Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Looking Back at 2015

Pulled over on a country Texas road to snap this photo after dropping off my teen for weekend camping

2015 was a year for rediscovering the USA. I barely used my passport. The one time I whipped it out returning to Florida from our Bahamas cruise, I didn't even technically need it as a driver's license would have sufficed. Still, with a nation as vast and varied as America, we learned that you don't necessarily have to go abroad to find adventure.

I didn't plan it on purpose, but we seemed to visit the typical places on a "Where to Take Your Kids in the USA Before They Grow Up" list. Perhaps it's because we've been focusing on other parts of the world for so long, and I'm beginning to feel a sense of urgency to squeeze it all in now that my eldest child turned 16 years old.

Leaping Outside my Comfort Zone

By far, my biggest accomplishment wasn't where I went but who I traveled with. I've always been one of those parents who is in complete awe of teachers because the thought of keeping control of multiple children somewhat terrifies me. So, stepping into the role of Girl Scout Troop Leader and then taking them on trips really pushed me out of my comfort zone. For some girls, our summer weekend roadtrip to Houston to visit NASA and the Kemah Boardwalk was the furthest and longest that they'd been away from their parents. In addition to learning about space exploration, one of my goals was to teach them some independent life skills and travel skills.
  • Limiting what you bring to what can fit in a carry-on bag
  • How to order food at a restaurant
  • Make sure you have enough money for tax when deciding what to buy
  • Sharing a room/toilet/car with other people without being totally annoying
When school started, one of the many Get to Know Me poems plastered on the walls of the 5th Grade hallway mentioned this trip, and reading that poem made it worth all the effort.

Because the Girl Scouts of America like their leaders to be prepared, I also had to undergo tons of training. By far, my favorite was Outdoor Cooking, a day-long class that was necessary if I wanted to be qualified to let my troop do campfire S'mores. I couldn't believe that by the end of training, I successfully baked cornbread inside a foil-lined, cardboard box over hot coals and cooked a delicious, smothered pork chops meal in a Dutch oven. 

Dutch oven cooking

America the Beautiful

Hubby and I planned on taking the kids to Yellowstone in 2010. Life got in the way, and five years after our original target date, we finally took the kids to Yellowstone as part of a two week road trip through South Dakota and Montana. I laughed when I pulled out the old guidebooks and saw what I had highlighted years before. Planning a trip when the youngest child is 5 years old is certainly different than when she is 10 years old instead. Looking back, I realized how much they've grown both literally and figuratively via our world explorations in the intervening years. Despite all the ancient Asian temples and iconic European sites we've seen, the natural beauty of the five National Parks we visited this summer still awed us.

Yellowstone National Park
A view of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone from Artist Point

Stereotypical American Kid Vacation

When most people think of a place that kids dream about visiting, Disney rises to the top. Over Spring Break, we spent a day at Walt Disney World and then set sail on a Disney cruise to the Bahamas. I can attest that Disney really does go all out to make sure that the entire family, both kids and adults, have fun. While the kids enjoyed the rides at EPCOT Center, I was wowed by the International Flower & Garden Festival that had the park covered with blooms and spot-on topiaries of Disney characters. If the legendary Dole Whip, a soft-serve pineapple dessert, isn't yummy enough as it is, the ones at the festival were available with a splash of flavored rum, too. My kids loved their first cruise! As a testament to how well they entertain all ages, my teen requested that we take him on a Disney cruise again before he ages out of the Youth Activities.

EPCOT International Flower and Garden Festival
Walt Disney World Monorail and EPCOT Center's futuristic geodesic dome

American History and Government

Thanksgiving Break found us in Washington, D.C. (a few weeks after ISIS claimed they were targeting it). Our high school son is taking US History this year, so it seemed like the ideal time to go. While the nation's capital is hot, humid and overrun with tourists in the summer, we found the crowds so light that there was no one — seriously, zero people — in line at the National Archives to see the original Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights. Alas, I was still unable to get tickets for a White House tour.

A bit of unexpected excitement was the late night evacuation of our hotel due to smoke. My hubby thought it was best to get away from the crowd on the sidewalk in case if this was the initial stage of some devious ISIS attack. As we wandered through the empty, near-freezing streets of Washington, D.C. dressed in pajamas and coats, I noticed the homeless people sleeping on benches and was thankful that our situation was merely temporary.

The Washington Monument awash in the golden glow of the setting sun

Being Content Close to Home

One thing that I really miss about life in Malaysia is that it's such a visually rich environment. Everywhere I looked, there seemed to be something worth photographing. It seemed like I could fill my time while the kids were at school with micro-adventures. Returning to the suburbs of Austin, Texas with its Anywhere, USA big box stores and endless strip malls seems less exciting. I have to be more purposeful about finding places to explore in this town that I've called home for more than twenty years. Those things are out there, though, and I'm trying to make a point of going out to see them. Hamilton Pool and Wild Seed Farms were two standouts this past year.

A waterfall pouring into the collapsed grotto feeds Hamilton Pool

The Trips I Didn't Take

Hubby now spends a total of two months a year traveling overseas for work while I stay at home with the kids. Most of his trips are during the school year, so it's not convenient for the rest of us to go along with him. Whenever he returns to Malaysia, I am at a loss for what I want him to bring back because what I really miss are my friends and the street food. His multi-week business trips to Hungary usually leave him with a free weekend for leisurely solo exploration. His trip that overlapped with May Day gave him enough time to head to Vienna for the long weekend. He bought me a lovely cake there which was sturdily packed for transport. Good thing because it ended up being lost at Heathrow Airport for nearly a week before finally reaching Texas only a little worse for the wear. 

Hubby travels to Budapest twice a year for the last few years. I have never been there.

What the future holds

I'm hoping that 2016 will be another great travel year. As my kids get older, it's been harder to juggle their schedules and responsibilities with all the trips I want to take. One lesson that we learned in 2015 is that returning to school exhausted from travel is not a good idea. We have another Disney Cruise already on the calendar as well as a trip to Boston during the summer for my dear cousin's wedding. As for our other vacations, who knows what the future holds?

I've also joined with the following linkups. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.


  1. Your Girl Scout troop are very lucky, NASA would be a blast.
    Looks like you had a great year, hopefully the new year is just as good, if not better!

  2. I am glad you stepped out of your comfort zone for travel; after traveling for a long time it is always good to make improvements, and to try out different things. And I am glad you made it to Washington, my home town. You came at the right time of year. It pains me to see tourists here in the August heat and humidity ughhh!

  3. I'm thrilled another blogger is visiting National Parks! I love seeing so much of the beauty in the USA that often is forgotten. I hope you have lots of great travel prospects in 2016!


  4. Wow - Girl Scouts get to go to very cool places these days. When I was in the Girl Guides (as they are called in Australia), we went camping in the bush once a year and spent the rest of our time tying knots! I'd volunteer to be a leader if I could do trips like yours! :-)

  5. Having children and travelling is always a juggling act, and you are right to make sure that they are well rested after exploring the world - an education in itself

  6. So interesting to be a Girl Scout Leader and be able to teach both your own children and others life skills (and travel skills)! Looks like a fun 2015, I went to a few National Parks last year but we didn't go to Yellowstone although we were a 3-4 hour drive away at one point when we drove the Oregon Trail route last summer. Need to return!

  7. Outdoor cooking sounds interesting! Would need to try that one day :)

  8. Well done on becoming a Girl Scout Leader. I was a Guide Leader the Australian equivalent for nearly 20 years, it is a rewarding thing to do especially now when I see some of my girls grown up and travelling the world

  9. Great memories and I remember the days when I couldn't travel with my husband. They pass quickly and then the kids stuff is over. Savor that as it looks like you do. Love the National Parks as well and we visited 8 this summer with our millennials.

  10. A great year with a lot of exciting trips. I love the National Parks too. It's been a while since I visited one though.

  11. Wow, that Disney Cruise really was a winner, with a Teen putting his hand up for the next - an on a time frame. I'm impressed. I feel your pain about being at home with Hubby travelling, but the places your visiting like in your photo of Hamilton Pool - amazing. I'd like to see some more normal photos of Texas too. I think of it as a big cattle ranch lol - I've only movies to go by.

  12. Michele, I love that you are re-discovering all the goodness of the USA! There is plenty to see and do there, that's for sure! And, I love the Girl Scouts. I used to conduct the Outdoor Leader Trainings as well as many more...so much fun!

  13. Michele, you are right that there is a whole lot to see in the U.S. It doesn't surprise me that so many Americans don't have passports because you can't see all the country has in one lifetime.

  14. I love exploring the U.S. I find it funny you mention there is so much more to photograph in Malaysia than in TX. I can see that, but I feel the opposite about Singapore. I like living here, but the view is very monotonous compared to my home in Cali. I'm a Disney fan and I think it's nice that your son requested another cruise while he can still enjoy the youth activities. That is high praise indeed! Also love visiting DC and glad you came out of the smoke scare ok. I agree that it is really sad how may homeless and impoverished people live in our nation's capitol. But I am amazed at no line for the National Archives! Wow! Anyway, great post and nice to see you had a great year.

  15. Baking cornbread in a cardboard box over hot coals, Michele? I'm impressed! You had a pretty adventurous travel year at home.
    Happy New Year, Michele, and many happy travels in 2016!


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