Food Allergies, Living Life, Travel

Getting Sick in India

From prevention to emergency intervention, our (un)healthy journey to India

Our family of 5 is comprised of three kids ages 9, 13 and 15, and two seasoned traveler adults. Home is in the Washington, DC area and we recently traveled to explore India, the country where my husband grew up.

Our health stats:

  • 2 weeks in India
  • 5 cities visited: Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Goa and Mumbai
  • 3 trips to a pharmacy
  • 0 cases of “Delhi Belly”
  • Dozens of mosquito bites (but no malaria!)
  • Multiple doses of albuterol (for asthma)
  • 1 EpiPen administered (for food allergy reaction)

All in all, I think we did pretty well, though looking at the stats, we definitely could have done better. 

About six weeks before the trip we visited our local Arlington Travel Clinic to consult on recommended vaccines and malaria prophylaxis. We’d been there before our trips to Nicaragua and Uganda and love that we have a travel clinic just minutes from home! We dutifully got our typhoid shots/pills. (Three of us took the shot, it lasts three years, whereas the pills only last two. But despite the OBVIOUS $$ savings, two of the kids who HATE needles opted for the pills.)

I counted EpiPens (emergency auto-injectors for epinephrine, a stimulant used to stop an allergic reaction) and packed the asthma inhaler, extra Benadryl, our malaria pills and some diarrhea meds, just in case. My every-day purse has a stash of Advil and Sudafed. We left feeling pretty well prepared for our two weeks of adventure in India.

Leaving Jaipur, visibly poor air quality.

That was, until day three when the pollution took away my voice and I couldn’t stop coughing. It was: THAT. BAD.

I talked a bit about the pharmacies in India in another post about retail in India. What I found frustrating/interesting is that I couldn’t replenish my pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) supply. India banned it a few years ago. I tried the pharmacists’ alternative and it made me feel sick. And the cough medicine I bought was HORRIBLE. I mean, they don’t use all the fake sweeteners and food dyes that we do in America. It tasted like medicine 😦 Luckily I am a big girl and could deal; but it took me a week of terrible coughing before I thought to use my son’s Albuterol inhaler, and it was magic. I am sure that if it had been one of my kids coughing like I was, I would have had them on an inhaler in no time. (Of course, part of our prep for the trip was to have my son on inhaled steroids to help protect him from the poor air quality, so he did fine!)

To summarize: pollution = bad. Albuterol = good. 

It really was my food-allergic/asthmatic son that we worried the most about while envisioning the trip to India. Our travel experience previously taught us that it was good practice to bring safe foods, understand cultural barriers regarding food and food prep, and be prepared. Thanks to his pre-trip regimen of steroids, he only needed a few puffs of Albuterol the whole trip, which was awesome.

Hilton Garden Inn, Saket – Awesome restaurant and great with food allergies.

And we did ok with food allergy prevention/mitigation too. The first week was harder than the second since we were in hotels and had to eat in restaurants for every meal. He had to eat a few packaged things here and there when we just didn’t feel comfortable with the restaurant or airline, particularly on Emirates Airlines and while dining at the Raddison Blu in Agra.

Emirates, surprisingly, told me “oh, if you have a nut allergy you need to bring your own food.” Now, had I been a good mom and called them AHEAD of time, it would have been better. I think my experienced traveler status had me super comfortable that I could figure things out on the fly. And I could – we had a backpack full of packaged junk food, like pop tarts, cookies, crackers and granola bites. So when I realized – at 40,000 feet above the Atlantic – that Emirates doesn’t provide anything more than a banana that is safe for nut allergies, my son didn’t have to go hungry. Now, this isn’t meant to malign the airline, I didn’t call ahead. But, as someone who eats gluten-free (intolerance, not a severe allergy) I was impressed that I could select a GF meal (among a LONG list of other meal preferences) but none of course were nut-free.

Roadside tourist restaurant between Agra and Jaipur. Food allergic kid ate pasta here…

In India, nuts. are. everywhere. We knew this, and it was honestly the biggest reason we hadn’t traveled to India sooner. At least by waiting until my son was 9, he had outgrown his egg and dairy allergies, which makes traveling SO MUCH EASIER. But our experience demonstrates that knowledge and preparedness is not a solution for absolute attentiveness. Unfortunately for my son, we learned the hard way that having too many people watching out for his well being actually created more confusion and less protection.

After twelve days in India, he ate a small bite of chicken that had (we later learned) been marinated in a yogurt and cashew mixture. Cue allergic reaction and his request for an EpiPen.

[Pause, because writing this still gives me chills.]

We were literally next door to the local hospital in Mumbai, and sitting with a cousin who is an M.D., so we were covered in case he had a rebound reaction. Luckily he recovered quickly and was able to enjoy the rest of his day. This was his third serious allergic reaction in his life, and the first where he seemed in control and calm. Afterwards, he was almost amazed that he ate something that he was allergic to and was calm with getting the EpiPen. I am still queasy just thinking about it – his having an allergic reaction while traveling abroad has always been our nightmare and was a significant reason why we didn’t do more traveling while he was younger. And here we were, living our nightmare. We are quite aware that the situation could have been far more serious, and know we got very lucky that he was fine.

Living with food allergies is tough; traveling while managing significant food allergies is even tougher. But despite the challenges, and frankly the risk, our family will continue to prioritize travel and exploration, and will apply the lessons learned in India to make future travel even safer. If I have any concluding advice for other families considering international travel with their food-allergic children, it is: trust yourself, travel heavy with food from home, and do enough research so that you have an action plan if your nightmare happens.

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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!)

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]

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.

 

Photos - 21471

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

Food Allergies, Parenting, Travel

Traveling in Nicaragua with Food Allergies

Quite simply put: when food can kill you, travel can be terrifying.

Thanks to my friend, Linda, a fellow food allergy mom (whose daughter was desensitized to milk through treatment at John’s Hopkins!  Yay!) for succinctly articulating this thought.  Linda has also traveled extensively with her daughter, and was a good resource for me before we left, and in the decompressing that needed to happen once we were home.

The short story:  8 nights in Nicaragua, brought our own food, had one troubling incident, made it home in one piece with no more than a couple of doses of Benadryl. Glad we went.  Slight modifications if I were to do it again.

The long story: [deep breath] I knew that trying to navigate food in a country where I don’t speak the language, or know the cultural issues around food allergies would be difficult. So we planned and planned and planned some more.  Here is what we planned:

1. We packed a suitcase full of packaged food to keep my son full for the week.  Shelf stable soy milk, dry cereal, crackers, cookies, Daiya “cheese” spread, bagels, margarine, dry pasta and so on….  It helped that we froze much of what we took, and then defrosted things as needed, so that kept the bagels going all week (though by the end, I didn’t think my son would eat another bagel for a year.)

2. We rented places that had full kitchens, so we could prepare hot meals for our son and feel safe.  It also meant we could refreeze our ice packs and store our cold items for the week.  This worked great, and allowed us  to make him his favorite “mac n cheese” (dairy free of course!), baked chicken and warmed bagels.

3. We brought along a lot of emergency medication.  Like 8 epi pens, tons of Benadryl and even filled a script of liquid prednisone (the steroid) after I had read that not all counties readily treat with that.

4. We had all of his allergy information, and key phrases like “he’s having a serious life threatening reaction to milk” translated into Spanish.  If something happened, we needed to be able to communicate it!

5. We bought emergency travel insurance.  I wanted the peace of mind that if we needed to get out fast for a medical issue, we’d have help.  The travel clinic where we got our typhoid shots before the trip told me that the travel insurance carriers were great resources for local medical help, too.  So we didn’t just buy the insurance, we printed out all the contact information and coverage instructions so we could be prepared.

6. We brought tons of antibacterial hand wipes, to clean hands plus surfaces on the airplane or in restaurants.  (Remember, antibacterial gel doesn’t remove food allergens!)

7. Most importantly, we were really careful.  We planned to be really careful.  At home, we eat out and we let our son eat restaurant food, once we’ve done the song and dance about cross contamination and all that.  But we decided that we would take no chances while we were traveling, and unless we cooked it, he wasn’t eating it.  This really bummed him out, but we stuck to our plan — except for the fruit smoothie we got him at the American-owned hotel Mango Rosa, where we were able to have the food allergy song and dance conversation with the American owner, and we went for it.  But then we felt stupid and remembered our plan and didn’t deviate again.

But like many well planned events, we failed to foresee every possible issue, and found ourselves in a bit of a pickle (I mean panic) while on an aging ferry on Lake Nicaragua on our way to the most remote place on our trip.

IMG_3752No sooner than we lifted anchor and found ourselves leaving land did my son start to show signs of an allergic reaction.  We were seated in the passenger area of the cramped ferry — broken seats everywhere, lots of holiday tourists on board, and vendors had been on board selling sunglasses and roasted nuts.  Yes, roasted nuts.  We hadn’t let my son sit down, for fear of the seats being contaminated, but he got hives on his face and neck and started to complain of an itchy throat.  He was scared.  We were terrified.  This all happened within minutes of leaving the port.  I had him outside in fresh air immediately, washing him down with those handy wipes, dosing him with benadryl and counting epis in my head while I imagined having to ask them to turn the ferry around.

For all the adrenaline and fear I experienced, the whole thing resolved itself almost as fast as it came on.  But from that moment on, I was berating myself for putting us in this position.  I mean, what was I thinking taking my FAMILY to this remote place?  How could I bring my allergic son to someplace SO FAR AWAY?  And even though we had identified before our trip that there was a hospital on Ometepe Island, I was sick about the might-ofs that were running through my head.

My darling husband was calm once we were off the ferry (under an hour on the ferry) but I wasn’t calm until we had finished our three night stay on the island and were safely back in the more developed, modern city of Granada.  On the return ferry, we never took our son inside, and found a quiet spot on the deck to ride out the trip back to the mainland, and it was a blissfully uneventful trip.

IMG_3795The only other point of nervousness for his safety came, ironically, when we visited the active volcano outside of Granada.  Now, we weren’t nervous about the VOLCANO erupting (though in hindsight, I seriously brought my family to an active volcano!?!?) But, the air is thin and the sulfur from the volcano can make it hard to breathe.  I had trouble as we ascended the volcano (by car), and only then, in that moment, did I realize that I had failed to pack my own inhaler AND MY SON’S inhaler!  Oops.  Asthma is not a chronic problem for him (it is more an issue for me) but I really had thought that it was in our bag, but it wasn’t.  Luckily, there was a great breeze at the top and we all had good clean air to breathe.  Problem averted.  But next time I would definitely pack the inhalers!

Next time?  Well, we’ve been home a few weeks, and I’ve had time to reflect on our trip, and have asked myself many times, “would I go again?”

Yes.  I am glad we went. I would go to Nicaragua again with my food allergic son.  I would still do all the planning we did, but I would not go on the ferry.  It was too remote.  It was too “developing” and I was so unprepared for airborne tree nut particles causing a reaction!  I know that the unexpected can happen anywhere, but if it is to happen, I don’t want to be on a remote ferry in the middle of Lake Nicaragua!

Ask my son, and he’ll say he loved Nicaragua, but he has asked “next time can we please go to an English speaking country so I can eat in a restaurant?”  And that just breaks my heart.  Should we have brought food for all 6 of us? Should we have totally avoided eating out (where we’d bring his food that we’d prepared?)  It just isn’t practical, especially when part of our purpose of travel was to expose our kids to the food of Nicaragua.  But I do wish that he could have been more free to get more smoothies, or to get allergy safe pancakes or other special “restaurant food” that the other boys got.  We made sure he got plenty of treats, but they grew less and less special as the trip wore on, and he was sad that he couldn’t eat like everyone else.

What my darling son doesn’t know is that even if we went to an English speaking country, it doesn’t mean we’d be any less vigilant; and it doesn’t mean we’d even let him eat in a restaurant (unless we could understand the cultural issues around food allergies.)  We are seriously talking about traveling to India next time (English speaking yes, but I would not be comfortable with food prep/handling/cross contamination in the kitchens there.)

I would love to hear from other food allergy parents about their experiences traveling abroad!  Happy travels.

Food Allergies, Living Life, Parenting, Travel

“Where’s the Paper?” Nicaragua Part 2: Ometepe Island

Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua

IMG_3694Remote. Rural. Lush. Ometepe Island, formed from two volcanoes, sits in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, one of the world’s largest natural lakes.  We debated all week what claim this lake should make, so I had to look it up.  According to Wikipedia, its the 19th largest freshwater lake in the world (and the largest in the Americas.)  Ometepe was our 2nd stop in Nicaragua.  The first was  San Juan del Sur;  read about that adventure in Part 1 of the “Where’s the Paper” series.

From the small port town of San Jorge, we boarded a ferry for Ometepe. You can also take a boat, but we were told, in broken English and emphatic mime that the boats were tiny and rocked a lot on what can be windy/rough waters.  So we took the ferry, along with dozens of other tourists (international and Nicaraguan.)

IMG_3752The Ferry itself is unimpressive.  Worn looking.  Old.  I did see life vests but didn’t bother assessing how many there were.  The timing of our trip was days after the horrific ferry boat sinking in South Korea.  For better or worse, we had been cut off from all news and didn’t learn of that tragedy until we returned home.  I never felt unsafe on our ferry — except for the allergic reaction that our food allergic son had shortly after we departed.  Luckily, the ride was just over an hour and provided stunning views of the volcanoes on Ometepe!

Most ferries to Ometepe arrive in Moyogalpa — the largest town on the island.  Getting transportation in Moyogalpa is easy when you arrive by ferry — taxis areIMG_3680 lined up and eager for business.  We had to wait for the truckload of bananas to move onto the ferry before we could leave, ironically, the only glimpse of that fruit we would have for the 3 1/2 days on the island!  Our rental property was an easy 10 minute drive away, and our driver luckily knew how to find it!

Nestled in a quiet town called Los Angeles, our farm is called Finca Macedonia.  A beautifully lush farm, filled with mango trees, lime trees, avocado trees and more.  A flock of roosters wandered around, beautiful birds abound and a few horses rounded out the wildlife we experienced.  I found the rental on VRBO, and it was amply large and modern, especially compared to other available lodging.  On Ometepe, you can stay in an upscale eco-lodge, or in a hostel.  There tourist infrastructure is very limited on the island, and this was the ONLY house we could find to rent.  It was important to us to have access to a kitchen to be able to manage our son’s food allergies, and so we were very pleased to find the farm house!

IMG_3684The farm keeper and his family live on the property, and saw to our needs during the stay.  My boys loved playing with his girls, and while Emerson’s English was limited, it far surpassed our Spanish, and he made sure that we found the path to the lake, and he arranged for fresh fish for us, which his wife prepared in a traditional grill with rice and beans and plantains!  We picked many mangoes and limes, and Emerson gave us each a large avocado, which unfortunately didn’t ripen before our trip concluded and we had to forfeit our fruit.

In general, our time on Ometepe was sleepy and hot.   Our fans in each bedroom did the trick, but as in San Juan del Sur, nights were loud with cicadas, birds, roosters and dogs.

The day after we arrived, we ventured onto a local bus, and ended up sitting next to a couple from New Zealand, an American and a Croatian.  All of them young, and adventurous — not knowing where they were staying the night, and taking each day as it came.  They reminded us of our younger selves, and also made it clear how different travel is when you have three children and an older parent with you!  These travelers helped us navigate to our destination, and we exited the bus to find the Charco Verde Eco Reserve.

IMG_1118We had a slick brochure from the tourist office that made the Eco Reserve a top destination on Ometepe Island.  But we were a tad disappointed.  The nature walk was nice — we saw monkeys and some beautiful plants and birds.  But we didn’t see anything inside the reserve that we hadn’t seen on our farm or in San Juan del Sur.  It being located adjacent to an upscale hotel and restaurant was a fortuitous coincidence for us, as we enjoyed delicious Nica snacks, drinks and their beach.  The boys rented a paddle boat, and enjoyed cooling off in the lake.  We were so wiped out by the heat and all the walking that we had the hotel call us a private car to go back to the farm.  Private transportation in Nicaragua is expensive, but we were too tired to walk the 1/2 mile back to the main road and wait for the bus.

Our sense of remote isolation was amplified on Sunday, as we understood that public buses are not running.  So we made the day a lazy one and enjoyed the farm and a nice hike/swim with Emerson and his daughter. We made our 3rd trip to the local store — literally inside someone’s home — to replenish our soda supply (which, ah hem, we needed to polish off the rum that was purchased on day 1.)  It turns out that the town only gets fresh veggies/fruit delivered on Monday or Tuesday — and we left on Monday morning.  We ate simply those few days, chicken, canned veggies, rice and beans…  cooking in the house was our plan, and proved harder than we would have expected.  It was HOT on Ometepe, and our home had no air conditioning, so cooking made us feel like we were in an oven.  Luckily, we had ample space outside to sit and try and catch a breeze.

IMG_1120As we packed up to leave Ometepe on Monday morning, the grown ups were more cheerful about leaving the island — for various reasons.  We wanted fresh fruit and veggies, I wanted to be closer to transportation and feel like we could access modern medicine should there be an issue, and we craved air conditioning.  I realized how soft I had become in how much the heat bothered me.  The kids never complained.  Even my mom was more comfortable on the farm than my husband and I (she had grown up spending summers on her grandfather’s farm in Canada.)

Our ferry ride back to San Jorge was quick and uncrowded.  The Easter crowds had dispersed, and things felt less hectic on the return.  Our prearranged transportation was waiting for us as we walked off the ferry!  I loved how easy it was to arrange transportation with Iskra Travel!  We lucked out and Mike, our first driver from the night we arrived, picked us up and took us on the 1 1/2 drive to Granada.

The Bottom Line

My husband and I are city people.  There, I said it.

Ometepe Island is great for hikers or adventurous travelers who need little modern comfort.  In hindsight, I don’t think we prepared enough for our visit, or knew what to expect.  If I were to go again, especially with kids in tow, I would either arrange to have a private car/driver meet us daily or else rent a car.  The island is large, and we would have had a better experience had we seen more, but once we were at the farm, the “schlep” to make transportation work was greater than our desire.  As a mom of three kids (11, 9 and 5) and one of them having serious food allergies, I was nervous about being so remote “just in case” something were to happen.  There are medical facilities in Moyogolpa, the main town where the ferry comes into, but I would have been at a total loss as to how to get there if we had needed it!

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.”