Archive | vacation

The Mermaid in the Lagoon

lagoonI found out about manatees in a children’s book and fell in love with these gentle sea cows (so named because they eat sea grass). The manatee in the photo looked lovable and cuddly, the perfect candidate for a child’s favored stuffed toy. The story told that Christopher Columbus mistook manatees for mermaids, and, looking into the human-like compassionate eyes of the photographed manatee, I could understand why Columbus (and other sailors after him) could confuse these graceful mammals with a mythological fish woman.

San Diego’s Sea World has a manatee exhibit, and the kids and I were charmed by them on several visits. But watching a manatee in an aquarium is not quite the same as seeing one in the wild. I wanted to go to Florida and see a real, live, wild manatee. In my imagination, I saw the manatee swimming about, floating before my eyes, just the way it had in the aquarium.

A Florida Visit in 2009 with the kids and my cousin Ella did not produce any manatee sightings. We took a boat ride to where we were supposed to see them, but there were none to be seen. We saw alligators, crocodiles, many kinds of birds and even had  our first viewing of dolphins, but no manatees. My disappointment was great. I had so wanted to see one!

On a Florida visit in January 2013, we were definitely going to see a manatee. We stayed on Key Largo and planned visits to parks where we had heard that manatees abound. We rented kayaks to get as close to them as we could. “Some people saw a manatee earlier today between those islands over there,” the ranger pointed at two little islands across a bay. We paddled but saw none. We saw none on Key Largo. And though a different ranger sent us to another park, we soon discovered it was a wild goose (or manatee) chase. We went back home empty manateed.

Third time’s a charm, you know. On this last visit to Florida, Dar made sure that seeing a manatee was in the bag. Not only did he rent us a beach house on the lagoon where the manatees live, but he also arranged for us to have a stand-up paddleboard tour of a canal where, we were told, the manatees live. They will actually put their noses on our boards, the guide promised. We could pet them, potentially, if we’d want.

My readers, are you curious to know if I finally had my wish come true? Did I pet a manatee’s head? Did I watch it swim flirtatiously under my board? A storm came in as we headed out and forced us back to shore, and there was no manatee petting, viewing or admiring from the stand-up paddleboard. I am almost certain, however, that I saw manatees three times from the pier near our beach house. They were kind of far, and only a little bit of them peeked out of the water, but they were round and smooth, and somehow manatee-like.

As elusive as a mythological mermaid, seeing more than five percent of a sea cow still remains a dream. Perhaps in nature that much manatee is all that can be seen, or perhaps next time we come to Cocoa Beach there will be no storm, and we can paddle to the canal, and the manatees will be there waiting for us, ready to lean their heads affectionately on my board.


Splitting the Distance

Yesterday and today I came again face to face with the gap between my true physical ability and the limits of my mind. Whenever I try a physically challenging activity, I hit not a wall but an ocean of warnings: “Enough! You’re getting tired. It’s too much. That’s your last step. You’re already tired. Stop.” Pushing past these warnings, as my mind throws escalating threats at me, is like running a hurdles race. I often find myself wondering, “Should I stop, or is my mind exaggerating?”

Yesterday we kayaked at Elkhorn Slokayakerugh. The wind slowly strengthened behind us, and my mind began to freak out. Having to stop every few minutes to rest became proof that I am weak, that my arms cannot take the strain. Instead of enjoying the beauty of the day and the harbor seals, otters, pelicans and cormorants around me, I obsessed about whether my strength was about to fail.

I still had energy when we came back to our car, and we decided to go biking in Monterey. The ocean ebbed and flowed beside us. The wind caressed us, alleviating the heat. The bicycle seemed to move on its own, and my heart sang free. Then, my mind began its whispers. “You are going too far,” it suggested. “That’s another downhill you just rode. It will be an uphill on the way back. Would you have enough energy for the return?”

Agh! Such an irritating mind! Why can’t you stop? Let me feel my body tell me what it can or cannot do. Let me sense by myself when I’m tired, when is the right time for me to return. I don’t want your limits, your over- protection. I want to adventure, to fly free, to explore.

Today we kayaked in Santa Cruz. I wanted to go all the way to the pier, but the wind was strong, and waves rocked us from side to side. The voices in my head grew loud: “You can’t make it. Better turn back.” But instead of succumbing to the voices, I made a deal with myself: “One hundred more strokes of the paddle,” I said, “then we’ll see how I feel.”

Turns out I could do one hundred and twenty strokes. Then, after a short rest, one hundred and forty more. The pier grew closer, then loomed to our right. We had reached our mid-destination, and now it was time to return. Paddling for a while, then resting for a moment, I kept going till we’d reached the dock. My arms were tired, but it was a good tiredness, the kind that comes from giving my muscles a chance to work.

I learned the trick of setting a goal and promising my mind that’s only as far as I’ll go from Joe Simpson. (If you’ve never heard Joe’s story, I recommend his amazing book, Touching the Void). With a broken leg, no water, food, or shelter, Joe managed to rescue himself from a crevasse and crawl all the way back across a glacier and the moraines below — five miles or more — back to camp. And he did it by setting himself small, reachable goals.

I don’t always remember this method for quieting the voices in my head, but when I do, I remind myself not to run three miles but only to the rock ten feet away. I paddle only one hundred strokes. When I climb, I only go one more handhold up. That’s all. I only do what I know I can do, what’s before me right now. And somehow, what Nate, my rock climbing guide, always says comes true: Keep coming up and holds will appear. And they do.


To Lie or Not to Lie

Early this morning I was caught lying to a Customs’ officer. After standing in the long line at the Philadelphia Customs, my children and I finally stood in front of the officer, passports in hand. The officer took a look at our Customs’ form and asked: “Did you bring any food with you?”

“No,” said I, thinking guiltily of the piles of chocolate in my bags. And then, before I could bat an eye, my secret was out.

“That’s not true,” corrected my son. “We have plenty of food.”

Exposed! “Chocolates,” I hastened to reassure the officer. And I pulled out a gumdrop bouquet the children’s grandmother stuffed in my bag.

“That’s not true,” the child once again intervened. “We have lots of other food too.”

Every time I go through Customs I have the same dilemma. Are not the officers searching only for agricultural products, like veggies and fruits, and not packaged chocolates? Arguably, however, all are included in their chosen word, “Food.” I once honestly responded to the question with a yes and  found myself having to unpack half the suitcase in order to show the Agricultural Inspection officer that there really was nothing there except for chocolates and a jar of jam.

Despite the fact that I really do believe the Customs’ people are not looking for travelers smuggling candy into the USA, I felt ashamed this morning in front of my children and the officer. I had been caught lying, and surely the Lie Police wcandyas on its way, long years in a maximum security federal prison, and perhaps — for who can tell how serious lying to Customs really is — the electric chair.

So yes, we had lots of food with us: chocolates, kinder eggs, gumdrops, peanut M&Ms, marzipan, crackers, and even (dear deity of the Customs save us) some packages of nuts. I was guilty (almost) as charged. But we didn’t have any fruits, vegetables and seeds. It was just a white little lie!

To lie or not to lie? The critical part of me demands total honesty. I should have checked the Yes box for Bringing foods to the USA, and explained about the chocolates. A practical part of me waves this concern away: “This is mere semantics! Why answer yes when you know you don’t have what the officers really search for?”

I write these thoughts to you and am reminded of Usui’s fourth Reiki Precept: Be honest in your work. Is it dishonest to lie to the officer about having chocolates? Is it dishonest of me to use my understanding of what the officer’s question means and answer my interpretation instead of his actual one?

The officer this morning was merely amused by my exchange with my son. He accepted my chocolate correction to my earlier lie and did not require us to go through any more inspections. Considering how awkward I felt to be revealed lying like this, though, I think the answer to my question is clear. To lie or not to lie? Next time, I will answer the food question with an honest, “Yes, I have food.” And if we get sent to stand in line for the Agricultural Inspection, well, so be it. It’s yet another opportunity to practice acceptance and patience and an abundance of time.


Hurray! It’s Summer!

Every year, as the last daSeay of school approaches, I find my excitement level rise. Finally, we won’t have to wake up early in the morning to go to school. I’ll have more time to spend with the kids. We can travel, have fun, relax. The kids dislike going to camp, but that’s all right with me. Hurray, I cheer, more uninterrupted, unscheduled, un-rushed time.

“I’m bored,” my son announces not five hours after we leave the school grounds. “Only seventy five more days till seventh grade.” He sighs with great drama. “I hate summer,” he announces, and as an explanation he adds: “It’s hot.”

Summer is hot. If it were not hot, I, at least, would complain. I love the longer days, the yellow sun shining in the blue, blue sky. I love the smell of sunscreen on people. For me, summer is that long ago time of my childhood, when we went to the beach and hang out in the water for hours, letting the waves carry us up and down. It’s that magical moment when the pool in the nearby kibbutz just opened, and I’d cut into the water first, like a dolphin, watching the ripples breaking the serene surface.

For my kids, summer sure is different. They do not live, like I did, within a ten minute walk from all their friends. The beach is forty-minutes away, and it is not the kindly, warm waters of the Mediterranean that await us there. My parents have a pool in their yard, but without their friends (who spend most of each day at camp), that is sometimes not an attractive option as well.

How can I make summer entertaining for the kids? How can I get them to leave the easy choice of television, computer, or Wii and have a summer the way I think a summer should be?

It turns out that getting the kids to have the summer of my childhood is possible, with a lot of (guess what?) hard work, preplanning and expense on my side. The opportunities around here, after all, are endless: picking strawberries in Watsonville, Great America, San Francisco Zoo, Saba and Safta’s pool, the pool at the JCC, hiking with friends, a camping trip to Point Reyes, San Diego for a week (there’s no lack of what to do over there), a picnic with friends, kayaking in Elkhorn Slough, paddleboarding at Shoreline, a movie or two. And more… so much more.

Would you be surprised if I told you that by the time mid-August rolls around, I am exhausted and longing for school to start?

We live in a strange world, full of exciting opportunities, yet I find myself longing for that somewhat simpler world in which I grew up. I long for our family moments on the Mediterranean shore, for a pool that has no slides coming in and out, for playing outside in the dirt with my friends, riding the bike to the park, or going exploring in the orange orchard next door. But the world is different now, and there’s no use living in the past. And perhaps it’s not that bad to be bored sometimes, or to watch too much television, or work a little harder in order to get together with a friend. After all, it is summer, and whether we work hard or not, we do it for fun.


The Beauty Without Part II

On our last day at Grand Bahama Island, we went over to Unexso for a Dolphin Encounter. A twenty-minute boat ride through clear, turquoise waters took us into a secluded bay overlooked by expensive-looking homes. We got to pet a fourteen-year old dolphin named Coral who kissed each of us in turn. She and another dolphin swam around, splashing us. They spat water at us playfully, swam backwards on their tail, executed synchronized flips, and impressed us more than I had thought possible. We had an absolute blast.

As we sat there, in that gorgeous, well-maintained garden above the limpid dolphin pools, surrounded by luxury homes, on the secluded bay with the clear turquoise water, it occurred to me that as a tourist I could potentially just see this face of Grand Bahama Island. Had we not rented a vacation rental which happened to be in a more seedy part of town, had we not driven around the island, had we only stayed near the beaches and the touristy activities surrounding them, we would not have known anything other than those turquoise water, the wide sandy beaches, the fancy restaurants, and a deluxe hotel room.

Perhaps finding ourselves stranded by our taxi driver next to a dilapidated condominium near a sprawling trash heap on our first day was a somewhat challenging experience. Perhaps discovering that the taxi driver was not mistaken, and that this was indeed the condo we rented was pretty depressing. So were the bird-poo-covered pool, the not impressive five-minutes-away beach, and the bare-shelf grocery store. But because of those challenges and having come at the low season, I think we can say that in four days in the island we got to know its less touristy face quite well.

As the island empties of all but its inhabitants, it seems to release a big breath, like a bellows that has finished its work for the day. Stores shut their doors, small restaurants dim their lights, the chairs, umbrellas, and kayaks disappear from the beach. The island folds into itself, resting before the next horde of tourists.

Now at home, a part of me is left wondering at this island whose every effort seems aimed at tourism. I want to know: do the Bahamians ever go to the beach to swim and paddle and snorkel? Do they ever enjoy all the beauty that the island has to offer. The beach in Israel is full of bathing, jogging, walking, and otherwise having fun Israelis. Frenchmen kiss handsome Frenchwomen under the Tour D’Eiffel. Californians meander on the Golden Gate Bridge and eat dinner at overpriced restaurants at Fisherman’s Wharf.

But on a sunny Sunday afternoon in the off season in Grand Bahama Island, the beach was deserted except for one lone woman selling cheaply-made wares under the shade of a coconut palm. And I couldn’t help but wonder: don’t the Bahamians swim in the ocean on the weekend? Do they ever go, just for fun, to check out the stores at the International Bazaar? Have they ever seen the dolphins at Unexso? Or do they just live day to day in service of those hordes of tourists that come without ever enjoying the bounty of the island for themselves?

The Beauty Without

My mother always says that in every yard, no matter how ugly or unmaintained, we can find something of beauty. I suppose it is a matter of what we focus on: the un-mown grass, the junk littering the balcony, or the few daffodils that manage to break the hard, dry soil and raise their sunshiny heads to the sky.

When I see those daffodils, I feel the power of the earth. I trust that after we’re gone, nature will take over. Flowers will break through concrete with beauty and color, and all our metal structures, our garbage heaps, our mines, those open wounds in the crust of the earth, will be forgotten in the healing energy of unbounded nature.

Sometimes I look at our river-spanning bridges, the clean skyline of our buildings, or the sumptuous buffet of a farmers market stall, and I think that we created a lot of beauty in this world. Different, perhaps, than the beauty that was here before us, but who am I to judge if different means wrong? Other times I wonder if the humanity-inflicted wounds on our earth can ever be healed.

Before arriving at Grand Bahama Island, I expected an island teeming with tropical beauty, gorgeous flowers mixing their scents with the salty air of the ocean, entwining plants climbing on palm trees to create a canopy of shade, and white sand beaches, the turquoise ocean merging with the blue, blue sky. But Grand Bahama Island is not quite like that.

Pool at our rental

Driving east and west of Freeport, a strange forest of low palm trees and tall, thin pines stretches as far as the eye can see, blocking out a view of the ocean. Only by turning off the main road did we discover the clear, turquoise waters that we expected: enchanting, open vistas, the waters calm and warm.

Interested in the strange flora, I searched the web for answers. I found that the first people to populate the Bahamas, the Lucayans, completely disappeared, either because of European illnesses for which they had no immunity or because they were removed from the island by the Spanish as slaves. After the American revolution, loyalists and their slaves came to the Bahamas and built cotton plantations. The lush forests which covered the island before their arrival have not regrown.

Had we stayed only on the beach, I could perhaps have ignored the shabby parts of the island, the dilapidation of years of hurricanes blowing through, the tired look of buildings battered by the salty air and the burning sun, or the human history that stopped the island’s natural evolution in place.

Trash heap in the street

Focus, I remind myself. Beauty is everywhere. And yet, though I can see the beauty of each and every palm and pine tree, the larger picture makes my heart sag, and I wish something could be done to return the natural beauty of this island to its former glory. I sit in the car, staring at the sparse forest rushing past the window, and the only thought that comes is: what a strange, strange land.

Focus: Abundance

My family and I love staying in vacation rentals. We can cook for ourselves, play games, watch television, go out in the yard. Those who wake up early can get up without waking those who want to sleep in. And sometimes there are extra bonuses like nearby playgrounds, pools, outdoor grills, or gorgeous backyards. We once stayed in a lovely cottage in San Diego. The yard was sumptuous with vegetable and herb gardens, fruit trees, and ornamental plants. The owner left us homemade jam and croissants on the counter. Windows opened up the view to the flowering outside.

It is easy to revel in abundance when abundance is spread before us to such perfection; much harder to practice when not everything is as we expect. In our vacation condo in Florida, tennis racquets and balls, a wide-screen TV, beach towels, two coffee machines, and an extremely well-stocked spice rack stood side to side with…  no hand soap in the bathrooms. Other necessary supplies were missing or limited. The wifi didn’t work. The dishwasher exploded in suds when we turned it on. In the balcony corners, mice droppings made us un-eager to go outside. When Dar spoke to the owner about these problems, the response was disbelief and an unwillingness to help out. 

While in Israel, my aunt told me this quote: “There is no such thing as problems. If you think there is a problem, then it has a solution and is no longer a problem. If there is no solution, then it is not a problem: it’s a fact.” Knowing how prone I am to ruminating about what is wrong, I forced myself to focus on what was wonderful and fun about the condo. Fact: I am not going to teach this condo’s owner abundance, but, fact: I can exercise abundance myself. And most importantly, I can do something about most of this.

In the morning, Dar drove to the grocery store and bought everything that we needed. 3G solved most of our WiFi needs and towels stacked before the dishwasher kept the floor dry. We made good use of the pool, the tennis court, and our kitchen. We enjoyed the good air streaming through the screens of the balcony doors and the movies, sports channels, and New Year program on the wide-screen TV. Without our attention, the cracks in the condo’s condition closed, and we could easily and simply have a great time.

It feels wonderful to focus like that. My attention, unhampered by mundane needs, can soar to the Florida wide skies, down to the colorful reefs of the deep blue ocean, and back up to the ever-shifting white clouds. I can blow with the wind in the palm fronds, swim with little skittering fish, and sit immovable in the mud like an old, lazy crocodile. But best of all is the freedom I found in the realization: who needs hand soap when the coast of Florida, from Key to Key, is open before us? Not we.

A Moment of Remembering

Had there been a clock on the airplane, it would have struck eight at night. We were still sitting at the gate, waiting for the doors to close, the plane to push back, and our vacation to Victoria to begin. Uri sat with Dar in the row ahead of Eden and I. He turned back and asked, “were there any children on those planes?” I did not understand. “Which planes?” I asked him. “The ones who fell in 2001,” he said.

In September 23, 2001, my husband at the time, eleven months old Uri and I packed our belongings and moved to the United States. Israel was then beset by the almost daily terror attacks of the second Intifada, and for a variety of reasons I felt less and less safe. In preparation for the flight I started a series of therapy sessions called EMDR which are supposed to help patients overcome deep-set fears, like the fear of flying. I had panic attacks when flying once or twice before, but now that I was a parent I wanted to feel more responsible and overcome my fear.

On September 11th, the afternoon news was interrupted by an announcement. A plane had crushed into the Twin Towers. Pictures of the tower still standing, a cloud of smoke coming out of its side, dominated the screen. I called my mother in California and found her awake in their home listening to the news. Everyone I know followed the news that day, unable to believe the magnitude of what had happened.

I never went to my last EMDR session. I suppose both the therapist and I knew the uselessness of trying to convince anyone that flying was safe a week days after this tragedy. Instead, I got on an airplane and flew eighteen hours to California. I have no idea how I managed that.

I am no longer afraid of flying, but my son is, and when he asks me a question like, “how many children died on those planes in September 11th?” my heart drops. Eight children between the ages of 2 and 11 died on those planes. I understand his fear, and I wish to make him understand that he is safe, that we are sitting together, that flying is safer than many other things that we do every day, and that it’s better to concentrate on the moment rather than be busy imagining phantom could-happen fears. But I understand him, because I can imagine those eight children’s very real fear.

My imagination can paint horror pictures all too well. That is why I am a writer. I try, however, to employ my imagination in happily ever afters instead. I know bad stuff can happen, but perhaps the point is, a lot can go wrong, and it’s impossible to know quite what that wrong would be. And perhaps, like that favorite saying I love from the Buddha, it is best just to accept that Suffering Is, and that sometimes, in the moment, all is well, and Suffering Isn’t.

Home Sweet Home

Near the Flatiron

Last night, Dar and I returned home from New York City. I was beyond exhausted. More even than after twelve hours climbing on the Matterhorn. My muscles twitched and my back ached from the flight. My head hurt from not having drank enough water. Forget about vacation, I thought, I just want to stay home.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines vacation as “a respite or a time of respite from something,” and “a scheduled period during which activity is suspended.” I have never taken a vacation like that. I heard rumors of people resting on the beach, reading a book and drinking margaritas. I saw pictures from my friends’ trips in which they appear to be doing exactly that. But somehow whenever I go on vacation, I never sit down.

There is so much to do, new places to go, people to see. On this visit to NYC, Dar and I wore out our shoes walking some six miles a day, enjoying the Hudson, admiring the parks, window shopping and watching people. We checked out the city’s farmers’ markets and gluten-free restaurants. We met my family for dinner in Hell’s Kitchen after going on a tour of the Tenement Museum in the Lower East Village. We walked Broadway North to South. The only time we rested was when we ate, or when we sat through (only half) a musical.


I love adventure. I love the thrill of discovering a new park, seeing a new street, eating at a new restaurant. I want to walk down the side streets and into dead-ends, just to see where they go. I like to leave the hotel early in the morning and get back late at night. And I don’t like to sit down. Not for long. And only if I have something to do, like eat or read a book, or better yet — both at the same time.

Running ourselves rugged in New York City was good, but my favorite moment was putting down the bags and opening my arms to the wriggling, tail-wagging doggies welcoming us home. There is no place like home. No matter how many times the thorns in my backside force me up from my chair and away to the wild world outside, I just love coming home. I haven’t seen a place in the world I would rather be than right here, where I am, at my messy desk, near my open window, with my oaks growing crookedly on the hills outside.

I wish I remembered that longer. Before July is over, I will begin making plans: camping in King’s Canyon, kayaking in San Juan Islands, climbing in Inyo National Forest. I’m just going to stop calling those trips a vacation, and admit to myself that I love my home, but I also love running around. Around the corner adventure beckons, my friends, and I must heed the call. I want to, because, after all, it is mine.

Ah, the Joy of a Writing Routine!

I had a image in my mind for my month of vacations, and it began, every day, with me writing. In my mind I saw myself producing page upon page of fabulous material which would bring me ever closer to finishing a first draft for my new novel. In Roatan Island I pictured myself sitting with my laptop in my lap on the beach, the wind caressing my hair and the sun blinking in and out of my eyes (such a romantic image). In Prague I imagined myself writing away in a cafe, surrounded by literary-looking types. And in Israel I specifically planned to write every day at my aunt’s house, seating by my grandmother’s little table upstairs.

The result? In Roatan Island I hated everything so much that my mind was not open to creativity. In Prague I walked with my boyfriend from morning till night and was too tired and jet-lagged to think about blogs or romances. In Israel we rushed from cousins to grandmother to brother to friends, and I only wrote once. At least that.

Now I’m home, and I feel like a truck has driven back and forth over whatever order I had in my writing life. I can find a smidgen novel here and a piece of a blog post there, but putting them together seems impossible. I don’t remember how to get back to the routine I had before. I’m disappointed I didn’t fulfill the writing expectations I had. And mostly I just have no idea how to find the flow again.

Coming back from vacation is always hard for me, but most often I face an opposite problem to the one I’m feeling now: usually on vacation I am my better self, I write, I exercise, I spend a lot of time in the fresh air. And when I come back I feel like I’m losing my better Sigal to everyday life, worries and chores. But coming back is much worse when my better self never showed up at all!

So how to get back to writing, I ask myself. This is a corner of joy, not of complaining, and I already whined enough last week. How do I retrieve that rare joy in writing which permeated every moment of my life for the three months before we left on our trip, the confidence in my imagination, the connection which I felt with my dreams?

Perhaps if I let go of how I expected myself to be on these vacations and allowed myself to feel the enjoyment I received from spending time with Dar, my family and friends, I will open the way for the writing to return. Perhaps by writing this page I am already opening the door. And perhaps I held the door closed because I was afraid of the flood of words waiting behind it, yearning to be written. But writing is one area of my life, I really do not wish to dam.

Sigal Tzoore (650) 815-5109