Caribbean Cruise – Dominican Republic

Our first destination on the cruise was the Dominican Republic.  It was the only day on which we went on an organised excursion.  This was a good move for two reasons.  First of all, the ship docked in a cove that was designed purely for cruise ships which meant it was completely artificial and overtly touristy and the nearest actual town was too far to walk to.  Secondly, the excursion turned out to be excellent and allowed us far greater insights into the Dominican Republic than our own explorations would have done.

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We met with our tour guide and driver and hopped on the minibus.  There were the eight of us and a dozen other people so it was a small group.  The nearest city to the dock was Puerto Plata and, as we drove through, our guide was able to point out several things unique to the country and explain a bit about the culture.  We saw lots of whole roasted pigs on sticks being cooked and sold at stalls on the busy streets.  We learned that this was because this type of roasted pork was the traditional meat for Christmas dinner and lots of people would be buying it that day, Christmas Eve.  We were also informed that the city took its name not from the metal silver but because of a particular tree that grew on the hillsides, the grey leaves of which seemed to look silvery in the mountain fog.  Our drive also took us past various views of the mountain named Isabella.  We learned that this was a name bestowed upon it by Christopher Columbus and that the first European village in the New World was located nearby.  It was such a beautiful place to be the launch pad of a history of disease, conflict, slavery, and genocide.

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Soon we were leaving the city and were wildly bouncing and careering along unsurfaced, winding, uphill roads that took us into the lush vegetation of the rural areas of Puerto Plata province.  On the way, we learned about eclectic subjects such as vernacular architecture, mahogany, the lottery, and tiny stores that sell individual ingredients such as one egg or a few slices of meat at a time.  Our destination was a village where we could learn more about the rural way of life in the region.  We were invited to enter one home, which was Tardis like in its use of space.  I especially enjoyed seeing the kitchen, which was an adjacent but separate building from the home, and the clay wood fired cooker.

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We were shown around the agricultural area and the produce being grown was identified and its uses explained to us.  I found that to be thoroughly interesting.  I, for one, had never seen coffee plants in real life before.  I also saw my first breadfruit tree.  Our 9 year old had two bucket list items for his time in the Caribbean: to see bananas growing and to see cacao in the wild.  He achieved both goals on the trip as there were seven varieties of banana being grown, including a red variety I had never seen before, and there were trees full of cacao pods.  Our wee chocoholic was elated.  He was even more ecstatic when he learned that he was going to get to sample hot chocolate made from the locally grown cacao.  It was richly delicious.  Other members of the family tried the freshly ground coffee.  We all thoroughly enjoyed chunks of freshly harvested pineapple and guava.

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Our next stop was the village elementary school.  As an educator, I found it really interesting to see the similarities and differences in the education system and the way the school buildings and classrooms were organised.  I was, however, glad that school was not in session (given it was Christmas Eve) as I would have felt uncomfortable seeing the students used props for tourists.

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We then had a break for lunch.  It was a buffet of the types of food Dominicans would eat on a typical day.  I especially enjoyed the rice and beans.  The boys loved the fried chicken.  During our lunch pit stop, there was some dancing entertainment to showcase the fusion of indigenous, African, and European culture in the Dominican Republic.  We also saw a man making cigars and sampled some local alcohol.  Our cat fanatic 9 year old was absolutely thrilled to meet a local cat.

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The final destination for the day was a beach, as this area of the country is famed for its beautiful beaches.  The boys loved the opportunity to just let loose and splash and crash among the waves.  Our guides provided some body boards so they tried that out too.  Even as someone who does not like sand, I had to agree it was a pretty good way to end the trip.

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I liked what I saw of the Dominican Republic, from the brief sampling we had, and would definitely consider returning to explore more of the country, its varied history, and its diverse cultures.

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Small Differences: Mom Uniforms

I have noticed a definite trend among the mothers I see at school drop off and pick up time or the mothers who are pushing carts around the supermarket.  By and large they dress in an almost identical way and it seems that the donning of yoga pants to do things other than yoga is compulsory.  These moms do not appear to have poor personal hygiene so I am assuming they each have multiple pairs of identical yoga pants making up a considerable proportion of their wardrobe.  The yoga pants are usually black but some non-conformists wear grey.  I did see one very daring mother sporting purple yoga pants once.  But just the once.  The yoga pants are often worn combined with a long- or short-sleeved t-shirt or hooded top and I have noticed that often a key accessory to this mom uniform is an insulated flask, especially in the mornings.

I have no objection to yoga pants.  I’m a big believer in the principle that if you feel comfortable and confident in what you are wearing then you should wear it.  It is, however, not a uniform I will be wearing any time soon.  Or ever. Other people might feel comfortable and confident wearing yoga pants out in public but I just would not.  I actually own two pairs of yoga pants: one pair are old and I wear them when doing grubby household chores; one pair look good as new and are reserved for exercising in.  I am definitely comfortable in them but I would not wear them out in public because, quite frankly, I don’t look very good in them.  Have you ever seen a black pudding bursting out of its skin?  That’s what I look like in yoga pants.  Which has probably more than a little something to do with the fact that my exercising yoga pants look good as new.  I would not feel confident wearing them out among other people, hence I do not wear them other than in the privacy of my own home.  

While I shall not be filling my wardrobe with yoga pants, I do, however, feel that my own “mum uniform” needs tweaking a bit since I moved here.  I don’t think that is because I am no longer in Scotland and America demands a different style; I think it is more because my mum uniform developed over a decade living in a rural location whereas now I live in suburbia.  If you have been following my blog long enough to have caught a glimpse of me in the photos then you will have seen my uniform because I really do wear variations on the same thing every single day.  My staple item is jeans.  No, not those horrible high-waisted, pleated fronted “mom jeans” (I judder at the memory).  Just standard blue denim jeans, sometimes bootcut, sometimes wide legged, mostly just standard.  I then pair these with a long- or short-sleeved t-shirt or maybe – if I am going smart casual – a tunic top of some kind.  I even tend to go for the same colours over and over, either neutral colours or peacock jewel colours.  My footwear is seasonal but is a rotation of walking sandals, walking shoes and walking boots.

I was always a tomboy, have always been a bit of a scruff, don’t follow fashion, don’t wear make up or dye my hair and admit to being pretty lazy when it comes to my appearance.  Living in a rural area of Scotland, therefore, suited me down to the ground because my “style” (you can go ahead and snort at me referring to it in that way) was practical for my surroundings and was in keeping with what my friends all wore because we were all being practical. The walk to school was half an hour so I wasn’t ever going to do that in stacked heels even if we imagine I can walk in anything other than flats.  A lot of the places where I walked were damp and muddy.  A pair of suede ballet pumps were never going to cut it.  Jeans, of course, started out as work wear so are eminently practical for all sorts of environments and they can also withstand a great deal of washing.  I moved to Argyll at approximately the same time as I became a mother so the two influences, rural setting and parenthood, evolved and cemented my style.  Gone were the skirts and pretty tops from my days as a High School teacher and on with the jeans and tunic tops (easier for breastfeeding and for not having to buy maternity clothes – wise investment since I was either pregnant or breastfeeding for 8 years).

When we travelled into Glasgow was when I became more acutely aware of the fact that I had adopted a style somewhat out of kilter with my urban counterparts.  There I would see perfectly groomed, fashionable women in stacked heels pushing immaculate, pristine buggies (strollers) around the city centre.  Meanwhile I was in my scrubbed up version of my mum uniform (meaning checking that the jeans I was wearing were perfectly clean and as devoid of fabric skuffing at the hems as possible) and my baby was being pushed around in a buggy that was splattered with mud from walks along the canal bank or a forest trail and battered and buckled from being shoved in the boot (trunk) of the car on long journeys or thrown around in the belly of an aeroplane.  However, my look was justified by my home environment and, of course, I was comfortable.  Comfort always comes first for me.

But now I am living in American suburbia and maybe I need to revise and edit my style again.  Certainly I don’t need to limit myself to sturdy walking footwear anymore.  I now even own a pair of plimsolls with sequins on them.  My hair is still scruffy but I am cool with that.  My hair is bad and I have a phobia about hairdressers so my hair is never going to be anything other than scruffy.  But maybe I could explore broadening my wardrobe beyond the staples that have been my mum uniform for the past eleven years.  I still want to be comfortable and confident and feel like me, of course, so I don’t think there is going to be any massive makeover, just a few tweaks here and there as I gradually replace old, worn out clothes with new bits and bobs.  I may even start to wear more of my jewellery again since I have a pretty reasonable collection that I barely ever wear these days.

I definitely won’t be wearing yoga pants in public though.  Never.  The world is a better, happier place without that in it.

Christmas Shopping

This is less a blog entry about the differences between America and Scotland and is more about the differences in experiences between living in a rural town in Scotland and living in the suburbs of a city that has a population as large as the whole of Scotland. Life can be lived quite differently as a result.

This year I did not even start Christmas shopping until late November.  We obviously could not import any new items with us, either in person or in our shipping, which meant my usual habit of starting to buy Christmas gifts in the summer – if not earlier – was not feasible.  Then we had a “bedding in” period during which time I almost forgot that Christmas was just a few weeks away.  It was a trip around Toys R Us – just for browsing purposes – that snapped me back into present buying mode as my kids mentioned a few things they would like to pop on their Santa lists.

Living where I used to, leaving it so late to embark on buying gifts for four children would have had me hyperventilating.  We had a few really lovely gift shops in town but none of them really stocked much in the way of toys, certainly not many for kids above preschool age.  It was, therefore, necessary to travel to the nearest large town – which was over an hour away on boke-inducing roads and still a bit limited – or the nearest city – which was a five hour round trip.  As both excursions required me to take my children with me, it was all a bit stressful, not least because of having to somehow make secretive purchases with them by my side.  In recent years, therefore, I had resorted to using the internet to buy gifts.  However, the internet only really works effectively and efficiently if you know what it is you are buying. If the children had asked Santa for a specific toy or book then the internet worked like a charm for price comparisons and ordering and delivering, all without me having to venture outside the house.  Doing it that way also made it very easy to keep on track of the budget and number of gifts being bought as all the “receipts” filed into my email inbox.  Of course, the downside of all this delivery of packages was that some companies liked to charge additional shipping costs because of our postcode.  Sometimes the premium was pretty steep.  We might have been just over two hours from Scotland’s largest city but those companies would make  it seem as if their parcels were having to go through acts of derring do and explore the hinterland of civilization just to make it to us.  More than once I had to have an argument with someone on the phone who claimed they were going to place an additional charge on our delivery fee because we “lived on an island”.  That was news to me.  Also more than once I would suggest they look at a map, follow the route and tell me when it was they thought the delivery was going to cross a large body of water.  Ridiculousness.  In any case, the internet could indeed work like a charm for Christmas shopping unless the children were not asking for anything specific or had only asked for one thing when more than one gift was required.  The need for search terms to input into the websites means that browsing in search of inspiration can be a long, wasteful and frustrating enterprise.  I estimate that last year I accomplished as much as 90% of my gift shopping online but that was only possible because I started in May.

So this year was very different.  The advantage of not making a start until late November was that it coincided with the Black Friday sales.  My boys happened to be asking for a fair few new and popular toys and, by jings, they turned up thick and fast in the online sales which made life easier and cheaper for me.  Everything I bought them during the sales period was 50% or more reduced.  Kerching!  Once that period was over, I still needed a few odds and ends for them, stocking stuffers and the like.  In previous years, I would have cruised sites like ebay to find some funny wee bargain items.  This year, however, I could mooch around the local malls and find lots of cool bits and bobs for them.  And, what’s more, I could do all of that completely child-free since – living a few minutes away from stores – I could fit it all in while the biggest three boys were in school and the little one was in preschool.

There is a downside to this ability to shop locally, however, and that was that the novelty of it may have got the better of me.  In an effort to make their first Christmas in America really memorable and special, I may just have gone a teensy wee bit overboard on the present buying front.  It was all a very good price so I’ve not burst my budget but my understairs cupboard does look a bit like Aladdin’s cave.  And I had to wrap it all.  I.  Loathe.  Wrapping.  Nothing sucks the Christmas spirit out of me faster than having to sit on the floor for hours cutting patterned paper, getting trapped by unruly sticky tape and trying to figure out the engineering required to neatly wrap all those bizarrely shaped boxes.  Which is one of the reasons I love buying lego for the kids.  Nice rectangular boxes.  It took me several nights and a bottle of wine to get it done, but as of last night all of my gift wrapping is also at an end.

Now I can sit back and let the festive mirth and holiday fun begin.  Except I can’t because my house still looks like a warehouse and I still have a third of the shipping boxes to empty once I can figure out where on earth I am going to place their contents.

At least I don’t have to gift wrap those boxes!