Isla Holbox: the perfect place to disconnect

With perfect beaches, pristine, unspoiled water and remote enough to keep most everyone away

We discovered this little island by speaking with the staff at the Villa Del Palmar, many who have proved to be well traveled and in possession of great locations for the adventurous visitor. Isla Holbox is not generally known to the American tourists, for in the three years we’ve been visiting the Yucatan, it’s not been brought up once, either at poolside discussions, or travel agencies. It’s always Isla Mujeres, and this is probably because it’s across the bay, large and offers all the standard recreational activities, from rentals to nightlife. Always up for exploring new territory, we piled in the car and got going.

The small marina where you board the ferry to Isla Holbox
Getting there

It’s about three hours by drive, a straight shot in the direction of Chitzen Itza. Nary a police officer in site outside the Cancun city limits, so we followed the locals who booked along at 80 mph. The road is flat, mostly straight with a few turns here and there, but eventually dead-ends at a pier. You will pay about $5 US to park your car, and another $2.50 per adult for the forty-minute ferry ride over. We saw loads of people crammed into mini-taxi buses, mostly young, honeymooners wanting to escape to the romantic, micro island for a few days. I write this with a caveat: those poor passengers were squished in like sardines, and we learned it cost them about $100 US of the three-hour journey. If you’re staying a week and not renting a car, then I suppose it’s reasonable. Just recognize you may want to splurge the extra $20 for a nicer minivan service. If you want to charter a plane, the small airstrip can handle a six-seater Cessna, and that’s about it.

Micro it is

This is perhaps the smallest island I’d ever been on. It reminded me a lot of Rarotonga in terms of vibe, and size. Both are roughly 26 miles long, but the difference ends there. Holbox is only 1.5 km wide, the island has virtually no cars and people walk, or rent mopeds or golf carts. The walk from the ferry the short distance of about 500 yards into central downtown. Most people are in flip flops, because anything more than that is overkill. The beaches are unspoiled and white, and most of all, because it’s facing west, wind doesn’t exist as it does on the eastern-facing Cancun side. Between the soft, white sand and lack of wind, it is simply heaven. It’s also hot.

Tragic tails of boats of the past dot the entry bay to Isla Holbox- enough to make it interesting but not so many that it scares the tourists
The food, hotels and tourist-y things

Unlike Isla Mujeres, which is diverse enough offer every type of water sports, hotel accommodations, eaters and lots of private homes and yachts, Isla Holbox pretty much has a couple of each, if that. The hotels are more like bungalows, but sit beachside. The nicest restaurants are those attached (or within) the boutique hotels. Quite a few outdoor, casual/beach dining eaters exist, but one shows up in the bikini, not the cocktail dress. Because cars and even private golf carts aren’t allowed, and walking is the norm, prepare to wake up and take a stroll from one side of the island to the other.

That said, locals couldn’t stop telling us about “swimming with the whale sharks” that take place between June and September. As we always go to Mexico around the spring break timeframe, we’ve not experienced that, but certainly have to mention it.

This is it: “Main Street” which you will walk from the ferry to downtown, which is about 200 metres in front of this shot. If you are with a boutique, a golf cart will be waiting. If not, you can hitch a ride (pay, actually) at the marina. Otherwise you are walking.
Smooth sand, quaint eateries and boutique hotels….so perfect for a couple
Family friendly but…

My girls loved the beach, for about three hours. At 9 and 13, they were looking for something…anything to do. If you consider Cancun, where one can rent a jetski, go parasailing, kayaking or anything other pleasure activity one can imagine, it’s not a reality in Isla Holbox. This place is quietly free from loud machines or rentals of any sort. Parked off the beach aren’t party boats, but multi-million-dollar yachts, and once or twice we saw the occupants step in to small watercraft to come ashore.

This was a Saturday. See how empty it is? Aww…the reason you go is because no one else is and it feels like you are all alone…mostly.
What I like best about Isla Holbox

The amazing street art, easy, low-key, local feeling of the area. It’s overwhelmingly populated with native people, leaving folks like us in a small minority. It’s definitely more Sausalito in terms of casual attitude than La Jolla, and we got a lot of practice with our Spanish. The amazingly soft, white sand and crystal clear waters is honestly the best we’ve experienced in the Yucatan thus far.

Those lucky enough to have an off-shore ride to and from the beach.
What I like least

How long it takes to get there. Since we drove, it was 3 hours, as I mentioned, but by boat, going from the tip of the Isla Blanca, where the Villa Del Palmar is located, would have only taken about 30 minutes, because it’s going tip to tip. By driving, we had to go all the way down, then back up the other peninsula. Of course, flying is another level, and we ain’t there yet.

Mainly a fishing community, tourism is increasing, but slowly–for which I’m very grateful
After you walk the beach, return to the casual stops twenty feet away
Take away recommendation

For honeymooners or a couple/individual looking to completely and utterly disconnected, Isla Holbox is your destination. Between the pace of the island, the clarity and beauty of the water and beach, Isla Holbox can’t be beat, at least not in the Yucatan Peninsula. For a family, well, I’d say it’s a nice, one-time experience, but we may wait a few years until they are older—or we return by ourselves. The girls recounted the four hours it took to get on the island, then the three hours spent on the beach, and the four to return. We had to agree with them—not the best place for active, mid-range kids, perfect for everyone else!

Perhaps this poor sea creature had suicidal tendencies, but he got there and stayed.

Tip: Be sure to check the ferry schedule, as it stops running to the Mainland early on weekdays

Feature image: on the beach just in front of city-centre

A penthouse in Zurich

When we arrived in Zurich, the drive across the bridge, then shoreline conjured visions of romance. How could it not? Glimpsing a couple walking under the trees lining the lake, I rolled down the window, feeling the breeze, watching the sailboarders zip by, wondering…what would it be like to live here, work at a high powered job, go to clubs and find love? ahh….that was the beginning of the Danielle Grant series, the last book which just released.

This was the first picture I snapped driving in to Zurich, going across the bridge to the (west) side of the lake where our place was located. Looks like just about every other lakefront strolling area….until you see the magnificent buildings on the left.

One of the elements I love about Zurich is modern convenience with trolleys and cobblestones, the metro quietly zipping through town, yogi’s on bikes navigating between Lambo’s and Ferrari’s. I also loved (and hated) the narrow paths leading up the very steep hillsides. Great for my calves but oh….hard on my fanny. Because they made (and left) such an impression, I use them to my advantage in each book of the series…up and down in the sun and snow.

The narrowed paths between the buildings in Zurich–the coolest little bars and hard to find delis were hidden in these alleys/paths.
Recall the scene where Lars and Danielle break up. right there, on that couch facing the fireplace. Imagine the fern replaced with a Christmas tree and grab a tissue.

There is was. The beginning of the three-book series on Danielle Grant, an American trader recruited to Switzerland. Of course, Danielle Grant, the lead character, didn’t come to mind until later, as we explored the streets of Zurich, noting the incredible number of wealth management and financial institutions. The owner of the unit is a physician, and while I initially thought that was interesting, the fast-paced, secretive world of trading appealed to me. Besides, the physician’s well-built, tattooed, very handsome but slightly mentally underpowered boyfriend was simply not believable—or rather, a reader would think it was cliché. The hot doctor (she was hot, and blond, and brilliant) with an equally hot enforcer-like boyfriend was beyond the realm of reality. I know you are thinking: but that would be cool?! Well, I thought it cool as well, but wouldn’t sell, and as I’ve already digressed terribly, I will tell you I raised this scenario up to my agent, who agreed with my initial feeling.

“Nope, you’re right,” he said immediately. “It is cliché and unbelievable.”

“But I actually witnessed this!” I said with frustration. Not that I was going to run with it anyway, but the notion that real life wasn’t acceptable was annoying.

“Sad but true,” Peter reaffirmed.

Let’s just have a collective sigh together and move on.

As I dutifully kept my eyes off the boyfriend and paid attention to the physician, I appreciated everything about the building, unit and details therein—all of which made their way into Made for Me, book on. When she slid in the card for the penthouse located on the fifth floor, I was impressed. The two-bedroom flat with views of the lake from every room was lovely. All glass and modern, shiny counters and cabinets, metallic tile butting against French maple—the vision was coming together. The grand piano in the living, the glass-enclosed dining room with sliding doors, the sauna off the second bedroom. I wondered to myself—who lived like this, really? I asked the physician.

“I have a much smaller flat downtown closer to my office,” she said. Okay, that answered the question. Not her. She then offered she has five similar units in other cities around the country (Bern, Lucerne, St. Moritz to name a few) and this was her second business. Rog was impressed.

Office on the other side of the glass-enclosed dining room, and the right is a (pretty poor) shot of the master bathroom, built-in sauna on the left side
Not behind in the scenes. In the scenes

Volumes have been written about real life inspirations behind a character, scene or setting, and I have fun blending fact with fiction, or rather, improving fact when I want something a little off. Well, I will give full credit to the unit’s owner who made it really easy for me to catalog every detail, up to and including the 5-inch solid steel door. It also came with five, count them five, different locks. So, imagine this: secured building, private elevator, five-inch steel door with five locks. It’s Switzerland, as I say in my book, the safest country in the world. Wasn’t this a little bit of overkill?

“One can never be too secure,” was the physician’s answer. Well then.

Upper left: one of the two decks opening up with views to Lake Zurich, Upper right, view from the kitchen, over modern office buildings (aka pull the blinds!) the bottom pic is on the waterfront, a ten minute walk from our rental to downtown along the waterfront
Left: Imagine this hallway where Danielle greets Andre in the foyer, and then upper right, in the second bedroom, which she transforms into a second bedroom

A little factoid in the book is the heat of the city. Few, if any, places in the city have air conditioning outside the hotels. The logic is that for the few weeks a year its unbearable, the winds gust off the lake, and up the hillside (or the reverse). In fact, our landlord told us that we were going to be liable if we left the penthouse without drawing in the awnings covering the decks. So we’d close everything up in the morning, arrive in the afternoon, open the windows and it cooled down immediately. The evenings were lovely.

Back to the door….

Guess what kind of door we have in Idaho, on a property in the middle of nowhere, which has a gate, and lots of security. Yep. That five-inch steel door. But lest you think we got crazy and had it especially installed, we didn’t. The house came this way. You see, the previous owner is a Swiss architect who built it for himself, and told us the same thing: “All good homes have doors like this.” Well then, there it is. At least he didn’t put on the five different locks.

Seriously, you just can’t make this stuff up. Five solid inches of steel in our front door, emulating just about every front door we’ve had in Zurich.
Feature image: A water Polize, who’s big task for the afternoon was saving two geese that were ensnared in a net. The crowd cheered, including us.

Cape Kiwanda and Haystack Rock

As majestic as it is hard to reach

Ninety minutes south of Portland, Oregon, and about the same distance west of the state capital, Salem, is one of the most picturesque settings on the western coast of the United States. It’s Cape Kiwanda, home of the sand dunes and the “pointy” rock itself–Haystack Rock. The journey has a little of everything: parking on the long, flat beach instead of a concrete lot. Then traipsing up the dune in order to get to the furthest point of the jetty to snap that National Geographic-worthy photo.

Haystack Rock–and my apologies for the photo- in a moment of complete idiocy, I delted my dropbox for this trip, and the only photos I had were those I’d sent to my phone. So I “resent” them back to myself. Just take the essence of the shot, visualizing how good it was in the original form! 🙁
A regional overview

Take your time to this destination. The woods are beautiful coming from either direction. I just note that for those first-times to the west coast, which includes Washington at the northern most end, down to Oregon and California, you have two general routes. The major freeway is I-5, which runs from Canada (Vancouver, B.C.) to Mexico. This is the fast, straight and sure route, and many visitors take a couple of weeks and drive from one end to the other, hitting Seattle, Portland, Salem, Eugene, San Francisco, Los Angeles then San Diego.

For context, it takes approximately 4 hours from Seattle to Portland in regular traffic. Then 45 minutes south from Portland to Salem. From there to the northern California border (going through Klamath Falls) is another 6. From the border (which takes you through the National Lava Beds Monument, a marvelous home to underground ice caves and catacombs), then to Crater Lake (1 hour), which has the famous island in the middle of the former volcano. Shasta to San Francisco is five hours, an easy, gorgeous drive. From San Fran to Los Angeles is approximately 7.5 hours. From Los Angeles to San Diego is an easy five hours.

Got all that?

That was route 1. Route 2 is the “scenic” route, known as the Pacific Coast Scenic by-way, also known as Highway 1010, which will take you twice as long because it’s a curvy, gorgeous seaside road that begins in Astoria, Washington and goes all the way down to the Northern California. Unfortunately, between June and August, it’s smashed with tourists. The best time to go is After the kids are in school: think September. The winter months are glorious because it’s wet and raining, and really, what’s the northwest (Oregon and Washington) without a little drizzle.

But I’ve seriously digressed, although I felt it was important to give you the lay of the land. Back to Cape Kiwanda, it’s located in Pacific City. It’s a small, quaint town, which a few hotels and restaurants, the primary attraction being Haystack Rock.

Get in shape

The dunes are the primary obstacle to getting the best shot of Haystack Rock—but know this. You can approach it from the north or the south. From the south, you can’t actually get to the rock, as the long beach, nearest the city, is flat but doesn’t offer access. You must park on the north side, then once on the top of the dunes, you get the sweeping views of both north, south and Haystack Rock.

Taken on the walk from the car to the dunes. Just turned to my right, saw a bird flying between the cliffs and snapped. So perfect never a filter needed!!

Park on the beach, walk up the face of the dune. You have two options: going straight up (shorter but more painful) or along the ridgeline—longer and it drags out. I think both were levels of purgatory.

Once on the top, you are going to go up and down several different levels, following the well-worn path. It has some tricky spots, and I didn’t see any kids younger than 7, and you need to watch them like a hawk. The unobservant parent, or selfie-addicted tourist can slip and go over any edge and that’s all she-wrote. Bye-bye.

This is a view from between the cliffs as you make your way–post dunes. It’s all hardened sand–great for pictures but rather dangerous if you aren’t paying attention.

When Haystack Rock comes in to view, you must still go down, then up again to the final/closest point. The good news is by this time, most everyone else has given up the ghost, so it’s not crowded in the slightest. I would have taken more pictures, but honestly, I’d eaten at my favorite bakery and was seriously bloaty. No selfies for me!!

I’d definitely call this “the most dangerous” part of the journey. No rails, nothing, just your own sense of self-preservation. But sooo close. On the right (not pictured) is a narrow strip where you go down, then up, then across this hard rock bluff—then finally you arrive!

Grateful Bread Bakery

Whether you re wanting sustenance for your journey, or a reward for your victorious climb, you must—and this is must—stop by the Grateful Bread Bakery. Generous portions, daily homemade breads of all types, and a wonderfully, pure, Oregon-coast vibe make this my favorite destination in town. This glowing recommendation comes with a warning: the lines can be murder. Fortunately, the take out (if you call in) is super-fast. It’s a good-sized restaurant, but honestly, pick off hours and a small group (less than eight) or you are going to be waiting a solid hour.

And the reward….ahhhh…..

Whether you re wanting sustenance for your journey, or a reward for your victorious climb, you must—and this is must—stop by the Grateful Bread Bakery. Generous portions, daily homemade breads of all types, and a wonderfully, pure, Oregon-coast vibe make this my favorite destination in town. This glowing recommendation comes with a warning: the lines can be murder. Fortunately, the take out (if you call in) is super-fast. It’s a good-sized restaurant, but honestly, pick off hours and a small group (less than eight) or you are going to be waiting a solid hour.

Featured Image: Haystack Rock


An author’s logic

Otherwise known as mood & memory loss

Two questions have been arising that might as well be addressed in this blog. The first is: why all the travel blogs, and second is: why do you keep switching back and forth on locations instead of the chronological order of visits?

If I had any shame whatsoever, I wouldn’t admit that travel blogging is as much for me as it is for wanna-be tourists. For yearrrrs, after every trip, I vowed to keep a journey, record—image or written- of where I went, what I did, ate, liked, hated etc., so if I ever wanted to visit the destination again, I’d have the details. In other words, my own Sarah version of Rick Steves. Alas, like my teenage journal writing endeavors, it ended up being more vision than action. Here I am, a million years later, like Methuselah, wondering if I need another vision for the Almighty to strike me down to change my evil ways.

So, it was (yes, this is the actual answer) that in February of 2019, when we booked this summer’s vacation plans, I was forced to pull out all the pamphlets, business cards, and what-nots from our last two visits. That begat the whole “Since I have to write this down anyway, maybe someone will benefit.” Like unto that was the “oh! This inspired my novel(s), and that might be interesting for another reader as well.”

Yeah, I know. Long answer to the first question, but now you know the backstory, and I’m all about backstory.

My scenery & writing area switches with my moods: one moment sitting chair, then couch, table and usually in the mornings, my kitchen counter, half-looking at the neighbors yard above my toaster. More importantly, my back is to the lake, so I’m not distracted. Is it any wonder that gold trader Danielle Grant positions her desk to the hallway and away from Lake Zurich? Who can get a thing done with a great view??

Second question is more simple: I get bored, and so do readers of my IG, Facebook and Blogs. Too much US, then too much Europe, Mexico or wherever. So, my original intention to go alphabetical was quickly discarded, as was the timeline. Now it’s whatever strikes my fancy. I do have one goal, which is to get all my major trips for the last couple of years up, so I can figure out what to replicate, what to add and ignore. Honestly, I’m a little stressed since I leave three weeks from today (time to start dieting), so don’t be surprised if my blogs become a wee-bit shorter, with more visuals than text.

Lichtenstein, where the best things come in small sizes

Three castles, one McDonald’s and lots and lots of money

One afternoon in Zurich we decided to get in the car and just drive towards the Alps. Somewhere along the way was a sign for Lichtenstein, and we had nothing better to do so we hung a left off the A1 and bingo, ended up in another country. Given that we were entering from Zurich, the first town is Vaduz, the capital.

Vaduz castle, in the capital city of Lichtenstein

My previous reference to the country was a place where the excruciatingly wealthy of the world park their money. Funny thing is that in the US, bastions of money means huge, ornate buildings, fancy cars and snappy suits. Here, the environment is so understated you’d have no idea of what lurks behind the mostly grey, mostly one-story buildings. No flashy cars, just a single McDonald’s and corner cafes, which are themselves, nothing more than metal tables and chairs.

Still, we arrived mostly in the company of summer road bikers, nearly all on BMW touring bikes, their outfits not leather, but mesh, because as we were told, they “breathe better.”

About a mile or two inside the fourth smallest country in Europe is the town of Vaduz, pretty much the one and only city. It’s home to the Prince who lives in a great castle which is off-limits to tours (bummer) a few parks and lots of great shops for chocolate. As an aside, I know you are likely sick of my fixation of chocolate by now, but some people have wine, others coffee, me chocolate. Sorry. At least I can tell you what to purchase on Amazon, for most of it is in fact, for sale over here.

There are two interesting castles to visit, nonetheless. Some of which must be done on foot, because the hub is car-free on purpose. The winy roads rival Lake Cuomo for the width (which is about arms-length wide) and the goal (we presume) is to get visitors to spend more money on the local shops.

The Rhine cuts through the country, and nearly every exit off the A1 offers up a park. And keep in mind that there aren’t that many exits and then you are out of the country.

Vaduz Castle

Even though it’s not open to the public, take the path and walk up the 150 meters to take pictures. It’s lovely and really, just standing by all the wealth in this micro-country makes me feel good at a seriously temporal level.

Lichtenstein Castle

This is definitely my favorite castle in all of Europe-and it’s likely the smallest. First, it sits on an island of rock that juts up and out, requiring access by bridge. Second, it has a really cool ‘hunting room’ with the original pedestal the hunters would use to stand up and retell their adventures of killing the local boar with one of the original steins that line the upper molding of the room. Third, it has a “mistress” door for the Lord of the manner to sneak out and have a moment with his lady friend. The upper rooms, which are very small and off limits (though we cajoled a peek) are upstairs in the turret-area of the castle. The tour is SO worth it, you must, must, must do it. This castle has a great scene between Danielle (the American expat) and Zurich-born Andre, which is wrote specifically around this destination in the first book of the trilogy, Made for Me.

This is one of the few castles in all of Europe that offer such a glorious, unobstructed perch from which to take photos

Keep an eye out for the funky elements of the area. Rog found a side entrance for the dog, which begat my tongue-i-cheek phrases that when I get my next castle, I’m definitely going to make sure I have that bat-cave door for my four-legged companions.

The nearby armory to ward off the

The day was beautiful, crowds light and completely family-friendly. Easy parking with a bit of a walk in the heat (uphill) but no too bad. Pictures are not allowed inside the castle, as they encourage postcards, so my law-abiding self had to make do with the pics from all the angles possible.

Just a short distance away is the armory. Factoid: during WWII, the Germans tried to bomb the castle but succeeded in damaging only a fraction of the structure; the rest remained completely intact.

Hikers Delight

Two hikes are definitely worth making the effort. The first is the Prince’s Way Hike and the Eagle’s Way Hike. One thing I seriously love about Lichtenstein is they offer up a site detailing the location, level of challenge and more details so you can be fully prepared. (Unlike the States where it’s more of: you paid the park entry fee, good luck!) Check out this link for the details for the available hikes.

When we got hungry, literally no restaurants were open because we arrived (apparently) at an odd hour. The McDonald’s was crammed with road bikers, but the notion of being in Europe and eating at the sole fast-food restaurant in the country was a little offensive. So, we kept wandering up and down the side streets (below the no-car zone) and finally found an open restaurant. Rog had never had boar before, and I wanted authentic as well, so I just pointed and ordered, loving the meat, potatoes and schnitzel.

A lake that’s called a swimming pool

Now this was interesting. We were boiling up and thought- okay, we’ll see what’s around. The Grossabuent Leisure Centre popped up, and since it is billed as a swimming facility, we thought pool. Well, we look up the website and laughed, reading that it’s actually a lake, but billed as a non-chemical swimming area, so it’s named a Centre. Got all that?

The random monastery/church on the hill. We got lost, found a church-basilica overlooking the entire town and took a look around. Honestly, I think some of our best pictures came on that hour side-adventure, and I’m sorry/embarrassed to say I can’t find the name of the place—one reason why I MUST start writing these blogs real time during my travel.  (and NO, this isn’t the Cathedral of Vaduz, also known as the Cathedral of St. Florin. This is way smaller.

One of my personal favorite subjects is cemeteries or gravesites. They can be so exquisitely personal and though provoking I am always taking photos- so shame on me. I can’t recall the name of the actual destination but adore the photos! Arg!

Local cathedral

We love churches when the architecture, grounds and vibe is different from what we’ve previously seen. The Cathedral in Vaduz offers that, but then we found another, smaller church that for the life of me, I can’t recall the name. Perhaps one of my readers can help me! The pictures speak for themselves, especially the cemeteries.

I love cemeteries. We learned that this one was/is reserved for only the most stalwart families.

Gutenburg Castle in Balzurs

Open to the public after May 1 through October, the tours are by appointment only, and relatively limited, including the gardens and the chapel specifically. It’s also available for weddings upon request. The view from the grounds, however, are awesome and should definitely be seen.

After that, the tour of the country is pretty much over, well, unless you are there to discuss your gazillion-dollar account with a financial advisor. Sorry, can’t give you a recommendation on that one.

Feature image: in front of Lichtenstein Castle

Day trip from Portland

Bridge to the Gods, Hood River, Falls and Pizza

Portland is a great destination with wonderful sites in and around the city, from the OMSI to the waterfront with the world-famous Rose Festival. You can ride the Aireal Tram (gondola) that lifts you up and over the freeway to take in the famous “City of Roses,” and when hungry, eat at one of my favorites, Papa Hayden’s in the famous Pearl district. If you are just driving through and unable to do any of the above, you must take the exit, find parking and eat. It’s that good—well, actually the cakes and desserts are that good. They made the wedding cake for two one sister, whereas Jerry Franks’s in Salem, an hour south, made the cakes for the other.

Left: the aireal tram (but wasn’t going the day we were in town) and right: view of Portland heading out I-84 east

Hopefully, your trip includes getting out East, because visitors should set aside one really long day to head east out on I-84 for a day. The experience is like a veritable laundry list of sites and destinations you won’t forget. Bring your hiking shoes, camera and a rain jacket, because you are never going to know what you will experience on this journey. And if you simply can’t spare a full day, you can cram a few things in four or five yours.

The simple map of the bike trails. A more detailed link below
Getting out of the city

The Columbia Gorge is famous for it’s wind, drawing crazy sailboarding-windsurfers from around the world. Watching the surfers speed along the whitecaps, with sails or parachutes was so romantic I tucked it away for a book, (a three-book series actually). Turns out, Danielle Grant, the American recruited to Zurich to trade keeps up her windsurfing on Lake Zurich, which helped me continue my mental and visual love affair with the sport.

The wind starts about 45 minutes outside the city, as soon as the Columbia River comes in to view. Prior to that time, however, are some majorly cool sites that Oregonians take for granted. Well, this one took them for granted, because we never stopped until I left for college.

Vista House

Sitting on a majestic bluff that appears to have shot straight up from a volcanic event is an observatory. It’s perched on concrete, on rock, overlooking the Gorge. It’s rather famous, and is called the “crowning glory” of the Columbia River. Hikers, water-sport lovers might disagree, but your inner Einstein will be in vigorous agreement. The hours are 9-6 pm daily, but sometimes it closes depending on extreme weather. Bring your camera and a windbreaker—well, you need that regardless.

Left: clip from the website from the top, Right: my snap from the turn-off from the bottom of the road

Multnomah Falls

The Falls is a primary tourist destination, but I’m really sorry to say this: it’s pretty darn mundane compared to the so many falls that exist in Switzerland, Austria, Germany….the list goes on. I mean, nothing compares to water gushing from the Alps. Yet, the hike is beautiful, and for Oregon, the Northwest and yes, for much of the United States, Multnomah Falls is something to see. So if you are a European who has really seen some majestic falls, you take go back home and say “yeah, I saw these falls that are super cool to Americans but we have it better.”

That said—and here is the fun part—what very few, if any, falls in Europe (that we have visited) have is a lodge and the surrounding tourist areas. No such things as a “Gorge” exists in Europe, next to the Falls, next to Vista Point, sandwiched in between quaint, hillside towns such as Hood River. All of these attractions are literally within a 90 minutes (or less) on the major I-84 freeway. And that, my friends, is something you just can’t get anywhere else.

Several historic, amazing hotels are nearby, including the well-known Columbia Gorge Hotel which is very reminiscent of the old-school Beverly Hills Hotel in terms of 40’s glamour and style (at least the front). It sits right at river’s edge amidst lush, old growth trees. It’s a perfect site for a destination wedding, actually, especially if the couple are lovers of the outdoors. Skamania Lodge is another hotel with quite a reputation. It’s a different vibe, with a golf course, wellness and fitness center (as opposed to the “spa” of the Columbia) and has a full-fledged convention center etc. Yet some visitors want the higher-up view (it’s insane, check out the website photo gallery).

To backtrack a bit on the hotel aspect of Portland, if it were me traveling to the city (and because I lived in Portland for six years, I feel well qualified to say this), I’d go for the Heathman Hotel downtown (place of a sister’s wedding reception) because my mom believes that the Heathman has better food and cakes that Papa Hayden’s, which I’m happy to argue about. The Heathman is in a trendy part of downtown but it’s another old-school establishment with high, vaulted ceilings in the lobby and dining room, old and new meeting in a lovely, historical space. My personal fav.

Now back to the Gorge. If neither of those hotels are in your budget, you definitely need to stay at the Best Western Plus hotel in Hood River, or nearer the Cascade Locks location. Both hotels are right on an inlet of the river, perfect views, and all the amenities a visitor needs, price+convience  = you have more money to do and see everything on your list!  

If you recall the devastating fires from the summer of 2018, this area was partially blackened. Thanks to the amazing resilience and rains it’s only half spooky. In the upper shelves of the mountains, the trees resemble black skeletons.

The Cascade Locks

Normally, when one hears the words Locks it refers to a series of connected waterways, to be rather simplistic. This is somewhat different. It’s two miles of water create by a massive, ancient landslide. For history buffs, the Cascade Locks had the first steamboat west of the Mississippi in 1862, which is on display at the historical museum. After numerous boats fell apart after hitting the rapids, the US government started the initiative to create the Locks, and this work began in 1880. For nearly 50 years, the river was used to transport goods up and down the river, but after the Bonneville Dam was erected, the area gradually transitioned from a commerce-led township to tourist destination.

If you’re not into the history, then you are likely being compelled to come here because of the fabulous bike trails, and the “Bridge to the Gods.” Yes, that’s the name. It’s as beautiful from the freeway as it is to ride across from Oregon to the Washington side and back again.

Looking from the Oregon side to Washington, where the land is flat, encouraging the industrial activity to occur on the north side of the Columbia River

The Multnomah Falls

First up, I want to say we visited this last weekend (June 1, 2019). It was sunny, it was busy, and the signs in both directions of I-84 said the Parking Lots Full and Closed. Huh. Never seen that before. We ignored it of course, because the Dept of Transportation (DOT) hadn’t put up a physical barrier to the entrance, so we drove right on through. Sure enough, people left, we took a spot and walla! That said, it was about 10 am and already crammed, so if you are going on a weekend, go early or late, because the mid-day is pretty gnarly. (yes, that’s a technical term used by us authors).

Lots of fog in the early morning

As you’ve likely read on numerous sites, the walk is easy, the view great, so what’s not to like?

Hood River, the town

Over the last twenty-years, this town has been like the Phoenix rising. It went from downtrodden ashes of a former timber town to a trendy destination which reminds me of a tiny Telluride. E.g. it has the bike shop on mainstreet with $5,000 starter models, next to a stationary store, meat market, hardware then pizza joint.

Nearly every street in Hood River has a view to the Columbia

If you look past the bikes, the rest of the prices for everything is Oregon-style. No sales tax and reasonable. The public library and park are also on main, and you’ll get a nice workout starting at one end, going up the hill, turning around at the library then going back down. As you walk down, turn to your left for the views of the Columbia River, and take pics of the homes, which are totally 1920’s-30’s turn lovingly kept up by homeowners. Of all the places to eat, we chose Pietro’s Pizza. You have to understand I grew up with Pietro’s thin crust, which hasn’t changed in 40 years. Hallelujah. It’s on the main street from the high way exit, at the basement of a brewery.

Main street (original clocks and modern condo’s adjacent to a brewery; attributes that make up the trendy town of Hood River

When you cross back over the freeway, it leads to the marina, beach area (it’s actually rock, but that’s what the hardy Hood River residents call beach) and the inlet where the crewing teams row. If you are worried about cold/heat with the crazy winds, the gusts were ferocious, but we were still hot. As one local told us over pizza, “If we didn’t have the breeze it would be unbearable.” We agreed.

The inlet just off the freeway, next to the Hood River Best Western Plus, marina and beach

Starvation Creek State Park

Not real enticing as far as names go, but the scenery is glorious. It comprises almost 150 acres and receives only 200,000 visitors a year, mostly in the summer and fall months.

Hiking the trails is the main reason to come to Starvation Creek, because it connects major trails. You can use the day park pass and connect to the Mt. Defiance trail ridge. Going east, you connect the Columbia River Highway State treail, then Viento State Park. This the map for bicycle and hiking for easy reference. I snipped the top-view visual for the map, but the extended map is very intricate so make sure to check that out.

As a side note, many executives come over to the States for summer projects, yet the kids are miserable because they aren’t in school and it can be hard making friends when families take vacation. One activity is the OMSI camps and classes.

Feature Image: View from Vista House L (photo credit their website)


Destination Salem

Be it a wedding reception or simple pleasure, the Oregon State capital appeals to all

Travel with me officially kicks off with the first trip of the summer. The June 1st weekend coincided with a wedding reception in Salem, Oregon, a town about forty-five minutes of better-known Portland. Salem is the state capital, but most outsiders know the city for the many wineries that sprung up in the late 1980’s. The Willamette Valley, as it’s referred to, gets a mention in my Danielle Grant series book set in Switzerland, oddly enough, because the lead character is from the area. Wine people know wine, and therein lies the irony—I’m not a wine gal or a drinker, but grew up in the area!

Mid-size city with small town charm

This little town has several colleges, such as Willamette University, which is probably best known for its law school, the downtown waterfront, which the city invested millions of dollars in rebuilding. When I was growing up, the “waterfront,” didn’t even exist. For foreign visitors, a waterfront implies walking paths, eateries, parks, paddle boats, perhaps even a boat launch and then events throughout the summer. This waterfront has it all. The day we visited, a Corvette car show was taking place. The area has an indoor carousel, as well as a large, Mississippi style, two-story paddle boat that gives short tours up and down the Willamette River.


Floating casino doubling as an old fashioned paddle boat
The world globe on the left is just off the suspension bridge used by the bikers and joggers, the car show of Corvette’s

In terms of eateries, many exist, but we have several long-standing favorites we just can’t pass up on any trip. Jerry Frank’s Konditeri, which is now in new hands after the owner passed away. It’s on Commercial Street, about five minutes south of downtown. Easy to find and worth the short drive from the waterfront. Homemade, moist, decadent cakes is its claim to fame. Yeah, you can have lunch, but why bother when three slices of different desserts will do better?

Red velvet cake from Jerry Frank’s

Kwan’s Kitchen was the best in town for Chinese, and was on the way to Jerry Frank’s. But sadly, the dearly loved, and amazing owner/chef (Kam Sang) Kwan himself died a year ago June. He served us food for forty years, no kidding. I thought the man was going to be eternal. He never could really speak a lick of English, other than hello, thank you and wonderful! But he understood smiles and gratitude for his abilities just fine. Now that you can’t have Kwan’s, keep going straight and you will eventually hit….

This is always how Kwan (as we all knew him) looked- half-smile, half “I’m pretty busy can you make it fast.” Miss him still.

Los Baez. It’s on Commercial Street, but about five or so miles up the. It will be on your left, in an ancient-looking tile and brick building. Say hello to Angel, who has owned and managed the business for forty years (he supported my school’s winning baseball team!) Why Los, as it’s commonly referred to by the locals? Daily, fresh-made tortillas, homemade salsa, unique enchilada and mole sauce…my favorite is the cheese enchilada luncheon special, served anytime day or night. Instead of two enchiladas its one, and that’s more than enough to fill me up.  

Not the cheese enchiladas at Los Baez but jus as good!

Outside town….strawberry patches and wineries

If you want to get out of the city, drive east up to Santiam River. There you will find old-time covered bridges, many of which are perfect to jump off into the cold river below. Yes, you can still do that and no, it’s not illegal. Just for the adrenaline junky such as yours truly. Be careful to go for the deep spots, although that advice is a tad self-evident. The State Park is lovely but super small. Only about 2.7 miles of trails and less than a dozen spots. So, book early if you want to stay, but the best bet is just plan a day trip—or two hours really, then head back in to town when done.

Just one of the many gorgeous spots on the Santiam River, and the same goes for bridges!

The nearest town is Stayton, and you would take this road if you were heading down to Klamath Falls or the Redwoods hours beyond. Stayton is famous for covered the covered bridges I mentioned, but doesn’t have a whole lot else.

A ton of pick-your-own strawberry farms exist on the east side of Salem as well. My family favorite is Fordyce Farm, about 20 minutes from town (depending on your location). Perhaps the best road to take is Kuebler, which is at the far end of town. Use the search engine on your GPS and see what’s open and what’s freshest and in season. Bring some cash for the best deal on pies made on site, as most of the farms earn extra income by making homemade concoctions. It has events year round, but the pumpkin patch is my favorite.

Fordyce Farms is just one of dozens around the Willamette Valley

If amusement parks is more your thing for families, then you definitely need to stop at the Enchanted Forest. This is like a mini Lilliputian land, because it’s a fairyland on one part of the park, with mini-homes, and almost Hobbit-meets-fantasy land in the dense forest. The other side of the park is a more traditional outdoor waterpark.

Upper left: spooky entry! Upper right: entry to the Alice in Wonderland area, Lowerleft: the castle and lower right: the image of Old Lady in the shoe poem

As to location, it’s south of the Salem about another 5-10 minutes. As Kuebler is the last Salem exit, you are close by. Continue south and it will be on your left.

Two more rides- Upper left: an enchanted house (it actually has a name but I’ve forgotten! Upper right: water log ride

As to location, it’s south of the Salem about another 5-10 minutes. As Kuebler is the last Salem exit, you are close by. Continue south and it will be on your left.

FYI- if you blew by the downtown area entirely on I-5, coming south from Portland (or going north from Eugene), then Kuebler is your main exit. You can take the west-bound exit, and follow it all the way to Commercial. Turn right, and you will find Los Baez on your right as you head in to town. (Are you getting the hint that all good paths lead to Los?)

Feature image: A covered bridge outside Stayton on the Santiam River

Old Town, New Town and everything in between

Wenceslas Square, Noah’s Arc and Donuts

Just as one moves between the towns of Hayden to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho by crossing Prairie Street, a visitor in Prague walks from Old Town to New Town by crossing the road as well. Yet each foot equals a hundred years because the two experiences couldn’t be more different.

The famous Wencelas statue

The square is named after Saint Wenceslas, the patron saint of Bohemia, and is considered the historic centre of Prague, a World Heritage Site. To pause and clarify one item that confused us American’s, the New Town is invariably referred to as a “Square,” but it’s’ really a rectangle, whereas Old Town really is a square! This super long boulevard (what the French would call it, American’s would just say Street), the parking is easy to find right on main street. On the furthest end from Old Town, is the Czech National Museum. This is a wonderfully beautiful building, boasting the Wenceslas statue front and center.



Just around the corner and down 50 feet is the Metro . Entry and exit points are on either side of the Museum because a main, super busy street dissects the area

Of all the exhibits we saw, the girls loved the Noah’s Arc most. It’s a mini-Arc, with bent wood, animals and all sorts of other items believed to be in the Arc. It’s not the full Arc, but only half and then opened on one side. The sculpted wood is soft and rounded, the animals placed around the two-story area, which is fully accessible.

Over the week we spent in the country, we learned the Czech Republic is quite a religious country with strong, outspoken and unrepentant beliefs. We were told outright that those who didn’t eat certain foods weren’t welcome, just as we were told by restaurateur’s that we weren’t welcome with our children. One thing you can be sure of, you always know where you stand in this culture, and we really enjoy. A visitor doesn’t go in to another country expecting a change in values; you accept and embrace what it is or don’t go. (And that’s my strongly held belief!)

Upper left: A (bad) photo of the Arc area. Upper right: Daddy-daughter with “Lucy,” Lower left: recreation for an actual murder scene (yikes), Lower right: mummy

I’ve already covered the Death Exhibit in another blog, so won’t repeat myself, but it’s worth seeing, especially the mock-up murder scene. That gave me chills actually.

Electronics and donuts

You won’t starve in New Town nor will you lack for electronics. We “misplaced,” computer cords, broke a phone and something else I’ve conveniently blocked from my memory, but we went to the local electronics store thrice (yeah, I went old-English for a sec).

When one needs a piece of electronic equipment, one needs a donut. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you a name because the stations of donuts are roving around, but typically on the southwest end (opposite the Museum and closest to Old Town) on a corner to get the maximum exposure.

The Metro is right below

We took the Metro all around the Prague area as much as we could, and loved the fact that the main Metro station is right below the Boulevard. Drop down in to any terminal, jump on the line you need and off you go. A single above-ground tram operates, but the distance and routes are somewhat limited and quite crowded, but we road it once, just for the heck of it.

Featured Image: The Prague National Museum (Praha)

An American in Prague

Falling in love begins with Old Town

So many pieces on Old Town seem to fall in to the “come, take a snap and leave experience,” which doesn’t enlighten the potential tourist. Old Town and the Square is so much more than the famed Astronomical Clock(although it does lend itself to glamour shots). Old Town Square itself, with the extensions to St. Charles’ bridge, and on the way to Prague Castle deserves an least a few hours of wandering time.

Believe it or not, this is just “around the corner” from Old Town. These forties-era buildings are beautiful outside and may are restored apartments used by tourists and residents alike. Just off this street marks “Old Town,” proper, and in the other direction, is the Praha (Prague) Museum and Wenceslas Square.

But really, half the charm of the entire Old Town area is just that—the area. One can spend two hours or more going up one side of the Vltava River and down the other, which should be done. The museums and structures on either side are breathtaking, I’ve written about renting paddle boats and noshing on oversized hotdogs at any of the stands. The entire area made such an impression (as did the Warhol’s in the museum at the time we visited), it gets a mention the second book of my Danielle Grant series, where the lead character is recovering from the death of a loved one and journeys to this lovely town.

The Square

Those are the outer streets leading in to “the Square,” as it’s referred to. If you want to be right in the center, then book a night just to have the sunrise-to-sunset experience. The Square has boutique hotels, outdoor restaurants and museums lining the square-shaped center courtyard. Street performers work from dawn to midnight and come in all forms and shapes. Some were really excellent, but be wary of your wallet as you remove a few bucks to pay, or it will get swiped without your knowing.

Left: a close up of the Astronomical Clock, Left: in Old Town Square, outdoor café, the Clock is in the background.

St. Charles Bridge Museum is often overlooked, and I didn’t take a single picture of the insides because that’s how good it was. I wanted to read, learn and enjoy, not spend the entire time taking photos. If you like structures, buildings and mechanics, you will love this. My kids, who are Lego freaks, adored this museum, a whole lot more than paintings or the iconic images of Warhol.

Upper left: along the main street, Upper right: one block off Old Town, Bottom: beside the Vltava River, the St. Charles Bridge and Prague Castle in the background, my look of “My feet are so tired can we stop yet?”

In and around the Old Town Square are all sorts of diversions. Yes, you can have the dry skin eating off your feet by small swimming animals (the girls had this done before but it’s always fun to hear them squeal), and yes, you must go to the Captain Candy, which I mention in the article on finding the best shopping experiences. Yes, this is a franchise, but limited to certain countries in Europe, so compare it to Rocky Mountain Chocolate, where you can only get it in certain States. If candy isn’t your thing (I took pictures, and only had a bite or two) because I chose to save my calories for…gelato!

The best trinket

If you want a single item to take home to put on your shelf, spend $50-100 on a laser cut block of glass with your picture inside. It sounds cheesy, but we get more comments on it than any other item in our home. At the time, we went for cheesy to thinking it was unique, and are glad we evolved. As an aside, we have a family rule: one family item (aka trinket) per trip). Not per country, per trip. We thought—huh, maybe this is it. After learning what this is all about, we stood in front of the laser (individually then as a family) and chose what form factors we wanted; a block, a keychain, a smaller weight. They are sturdy things and you’ll want to transport the in a box, but well worth it.


This 3×4 block wasn’t enough. We got a keychain (with the girls only) that lights up, a 2×2 square w/me and the girls. Rog? He was only in this one—the hologram-like changes depending on the direction of the light.

If you want a single item to take home to put on your shelf, spend $50-100 on a laser cut block of glass with your picture inside. It sounds cheesy, but we get more comments on it than any other item in our home. At the time, we went for cheesy to thinking it was unique, and are glad we evolved. As an aside, we have a family rule: one family item (aka trinket) per trip). Not per country, per trip. We thought—huh, maybe this is it. After learning what this is all about, we stood in front of the laser (individually then as a family) and chose what form factors we wanted; a block, a keychain, a smaller weight. They are sturdy things and you’ll want to transport the in a box, but well worth it.

The weather

This coming summer, it’s supposed to be a 50-year heat wave, but how can that be much different from a few years back when it was 101? The evenings were cool enough to require a light jacket for all of us (Rog wore a sweater). During the day we were dying and carried our water bottles that included a spray everywhere. These can be had for about $7 US at Walmart or Target so definitely pick one up before you go, because we didn’t find any over there (or in hotter locations like Mexico either). They are our travel accessory.

The safety

I’ve written about the downsides of Prague, specifically the cabs, but now you know that the base rate is 40 cz plus another 28 cz cap per kilometer, you are good to go. Yes, keep your wallet in your front pocket, or elsewhere that’s safe, but I always have my side camera case/purse/backpack everywhere. We’ve ventured over main areas day and night, and only once got ourselves in a pickle by taking the wrong train, ending up in the middle of who-remembers-where, got off (second mistake) and had to wait for a really long time for one to take us back to town. Maybe it’s because we don’t drink, are a family or generally people take pity on us for an easier mark, but we’ve never had an issue and don’t expect to next time around.

The next visit

In our upcoming trip, Prague is near the front of the journey, and it’s only 3 days this time around, versus 7. We plan on going back to the Prague Castle, Cesky Krumlov and the town and more gerbil balls on the water as well as the supersized hotdogs. I’m presently checking out the exhibits to see if that’s going to make it on the agenda.

If you are going to be overseas, or live there and follow me, keep an eye out for the official Travel with Me 2019 launch. I’ll be posting my general itinerary for author-reader meet ups!

Tricks & bits for the best shopping deals

Four step process to getting the best product & price

When we return from traveling, men ask Rog how much money we spent. The women ask what we spent it on. Notice the difference? Second to this is: “Where’s the best shopping?” I’ll tell you what I tell them, then I’m going to reveal the real truth.

Five places are failsafe. Italy first and foremost, because the goods are beautiful and inexpensive. Milan (across the from the Duomo Cathedral) has this amazing mall with lots of goods we can’t get in the States, and if we can, the price is quadruple. No kidding. Lugano, a township on Lake Cuomo, offers different brands but similar deals, then Bellagio, which is the peninsula on Lake Cuomo. Lille, France, downtown, always offers great prices on French-made goods. In Germany, if you like Porsche brand products, go to the car factory, hit the store and pick up watches, leather clothes and windbreakers also for one-fourth the cost in the States, assuming it would even be available.

Shopping rule of thumb: the brighter the street the worse the deals. The darker the streets, the more the proprietor will negotiate because they have to drive volume.

Examples? $800 Hermes belts for $250 in Bellagio. $1,750 Ferragamo purses for $400 in Lugano. Porsche jacket (unavailable in the States, but was listed at $350 on the website) for $75). Diamond and ceramic Mercedes watch in Milan (at the Mercedes clothing store—yes, that exists), not listed on-line or available in the States: $350.

Now the real truth, aka Sarah’s secret

Yes, all of the above are amazing, but there’s more. The real truth is you save your money, go to Old Town in Prague, wander up and down the narrow streets looking at the items—whatever your preference. You see which stores offer well-tailored, high-end leather goods. You walk in the store, which is on the main floor, and check out the wares. Typically, the okay stuff is in the front, the medium goods are in the middle, and near the back are the finer items. Once you identify an interest in the finer items, you ask “If they have more goods elsewhere,” which is a shameless rip-off of a similar line from Gone with 60 Seconds, and I’m happy to say, it works!

Captain Candy is a great store full of weird concoction, including candy eggs that look grossly-real but taste amazing. This is about one street away from the store I reference below for the great deals on coats.

You are then invariably led upstairs, to a warehouse-size room where you feel like Meghan Markle has just entered the private chamber for the Queen’s jewels. Stars are shining from above and every item is there, hanging by type first, then color, ordered by price.

What’s the price?

This is European-code for “whatever you can negotiate.”

Negotiation tip 1. Forget credit cards, this is all about the dollars. The first question you will encounter is “Will this be case or credit?” And if this isn’t raised by the salesperson, you need to raise it. This gets you a 50% slice right off the bat, not just the 3% fee saved in the States. Why? The transaction is unlikely to be traced on their end, because the owner of the establishment is running that entity according to their own rules.

I’m not sure why this little fact always perplexes American’s; probably the same reason foreigners are so annoyed they can’t negotiate the price on a piece of clothing. It’s just the way transactions are completed. If you think about it, negotiating isn’t all the foreign, it’s just that American’s usually only negotiate when they go to Mexico, not Europe. When we are south America, we dicker all the time. Then again, here in the States, both Rog and I always offer to pay cash to get the best deal, and why not? Money is hard enough to earn; who wants to give it away to easily?

Negotiation step 2. Real cash dollars, or money order? Hard currency all the way. This yields yet another discount.

A pause here for a moment. You are probably thinking we are idiots to be carrying around lots of cash. We don’t. Because banks are open, cash is easy to come by and we carry less than $100 on us at any given time. It’s just not prudent; the salient point is that you can get easily get cash, which leads me to step 3.

Negotiation step 3. Never buy that moment. No matter what we have on hand, we say we will come back. Did you know a sales statistic is that if you don’t get the target (e.g. customer) to spend that day/night and they walk off the premises (lot or store), the likelihood they will spend at all goes to below 50%? That’s quite an incentive to get you to spend!

It’s at this point, that Rog brings up the “what kind of deal can you give me?” e.g. buy one get the second free, or at least half off. (That just sounds like Rog, doesn’t it?) Me? Well, I’m just the long-suffering mother of two tired children who isn’t really sure she wants to spend the money in the first place.

It plays really well, and you know what, half the time it’s accurate. I’m usually vomiting about the money we are spending to feed our ravenous beasts of children, but on the other hand, I know I simply can’t get the shoes, purses, coats or watches at the same price anywhere near the quality, never mind the brand mark-up us American’s pay.

Negotiation step 4. The last-minute enticement to not back out

Rog had already committed to returning that evening, but the man needs to make totally and completely sure we are serious. I’ll give you an example of how it went down (and this is common).

In one store, we told the gentleman we’d be back around eight p.m. to pick up a coat. The girls were hungry, my feet were hurting, the coat I selected was a great deal and I loved it, but was ready to leave.

At that point, the salesman asks if we could be back by 7 pm. Nope, I tell Rog as the girls groan in the background.

“If you can be back by 7 p.m.” he starts, “I’ll give you a mink-lined black leather baseball cap.” That was a weird enticement. I don’t wear baseball hats of any kind because they don’t shield my face from the sun, and the rim invariably leaves a nice long dent on my forehead which doesn’t come out until the following day.

As I’m shaking my head no, the man lifts one off a shelf, encouraging me to try on. “It’s perfect for you,” he says.

Actually, it looked pretty good, but I didn’t need it, and I give Rog a gentle tug as I try to hand back the hat.

“How much?” Rog asks.

“$250 US,” the man replies.

“Seriously, I don’t need the hat,” I interject, handing it back. “The girls need to be fed. Let’s just come back later,” giving Rog the ‘lets-get-going’ eye.

“$150,” he says, hoping to entice us. I shake my head, already grabbing the girls. “Tell you what,” the man says, “I’ll give this to you for free if you come back tonight by 7.”

The man really wanted the money, and must have a hot date.

Rog looks back at the guy as I pass the had to my oldest daughter, not bothering to put it back on, and the guy goes to the next level.

“Tell you what,” he begins. “I’ll give you 75% off a second coat if you come back by 7, plus you can have the hat for free.”

Rog looks at me. I look at him. We go back to the top floor and try on more coats. We look at the prices and do the math. We figure out exactly what returning one hour earlier will save us so the man can get out to his hot date.

Done deal.

And that, my friends and readers, is how you end up with two coats and a mink-lined, leather baseball hat in your closet; by getting the very best shopping deal in Europe.

Happy shopping wherever you do it!

Feature image: a view of Old Town from one of the many entry points

Prague Castle

My previous write-up on Prague touched on my top five spots to visit, but this piece focuses on the Prague Castle itself, because when you’re a first-timer looking at web sites, then being accosted by people on the street hustling tours, it’s a bit overwhelming.

On that note, in the last two years, the number of folks trying to get you to buy a tour has skyrocketed. The potential of being scammed has grown accordingly, getting so bad it warranted coverage on the Netflix show Scam City. If you want to be really unnerved, watch the episode covering Prague. Because of this, I feel it’s my moral obligation to give you the street view of the American tourist.

Left: the view walking across the St. Charles bridge up to the Castle, Right: turning around, looking back towards town as you keep going

Be informed and be vigilant

Two things right up front.

1). Don’t purchase a tour from someone on the street, and this doesn’t apply to just Prague. It pretty much holds true for any city, from Cancun to Rome. Street tour sellers invariably promise a personal meeting with the Pope (I kid you not) to seeing the inside private rooms of the castle. Be smart. Buy your ticket the office at the castle entrance and learn more on the main web site. Saving the potential $10 Euros just isn’t worth it.

2) The cab fairs are set and standard in the city. It’s max of 40 CZ plus 28 CZ per kilometer per the laws. Some cabs are honest, others are not. (This aspect was profiled/caught on tape on Scam City as well). Do yourself a favor and print out the law so you can contend with the cab driver as required, as some will tell you the law is wrong. Tip: the wise traveler will get in, ask about, and confirm the fair, then get in.

On the other hand, you can walk. As I mentioned in my other blog, you’ll see Starbucks, pay for the entrance to the castle and you are on your way.

Upper left: When you reach the top of the walk, take a breather (note the Starbuck’s Coffee. I think that’s morally wrong, but hey, they gotta earn rent somehow right? Turn around and snap some photos from whence you came (upper right) and then Bottom: the city
The must-sees and the official Prague Castle Website

St. Vitus Cathedral is a great picture taking environment. Beautiful sunlight, lots of color and few crowds depending on the time of day (we prefer twilight). It’s impossible to miss is one can just stand in front and take a breath. The girls were impressed.

Tours are offered of most of the top spots at the Castle, but we missed the last tours, and a few we wanted to go on were booked, but that was OK, since we did Golden Lane (below).

Golden Lane is another must do. Originally created for the goldsmiths and servants, these colorful, small homes are like a miniature town. It’s seriously like a Lilliputian experience, and the kids absolutely loved wandering through the streets, taking pictures then finding hobbit-hole sized corridors leading to and from other points in the castle. (Actually, in hindsight, maybe Rog enjoyed it the most. He’s def transported back to his 14-year old self whenever I took out the camera).

Golden Lane is exactly what it looks like in the pictures! We were thrilled.

Three different towers exist, but I don’t have any pictures as it got too dark. The black, new white and Daliborka Tower. The Black Tower was used for prisoners (and got it’s nickname from a fire that blackened the outside), the White Tower was used to imprison nobleman, and the Daliborka Tower was a jail for noblemen and later for other members of the upper echelon of society. I still haven’t figured out the difference between a jail and a prison, and I’m struck that even back then, the class system (rich vs poor) was entrenched.

One of the back/hidden passage ways leading to the castle from Golden Lane (workers) area.
As you can see, the “crowds” were practically non existent. Either the cloudy-cool weather turned them off or we got lucky, or both.

After visiting the Castle, we bowed to the demonic pleas of our children and made a b-line to the gerbil balls on the Vltava River, which I’ve mentioned several times already. For roughly 4 dollars, 15 minutes of exhaustive pleasure is worth it.

The girls on the water–note the Castle in the background. How cool is that? More so because I was eating the world’s biggest Czech hotdog and Rog was basically sleeping in a chair.
Feature Photo: Inside the Castle Square


Back to Brussels

Family friendly top stops

Visiting this city was more about us, the adults, than the kids. You see, we made the mistake of going to Brussels at the end of a month on the road, and the kids were more excited to lay by the pool at the home we’d rented in Tervuren than wandering around to see yet more buildings or manicured parks. The rain killed that idea, and faced with being at the rental home, as nice as it was, got us out and about. We are glad we ventured to hit the top stops in the city; the others around we’d already been to and I’ve written up (see last paragraph).

One side of the Royal Palace: open July 21 through September
Warning to the out of towners (e.g. Americans)

The cell coverage is seriously intermittent in parts of the city, and after we’d seen our sites, found ourselves in a very unsafe area. Since the cell signal wasn’t picking up, my girls saw a few things that unfortunately, they can’t unsee. On one hand, it was seriously unsafe, and is a side effect of driving yourself. Yet, even as I write this, I must point out that this one really strange, scary detour is the thing we discuss most about Brussels because we saw the “real” city, as opposed to the beautifully manicured part visible to most tourists.


One of the unique characteristics of Brussels we loved were the flower trees built around light posts or trees. A street might be considered “shopping” caliber full of boutiques, or a bit more downtrodden, but the added touches around town meant an eye for detail we appreciated.
Better when done wet

From the moment we drove from Tervuren in to the city, we were so pleased with the relative emptiness of the streets and the speed at which everyone travels. It was positively invigorating to have Rog drive normal and not like the Swiss, who are restricted by the absurdly confining rules of 45 miles an hour practically everywhere. I fear I left permanent nail imprint marks on the passenger door as a way of releasing my frustration. But I digress.

No such issues plagued me in this “beautiful but boring” city as my nine-year-old dubbed it. Entering the city is majestic, the thoroughfair providing the perfect photo of the arch, power lines aside. (As an aside, regular readers know I don’t photoshop my work, firstly because I don’t have the software, the desire to purchase or learn how to use it, nor do I have the time. What you get is what a visitor will actually see, cloud cover and all).

Yeah, I know. Me and “my thing” for colorful doors. I can’t help myself

Being most recently from Seattle, we are used to clouds, but I’ll admit I was wholly unprepared for all  dark grey and rain in late July. After we’d returned to Tervuren, I asked the owner of the home, a flight attendant, about the weather.

“I’ve heard it’s a lot like Seattle, Washington,” he remarked. “This is standard July weather.” Huh. Maybe that’s why the five-bedroom, beautifully appointed home with the pool sitting right beside the Empress’s Palace was so inexpensive, for who, in their right mind would ever come to Brussels in July?

Unwitting American tourists, that’s who. Still, it was a fabulous bargain, we did use the pool one day out of eight (if you count two hours between storms as using it) and it forced us to explore the surrounding countries with more vigor that we might have if the weather had been good.

Shopping and wandering in to cafes (or chocolate shops) is the best
Check the calendar

The Royal Palace in downtown Brussels is great, well, from the outside. It was no wonder we found street parking because we came the day before it opens to the public. ARGGGG!!!. We’d failed to read the fine print on the website (or our phones) that identified in black and white that the Palace opens for tours starting the 21 of July through September. We literally missed it by a single day.

You can zip through the photos that identify exactly what I’d wanted to see…the grand ballroom, the small and large white rooms, the Empire Room, the antechamber…man, all those will remain, for me, things I have only seen in photos on line.

So. Depressing.

You are now saying: “Who cares? You can see it when you go back.” The truth table here is that we aren’t hitting Brussels in our upcoming trip and I can’t see us going back for a while. Compared to the exotic nature of other places to see and things to do, it’s unlikely. I console myself that the digital pics on the internet are far better than what I could take in any case.

For those of you with children, I wish I’d seen this site for kids on the monarchy prior to going. At least it would have been educational, informational and fun for them in the car.

The Cinquantenaire Park is awesome (for the adults) because the majesty of the structure got no more than a gnat-like look from our girls.

We meandered the park as long as it took to get our kids to pose for some photos then piled back in to the car at made it to the Aboretum. This Aboretum is another word for Park Tervuren, which I covered in another blog. Then it was the Antomium, which deserved its own write-up as well.

Feature picture: a view of the street from the Royal Palace

Top castles around Prague

Close and far, Karlstejn and Cesky are not to be missed

When we were visiting the Karlstejn Castle outside Prague, I had roughly ten minutes of wait-time while Roger waited in the ticket line with the girls. Me being me, I’m scoping the scene before me, immediately zoning in on a tall man with a slobbering bull mastiff by his side. I wander over, dropping down to my knees, asking if I can pet his beautiful male mastiff. His eyebrows raised, and then it occurred to me I was awfully arrogant thinking the man could speak English.

“Of course, you may,” he replied in perfect English albeit with a Czech accent.

We get to talking because I’m an author, I ask questions, and learn the dogs name is Saffron, as in the herb. The reason he was outside the castle instead of in, was because it has a no dogs allowed policy, which he didn’t know. I learn he’s a contractor who specializes in private homes, and was a wealth of information what to see and visit.

The wonderful man who told us about Czesky and let me pet his beautiful mastiff Saffron!

“Have you been to Cesky Krumlov?” he asked me. Before I could answer, he told me I definitely need to go. “It’s the best thing you’ll see in the Republic.”

That was quite a statement, especially since we’d been in and around Prague, but he was so fervent I told Rog about it, and after we finished with our day at Karlstejn Castle, we cleared the deck for the next day and went.

KarlstejnCastle

This is a castle on the smaller side compared to Czesky Krumlov and the Prague Castle, but it has features we enjoyed. The 30-minute walk up on the white stones, and the tour takes less than an hour. The services are quite limited in terms of food and gifts, but the views are lovely. Because of its convenience to Prague, and it’s Gothic structure, it’s considered one of the top tourists’ destinations. You might think it would be really busy, but it wasn’t. We walked right up, and twenty minutes later we were in.

The walk up to Karlstejn almost resembles this rocky terrain–kidding–not kidding. It’s the opposite of Cesky

A few of my favorite snapshot memories are the small gardens below the walkways connecting the two buildings that were used for the ladies of the castle. The tour was also fantastic. We were incredibly grateful the majority of our small group of 12 spoke English (we were with a group of Australians) or we would have had to hear the tour in German and their rules is majority rules.

The original walkways connecting the buildings and the outer gardens below

What struck us most about this building were the size of the rooms, which are all compact, but we understood why when we got to the staterooms. The original, wooden beds where the King slept was sooo small!! And the height of the doorways was also very small. Back then, the people overall, were quite a bit shorter than we are today. The paintings were amazing, and we were most struck by the room where all the portraits of the royals hung around the room. The chapel stands out, and above all, near the end of the tour, we saw the replicas of all the tiaras and jewels. The real ones had long since been replaced with fakes, but they were still pretty neat to see (boy, those real jewels are HUGE).


Cesky Krumlov and the town of Cesky

According the history, the town of Krumlov was created around the castle by the Lords of Krumlov. Over 300 medieval buildings surround the town, along with the Vltava River. The grounds are large, the river wandering around the base of the castle goes through the town and beyond. We parked probably ten minutes from the castle, and walked through the town to get to the castle. Unlike the short tour of Karlstejn, this castle and town requires a day trip.

An original lower entrance for Cesky, and the Vltava River where you can boat, canoe or swim alongside

Forty buildings reside in the castle complex, with galleries, towers, churches, most open to the public. We thought one of the greatest parts was walking up the long entry way used by the previous Lords of the castle. Imagine being in a horse-drawn carriage and entering a long, stone laid driveway that’s 100% covered, the ground treatment perfectly laid and matched in the color of muted yellow. As I mentioned to Rog, it was the medieval version of the Batcave entrance except above ground.

The drive for those in the carriage might have been a few minutes, but to walk, it was about twenty. You go up, and up, and up, and I regret not taking pictures, but I was working hard!

Sorry about the iPhone pics but this was the best I could do! Left: the restaurant we ended up eating at (where they were nice–keep reading), right: walking from town to the Castle.

Then the levels and options within the castle are many, as are the perches, each providing unobstructed views down to the town. The original Lords knew how to position the castle, but we didn’t see a single view which wasn’t magnificent.

Almost lost a daughter

One of the things we love about Europe is the general lack of rules, restrictions and sometimes, guardrails. If you see a dangerous animal and want to put your hand it, no second line of protection stops you. It’s more like the universal DNA test of nature; if you are dumb enough to stick your hand in, then you deserve to lose it.

Colorful and quaint is the town

So, it was with Cesky Krumlov. No long-fanged carnivores, but multiple ledges without protective rails. My precocious six-year-old jumped up on one ledge and nearly toppled over the edge, which would have been a 700-foot drop to their death. I’d been partially turned to Rog when she leapt up, turned just in time to grab her foot while my other daughter caught her waist. We were able to stop her forward momentum, my oldest daughter at nine and myself just held her tight, and then I pretty much lost it. Never before or since have I ever gotten that close to death, and all I can say is this: watch your kids because it’s Europe, and I’m pretty sure I was the one who’d have been arrested for not being mindful.

A pic of the town of Cesky through a peek-hole, and the embrace after our youngest almost fell off the ledge….still shaking.

The trip is going to take you roughly 4-5 hours, because we kept to the speed limit and it was 4.5. We arrived around eleven, just as it started to sprinkle, but it stopped as we were inside, and we thought the grey clouds totally romantic. The tour we took was in English and completely worth it.

We then went down in to town for dinner, taking our time to walk up and down the streets. From the small, original bridges covering the brooks and streams to the bistros, cafes and restaurants, we were enchanted.

We had only one unfortunate experience during our time in Cesky, and this actually was relatively common in our journeys: it’s what I call kid-discrimination. The fact is that not all destinations, restaurants or eateries welcome kids, even those who are quiet and well-mannered. We entered to two restaurants—not bars, mind you, but actual eateries, and at the first, the hostess said: “We don’t serve children.” As we saw teens probably 13 and above, we were perplexed, but left. We walked a few doors down and although the male host scowled when he saw our girls, he sat us anyway, but get this, not on the main floor, next to the water, where four tables sat open (picture the windows open, the stream going by—enchanting), but he put us upstairs, in the far corner where the windows were closed and no air conditioning. Again, we were perplexed but went with it, right up until others were being served and we weren’t-water or menus. Finally, after about ten minutes, we just got up and left.

On the way out, Roger had a word with the host, and he straight up told Roger that restaurants are for adults and we should have known better. Well, then!

Culture is culture, and we weren’t delusional enough to think that we could change opinions and attitudes, so we adjusted our approach. Very politely, we approached the next restaurant, also by the Vltava River and still in town, asking the host if they minded children. He smiled and said “Of course! Come in!” We proceeded to have the most glorious, authentic dinner of pork, potatoes, noodles, soups and my favorite, hot chocolate that was more like thick, hazelnut mousse.

This is how happy I am when the chocolate hazelnut mousse is as thick as pudding. Yum!

Cesky was, and still is, hands down, our favorite town outside a castle, and we have another full day booked for our upcoming trip this summer.

Couldn’t help myself–I’d taken another selfie with Saffron just to show how big he was and how much he slobbered. LOVE that dawg

Feature photo: taken from one of the decks at the Karlstejn Castle

Kids and wigs: required reading

One of the considerations we had before heading to the wig shop was Porsche’s own self-esteem and sense of self. We always thought ourselves fortunate that she wasn’t sixteen and dealing with teen drama; instead, she was still an overall healthy, happy kid. It wasn’t until she started noticing all the stares her way, around 8, that she felt different.

Even then, we always emphasized that being different (no hair) was akin to being cool/unique. It wasn’t until people started asking about “our son,” or ask what our son’s name was that the flip with Porsche was switched. She had no issue being bald, but heaven forbid she be mistaken for a boy, when she clearly, and loudly, is a girl.

In the photos below, my daughter is smiling because as she told her daddy, “I feel like a girl again.” (Yes, I cried on the phone as I was watching this from home).

Wig shopping

She went wig shopping the day after Christmas because she’d wished for hair. We couldn’t give her that, but went for the next best thing; a wig. It was Roger who went with her for two reasons. The first is I had a toddler at home and we were told this was going to take several hours. Second, the wig shop specializes in leukemia patients, specifically children. Given my own fragile state of mind and the possibility that Porsche had a deeper medical issue, I wasn’t sure I could handle it.

Round one of trying on wigs. Keeping a positive thought, it’s one way to have her envision what a “big girl” will look like.
Wig selection: synthetic first. Too blond (upper left), too dark (upper left) then finding the right color but needs a cut. The back was trimmed to be more age appropriate and bangs

So off they went. As you can see from the smiles, the wig shop was a fun experience for Porsche. First, her head was measured. Second, the colorists started matching what they presumed/thought/ascertained to be her natural color. Because her hair was gone, Porsche pulled out pictures, and then they started pulling out colors. Up next was picking synthetic or natural.

Synthetic

Pros: It holds its shape no matter the circumstances, which is wonderful. Reasonably priced, between 300-$750 dollars.
Con: It can’t be washed, curled, or modified in any major way. The edges will start to fray so you need to trim occasionally. You must keep it on a Styrofoam head piece after washing and condition (with special products)

Natural

Pro: you can wash, style and even color it if you want
Con: you have to keep it on a Styrofoam head piece after washing and condition, but you can use normal hair products. High prices- $3,000-4,000.

After choosing the perfect color, the customer is shown how to put on the nylon cap required to keep the wig in place. Then on goes to the wig. Size is very important for children because their heads are still growing, thus the requirement for the cap, which holds the wig in place when it’s a little loose in the first year or two. The final year, which is about how long a wig, real or synthetic, will last, the cap is no longer required.

The wig is then cut in to the shape desired. In our case, Porsche chose to have a few bangs which could be pulled back or tucked under. She walked out with special shampoo for the wig, a Styrofoam head, and a special brush for the synthetic wig. We also ordered a real wig, which took about 3 months to receive. We learned wigs are produced typically in Europe, and the color requested is matched to order.

Also, another note on natural wigs. They are made from untouched, or “virgin” hair. For this reason, they can be colored if desired, (unlike synthetics which can’t be colored).

Once the hair is cut to her liking, the big (really big) step was to take her out in public. Rog decided to feed her and just hang out at a café for a while.
Pass it on when you are done

As I’d mentioned in the first piece on hair restoration and loss, we found a young girl, aged seven, suffering from her second round of leukemia. She was the recipient of both wigs. Learn more about the issues we encountered when approaching the local Children’s Hospital to understand why we were unable to go that route (they were rejected).

This is the natural wig. You can see how it’s not quite as fluffy and lays more naturally. The hairline is also very well done–so much so you can’t tell it’s a wig unless you are standing right above her and know what to look for.

Tip: If you are in need of a wig, my suggestion is to call the local wig company themselves. Usually, they are the first stop for children/adults in need, and we have found they are very kind and willing to help connect families who are in need and don’t have the funds to purchase a wig.

Hair loss and restoration Part 2

Breakthrough! The metal connection

In the previous blog on hair loss, I described and showed visuals of the mystery illness that had afflicted my daughter, and to a lesser degree myself. Over the course of several years, her hair fell out in chunks, then entirely, as and a team of doctor’s tried to figure out what in the heck was going on.

Recapping where we started, went through and the beginnings of hope

In the spring of the third year, Porsche was nine, and the door of knowledge opened up just a bit.

An acquaintance from church came over to the house and asked about Porsche. She then told me it occurred to her that we might want to have our water and food tested for metals.

How to identify “typical” alopecia and something far worse. Top left: Porsche is still thinking it’s all going to be ok. Top right: She didn’t know I started straightening her hair to cover what was happening underneath. Spots larger than a dime, then huge sections

“Our neighbor had a daughter about thirteen who lost a lot of her hair,” the forty-five-year-old woman told me who lives on a few acres just outside the city water district. “The doctor asked for a water sample of the well, and it turned out it had a lot of heavy metals.”

Huh. We were, in fact, on a community well, but it had been used for over twenty years, and plenty of kids were raised drinking the water. With the exception of the elderly, everyone the community had their hair. Per law, it was regularly tested and passed all the national requirements without exception and always passed.

“Nonetheless,” my friend continued, “you should have it tested again, as well as your daughter for heavy metals.”

Near fatal numbers

Over the next 90 days, we learned that the EPA only tests a fraction of the hundreds of metals in the water (about 350), and that each additional test would be about $1,800 per test. Over 3,000 different metals and permutations exist. We didn’t have that kind of money and wasn’t sure it was going to make a difference.

Seeing huge swaths falling out can be a sign of massive metals in the system

Then Porsche’s own metal numbers came back. She was 70 times the toxic level for heavy metals for an adult, not to mention a nine-year old. According to Dr. Nebalski, she should have had permanent brain damage from the levels of toxicity in her body.

It was a bittersweet moment. At first, we thought: “Yes! We are finally getting somewhere. With a cause we can find a cure.” We were also brought to our knees that she was spared having permanent brain damage.

At the same time, we were no closer to determining the “why” of Porsche’s hair loss started. In order to find a solution, we needed to find the cause. Surely, the well alone couldn’t the culprit, it if it was at all, because s we explained, our family of four had been drinking from the well exclusively for seven years. We were left wondering what we could eat, drink or do that wasn’t going to make her situation worse, or heaven forbid, trigger a reaction in the rest of us.

Doctors united

By this time, we were working with a loose team of physicians, western, holistic and natural, who were all intrigued and somewhat obsessive about figuring this out. They all started working together, from Washington, to Arizona, Italy and beyond. I was relieved to find zero competitiveness among the “types” of doctors, but a sense of comradery born of a desire for results.

As Porsche lost her hair, I lost 30 pounds. It’s not a good look. On the right: we had to adapt Porsche’s habits because while she didn’t mind being bald in public, (she got good at ignoring people), her scalp couldn’t take any sun. She wore it for 3 years when not in the house, or a hat.

They believed it was likely Roger and my younger daughter had been spared because Rog always favored protein drinks, milk or juice over water (still does). My youngest had come off nursing, and was eating mostly organic baby food, and not ingesting bottles of water. Both of them had lucked out for completely different reasons. By comparison, me and Porsche likely had very high levels of metal in our systems because we are both water hogs.

The difference between hair growth and hair loss is night and day. Even, overall growth is evident. That said, hair grows back in the order it was lost.

The doctor’s hypothesized that Porsche’s system was triggered by the incredible doses of concentrated radiation in the ocean water from that original visit to Hawaii. What was already resident in her system went on overload. I was affected as well, but as I was older, constantly eating detoxifying foods such as blueberries while maintaining my supplements, it helped my Ph balance. I suffered hair loss, but not in in big swaths, not chunks. Porsche on the other hand, was in the formative stage; her body simply couldn’t handle it.

Cleaning out the system

If you recall from the last blog, at this time, Porsche already had a regimen for keep her hair follicles open. This included applying topical steroids (liquid) every night. She was still receiving @500 shots in her head every six weeks.

Every day to the scalp to keep the hair follicles open

To this, our holistic physician, Dr. Albert Alyshmerni recommended we (all of us) start taking Zeolite.

“You need to uses Zeolite to remove the metals from the body,” said Dr. Albert (he prefers we use his first name after Dr. instead of his last, so I’m not being disrespectful here).

Zeolite is volcanic ash. When absorbed, through liquid or capsule, it attracts the metals, and then it’s pooped out. It was so strange, because once I learned this information, suddenly others in my circle, who were well aware of my situation, admitted that they’d been taking zeolite for years because they love fish, but wanted to get rid of the mercury and other metals in the food chain. This is a natural, volcanic ash that absorbs heavy metals from the body. It’s been used for decades and comes in liquid and tablet form.

6 months after taking Zeolite and the magnesium, Porsche went from completely bald to this–the top sections first–early July 2015

We have used two different brands with equal success. The only reason for going back in forth is that they aren’t always in stock. Omica was our original, and our current is Theodosia, and it’s only because it seems to be in stock a lot more. I will say it’s a tad more convenient, because the dose is higher so we only take one per day (30 min before a meal) vs 2 a day with the Omica. But again, we notice no difference between the two.

Once or twice a day, 30 min before meals, depending on which brand you get. They both work equally well, though Thoedosia seems to be in stock more often

I will go in to much more detail during the May 30th event on Hair Loss and Restoration at the Athleta Spokane store, but for those of you suffering from any stage of hair loss, I want to get this information out.

Overview of Zeolite

Our doctor likened our Porsche’s body to a tree, her hair being the leaves. The base and insides of the tree had become infected, and the leaves were falling off. However, the tree might be salvageable, but it would take time (months/years) to clean it out, starting with the roots.

“It’s critical you drink at least eight glasses of water,” Dr. Albert emphasized. If we didn’t, the body wouldn’t release the heavy metals, we’d be constipated and this would negate any positive effects.

February 2016, the hair keeps coming in–but instead of being thin and fine, it’s tough and corse. We love it.

Even though we have been using Dr. Albert for 17 years and never been sick (thanks to going the natural route), we were dubious. We read quite a bit about scams of powder and pills, and all sorts of claims, but even the western physicians said: “It certainly can’t hurt.”


April 2016. We are astounded with her hair growth– and also the comments. I started getting looks and questions “Is her father African American?” looking between her skin, her hair then back at me. I took the question as a compliment.

Dr. Albert told us what products to purchase on line (not through him) and to ignore the chatter. Without fail, we (me and Porsche) started taking single zeolite pill every day, 30 minutes before eating. In one month, we didn’t see much difference. Two months in, we both had fine hairs sprouting up around our hairline. At month three however, our new hair resembled newborns, with shoots everywhere. Gradually, Porsche’s bald spots started filling in. The regrowth began in the order of hair-loss—not all over, and not all at once. Literally, we watched the spots of first loss fill in. Now, seven year later, the very last areas to go bald are finally becoming full with hair.

July 2016
The stage of hair re-growth

Phase 1: Interestingly, like a newborn, Porsche experienced something similar to cradle cap. The surface of her scalp (the bald areas) first became white and lightly crusty, requiring a very gentle scraping. We used the soft brushes used on a baby’s head, then switched to a standard black men’s comb. Our physician recommended we be sensitive, and we had to be; if we were rough, the skin would break and bleed. It did, and over time we learned how much pressure to apply.

Phase 2: The next step of re-growth were the fine, spikey shoots. These would grow to several millimeters, then fall out, much like a newborn’s hair. After a few days, the hair would then come in again, but this time, without the cradle cap. Further, the hair itself was strong, thick and never, ever came out. The doctors tested the strength, to be sure this was the real deal, and would tug on the hair. Sure enough, her strands weren’t going anywhere.

Our doctors were extraordinarily pleased, and the shock of the western doctors were high. But when I started asking around to my friends who are nurses, or naturopaths or chiropractitioners, most had heard of, and were using some brand or version of Zeolite! Gah!! As one female nutritionist told me, “I’ve been using it for years because I want to eat fish, and all fish has high metals, no matter what the food companies say,” she contended. Other than metals getting out of her system, I asked if she realized any other benefits. “My hair became thick again,” she said.

Apply to scalp nightly and wash the hair in the morning

While we were thrilled with our results, Dr. Albert asked if we’d been taking Magnesium either liquid of internal. Neither, was our answer. I’d never thought of it. He counseled us to immediately get liquid Magnesium and apply it nightly to Porsche’s hair, which we did. The rate of Porsche’s hair growth markedly increased, and then I asked the Dr. Albert is she could take it internally as well. He said of course. That day, we all started taking a once a day Magnesium supplement.

The added results of the Magnesium were beyond our expectations. About 2 weeks after adding the topical and internal versions, the little fuzzy shoots appeared faster and thicker. As the doctor explained, it was accelerating the healthy hair growth that had been aided by the metal removing Zeolite.

Adult benefits

Rog and I were beneficiaries of this newfound supplement regimen, albeit on a smaller scale. Neither one of us have ever used the magnesium on our heads, but decided to take it internally, along with the zeolite.

Another lesson learned: hair loss returns….

We learned if either one of us failed to take our zeolite while continuing to eat meat, fish or other proteins that are down at the bottom of the food chain, then our hair started to fall out again, and does so rapidly. (It still does). Also, when the water consumption dipped below eight glasses, the hair also started to come out. Case in point, once Porsche got lazy and didn’t take her Zeolite and in two weeks, she showed bald spots. Those same spots take three to six months to fill back in. For myself, I lose hair all around, but it’s most obvious at the tip of my hair, at the crown of my head. Not a great spot to be losing hair.

A recent example was when we went to Cancun. In theory, Atlantic-caught fish is ‘safer’ than Pacific because it’s further from Fukashima. Wrong. It doesn’t matter. After all these years, it’s all pretty much the same, and we learned this first hand because Porsche had remembered her Zeolite, and I’d forgotten. Still, I made the conscious decision to have seafood every day, my typical indulgence tuna tacos or tuna sashimi. Seven days in, when my hair was wet, I’d run my fingers through and they’d be covered with hair. Ten days, doing the same thing while dry resulted it the same, awful experience. By day fourteen, I was convinced I was going bald because of all the hair on the bottom of the shower. My husband talked me down from the follicly-challenged edge, reiterating it would all be ok when I got home.

He was in fact, correct, but it took another week or two before the hair stopped falling out in droves. As I bided my time of waiting, I just repeated to myself that the roots were infected and I needed to clean them out. Today, about 2 months later, my hair not only rebounded, but I have hair growing thick at the top of my forehead.

I couldn’t be happier.

In the next installment, I’m going to go through the side effects and downsides of what I’ve covered so far (not the supplements, but the shots). They were serious and sort of awful, but each one temporary and ultimately rectified.

Here’s what you can start to do immediately, and as we witnessed first-hand; the doctors were right. There were/are nothing but positive effects from the following?

Topical medicine & treatments

  • Morning and night, Porsche has used (and still uses) an over the counter steroid, known as Hydrocortisone 1% (see pic above). This is a topical steroid. All the other commentary about what it helps (itching, psoriasis etc.) are other ailments it apparently helps, but these are not our issues. This has helped the hair follicles remain open as her system became cleaned out. We have her continue to use it because her hair is not fully-grown in.
  • Magnesium oil (see pic above). This is topic, and is applied at night so she can wash it out in the morning. Why night? It turns white and become sticky. It’s not smelly at all, but it’s not the type of thing you want people to see in your hair either. She applies it every night. If she misses for a day or two a month, it doesn’t have an impact. However, if she misses more than that, it’s noticeable.
    **a note on the magnesium. If she brushes her hair/scalp vigorously prior to applying, it stings because her scalp is still sensitive. Watch out on that though—you don’t want the burning, which is akin to getting your hair bleached and the toxic chemicals hitting the scalp- it hurts.

Internal supplements

  • Daily: prenatal vitamin, magnesium, collagen, flaxseed oil and a barley green pills.

Feature picture: myself and Porsche when she was three and I was pregnant with my second daughter.

Prague Zoo is a Must do

Bring the spray bottle and wear comfortable shoes

When it comes to zoobies (those whom I lovingly refer to zoo-snobs), most refer to San Diego if you are from the States, the Bejing Zoo if the far east, or Moscow. Very rarely does someone throw out “the Prague Zoo”, even though it’s in the top five zoo’s in the world if you are into counting the number of species (650) and acreage (100ish). My pictures from what we saw are few–I was so enthralled I lived in the moment instead of capturing it to look at later. Oh well.

Another lazy afternoon
East and West, endangered and not

On the last trip, we didn’t plan a full day, and were only able to see the ‘east’ side of the park. This time around, we are going to make sure it’s the ‘west’ side, and not just because our girls have continued to bring it up. They are expecting to see wonders akin to the big cat exhibit, the giant tortoises, the aviary and the giant salamander of the east.

When I’m talking giant, these creatures are massive, especially the Salamanders. I mean, what other zoo has a section devoted to the Komodo dragon like creatures? None that I can think of, but then, I’ve only been to a dozen, not sixty, so feel free to correct me on that one.

We arrived late afternoon and three hours was hardly enough to even see a majority of one side. We got in the massive aviary, two rides on the gondola (which we almost failed to take because we barely had enough coinage, which was required) and it was so hot we were practically passing out (late July is hot hot hot).

So big and tough it needs a gondola

Not kidding. My feet were so grateful I could have cried when we stumbled upon it. The gondola splits the huge zoo in half, which saves the long trek up the rocky terrain to reach half the exhibits. This place is going to make you sweat, so bring a water bottle that sprays, and be glad they were smart enough to place misting stations all around the park.

These chair lifts (what they call the gondola) are definitely not US approved, but do the job (keeping your feet from swelling)

Another unique attribute of the zoo is it has the highest count we’ve ever found of endangered species, at 175. That’s awesome but sad at the same time. It’s always hard for us to see beautiful creatures confined, but at the same time, pragmatism rules: we’d rather of one or two of one species than none at all.

Family playground

Let’s face it: sometimes kids aren’t all that fascinated with big cats, salamanders or flamingos. For this, the Czech’s have a solution and it’s called a wonderful Robinson Cruso island like play area. Wooden boardwalks, neandrethal-size alligators to crawl in, on and around. A swimming area also exists, but we were unprepared for this and didn’t want the kids to get soaked in their only set of clothes.

Aside the family area are other activities like a train which was great. (Who doesn’t like trains, really?)

Family playground area is lovely and diverse–and has a train!
What to bring

Your stroller for kids, but understand they aren’t allowed on the gondola, because it’s more like a ski chair lift, and if you are used to the ones in States, which are uber safe, this is more like–hey, here’s a seat buckle, get on and get in. I was seriously panicked with our girls, who were 6 and 9 at the time, but I just held on tight and prayed. Halfway up I chilled out and enjoyed the landscape below.

Change for tokens, because the gondola requires change or tokens (at least the last time we visited that was the case). This is also a Crone area–not Euros, so be ready to do the conversion. Ticket prices for 2019 is here.

Never fear (well, fear a little)…some shade does exist around the park–these huge tress are down by the aviary

The spray bottle. We picked these up in the US and brought them over–you can drink from the top and spray out a separate nozzle. That said, spray stations are located throughout the park, so you won’t completely die of heat stroke. Only partially…because our water ran out and the lines for free water were super long.

Swimming suits, just in case you want to cool off.

Feature picture: Prague Zoo large cat exhibit

The Beauty of Bruges

All the while we were in Belgium, my mother was sending me texts.

“Did you see Bruges yet? When are you going?”

“Soon!” I’d reply, having no clue when we were actually going to make it. When we finally went, Mom rapped philosophic about the beauty of the town. “The movie was to die for. Did you see the movie?”

New meets old walking down a main street

The movie she was referring to was In Bruges, a chase ‘em, shoot-em up flick that many of the locals blessed and cursed when we raised the subject. They loved it for the notoriety it created amongst people like my mother while simultaneously hating the crowds it created (at this point, they’d pause, stair at me and my family, and change the subject).

The stormy day was right out of In Bruges (without the hot actors).

If you haven’t seen the movie or ventured in to this part of the country, boy, go see it. We did it on a lark, as is our usual traveling selves and had wonderful food in the rain (it was pouring so hard when we went to eat the water was flowing off the umbrellas like a waterfall), and when the water stopped, took great pictures before heading to Lille, France.

What to know

If you are driving, don’t be afraid to get in close and park. We found plenty of free parking just as we entered the town. Hurray!

Parking Karma was amazing in Bruges (of course the rain might have helped)

The waterways are similar to Amsterdam, without the muck of the Red Light District and accompanying distractions. The food, shopping and atmosphere is quaint (e.g. safe) and welcoming. Every time I post a picture or two on Instagram of Bruges (see boat on water pic) some smarty-pants will say I have it wrong, it’s Amsterdam. Nope. Take a look at the actual sign, which says “Bruges by boat.” Apparently, Mr. Smarty Pants has the wrong country, let alone town.

Walking through the town, I got a shot off without being photo bombed

When you read up on the town, one of the most often quotes is that the entire town resembles a one, big, medieval castle. That’s spot on. It’s pretty much impossible to find a street that isn’t unique and picture-taking perfect. We traipsed around randomly, stopping about every fifty feet so I could take a picture of a red doorway, a red, brick arched doorway with vines hanging about or a boat floating on the water.

One just can’t get this in the States

Bruges by boat

No, we didn’t take a boat tour, because between our feet then the car when the rain came down too hard, we drove around and stopped on the mostly-empty streets whenever we wanted, completely illegally I might. The rain kept the tourists (and apparently police officers) at bay. Although in my (lame) defense, I’d yell “stop!” order the kids to jump out, smile and pile back in before the honking behind us began. Truth be told, no one honked. They probably rolled their eyes and waited, willing us American crazies to leave.

Smarty-pants take note: the sign on the left reads: Bruges, not Amsterdam. Gah

That said, we thought the prices were seriously reasonable, and had the weather been better, perhaps we would have gotten in the boat and toured the canals. As it was, two hours of driving and eating was enough for my little crew.

Bruges by Foot

I’ll admit with kids, when you’ve seen one colorful building and waterway between the streets, they start the blend. Ours were more interested in the food, but for adults, you see a lot of the top sites in a day or two.

The Procession of the Holy Blood 2019 is coming up on May 30, 2019, and commemorates the arrival of the Relic of the Holy Blood in Bruges. The biblical and historic evocation is well known as the religious procession which originated as a purely religious expression at the end of the thirteenth century. Lots of people will be dressed up in costume (kids and adults) with the procession taking place on land and water. It’s free if you want to stand along the route, but 12 pounds will get you a seated bench where you can enjoy the Procession in comfort.

Yet another walkway over a canal. Can you imagine living here?

If you are looking for a single day itinerary, without kids or even a partner/spouse whatever, Miss Adventure knocked it out with her insane schedule (see previous link). She does a much better job summarizing what you can see if you want. We didn’t even go to half of the places recommended, and we were just fine with that. (recall that with kids, one can only subject them to so many cathedrals and museums before this cry of parental abuse begins.

Like I said, I have a thing for colored doors

Where’d we go from Bruges? Jumped on the ramp and went to Lille, France for the singular purpose of purchasing clothes and Napoleans, but not in that order. My girls (and myself) care a LOT more about a great pastry than we do a pair of shoes.

Financial freedom: say it, do it, live it

Sometimes we can’t make the right decisions for ourselves, so it’s made for us

When I’ve seen people traipsing all over, in a trailer, boat or plane, I’ve sometimes thought: how do they afford that? Is it a one-time thing, a trip of a lifetime, or is it a normal occurrence, like going to the grocery store? Have they gone in to debt to take the trip, or are their parent’s paying for it? More often then not, Rog and I have shaken our heads in wonder, unable to make sense of the contradiction we’d see between how people live their lives and the vacations they take. Perhaps you are wondering how we approach travel, and savings as well? Do we put it on a credit card, take lots of pics with smiling faces then spend the next five years paying off the credit card?

Not to go all Dave Ramsey on you, but our philosophy on discretionary spending and savings in general is probably one of the reasons Rog and I are still together, 21 years later. I’m going to share our experiences and philosophy for one purpose: help keep you worry free as we approach what will surely be another bust in the economy, because I wouldn’t wish our experience on anyone.

The backstory

In my twenties, I had a solid corporate career before starting my own business. I bought clothes, watches, took trips and when I met Roger, faced the look of shock and horror when I revealed my savings account had basically nothing in it after a decades’ worth of effort.

“No home?” he asked in disbelief. Nope. “Cars paid for?” Nah. I lease, because it’s a tax write-off. “Stock?” Sure, I proudly replied. Lots of that.

His own background was the polar opposite. A poor upbringing. First person in his family to attend college, paying for it as he went along. Purchased his first home by working two jobs while doing his graduate work. No vacations, no new cars, because “why lose all that value the moment you drive off the lot?” he asked rhetorically.

When our two, type-A selves merged, we invested in a fixer-upper, which is where we put our money and time. We constantly traveled domestic and internationally for work, and the last thing we wanted to do was get on a plane at the end of the week. We wanted to be home, working in the yard or painting the walls.

After a couple of years, I had sufficiently worked on Rog to relax the stringent financial guidelines he’d always adhered to. We leased cars and took four-day vacations to Mexico every six weeks. When it came time to remodel, we contacted our accountant.

“Use the banks money, not your own,” he advised. That sounded like a great idea. We left our stock our where it was, treating it as both savings and retirement plan, taking out a substantial mortgage. And diversifying? Nope, not for us.

“Why would we invest in (low-risk) bonds when we will make a much higher return in the stock market?” Rog asked me. I agreed. This was logical and consistent with those around us. We all worked all the high technology sector, our profile for risk taking perfect for the volatility of the stock market.

Times were good. Always wanting the highest return on our money, we maintained only a couple thousand in our checking account, enough to pay household bills. Charge it! was our motto. We thought ourselves properly smart to pay off our credit card bills every month. That was enough, right?

Financial hardship is the great equalizer

We were on vacation in Mexico when I suggested to Rog we should consider diversifying by cashing out a chunk of stock and just put the money in the bank. I had a feeling that was causing me unease, and I just couldn’t shake it. It will give us peace of mind, I argued.

“What do we need that for?” he asked in response, shaking his head. We were a part of the 80’s generation who had benefited from the economic good times, and then the secondary uplift from the technology super nova of the 90s. My conviction wavered and I let it drop. That next weekend, the stock market burst.

At first, Rog didn’t believe the market crash was more than a hiccup, so he didn’t sell. With each passing hour, he concluded that we truly would be left with nothing, and executed some lightening fast trades. It was just enough to cover half of the remaining work on our home. What wasn’t covered was the massive hole in the ground meant to be a new kitchen, half the deck and the rest of the property, which resembled an abandoned construction site.

We sat, stunned in disbelief. Our collective efforts of the last decade was gone, and it had happened in 48 hours.

A change of attitude and of life

We had no savings. We had no stock, ergo, no retirement. We had not one, but two mortgages on our home. We had three cars, all leased. We were screwed. Fighting against our regret, we were thankful that we were both still employed, but even that didn’t last long. Two months later, Rog left the very company he started after disagreements with the board. He retained his stock options, but what good were they? Their value was less than toilet paper; at least that had a use and we could get our hands on it. And those credit cards we’d used to charge the latest set of travel? Sky high, because it was mid-month. We had yet to pay the recent bill.

So, there we were, starting over again. We lost some hair, quite a bit of our sex life and our relationship was in trouble as we faced self-hateration and recrimination towards each other as we faced complete financial devastation for the first time in our eight-year marriage.

Our debt strategy for crawling out of the pit of financial despair

After we stopped fighting and decided that yes, we still wanted to be together and yes, it would be worse to split up and face the mountain of debt individually than together, pragmatism and a little love united. We vowed that we would never, EVER, be in that financial situation again. On a scratch piece of paper at the kitchen counter, here’s what we decided.

Rule 1: pay cash

Hearkening back to his previous existence, we agreed that if we needed anything, we wouldn’t purchase it on credit, either in-house or card, but cash. The first test came when our (old) dryer failed. My pleading turned into tears but Rog was unbending. We had made a deal, so I sucked it up and went without a dryer for a few weeks until we had the money for a new one.

The second and harder test was six months later when the lease on my car expired. We had six grand in the bank by that time. The best car we could afford was a 10 year-old black, diesel long-bed pick up truck. Do you have any idea how hard it is to park a long bed pick up in the middle of town? Furthermore, in a progressive city outside Seattle, I would literally get yelled at for driving a “dirty diesel” when I should have spent the $80K on an electronic car. I bit my lip and ignored whoever was yelling at me.

Rule 2: No travel and no exceptions

For almost four years, we missed every holiday, birthday, wedding and party for every and all family members and friends. We declined any invitation that was outside a fifty-mile radius of our home. That meant visiting the coast of Seattle was out. So was skiing; our first passion.

As you can imagine, we didn’t win any friends during this time, and mostly lost the ones we had. We were too prideful to tell anyone what had happened, even our family members, some of who thought the worst (e.g. we were just jerks). Only much later did we realize that perhaps they were going through the same thing.

Rule 3: Set pride aside and take extra jobs

Since our first priority was our children and child care was expensive, I’d immediately gotten on the phone with former clients who wouldn’t mind me moonlighting for a discount. With a toddler and baby at my breast (e.g. still nursing) I ended up taking black-box projects I could complete in between my feeding schedule. All hours, all days, whatever it took, I did it. Little by little, our empty account started to fill up.

Rule 4: No clothes, no eating out, no discretionary items

I felt I’d been confined to the hell of wealthy poverty. It was the only phrase I could come up with to describe our situation. We had the image of wealth (cars, home, clothes) but were so laden with debt we were in complete and utter poverty, barely able to pay the bills.

Writer’s pause. I recognize that at this point, you’re saying: Awesome! She clearly needed that, and you know what? I totally agree. We had gone against every principle of provident living: have savings (6-12 months), a week or more of food storage “just in case of a job loss situation,” as Mom always counseled. Pay cash for home and other essentials (time immemorial). Every last good piece of wisdom cast aside. As Thomas S. Monson once said, “When the time to prepare comes, it is already too late.”

We got to learn that first hand.

When you least expect it, or no longer need it….

Like the rest of the country, the first four or five years after the crash were the hardest. Yet over time, Rog bounced back and my consulting work was steady. We obsessed about being debt free. By 2013, we had paid off everything including one of the two mortgages. Still, we maintained our policy: no new cars, new vacations and no discretionary items. In fact, we had become somewhat tiresome to everyone around us because their image of us was really boring. The singular time I suggested to Roger we “reward ourselves” for saving and being so prudent, he gave me a rather disappointed look.

“We don’t reward our stupidity,” he told me.

As we rolled into year seven, we were steady: paying the mortgage, being militant about saving; each week, a little more. Eventually, the long-bed truck was traded for a…wait for it…3 year old used diesel short bed truck. When people asked why we didn’t purchase a new car, I’d repeat a line born of my own experiences. “I spent my twenties getting in in debt, my thirties getting out of debt and my forties paying cash.”

The vacations eventually resumed, but they meant staying the western states and in a trailer we had purchased on a good deal. After being stuck in our debt-laden prison for years, “trailering” as I call it, felt like a luxury. We were also able to finish the addition that had been halted years before, adding on the deck that had been little more than protruding nails and a pit waiting for the dining room. Not that I was complaining. At least during this time we didn’t miss a funeral, so it could have been a lot worse.

Then all of sudden, the company Rog had formed years before sold. Out of the blue, all our financial worries were gone for good. So what did we do? Absolutely nothing. We’d been so traumatized from losing it all we wanted to ensure we never again fell into the trappings of our previous life. That meant no vacations or new cars. After a month, when we were sure the money wasn’t going away (and the money hit the bank account)) we paid off our remaining mortgage.

It’s not downsizing, it’s rightsizing

After that, we started another round of soul-searching. We’d proven we could live on less and be happy. Our family of four and a dog didn’t really need a good size house, as nice as it was. Furthermore, we realized our kids would fall into the same trap we had if we didn’t seriously overhaul our lifestyle, which meant location as much as it meant home. We began making plans to move from the city to somewhere more rural. We also decided to get rid of certain legacy assets we had held on to because the overhead of keeping them up no longer fit our personal financial strategy (think a boat). We told ourselves if we forced ourselves to have smaller closets and storage, we’d not be inclined to fill up the extra room with more “stuff.” (And just think, this was years before Marie Kondo).

So it was, and is, that we chose Idaho, because the home we found, the nearest town and all that surrounds it embodies what we now knew we had to teach our girls. You can’t talk about living small-scale unless you do it. It’s hard to justify being prudent with three Christmas trees in your garage, sitting beside thirteen pumpkins and boxes of lights. Without storage space, “the stuff,” goes to Goodwill, and for us, the noise, the clutter and the overhead went with it.

One other funny twist of fate was that just before the downturn, I’d written The Overlooked Expert: Turning Your Skills Into a Successful Business. While I’d thought my consulting days were behind me, I ended up turning back to the very skills that had helped me in the first place.

Finally….yes, finally, we felt comfortable traveling again, and in 2014, that’s what we started doing. We made a family decision that instead of things, we were going to invest in experiences, so we have taken votes on where to go and let our map be our guide. We had long since set out our financial plan, and we created a revised version to fit with our updated life. It’s literally a spreadsheet of the next twenty years comprised of the following:

a) necessities (food budget)
b) required items (heat),
c) gas for the cars,
d) required clothing budget,
e) taxes and the like.

We put in a “discretionary” line item which included travel, and if that got eaten up by an unexpected cost like a broken pipe or car issue, the travel was wiped out. We never increased the budget. No. Matter. What. Thus, the years we have traveled overseas, it was within our budget. Other years, we made different decisions for the family, but the budget amount never changed. This has allowed to sleep more and worry less.

You the know the ultimate irony is that during the time we were living in wealthy poverty, everyone around us thought we had it all, because you know, this is the society in which we live. It’s all about outward appearances. Then when we changed our lifestyle, rightsizing on purpose and with intention, everyone wondered (and sometimes even voiced) the notion we’d hit skid row, and were being forced to downsize. We weren’t going to justify ourselves, other than to say we wanted to live stress free. The response was usually some sort of sympathetic look and head nod. Rog and I would, and still do, keep our mouths shut and hold hands, mentally or physically, strong in the knowledge we still have our hair and are sleeping really great at night. People can think whatever they want, because when we travel, or buy something, its paid for.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, we still have the white diesel truck. As I told Rog, “why would we want to buy a new one and lose half the value the minute we drive off the lot?”

I guess I have learned something after all.

A daughter, a mystery illness and baldness

Hair loss affects everyone

When my daughter Porsche was six, she became accustomed to strangers walking up and rubbing her head, muttering in a language she couldn’t understand. Two years later, parents and children would see her and cross the street in order to avoid coming in contact with her. Back then, I would have given anything for information, solutions and ultimately hope—which is what I intend to give to you.

In this, the first of a three-part series relating to the last seven years, I’ll go through the causes, what we tried and what finally worked. The last posting will be about a few of the pitfalls we encountered along the way.

Part 1: the beginning

When we visited Hawaii in December, four months after the Fukashima nuclear reactor melt-down, we thought nothing of being in the water. For two weeks, Porsche lived in the bay, at least four to six hours a day, every day. I was in the water the second most, but was tending my two year-old quite a bit, so my time was limited.

The year before it all started, showing our hair.

Three months later, bald spots started appearing on Porsche’s head, first a dime, here and there, then a quarter size. By June her head looked like it was diseased. What started as a “simple case of hair loss, or alopecia,” as is commonly referred to in dermatology circles, gradually evolved in a medical mystery.  much more than that.

The hair started to go. Comb-overs, bangs and massive swaths.
The journey begins

Mom has always told me she can see the sadness in my eyes.

“Don’t deny it,” she’d say to me. “It can’t be disguised.”

When Porsche’s hair loss began, I started removing myself from pictures of my travels. That’s why you are seeing many of my posts over the last number years—up until this year, that I’m simply not in the pictures. (and here you thought I was being modest or shy all this time).

About nine months after the hair loss began, we began doubting the initial diagnosis by the (3) dermatologists. They’d promised rapid replenishment of hair, prescribed topic steroids and regular injections of steroids into the scalp. Our little six year-old had received her first set of injections in one bald spot, then another, the count growing from ten, then twenty, to a total of 59 shots in the first appointment. As the bald spots increased, do did the number of needles in her head. After two months, she was receiving over three hundred shots in her head, without numbing cream (it didn’t work) or numbing injections.

All the hair had gone underneath–the top layer was all that is covering the rest of her scalp.
Judgement and rejection

During this time, the suffering was as emotional and mental as it was physical. Mothers of Porsche’s friends requested we not attend playdates or activities where our children would interact. In truth, Porsche looked like a victim suffering from a transferable disease, and the kinder-hearted would assume leukemia. To the fearful and uniformed, even in a city like Seattle, she was treated as though she had Ebola. We would literally have parents see us, and walk across the other side of the road.

Six months later…..

For those who did have the courage to ask, we responded honestly. “We don’t know what’s wrong, nor do the doctors,” I’d admit. That led to more ostracization by the parents concerned enough ask our child be placed in a separate classroom.

In the end, we could not longer hide and cover up the hair loss.

Over time, the questions changed, but they still felt like punches on an open wound.

“Your daughter used to be the tallest in the class. Has she stopped growing?” What I wanted to say was that the steroids we were using to keep my daughter’s hair follicles open were killing her hormones, and she was likely going to become sterile as a consequence, but thanks for asking. Instead, I’d used the well-honed technique of redirecting the topic of conversation to how much the accomplishments of their own child.

Hair follicles and injections

The months passed and the injections increased, now reaching 500 every six weeks, about the time it took the bruising the small scabs to heal then come off. Side note: injections in children, done by needle, are done without numbing cream or numbing injections. It’s not legal in some states, and in others, we learned the hard way that to numb the head requires injections themselves, then waiting, then another round of needles. We learned the hard way that the numbing agent didn’t always work, because the amount allowed to young children is so small. In effect, this caused Porsche more pain, because the number of shots effectively doubled. It took only several sessions for Porsche to announce that she would take all the shots straight, no numbing at all. Tough girl.

Why the injections?

We were referred to Dr. Robert Nebalski, one of the premier hair-loss specialists in the northwest, who had been working with peers in Italy and around the world on the causes and solutions to hair loss. He told us that no, he had no idea why Porsche was losing her hair, but until we found the cause, and identified a cure, we had to do one thing: keep the follicles open. However, of two things, he was convinced. The first, was that this was not “normal hair loss, or alopecia.” Second, the injections were a must.

“You need to keep the injections to keep the hair follicles open so when we do find a solution, the hair can grow through.”

Jump forward two years. Porsche was eight, and the last of her hair was falling out. Over the months, I’d been cutting her thick hair to make it appear thicker, and has become creative with comb-overs, braids and using headbands to cover the spots. But on Christmas Day, as I brushed her hair, an enormous swath just stuck to the brush. I lost it, holding back my tears until she’d left to sob. The day after Christmas, it was my husband who took Porsche to visit a wig store specializing in children stricken by cancer. We purchased two wigs, one real and one handmade using real hair. The latter he purchased that day, and the second, we had made (more on that in a separate post).

As we prepared her for the coming New Year, and returning to school with a wig, we encountered the questions of “Why is this happening to me?” or “Why am I going through this?” Of course, these are questions we all ask when hard times befall us, and we don’t always have answers. The one grounding messaging I stood upon was this: we all go through things that make us stronger, turn us towards seek answers and then help others if we can. I told her that her experiences would make her capable of handling whatever life would throw at her, and someday, she’d be able to help others.

Still, we had to deal with reality, and confront prejudices immediately. We encouraged her to be forthright about her hair, acknowledging it’s a wig, she has no hair, and that we are working on figuring out what’s wrong with her body.

That was what she did, and you know what? It worked wonders. Porsche told her friends and teachers, wasn’t ashamed that she had no hair, and after her wig came off in a game of tag on the playground, she suggested to the teachers (and boys) that they be careful not to pull on her wig.

For the time being, we were still searching for answers, had ordered a hair made from real hair, and waited.

Wigs 101

Synthetic wigs are a fraction of the cost of real hair, as in, $500 vs $4,000. The primary difference includes the ability to wash, curl and style a wig made from natural hair, versus one from synthetic. That said, the synthetic wigs are so well made, one had to get really close to tell it wasn’t natural hair, and it kept its shape perfectly. The hairstylist at the wig shop demonstrated how to use the under cap (made of nylon) and place the wig on from properly. In order to keep the form of the wig, purchasing and using a styrophome head is necessary. Every so often, it’s required to trim a few of the hairs that would stick up or out from the synthetic wig, and it couldn’t get wet or dirty.

In contrast, a natural wig is treated like regular hair, because that’s what it is. We had the hair custom dyed to match Porsche’s previous color, so it matched her skin tones. When it arrived, we also had it cut in a shape ideal for her face, while long enough to style.

Can you tell which one is the real hair or the synthetic one?

A note-Porsche’s head continued to grow, and we knew that the wig had a lifecycle of about three years. When they no longer fit, it was my intention to donate the wigs to cancer victims. Imagine my disappointment when I contacted the local Children’s Hospital and was told they couldn’t accept the donations! Apparently, it would be a big, political mess to determine which children received the wigs, and they couldn’t possibly select two out of many. Not to be deterred, I found a seven year old girl who had experienced two different bouts of cancer and had had been profiled in the newspaper. The article mentioned her father, I googled him and tracked him down at a local car dealership. He took my cold call, (thinking I wanted a used car) and started crying when I told him I had two wigs for him. It was two weeks before Christmas, and he’d told me all his daughter had been praying for was a wig for her hair.

We both cried together.

Later that week, our families met. They’d lost everything as they mortgaged away their life to pay for their daughters’ treatment. In the living room of a friend’s home, we showed his daughter how to wear and take care of the wigs. Her smile was so bright and joy so full, we were without words. While we were no closer to discovering the source of our daughter’s situation, we gave thanks we had her in our lives, and that she was otherwise healthy and happy. It was a great start to what we were sure was going to be a better year. o

Perfectly Prague

For solo-travelers, couples in a blissful state of romance or families looking for affordable fun, Prague is truly perfect

Do you like castles and paddling in your own boat on the river? What about cheap food and luxury clothes for 10% of regular cost? Are you a fan of the Triple XXX movie with Vin Diesel? What about seeing the remains of Lucy, the 4M yr old artifact, or an Andy Warhol painting in person? I answered yes to all of the above after I’d been there, but I’ll be the first to admit that when we book Prague as one of our home bases for a month-long trip, I picked it mostly out of convenience. Throw stones if you will, but my glass house is now bullet proof, because we keep going back, and in a mere six weeks, will be there once again.

This is the first of a multi-part series on the city and the surrounding areas, because it’s perfect for solo-travelers, couples in a blissful state of romance or families looking for affordable good times.

Book your stay and get ready to walk

Prague is one of the most popular destinations in Europe; and for good reason. Old town is walking distance to some of the most famed sites in the country; The Prague Castle, the Astronomical Clock, the old town main square and museums. The town attracts the visitors by the thousands because compared to so many other countries because it’s so unique and blissfully inexpensive. In a single day, you can hit the major hot spots in town, take your selfie and go. Here’s what you can do:

Park in Old Town, (or take the metro), and walk to St. Charles Bridge. The best times or morning or early afternoon, because during the summer, when the sun goes down, it’s a wall-to-wall visitor’s and pretty tough to take a picture. That said, in June, the crowds are quite sparse, so if you have the chance, go between now and mid-July and it’s not so bad.

This is a backward view when you are on the famed St. Charles Bridge. Old Town is in the distance, the tightly stacked buildings narrowing the crowds walking to the bridge.

Walk up one side of the river (river name) cross anyone of the many bridges and walk down the other side. Doing so gives you lots of pictures of both sides of the waterfront.

Paddle boats afford great photo opps that are impossible unless you have a long lense

Stop and rent a paddle boat on the Vltava River. This sounds cheesy, but it’s great fun. You paddle and pause to take a photo of the waterfront or colorful buildings, then stop at any of the sidewalk eateries for a long sausage and drink. Do you need to reserve in advance? Absolutely NOT. The site I referenced shows a great picture of the main rental area on Zofin Island, right across from the National Theatre. You can’t miss it. During our time, we rented a boat three times, and two out of the three, we just walked up, chose the type of boat we wanted and hopped right in. The single instance we needed to wait, it was sunset on a very hot day, and stood for 30 minutes until a boat became available. The time is limited (you can choose 30 min, an hour or more), but it’s long enough to go all the way up and one side of the river and down the other. FYI- barriers prevent you from going too far in either way.

If you’re going to be eccentric, let your choice of paddle boats say it all for you.

Don’t be shy—jump in the gerbil balls, releasing your inner child. I wasn’t going to get into a rubber ball, floating on the river while it was tethered to the side until after I saw my own kids. I didn’t notice or care about the heat wave of 100+ temperatures because I was racing along the bottom, trying to bump into my kids!

Put the pride aside and zip yourself into a gerbil ball. It’s hilariously terrifying.

Walk up to the Prague Castle. It’s going to take about 20-25 minutes from the opposite side of the river, but it’s not difficult; flat, then the rise at the end as you walk up the incline. To our slight disgust, the first thing you see at the top is a portable Starbuck’s, which we thought was the tragic commercialization of a castle, but alas. What can you do? There’s a McDonald’s in plain view of the Duomo Cathedral in Milan, so we just ignored it and moved on.

A view from the Prague Castle

During two visits, filmmakers were making major motion pictures (no, Vin wasn’t in site) but the handsome polize were. They laughed at the blond American asking in terrible Czech if they’d mind posing, but were more than happy to do so.

Cajoling the security squad from the movie to take a snap

After you tour the outside and surrounding areas, you’ll probably be in it about 5-6 hours. Now’s the time to let the sun go down, pick a spot within the main square of Old Town and eat a casual meal The reason? Because the best pictures of the clock are taken during the evening. Of course, you’re not the only person who knows this, so be prepared for a lots of people. Tours are interesting, and we did one, but I don’t think it’s required. Just standing in the square, watching the performers and planning where you’re going to eat your next meal.

When you take a cab, these are the images you miss…looking over the edge of a bridge to the water as you walk up (or down) to Prague Castle.

Alternatively, if you’re not tired, and ready to do a bit more walking, then head in the opposite direction, away from the Castle. Across the bridge, through the shopping areas of Old Town, and up the long boulevard that leads to what is known as Wenceslas Square. Believe it or not, we found parking spots right on the main street-so it’s possible! Treat it just like Los Angeles parking and you’ll be completely fine!