Sundance Mountain Resort: Where art meets skiing.

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Mt. Timpanagos , Sundance Mountain Resort, Utah

Say “Sundance” and most people think celebrity spottings and movie buffs bustling Main street at the film festival which actually takes place in Park City, Utah. Few people know Sundance itself is a hidden gem of a resort located about an hour’s drive from Park City nestled just beneath Mt. Timpanogos near Provo, Utah.

In fact, cliché as they may be, the words nestled and hidden gem are as deserving to Sundance than any ski resort I can think of. In winter, it’s more than a place to avoid the crowds and long lines found at many other ski resorts. You won’t boast the most vertical feet skied in a day or find umpteen speed quads or gondolas. What you will find, among other unique offerings, is peace and quietude in a gorgeous setting.

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If Goldilocks were going skiing (or snowboarding for that matter) she’d want to stay in Sundance’s cabin lodges. The western and Native American influenced décor with a flavor of “the three bears will be coming home any minute” is just right. You can choose from a small studio cottage or if you’re bringing the whole family, one of the larger mountain homes for let. The layout of the resort is unlike anything normally bearing the name resort. It blends in with the aspen groves and spectacular postcard-esque mountain scenery.

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Named after the movie that put Robert Redford on the map, Sundance was built in keeping with environmental conservation and artistic experimentation. Après ski activities include spinning a pottery bowl, glass blowing or making jewelry. I opted for the latter and hammered out a silver ring with a purple amethyst semi precious stone under the direction of one of the resident jewelry artisans. Just as much fun as making snow angels and lasts longer.

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Sundance Art Studio

And the spa at Sundance? I can still hear the Indian flutes, babbling brook meditation fountain and smell the aroma of burning sage. I tried not to break wind during my four-winds massage (something about altitude and someone kneading my buttocks does that to me). Spa treatments are American Indian themed with names like the Sage and Sweetgrass rub or the Turtle Balancing treatment based on a Navajo legend.

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I lived in Salt Lake City a decade ago and used to make the Foundry Grill buffet a destination on Sundays for brunch. Buffets typically make me cringe (tasting more like sterno fluid than anything else) but Sundance’s is not to be missed. The award winning Tree Room (named for the tree growing up through the center of the restaurant) serves exceptional mountain cuisine and showcases Redford’s private Native American Art collection. With dishes like Buffalo Pot Au Feu for a beginning, and Grilled Elk Loin or American Pancetta Wrapped trout for an entrée topped off with Pluot Crisp with Homemade Roasted Almond Ice Cream, you won’t be getting cabin fever anytime soon.

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Foundry Grill Restaurant

Sundance offers some of the best Women’s specialty clinics for skiing and boarding. I went to finesse both my skiing and boarding form. I’ve skied since I was a kid and boarded the past 10 years but had heard great things about the alpine instruction program. I skied one day and boarded the next. Workshops will even videotape you to fine tune your form. There was marked improvement on my technique from both lessons proving you can teach an old ski dog some new tricks. Just to round out the weekend, I also added in a day of Cross-country skiing in Sundance’s 26-kiometers of pristine backcountry trails. They also offer 10 kilometers of dedicated snowshoeing trails.

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If the name Sundance conjures up the famous Sundance catalog, you’ll appreciate the General Store on the resort property with handcrafted Native American and western-style jewelry, home décor and casual apparel. I scored some hand-spun coffee mugs to bring a little bit of Sundance to my java back home.

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Owl Bar

Nightlife at Sundance is pretty atypical as well. Sure you can grab a drink in the Owl Bar but for something more unusual, don’t miss winter star gazing or birding in search of night owls. And Friday is Film night in the Nature Center where you’re sure to catch an award-winning flick from the namesake film festival.

See website for other calendar events from everything from photography lessons to other writing workshops.  For a sleepy resort not on most people’s radar, Sundance has lots to shout about.

If you go:   Sundance Resort

This story was originally published on divinecaroline.com. I’ve since returned with my son in tow and plan to publish that piece here. Sundance is a terrific spot for families, couples or a girlfriends getaway spa retreat.

 

 

 

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ALTA: A favorite for skiers

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                                                                                          Alta, Utah

Alta ski resort in Utah has long been referred to as the locals favorite so I asked a local riding up the chairlift if he skis anywhere besides Alta. “If I do, I feel like I’m cheating on my wife.” He said.

He went on to compare the various resorts in the area. “Deer Valley’s a bunch of corduroy groomed trails. It’s ribbed for her enjoyment.”

Most would argue, there’s not a bad place to ski in Utah and certainly Alta is the choice for many. It’s old school skiing at its best and holds out as one of the few resorts in the country that doesn’t allow snowboarding. I kept quiet that I do both.

Barring snowboarders isn’t the only reason locals love it. “The greatest snow on earth” is the moniker on Utah license plates. Rightfully so. It’s something about the desert air mixing with altitude that produces talcum powder-like snow conditions. It isn’t the Sierra cement we get in my home state of California.

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                           Powder so deep you practically need a snorkel to breathe.

And there’s something about where Alta is positioned in Little Cottonwood Canyon. People joke that the powder gets so deep there you need a snorkel to breathe. Those a bit timid of steep and deep powder can find groomed trails at Alta.

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                                                                                   Alta Lodge

Alta Lodge is a throwback to skiing of yesteryear—reminding me of places I stayed in as a kid in Europe, where I learned to ski. Room rates which start at $129 in low season up to $533 in high season include breakfast and dinner. Alta Lodge’s dining room is family style. If you’re traveling solo as I was, you’re seated with others which makes visiting alone not so lonely. (You can also request a private table if you prefer.)

Alta_Lodge_Dining_Room80% of visitors there are repeat guests and it’s easy to see why. There’s nothing pretentious about Alta Lodge. It doesn’t try too hard because it doesn’t have to. There are no TVs in the rooms which encourages guests to mingle and interact. You will find some subtle frills like Aveda bath products in the bathroom. It’s got hot water, it’s clean. Ski in ski out. Food is decent to good. And I concur, it is the best snow on earth. What more do you want?

Alta_Lodge_East_RoomBecause they don’t over groom the area, it produces some of the best moguls of anywhere I’ve ever skied. I jumped at the chance to take one of the renowned mogul workshops. Having spent more time in recent years on a snowboard, I’d practically forgotten how to ski them.

An hour into the class, thighs on fire, I remembered how much fun they be. The Alf Engen ski school is world-class. And while the guy I talked to on the lift may think of Alta as a man’s place to ski, it has lots to offer women. The ski area’s website lists lots of ski camps specially designed for women.

Even if you’ve skied as long as I have there’s always room for improvement. Nothing makes for a great ski trip than feeling like you’ve improved your technique. What I learned too is you don’t have to be a local to make Alta your favorite ski spot too.

IF YOU GO:  Visit altalodge.com or alta.com

This story originally was published on divinecaroline.com. I’ve since returned with my son in tow and will be adding a new story here at globetrotter.com soon!

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Itching for home

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Few would argue, when you’re sick, the only place you want to be is home in your own bed. But if you’re stuck a continent away, as I was in Europe with the stomach flu, there is one place that’s the next best thing to being home. The hotel d’Angleterre in Geneva Switzerland. It’s part of the small leading luxury hotels of the world situated on the shore of Lake Geneva with stunning views of the Jet d’Eau and Alps.

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                                       Each bedroom is individually decorated to the hilt.

I’d just finished trekking the Tour du Mont Blanc, a 10-day trek through the Alps of Switzerland, Italy, Germany and France. I was not only physically spent from what would have been grueling under healthy circumstances but I’d caught a nasty stomach bug towards the end of the trek. My innards were wrung out. It was all I could do to make the train ride from Chamonix, France to Geneva, catch a cab and collapse on my hotel bed without hurling en route.

I had one night in Geneva before returning home to Los Angeles. I had envisioned, taking advantage of the hotel’s close proximity to what had been touted as the best shopping in Geneva. I would venture no further than the lobby during my stay. It isn’t often you stay at a hotel and actually stay put.

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                     The Stunning view of Lake Geneva from The Windows Restaurant

Built in 1872, the hotel maintains its historic Swiss regal tradition while embracing all the technology a savvy business traveler demands—high speed wireless Internet and five-star service. My suite was comfy and inviting with impeccable attention to detail. The linens and wall coverings were gorgeously appointed, the way I’d hire a decorator to do my own room if I could afford an interior designer.

They’d e-mailed me a questionnaire before I left home asking a series of questions such as duvet and pillow preference—even my favorite color (red). My room was red all right, floor to ceiling, but not nauseatingly so. (Believe me, in my condition, I would know.) The suite included a small living area with coffee table books on the history of the area. I picked up a few and went into the bathroom where I would spend most of the next 24 hours.

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If you’ve got to have the stomach flu while on the road, there’s no nicer place to be than here.

I drew my bathwater in the oversized spa tub and climbed in. The bathroom was spacious and beautiful enough to have been lifted from the pages of Architectural Digest magazine. I’m a toiletries snob so I was impressed to see deluxe size Penhaligon’s toiletries and floating votive candles for the bath.

My aching muscles that had canvassed four countries in the past 10 days melted in the hot steam. I flipped through the coffee table books trying not to get the pages wet, sipped my sparkling water and moaned and groaned in agony. It was a blissful misery. My stomach and intestines hurt, I had zero energy but I was content in my surroundings. A Mecca if you will for the stomach flu. Fluffy robes, plenty of towels including a towel warmer. A separate shower with steam and plenty of chilled mineral water.

The bathroom also was appointed with a bidet. I spent an hour staring across the room trying to envision how one is used. I mean, I know it’s intended to clean privates but I never knew how exactly you’re supposed to use one. I can halfway understand using one in the privacy of your own home but I’ve seen them in public bathrooms in Europe too and couldn’t imagine using one there.

I figure you’d have to take your pants off completely in order to straddle the thing. What if the spray of water missed and hit your shirt or soaked your socks? The hotel TV had a tutorial on how to use the TV, why didn’t it include one on how to use the bidet? Surely Europeans must hand down that information from generation to generation. There was a lot to ponder during my almost two hour bath. I only got out when my fingers had completely pruned.

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I looked out over lake Geneva while the mosquitos made their way into my hotel room window.

I managed to get myself up to go to dinner. I figured I needed some nourishment to make it up for my early flight the next morning. Before heading down to dinner, I made the grave mistake of opening my windows which faced lake Geneva to let in some fresh air.

I hadn’t factored in the time of year—mid summer and the large body of still water or the millions of mosquitoes that saw this as an open invitation to come on in by the swarms.

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                 Let’s make a run for it, while she’s at dinner.

While the mosquitoes were setting up the all-night party in my suite, I shuffled into the hotel’s renowned Windows restaurant. It was recently recognized by the prestigious Gault & Millau guide for 2006 as one of the top restaurants in Geneva. I will have to take their word for it as my meal consisted of some vegetable broth, a few nibbles of a dinner roll and a 7-Up. Sadly, that was all I could stomach under the circumstances.

I returned to my room after dinner to the gazillions of invisible mosquitoes. Warm with the night air, I changed into a nightie and went to sleep. This is when the mosquitoes awoke, gave the high sign and proceeded to suck much of the blood from my body. I awoke the next morning covered head to toe in mosquito bites.

My stomach bug was at its worst. I had diarrhea so bad, I was afraid I’d not be able to last the fifteen-minute taxi ride to the airport. I found a Lomotil pill covered in lint in my cosmetic bag and popped it hoping it would plug me up long enough to make it to my plane.

I made it onboard and thankfully, the Lomotil worked but there was a bigger problem. I had no anti-itch cream. Taking a closer look in the airplane bathroom mirror, I could see I was covered in spots. I looked like I had the measles.

I sat scratching my Swiss souvenirs wishing I were back in the hotel d’Angleterre bathtub full of cool calamine lotion.

If you go:  Hotel d’Angleterre

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Caution: Low Clearance

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After a day of mountain biking I tend to drive my car as if still on my bike— leaning into the twists and turns down winding Sunset Boulevard. Late for a party recently, this seemed to be working in my favor as I made it home in record time.

I pulled into the garage only to be startled by a thunderous crash from above. Oblivious to the cause, I backed my car up. This produced another alarming noise of crunching metal meeting aluminum and pieces of plastic shattering. The horror hit me. I’d just driven my brand new $1500 mountain bike mounted to my Saab’s roof rack into the garage.

My first thought wasn’t, “What damage have I done to my bike, car or garage?” but instead, “Oh God, I hope no one saw that!” Mortified, I bolted from the car.

If the loudness was any indicator, my car, bike or garage should have been totaled. By some Angel of Moronic Mishap Mercy, my car had only superficial scratches; the bike — a broken reflector; the roof rack — a broken wheel clip.

Now for the garage door – I braced myself and pushed the remote. A rumble suggested something still worked. The two-car garage door wobbled back and forth a bit but managed to shut.

I dashed upstairs to call my friend Shepard, who I was meeting at the party, to inform him of my catastrophe. “Oh honey, don’t feel bad,” he tried to comfort me, “I dropped my cell phone in a urinal last week…yes, after I’d used it …I’d have left it but all my decorating clients were logged in it so I had to fetch it out.” I felt a bit better.

A few days later a visit to a bike shop netted a bike repair at $30, the roof rack $20. Not bad.   The damage was looking pretty minimal.

Then a few weeks later, as I was getting out of my car, my landlord approached me. “Lori, do you know why your garage door is crooked?”

A long pause followed during which time I considered saying I had no idea shifting blame on the neighboring tenant with whom I share the garage. But instead I blurted out, “That’s because I hit it.”

“You hit it?” he echoed, aghast.

“Yes, I had my bike on top of my car.”

“The hinge is going to give any day and come crashing down on the cars. It must be fixed.”   He said sternly.

An even longer pause followed.

“Would you like me to pay for it?” I cowered.

“Well, was it an accident?”

“Well yes.” I answered, wondering if he thought I might actually do such a thing deliberately.

“Why don’t we split it,” he offered.

I was stunned at his generosity. “That’s very nice of you.”

He walked away only to return minutes later as I was unloading groceries from the trunk. “Lori,” he paused (I shuddered at what might come next) “I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciate your honesty.”

“Thank-you,” I melted.

That feeling could well be worth whatever this was going to cost I thought for a minute. Maybe two.

But what would a garage door cost? A few days later, the landlord informed me the estimate was a whopping $759. Was that the price of being honest? Or the price of being dumb enough to drive my car into the garage?

I wondered if my renter’s or car insurance would cover any of it. I had both policies through USAA.

I phoned them and got a recording. I was stumped, should I press two for renter’s insurance or three for auto claims? I pressed two. I told my tale of idiocy to the agent who asked, “Was the vehicle moving?”

“Well, yeah until it came to an abrupt stop right about when the bike made contact with the garage.”

She’d have to transfer me to auto claims as this was a “moving violation.”

“Were you wearing a seatbelt?” the next agent wanted to know.

At less than a mile an hour I didn’t see the point, but answered yes. She transferred me again to someone else so they could record my testimony.

“Was there any bodily injury?” the fourth agent asked.

“Just my pride” I answered. Not the least bit amused, she informed me my case would be reviewed and I’d get a letter in the mail.

The letter came.

California law requires we determine who was responsible for an accident and notify you if the driver of your vehicle was principally at fault (at least 51%). 

Was it possible if I drive my vehicle into a building, that someone else could be to blame? Like who or what? Could it be my bike’s fault for not ducking? The garage’s for not yelling, “Stop!”

The letter went on.

This accident occurred when the driver of your vehicle [okay that would be me, just say it] struck a stationary object [the garage, we can handle it]. Unfortunately, based on these facts, the driver of your vehicle was determined to be principally [okay, so not totally] at fault because under California law, a driver is responsible for steering clear of any obstacles.

Under another state’s law, like say Kentucky, could a stationary object be held accountable?

At any rate, there it was on the books. Here in California the garage was 49% guilty.

I phoned USAA to see about filing a claim. For property damage, there’s no deductible. But if the claim is over $500, my insurance rates go up $804 a year for three years. Ouch. I asked the agent if my landlord only holds me accountable for $499 would my insurance rates still go up?

“But didn’t you say the bill was for $759?” the agent asked.

“It is,” I explained. “That’s what the garage repair company will charge my landlord. If my landlord only holds me accountable for $499, and gives me a bill in that amount, would that suffice as a receipt for USAA? “

“Yes,” she answered. And “no,” my rates would not then go up.

The landlord was fine with this plan. I faxed off his $499 invoice and received a check the following week. Then I told my landlord, while I thought it was generous of him to offer to share the remaining cost, there was really no reason he should have to pay for any of this as in my mind I was 100% at fault.

He insisted he was getting a new garage door that would hold up longer than the previous one and convinced me we should split the cost of what USAA didn’t cover. $130 a piece. Fair enough. I wrote him a check.

All in all, the damage wasn’t too bad to my checkbook or, thanks to California law, to my pride. It still pays to be honest and a little ingenuity can temper a bout of absentmindedness.

Now when I drive home from mountain biking, I still lean into the twists and turns of the road but repeating my new post-cycling mantra “My bike is on top of my car, my bike is on top of my car.”

This story originally was published on divinecaroline.com

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The Not So Super Nannies

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If only

I so wanted Mary Poppins to float down from the sky and land on my doorstep. An irresistible job offer meant I would be returning to the workforce sooner than I’d hoped to leave my ten-week old.

While pregnant the previous summer as a single mom-to-be (read Last Call), I channeled my angst trying to get a childcare plan in place. Efforts to find (or get into) a high quality daycare facility proved impossible for the area I live in Los Angeles. I was blessed (and cursed) to have a rent-controlled apartment in Bel Air where rent on my 2-bedroom/2 bath place was $1500/mo but to buy a condo across the street with the same square footage sold for an untouchable $800k price tag.

By default, I would have to hire a nanny. Friends with nannies they loved found them by divine happenstance. A perfect timing of someone ensuring her practical family member was passed down to someone worthy.

Enlisting three agencies in my two-week mad quest, I interviewed dozens of nannies while my mom agreed to fly in from Texas to help transition the top candidate. I narrowed my choice to Juana, after trying her out for a few days.

Prepared to hire her, I asked if she wanted me to pick up anything at the grocery store. I had a bag of pretzels or something in mind, not a grocery list of: Sanka coffee, white bread, frozen waffles, Lucky Charms, it went on. With an 8:30 a.m. start time, you’d think she could pop her own waffle in the toaster at home.

Only when I was ready to hire her did the agency run a background check. (Surprisingly, candidates aren’t prescreened.) Juana had a DUI from just a few months prior. The owner of the agency tried to sugar coat it, “She was very forthcoming with us. She told us right from the start.”

They hadn’t bothered to tell me from the start. It wasn’t like this happened ten years ago in her youthful twenties. My son really liked her and I was half tempted to get the Sanka from her grocery list if it meant keeping her off the booze. Then my good sense kicked in.

My pediatrician suggested an agency in the Valley that snobbishly said a nanny at just $10/hour (the max I figured I could pay) would be tough to find. They sent one candidate, Lucia. My job started in two days. The agency billed her as “a go-getter with a degree in psychology from El Salvador who had continued to improve herself through early childhood education classes. She cooked, cleaned and was especially great with babies.”

Lucia made a decent first impression, though much of the schooling proved to be fabricated. She’d raised three children herself with the older two in college. She was “a bit full of herself” my mom assessed. I left her with my son as a first day’s trial. I phoned my mother from the road who said my never-fussy son “cried so hard he started coughing.” Lucia played it down when I got home, unaware my mom had filled me in.

“It wasn’t as bad” the second day, my mom reported. Not exactly comforting words. The apartment was reeking of Pine-sol and Lucia whipped up a decent potato salad. I was torn. Did my son really not like her or was he just feeling the cumulative effect of all these strangers parading in and out? The agency said she was one of their favorites. Ignoring my gut, I hired her.

Just two weeks before Christmas, I was uncertain the protocol for holiday pay. Lucia always filtered what she wanted to tell me through stories about her teenage son.

“So Hector asked to me, ‘Mom we going to have a good Christmas?’ And I say to him, ‘I don’t know. Miss Lori, she not have work for me for two weeks, so no Knottsberry Farm this year.’ He also want a Kobe jersey, hundred fifty dollar.”

It was a story intended to garner sympathy, but only infuriated me. My son was getting socks and bibs for Christmas thanks to his expensive nanny.

I was in a long-term freelance job that didn’t pay my two-week break. The nanny agency insisted it would be appropriate to pay Lucia for one week which I reluctantly did adding some holiday treats for her family. Lucia looked at the $500 bonus, obviously deflated, got into her Pathfinder (a newer year model than my own car) and drove home without so much as a thank-you.

When she returned after the holidays, my son whimpered as if to say, “I thought we got rid of her.” Lucia’s attitude took a detour south. I’d come home and find her watching TV while my son was awake. She’d act rude at times or to the other extreme and muster up The Lucia Show, feigning interest in playing with my son. He wasn’t buying it, tuning her out. My bullshit detector had gone off one too many times.

 NannyBug to the Rescue

I didn’t have a nanny cam so I did the next best thing. I bugged the place.

I left an eighteen-hour audio recorder running. I’d already planned to let her go that night; I wanted to confirm my suspicions but also cover myself if anything weird happened during the dismissal.

I handed her a check that evening leaving it at, “This isn’t a fit.” What I heard that night on the voice recorder made me feel like the worst mother in the world to have left my son with this woman. I could only stomach the first four hours.

While I’m within earshot The Lucia Show broadcasted her reading in over -the-top fashion to my son. As soon as I get in the shower, she quiets. Shower water turns off, the production resumes. She’s saccharinely sweet to him until I leave for work when she tosses him in the crib, and her tone of voice changes. He whimpers and she ignores him. He’s in his crib cooing trying to get her to engage over and over and over. (He’s at that precious stage of infancy where he will light up like a Christmas tree if anyone makes an effort to connect.) Hour after hour she just ignores him. She chats on her phone, watches TV. Then I hear her make a half attempt to feed him, give up and put him in his swing to sleep while she gets back on the phone to carry on with her friends.

I wanted to throw up or commit homicide. She should have picked him up, engaged him in something, gone for a walk, etc. I phoned the agency that placed her the next day and gave them a sobbing earful. One of the partners phoned me later in the week—not to apologize—but to threaten me for posting on a local Yahoo mom’s group about his agency. Apparently nanny agencies monitor these forums to see if anyone’s tarnishing their reputation. The agency that sent the DUI nanny also let me know they’d seen my posting about them.

Several mothers wrote me from the listserve warning that some nanny agencies also “churn nannies. ” After you hire a nanny from them, pay the agency fee for a guaranteed time period such as three months, they may actually recruit her away for a higher paying job so they can earn another commission.

I thought back to the tape of Lucia’s phone conversations. While most were in Spanish, I’d remembered hearing resume, which must be the same in word in Spanish. Clearly she was looking.

Three Strikes and I’m Out

I found Alma, an $11-hour nanny, through an agency in the South Bay. She was so opposed to housework, that she crossed out the guidelines I’d printed out on his care sheet that read: “after changing diaper please wash your hands” and she wrote “NO CLEANING!!”

She also informed me I needed to have lunch for her. Something I’d have been happy to share had she been willing to lend a hand in the kitchen. I stocked the fridge with ham cold-cuts and accoutrements. She informed me when I got home she didn’t eat pork and had helped herself to a steak I grilled the night before, intended for my dinner.

I fixed myself a ham sandwich and posted a notice on Craigslist.

Someone responded referring her coveted $10-hour nanny, wanting to pass her along to a fellow single mom. Consuela wasn’t above housework and wasn’t a cook but could chop fruit or prepare a salad. My son didn’t whimper when he saw her, in fact, he hardly took notice.

She had a seventh grade education and I’d venture to guess didn’t graduate from Jr. High with honors. For instance, I handed my son to her once saying, “I think his pants are dirty, you might want to change them.” She returned saying, “his pants are clean but his diaper is dirty. Do you want me to change it?”

Another morning I said, “I’m having oatmeal now but if you want to get me a leftover burger for later.” (I meant in my lunch.) I got out of the shower and a plate of burger, beans and salad was waiting for my second breakfast course. She meant well.

I enrolled her in classes at the Red Cross for infant CPR, pediatric first aid and child safety. A week after she finished the classes, she locked herself out of the apartment with my son inside.

I met the woman who passed her on to me one day in the park. She concurred Consuela indeed had a low aptitude but has a good heart. She was also lazy at times, ate her out of house and home, ruined her laundry and was a deplorable housekeeper. I left wondering why she bothered to ensure she got passed along to me.

My temporary freelance job was on the verge of turning into a permanent staff position  and I didn’t want to go through the agony of finding someone new just yet. When the offer came in, it was  at such a reduced salary I wasn’t able to afford a nanny at all. I countered with a work-from-home option. They declined.

The irony is that they allow employees to bring their dogs to work–there are probably fifty tied to desks on any day. Once a week an email goes out from an employee asking about childcare. It’s a void yet to be filled.

Before my son’s birth, I used to think I’d give anything to work for this ad agency. Anything, I’ve determined doesn’t include my first born.

So now I’m trying to make a go of it writing from home with whatever I can find. Whether I return to work on site in advertising remains to be seen. I’m not sure I want to be part of an industry that places more value on dogs than mothers or children. One thing’s for sure, my son thinks it’s Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious to have his mommy back home with him all day.

Editor’s note: This story originally was published under a pen name on divinecaroline.com.  The names of the nannies were changed. At the time it was published, it generated a few snarky hateful emails by moms telling me I was a cheapskate. When you consider that many nannies earn cash under the table, and don’t pay income taxes, what I was paying my nanny, was the equivalent of $70k/year. In other words, because I was earning income as an independent contractor, paying a a much higher income tax (plus city tax in Los Angeles) I had to gross $70k to pay my nanny her $600/week salary + vacation and Christmas bonus.

With the passage of time, I would look back on that job as a favorite in every other respect. I loved my boss and so many of my co-workers. Upon leaving, when asked by a headhunter my proudest accomplishment there, I blurted out that I’d been instrumental in redesigning the breast pump room for fellow mom co-workers. I would be told these fellow mom friends who went on years later to have more kids, they’d nicknamed it the “Mayfield Lounge”.

I’m still proud of that and the work I got to produce there. Advertising isn’t unique in needing to better fill the void so many working moms face in all industries, the need for more affordable, work-friendly/on-site childcare solutions.  

What would happen after this is that the only viable solution was to move from Los Angeles. I caved to my family’s suggestion to move closer to “home” where my mom lived in the Dallas area. I’d hoped I’d see Dallas, where I’d gone my last two years of high school, in a more positive light. But not long after trying to make a go of it in Dallas, my soul longed to be near the great outdoors. As soon as my son was potty trained, we relocated to Colorado.

My permanent (as permanent as any staff job is in the fickle/revolving door of advertising) job options have been limited to how long I’m willing to be away from my son each day and the long hours ad agencies are notorious for. I do count myself lucky that at that job in LA, I had an awesome boss who knew burning the midnight oil and last-minute do-over rewrites don’t always equate to better work. And he wasn’t opposed to people working from home when the need called. Those sorts of managers though are the exception to the rule in the ad field.

 I love many aspects of creating advertising but the family-unfriendly culture of advertising, particularly for women, has a lot of room for improvement. The 3% movement is a classic example of why it needs to change. It’s a grassroots movement founded on the notion that equal numbers of men and women enter into creative departments of ad agencies, but that by Creative Director level (where I am now) across the country, only 3% are women. That percentage in the Denver/Boulder market is far less than 3%. So why is that a big deal? Most purchasing decisions for products and services are made by women so it only stands to reason more women are at the higher up decision-making table on the ads created for this audience. And clients should demand it.

At present, I’m freelancing. While I put all my savings into finally buying my first house here in Colorado, my earning power in this advertising market plummeted from what it was making in Los Angeles. And with no family here, I’ve never spent a night away from my son. I only spring for sitters when I really have to. 

 

Categories: Parenting | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Qamea: Above the surface

Qamea Island, Fiji

Qamea Resort, Fiji

We landed in Fiji the day a cyclone hit.  We’d come so I could rediscover the love of  scuba diving—I’d been certified in college and gone on a few initial trips but had  drifted away from the sport, not consciously, just had found other sports  that captured my interest and none of my  friends in recent years were divers.

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Not exactly the sort of weather we’d envisioned

I had recently begun dating a dive master (and attorney) who needed a break from his law office. We’d just spent two weeks in New Zealand and besides the interest in a diving adventure, we wanted to break up the arduous 12-hour plus flight home back to the states. We landed in Nadi and hopped a plane to Taveuni island. It was a small 12-passenger or so plane where you couldn’t hear the person next to you unless they yelled.

I was ready to scream seated in the front row– I could see the pilot’s view out the front windshield as the tiny windshield wipers went back and forth. The visibility was close to nil. The rain just pelted the tiny aircraft.

Miraculously, we landed safely and were taken by van to the beach where we were greeted by a guy who looked like a very dark-skinned Fijian version of the Gordon’s fisherman. “Bula!” (hello in Fijian) he said. He was dressed in a yellow rain slicker and hat and took us by private boat to the island of Qamea.

It rained sideways on the boat. My boyfriend and I looked at each other, “So much for diving.” My boyfriend shouted as we bounced from wave top to wave top.

Such a shame. It had been a good fifteen years or so since I’d last been diving and I had just outfitted myself in all the latest gear and gadgetry. Technology had completely transformed the sport since I’d learned. I was excited to try out my new Suunto computer dive watch, new wetsuit, BCD, everything from mask to fins.

We arrived on the island, which looked straight from the set of a Fantasy Island episode (well, except for the fact that I don’t think it ever rained there). I half expected Tattoo to come running out, “Boss, de boat, de boat.”

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Instead, a Fijian native met us with umbrellas, took our  luggage and escorted us to our Bure (thatched hut) where  we arrived drenched. We set our resort umbrellas down  and dipped our feet in the conch shells embedded in the  entryway of our hut with fresh water to wash off the sand.

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Screen Shot 2015-01-29 at 5.52.21 PM Our room was magical with 20-foot soaring ceilings,  hand- polished, local mahogany hardwood floors and  authentically outfitted in antique Fijian art from  neighboring islands. All the beachfront bures had just  been remodeled the previous July with new furniture,  romantic  four-poster beds and new deck furniture.

Screen Shot 2015-01-29 at 5.52.35 PM The covered outdoor  riverstone courtyard shower  had Pure Fiji brand amenities  and the bathrooms boasted  gorgeous European fittings.  My boyfriend and I each had a chocolate chip cookie from the Mason jar full of a fresh-baked batch which was part of our welcome gift.

“Well, time for plan B.” I said. “Let’s go see what else there is to do here.” It was hard to imagine coming to Fiji and not diving. It would be like going to Aspen in the winter and not skiing.

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Beachfront Bure

The grounds were pristine–carefully manicured vibrant green grass with just 11 beachfront bures and two larger honeymoon bures, a split-level honeymoon villa and two new private 1600 square foot villas. Qamea has the beautiful island to itself so it’s easy to see why it would make for an ideal honeymoon or destination wedding locale.

We wandered over to the restaurant where the rainy activity of the day was, and I kid you not, basket weaving. We sat down on the porch and grabbed a couple of palm leaves as the resident artisan showed us how to weave. The rain continued to beat down. We finished our baskets, which were quite impressive for first time basket weavers. I was disappointed to learn we couldn’t bring them home with us as they constituted a live plant and wouldn’t make it past customs.

Sunburned visitors played cards, read books and sipped cocktails in the open dining area that looked out over the ocean. We retreated back to our room and took a nap. There’s nothing like sleeping during a rain storm. The wind blew and I drifted to sleep wondering if we’d blow away like the three little pigs straw house.

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We awoke that afternoon to the sun shining. The sky was clear and the rain reflected on the grass as if it had just been painted for a postcard. There was a rainbow off in the distance.

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It seemed like a perfect afternoon for a raw  sugar rub and relaxation massage with  exotic coconut oil at the resort’s spa. I left  feeling like a wet palm leaf and smelling like  a piña colada. The smell of coconut made  me hungry.

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Working out the knots from the plane/boat/van ride in

Cuisine at Qamea is world-class. Executive resort chef, Michele Campbell has owned and managed leading restaurants in London, Sydney and Auckland. Her team of six full-time Fijian chefs combines a Fijian south Pacific Rim style similar to California cuisine using fresh, organic fruits and vegetables grown on the island or flown over three times a week from New Zealand. Qamea fishermen catch the daily fish and beef and poultry are flown in fresh from Australia and New Zealand. The food was superb. If the resort put out a cookbook, I’d buy it. The lunch and dinner menu changed daily and breakfast is made to order.

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Each evening there’s a kava ceremony (a Fijian drink made from a grounded root that numbs the tongue and provides a nice buzz)Screen Shot 2015-01-29 at 6.00.48 PM

and meke ceremony (Fijian music and dance).

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The next day, the water still murky from the storm, we took off on one of the many excursions the resort offers to Bouma Waterfalls. The resort packs a picnic lunch and off we went by boat to a neighboring island for a hike to a waterfall along a river shrouded in tropical foliage and colorful flowers.

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Native Fijian boys who serenaded us on our hike

Looking up the river we saw a group of children in waist-deep water walking down the river singing songs. They seemed as excited to see us as we were to see them. We visited with other local Fijians, proud to show off their homes, their new church and artwork at a craft hut.

The resort offers many such excursions for a nominal fee, including one to the area where Blue Lagoon was filmed.

Screen Shot 2015-01-29 at 5.54.48 PMA few days later the water had settled enough to finally go scuba diving. Qamea resort is close to world-class dive sites like Purple Wall, Devil’s Canyon, Qamea freeway and Yellow Wall. We did a check out dive off the resort’s beach where we saw lionfish and anemones with live egg cowries in the shallow water steps from the shore.

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The next day we ventured further away to the famous Purple wall. The visibility wasn’t ideal and the water was still a bit choppy but once down 40 feet or so, I remembered quickly how hypnotic and addictive diving can be. I lost myself in the wonders of marine life. Purple Wall is actually three separate vertical walls with thick concentrations of purple soft coral. Fish activity is plentiful with an abundance of banded sea snakes.

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The visit was quick with not as much diving as I would have hoped, but a nice reminder that the vacation you set out on isn’t always the adventure you’ll discover. With a little flexibility and open mind, you can dive deep and come up with great memories.

When we left the resort, the staff came down to serenade us with a ukulele and singing. They gave us each a red tropical flower and told us to put it in the water once out to sea. The legend has it if the flower comes back, so will the guest. I made sure to put mine in the water close enough to ensure it made it back, as I definitely know this is one place I can’t wait to return.

If you go:   Visit www.qamea.com   Beachfront Bures start at $585 a night with continental breakfast or $795 with full breakfast, 2-course lunch and 3-course dinner.Children under age 16 not allowed.  Check website for special packages.

This story originally was published on divinecaroline.com. Prices have been updated. As soon as my son turns 16 we’re going.

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Last Call: Answering the alarm of my biological clock

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Everyone talks about her biological clock ticking but how do you really know when it rings, or more specifically, how many times you can hit the snooze button?

Last call came for me in a tearful visit to an OB’s office. Fresh from a break-up with an on-again, off-again boyfriend of three years, I booked the appointment to discuss freezing my eggs. Supportive girlfriends always offer that “you can always freeze your eggs” advice when a relationship fails to someone who has hopes of becoming a mother.

Dr. Pelino asked why I was there. “I want to add to that.” I said, pointing to the bulletin board of babies and birth announcements of her patients. “Mr. Right hasn’t shown up yet, so I want to talk about putting my eggs on ice.”

“You’re how old?” She asked skeptically.

“Forty-two,” I said.

First, she informed me I couldn’t freeze an unfertilized egg. I mean, you can, but the odds of the egg surviving the thaw and implanting are less than 1 percent and those are with young twenty-something-year-old’s eggs, not my decrepit forty-something ones. “The odds are a bit higher with freezing embryos, but if you don’t have a partner you might as well just go for it now,” my doctor advised. “If I were you, I’d sperm-bank it,” she said, matter-of-factly. “You don’t have any more time to waste.” As if I was just loafing around, letting my eggs rot.

She handed me a flier for the California Cryobank, and she added, “Here are a few referrals to some REs. You’ll want to start with day three blood work for an FSH count. You can try IUI before moving to IVF but I wouldn’t spend too much time with that route.” Acronyms and fertility lingo clouded my head.

I got to my car numb, mouth agape and called my mom sobbing. “How did this happen?” I’d had my share of boyfriends over the years. It just so happened in the musical chairs game of romance, the fertility music was about to stop and I was going to be left standing without children.

During my writing group later that week, I mentioned this OB’s seemingly outrageous advice and one of my writing pals, Wendy responded, “Well, that’s what two friends from my church (Catholic, no less) did. They belong to a group called Single Mothers by Choice. You should check it out. Heck, I’ll be forty next year and if I’m still single I’m doing the same thing.” (Wendy now has a four-month old baby girl).

Single Mothers by Choice sounded to me like a bunch of man haters, or women you’d take one look at and think well no wonder they couldn’t find anyone.

I agreed to go to a meeting and to my surprise, they were mostly attractive professional women who you’d actually think, man, if she couldn’t find someone—really nice women that just weren’t paired up when their biological clocks rang. There was also one woman divorcing her husband because he’d decided he didn’t want children.

The group was divided by Thinkers (like me), TTCers (Trying to Conceive), Pregnant, and those with children already. It was less of a formal meeting and more of a get-together. Women ranged in age from early thirties to mid-forties: the Thinkers tentatively asking questions, a TTCer might be crying on someone’s shoulder because a recent effort failed, pregnant women aglow, mothers with new babies beaming, and other moms with toddlers milling about. The atmosphere was celebratory and supportive.

Some moms brought bags of hand-me-downs. Others drank coffee, nibbled on the healthy snacks, and compared notes on pre-schools, nannies, or potty training. It seemed like a lovely choice for these women.

I, on the other hand, set out for one last-ditch effort to pull out all the stops at finding Mr. Right. If my “Hey, if it’s meant to be, it’ll happen” approach was too carefree, this effort would bare no such criticism.

With the determination of a cave woman going out to club someone on the head and drag him back to her cave, I enlisted the help of the book Finding a Husband Past 35 (Using What I Learned at Harvard Business School) which suggests notifying everyone in passing that I’m available to be set up on dates. I shamelessly told all my friends, acquaintances—even my dental hygienist and a headhunter. That yielded one measly date. It was through the headhunter. Even if I hadn’t minded the circa 1983 feathered-back hairdo, diamond-studded earring, paunch, and the fact that he was considerably shorter than me, he announced he didn’t want or even like kids.

I also signed up for a couple of Internet dating sites. I had no shortage of first dates, yet few that I wanted to go out with on a second date, much less bear children and spend the rest of my life with. “Maybe you’re being too picky.” Married people loved to say. Down the bar lowered. As did the expectations.

I’d try and look at these guys as someone who just might have decent enough genes to make for an amiable ex. But when I’d graciously say, “You know, you’re a really great guy but I don’t feel that spark of something that tells me we’re a match.” I’d encounter angry guys from whom I’d have a hard time getting a sweater back had I left one in their car. If the sweater was our child and we had to share custody of her/him, these guys would be impossible. I felt like I was shopping more for an ex-husband than a lifelong mate.

During this time, I had five girlfriends across the country going through divorces. One woman’s husband changed his mind about wanting children, another woman’s couldn’t endure the stress of fertility efforts, another woman’s husband’s financial irresponsibility bankrupted the family, two other husbands cheated. The message seemed to be, even if I found someone that week, there’s no guarantee the relationship would last long enough to get pregnant, much less a lifetime.

Back to the SMC meeting I went. I was now halfway to being forty-three and the first Reproductive Endocrinologist I went to had shown me the stats on the chart. Age forty-two fell to somewhere under 4 percent odds of getting pregnant naturally and half that by age forty three. If I enlisted certain fertility measures like pumping up my follicles with fertility drugs, I could increase my chances to some degree but it was still no guarantee.

To think all those years I spent trying not to get pregnant. I was ready to make the plunge from Thinker to thinking I’d better get on it and TTC ASAP. I met two other TTCer friends at SMC a few steps in front of me. They had already picked out their donors from the sperm bank assuring me as soon as I covered that end of the equation, stepping off the fertility high dive would become so much more palatable.

The three of us would go hiking together and pass men on the trail. “He’s SW, one of us would say.” Suddenly men were categorized as sperm-worthy or not. I freelanced at an ad agency with an ample supply of SW-looking men—too young to date, but perhaps if they wouldn’t mind taking this plastic cup into the men’s room… Clearly, I needed to start shopping the sperm bank catalogs.

The two biggies were California Cryobank and Fairfax Cryobank. Little did I know the California one was headquartered right across the street from my grocery store in Westwood near the UCLA campus. To my shopping list of eggs, milk, and bread, I could now add sperm—all from one parking spot. Both banks had “branches” at top-rated universities in the U.S.

Mr. Right (Sperm vial on ice)

My date, Mr. Right (Sperm vial on ice) riding shotgun in my car

Shopping for sperm wasn’t much unlike Internet dating, except the guy didn’t have to like me back. Raising the bar as high as it would go, I spent many late nights downloading profiles, medical histories, Kiersey temperament reports, audio interviews, and baby photos. To protect the anonymity of donors, most sperm banks offer baby photos rather than photos of donors as adults. A bank out of Atlanta has open donors (those willing to be contacted by the child at his or her choosing once the child is eighteen) that supply adult photos, but none there struck my fancy.

What isn’t advertised, but I learned at an SMC meeting, is that an attractiveness rating is given to each donor by sperm banks. The rating is on a scale of one to ten, but eight is the highest score given. Fairfax goes to ten as well and rates can climb to nine (not sure if the men are really better looking or if the raters are more generous). It’s certainly a subjective call, but just another factor when weighing whose DNA you want your child to have.

I had to pick some criteria to search by. So I started with height, plugging in the search menu, “5’11” or taller and Caucasian.” That netted about a hundred results. From there I looked at staff impressions—two or three sentences summing up the donor’s personality and overall impressions. They’d tell it like it is. The “shy, quiet, seems to be the brooding type” also “composes and performs his own music as an accomplished pianist”.

Another “quick-witted, gregarious” type is also “a gentleman, seems to genuinely care about other people.”

Much of the information is free, such as: physical characteristics, blood type, ethnic origin, profession, or school of study (most donors are students). A short profile goes further to reveal favorite foods, hobbies, and GPA. My approach was to next download the baby photo for $20. For those that struck a chord or warmed my heart, I bought more detailed information such as medical history that went back three generations including immediate family as well as grandparents, aunts, and uncles.

Also available were donors’ facial features and audio profiles. In the Kiersey temperament report (a psychological profile) I looked for two things—extrovertedness, as I can be a bit shy at times, and optimism as depression taints my genes. The medical history held a lot of weight for me. I dismissed anyone whose immediate family members had cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and even asthma. These were certainly things that I wouldn’t dismiss if they were included in the family history of the man I fell in love with. I’d simply I’d cross my fingers and hope for the best. But if you can pick someone with a clean bill of health, why not?

In many respects I gathered more information than I ever knew about most of my past boyfriends, certainly from a medical standpoint. I quickly learned if I liked a donor, I should stock up as the more popular ones’ goods went fast. Fairfax had a wait list so when a donor’s new sperm came to market, ten of us might be called to each have a shot at two vials rather than the top one on the list hoarding all he had to offer.

I’d narrow my selects to a half dozen and comb over every detail. Unlike Internet dating, this wasn’t like choosing someone to have coffee with. This would be my child’s DNA for life. I’d email friends the top pick photos to sound in. A few friends would come over and listen to the audio interviews I downloaded. For me, so much came through in someone’s voice.

I’d seen a TV show where a woman was reunited with her mother after being put up for adoption. They both had the same weird affected voice. More than voice, I wanted to hear if this person sounded nice. Whether or not that’s hereditary, I just wanted to feel good about telling my child, “This is who your DNA came from.” I wanted my donor to be kind and likable.

When the interviewer asked the question “What motivated you to donate?” I didn’t want a guy saying it was money to party on but rather something along the lines of, “We had neighbors growing up who couldn’t conceive,” or “ It’s helping with med school costs but I also like the idea of helping those in need.” I wanted someone who grasped the magnitude of what this meant.

Both banks take less than five percent of those who apply, so the lot of donors is pretty good stock. They aim to take those who they know they can market. Every sperm shopper wants stellar medical history, good looks, and intelligence. I also wanted someone athletic and kind-sounding. I didn’t aim for the very best looking as single criteria or just the most intelligent, but an overall best, well-rounded and a feeling in my gut that this one is right.

Arriving at a donor I liked made all the difference in feeling good about moving forward. I had this other DNA half in mind with which to make this baby. The first one I picked was a med student.

My first RE, Dr. Chang started me on Clomid, an oral medication to increase the number of follicles and eggs I’d release. I was like a jacked-up pinball machine. It felt like PMS times infinity. The hormones raged so we could get more pinballs to play this fertility game with—each ball/egg increasing my odds of fertilizing and implanting. Every few days, I’d come in for an ultrasound tracking my follicle growth. Four on one side, three on the other. Go follies!

I’d administer the trigger shot (which triggers the brain to release the eggs) at an exact hour the evening before I’d go in for my IUI or intrauterine insemination. I was so certain I’d get pregnant the first try, I even opted to have them spin the sperm to aim for a girl. I figured if it was as simple as “paper or plastic,” why not. My mom had two grandsons, let’s go for a girl. Only when the results came back negative did I learn that separating the sperm actually decreased my odds for getting pregnant as they inject only half the amount.

I had also ignored the fact that “Mr. Right donor” didn’t have a reported pregnancy yet—something my SMC cronies insisted was critical. Even though the sperm banks guarantee sperm count, motility, and morphology (quality) to a certain degree, some goods just thaw better than others.

I dumped my first sperm donor and went on to one with a success rate. Now my RE wanted to up the ante on the follicle promotion and put me on injections. Twice a day I’d give myself a shot of follistim to increase my egg count more than clomid. I’m someone who has to turn my head when I have blood drawn. I asked a married friend who’d been down this road if she had to, could she have given herself the shots. She said, “no way.” Her husband would leave work to come administer them to her or she’d have to enlist the help of a neighbor.

The first shot I did in my RE’s office. The nurse held my sweaty hand gripping the needle. “Okay, on the count of three. One, two, three.” I couldn’t do it. We’d start over again and again.

“I’ve jumped out of an airplane and bungee jumped five times. Why can’t I do this?” I said, now sweating profusely. It was more the psychological factor of stabbing myself in the stomach with a needle. I’d always thought it’s a good thing I wasn’t diabetic and had never been bitten by a rabid animal. Death would be imminent.

On the next count of three, I asked myself how badly I wanted a baby and plunged the needle in my stomach. “Ow!” I said.

“Did it hurt?” the nurse asked surprised.

“No, I guess that was just a reaction,” I said, taken aback that it really hadn’t hurt.

By the next week, I was giving myself the shots while talking on the phone, not even interrupting the caller to tell them what I was about to do. I’d give myself shots at work in the restroom. I wondered if those in neighboring stalls, who might have smelled the alcohol swabs or spotted the needle in the feminine hygiene bin thought I was a heroin addict.

Sometimes I’d be told to administer the shot in my thigh. The trigger shots went into my rear end which demanded more skill, a mirror, and good aim.

I named the donors based on their baby photo Mr. Right donor #1 was referenced as Kitty Boy as he held a kitten in his photo. Roll of the fertility dice #2 was Overalls Boy, my second IUI, but first medicated one. This popular fertility clinic had standing-room-only in the waiting area on several visits but was riddled with sloppy mistakes.

After my first failed IUI the RE said, “It’s too bad you didn’t respond to the estradoil,” a medication intended to thicken my lining that the clomid thinned. No one had ever given me a prescription for this. The blood work technician repeatedly drew blood for more tests than needed, which was more gauging as I was paying a la carte.

I’d been waitlisted for a reproductive endocrinologist whom I had seen giving a speech at a fertility conference at Cedars Sinai, months earlier. Then I finally got in to see Dr. Najmabadi. On his desk was a plaque of the serenity prayer. He ran a private practice, also in Beverly Hills, but with less fanfare than the other place. I was a few days into my protocol for my first IVF (invitro fertilization). Dr. Naj. thought an IVF might be premature and switched the cycle to an IUI with donor #3, the water polo player. I figured if the sperm donor was into water sports, maybe his sperm could swim stronger and faster. I figured wrong.

Roll of the fertility dice #4 was an IVF which increased not only the odds of getting pregnant but also the cost, from roughly under $1k to $15k. In invitro fertilization, the eggs are removed under surgery, fertilized and grown before being put back in a few days later. And in the case of older eggs, ICSI (another $1500) is also performed where they inject the sperm into the egg with a needle because the egg shell hardens in older women’s eggs, making it difficult for sperm to penetrate.

This round, I decided to have a duel. Every donor thus far had been from the California Cryobank. This round, I enlisted a new candidate from the Fairfax Cryobank based out of Virginia. I had Dr. Naj thaw both vials and review them in the microscope to see which vial had better swimmers: the water polo player or the rugby captain. It was a close tie. We went with water polo player. He sank again.

Now, feeling the toll of being jacked up on the roller coaster of hormones for four solid months, I took a break for a month. I met a guy.

My friend Nancy returned home from taking me to get my eggs transferred. Her husband and houseguest, a guy named Bruce, wanted to know where she’d been. Bruce was so intrigued with this bold single woman wanting so badly to have a child, she’d brave it solo, he wanted to meet me. Nancy and her husband had known this guy for years and years. He’d joined them on their trips to Telluride in the summers where they’d had long hikes and he’d talked about wanting to be a father.

It was a storybook beginning. I could hear myself a decade in the future talking about how I met my husband. It made for an interesting first date for him to already know I clearly wanted children and that I was on a very immediate timeline. This gave all new meaning to term speed dating. The relationship ended even more quickly than it began. I didn’t miss a beat. My one-month holding pattern was finished and I was ready for the next roll of the fertility dice.

Donor #5 was Mr. Tie-breaker from the previous spermathon. He was 6’2″, adorable (rated in the top five best looking at Fairfax) blonde-haired, blue-eyed, captain of his rugby team and as best I could surmise an alumni of my alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin. Besides the stellar medical history, scoring well in optimism and extrovertedness, he was smart and seemed likable. He was both athletic and musically gifted. Well, at least he played the guitar. He had a nice voice with a hint of a southern accent if you listened carefully on certain words.

His audiotape interview indicated the one celebrity he’d like to meet was Marilyn Monroe. I was born the same day and year Marilyn died. Under “best vacation,” he mentioned a trapeze school at a resort he went to. The only Club Med I’ve ever been to had a trapeze school, and after mastering a simple knee hang trick, they put me in the show. I’d liked it so much, I took a few trapeze classes when I got back home. It was meant to be. We were sperm mates.

I’d now sunk forty grand into this endeavor. My mother would say, “You can’t just keep dolling out fifteen thousand after fifteen thousand on IVFs.”

Other people would ask, “So how many times are you going to try?” or “Have you considered adoption?” Both are some of the worst things you want to hear when your goal of a baby of your own is all you can envision. My older brother, upon learning my decision to have a child on my own, stopped speaking to me.

A year had passed. I’d been seeing a fertility acupuncturist once a week and then twice weekly as it neared egg withdrawal and transfer. I brewed and drank stinky Chinese herbs three times a day. I had one acupuncturist at the transfer on IVF number one. For this round, I had someone else. I was now going to a fertility therapist as well to cushion the emotional toll.

IVF #2 yielded eleven eggs. By day three, they all died off except two, and one of those looked iffy. My RE phoned while I was in my fertility therapist’s office. He explained normal protocol would suggest with so few eggs we should put them back in on day three but if we did and they didn’t take, we won’t have learned anything. If we push them to blastocyst to day five and put them in then, and they don’t take, at least we know they can make it to blast and would warrant trying again. It’s more difficult for an embryo to survive outside the uterus but if it can make it to blastocyst (in layman terms, a heartier embryo) it stands a stronger chance of implanting.

I’d have to sign consent to take such a risky move. My therapist thought it was a bad idea. So did my fertility acupuncturist. My gut said, trust Dr. Naj.

Both eggs made it to blast, though it took until day six. The transfer was scheduled for December 23. I spent Christmas on bedrest alone. Two weeks later, I was scheduled for my blood test. In previous times, I was certain I was pregnant. This time, I’d mastered the art of being detached. It drove me crazy when well-meaning friends would ask if I felt pregnant. I tried not to feel anything, knowing any expectation could easily be dashed. Yet, being too negative might also sabotage the results.

My little blastocysts

My little blastocysts

One day, fourteen days past transfer, I cheated and took a home pregnancy test. They advise not to as they can give a false negative if taken too early, a false positive if it
picks up any HCG (human chorionic gonadotropin) from the trigger shot. I can never read the the home pregnancy tests with the bars, so I got the kind that say either pregnant or well, I’m not sure what it says when you’re not because mine said…

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Results are in…

pregnant!

It was 6 a.m. I got out my camera and took a photo before the pee dried and it went away. Later that morning I went in for my bloodwork and told my RE the good news. “Is it for real?” I asked.

He said, “No, not until you get the bloodwork results back.”

It would be a long day waiting. I was about to go watch the Rose Bowl game with friends to see UT play USC. I got the call. “I have good news. You’re pregnant!” I can’t even remember who in the RE’s office broke the news.

A flood of emotion from all the months of trying hit the Kleenex box. Most people wait until after amnio results to announce such news. I was ready to call the newswires. Instead, I sent an email out with the photo of the pregnancy test saying it was now official to practically everyone I knew.

When UT spanked USC later that day, I had to contain myself to not jump up and down for fear I’d rattle something loose.

The pregnancy went as smoothly as I guess a pregnancy can for a forty three-year old. I turned forty-four right before my due date. A few days after the first positive pregnancy test, they took another blood test to see my HCG reading. Mine first test measured 448. If it doubled in two days, it was a viable pregnancy. Mine was 1423.I was pregnant with twins.

My two buns in the oven

My two buns in the oven

Since I was a little girl, I’d always wanted twins. I pictured them dressed alike in a cute double stroller. Then I started thinking about the not-so-cute double cost of daycare, double diapers, double crying in the middle of the night and the fact that I was a single parent. It also dawned on me that since I was a little girl, I’d also always wanted a monkey and perhaps I’d now be raising two kids, wild as monkeys, on my own.

A few weeks later, I went in for my first ultrasound. I was warned I might not hear a heartbeat so soon. I listened intently. When the volume was turned on, a thunderous heartbeat belted out just as my RE walked into the room. “Now that’s a healthy heartbeat.” Dr.Naj. said.

"Little Thumper's" thunderous heartbeat

“Little Thumper’s” thunderous heartbeat

“Thumper,” as the little being inside me would be called throughout my pregnancy, was alive and kicking. The bittersweet news was that the other twin didn’t make it. It was sad to see the little embryo that could not, but I tried to focus on the relief of caring for just one kid instead of two. I think if I’d been married and more capable of caring for two, I would have felt more heartache. I was just so thankful to have one very healthy heartbeat.

Those hopes were almost dashed a few weeks later when I passed a blood clot the size of a golf ball. I was certain I’d lost the baby. I raced into Dr. Naj’s who assured me when I walked in with tears streaming down my face that it was all going to be okay. The ultrasound revealed Thumper minding his own business and thumping away. We don’t know if the blood was from the placenta adhering to the lining or the twin’s sack making its way out.

Ready for my first closeup

Ready for my first closeup

The rest of the pregnancy went fairly smoothly for an old hen. Everything underscored the term, “last call.” My age alone made me bear the title high risk. The CVS (chorionic villi sampling), which nowadays replaces the amnio, provides the same information as an amnio, but with results back much sooner (week ten versus week nineteen).

At the genetics counselor, I learned there are infinite genetic abnormalities and my age alone put me at a one in fourteen risk for one of the more common ones. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when my CVS results came back normal. At ten weeks I also knew I was having a…

I'm a boy!

I’m a boy!

boy!

As soon as I discovered Gymboree and knew they had just as cute clothes for boys as girls, I was elated. I made a celebration purchase of a little monkey outfit.

At thirty four weeks, my OB noted the girth of my stomach stopped growing (it’s supposed to grow one inch per week of pregnancy). I was sent to a specialist who determined my placenta was showing calcifications due to my age. I was told my baby had reached full term in size but likely wouldn’t fatten up much before delivery.

They’d monitor him now twice a week to see if he would grow and if indeed he stopped gaining weight altogether, they’d induce me early. A few weeks later my blood pressure was high. I’d now begun to really start swelling. I could only wear one pair of flip-flops and my feet looked like Fred Flintstone’s. My wrists swelled up too, causing them to feel arthritic. At night they were in such pain, I’d have to wear wrist gaurds.

At week thirty-eight, I was in for a cardiogram and I asked again if my blood pressure was still high. It was. They sent me right over to the hospital to see if I had protein in my urine which would indicate pre-eclempsia. There was. I did. They induced me right away and while the labor initially started out fine, by morning I hadn’t dilated any further and they thought I could have a seizure—putting my and the baby’s health at risk. They had to do a C-section immediately.

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My cute little monkey

On August 29th, I delivered a healthy baby  boy at 7 pounds, 3 ounces, 23.5 inches long.  He was beautiful and perfect in every way. I  named him Ames Somerset. Ames is a  family last name whose genealogy dates  back to the 1400s in the county of Somerset,  England. I remembered visiting Somerset  and standing in the church cemetery,  surrounded by thin timeworn tombstones,    feeling I’d discovered the end of my roots.

Throughout my pregnancy, there were times I wondered if I’d maybe romanticized this notion of motherhood. I also feared my late father’s depression might make me destined for postpartum depression. I feel like I have just the opposite: Postpartum nirvana. Ames is far more joyful than I could ever have imagined. The love I have for him is deeper than any love I’ve ever tapped into.

While Dr. Pelino didn’t end up being my OB who delivered Ames, I sent her a thank-you note for offering such outlandish advice and a picture of Ames to add to her bulletin board.

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Ames just before he peed on my hands

I’m blessed to have an exceptionally good-natured baby. His little hand clutches onto the top of my shirt, he looks me in the eye, purrs when he’s nursing. He grins ear to ear and has just learned to belly laugh. When I sing to him, he tries to sing along, cooing in harmony. And when I look down at him while he’s sleeping and think that I almost missed out on this, I well up in tears.

This story was originally published in Divinecaroline.com January, 2007. At age 8 now, I can report that solo motherhood was both harder than I imagined but also far more rewarding that I could have ever dreamed. I’d do it over again in a heartbeat.

 

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The Little Friends

lorimayfield-51d9b9331462bb5I balanced my half of the “little friends” on the welcome plate of chocolate-dipped strawberries on the bedside tray that had been left for me by the hotel manager, replacing his welcome note to me with a one for my boyfriend. He was due to arrive while I was getting a Nordic Princess massage at Stein Eriksen Lodge’s spa in Deer Valley, Utah.

Vic and I were meeting up for a close of the ski season weekend in late March. In fact, the only times I saw my boyfriend were on rendezvous such as these as I live in Los Angeles and he in Tucson. We’d met each other a few years prior on a mountain biking/river rafting/elephant safari/trekking the Himalayas multi-sport trip with REI Adventures in Nepal. We shared the same love of adventure travel and our long-distance relationship consisted mainly of traveling together.

The “little friends” collection began when we started dating more seriously. Or, when we started referring to each other as boyfriend and girlfriend. It was just before a hiking/cycling/kayaking trip to New Zealand over Christmas. I’d given him a card with a miniature Santa glued to the front. “Secret Santa”, he would soon be called, as he mysteriously appeared in unsuspecting places. A little friend who appeared with his red Santa hat peering out of a fleece pocket while hiking Mt. Cook or cinched into the harness on one of three bungee jumps we did in Queenstown.

At a roadside stop after sea kayaking in the Milford Sound, Vic got on the bus with a second new friend, a kiwi finger puppet luanching what would become a collection of travel mascots.

“Liddo lamb” joined the gang symbolizing the near-miss sacrificial lamb we worried about all night on New Years’ eve. We could hear him baaa-aaaing all night too close to a bonfire across the street from our lodge not far from Paparoa National Park. The lamb had been vandalized by what looked to be tourists with Swiss army knives hatching square patches of wool from his coat. Fearing we’d awake to the lamb on his side keeled over from smoke inhalation the next morning, I kept begging Vic to go free him during the night. He survived anyway and while I wanted to bring him back with me to Los Angeles, it seemed more practical to carry a 3-inch lamb with a hand-sewn smile instead. We went thru the entire basket looking for a perfectly symmetrical smile before arriving at “Liddo”.

Before going to bed at night after a long day’s hike, bike or kayak, we’d line the little friends up next to a candle like a religious shrine to watch over us. By mid-trip, they’d earned semi-celebrity status as other people on our trip wanted their photos taken with the little friends say, under the waterfall in the rainforest hiking up to Fox Glacier or in a meadow of wild flowers near Okarito.

In Fiji, we added “Turd-o” a brown wooden turtle. On travels we weren’t together on, the first thing we’d ask the other upon return wasn’t “how was the trip” but instead, “did you find any little friends?”

It was a tall order to qualify as a little friend. A little friend had to be well, little or under three inches more precisely and in proportion to the other friends. You couldn’t have a six-inch long lizard say from Baja no matter how cute or a troll in lederhosen from Germany with hair that towered over Kiwi, it just wouldn’t work.

Vic sent me “Bunstee” a little bunny on the Easter we spent apart that Spring. When we’d part ways at an airport after traveling together, we’d divvy up the little friends. They represented the absence and the longing we felt for one another. When Vic would call, he’d always ask about the little friends, wanting to know if they were bedside keeping vigil. When we’d rendezvous after exchanging hugs and kisses, the first thing we’d do is reunite the little friends. His set of little friends might send a postcard to the little friends I had during the long weeks apart.

I kept a photo of all the little friends sitting in the snow in Vail in a frame Vic got me in seaside village of Punakaiki in New Zealand. The little friends had been part of a Valentine gift surprise in Vail standing in formation inside the chocolate kisses that formed a heart with two necklaces wrapped in the center.

The little friends had conversations with each other the way couples talk through pets when they can’t openly display their feelings for each other. “Does Liddo Lamb miss Kiwi?” Vic would ask.

“Yes, she’s been baaa-aahing herself to sleep every night putting little Xs on her sheep herder calendar wondering when she’s going to see him again.” I’d reply.

The little friends had a rocky go of it the month leading up to ski trip to Utah. Vic almost didn’t come which meant one half of the little friends might forget who the other half was. We’d had tearful phone calls arguing about how long it had actually been since we’d last seen each other and his cavalierness about not committing to when the next time might be or if he’d actually come until minutes before the 14-day advance ticket had to be purchased. My friends grew weary of being backup for a trip I was off to when once again my non-committal boyfriend waffled back and forth on if he was going or not.

The relaxation of the Nordic princess massage quickly vanished when I returned to my room and noticed the little friends absent from the bed tray. The maids had obviously come for the bed turndown service. The bedspread was folded and set aside, sheets turned down with chocolates on the pillow and the bedside welcome tray exactly as I’d left it except for the little friends. I looked under the bed, around the perimeter of the dresser, or anyplace a little 3-inch friend could have rolled or leapt off. Nothing.

I checked my wallet to see if any cash was missing. All there. Credit cards, all in order. My jewelry, ditto. Initially, the idea of someone stealing the little friends seemed unthinkable.

The phone rang. It was Vic who, not surprisingly had missed his plane. He wouldn’t be there until the next morning. I was livid. He’d bragged countless times before about how close he cut it getting to the airport like a badge of tardiness that he could hold up an airplane with an entire flight steaming because he had to gate check his bag. Post 9-11, this no longer served him. They wouldn’t let him gatecheck his bag or let him get on the plane sending it on a following flight. His only choice was the catch the first morning’s flight.

When he called the next morning to tell me he’d meet me mid-slope once he got in, I broke the news about the little friends. I hadn’t realized it was first of the month and he took it as an April fool’s joke. When he joined me on the chairlift, the first thing I noticed is he hadn’t brushed his teeth. Smelled like a bad combination of Southwest airlines peanuts and stale coffee. He leaned in to kiss me and I turned to let him kiss me on the cheek. “You’re still mad? You’re not going to even kiss me?” He said, “How ‘bout Liddo Lamb will she kiss me?”

“They’re gone.” He gave me a look of disbelief. “Yes, Really.” We sat silently the rest of the chairlift ride up.

When we returned to the room, he kept waiting for Kiwi or Santa to jump out of a hotel robe pocket, peer out of a pillowcase or be sandwiched between the shampoo and crème rinse in the shower stall. Nothing.

We slept with our backs to each other that night. The next morning when it finally sunk in I wasn’t kidding about the April Fool’s Vic wanted to know if I had called anyone. “You mean like the police?” I said.

“Well, no but hotel security or management.” He said, implying I’d been careless to not have gotten on the trail sooner.

“What do I say? The little friends have been abducted? Send out an amber alert?” I placed the call to the front desk. “Yes, it seems there’s been a theft in my room.” They wanted more particulars. “Uh well,” I grasped. “They were little uh, small toys I guess you’d call them. A finger puppet, a stuffed Santa, a wooden turtle…” I went on. “No sir, we don’t have any children in the room.” “The value? You mean the monetary value? Oh, I don’t know about twenty-five dollars but they hold sentimental value.” I grew embarrassed taking such a serious tone about what he seemingly noted as insignificant items.

He dismissively said he’d check with housekeeping and get back with me. I went on to explain how I’d left them on a tray that might have been viewed as hotel trinkets you might find in say, a happy meal. Maybe they thought these were some end-of-the-season trinkets for guests with children. Perhaps the maids at a moment’s glance thought the room didn’t indicate children, didn’t know I hadn’t already seen the welcome plate and thought I’d never be the wiser if said missing toys were absent. I babbled on hoping if I didn’t sound too accusatory I’d give them an out to cop to lifting the little friends. The manager informed me these housekeepers had already left for the season and were headed to their native Guatemala.

I pictured a Maria somebody with the little friends stowed away in her luggage bound for the homeland to be adopted by little Guatamalan children. This image did not warm my heart one iota. Screw the poor children of Guatemala. I wanted the little friends back without any grubby Guatemalan hands on them. The manager said he’d take my contact information and call me on their return.

Back and forth my boyfriend and I argued over whose fault it was. I was accused of being careless leaving them out it plain sight, practically taunting the maids to steal them. I blamed him. If he’d caught his plane maybe he’d have been there when housekeeping came to turn down the bed linens.

The same sort of arguments that likely took place in the Lindenburgh family when their baby was kidnapped. I insisted my boyfriend, try and weasel the names and phone numbers of the Guatemalan housekeepers from the manager explaining he’s fluent in Spanish. Insist he only intended to have a friendly chat with them. Get them on the phone then reveal he’s an immigration attorney (who normally helps immigrants into the country but leaving that detail out) instead, he might mention only the words immigration, attorney and imply housekeeping might find themselves banned from the US with criminal charges if they didn’t cough up our pequeno compadres.

The manager, perhaps now fearing retaliation and something certain to end up on the six o’clock news, wouldn’t release their names much less their phone numbers. He assured us when they returned from vacation, he’d have a word with them. He insisted they’ve not had any thefts and surely I must have just “misplaced my items”. He kept calling them “items” which only annoyed me all the more.

Weeks passed. The Guatemalans returned with memories of the delight of their little ones back home overjoyed by the tiny items from America. The manager dismissively assured me his people hadn’t known anything about my items and perhaps a check might just put this matter to rest.

“How much were they worth?” the manager wanted to know again.

The relationship was now down the toilet. Vic and I hardly spoke since getting back from the trip. I’d stopped asking about his half of the little friends. What was the point really now that the whole pack was ripped apart. He’d given me Bunstee as a consolation but I didn’t want him sitting alone by the alarm clock –too depressing– instead he started to collect dust in a bowl next to some pocket change. I totaled the monetary value of the “items” and suggested the manager might kick in some postage to cover costs from Fiji and New Zealand.

By the time the check arrived from the Lodge, the relationship was completely over. Vic had flown out to try and salvage things. I’d since found he had a profile up on an Internet dating site. He’d come out to LA one last time but I’d lost all interest. He waited until I lost any fondness be it love or something else. I’d already shed tears in the countless fights we had over the phone. He insisted I still must care for him but I didn’t. He waited until after I had nothing left but numbness for him to tell me he loved me for the first time and had always thought I’d be the mother of his children. That made me misty-eyed but what really made me heave sobs was when he said, “what about the little friends. Tell me you’ll always keep the photo of the little friends in the frame.”

Editor’s note: This story originally was published on Divinecaroline.com. The little friends photo remains in a frame somewhere in my basement. After the breakup, I went to inquire about putting my eggs on ice. The visit to my OB would ultimately result in my decision to pursue motherhood solo enlisting the help of a spermbank and the marvels of modern medicine. I gave birth at the ripe advanced maternal age of 44. (Read: Last Call.)

 

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Alternative vacations: oh the tangled webs we weave.

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Samasati’s treehouse-like casitas

Puerta Viejo, Costa Rica. I never considered myself to have arachnophobic tendencies until I found myself in the middle of the jungle at a seven-day yoga retreat in Costa Rica.

Samasati Retreat and Rain Forest Sanctuary, a vast expanse of rainforest, is perched atop a mountain 10 miles inland from the Caribbean near the town of Puerto Viejo, just north of the Panama border.  The name Samasati derives from what are said to be Buddha’s last words.  This single word is supposed to mean, “Remember you are one with the ocean, trees and stars.  Remember you are Buddha.”

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  At Samasati, one is quickly made aware— you are also one with the scorpions,            cockroaches, bullet ants, geckos, neon-colored frogs, snakes and giant-horned    rhinoceros beetles easily mistaken for small,  low-flying helicopters.   

 I was no stranger to the outdoors. I’d just  come from eight days of mountain biking,  river rafting and trekking in the northern part of the country with REI Adventures.  Samasati was supposed to be the relaxing part of my vacation. 

My first night there however, was anything but. I sat bolt upright, awake in bed, hyper-vigilantly listening and watching for anything that moved or looked as if it might.  Each nerve stood on highest alert, too paralyzed to kill the light for fear of creepy crawlies.

A phobia is an irrational fear.  Mine was substantiated.  I’d just brushed my teeth, spitting toothpaste on a scorpion trying to fight the stream of water to keep from going down the drain.  I thought I’d won but one could never be too sure if the scorpion wasn’t simply playing possum, waiting until it heard the rhythmic breath of sleep to make its counter move.

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Beware of the menacing bullet ant

Bullet ants are the most feared of all insects in Costa Rica.  They easily span two inches in length, like some Arnold Schwarzenegger of ants.  It wasn’t clear to me if they were called bullet ants because their bodies were shaped like bullets or if the sting felt like being shot by one. 

Bart, whose job it was to sweep the steps with bleach to keep to slippery moss from growing, warned ominously at check-in, “It is a pain like you will never forget.” A bullet from a gun wound sounded more welcoming. I’d been stung by fire ants and could only magnify that pain infinitely in my mind. 

Bart went on, “Olivia, one of the cooks, was getting dressed for work one morning, pulled up her panties where a bullet ant was hiding and,” he smashed the broom handle down firmly and pointed to his backside, “bit her right there on the cheek, she couldn’t sit for three days.”

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 My Casita was one of 10 on this 250- acre rain forest with a spectacular view of  the sea that far surpassed what the website  promised.  The décor spelled organic rainforest—hardwood floors, walls and  ceiling, accented in ivory linens, fresh-cut  rainforest flowers, leather rockers and an  inviting hammock swaying on the veranda.  By day it was relatively peaceful except for  an occasional toucan squawk.

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Inside the casita

 Nighttime is when the jungle awakened with a symphony of nocturnal noise that was almost deafening.  A cacophony of what sounded like hundreds of thousands of frogs ribbeting, howler monkeys shrieking, locust-like creatures of all sorts reverberating in a range of pitches. Anything that could chirp, squawk, howl, clatter, hiss, buzz or twitter joined in. Alone in my bungalow, I felt like a human trapped in a bug’s jar.

Eyelids heavy that first night, I finally managed to turn the light off—fingers clinched on blankets pulled taut over my head.  Under the covers, I was sure I felt things biting me. Bed bugs?  Fleas?  Or just my imagination creating adrenaline-induced delirium tremors? This was like a seven-day episode of Fear Factor. 

I awakened my first morning to a howler monkey hurling a coconut on my tin roof. “Hey, stop that monkeying around!” I shouted. (I’d always wanted to say that to a monkey.)     

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Good morning!

 I rose and opened my blinds, startling a  gecko, which scurried up the window and  sent my heart rate soaring.  Climbing in the  shower I noticed an otherwise innocent fly.   Back home in Los Angeles, I’d ignore the  same insect as a common housefly. Here, I  suspected it had fangs, venom and a  personal vendetta; the buzz I felt certain sounded a little off.  I flinched every time it hovered near me as I washed my hair in record time. 

Walking to breakfast it was clear some of the sounds I’d heard the night before were insect construction noises.  The spiders had been busy spinning massive webs large enough to capture a 125-pound human.

Staying one step ahead, I devised a way to walk that knocked down the invisible webs by windmilling my arms. If my propelling appendages missed a spider’s web and I inadvertently stuck my head in one, I’d spasmodically brush off every limb, while running in place, bending over upside down, running my fingers through my hair, thrashing my head side to side.  This display of insanity provided great entertainment for those on the dining deck. 

845066Yoga took place twice a day. Time to relax and get centered—for some.  The studio was a hexagonal, screened-in structure that appeared to be inviting to two-legged as well as six-legged yogis.  There were those New Age types who gingerly, picked up bugs and lovingly guided them outside— the same way a boy scout might assist a little old lady crossing the street.  Not me.

Middle finger to thumb, I flicked the ants away from my mat with a scud missile force that launched them halfway across the room.  I watched especially for the ones that tried to blend into the brown hardwood floor.  Sneaky bastards.  I kept asking people “Is that a bullet ant?” 

“No, not big enough.”   

“Om” vibrating from our larynxes must have sounded like a mating call to the insect world, luring them into the glowing hut. I meditated with one eye open and when I was certain the other meditators had both theirs shut, I’d give the six-legged creatures a kind shove into their next incarnation with my yoga block.  Crunch. 

During one of the evening meditations mid week, I was laying with my rear-end pressed up against the wall, legs straight up, arms out to either side, palms up and open— this time managing to shut both eyes for more than a few seconds. Breathing the ujjayi breath, I had entered into a state of deep relaxation just when an exceptionally oversized cockroach mistook my palm for a landing strip.

I went from Zen bliss to full-blown fight or flight syndrome. Letting out a shriek that rivaled a howler monkey’s, I flung the cockroach into the air behind me, jolting the rest of the class from their calm, meditative states.  Quickly, I tried to regain some composure and hyperventilating whispered, “sorry, grande cucaracha.” If ever there was a time to take dead bug pose.

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Massages were available day and night.  I opted for an evening massage as after a proper one, I’m usually rendered vegetable-like and drift off to sleep afterwards.  But naked on the massage table, coated in oil, surrounded by candles, I imagined every insect on the 250-mile reserve with their antennas pressed up against the window, buzzing to have at just one artery of my blood.  If a dust particle touched me, I’d flinch.  Robert, the massage therapist would ask, “is the pressure too much?” 

“No, I thought I felt a mosquito.” 

“Maybe you need to embrace the rainforest life force, not resist it,” he offered.

I took at least one excursion a day off the Samasati premises.  My favorite was the canopy tour with Terra Aventuras— a thrilling adventure where you see the jungle through the eyes of a monkey.  At tree top level, a hundred feet up, secured with a rock-climbing harness, one leaps off a platform, careening via suspended cable the length of a football field to a total of eight platforms before rappelling down the final tree.

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Ziplining through the treetops of the rainforest

 While en route through the jungle to the launch  site, our guide caught a poison dart frog in his  hand.  In an attempt to get the neon-spotted  amphibian to hold still so I could snap a photo, he  propelled the frog around and around in his hand  as if dislodging ketchup from a bottle.  On about  the ninth rotation the slippery creature flung out  of his hand and onto, naturally, my chest.  Needless to say I didn’t get the photo I’d hoped for, but had anyone else been poised with a camera, they’d have captured a real Kodak moment.

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A rescue sloth named Buttercup

Angie, the yoga instructor and I ventured off to a sloth sanctuary and river cruise along the Estrella River Estuary one afternoon.  We first embarked on a two-hour tour via dugout canoe through the narrow river.  A British entomology photographer also happened to be in our boat. Lucky for us.  Never mind that he had a foot-long lens on his camera, he insisted on getting as close to any freak of nature along the riverbank.  Just a few feet away from a chartreuse lizard that Cali, our Caribbean guide said  “that baby iguana, nickname Jesus Christ Lizard.”

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Iguana plotting its move to attack me

 Staring eye to eye with its red beady ones, I  pondered which aspect of Christ the mini-  dinosaur was like. Has it been persecuted  by its predators, conceived immaculately,  when the mini dinosaur bolts towards me  walking on water with its webbed feet like s  something out of Jurassic Park.  I almost back flip off the other side of the canoe. A swift pan on the camera, followed by a loud thud hitting the bottom of the boat with Cali laughing uncontrollably, was all that was captured on home video of this miracle.

The Sloth sanctuary is where baby sloths like “Happy” whose mother was killed by dogs are brought for care and rehabilitated back into the wild. “Buttercup” is the teaching sloth meaning visitors can hold her.  Able to turn their heads 180 degrees, little Buttercup tilted her head around and lifted her arms for me to hold her like a small child wanting its mother to pick it up.

My maternal instincts gave way and I cradled this coarse-haired creature like an infant on one hip, it’s arm wrapped around my back and holding my finger with its three big toes.  I pressed my cheek against Buttercup’s, taking my massage therapist’s advice and embracing this adorable force of jungle life.  I was ready to adopt Buttercup and raise her as my own.

Another day a few brave souls went trekking in the rain forest along the beach in Punta Uva. We encountered giant 10-inch millipedes and finally, scores of bullet ants trying to find cover.  It was pouring—day five in a row of what the guidebooks called Costa Rica’s “dry season”. The rain turned the jungle floor a rich orange mud, which we spread like tribal war paint on our faces— mine in hopes of warding off any bullet ants. It proved affective.

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The not-so-eensy-weensy Costa rican Millipede

While waiting for my ride to the bus station, I boasted to Bart that I’d made it through the entire week bullet ant-bite free. He offered no congratulations but instead a few parting scary bug tales. 

Most sounded like Costa Rican urban myths, like the jungle urethra worm that “set up residence” in a local village man’s appendage while relieving himself too close to a tree. The unfortunate man’s penis swelled up so large, he had to cart his inflamed mass in a wheelbarrow to get into town and have it seen to. I was overcome with a feeling of whatever the opposite of penis envy is.  Vagina gratefulness?

I was thankful Bart waited until my last day to launch into his litany of entomological horror stories. To a comparatively large degree, I’d desensitized much of my phobia to a reasonable watchful eye.  By now I let the smaller spiders share my bathroom and even went so far as to name my bungalow’s geckos, which I viewed as guard lizards against more dangerous insects.  I was after all, a guest in their home. And they were probably thankful the five foot nine giant who kept the light on half the night was finally leaving them in peace.

IF YOU GO:   And, despite my initial bug aversion, I DO recommend going. Samasati is spectacular whether traveling solo (pre-mommyhood) as I did, or as a family. Children are welcomed and half price.

2-story, 2-bedroom/2-bath casitas start at $130 per person per night (children under 12 are 50% off), which includes breakfast and dinner along with complimentary shuttle to the beach. Excursions are a nominal fee extra.

Check Samasait’s website for guest artist retreats to coincide with your favorite yoga instructor and special packages. Costa Rica’s Samasati offers an affordable and memorable beach vacation.

HANDY TIPS FOR THOSE BUGGED  BY INSECTS.

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“What’s that wild scent I’m wearing?” you ask?

  1.Pack plenty of mosquito repellent— OFF,  Cutter or Jungle Juice will do.  Even if  you’re there in the “dry season” of winter  like I was and there really aren’t any  mosquitoes, it’s comforting to know you  reek of something that wards off insects of some sort.

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2. For that same reason, you can’t have too much of an arsenal of Benedryl, sting stick, cortisone and the like.  Arm yourself well.

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The fashion-forward arachnophobic look

3. Let’s talk clothing.  A mosquito hat (a goofy thing that fits over your head with netting that extends down the neck, tucking in the shirt collar) might allow for better breathing than covers pulled up over your head.  I’ve also seen full-on suits made of mosquito netting.  Severe phobics might opt for a beekeeper’s suit.

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Bee keeper gloves sold separately

As good of an idea as it may seem to wear one of those strap-on headlamps for walking through the jungle at night, freeing up arms for the spider web windmilling move, remember bugs are attracted to light.

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Hi-ya, spider webs!

4. A long stick makes for a nice “spider web machete” in a pinch.  Trekking poles work better and serve a dual purpose should you actually see a spider and need to “shish-ka-bob it”.

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Work on your backhand while swatting bugs

5. While you might not make yourself popular with the extreme “entomology lover types”, a portable bug zapper disguised as a tennis racquet won’t raise eyebrows when passing through TSA. The zapping noises sound like electric chair frying to an insect.  At the very least, you’ll feel part of the reincarnation practice for kamikaze-ing bugs.

This story originally was published on divinecaroline.com but has been updated with current pricing. If I’d realized earlier just how kid-friendly  Samasati is, I’d have gotten back here as a mom sooner. Ames was a natural at yoga from his early days. Hopefully he’ll still embrace yoga now.

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Ames’ first downward dog at Mommy n’ me yoga in Santa Monica

Categories: Destinations | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

 Taken for a ride

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Which was the more painful part of her Indian camel safari: getting ripped off or all but ripped in half by her undergarments?

Jaisalmer, India  Visible pantyline should have been the least of my worries when I got dressed that morning and put on a pair of thong underwear. If only I’d had the foresight to know what a grave mistake that would prove to be later that day atop a camel in the Thar Desert of India.

My afternoon of woe began at the Sam Sand Dunes parking lot, 26 miles outside of Jaisalmer, in Rajasthan.

Eager camel guides descended upon my white Ambassador car like vultures the minute we pulled into the lot. My timid driver did little to shield them off—the whole flock all squawking loudly at once in Hindi. The most aggressive of them, with a toothy used-camel-salesman grin, cut a deal with my driver and I was quickly auctioned off.

Fresh prey in tow, my newly appointed camel guide paraded me over to what looked at first like a Hertz rent-a-car lot except that these vehicles were camels. Adorned in vibrant Rajasthani yellow, red and blue saddles, hundreds of camels sat 20 to a row. And then there was the back row. Clad in dusty, dingy, tattered blankets slouched a bunch of nasty Rent-a-Wreck clunkers.

This was my last adventure in a five-week trip to India and I was no stranger to being ripped off. So it wasn’t surprising when the guide motioned for me to get on the most pitiful four-legged beast.

I’d just careened across the western half of India in a seven-hour obstacle course dash dodging cows, goats and chickens, all in hopes of having my picture snapped on one of these creatures before the sun set. “Can I have one of those camels?” I said, pointing to a more photogenic one.

“No madam, you have number, you must take this one”. Back and forth we argued. Finally he said, “okay, that camel cost you 500 rupees (about $11) more.” My driver had already paid him the posted rate of 200 rupees ($4.40).

Armed only with a video camera, I hit the record button and asked him to repeat what he had just said so as to capture this all on tape. I wasn’t sure if its use would be with the tour company I booked this through for reimbursement purposes, or for the international investigator in determining my cause of death.

Wad of rupees in hand, I made certain I filmed a close-up as I handed the money over to the camel swindler. There began the first of my camel ride tolls.

This wouldn’t have happened had the itinerary gone as planned. Meticulously, I’d mapped everything out with SITA World Travel in Delhi—the car driver, the English speaking guide and the camel tour were all organized and pre-paid over the internet months ahead of time. Intending to save the best for last, I’d scheduled my sunset camel ride for my final night in Rajasthan. My driver was to pick up my guide in Jaisalmer en route to the desert to accompany me on the camel ride. But my driver’s limited vocabulary of eight words of English didn’t include key terms such as “pick up” or “guide” and my sole evening in the desert was fast fading with the setting sun.

I’d have to make do with this character and fend for myself.

This part of the desert wasn’t a mass of red and orange pyramid-shaped sand dunes like the photo in my guidebook, but a wasteland of trash-strewn piles of filthy brown sand. And what might have at one time been “musicians dancing and singing with gay abandon,” as described in another glossy brochure were today ill-tuned, screechy violin-sounding instruments sung by rusty vocal chords off-key. The noise was more of a wail or cry than a joyful song of any sort.

Fleeing the gaiety of the music as fast as possible, I boarded my over-priced camel, Raju. This was no simple feat.

I swung my right leg over what looked to be nothing more than a legless camel’s torso on the ground, as the guide whistled a signal.   Raju rose like a marionette, first his front legs went up and I almost back flipped off his rump, then the back legs went up as he buckled his front legs, nearly somersaulting me over his head. Video camera smacking side to side around my neck, my heart racing, we were off at a trot.

“Easy, I want to walk, no running,” I plead to the camel guide.

Grinning back to me he said, “no easy ” tugging on Raju’s reins to make him go even faster.

Horses, elephants and mules are but a few modes of four-legged transportation I have experienced, but nothing compares to the camel. Both legs on one side move at the same time in a seesaw motion that produced a bizarre tug of war on the front and back of my underwear.

My attempts to hover suspended between Raju’s two humps as he galloped failed miserably. The faster the camel went, the more frantic the sawing of my privates. If the sun would hold still, I’d have made arrangements to do away with my undies all together.

We trotted out only about five minutes when the out-of-breath camel guide announced, “Okay, here is where your driver pay me to take you. Look at all this trash,” he gestured with a sweeping arm to reveal empty water bottles, soda cans, candy wrappers and film canisters.   “You see beautiful sand dune over there? I take you for just 1000 rupees ($22) more!”

“You have got to be kidding me,” I said.

“You get off Raju or you pay me now!” He insisted, the sun sinking further behind the tan molehills.   I negotiated 500 rupees ($11), captured of course on home video.

We approached the somewhat scenic dune. Dismounting the camel (same ordeal as getting on only in reverse) I half-heartedly snapped a few pictures and climbed back on. The camel conman demanded 200 rupees to take me back to the parking lot.  I forked over the full amount without negotiation.

I winced in agony as the camel’s odd gait caused new pain on my raw flesh en route back. This was the mother of all wedgies. I considered becoming a thong underwear activist making it mandatory that manufacturers issue warning labels. Caution: wearing atop camels could result in full-body bifurcation.

Echoes of my mother’s warning rang in my head. She’d been less than thrilled I was going to India alone.   “I’ll bet a little bit of camel goes a long way,” she had replied when I asked if she thought I should do the short sunset ride or a full three-day camel safari. I confessed to the video camera that she’d been right.

Suddenly the smooth camel operator decided it was time to get chummy. “You are married?” he called back to me with a leering look.

“Yep,” I lied.

“Me not,” He said, “I don’t want Indian wife. I want tourist wife.”

Mmm-hmn, one with deep pockets, I thought to myself.

“Some tourists give me presents you know—wristwatch, rings, Walkman radio, even airline ticket.” He continued with a laundry list of possible gift ideas I might consider.

As soon as Raju’s hooves hit the parking lot pavement, I wanted off. The camel guide held out his hand for a final tip. I considered handing him the remains of my frayed panties, glared instead and limped to the car.

Back in Jaisalmer the next day, I met with three Mafioso-looking guys at Rajasthan Tours Pvt. Ltd.   They appeared to empathize with my ordeal initially and to want to reimburse me. Saying at first, “ah yes, the guide, we had him here for you waiting but you did not arrive to pick him up.” They begged that we resolve this matter here in Jaisalmer and not let the parent Delhi office in on this.   I asked what they proposed. Half an hour passed while they argued and yelled at each other in Hindi, pointing at me on occasion.

During this heated debate, I couldn’t help but remember a friend who’d been to India’s lone morsel of advice. He’d said, “it’s not a matter of if you’ll be ripped off, but how often and how much. Be aware but don’t let it spoil your time.”
Weary, I interrupted, “Listen, this isn’t how I want to spend my last day in India. You guys talk this over, decide what you want to do and come find me, I’ll be next door getting a bite to eat.”

Swatting flies between bites of chicken briyani, I looked up to see the big turban-clad racketeer barreling towards me.   Accusingly he shoved a piece of paper in front of my nose and yelled, “the itinerary say only Sam sand dune excursion. No camel ride, no guide. We don’t owe you!”

“What else would an excursion in the desert mean besides a camel ride,” I asked. “And why would you have a guide waiting for me if I wasn’t supposed to have one?”

He shrugged his shoulders and stormed off.

Thank goodness I have it all on video, I thought as I ignored stares from other restaurant patrons.

In Delhi, I phoned SITA, the company that had contracted with Rajasthan Tours. I was told they would happily reimburse me. Half disappointed they didn’t put up a fight, I was prepared to show them my hidden video footage like some news expose reporter. I’d watched India’s version of MTV, surely they have an equivalent of 60 minutes, 20/20 or Dateline. All my undercover film work would be reduced to mere vacation video now.

Flipping through my photos back home in Los Angeles, I found a shot of me atop Raju on his colorful, quilted saddle. The sun had already dipped behind the sand dune but it managed to cast a soft orange glow on the rippled sand. There even appeared to be a smile on my face (only I know it was more of a pained wince). I put it in a frame on the mantel in my living room.

 

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Later a friend saw it and remarked, “Wow, you went on a camel ride?”

It was more like I was taken for a ride in every sense of the word, I thought to myself —including the camel, the camel guide and most of all the thong underwear I have vowed never to step foot near again.

This story was originally published in the Los Angeles Times Travel Turkeys Travel Issue (of travels gone awry) by Lori Mayfield

 

 

 

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