Tag - Travel

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» REVIEW: Hyatt Zilara Rose Hill – Montego Bay Jamaica
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» Houston, Star Fish, and the 2017 Hyundai Elantra
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» Chattanooga: 3-Day Family Vacation
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» Pi Pizza and the 2017 Hyundai Elantra #Houston
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» Southwest Airlines Companion Pass (Our Taste of Travel Hacking)
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» My Travel Essentials (Ethiopia, pt. 2)
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» New Orleans: Family Fun
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» Ethiopia Trip (pt. 1) and The Day of Hope
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» Break forth like the dawn: Anxiety vs. Joy
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» I Want to Be Brave

» REVIEW: Hyatt Zilara Rose Hill – Montego Bay Jamaica

Calvin and I celebrated ELEVEN years of marriage this year. We have always desired to grab some special time away on a fabulous beach but the logistics just have not panned out until this year. After months of planning and researching we chose to spend our 11th anniversary at the Hyatt Zilaria Rose Hill, an all-inclusive resort in Montego Bay, Jamaica. I was very nervous once we made the full commitment. What if it didn’t live up to my long-awaited expectations for a tropical getaway!? Fortunately it absolutely did and we enjoyed a perfect weeklong stay on our own slice of paradise. Here are the highlights in case you are looking for your own little getaway!

Arrival

Upon arrival we were ushered to a Hyatt waiting area in the airport. We received cold water and pineapple juice while they checked us into the resort. After approximately 15 minutes the staff gathered our luggage and we took a short bus ride to the Hyatt. The front desk was waiting for us and knew exactly who we were when we stepped off the bus. June is a slower season and we were immediately upgraded to a higher level suite upon arrival. Our room was not quite ready but the staff pointed out a great lunch spot and we enjoyed a meal while we waited the 30 minutes for our room to be ready.  From the second we stepped off the bus we were extremely impressed with the beauty of the resort and the friendliness of the staff. We knew we had made the right decision.

Room

We stayed in a Junior suite on the adult-only side of the Hyatt resort. The room was very spacious and decorated well with a modern, island feel. Lots of white, stone and metal tones. The bathroom was open and included a very large walk-in shower and a huge soaking tub. The king sized bed was cozy… not to firm or too soft. Perfect for several uninterrupted nights of sleep. The balcony, however, was the icing on the cake. It was large with a lovely lounging area and it faced the pool and the ocean. We spent many hours reading, writing and napping on that beautiful balcony with the sound of the ocean in the background. The resort was all-inclusive so our fridge was stocked with snacks and drinks daily. I drink a larger than normal amount of water and they quickly brought more when I ran out one day.

Dining

There were so many dining options that we were not able to eat through the entire list! It was so much fun trying different things everyday and not worrying about anything due to the all-inclusive nature of the resort. The food was always fresh and delicious at each place. Our favorite meals included the French fine dining experience at Petit PareZ, Di Roza Italian, and the Jamaican Jerk chicken shack by the pool. We also enjoyed long, lazy breakfasts with ocean views each morning at the buffet. We chose the buffet most morning because I enjoyed the unlimited papaya and other fun island fruits. Additionally I was able to have a fresh, green smoothie made each morning as well. Here’s the bottom line about the food, it wasn’t cruise ship food. That was our biggest fear when it came to all-inclusive. The food was fresh, creative and plentiful. We looked forward to our meals and enjoyed each one of them.

Activities

The all-inclusive nature of this resort carries over to activities as well! Ocean kayaking, sailboats, boogie boards and snorkeling are all available at no extra cost. We typically enjoyed an activity in the early afternoon before lounging around in the beautiful pools and clear, greenish/blue ocean. There is full drink service, also included, at the pools and oceanside. There was also plenty of entertainment available during the day and in the evenings. We stayed on the adults only side, but also ventured over to the family side at times to enjoy their restaurants and coffee shops. During these ventures we dreamed big about enjoying this resort with our family one day. The beach area and pools were perfectly set up for long, relaxing family days in the sun. The staff also seems to go over the top to care for and serve these families well. Truly cannot say enough about the kindness of the staff at this resort.

The Resort

The resort in general was beautiful and very, very clean. There were always plenty of lounge areas and chairs around the pool and beach. The towels were plentiful, the views were gorgeous, the staff was amazing and the resort was large. There was never a need to leave the resort to do other activities as we felt that there was plenty to occupy us right where we were.


Our Tips

Pack a float in your luggage! The pools and ocean area are wonderful and you will want to take advantage of that. A float from home will make your experience that much more relaxing. We also recommend bringing an umbrella and being prepared for a rainy afternoon or two. The rain comes and goes quickly, but expect to see it on occasion. Be sure to pack a mixture of nice clothing and things to relax in, a few of the restaurants are formal and require at least a collared shirt and don’t allow flip flops. Lastly, bring small bills. Although tip is included at the all inclusive, the staff is truly wonderful and you may want to tip them extra for their hard work and cheerful attitude.

» Houston, Star Fish, and the 2017 Hyundai Elantra

Special thanks to Hyundai USA for allowing us to test drive the 2017 Hyundai Elantra. As always, these opinions are my own.

Cherry Pie Hospitality is hard to keep up with. It seems that every time I’ve visited Houston in the past two years, Cherry Pie has opened a new restaurant. The latest being Star Fish which has a seafood-filled menu that can accommodate all appetites. This time around I hopped in a Scarlet Red Hyundai Elantra and headed down to Star Fish to see (and eat) what the fuss is all about.

Here are some of our favorite things about the car followed by my grand experience at Star Fish in Houston.

2017 Hyundai Elantra

My first impressions of the new Elantra Value Edition was it’s sleek design and roomy interior. Besides the interior trim, there didn’t seem to be many noticeable differences compared to the Sport Edition I drove last time around. The inside fits four comfortably (five technically) with decent sized trunk space. I know I’m always in for an adventure driving the streets of Houston so the sport mode was a necessity.

all photos © Goodbye Normal

Things we loved:

CarPlay – I’m looking forward to how CarPlay will improve over the years. Built-in car GPS systems are so inferior compared to maps on smart phones. CarPlay was able to mirror Apple Maps onto the car’s display along with Spotify. iMessage is also another major component of CarPlay which took more time getting used to. Nonetheless, having the car’s display look just like my phone, squashed the learning curve and I was ready to go right away.

Style – Hyundai has come a long way with their designs. I have to admit that in the past, I might’ve been embarrassed with driving a Hyundai but those days are now gone.

Power – The Value Edition still offers a sport mode for the demands of driving in a bustling city. I was not disappointed at all by the performance needed to keep up on the Interstate.

Conclusion

A car with CarPlay is a huge selling point for me. The car was perfect for our trip and would make a fun commuter for anyone. The additional horsepower (vs. some of the other vehicles in the same class) is a benefit in a city that gives little grace for those that can’t keep up. The lane assists is a natural extension of the car and keeps anyone safer on the road.

Star Fish
191 Heights Blvd, Houston, TX 77007

Step in and see the 300-gallon freshwater aquarium, you’ll know you’ve made it into the right place. The back wall at Star Fish is busy with a raw bar, which cranks out freshly shucked oysters, seafood cocktails, and massive chilled platters. We sat down and had a little of everything, some of my personal favorites were the Sizzling Shrimp, Lobster Puff Tacos, Steak Taretare and of course the Raw Oysters (Gulf, Maryland, and Maine). You’ll also want to make sure you save room for the White Chocolate Bread Pudding. Click through these photos to see more.

 all photos © Goodbye Normal

» Chattanooga: 3-Day Family Vacation

Spring Break is the most common topic in our home right now and I’m sure it’s making the rounds in your house as well! One of our favorite Spring Break destinations is Chattanooga, Tennessee.  In fact, Chattanooga made the list on Thrillist.com of America’s 8 Most Overlooked Small Cities.

Chattanooga is a short two-hour drive from the Nashville area. The perfect distance for a weekend getaway or a Spring Break adventure. There is plenty to do for adults and kids alike so it’s always an easy choice for us. Additionally, Chattanooga never seems to be overcrowded and that’s a huge plus for us as we navigate a city with kids in tow.

Day 1, Afternoon

The Chattanoogan Hotel

The Chattanoogan Hotel has some great Spring Break packages that you need to check out here. The location is ideal; within walking distance of many local restaurants and shops, as well as the free shuttle that will take you to the main downtown attractions. Upon arrival, Elliott and I hopped out to check in and gather our room keys. We were immediately greeted by friendly staff and a warm fire as we entered the spacious lobby. After check-in we explored the hotel a bit and then headed up to our guest rooms. We noticed the local art in the hallways along the way and appreciated the non-standard decor. The kids appreciated the presence of Pokemon as they were allowed a bit of time to catch them all.

Our room was spacious and clean. I always appreciate coffee in the room but especially love that the Chattanoogan provides a Keurig and a few k-cups. This ensures that I can have a quality cup of coffee the moment the kids wake up. The beds are also very comfortable at the Chattanoogan. The double rooms provide two queen beds rather than two full beds. This is something I no longer take for granted after a few recent stays at other hotels.

After settling in we immediately headed to the indoor pool for a quick swim. We love the pool at the Chattanoogan because it’s just the right depth for a slew of young kids. It makes it so much easier to keep them safe. The view of the mountains from the pool area is a nice addition as well! There is plenty of room to sit inside the pool area and there is an additional outdoor veranda with tables for warm evenings.

There is a hot tub and sauna for mom and dad as well!

Day 1, Night

One of our favorite things about Chattanooga is the Shuttle! The Shuttle is free, clean and easy to catch. It’s also a great way to give our suburban kids a taste of public transportation. On our first night we took the shuttle across the bridge to eat at Good DogAnd we are so glad we did!

Good Dog serves hot dogs (including meatless varieties) in countless, delicious ways.  Additionally they provide stacks of books, games and fun coloring utensils. The kids really enjoyed their meal and not a crumb was left over. Once our meal was complete we took the walking bridge back over to the downtown area. After the walk the kids had enough room to enjoy some Rita’s frozen custard and Italian Ice.  We enjoyed walking around a bit more as we finished off our treats and headed back to the hotel for a bit more swimming.

Day 2, Morning


We started our day with the breakfast buffet at Broad Street Grill, inside the The Chattanoogan. There was plenty of fresh fruit and hot breakfast items for the kids to choose from. They also had a nice assortment of Greek yogurts and cereals. Calvin and I each enjoyed egg-white omelets made-to-order from the chef as well. We noticed that several other families were dining in the large restaurant area and felt right at home. The service here is also amazing and reflective of the hotel in general. Lola smashed a strawberry into her shirt and our kind waiter brought soda water to fight the stain within a moment. Extra touches like this make dining with kids so much easier!

Day 2, Afternoon

Creative Discovery Museum

We have visited many many children’s museum’s over the years. And I’ve got to say even I was running around with wonder in the Creative Discovery Museum. They had everything from dinosaurs and fossils to painting and music rooms. And nothing was off-limits! The kids spent almost and hour building robots and sewing and hammering in the Make-it area. The staff was friendly and helpful, even teaching Charlotte how to knot the end of her thread.

There was also a neat outdoor area on the rooftop that displayed live bees (safely) and allowed the kids to use their muscles to push, pull, turn and move all kids of things. This was a great outlet for them and I think they just might have been a little tired after this adventure. We could have easily spent 5-6 hours here but we headed out after 4 hours.

After the long visit at the kids’ museum, we decided to walk a few blocks for Thai food at Thai Smile. The food was good but the service was a little too slow for us, especially with hungry kids. It turned out to be a beautiful day so we took the walking bridge to the Coolidge park area. Our kids enjoyed riding the $1 Carousel (yes you read that right!) and climbing all over the animals that make up the outdoor fountain.


We also brought a football and played catch while we soaked up the sun. It was a beautiful day. While this was going on I popped over to an antique store that backs up to Coolidge park. It’s so nice to have so many different things accessible in a small area. After eating lots of heavy food we also needed a little pick-me-up so I grabbed fresh juices for everyone at Pure Vida which was also easily accessible from the park and carousel area. After we had our fill of green juices and vitamin C we checked out the little stores in the area. This area is considered the art district so there was a lot of inspiration for our little artists.

Additional considerations: The park was busy with kids playing soccer and college students playing Spike Ball (no dogs allowed FYI). There are plenty of little shops around including the legendary Clumpies Ice Cream that overlooks the park area, make sure you pick up some treats there.

Day 2, Evening

We were all pretty worn out by the evening and pizza was sounding really good after being out all day so we decided to grab a bite at Mellow Mushroom, which is right next to the shuttle stop back to the hotel. You simply cannot go wrong with Mellow Mushroom! We love that we can choose two entirely different pizzas for each half of the pizza because I opt for vegetarian options and the rest of the family definitely does not. The service was great and the pizza was better! We also checked out High Point climbing gym, which was next door, and decided to return for a climb the next day.

Day 3, Morning

High Point Climbing

We visited the downtown location of High Point Climbing. It’s a beautiful facility that even allows you to climb on the outside of the building. There is 30,000 sq. feet of climbing surface to enjoy including a really fun kids zone. The staff was very friendly and encouraging to our kids who didn’t have a lot of climbing experience. They definitely instilled a love for climbing in them in just a short amount of time! As you all know, our daughter Lola is blind. But this didn’t stop her! We could barely get her off the wall to leave when it was time to go. We always enjoy allowing our kids to push forward and challenge themselves.

The kids zone was a great place to start for Elliott (9), Lola (9) and Charlotte (7) but they quickly advanced to the bouldering area and some of the intermediate level climbing areas in the main gym. Liam, who is 5, had plenty to challenge him in the kids zone and stayed there until the very end. He did do one beginner level wall in the main gym right before leaving and was quite proud of himself.

High point provided everything we needed to climb for the day and the day-pass price was very reasonable. They do discount the day pass for the last 2 hours in the day if you prefer to climb for a shorter amount of time and save a bit of money. Overall this was an incredibly fun and empowering addition to our Chattanooga vacation. The kids can’t wait to climb again!

Summary

We loved staying at The Chattanoogan Hotel and hope it won’t be our last time. It was a luxury hotel experience with friendly staff. We didn’t feel crazy trying to keep up with all of our kids in the pool due to the layout and shallow water. The focus on local foods and art made the experience uniquely personal and inviting. Lastly, the location enabled us to hit all the city hot-spots without ever getting in our car. We will continue to keep Chattanooga on our short list for long weekend. We can’t wait to visit again and experience even more Chattanooga attractions such as Rock City and Lake Winnie.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Disclaimer: The folks at The Chattanoogan Hotel, and Creative Discovery Museum kindly accommodated us for this review. As always, the opinions are my own.

» Pi Pizza and the 2017 Hyundai Elantra #Houston

Special thanks to Hyundai USA for allowing us to test drive the 2017 Hyundai Elantra. As always, these opinions are my own.

Trips to Houston are always hard. With only nine meals to plan and so many places to eat, it creates quite a dilemma. Usually they’re filled with old favorites topped off with one new hot spot. When we found out that Cherry Pie Hospitality had ventured into the pizza business, it was an easy decision on where to go this time around. Pi Pizza wasn’t the only first for me, so was Driving a Hyundai. The Scarlet Red Elantra was surprisingly fun to drive and has totally changed my perception of the car brand.

Here are some of our favorite things about the car followed by my first (but not last) visit to Pi Pizza.

2017 Hyundai Elantra

My first impressions of the new Elantra was it’s sleek design and roomy interior. The inside fits four comfortably (five technically) with decent sized trunk space. I know I’m always in for an adventure driving the streets of Houston so the sport mode was a necessity.

all photos © Goodbye Normal

Things we loved:

You had me at CarPlay – Finally got to drive a car with Apple CarPlay! Built-in car GPS systems are so inferior compared to maps on smart phones. CarPlay was able to mirror Apple Maps onto the car’s display along with Spotify. iMessage is also another major component of CarPlay which took more time getting used to. Nonetheless, having the car’s display look just like my phone, squashed the learning curve and I was ready to go right away.

Style – Hyundai has come a long way with their designs. I have to admit that in the past, I might’ve been embarrassed with driving a Hyundai but those days are now gone.

Power – The Elantra has a 2.0L Atkinson cycle engine that delivers more standard horsepower (147 HP) than the 2016 Toyota Corolla (132 HP) and 2016 Nissan Sentra (130 HP). There’s no reason to just sit there when you can get up and go in an Elantra.

Conclusion

A car with CarPlay is a huge selling point for me. The car was perfect for our trip and would make a fun commuter for anyone. The additional horsepower (vs. some of the other vehicles in the same class) is a benefit in a city that gives little grace for those that can’t keep up. The lane assists is a natural extension of the car and keeps anyone safer on the road.

Pi Pizza
181 Heights Blvd, Houston, TX 77007

Although I never got to enjoy Anthony Calleo’s Pi Pizza food truck, this brick and mortar is proof that Pi has come a long way. Linking arms with Cherry Pie Hospitality, this new concept brings a great atmosphere (punk rock but warm and welcoming) with ample seating and fun decor featuring custom-painted skateboards on black-and-gold calavera wallcovering. You can definitely find unique combinations and flavors of pizza, on paper you might be a little skeptical, but just give it a chance.

all photos © Goodbye Normal

My favorite part, Pi uses the highest quality ingredients in their pizzas, boasting a 98% “from scratch” kitchen meaning none of their pizza toppings come from a bag. Do yourself a favor and make sure to get the Mac n’ Cheese balls, the jalapeno ranch dip takes it to another level.

» Southwest Airlines Companion Pass (Our Taste of Travel Hacking)

*Updated 2/25/2017

Our Timeline

NOV 2016: Apply for First Card (Southwest Visa Premier)
DEC 2016: Apply for Second Card (Southwest Visa Plus)
JAN 2017: Meet the Minimum Spending Requirement for First Card
FEB 2017: Meet the Minimum Spending Requirement for Second Card and get to 110,000 points
end of Feb 2017: Enjoy the Companion Pass until December 31, 2018!

Share the Luv

After reading this, if you decide to “go for it”, sign up HERE (last updated 1/26/2017) and you will get the 50,000 point incentive (this referral link was provided to us by Southwest).

According to Nate Buchanan (self-described travel hacker) of karaandnate.com, the Southwest Companion Pass is “the holy grail of travel hacking”. For us, we thought it would be valuable because we would like to travel to our families in Texas and South Carolina more frequently and Southwest is the best option for the cities we needed. Plus we thought it would be a fun experiment to see if Travel Hacking was a real thing.

Please remember that this is our own personal experience and our unique credit history. I understand you may have a different philosophy on credit cards, spending habits, and have a different credit background.

What Is the Southwest Companion Pass?

The Southwest Companion Pass allows a companion to fly free with you on any Southwest flight regardless of whether you’re paying with cash or redeeming miles! In order to reach Companion Pass status, you must earn 110,000 Rapid Reward points in a calendar year, or you must fly 100 flights in a calendar year.

How Long Does the Southwest Companion Pass Last?

If you plan well, the Companion pass can last for almost two years! Below is the explanation from Southwest’s website.

“Rapid Rewards Companion Pass qualification will be based on the calendar year. Once it is reached, you will begin enjoying the benefits immediately. You will maintain your Companion Pass for the remainder of the calendar year in which you qualified and the entire calendar year immediately following the year in which you qualified.”

How We Were Able to Earn the Southwest Companion Pass

In November 2016, we signed up for the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier Card. This way, we could make sure to get the 50,000 bonus points by January of the 2017 calendar year (this is important to get the Companion Pass status as early as possible). The next month, we signed up for the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Plus Card to get another 50,000 bonus points they were offering. After meeting both card requirements we had at least 104,000 points. To get the other 6,000 points, we did a variety of things; One big thing that helped was delaying large purchases in order to make these charges in the early months of 2017 to go toward the 110,000 point goal.

 

 

southwest-credit-cards

» My Travel Essentials (Ethiopia, pt. 2)

I love the title “World Traveler.” Knowing the globe has been a lifelong dream of mine. And not just the terrain or the scenic views… knowing the people that make up the world. Walking a day with them, being part of their story for just a little while. I can remember laying in bed as a child and dreaming about foreign lands, even pretending to speak other languages. Fulfilling these dreams and desires is a gift that, at times, I can’t believe is mine. My little “World Traveler” title has required me to gather some pretty fun gear over the years. I was able to try a few new products on my last trip that made my travels uniquely comfortable this time around. Here is my round-up of my favorite gear for long distance travel:

JUST PORTER

The Sable Rucksack Backpack is great especially if you need a carryon that you can wear to free up your hands. When traveling long distances, my essentials always add up quickly with the fear of lost luggage. The Sable Rucksack has one large compartment complemented with a few zipper pockets that I used to stash chargers and documents.

I used the laptop sleeve for an iPad Pro and it was well protected. Two of my favorite features of these bags are the waterproof shell and the use of magnetic buckles for quick buckling/unbuckling. Outside of airport travel, the bag served it’s purpose as there were many days we were out for 12+ hours and needed to carry food, water, and other supplies for the day.

“For each bag purchased, Just Porter manufactures a give bag and fills it with school supplies then gives it to a child in need. But, Just Porter’s charitable giving goes beyond parachuting and dumping goods onto poor communities. They actually work with the communities to manufacture their Give Bags locally and purchase their supplies from the local markets.”

Just Porter website
buy Just Porter on Amazon

BUFF BANDS

I’ve always used Buff Bands for camping. They are great for a variety of reasons; sun protection, sweat control, and keeping my hair out of my face just to name a few. Buff Bands served their purpose on the dusty clay roads in Ethiopia.

There were many times we covered our noses and mouths to prevent ourselves from inhaling the dust. In addition, the UV Buff Insect Shield Infused has an invisible repellent that lasts through 70 washings, blocks 95% of harmful UV rays, and features Polygiene technology to kill odor-causing bacteria.

Buff USA website
buy Buff products on Amazon

Paracable

I can’t tell you how many white iPhone cables my family has gone through. Finally fed up, I was on the search for a sturdy cable worth the investment. Meet Paracable. Apple MFI certified, 32-strand paracord, and especially great for travel since they are five feet long. I don’t think I’ll ever buy another brand of lightning cables, however I may never need to replace the Paracable ones I have now.

Paracable website
Buy Paracable on Amazon

TOSI HEALTH

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Tosi makes an assortment of health food products but my two favorite items are the Tosi complete Greens and Tosi SuperBites. I am a huge fan of green juices, powders and smoothies. However, many brands I’ve tasted end up grainy or unpalatable. Tosi’s Green drink is very smooth and lightly sweet. I had no problem chugging a big glass when I felt sluggish or lacked nutrition. The Tosi SuperBites were a great meal substitute for me on days when we packed a lunch for travel or when the scary airplane food came out for dinner on the 13 hour flight. The Cappuccino Crunch Cashew was my absolute favorite. Clean energy and fuel for the day. The bars also stood the test of hard travel. They never crumbled or disintegrated in my bag, as other brands have.

Tosi website
Buy Tosi Superbites on Amazon

KEEN FOOTWEAR

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Elliott and I both lived in Keens during our trip. I typically fly in a slip-on style shoe to make security check points easier. In the past I’ve found my slip on shoes lack the support I need for the, sometimes long, layovers and walking in the airports. My Keen Rivington CNXs gave great support and looked stylish at the same time. While in-country Elliott and I both wore the waterproof sandal style Newport H2 Keens. The Red Clay streets of Uganda leave a pretty decent mess on your shoes by the end of the day so we loved that the Keens could be washed off at night and dry by morning. The also came in handy when our boat began taking on water in the Nile (yikes!). Elliott’s favorite shoe to wear to this day is the Chandler CNX.

KEEN website
Buy KEEN shoes on Amazon

SHOLDIT

Sholdit-300x300
Seriously… where was this item all my life? I often wear a scarf when traveling because I can wrap it around my face when I’m trying to sleep or to avoid weird smells on the airplane… or when someone is coughing. But this scarf takes it to the next level. The scarf contains two concealed pockets for passports, money and boarding passes. It enabled me to skip digging through my bag at each juncture and it also kept my travel documents safely close to me and away from sticky fingers. I felt secure and less stressed between check points. The Sholdit also comes in great patterns and colors, something for everyone’s unique style.

Sholdit website
Buy Sholdit on Amazon

COMFY COMMUTER

IMG_3748
I LOVE this pillow. So much, that I took a selfie with it on the plane. And I don’t take selfies. It does all the things every other travel pillow has failed to do. For one, it doesn’t slide or slip. The material on the back of the pillow provides enough friction to keep the pillow in place. It also surrounds your head in a way that give you neck, head and shoulder support. You won’t end up with a sore neck after using the Comfy Commuter. And when you reach your destination it packs neatly away in it’s little bag. There was literally nothing to complain about, it made my flight so much more comfortable.

Comfy Commuter website
Buy Comfy Commuter on Amazon

POLAROID

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Before this trip I was unaware that Polaroid made such a diverse line of products. I utilized their earbuds on the flight, which were very comfortable, and their bluetooth “selfie stick” to capture all of our team photos. Everything functioned seamlessly and it’s always nice to take care of photos ourselves rather than soliciting strangers.

Polaroid website
Buy Polaroid on Amazon

BAGO TRAVEL BAGS

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We packed our Large duffle bag full of donations and checked it through. I was a bit nervous about checking the duffle but I trusted the durable material in the end and gave it a try. I am so glad I did! The Bago duffle came through without a scratch or tear, while our standard luggage looked terrible by the time it reached Uganda. The duffle also folds into a little tiny bag and we didn’t have extra luggage to bring home as a result. For more info on the duffle check out my previous packing post here. Elliott carried the Bago packable backpack (great for kids!) throughout the trip and we were impressed with the lightweight yet durable material. It held up very well as we traveled around Uganda and went in and out of airports during our 32 hour travel home.

Bago website
Buy Bago on Amazon

 

 

 

 

Disclaimer: We received units from some of these brands for review. As always, the opinions are my own.

» New Orleans: Family Fun

In December we headed to New Orleans for a long weekend full of good food, good times and a little graduation pit stop for me. If you have followed the blog this year you know that we left New Orleans in 2008 just as I was wrapping up my Masters degree at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Fast forward to 2016 and I finally applied for graduation and finished what I started (you can read the full story here). We absolutely loved living in New Orleans and couldn’t wait to get back and spend some time in the city. As always, it did not disappoint. Being a visitor in a city we used to live in was super fun. We flew down (Southwest points for the win!) and felt adventurous so we used a combination of Uber/Lyft and Trolley transportation to get around the Big Easy.

For those of you who are curious about a family trip to NOLA, we highly recommend it! Here’s a recap of the places we visited (as a family) along with a few notes.

Where to stay
Where to eat

Where to go:

Audubon Zoo – The Audubon zoo is the very first zoo we ever visited as a little family of 3 when Elliott was a baby. We liked the fact that the trolley (St. Charles car to the Audubon Park/Tulane stop) takes you right near where the zoo shuttle picks you up. The animals were out and very visible unlike some other zoo experiences we’ve had. Plan at least three hours here.

Kamba Kourse – Inside the zoo is Kamba Kourse, a 3-story-high ropes course that our kids were looking most forward to. Unfortunately, due to weather, we weren’t able to make it on! For those of you wondering, you’re locked into a harness system the entire time, so there’s no way you can fall. They have different difficulty levels based off of age and how adventurous one might be.


This kid-friendly attraction also offers a scaled-down version for children aged 2 through 7 (or less than 48 inches tall). The Sky Tykes™ ropes course has nine elements that stand only less that three feet from the ground, which allows for easy parent participation for any level of assistance. Adults can walk alongside their child or step back and watch.

Audubon Butterfly Garden & Insectarium – The entrance has lots of bugs, everything from millipedes and tarantulas. You can also head to the diner where you get to taste the bugs, cinnamon meal worms or cricket hummus anyone? Other things to note are the termites, the swamp with alligators, and the butterfly room which also has koi fish.

Audubon Aquarium – The aquarium is in a great location on the river and near the French Quarter so it’s easy to get to, especially if you’re on foot. This place was larger than we expected. Everyone in our family enjoyed it. If you have little ones, take them to the top floor where they can play on the boats. Also be sure to walk through the tunnel that is surrounded by water. There were lots sea creatures and other animals to see here with at least three floors.

Louisiana Children’s Museum – We were greeted by friendly staff here after walking a few blocks in the rain. We could hardly get the kids past the first area, a bubble activities center where kids encapsulate themselves inside life-size bubbles. The kids had a blast playing while learning a little bit about New Orleans history. Some of the biggest hits were the Winn Dixie pretend grocery store, the New Orleans port area, and the fun mock eye examination room. We spent 3 hours there and could have stayed longer if we had more time.

City Park – City Park has consistently been one of my favorite places in New Orleans. It big and fun and a bit magical. The trees are draped with interesting things and it’s as if you step into some sort of Alice in Wonderland experience. Additionally City Park houses Storybook land. For just a few dollars your family can step into the pages of many familiar Mother Goose type stories. This is a super fun area to take pictures and let the kids loose.

There is also a small roller coaster and a few other small rides in this area. On this trip the kids enjoyed a game of putt-putt. The course is designed to look like the streets and hot spots of New Orleans so it adds a fun, local element to the game. After putt-putt we ran the fields and enjoyed the large swings before heading to eat at Toups Meatery. Toups is within walking distance of City Park. After our meal we simply hopped on the trolley, the stop was right outside the restaurant, and headed back to our French Quarter area hotel.

Where to Stay:

Loews New Orleans – Loews never disappoints. They consistently have great service, beautiful rooms and convenient locations. The New Orleans location was in the downtown area close to the Riverwalk, dozens of restaurants the Audubon Aquarium and Insectarium. We arrived a bit early but the Loews staff didn’t seem bothered or rushed by this. They simply entered our phone number into their texting system and alerted us the moment our room was ready. While we waited, for just a short time, the kids enjoyed the Scrabble and chess boards in the lovely and inviting lobby parlor area of the hotel.

The big windows allowed us to enjoy a little people-watching as well. When our room was ready we escorted the kids up to check out the room and settle in. The view was amazing from the room and we all enjoyed watching the steam boats travel down the river.

The rooms at Loews New Orleans are larger than average. This gave our family plenty of room to relax and there may have been a few cartwheels turned as the kids burned off some energy. Loews also has a great indoor pool for kids. It’s just the right size for young kids looking to splash around after their parents have toted them all around town in search of charbroiled oysters and muffulettas. As a bonus, Loews has a great restaurant located in the lobby area for those who prefer to enjoy a meal without leaving the hotel.

When it comes to no-fuss elegance, amenities and service Loews has hands-down won our loyalty. It’s a surprising choice for families with kids, but we find that they go above and beyond to accommodate us and make us feel at home.

Where to Eat: 

Toups Meatery – Toups in Mid-City isn’t exactly kid-friendly, but the crew did just fine. Strangely they love a good cheese plate just as much as we do. Additionally Toups will whip up some tasty, kid-friendly fried chicken upon request. My parents accompanied us on this trip and the restaurant handled our party of 8 with ease. The meal was amazing and the portions quite large. It’s definitely a must-try if you are looking for creative fare outside the typical New Orleans offerings.

New Orleans Hamburger and Seafood – One seafood platter was enough for all four of our kids. We love their seafood platter because the breading is light rather than heavy and greasy. The potato wedges in the garlic sauce are the icing on the cake. After a morning of walking in the Quarter, this was a welcomed stop.

Drago’s – We stopped here for an afternoon snack of chargrilled oysters which did not disappoint. You might want to do yourself a favor and ask for extra bread to soak up the juices from the oysters. While you’re at it, do yourself another favor and get the shrimp and corn bisque.

Mother’s – Get breakfast here and make sure to try the famous ham or chopped beef like everyone else. Portions are big so you can definitely get away with choosing a few dishes to share with kiddos.


Cafe Maspero
– Great spot right across from Cafe du Monde. Kids had the seafood platter (again!) and adults had the muffalettas. Maspero’s food and atmosphere are great but Johnny’s Po-Boys still has the best muffalettas in my book.

Sucre – Walk past a few art galleries on your way to Sucre on Conti St. This place has been known for their boutiques filled with your favorite confections. Macarons have a special place in my heart and Sucre’s are delightful.

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Cafe Du Monde – No surprise here. We had to introduce our kids to a morning here for beignets and cafe au lait (hot chocolate for kiddos).


Gordon Biersch
– Great dinner spot with a great and cheap kids’ menu. The Brewer’s Combo (bratwurst, a soft pretzel, and garlic fries) is an appetizer but I ordered it as a meal. Either way, I highly recommend it.

Cafe Gentilly – Unless you’re visiting the seminary, you probably won’t be in the area to visit here. During our three years in New Orleans, we ate here plenty of times since the portions are big and the prices are very reasonable. In fact, we had to come here one more time after the graduation ceremony. While you wait for your food, there are plenty of books to enjoy.

» Ethiopia Trip (pt. 1) and The Day of Hope

As you may know, this has been a busy season for me… leading with an unplanned surgery, my last semester of graduate school, and a trip to Ethiopia with One Orphan. Many people have asked about the trip but it takes a while to process (as it always does) and I’ve already had to leave again for a quick work trip to D.C. Please read the information below about The Day of Hope (today!) followed along with some pictures from my recent trip to Ethiopia taken by photographer Daniel Hobbs. In the coming weeks, I’ll be sure to share more!

Today is the day the Day of Hope: America World and One Orphan invites you to join as we continue our mission to care for orphans worldwide, build forever families and advocate for waiting children.

Due to a generous grant opportunity gifts given during this time will be matched dollar for dollar up to $100,000!

Together, we are able to have significant impact on the lives of vulnerable children in each of the countries we partner with. AWAA is committed to family preservation and orphan care and thanks to our wonderful in-country partners, hundreds of children are being loved and cared for.

Here are a few ways your gift will be utilized:

Support for five orphanage partnerships in Ethiopia
Provide Ethiopia families with sponsorships through family preservation efforts
Support for families in the post adoption stage
Resources and support for orphanage partnerships in Haiti
Resources and support for orphanage partnerships in China
Support for adoption programs in India

If you would like to give a year-end, tax-deductible gift please click HERE and choose Day of Hope in the drop down menu. If you have further questions about how your gift will be utilized feel free to contact the Executive Director of One Orphan, our orphan care ministry branch:  joe.wilson@awaa.org

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» Break forth like the dawn: Anxiety vs. Joy

I’ve always considered Africa to be female, with her mountainous terrain and lush, green rolling hills juxtaposed with desert expanses. Like a woman she has mastered the art of multi-tasking by sustaining various forms of life and  ground. She is wise and ancient, she holds secrets and gives life. Specifically she gives me life. From a young age she beckoned me and I listened. Year after year I’ve traveled there. I want to say journeyed but in-flight movies and decent food take the journey out of the trip. Mother Africa fills me up, gives me purpose and confirms the ache in my heart when I’ve been away too long. It’s embarrassing, honestly, the way my Western ways are shattered when I visit. I’ve learned so much… but still have room to grow. My most recent trip was healing on so many levels. It came just as I was recovering from surgery… both mentally and physically.

Here, in the comfort of the first world, anxiety rules. It damages our spirits that weren’t meant to be bound by darkness. It creeps in when we forget and leave the door ajar. Here, I tremble while I wait for words from the doctor. There… I run free. Last year, as I spoke with my friend Amanda, Isaiah 58:6-9 came to our minds:

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
    and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
    you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

This promise, written long ago has set me free. I’m free to respond to the call that comes across the waters. I’m free to speak up for the oppressed, and I’m free to trust that God will answer my calls for help. He formed this World with purpose and beauty and spent the same efforts on me as well. My Joy comes when I pursue the purposes I was created for. My Joy like the Noonday, busting forth over the mountain ranges. My soul rests in the words of my creator and my soul leaps when I serve a country that I love. But as always I return filled, taking more than I leave.

If you are struggling today, if anxiety has stolen your light… remember the things that make your soul light up. Remember that you have a creator who adores you. Be brave and pursue things that lift others as well as yourself. Your joy is waiting to rise as the noonday, to break forth like the dawn.

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» I Want to Be Brave

On August 22nd I had surgery to remove one of my parathyroid glands and the benign tumor that it contained. Surgery went well but recovery did not. Weeks passed and left me extremely fatigued, dizzy and weak. I could barely make it through work and get dinner on the table. In fact, on most nights I didn’t. It became clear that my body wasn’t liking the new calcium levels and just wan’t going to cooperate for awhile. During this time it was also discovered that I have a very narrow chest that actually traps my heart, in a way. It’s not a serious condition but it explains why I pass out easily.

I could barely make it through work and get dinner on the table. In fact, on most nights I didn’t.

To be honest, consistently feeling terrible really started to get to me. I began to worry that this was my new normal. I missed going for runs and doing errands and just living my life. I began to make plans to turn over the Ethiopia trip I was leading. I even wondered if my current career would work for me anymore. What if I couldn’t travel anymore? There were a lot of questions and a lot of anxiety over the situation. I prayed desperately through sleepless nights and long days. I begged God to help me heal. And then immediately felt guilty for asking. I believed that relief would come in time, but I also had a glimpse into how it might feel to live with a chronic illness. I gained a huge respect for those that get up every morning and face their health difficulties with bravery. I began to pray less for healing and more for bravery.

I remember praying… God, life is hard, I want to be brave.

Bravery was a turning point for me. I still felt bad, but I didn’t accept it. The mental part of healing is often just as important as the physical aspect of healing. I set my sights ahead and on my family and on the God who created me. Slowly I accomplished more, made dinner and walked up the stairs to read bedtime stories.

Part of being brave is also being vulnerable. During my hardest weeks my friends showed up at my house with food. They fed my kids and cleaned my house. They sat with me and chatted with me. My sister in law flew in for a weekend. And the icing on the cake? My grandparents moved in for two weeks. You know it’s bad when you’re an adult and your grandparents come to cook and clean.

Side note: having my grandparents here was such an unexpected blessing. We cherish every bit of time we get to spend with them.

This has really gotten quite long, so let me start working toward the finish line. A couple of weeks ago I woke up… and I felt good. In fact, I felt great. I tentatively went about my day, cautiously trying out this new feeling good thing. To my delight, feeling good started to be a daily thing. I was also sleeping well again at night.

It took me more than two months to complete a recovery that I was told would take a week. But I learned about being brave. And I think, and I say this cautiously, that I’m thankful for my longer-than-expected recovery. I’m thankful for the way Jesus drew me close and I’m thankful for friends and family who carried me on my most difficult days.

Tomorrow I leave for Ethiopia to do what I love… Speak up for vulnerable children. I’m abundantly thankful tonight as I reflect over the last few months.

Stick with me this week and next as I share about our trip and revisiting the orphanage where my son lived before we brought him home.

All Content © Erica Ho, Goodbye Normal