs. I am humbled and overwhelmed. A few short months ago, I knew so little about the development of communities, including my own. I’m actually quite a shy person and can be reluctant to share and truly know people.
This campaign to raise awareness for Right To Play made me realize not only the incredible things that come out of play, but how a community can truly come together for a cause. I have bonded with people who were once strangers by mentioning my involvement with Right To Play. Eyes light up and all of a sudden I realize that a parent at the school lived in Africa, the passport picture photographer used to volunteer teaching sports to inner-city children and my doctor donates to Right To Play. Advice is rampant. Everyone wants to know how they can donate, and for the first time since I last performed in the theatre, I feel part of something much bigger and more impactful than I can even imagine.
Play teaches determination, leadership, how to be a part of a team, how to balance sport and school and discipline. Gender equality and sportsmanship are enhanced. Laughter abounds. And Right To Play has already truly taught me to be part of my own community. I am bursting to see the programs in action!
My final task is to pick the boys up from school and do a bit of shopping. Very exciting shopping. (Not that my heart doesn’t usually skip a beat when I see a store.) This task, however, will be a selfless one. It will be an exciting excursion for my kids when I hand them a few bills at the dollar store and ask them to choose whatever they think the children of Liberia would love. How amazing as a parent to see what my children will think kids in Africa would want!
My heart is so full and my head may explode with the lessons I have already learned. I can’t even imagine what is waiting for me in West Africa.
Let the games begin! I am ready to play and can’t wait to share the journey with you all.