Living Life, Travel

Go See the Taj Mahal in Agra, India

Captain obvious here: Things have changed a lot in India over the last 25 years.

IMG_0502I visited Chennai in the south of India in 1994 and again in 2000; and Mumbai in 2000 and again in 2002. At that time, we’d hear dire warnings about visiting Agra – it was a dangerous road from Delhi; two lanes, with steep ditches. You’d hear of buses overturning or car accidents at night. I have to admit, those tales of woe kept me from even wanting to visit Agra, and its famous landmark, the Taj Mahal. But now, there is a beautiful highway (a toll road) that runs between Delhi and Agra, making for an easy three hour journey. There are even rest stops akin to what we have in the United States (with Starbucks!)

After a much needed long night’s sleep and another gluttonous and delicious breakfast at our hotel (the Hilton Garden Inn, Saket), we left Delhi around 10am.  We were happy to leave the congested city behind and excited to see the Taj Mahal. The trip was easy thanks to our awesome driver, and along the way we got to observe more rural life in India. We passed village after village, farms, small roadside temples, and miles upon miles of what we surmised to be brick kilns.

The air quality improved as we left Delhi behind. Though even in Agra, smog was thick and my voice began to go. We learned that manufacturing in Agra was banned in order to protect the Taj Mahal which was getting damaged by the polluted air.

IMG_0548We arrived at our hotel mid-day, and the kids were beyond excited. The gorgeous lobby of the Radisson Blu felt luxurious and welcoming. The kids ordered hot chocolate and tea while we got checked in, and then groaned when we had to hustle to get moved into our rooms and leave right away for lunch and more tourist stuff. They really wanted to explore the hotel and go for a swim. The rooftop infinity pool was spectacular – but we wouldn’t see it until the next morning.

We knew going into this trip that we were being aggressive with our itinerary. We wanted to maximize our time and see as much as possible, and weren’t willing to give up anything in order to give ourselves a down day. I have no regrets, but the kids struggled with the pace. Plus, they really were craving a day to just lounge at the pool. Luckily, the pools were freezing so it wasn’t a huge loss.

We met our new tour guide for Agra, a gentle man named who shared that he goes to the Agra Fort and Taj Mahal just about every day during the tourist season. He was well-informed and very articulate, and kept a fast clipped pace, which for this increasingly tired family of five, proved to be a challenge. He was amenable to the many breaks we had to take while walking the grounds at the Taj Mahal, even if it meant a longer visit and work day for himself.

Despite being home to India’s most famous attraction, Agra is a small, mostly underdeveloped town that very much reminded me of the India I met in 1994 with chaotic roads, cows meandering in the streets, and motor bikes weaving around pedestrians and bicycles. And anachronistically, huge modern tour buses which simply amazed me, because navigating these streets in a small car seemed dangerous and difficult. There looked to be a good amount of development happening, primarily on new hotels. The air was dusty, dirty, and though much smaller than Delhi, the noise of cars honking continued.

IMG_0425After an overpriced and mostly disappointing lunch at a touristy restaurant, we went to the Agra Fort. I was especially excited to visit because we had to skip the Red Fort in Delhi the day before (which was built as a “new and improved” version of the Agra Fort by Mughals in the 1600s.) But Agra Fort is the famous one, the original if you will, and it was stunning. I found myself imagining life inside the walls, the various palaces teeming with people, children running around, large public gatherings on the vast lawns. Agra Fort was never attacked, but had been built with numerous defenses and partitioned with a large moat and a river.

IMG_0441The Agra Fort offers a beautiful vantage point to the Taj Mahal, just across the river. My 9-year-old didn’t want to “spoil” the Taj Mahal reveal and was reluctant to look, but I promised him this was part of the glory. Fun fact: Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal as an honor to his favorite wife, was condemned by his son to live out his final years under “house arrest” in his palace at the Agra Fort. His son was kind enough to allow him to live with stunning views of the Taj Mahal.

[The Mughal Empire is filled with soap opera worthy tales and sagas that have got to be the stuff of movies. It’s on my list to find more to read/watch about the 6 great Mughal leaders of India.]

It was a short drive from the Agra Fort to the Taj Mahal “campus” where we got out of our car and hopped into an auto rickshaw to take us to the ticket booth. From there we walked a few hundred yards to the main gateway into the Taj Mahal grounds. It took a long time to make our way through the gardens into the building itself. Thousands of people everywhere, but the congestion wasn’t even the issue. Every few feet was another amazing photo spot. 

IMG_0481To me, the impressive part of the Taj Mahal isn’t the love story attached to its origins; or the politics of the leader who built it. The magic is in the design, the craftsmanship, the materials and the fact that this building stands magnificently today but was built in 1630. Marble, perfectly chiseled in intricate detail, inlaid with stones and painted.

If there was a disappointment here, it is that the mausoleum that the public gets to view inside is a replica; and that there are “guides” that will demonstrate the echo of saying your name for a price, but the kids did get a kick out of that. The actual tombs lie one floor below the rotunda that we can walk through; we are told that what we are seeing is an exact replica of what is below.

We had intentionally timed our visit to be there for sunset. But as it turns out, the sun doesn’t set over the Taj Mahal. Maybe it does in another season, but being in the grounds at sunset was lovely with nice light and more comfortable temperatures.

IMG_0013After sunset, we dragged our now exhausted selves back to the car, anticipating a swim at the “infinity rooftop pool overlooking the Taj Mahal.” Silly family – the kids ran off as soon as we got to the hotel, and we ended up sitting in the dark at the wrong pool (turns out we had missed that the infinity pool was on the roof, and when we found the kids near the 2nd floor pool we just stayed there, which was unpleasant: the water was freezing and I got a hundred mosquito bites. (Good think we were on malaria prophylaxis.)

I had a twinge of disappointment the next morning when my husband and I set out for a 6:30am “sunrise visit” to see the Taj Mahal. We went to the site of the never constructed “Black Taj Mahal” that Shah Jahan was going to build for his own mausoleum (he was interred with his wife at the Taj Mahal.) We had expected to see the sun rise from behind the Taj, but alas the vantage point didn’t offer anything particularly unique. No regrets, though. Because, it is the Taj Mahal and seeing it one more time was totally worth it! 

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Living Life, Travel

One Day in Delhi, India with My Family

Honk Honk!

Delhi, India is teeming with cars. And auto rickshaws (the open-air three wheel motorized vehicles that are supposed to sit up to four people.) The roads are jammed, 3 lanes mean nothing. 5 or 6 cars jockey to move forward, lines in the road ignored.

But we were impressed that the roads were in such good condition; that there were lane markers; that there were medians. Not that those features seemed to manage any traffic flow. Or pedestrian flow. Cars surge forward as people slowly walk a bike across insane intersections and roundabouts. Pedestrians simply hold their hand out, as if that is all the protection they need from certain peril. Honestly, we were surprised that in our 14 days in India we only witnessed one fender bender. One. Though my nerves were awaiting certain death (not mine, but for the pedestrians and cyclists and rickshaws.)

Thank Ganesh (a Hindu god, the remover of obstacles) that we had the BEST driver. We hired a tour company for our first 5 days in India. I found Travel Fair India by reading reviews on Trip Advisor. By the way, if you travel and don’t leverage Trip Advisor, you are missing out. Anyhow, our driver, Kuldeep Kumar, remained calm at all times; navigated the most congested to the most narrow roads from Delhi to Agra to Jaipur, and despite the chaos outside of our windows, I always felt safe.

In the months leading up to our trip, we heard from many friends with India travel experience that Delhi should simply be a transportation hub. “Get out as fast as you can,” we heard from a number of people. “Crazy,” is what I thought. I mean, we’ve experienced traffic in Kampala, Uganda. How bad can Delhi be? It’s bad. In fact, it was the friend we’d visited in Kampala (a native Indian actually) who warned us about the traffic in Delhi. But Indians have a reputation for exaggeration, right? Maybe, but the traffic is bad (and correspondingly, the air pollution is also extremely bad.)

Traffic aside, we did have as good a time as you can expect after a nearly 24 hour journey from the US. We allotted just a single day to “do Delhi.” Is that enough? Not even close. But I was glad to move on from Delhi because it frankly just took too much time to move around the city and the noise/traffic/pollution was overwhelming.

Our tour company provided us with a pretty standard itinerary for our one day in Delhi – though I have to say that it was too packed and it was premised on getting an early start which we did not have, and having the stamina to keep a healthy pace all day, which we also did not have. (I blame our late start more on the amazing hotel breakfast buffet than on our jet lag.) Also, traveling with kids meant that certain things would be “boring” and other things would catch their eye and require more exploration when the tour guide wanted to move us along.

Despite the itinerary, we couldn’t go to the Red Fort because we were there on a Monday and it was closed. [Not to give away too much from the rest of our trip, but we saw A LOT of other forts, so in hindsight, we’re not unhappy with having to skip the Red Fort.]

So our first attraction of the day was to visit the large mosque, Jama Masjid (“Friday Mosque”.) Being frugal travel skeptics, we decided to leave our phones/cameras in our private car (safe with our awesome driver.) The mosque charges a “photo fee” worth about $8USD per phone. When me and two kids climbed up the tower of the mosque, and had an awesome 360 degree view of Delhi, well, we were bummed that we didn’t have a camera. [The other kid and my husband were off finding what my 13 year old still calls “the worst bathroom in all of India.”]

Spice Shops in Chandni Chowk

After the Mosque, we piled into an auto rickshaw, to take in the narrow markets of Chandni Chowk – and it was abundantly clear that business strategy in India is very different than at home. Full streets filled with vendors and shops all selling the IDENTICAL items. One street for spices; one street for jewelry; one street for clothes; one street for home goods… you get the picture.

Eating jalabi in a rickshaw

Our guide must have sensed that we love sweets and that we NEEDED to try fresh hot jalebi from “Delhi’s most famous jalebi vendor.” Imagine a thin donut, cooked in hot ghee (clarified butter) and covered in rosewater honey. Sticky. Delicious. 50 rupees (under $1.) Thinking about it now, I’m sad that was our only street jalebi our whole time in India.

Overall, my family loved the auto rickshaw experience. (There may be one adult member who shall not be named but he’s my husband who didn’t love it.) We got off a couple of times and went into spice shops, and even narrower lanes that were only accessible by foot and motorcycle. We all got through it without being hit by a motorcycle, or another auto rickshaw, or a car. All in all, a great success.

Me and the 9yo at the Gandhi Memorial

Next up was Raj Ghat – a memorial park that honors a number of historical Indian figures, but is known most famously as a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi. It was moving and beautiful and reminded us of the JFK eternal flame at Arlington National Cemetery.

I am a huge Gandhi fan. And I learned so much! Such as, he adopted a Muslim man who wanted to marry a Hindu woman, because he was dedicated to bringing people together. This might have been part of his ultimate demise.  (Fun fact, the lady that Muslim man married was Indira Gandhi, the first female prime minister of India; but no blood relation to Mahatma Gandhi.) Learning about Gandhi reminded us of Martin Luther King, Jr. Both advocates for nonviolence, minority rights, acceptance and community; both were killed because of what they stood for; both men remain revered for their peaceful protests and for challenging the status quo.

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Photos with Strangers

Side note: we are a fair skinned American family. This proved to be  hugely attractive to Indian nationals. If I had to guess, we were invited to take selfies or pose for photos at least 25 times (and were unwitting subjects in dozens more photos, taken by people who didn’t have the nerve to ask, but just ran up in front of us and took selfies.) 

By now we were so hot and ready for the respite that a higher-end air conditioned restaurant would provide. The kids had different levels of love for the food, but for my 13 year old, my husband and I, we almost never felt hunger because, damn, the food was so good we may have overindulged with every single meal.

India Gate

After lunch we went to India Gate, a memorial to those who fought in Indian wars. We almost saw the changing of the guard, but the 9 year old started to feel sick. (Super hot, super polluted air, jet lag, dehydration…. not a good combination.) As we quickly scooted back to the car, the 15 year old was stopped by a snake charmer, so of course he stopped and watched. I missed it, but luckily got my own snake charm “show” later in the trip in Jaipur.

My sick kid and I waited in the car while the rest of the family checked out Parliament and the President’s House. I half wonder if years from now, we’ll argue if we saw those buildings or not, forgetting that we did split up.

And then, at the very late hour of 3pm, we cried “uncle” and told our guide that we’d skip the remaining itinerary items so we could head back to our hotel. The kids just needed a swim and some down time. 90 minutes later (a quicker drive back to the hotel) we finally got to relax. The kids were bummed that the hotel pool was COLD (which we still don’t quite understand given India is HOT.) We barely had the energy to walk around the hotel to find a restaurant where the eldest fell asleep before the food came (but he woke up to eat, pizza no less.)

Determined to get an earlier start the next day (after being gently scolded by our guide) we organized our bags before falling into a hard sleep. But the breakfast buffet got us again, and we decided to linger at breakfast before loading up our small car for the drive to Agra.

Stay tuned for the next blog on our trip to Agra. (Spoiler alert, I LOVE the Taj Mahal!)

grief, Living Life

Writing in my head, on grief

I could have sworn that I’d been writing all this time. I create narratives in my head. I imagine typing. I plot what type of imagery I should use to accompany a post. But obviously I have not posted anything in almost two years. I miss it.

Maybe because the last post was actually written by my mom, Susan Skelly (March 7, 1943-July 29, 2016.)

We lost her to &^%$(# cancer last year. The time between her diagnosis and her passing was so quick – June 1st – July 29th – that I feel like I have finally processed the diagnosis. I am still working on processing her death.   There are days I feel like I’ve got it (eureka!) and then weeks that go by with a hurt that is still raw.

I’m a little worried because my mom always said that she never got over losing her mom.

Everyone dies (duh). I am surrounded by people who have experienced loss, and for those who have been lucky, it is just a matter of time. And yet, despite everyone (everyone!) knowing that loss is a part of life, the collective ‘we’ just simply don’t deal with it very well.

“The first year is so hard.” Sigh. Yes, the first year was so hard. I still had the physical instinct to pick up the phone every day. But passing the anniversary of her death didn’t magically part the clouds or take away the hurt.

But, I don’t reflexively pick up the phone anymore to call her, so I guess that is a good thing? It doesn’t take away the need to talk to her – to have her talk me off the proverbial ledge (OMG I have a full blown teenager and I need my mom to remind me that this too shall pass.)

The “work” of dealing with her life and death is nearly over. Her house is sold, we divided up her pottery and special life artifacts, we took care of the paperwork and the accounts and relocated the cats.  There are a few boxes of things we want to revisit later – maybe sell or maybe keep. But we just couldn’t do it all.  Even though the literal and figurative “heavy lifting” of settling the estate is done, it didn’t magically turn a page in the manual on how-to-process-loss.

I can talk about her without crying sometimes (but as my dear amazing friends know, I cry ugly tears too.) Damn it how I long for her voice, her advice, her laugh.

The habit of living with her loss is setting in. But the grief, it isn’t settled.

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2015 Trip to Uganda

 

Living Life, Travel

An Open Letter of Thanks to Howard Schultz and Starbucks Employees in FL

Have you ever lost your wallet or purse, or something of such value that your heart hurt and your stress level soared?

Many Starbucks near the airport - which one did we stop at?
Many Starbucks near the airport – we could have pulled off anywhere!

What follows was written by my mom, Susan Skelly, to share proof of good people in the world. Mom was so moved by the help that Starbucks employees gave her, she wanted to reach Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, and asked for my help in spreading the word of her story.


December 27, 2015

Dear Mr. Schultz,

I live 2 hours from the Orlando airport and after picking up my sister we stopped for a coffee. Upon arrival home, I did not have my purse. I’d left it on the back of a chair on the patio at some Starbucks.

A woman’s purse is her life. The loss of my glasses, phone, Christmas money, credit cards, and driver’s license among many other things was devastating.

Frantic because we had not paid attention to which Starbucks we stopped at, I googled Starbucks and found that there were many on Highway 436. On the first call, a new employee of yours, James, was so helpful and understanding and looked up several Starbucks as we did not know where we had stopped. He tried to figure out what would have been closer to the airport and gave me the numbers and even asked if I would call him back and let him know how I made out.

The next number I called, the employee recognized a landmark we remembered and told us which one it would have been.

I called that one and was immediately told that the purse had been found and I was assured that it was safe! It was close to closing time, but I was told that the manager would be in the next morning.

At 8:30 the next morning the manager Kimberly Hall called to assure me that she would have the purse in the mail before noon. She was so understanding and assuring to me. My purse arrived within 24 hours, intact and when I offered to reimburse her for the shipping, she refused.

What blew me away was the beautiful note she included with two $4.00 gift cards to enjoy a few beverages and relax knowing my purse was safe and sound.

Starbucks employees rock!

James at 2535 Howell Br Rd, Casselberry, FL 32707 assisted with the phone numbers.
Jill Murdock and Kerrie Janson located my bag at 6605 S. Semoran Blvd, Orlando, FL 32822
Kimberly Hall store manager sent the bag, wrote a note and gave me the gift cards.

They made my day Christmas!
Sincerely,
Susan Skelly
[Address & phone number removed for privacy]

Food Allergies, Living Life

Out of ‘milk’ in an allergy house

I needed to pick up a few things from Whole Foods this week – and couldn’t quite remember if we needed milk. It probably isn’t hard for most people, but one look inside my refrigerator and you see why it’s complicated in my house.

milksThis is the typical selection of ‘milk’ beverages:

  • Soy milk (original)
  • Soy milk (vanilla)
  • Whole milk (cow, lactose free)*
  • Whole milk (cow)
  • Almond milk (unsweetened)

If I’m doing a lot of cooking or having guests over, then I would likely also have on hand:

  • Half & Half (cow)
  • Soy milk (unsweetened)

No wonder I run out of room in my refrigerator so often! And no wonder its not as easy as having a quick peek inside to determine if I need more ‘milk.’

While we always hoped/assumed that my milk-allergic child would one day outgrow his allergy, and we could return to a cow-focused milk family, other family members have developed a preference for soy milk such that even if his food challenge this summer is successful (fingers crossed!) the plight of the quick grocery trip won’t end anytime soon.

*A note of caution: Before all of our kids could read, we would use black marker to put a big ‘X’ on the sides of milk cartons that were not safe for our son. And even though we are so used to having multiple milks in the house, we always double check what we are pouring!

Living Life, Travel

“Where’s the Paper?” Nicaragua Part 3: Granada

Photos - 21393Granada, Nicaragua

Interesting old city, Spanish and Italian architecture abounds.  Views of volcanoes and Lake Nicaragua.

We enjoyed a most scenic drive — something we missed the night we arrived in the dark, and felt like that journey was a great window into Nicaragua.  As views of Ometepe Island faded away, we passed through rural Nicaragua.  Farms dominate the landscape, with small villages of shacks mixed with more substantial homes.  Fruit and vegetable stands line the highway — which is a two lane road carrying everything from private cars, public buses (which are decommissioned US school buses, painted in wild patterns and colors in Nicaragua,) farm vehicles, horses (the most popular transportation in Nicaragua) and bicyclists and pedestrians.  As we got closer to Granada, another volcano came into view: Mambacho.

Our arrival in Granada was very exciting for everyone — the kids saw the pool, I got air conditioning and brewed coffee, and we got that thrill that you get when you know you are about to experience a whole new kind of adventure!  We all joked that being in the city now, we wouldn’t be hearing the roosters every day.  Wrong.  We heard them, but they had to compete with typical city noises for our attention.

Arriving in the afternoon left little time to explore before sundown.  We walked from our amazing oasis of a hotel, Hotel Xalteva, down the main road, and took the advice of our hotel manager and climbed the bell tower at the town’s central church, Iglesia de La Merced where we enjoyed an amazing 360 degree view of the entire city. We also discovered Cafe de las Sonrisas, a local nonprofit that trains at risk youth in hammock making (we later returned to purchase our amazing hammocks!)  Our walk continued down the main road to the center square of Granada, just as evening fell.  To say the sound of the birds in the main park was deafening is fair.  We couldn’t talk comfortably amidst their noise, and quickly moved out of the park to a hotel patio for a delicious meal at the Hotel Colonial.  The meal was delicious (and the kids were even able to get hamburgers) and we saw a steady stream of small craft artisans selling us their wares (which made souvenir acquisition super convenient!)  Finally we made our way back to the hotel for a much needed night of air conditioned sleep.  The walk back was much easier, as the crowds on the city streets had faded away, and it only took us 10 minutes to get back. 

Photos - 21443The next day, Tuesday, was really our last day in Nicaragua.  While enjoying an array of fresh local fruit and good coffee by the hotel pool, the American hotel manager spoke with us for a long while, helping us determine how best to spend our day.  She arranged for a private car to pick us up at the hotel, and we had the adventure of a lifetime!

Comfortable in the touring van, our fist stop was a national park, and visit to an active volcano!  This part of the day was a favorite of my mom and husband, and thrilling for all of us (no doubt more so given the tremors only the week before!)  We spent an hour or so at the museum, where my kids made the connection between their geography lessons from school, and their knowledge of the layers of the earth, and real life.  A well done museum, with the bonus of fabulous views of lava fields.  Next, our driver took us to the top of the crater, where a short wall separates life from lava.

 

 

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The sulfur steam from the volcano makes seeing down impossible, but the power and magnitude of staring into a volcano was not lost on us.  Honestly, being in front of this active volcano was far more exciting and worthwhile than any of the online descriptions or pictures made clear beforehand.

 

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After a touristy lunch in another quaint town, overlooking a beautiful crater lake, we set off to explore a community where everyone has a kiln.  The only school in the town teaches the ancient craft of pottery making, using manual wheels, locally mined clay, and natural earth dyes.  The town’s industry is primarily for export, though you can buy the handmade creations in local shops as well.

Before returning to our hotel, we made a quick stop at the local Granada chocolate company, having read about it in the guide books.  We were exhausted, and had to make quick selections.  While the samples we tasted were delicious,

Photos - 21454causing us to invest heavily in Nica chocolate for souvenirs, the chocolate we returned home with was not good — dry and tasteless.

The final evening was to relax and pack.  We booked the famously inexpensive massages as a hotel recommended spa a

nd took a final dip in the pool.  Our car arrived at 4am for our trip to the airport, and we enjoyed a quiet pre dawn drive from Granada to Managua.

Where’s the Paper?”

That’s what I heard when the first rooster loudly cried out — I must admit that not everyone in our group heard that, but once I heard it, I couldn’t not hear it.  I will probably forever more hear “where’s the paper?” when others hear “cock-a-doodle-doo.”

Other posts about our adventure to Nicaragua:

San Juan del Dur

Ometepe Island

Traveling with food allergies

Birthdays, Food Allergies

Olaf Cake and Cupcakes

IMG_4012The cake!  I mean, I can’t stop eating the cake.  I needed a simple (time constraints up the wazoo) yellow or white cake recipe to adapt for my son’s 6th birthday party. Adapt, well of course, to be allergy-friendly.  And to adapt into an Olaf — that cute-as-a-button snowman from the Disney movie Frozen.

I found the Cake Boss recipe on the Rachel Ray Show website, and made a couple of key ingredient swaps that has me stealing tiny slivers of the leftover cake throughout the day.

First off, I tripled the recipe, as I needed to get an Olaf plus 3+ dozen cupcakes for our large party.  Tripling worked great, though I just filled the bowl of my huge stand mixer and needed to be very careful about not sloshing batter all over my kitchen.

Though we typically bake following real food principles, given the volume of cake I needed, and the short time frame I had to make it, I cheated and used some processed ingredients.  I used about 2/3 of the oil with canola (but that was it, I’m not buying it anymore, this recipe took all I had left!) and the remaining I used the cold pressed coconut oil.  I just LOVE the subtle flavor that it lends the cake.

I also used regular fine sugar, and all purpose flour.

For the milk I used vanilla soy milk.

This recipe is so delicious, and so easy!  I would not hesitate to make it again 🙂

I was able to make two very full round cakes plus 3 1/2 dozen cupcakes.  The cake is super moist, not too sweet (though it does have a TON of sugar in it) and delicious.

IMG_4009For the icing on the cake, I adapted a standard butter cream recipe — subbing coconut oil for the butter, and soymilk for the milk.  Delicious!  For the cupcakes, I cut jumbo marshmallows in half, and put them on top for the last three minutes of baking.  The effect is great (was going for a snowman) and my son happens to love marshmallow topped cupcakes.

A few more fake food decorations (colored twizzlers on the cake, and orange licorice drops + Wilton candy eyes on the cupcakes helped me create my very own Olaf.  Pinterest worthy?  Who cares, my son was thrilled!