Thursday, March 31, 2016

Park Play, One Last Time

There's a closed-down elementary school within walking distance of our house that Tory affectionately calls "the wood chip park." Named for, you guessed it, wood chips scattered on the ground. Over the years, we've visited this playground more than any other. It isn't fancy, but it's in our neighborhood and we've made some great memories there. When the kids request to visit the park ("park pleeeese!" in Aden's words), this is the park they have in mind.

On Monday, the weather was warm and sunny for a spring afternoon so I took Tory and Aden to the "wood chip park" for likely the last time. Nostalgia flowed over me as I watched Tory and Aden climb the equipment with ease. The same slides and tunnels each one of them struggled to master in their baby days.

Time flies when you're having fun!

L: Tory, April 2012 (8 months old) // R: Tory, March 2016 (4 1/2 years old)

Same slide look-out; different kid
L: Tory, August 2013 // R: Aden, March 2016

L: Tory, October 2012 (13 months old) // R: Tory, March 2016 (4 1/2 years old)

We'll miss you, Wood Chip Park!

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Ready, Set, Pack!

The past few months, Andi and I have poured over every inch of our house and either sold, donated or purged dozens of items. Now, all that's left this week is to pack and move our things. Sounds easy enough, right? We're downsizing from a 3,000 sq. ft. house to a 2,000 sq. ft. condo unit, so the goal is to only bring what's truly important to us.

Two more "sleeps" in this house, then we'll officially move on Friday, April 1. I haven't felt very sad about leaving this place, but perhaps I'm too wrapped up in the process to notice. There have been a few moments, like bathing the kids in the bathtub one last time, that have given me pause. I remember cautiously bathing a tiny Baby Tory - still learning my role as a new parent - in that very same bathroom. But, of course, it's not the bathtub that makes that memory so special; it's Tory, and she's coming with us!

Purging / donating / selling so many of our things has actually felt therapeutic. It's crazy how much *stuff* a family can accumulate over time. Dozens of frames, knick-knacks and vases filled shelves and walls all over our house (things I didn't even like all that much!) and now they're gone. It's refreshing to open closet doors and see empty shelves and neatly organized items. Maybe a move every five years is necessary to cut down on the clutter.

Donating things has been a good lesson for Tory. She's watched with eagle-eyes as I've given away toys, furniture, clothes and other household items, and was upset until I explained they were things we no longer needed. "Now it's time for someone else to use them," I reminded her again and again. Then last week, I bought some Barbies from a lady on the local Facebook garage sale site. (I know, buying more toys is the opposite of what we're trying to do, but for $20 the deal was too good to pass up.) Anyway, Tory was OVER THE MOON excited about her new Barbies and accessories. She's played with them for countless hours. The other day she ran up to me and said, "Mom, now I see! That little girl was done with these Barbies so she gave them to me to play with." It clicked, and now she's been much more understanding of our moving process.

My dining room table was the only piece of furniture I felt sad about selling. I loved that table; it was a present from Andi's parents. Fortunately, a friend of mine bought if from us and that made it easier to let it go. It helps knowing their family will create their own memories around it. The new condo has a circular built-in table, so our family has been making do without a proper place to eat this week. I set up a picnic blanket on the floor of the dining room and not surprisingly, Tory and Aden were thrilled to eat there.

Good thing it's only for a week though, or Aden might starve. He'll only sit for a minute before he's off to the next thing.  

Andi hired a "mover" friend of his to assist us with packing boxes and moving furniture on Friday. So far, everything in the basement has been packed (downstairs living room, spare bedroom, laundry room, playroom and storage room). The kitchen, bedrooms and upstairs bathrooms are left and we'll tackle those when the kids leave for Grandma and Grandpa's house on Thursday.

It won't be long now!

Monday, March 28, 2016

Hippity, Hoppity, Happy Easter Weekend at the Lake

Our life is a whirlwind these days. Purging, packing, preparing to move, - oh, and parenting! - means there isn't a lot of time left for blogging. I'm setting aside the to-do list, though, to quickly write about our lovely holiday weekend.

This year, Andi and I did something we'd never done before -- we spent Easter at our lake cabin. I'm feeling fairly on top of things regarding the move, but a few weeks ago when deciding plans I wasn't so sure that'd be the case. Traveling back to Nebraska the weekend before our move didn't seem like the best idea. By chance, Andi's mom decided to vacation in Palm Springs this past week and his dad and sister had other plans for Easter, so our little family of four celebrated Easter on our own.

On the way to the lake Friday afternoon, Andi, the kids and I stopped by the dealership in Clear Lake, WI to pick up our new pontoon boat. The ice is almost out on the lakes by our cabin (one of the earliest years Andi can remember!), and it has us excited for spring. We spent some time Friday night checking out our new boat digs. Kid approved: "This is so cool!" Tory said.

Ice-out in the bay by our cabin, but still frozen on the main part of Pipe Lake. It won't be long now!

Later, the four of us jumped in the Ranger for an evening ride around the countryside. We met one of the neighbors on the cabin road and while we chatted with her, Tory and Aden ran out their wiggles in an open field nearby. Last weekend there was still snow on the ground at the cabin, but on Friday it was gone. It's definitely a warm(er) weather year.

I had a tire appointment in Cumberland Saturday morning, so we got up early to head to town for breakfast. The kids were super well-behaved and together we enjoyed a nice meal at Our Place Cafe. Unicorn parenting moments like this are a glimmer of hope for the future when taking Tory and Aden out in public won't be so much work. It's either that, or Andi and I have equally perfected our eat-and-run skills // lowered our expectations over the years. 

I made the kids fun 'snacky' lunches that afternoon in plastic Easter eggs. I had a serious case of mom-guilty all week for not doing enough to celebrate Easter with the kids, but there's nothing simpler than pulling together a quick and festive meal. The WOW factor for this idea was huge. I added cheese, crackers, lunch meat, mini M+Ms, strawberries, broccoli and noodles in plastic eggs -- nothing special, it was all about the presentation!

We dyed Easter eggs Saturday afternoon following Aden's nap. Tory could've easily colored eggs all afternoon, but one dozen was the perfect amount for Aden's attention span. He only squeezed two of the hard-boiled eggs, so I call that a toddler win! 

Our whole family knows I'm not a fan of traditional Easter ham, so the great part about hosting our own celebration this year was being completely in control of the weekend menu. I've been craving pineapple chicken kabobs since our recent vacation in Nicaragua, so Andi and I made those for dinner on Saturday night. They tasted just like summertime. Delicious!

Andi and I decided to keep our plans flexible for Easter Sunday. If the kids woke up early, we'd attend 8:00am church in Cumberland and if they slept in, we'd have a slow morning at the lake cabin and go to 10:30am church service instead. The beauty of not conforming to anyone else's schedule! 

Andi and I were awake before the kids around 6:30am, so we enjoyed coffee and a quiet breakfast by ourselves. He made us loaded veggie omelets with maple sausage links. 

I used to be so disappointed when the kids woke up on a holiday morning and didn't jump for glee over the Christmas or Easter goodies on display for them. Over the years though, I've learned Tory and Aden need time to wake up in the morning before the excitement sets in. Tory woke up around 7:00am on Easter Sunday and, as expected, was unphased by the Easter basket waiting for her on the table. "Can I have a show and a yogurt?" she asked, just like it was any other day. So, Tory watched a cartoon in our bedroom until Aden got up around 8:00am. Shortly thereafter, the two of them realized the Easter Bunny had visited and got excited about the treats left in their baskets.

The Easter Bunny left water shoes, flip flops, personalized placemats, binoculars, water squirters, bubble guns, diving ring and bug nets. Tory got a hammock to use at the lake this summer, and Aden received a John Deere tractor to play with in the sand. 

After the kids ate breakfast, we got dressed and drove into town for Easter church service. Taking small children to church is always tough; it's hard for the adults to get much out of the service while constantly dealing snacks, wrangling wiggling toddlers and taking kids in and out of the sanctuary. Tory sat quietly and listened most of the service, which was great. Ahem, Aden was another story. 

At one point, the pastor called the children up to the front for a children's sermon and Aden and Tory happily participated. The pastor used three plastic Easter eggs as symbols during his Easter lesson, each containing a cross, nails and a rock. When Aden spied the rock, he shouted "A rock! A rock!"at the top of his lungs. What can I say? The boy does love rocks. 

At the end of the children's sermon, the pastor told the kids he had Easter eggs with treats inside for each of them. He encouraged them to fold their hands and pray, then he'd hand the basket around for each of them to choose an egg. When Aden heard the simple mention of the word "treat," he started climbing over all the children who stood between him and the basket. Before I could grab him, he'd reached the front of the alter and had helped himself to the pile of eggs. I heard the congregation giggle a bit, but there wasn't much I could do to reach him without creating a bigger scene myself. Then while all the other children had their heads bowed in prayer, Aden picked up the rock Pastor had used in his sermon and chucked it clear across the alter. PING! Luckily, he didn't throw it hard enough to break anything! "Amen," said the children at the closing of the prayer, at which point I bee-lined it to the front and grabbed Aden. He proceeded to scream and fight Andi and I for much of the remainder of the service, so we each took turns taking him outside the service until it was over. Normally that scenario would stress me out to the max, but I'm slowly learning to let it go. It was Easter; my family and I went to church to celebrate Jesus' resurrection. Was it a perfect outing? No, but I still glad we went to worship together.

After church, Andi, Tory, Aden and I came back to the cabin and made a traditional Easter ham ... uh, just kidding! We enjoyed poke bowls with pineapple and rice because nothing says Easter like Hawaiian food, right?! I first had a poke bowl at my cousin Jen's house last month and I've been craving it ever since. It's a mixture of ahi tuna, avocado, scallions, sesame seeds and we added pineapple, too. Delish! The kids ate theirs with grilled chicken.  

One Easter tradition we absolutely honored was hunting Easter eggs. After lunch, Andi hid plastic eggs along the nature trail, then the four of us spent the next hour or so walking in the woods collecting eggs. It was wonderful to see the kids so happy! Not only were they having fun, but Andi and I were too. Tory proclaimed herself the best "egg hider" and she might've been right -- she took great care in hiding the eggs in secretive places, but was quick to give us all thoughtful clues about where to find them. Aden was an eagle-eye in finding the eggs. He was on a mission and had his basket filled to the brim in no time.  

What a lovely weekend. I'm feeling blessed for this little family of mine, and for the gift we were given by our Lord. Happy Easter!

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Nicaragua: Days 5 & 6

Andi and I are back from our Nicaraguan vacation, and real life responsibilities have returned. Between day-to-day parenting and preparing for our upcoming move, I haven't had a moment to sit down and document the last adventures of our vacation. Here goes before I forget all the details!

Sunday was our last full day in San Juan del Sur. I woke up early around 5:30am, and snuck out onto the patio so Andi could continue to sleep in our room. I never slept past 6:00am during our vacation, yet I felt rested and ready for each day. I guess there's something to be said for sleeping through the night without interruption! Shortly after I sat down by the pool under the morning sun, one of the Orquidea del Sur staff brought me a pot of fresh coffee to enjoy while I watched the ocean view before me.

Andi joined me an hour or so later, and together we walked to the upper terrace for breakfast. Once again, we had a private table set out for us. We selected the same breakfast option as the day before - two eggs with fresh fruit, a pancake and a side of toast. During our meal, Orquidea's property owner named Joanne, chatted with us about our plans for the day. We told her we'd like to have massages, so she arranged to have a therapist from San Juan del Sur come to us at the Orquidea del Sur property. Andi also said we wanted to rent an ATV in San Juan del Sur for the afternoon, so Joanne offered to have one of her Nicaraguan staff call to set up the reservation. Out last full day in Nica would be a busy one!

Shortly after breakfast, our masseuse arrived. She set up her massage table underneath the gazebo next to the pool, and one of the Orquidea staff tied sheets around the sides for privacy. Andi went first while I sat next to the pool and soaked up the hot sun already blazing down. My massage followed Andi's. We were the only guests staying at the five-bedroom bed + breakfast that day, so once again we had the whole outdoor area to ourselves. I felt pretty lucky to be so pampered in a gorgeous open-air space with ocean waves lapping in the distance.

Nothing like a relaxing massage to set the tone for a rugged afternoon ATV adventure! Shortly after our massages, Andi and I hopped into Orquidea's truck with Francisco to ride into San Juan del Sur. I loved the seclusion and the beauty of staying up in the hills outside town, but I'm not sure I'd want to live so remotely myself (or, more pointedly, travel the bumpy dirt road 20+ minutes each time I wished to go to town).

Francisco dropped Andi and I off at the Easy Rent-A-Car office in town where we rented a Polaris Ranger UTV to use for the afternoon. I'd pictured a more traditional ATV quad, so I was happy to see a side-by-side Ranger waiting for us in the parking lot. It'd be just like our weekly cabin adventures! Andi and I hopped in and hit the road.

First stop -- lunch! It was close to 2:00pm by now, and Andi and I were starving. We wanted something quick, so Andi selected the Taco Stop. I ordered a burrito bowl and Andi had one fish taco and one steak taco. The food was tasty and familiar, like something we could order at home in the States. For 35 Cordobas each, or $1 USD, it was perfect though.

With no concrete plans for the rest of the afternoon, Andi and I decided to beach-hop along the coast of San Juan del Sur. First, we headed toward Playa Maderas. This is a popular surf beach in the area with a few restaurants nearby. We parked our UTV and walked along the beach, taking in the view. The sand seemed to stretch on forever. Maybe it was low tide?

We continued down the road to the next beach called Playa Marsella. Our Ranger started to sputter and billow puffs of smoke as we pulled into the beach parking area, so Andi popped the hood to take a look. Fortunately, Andi has experience trouble-shooting simple Ranger issues on work photo shoots! He disappeared into a nearby beach restaurant and came back with a spoon and a butter knife to use as tools. Apparently, our Ranger needed more coolant and a hose had sprung loose, so Andi added water to the coolant tank, tightened some bolts and we were on the road again. I have to say, I was quite impressed with my husband's fix-it skills!

Andi thought we'd better go back to the rental car place to fill up with actual coolant, so we made a pit-stop at the shop in San Juan del Sur. While we waited 20 minutes or so for the shop mechanic to fix our Ranger, Andi tried to negotiate a free gasoline fill-up upon rental return for our trouble. I had to laugh because the Easy Rent-A-Car employee, who only spoke some English, did not understand Andi's petition for a deal. It wasn't that he didn't want to give it; he simply had no idea what Andi was trying to achieve. "You fill up the gas tank for our trouble?" Andi politely requested. "Yes! You fill up with gasoline by the market!" the worker reconfirmed.    

Back on the road, we headed to San Juan del Sur's famous Christ of Mercy statue which overlooks the cresceant-shaped bay. It was quite the hike to get up there, luckily we had the Ranger to tackle most of the mileage. Toward the top, Andi parked our UTV in a parking lot and we walked up a steep slope to the statue. The view was breathtaking! We could see the whole town from up there.

Next, we hopped back in the Ranger and drove to Playa Remanso on the south side of San Juan del Sur. This is another popular beach with a small ocean bay and a couple of beachside restaurants. We grabbed a few chairs in the sand and ordered refreshing mojitos to drink while we watched the surfers and boogie boarders play in the water.

Just before sunset, we continued on to Playa Hermosa. Every time we drove past this beach on our way to and from town, the Orquidea del Sur drivers always pointed it out to us. "Playa Hermosa!" they'd say with much enthusiasm. It was either a tourist trap or one heck of an area gem. Playa Hermosa cost $3 USD/each for entrance, and was set back in the trees away from the main road. It was fun trail riding along the path; it reminded Andi and I of our country drives at the cabin, only this time we saw cows, horses and howler monkeys along the way.

Andi and I found some lounge chairs under a thatched straw roof, and ordered cocktails to enjoy as we watched the setting sun. Almost every restaurant in San Juan del Sur offered free wi-fi, so we decided to FaceTime Tory and Aden back at home for the first time during our vacation. I wasn't sure seeing their faces screen-to-screen would be such a good idea (aka: make Aden freak out!), but the kids didn't seem phased at all. We chatted with Janie and the kids via iPhone for a while, then hopped back on the Ranger UTV for the 30-minute drive back to San Juan del Sur.

Francisco was waiting at the Easy Rent-A-Car office to pick us up when we arrived in town. Andi and I hopped in his truck and headed back to Orquidea del Sur for our final evening in Nicaragua. The cook had dinner prepared for us when we arrived -- grilled chicken with roasted vegetables and pasta -- so Andi and I once again ate underneath a blanket of stars on the terrace. It really was our own slice of paradise! Joanne, the property owner, joined us on the patio for after-dinner drinks and we talked with her for quite a while. It was fun to listen to stories of her various Nicaraguan experiences, as well as her tales of parenting.


Andi and I woke up around 6:00am Monday morning, and enjoyed breakfast on the terrace at Orquidea one last time. We were both quiet during the meal; sad to see vacation coming to an end and dreading the travel day ahead of us. After breakfast, we hopped into a shuttle bus from Macau Tours and drove toward the Nicaraguan / Costa Rican border. Andi hired a guide from Macau Tours to help us navigate the border crossing once again. I *think* we could've navigated it on our own, but we weren't sure what we'd encounter there. Better to play it safe than sorry!

The drive to the border was an uneventful one. We watched the wind turbines circling around Lake Nicaragua, and I promised myself we'd come back one day to visit the Ometepe Islands in its center. As we approached the border, our driver parked the shuttle van and led Andi and I through the first series of check-points. The conditions seemed less sketchy than when we entered Nicaragua the week prior. I think it was because we'd normalized to the environment, and suddenly delapitated buildings and hawkers didn't phase us.

At the Costa Rican border, our Nicaraguan driver introduced us to Norman who led us the remainder of the way. There seemed to be fewer check-points on the Costa Rican side, likely because they don't have an army. Once Andi and I were safely in Costa Rica, Norman drove us to the Daniel Oduber Quiros International Airport in Liberia. Our travels home were smooth sailing. Our airline tickets were upgraded to first-class again, thanks to Andi's frequent traveler status, and together we enjoyed our last few minutes of vacation.

Dare I say the transition home to real-life in the U.S. was more difficult than vacationing in Nicaragua? It made me think twice (x 10) this past week about how Americans take luxuries like driving on paved roads and homes with running water and hard flooring for granted. I am fortunate to have all that I do, and spending a week in Nicaragua helped me remember that. Great trip!