Homeschool Amazing Race, May 2015

It was winter and I did not want to drive the kids to their friends’ houses in the cold and snow. I thought about busses and trains. Growing up in the Ohio  suburbs, the only bus I knew took me to school and every teenager longed for a drivers license. Before that, we lived in a larger town in southeast Pennsylvania and my mom would take me places on the city busses. In my 20’s I went to England and revelled in the car-free ways of getting around. English friends would describe their teenage years of traveling in their country and even other countries on trains. 

These days, I take public transportation to work and I value the service. I like not driving. We also have access to car share and bike share programs, though we do own a car and we use it quite a bit. As my kids get older, though, I would like them to become comfortable with busses, trains, trolleys, etc. As I considered this, and Fiercely’s peers, the homeschool teens, I thought about them learning to use the public transportation system. They would be more comfortable in groups. Heck, we could make a game of it, a scavenger hunt, and set them loose in a big city. We could host an Amazing Race style experience. 

I decided to talk to other parents and put it together. When I spoke with Mr. Fantastic, it somehow became about…zombies. The next thing I knew, the date was set, the plan was in place, and it seemed another homeschool mom and I were slated to portray imprisoned mad scientists. Our post was outside of Eastern State Penitentiary and we wore prison numbers, called each other “doctor” and made vague references to rare, possibly illegal ingredients in an antidote to the zombie epidemic as the kids came by in groups, wielding transpasses and looking for the next clue. It was the Zombie amazing SEPTA race for homeschool teens.

We had so much fun doing this so I wanted to write something about it. Unfortunately, I don’t have any pics other than KJ and myself as inmates:

   
 
She’s an actor and accomplished improv performer and teacher; hardened criminals would not smile like me there! The link a few sentences ago has a Philly newspaper article with more pics. 

So the way we did it was like this: Mr Fantastic and I came up with a list of places we wanted the kids to go to, such as the Penitentary and Laurel Hill Cemetary. Mr. Fantastic made up an awesome storyline to send the kids to various places. It went something like: there’s a rash of zombifications in the city and we suspect an epidemic. There is an antidote, and you teams are tasked with finding out what the ingredients are and locating them. A particularly important ingredient was brains – chocolate brains from the Reading Terminal Market at Muellers “Your source for anatomically correct chocolate body parts” Chocolate (check out their website; I could not make this up!). Along the way, they got advice from various parent actors. They all had day passes for use on various trains, trolleys, busses, etc. They used SEPTA and Google map apps for planning their moves. Their smartphones took a beating as they tried to find the quickest way to the next clue. The day was long, about eight hours.

We ran the route by car a few days before the event to scout for potential problems, such as the fact that the Italian Market stores are largely closed on Mondays. Especially important to us, the exotic meats butcher with the taxidermied animals would be closed the day of the Race, so we wouldn’t be able to scandalize all those homeschooled vegan kids like we’d planned LOL. 

The day of the Race, we all met at City Hall so that all the groups could start at the same time. For safety, the kids had to stay together in groups and had to have at least one smart phone per group. This took place on a school day, so just in case they were questioned by any authorities, we gave them letters with details on what they were doing with adult signatures and contact information. (They weren’t questioned, by the way)  Adults stationed at the different locations would call Mr. Fantastic as each team left. Mr. Fantastic went by car to check up on the groups at times. A parent accompanied one group of tweens, since the kids wanted to be with their friends rather than have older kids accompany them. At the end of the day, all of us met for dinner at an Indian restaurant. 

It was a good time. The kids had some adventures navigating the system, making decisions together, and in one case getting a little lost in a somewhat sketchy neighborhood. They learned something about reading bus and subway maps, getting around without a car, and working together. Incidentally, the city was saved!

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planning the first few months of RTW, part 1

It’s getting closer, friends! Exciting and terrifying, the Global Fantastic Adventure gets closer every day.

Warning: this post is long and a bit confusing as I consider different routes and expenses.  I am mostly doing this to preserve links and thought processes as we try to figure things out.

We have been looking at logistics lately and, sadly, it looks like India may be out. Surprisingly, the infrastructure for getting from one peninsula- southeast Asia- to the one next door- India- is daunting. We were hoping for a ferry or interesting travel by land however it looks bleak. It looks like going to India would involve 2 extra flights – a serious consideration for our budget for the six of us. We have been planning after Asia to go West to eastern Europe by train. The trains appear to go through northern China, not from India.  Getting on the Transiberian Railroad seems to require us getting back north to Beijing, possible by rail compared unlike going from Thailand to India since we are trying to avoid airfare x 6. Anyway, that is an overview, a little confusing and I apologize for that. Here is some more budget planning.

Budget prediction time!  East Coast to Vancouver to China

We are planning about 20 days to Vancouver, with several days in San Francisco. Total planned budget:  $2300 – a little over $100/day.  This is a maximum, I hope to save on food and emergency numbers.  Here’s the breakdown:

Driving to San Francisco is about 2800 mi/30 MPG x $4/gallon gas = $375 for gas

Food: $30-$40/day x 20 days = Max $800 (hopefully less!!)

Housing: maybe 15 of the 20 days will be camping. We prefer state parks, but may have to resort to private campgrounds in a pinch. Example of a state park in Iowa is Wildcat Den, near Davenport Iowa off rt. 80. It is $9/night for primitive camping with water but no showers. A private campground near rt 80 in Grand Island, Nebraska near is $32/night including showers and a pool and wifi. Let’s average that to $25/night for camping x 15 nights = $375. We should assume at least 1 hotel stay for $150, just in case.  So, total = $525

Emergency: car repair, extra hotel stay, etc : I’d like to allot $500. Let’s face it, the car may break down entirely and then we are on the bus! But also: the car may make it and we can sell it, at least for scrap: $200?

After San Francisco, we have to get to Vancouver and I’d like to stay two nights there. San Fran to Seattle is 800 miles/30 MPG x $4/gal gas = $107  We will probably stay a night in Portland with friends or maybe camp along the beautiful way. Sell car in Seattle, get rid of all our camping gear 😦 greyhound to Vancouver is $75 for all 6 of us, but I believe we have to buy the tickets in advance or it is much more. The trip is 4 hours. I found this Vancouver airbnb place that sleeps six for $124/ night. Planning for 2 nights = $260

That ends the first 20 days.

Then we just have to get to the port sometime before 1pm so we don’t miss the boat! We are paying for this repositioning cruise in advance (it’s about $6500 incl. taxes + gratuities + insurance. It is a splurge at over $430 per day but we have mostly decided we want to do it. As a comparison, flying from NYC to Bangkok would be about $3000 + approx 14 days room+board, added since they are included in cruise price). 15 nights onboard including a day we lose due to crossing the international date line. We have to be careful not to spend money here for things not included in our cruise price such as: Wifi, alcohol, spa treatments, excursions, special restaurants.  We get to explore Alaska (1 night) and Japan (3 nights) as the boat docks, one big reason for choosing the cruise. Then we are in Shanghai.

Shanghai and China

Big shock with China: the visas.  Per the Chinese Embassy, it appears to cost $140 per person plus what sounds like an excruciating beaurocratic process in both NYC and Washington, DC.  Minimum just for us to enter the country = $840.  We will do this in the next few months.

In Shanghai, we would stay at an Airbnb or a regular hotel for a night or two to figure out our next move. This airbnb place would set us back about $450 for their 3-night minimum. Here is a youth hostel, it appears we would have a 3-night minimum for $260 total. This place, another airbnb, is $293 for 3 nights. Here is a budget hotel for Y359 (Chinese Yuan)/night, which is US $57.44. We may have to commit to a place to stay in the process to get a visa, which wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.  From there we would spend time in Shanghai, we could go to see the terra cotta warriors as we have looked at, and eventually we would head down to SE Asia.  If we could find a cheap, interesting place to stay in China, especially if we could learn some of the language, I’d stay a month or so, but I am more excited, at least for now, to get to SE Asia.

China to Bangkok

Yeah, ok we could fly, but where’s the fun in that?  I want to see the area, travel with locals, and check out the train system.  But just for comparison, I did a quick check and got:

Flight for 6 Shanghai to Bangkok: $1372

We may fly the opposite way after a few months in SE Asia as we head to Beijing for the 6-day Beijing-to-Moscow train.  Then again, we may do the train/bus trip the opposite way to check out other things we may have missed.  I love this flexibility and the option to avoid planes!  We may try to do the whole trip without planes!  It is partly the cost, but I feel we would miss out on local sights and opportunities if we always jetted from place to place.

So, for this Shanghai to Bangkok portion of the trip, here we go.  I think there are child discounts that I am not seeing online, and even without those, it looks to be an affordable option. There are issues of connecting at different points, and it may not be the most comfortable option, but after the cruise we have to keep expenses down.  If we are sleeping on a bus or train, that saves us lodging costs as well.

We plan to go to Bangkok to get vaccines as I have looked into. Train to Hong Kong:hard sleeper overnight is $62 pp, likely with discounts for kids. So less than $62x 6=$372 total. From there, we could fly to Bangkok or go overland.  Flight looks to be about $180 per person ($1080 for us). Overland is 3 days, max $150 per person per Rome2rio ($900). The same site has a range, minimum for which, not including kid discounts, same trip, is $714

So: train to Hong Kong and fly to Bangkok for 6: $1452

train to Hong Kong and flight to Kuala Lumpur then train to Bangkok for 6: $1374

train to Hong Kong then trains/busses to Bangkok for 6: $1849 (incl visas)

Here is an option I have to look into. I am not sure of route…  looks like train to Hanoi, bus to Vientiane, train to Bangkok. Train (as recommended by seat61) to Hanoi is 2 night sleeper trains with a day in Nanning in between. This is $68/person x 6 = $408, then Hanoi 24-hr trip by bus to Vientiane $30pp = $180, then train from there to Bangkok is $11 for 2nd class sleeper = $55 since the twins each pay 1/2 price.

Two considerations here: visas and itinerary.  Right now, Vietnam requires a visa in advance which we would get in China if possible.  It looks to cost $312 for 6 of us, I’m hoping for a child discount.  Laos costs $35 per person payable at border x 6 = $210, again, hoping for a child discount!  Thailand no charge for visas right now.

The price is looking steeper for this overland travel, but it includes some nights sleeping on train, also we would get to see these countries.  I look at it as a tour of the countries and a slow travel way to see the area. We may even decide to stay awhile in Vietnam or Laos, though I have my eye on Cambodia for a place to live for a month/months.  The visas seem to allow for 30 days, so we could stay a week or more in Laos and Vietnam if we want to. No visa fee in Thailand, BTW. But I plan to stay in Cambodia for access to Thailand, and I have assumed we will want to spend time there.

Thinking about flying part way: what about going by air from Shanghai to Singapore and using the highly recommended train from Singapore to Bangkok?  It may actually be cheaper than overlanding, about $340pp x 6 for us = $2040, ugh. Kuala Lumpur, on the same train route, is also an option. $320 ($1920, still a lot) appears to get you from Shanghai to Kuala Lumpur. All of this is to say, we may boat to Shanghai, fly to Kuala Lumpur, then take a train to Bangkok before settling in Cambodia.

fly to Singapore, train to Bangkok: $2382

fly to KL, train to Bangkok: $2202

Train from KL to Bangkok: this appears fairly straightforward according to Mr. Seat 61. KL to Butterworth, apparently, is how the trip is done. This seems to be a 6-hour trip, however there is a time change so I believe it is longer. Anyway, $13 per person is the 2nd class (recommended) fare. Then Butterworth to Bangkok is the next leg, 20.5 hrs and only one fare option, $34 per person. That makes it $282 to get my family to Bangkok from KL.  If we do not choose this option, we may make the trip anyway since it sounds great and I have a friend in Singapore.

In Bangkok, we would stay a few days and get vaccines. If we were to stay in Bangkok for a week, there are a few options. Here is an airbnb place for $209 a week.

It would be around late November if we were to spend a month in China and a month getting to Bangkok. Three months of the trip gone!  But wonderful so far.

That ends this planning part for now, I’m working on a part 2 where we live in Cambodia for a month/months, then go to Beijing for the train to Moscow.

The Rockettes, The Renaissance, and a Really Ridiculous Oz – December 2014

We have had a particularly theatrical month. Actually, a lot of it happened over a single week.  The kids went from the stage to the audience and then to another show.  Cleverly was Toto, a Lady from the 1600’s, and had a chorus/dancer role in a teen production – all in a few days!  Let’s start with NYC.

NYC

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Top: us in front of Radio City. Bottom: just two of the elaborate sets from the show.  Lower R had a moving double-decker bus and lower L a functional ice rink

We did our usual Christmas trip to Manhattan for a day, and this time we saw The Rockettes!  Only the kids kept calling them the Chipettes – if you are blissfully unfamiliar, I envy you.  The Chipettes are female versions of The Chipmunks and they do really annoying renditions of pop songs, think a chorus of Lady Gagas being played too fast and you’ll have the idea.

Anyway, there we were at Radio City Music Hall a week or so before Christmas watching the renowned holiday spectacular.  It was pretty entertaining, what with the glitter, fireworks, floating light balls, full live orchestra, real camels, and of course the singer/dancers themselves.  The American-ness of the event struck me.  It is a specific mix of patriotism, Jesus, and sex that to me typifies mainstream US culture.  In one act, they removed faux winter coats to show their tighter outfits, in another they made a nativity scene.  The audience was exclusively white and noticably on the silver-hair part of life.  The dancers are as precise in their actions as a drill team.  Their are roughly 50 of them in their sparkly leotards, at various times dolls, reindeer, toy soldiers, Santas, candy canes, and other costumes I am forgetting.  We were entertained, and I can check that off the bucket list.  Seems like something you should do at least once.

Yule Feast

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clockwise from top R: Our table, part of the feast seen from the balcony, 3 maidens (Fiercely in center with a friend and Cleverly), the balcony

Well, I couldn’t go to Pennsic last July, but I could celebrate Yule in period clothing with the gang.  We borrowed finery from a local group and went to a gorgeous historic building for the evening activities of a day-long SCA event.  We partook in a 5-course period-appropriate meal with other garbed individuals.  It was kind of like a wedding; we didn’t know anyone, were assigned seating with strangers, but made friends pretty easily.  Once you realize everyone there is willing to dress in pre-17th century clothing and geek out on the details of life from that time, certain social conventions are already breached as a group and you just go with it!  We enjoyed some unfamiliar vegetable dishes (leek casserole, red cabbage with currants) and despite our mostly-vegetarianism tried some of the several meat dishes (chicken/apple pie, a large beef roast), and got down with the dessert table (more currants, spice cake, dearth of chocolate!).  A strolling magician came by and did a few tricks for the kids.  Later, there was Renaissance dancing with live musical accompaniment and a “dance master” who was like a square dance “caller” and described the (very simple) dance steps.  It felt a lot like very slow square dancing, it was easy and social and just fun. In a beautiful space with the clothing (much of it handmade), the food and music, it really felt magical.

The Panto of Oz

This was our homeschool theater group’s third panto.  We were in a much larger theater this year, with over twice the number of seats, a giant stage, and a large downstairs cast hang-out area with dressing rooms!!  The kids loved all of this of course, and set about rehearsing and preening like the divas that they are.

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The Panto of Oz featured an obnoxious Dorothy (in silver shoes like in the book), her well-known companions, a disgruntled male mandrill, good and bad witches, Santa Clause (who reminded us he was in book 5 of the Oz series) and a chorus of mice/Munchkins/monkeys.  There was also a giant paper maché neon green Oz head that occupied my basement for several months.  Mr. Fantastic played Glinda and Auntie Em, Cleverly was several small roles, Fiercely was Toto, and the twins were in the chorus.  I was in the audience!

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Oz head with the bad witch on L, Mr Fantastic as the Wicked Witch of the South (who is angry at being left out of the Oz film) on R

And that is that for now.  A couple of posts coming on other adventures, stay tuned!

 

Sequester, September 2013

Much like Superman and Clark Kent, Mr. Fantastic and I are almost never photographed or even seen together.  As for photos, one of us is usually behind the camera.  In off-camera life, parent #1 frequently hands off kids while running to work, doing errands or stealing a little free time as parent #2 gets the kids to various activities.   Lately when we do get a minute to talk, we’ve been venturing into that deadly marriage-buster minefield of a topic, The Budget.  And, my friends, it is ugly.  As blissful as the past few years have been with the traveling, it takes a toll on the budget, and once in a while we have to slow down and regroup.  Especially as the RTW trip grows nearer.  Luckily, it is September and the world seems to be back to school, and while I’d looooove to take advantage of off-season rates and the freedom of homeschooling, we have a bit of a schedule, and we also have to pay the bills.  Here are some things going on for us this month.

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Is that Mr. and Mrs. Fantastic?? Maybe, maybe not.

Homeschooling

We get back into a groove each year at this time because a lot of activities start up.  Mondays and Fridays are loose- we are often home doing chores, also there are playgroups we attend sometimes, and Girl Scouts meetings (we have 2 Daisies, a Junior and  Cadet this year!), Tuesdays there is a parent-run homeschool cooperative all 4 kids attend (Mr. Fantastic teaches physics and runs a class on games as well), Wednesdays Fiercely is at a teen program with the same co-op and the others and I work with another homeschool family doing some schoolwork and some playing, and Thursdays we do an exchange rotating among 4 families taking turns doing projects and free time with all the kids from those families.  The twins are taking a Spanish class Mondays, Fiercely has fencing Tues. and Thurs., and all 4 kids are in a homeschool play that Mr. Fantastic co-directs and meets twice a week.

As you can see, the husband does way more homeschooling and kid activities than I.  Turns out he has an excellent disposition for it while I am a wretch at times with all of the patience, as I was once told by a friend, of a gnat in heat.  I have the steady job, which suits me right now.  I loved being home for the newborns and the cloth diapers and breastfeeding but now that all the kids are older there is bickering and such and I, well, lets just say, Mr. Fantastic has a better skill set.  I’m home about 4 days a week so I fill in with cooking and cleaning and chauffering and helping with schoolwork, and I seem to have unlimited personal energy for strategizing and implementing ways to get out of the house.

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Gratuitous apple picking pics

These days, we’re keeping it local.  We do errands by bike and go to various parks and playgrounds with the homeschoolers.  One hot day we spent hours at a creek, I didn’t bring the camera and kind of wished I did, maybe we’ll go back, but for now I enjoy the images in my mind, the kids catching minnows and everyone walking upstream in the cool water, loving the fact that on this beautiful day the kids- there were six of them with us that day- weren’t cooped up in some classroom.  Another day, we went apple picking at an organic orchard!  Kind of counts as a trip I guess.  Admittedly, this kind of thing is blog fodder now, I got some great pictures, and the kids can tell their Smokehouse from their Golden Delicious.

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more of the same

Trips we’re not taking

I hope some autumn day to go to the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  Per my research, the water is still warm, the amazing rental houses have off-season prices, and the crowds would be gone.  My friend went at that time once and saw dolphins with her kids.  With almost no effort, I found a 10-bedroom beach house with pool + hot tub we could really destroy enjoy with a couple of other families for about $1800/week.  I’m sure there are less luxurious places for less.  Once again, we can’t do it this year, but someday. Some day.

Then there’s the Grand Canyon and the West. I once went to find Route 66 with an intrepid boyfriend this time of year and I’d love to take the family on a similar trip.  Again, there is great weather, low volume of tourists, and off-season prices.  We discussed renting an RV, preferably one run on veggie oil, and going to Yellowstone, Taos, and maybe Denver and even Dallas since we know people there.   Throw another family in there, and you get playmates for the kids and a sharing of expenses.

Moving to a cash economy

This is a fun little project. I’m trying to use the credit card less, ideally not at all.  So we are trying the envelope method where you budget cash in labelled envelopes and spend it weekly for what it is intended.  So far this has led to me buying more local produce at farm stands, giving money to panhandlers, and putting off an online purchase.  I delight in the virtue of eschewing the credit card interest rate, I am gleeful in believing this helps the RTW budget efforts, and I sanctimoniously brag to friends and blog readers every chance I get.  And I wonder how I am going to buy that book I want online.