Friday, December 27, 2013

The Great Move of 2013/2014: Upcycle Projects for the new house!

With the move to the new house underway, I've been pinning a lot of renovation and project ideas over on Pinterest. I thought I'd share some of my favorites with you!

From making a hula-hoop rug, to "tank top" tote bags, book-shelves, tea-cup hanging lights, upside-down rake wine glass holders, here's my collection of project solutions for the house:

If you don't have the time to DIY, there are also many Etsy craft makers that make ready-to-buy recycled products, like Andrew over at Reclaimed Wood, who makes beautiful modern style wood pieces for the home.

My upcoming projects consist of the following:

Cutting stars out of bark for candle wrappers.

Using a newly painted "rustic" door as a bookshelf. Going to check out a salvage lot!

 Also hoping to find a good fireplace from a salvage lot. 
The cushioned back board has been on HGTV so many times that I'd like to try it. 

The 5 acre lot should provide some good branches.
Maybe even some wooden benches! :)

Winter Movie Review: Walter Mitty, Catching Fire, Frozen, The Desolation of Smaug and my Sanity, Thor 2.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: It's an introverted underdog story about a guy who has a midlife crisis which stirs him up to follow his dreams, and his subsequent adventures which finally become more exciting than his daydreams about life. Highlights: You can literally see the vigor and life be breathed back into Mitty, played by Ben Stiller, who emerges from the end of the movie, glowing and transformed from a zombie-like office prisoner. Sean Penn is also delightful as the elusive photographer Mitty must trek the globe to find. Based on a short story. Advice? Rent it for a date night.

Catching Fire (Hunger Games #2): Having read the books ages ago (thank you AATL student Kenny for recommending me to do so back in 2011!) I have to say that the film version of Catching Fire was spectacular. It's not what I imagined at all, but at least the lead characters are settling in to her their roles and are quite enjoyable to watch after an awkward beginning in the first movie. Jennifer Lawrence 'takes no prisoners' in her delightfully sardonic dialogue which seems aptly appropriate for the horrible circumstances she finds herself in. Compelling story, great effects, go see it! Highlights: Watching first timers react to all of the plot twists in the theaters. Woody Harrelson, need I say more. Advice? See it in theaters. 

Frozen: Disney has a bad habit of disappointing me on an existential level. Frozen was another let down. The music was lackluster, even with Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell and Jonathan Groff. Yes, I understand that you are systematically reinvigorating the outdated parts of your theme parks (The Muppets, Pirates of the Caribbean, Norway in Epcot) but this movie is still frustrating. I appreciated "the message" at the end of the story which saves the day, but it was a long, tired journey to get there. Also, the costumes were ridiculous. (See photo left.) Why can't our ice princesses be decked out in Patagonia or North Face for once? I'm tired of all of these harsh climate ridiculous outfits (Jasmine, Elsa & Anna, Ariel, etc…) can we be more practical, please? Disney purists are vetoing my future movie reviews as a result of this post; don't get me wrong, the movie was fun, and probably spectacular in 3-D, but I'm still looking for a bit more for my future daughters/nieces to appreciate. Highlights: Beautiful ice and snow animations recycled (as the originally canned 'ice' setting from Brave) great for the holiday season. Advice? See it in 3-D, or rent it.

The Hobbit 2: The Desolation of Smaug. If I could emit obscenities in public without being  a bad role model for the younger generation, I might waste them on this film, which was a complete mockery of the genre, and a desecration of the Tolkien text. Admitting that the original Tolkien text was more of a bedtime story than a 3-movie battle pic, is committing heresy in Middle Earth, but someone must do it. I laughed through the entire first scene, and enjoyed fellow moviegoers' bafflement at the strange and alien scene playing out, a back story, which would lead us in a new direction for this film, which literally needed to provide a plot reference point. Cue two hours of "the only path before us is the most treacherous one but we must take it anyways." I laughed again when Gandalf abandoned his comrades right before that path, as I would have done, before entering a forest of the worst gargantuan spider infestation you could imagine. Sorry, Ron, the path never "follows the butterflies." Fast forward two hours and the third hour takes you to meet Smaug, the most beautiful, terrifying and fun dragon we've met since Draco in Dragonheart. As Smaug, Benedict Cumberbatch emits dark baritone phrases reminiscent of his Khan (Star Trek: Into Darkness) character, and here we finally have something interesting to watch. (Since up to this point, I've only enjoyed the inserted scenes with the new *girl* character, Tauriel. For those of you who didn't know, she was added by filmmakers because Tolkien doesn't have any female characters in this book. Even so, Evangeline Lily's character (Tauriel) is the seventeenth billed cast member. Ouch. So much for the Bechdel test!) The movie ends with a cliffhanger which is annoying, because by this point I wanted to see everything burn. Also, this movie has an 8.3/10 rating on IMDB which just goes to show me that Hollywood can buy reviews by adding Michael Bay style effects. Great effects, horrible story. End rant. Highlights: A dragon. The Freeman-Cumberbatch reunion. Orlando Bloom as a young(er) Legolas who is apparently almost mute at this point in his immortality. Advice? Rent it, fast forward until you see a dragon, watch, cry into your pillow at the desecration of a much beloved story. 

Thor 2: The Dark World. I am thrilled that this movie was awesome, because, let's face it, the first movie was a little bit a good way which I saluted Marvel for, even as my own friends laughed at me. I actually saw this slaphappy sequel twice, and it was fun and enjoyable both times; due mainly in part to witty dialogue, acting performances and and precise punchlines (Kat Dennings, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgård) which entertained us through the ominous and certain terrifying onslaught of an alien fueled armageddon. The story was brilliant, concocted by the best science fiction writers, seamlessly mixing fake science (gravitational fields that can be messed up by planetary alignments sorry geophysicists, "soul forge" quantum field generators, and portal-type traveling worm holes) with movie magic, making science exciting again, even if we've finished our science courses for life. Highlights: Female scientist protagonist. Female "political science" assistant. Chris Hemsworth's costume. Tom Hiddleston's giddy delight at Asgard's imminent demise. Stellan's nude insanity.  Stan Lee's cameo. Chris Evans' cameo. (Geeks: Read the Scientific American's expose on the science behind Moljnir (Thor's hammer) here.) Advice: See it in theaters!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Online Shopping: To try, or not to try? This is the question.

In the Comment Section: Forum: Where have you shopped successfully or unsuccessfully online?

I've always been an extrovert. For some reason, however, I have always hated shopping for clothes in a store with crowds of people out and about. I have always preferred to buy online, but it's hard to know store policies online so today's review will bring that process to light!

Top Customer Service: 

L.L.Bean: Besides the fact that 100% of products are guaranteed from L.L.Bean, they have free shipping. Which means that they will ship returns/exchanges back to you for free and give you a free shipping return label, which comes with your initial order so you don't need to print anything. They also have live chat online which has always been very helpful for me, especially when I'm trying to figure out product weights or materials questions for hiking and camping gear.

ModCloth: I won't lie, I was really irritated last week when my $54.00 sweater came by FedEx with a completely broken zipper:

But then, ModCloth Customer Service reached out and linked me to Live Chat so that I could resolve the issue. The representative sent me a free shipping label to return it, and sent me another sweater in the meantime so that I didn't have to wait for them to process my return. That was great customer service...and it was smart: they didn't know I was a blogger! I think we should applaud great customer service.

Amazon Prime: Did you know that you can pay a one time fee ($80), and then have everything Amazon sells shipped to you with FREE 2-day shipping? I have many friends who use Amazon Prime all year long and they really rave about how awesome it is to get everything with 2-day shipping. There are other perks of Prime also: 41,000+ movies/t.v. shows to stream for free and 350,000+ Kindle titles to borrow for free! If I was planning to get all of my X-Mas presents online, I would definitely upgrade to Amazon Prime. 

Mattie's Mountain Mud: If you want incredible, organic, fair trade certified coffee hand roasted by a master, Mattie's is worth the try! (Bavarian Chocolate, need I say more?) Recently, I ordered my standing order from Mattie's but I used Paypal to check out and my delicious coffee was sent to my old address because I hadn't used Paypal in years. Mattie expressed her sorrow for me via e-mail and even offered me free shipping for a new order. Just before I ordered more, I decided to see if it was still in Florida. Normally, I would have assumed that it was being consumed by a new tenant, but because I love that coffee so much, I drove over to my old address and checked for the package at the Clubhouse to see if it was there: it wasn't. So a few days later, Mattie e-mailed me a picture of the returned coffee and shipped it back to me for $7.

That was great customer service! It only cost me $7 to get my coffee back from an i.d.10.T (me) error on a $18 gourmet coffee order. I was very pleased. (Of course I updated my Paypal address so that my chocolate organic coffee never goes anywhere else!)

Lackluster Customer Service:

Victoria's Secret: It's been years since I've ordered anything from V.S., but back when I did they had a similar return policy to L.L.Bean with the exception that for a return or exchange you were re-billed for shipping once. That was frustrating because it was hard to guess clothing sizes even with their "size charts" because they have many different brands on the site by different manufacturers. Now you can see why I've stopped buying online from this retailer. My husband is contributing to this article today, because he has been ordering car parts from this company since 2008. Recently, the wrong part was shipped to him and he had to pay triple shipping to get the right one. (1) Original wrong part to him, (2) the return shipping and (3) new, correct part shipping. So he paid $30.00 in shipping for a issue that was not his fault. Now this company should have looked at his records, seen that he had been purchasing a dozens different parts (many expensive) over the past six years and found a better solution. However, because it was a busy dealership, his order was overlooked and they responded badly to his request, losing a customer.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

The Horrors of Honey?

Go to your pantry. Take out your honey jar, and investigate its origins. Unless it says USDA certified organic, there's a good chance that it's illegally imported, mislabeled Chinese honey, which evaded taxes and could contain banned antibiotics.  Earlier this year, National Public Radio exposed the mislabeling from two of the biggest USA honey packers (which was the "largest food fraud case in history"):

"This is a huge deal for the industry. This is the first admission by a U.S. packer, the actual user,” that they were knowingly importing mislabeled honey, Eric Wenger, chairman of True Source Honey, an industry consortium that has set up an auditing and testing system to guarantee the true origin of honey, told NPR." 1

However, evading the $180M in import taxes didn't seem to help out the struggling company as GROEB (USA), one of the big packers, filed for bankruptcy on October 3rd, 2013, and this filing put an end to the class-action lawsuits against the company. Ethics aside, this case is not really "new" news, with reports of tainted and illegally imported honey having been reported back in 2011. Since then, the European Union has been in the vanguard of banning Asian honey, and our FDA which "checks few of the thousands of shipments arriving through 22 American ports each year," 2 cannot possibly regulate it all...and it's not just illegal Chinese honey that's being found, Indian and Vietnamese honey are also part of the problem. (How can we avoid filtered, stripped, tainted-with-antibiotics illegal honey? By buying local organic honey, which must be labeled as follows.)

Of course, what's especially alarming at this moment, 45% of American FDA workers (around 6,500 workers nationwide) have been furloughed currently pending the government shutdown. 68% of the staff at the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention in surveillance presently have also been furloughed. So honey testing aside, all major "routine establishment inspections, some compliance and enforcement activities, monitoring of imports, notification programs, and the majority of lab research" has stopped. 3 I did some additional research into the effects of the Government Shutdown on the FDA and discovered that the full time FDA meat production facility employees will still be working, but this is still troubling. It is estimated that the FDA inspects 80 facilities nationwide per day, so if the shutdown continues to Oct. 17, another estimated 960 facilities will go without being inspected. What is really interesting, are the horrifying 2013 warning letters to companies that failed inspections which you can read here. There are major companies listed there with violations of illegal drug residue (mainly in cows which were sold living in inadequate living conditions), misbrandings, insanitary conditions, mislabeling, unapproved supplements, modified tobbaco products...the list goes on and there are over 25 pages of summary violations.

So what began as an investigation into illegal honey mislabeling, has led me down the closed hallways of food inspection, reminiscent of the horrors of the meatpacking industry in The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. Why aren't we hearing more about this?

Saturday, September 07, 2013

2013 Organic Product Review Guide

Greetings Readers! It is with great excitement that I present my 2013 Organic Product Review Guide! These are products worth buying, trying and sharing. 

I love organic products. I feel so much better about using them on my skin than I do about using many of the harsh products that I have bought in the past from CVS, Mary Kay, and the mall. Born with sensitive skin, I have also been limited to unscented and hypoallergenic products, and being a girl, I’ve tried many of these as well. So today I’m going to share my experience using organic, hypoallergenic, natural and sensitive skin type products as I skip along on my quest to find the healthiest, easiest and most cost effective cleansing and beauty regimen.

Although I had been buying my natural products on The, (which I reviewed last spring on this blog, here…) I recently discovered the small businesses on, which, if you have never visited this site, is an online marketplace “to buy and sell all things handmade, vintage, and supplies.” I decided to check out some of the smaller organic goods sellers, and found a few companies worth mentioning. It is important to me to try to buy products from small American business owners, and I especially like supporting female business owners.

Firstly on, is Alena over at Bella Organics, ( who was very friendly and supportive of sending me some products to test out. She grew up on a farm, and stands by her motto: “Love your body—Pure and Natural. Never any toxic ingredients, only organic, healing botanicals.” She started making organic products after having moved to the city and becoming more tired and sick. 

I wasn't allergic to any of her products and I tested many. My favorite of her batch, was the "Chocolate Lip Balm" which you can buy for $3.50. What a bargain! Expect to get one from me for Christmas, colleagues! :) Her other flavor of lip balm, was a bit dry for my overly and already dry, cracked lips, but also worked to hydrate them, just as the chocolate flavor did. 

Another product I was surprised to find in my goodie box was "Organic Sunscreen." I was very excited to see what ingredients would be in that! Its main ingredients were essential oils, zinc oxide, and aloe. It had the texture of a light facial butter, and the scent of mint. It was a very refreshing layer to add over my makeup. 

Her "Not Scented Body Butter" hydrated my legs to feel and look as moisturized as a supermodel's and wins my "Best Skin Moisturizer for the Body" award. It was the first time my husband Tom had noticed my smooth legs in years: a win! 

I also received several product samples from Ann over at Ann's Herbals, who is also on ( Ann got started making products to help sensitive skin, eczema, and itchiness, trying to avoid harsh ingredients. Her products were especially suitable for me! 

Her lip balm was the first lip balm ever to moisturize my lips for over four hours with only one application. To get this result I used her "Lavender Vanilla" flavor. It was light, smooth, and worked for hours. 

Another product of Ann's that I loved was her "Simple No Pimple" body soap bar. It was great for the neck, chest and back, and just took away the excess oil and irritants on the skin, and restored the skin to a soothing feel. I'd share a photo of the bar, but I used all of that product gleefully, and now it's gone! It is available at her website above. 

I was also excited to try the "Simple No Pimple" salve, but I put it on before bed and when I awoke it had got in my eyes and irritated them, so don't try using it like that! Luckily, having been using the aloe listed below, I haven't had too many pimples, but the salve does help when I've got one or two to deal with. 

One of my favorite Eco-Chic brands is Giovanni Cosmetics. I first tried the Volcanic Ash Exfoliating Face Wash, and ever since I've been trying more and more of their products. I highly recommend them. (Florida readers: Their "Smooth as Silk" Shampoo and Conditioner's are at Publix now!)

The shampoo smells like the light scent of grapefruit, and the conditioner really fills in dry, cracked hair in a non-greasy or dandruff building way. That smooth feeling really took the frizz out of my hair, and for September in Tampa, that's saying something! 

Another new weekly staple is the detox-mask, also with Volcanic Ash and Antioxidants. While you might think these products are too drying, the Açaí and Goji Berry really moisturize well. Giovanni's products have all really made a mark on me. They are definitely worth checking out. As you can see in the photo on the right, my exfoliating mask is almost gone because I love that one so much. It's my third tube this year! The black facial soap on the right is a lighter, daily version of the facial scrub, also great on the body areas that are prone to acne. 

Best Facial Moisturizer: Nature Republic's Aloe Vera Gel. How to clear acne? Aloe cooling gel. Who knew? Of course it soothes burns and dry skin, and it's in practically every skin care product out there, but I had never thought to put it on my face until I saw my brilliant Chinese student doing exactly this yesterday. Then she showed me the "before" pictures on her iPhone, and I was surprised how clear her face had become since the photos. "Three days," she said when I asked her how long it would take to work. I had figured about a week.

So I put it on two weeks ago. The first morning after using it, my face had gone overnight from red and itchy and raw to white, and clearing and fresh. Still, I had stress and heat acne, so I reapplied twice today. Excited to see the results after two weeks. Much improvement already! This is the jar we've been using. It's Korean and you can order it on Amazon for about $6, but honestly, we have many similar products in the USA, so I'm guessing your after-sun cooling gel with Aloe will also work. Check the percentage of Aloe.

Organic Makeup: The best brand that I've been able to find for organic make-up is Physician's Formula Organic. My best friend from college recently wore this brand for her wedding and looked radiant. I've used these products before for years, and after taking a break for a higher SPF foundation, (hello summer in Florida) I've switched back to these.

The light tinted moisturizer is great for sensitive skin, even with the light scent that it has. It does has SPF 15, too. It just seems a tad oily, so when I forget to use toner at night my skin gets greasy.

Update to Tinted Moisturizer: (9/16/13) Lately, when I put it on in the morning, I find that my eyes are extraordinarily sensitive to light. It appears I'm allergic to the scent/make-up. Back to the drawing board. 

The Physician's Formula Organic mascara is pretty heavy for an organic formula, so it's definitely better to use a lighter color (like brown instead of black) or less product.

This product, the Physician's Formula "dark circle corrector" really does help to take the sleeplessness off of your face. It's double-sided roller balls cover with a yellow tone, and then even out with the skin shades, for a more refreshed look, even when you're exhausted or traveling. Worth the $14 sticker price!

 So I hope that you've enjoyed my organic product review.

What's your favorite organic product? Please share products or brands that I should check out and review below!

Friday, August 16, 2013

Product of the Week: A $3-6 Acne fix.

How to clear acne? Aloe cooling gel. Who knew? Of course it soothes burns and dry skin, and it's in practically every skin care product out there, but I had never thought to put it on my face until I saw my brilliant Chinese student doing exactly this yesterday. Then she showed me the "before" pictures on her iPhone, and I was surprised how clear her face had become since the photos. "Three days," she said when I asked her how long it would take to work. I had figured about a week.

So I put it on yesterday before bed. This morning, my face had gone from red and itchy and raw to white, and clearing and fresh. Still, I had stress and heat acne, so I reapplied twice today. Excited to see the results tomorrow on Day 2. Much improvement already!

This is the jar we've been using. It's Korean and you can order it on Amazon for about $6, but honestly, we have many similar products in the USA, so I'm guessing your after-sun cooling gel with Aloe will also work. Check the percentage of Aloe.

Let me know if it works for you or your teens!

Saturday, August 03, 2013

"The Secrets of Chinese Green Tea."

This past June, my mother, Richy and I sat down to learn about the National green tea of China, in Hangzhou, China at the National Tea Museum. The country chose the "Dragon Well" tea to be the national tea, and it is also called Longjing tea, which if picked during the month of March or early April, (the highest standard) is called "Emperor's tea" and can cost up to $1,000.00 USD per kilo.

I learned about how the Chinese pick tea during different months to improve taste and benefits. For example, the most desirable (and expensive) green tea leaves are picked in the month of March, the next best in April, then May, and all the way through early fall when picking stops.

We were able to sample the tea from May during our free tea ceremony, and we purchased Emperor tea from April afterwards.

Steps to make Proper Green Tea:

1. Use hot water (not boiling water).
2. Put one pinch of green tea leaves in a glass or mug. (Use two fingers and thumb for a pinch.)
3. Put one inch of hot water in the glass or mug.
4. Steam your eyes (open) for thirty seconds on each eye by holding eye over glass. According to our tea expert, this is good for your eyes and skin near eyes. Apparently, the steam brightens your eyes and the antioxidants/vitamins are good for them.
5. Add more hot water until your glass is full. Let steep/sit for up to two minutes before you drink.
6. It is beneficial to "eat" the tea leaves that are loose in your glass. In China, people say "eat your tea" instead of "drink your tea" for this exact reason.

Green tea can help cleanse your body. For example, our tea expert put rice in water in a clear glass and added iodine. The rice soaked up the iodine and the water turned brown. After adding a pinch of green tea leaves, the water cleared to clear again. (The rice was still brown.) This is the green tea working in your body against foreign chemicals. To clear the rice so that the water was clear and the rice was white, she put a condensed green tea tablet (also sold there) in the water and the tablet cleared the rice and the water quickly. It was unbelievable! Drink up!

Sunday, July 28, 2013

"America's Dirty Habits: Bad for the Environment, Bad for U.S."

Of course there are many things that we have adopted into our culture that are bad for the environment but today's post outlines some big offenders. I am spreading awareness to try to break this mold of "standards" that have originated from other ecosystems (Lawns), to get people to consider alternatives to dry-cleaning and hot air drying, investing in reusable universal BPA-free plastic bottles, and even trying to raise awareness about communities that aren't recycling. Check 'em out!

-> Comment Forum: Let me know about any other Bad Habits for the environment that you might be educated about below.

1. GREEN LAWNS. Lawns are a big offender. First, there's the water waste in watering the millions of lawns across America, many of which are in ecosystems where green grass is not natural. There are also the billions of gallons of fossil fuels used to mow and maintain these lawns. Then there are the pesticides, herbicides and chemicals used by landscaping companies with big development or business contracts that are polluting the ground, and areas nearby and underneath these lawns. Read more about the hazards to the environment as a result of lawns here on Smithsonian's Blog.  I truly resent that the "classic green lawn" is the standard for subdivisions and businesses everywhere. They are not conducive to a green planet, even though they may look like it.

Where did lawns originate? In England, where rains are a daily occurrence. It's ridiculous to me that this fashionable landscape can be found in the deserts of America in subdivisions and of course at golf courses throughout many climates where irrigation, reclaimed water and vast amounts of chemicals are needed to maintain the greens.

What are alternatives to a green lawn? (1) Replacing your lawn with clover, which requires little water, no herbicides and gives you good luck! (2) Planting a wildflower garden or meadow. (3) Replacing your concrete or asphalt driveway with gravel. (4) Creating a vegetable garden paradise instead of a lawn. (5) Creating a pebble or rock "zen" garden. (6) Creating a "southern desert" rock garden.

2. ELECTRIC DRYERS. I live in the humidity of Tampa, Florida and I understand why hanging laundry outside is a bad idea: mold, bugs, pollen, spores, etc...However, there has to be an alternative to these electric dryers. Even the newer ones use a large amount of energy. However there are ways to be mindful of the energy being used. Read my friend Nicole's blog post about "Ten Eco Friendly Laundry Tips" here. For example:

  • Use a tennis ball, or a natural dryer ball (read Nicole's review of organic ones here.)
  • Use less of the heat, more of the air dry.
  • Consider hanging clothes inside instead on a clothes rack or a line.
3. DRYCLEANING. Don't dryclean your clothes. EVER. The chemicals are extremely harsh (and carcinogenic), and are put on your skin when you wear the clothes. You can read all about it on the EPA's website here.  Educate yourself! Besides, contrary to the name, dry cleaning is not a dry process, and also requires heat drying, which wastes power. Hand wash instead! Or consider trying to find an "Organic Drycleaner" which are becoming more and more popular. 

4. PLASTIC BOTTLES. I can't believe how many plastic bottles Americans go through each year. This isn't going away, folks. They are just increasing in number in vast quantities and so many of them aren't being recycled! It's sickening. Please buy reusable BPA-free bottles. TIP: While I know they can pile up and be expensive, if you buy many that are the same type it is easier to find lids for them. 

5. COMMUNITIES that AREN'T RECYCLING: That's on you, Florida! (And many other places.) While the counties around me recycle, none of the apartment/condo/townhouse subdivisions do. That's hundreds of pounds of trash that needn't be in the landfills. It makes me ill to think about it, and no one is advocating for change in this regard. I've been known to drive bags of plastic and paper to recycle centers, but these are few and far between, and it still uses gas to get there. Any ideas on how we can clean this dirty habit up? Comment below. 

So perhaps I missed the Bad Habit that you wanted to read about: Flying, home energy consumption, junk mail, newspapers, eating meat, plastic bags, driving and parking. I too considered these habits, and wanted to learn more about them. I found a great article by the Chicago Tribune which included these habits, which is highly worth reading if you want to educate yourself about even more bad habits. 

Really, to change a habit requires commitment for about thirty days. So challenge yourself this year, and if you forget for your New Year's Resolution to axe some or all of these habits from your list and you can join me in the quest to leave less of a carbon footprint on mother Earth. Thank you for considering making some of these changes: together we can change the world.

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Sunday, July 21, 2013

"Coffee? Yes, please!" Confessions of a Coffee Addict...

Coffee Forum-->Share your favorite blends/coffee drinks below!

I am a caffeine coffee addict. So naturally, I take coffee, very, very seriously. I look forward to a morning cup of coffee before bed, while I'm making it, while I'm drinking it, and sometimes in the afternoon, when I'm making another. I have definitely pasted that same smile (see photo) as the 50's style meme to the right before I have taken a sip of the coffee in my hand and someone asks me a question forcing my brain to operate painfully before 8AM. Any student who has ever sat in one of my classes knows that at some point during the class period I will look up and say, "Where did I put my coffee?" in panic as I'm wandering all over the classroom. I realize this might not be normal behavior. I realize that it's clearly due to a caffeine addiction and obsessions with the smell and taste of roasted coffee beans.

I realize that Green Tea is healthier, if not as satisfying (I've actually reviewed my Top Ten favorite teas on this blog before, here.) I know that Splenda is probably bad for me and Aspartame is definitely bad for me, and refined sugar is bad for me, and heavy cream and milk and large quantities of caffeine are also bad for me, but over the years, I've loved most of or all of those ingredients at one time or another. I have contemplated the humorous ingenuity of an IV drip of coffee. Yes, I am also a Starbucks Gold Card Member. If you don't know what that is, please don't go look it up, it's embarrassing. Yes, I frequently go to Dunkin' Donuts when I'm sick of Starbucks, because honestly, I love coffee and I love both chains. I have opinions about types, roasts, fair trade and what should and shouldn't be in coffee. So I must confess: I am a Coffee Snob. I realized this fact this past weekend after going through my shelves to see what kind of coffee my relatives would like and realized that I had over three pounds of different types, and at least five different flavors.

Me drinking coffee in Wuzhen, China.
So, today, I'm going to share all the knowledge of coffee that I've accumulated like Gollum researching the One Ring, and hope that we can share in some of this coffee madness together. The research on the benefits and harm of coffee is conflicting. Some sources say that it prevents Alzheimers, others that it leads to high blood pressure and heart disease. Generally, many sources agree that is is bad in high doses, meaning that there is a "magic number" which is considered too high for caffeine intake. I even found, recently while doing research, this article, compiled by the APA (American Psychiatric Association) about "How drinking too much coffee can induce a mental disorder," which warned of the dangers of caffeine intoxication and withdrawal! It seems we can't win! So putting aside "the debate: is it good? Is it bad?" I shall review my favorite types, flavors and varieties.

I started drinking coffee around the age of sixteen. This coincided with the increasing challenge of waking up earlier and earlier for high school. (Why did classes start at 7:05?) Being a Masshole New Englander, meant that I had my pick of Dunkin' Donuts locations [chain was founded in Quincy, MA] and this being 2002, there was not a Starbucks for thirty miles. [Banned by the Quincy, Massachusetts Coffee Mafia?] So I drank my "French Vanilla, Extra Extra" happily for months, until I realized that it was the source of daily agony (milk intolerance) and switched to black coffee, which I've been drinking since.

At nineteen, on my summer break before Sophomore year of college, I got a summer job as a barista at Jaec's Coffee in Attleboro, MA, by the train station. While I was usually called "The Sandwich Queen," since I loved making the salads and sandwiches, I was still trained on and often made drinks using the industrial espresso maker at the coffee shop. I grew to appreciate a good espresso, which has a drip of 25-30 seconds, made from freshly ground beans in a packed handle, in a clean glass so that it doesn't taste "burnt." I grew to love the "Pumpkin Spice" flavored roast at Jaec's so much that I bought a five pound bag which lasted years in the freezer at my parent's house. That summer culminated in my drinking eight espressos before the "American Cancer Society's Relay for Life" where I ran around the track for the midnight-4am shift and woke up sixteen hours afterwards having a new understanding of caffeine addiction. So I quit coffee cold turkey, walked around like a zombie for three weeks, and eventually switched to a more green tea influenced diet for years.

Then I decided to become a middle school teacher, 8AM classes continue. On a related note: seven years later, I have tried dozens of brands, varieties and flavors and have narrowed down my favorites to the following.

"Aimee's Must Try Coffees."

I think I have a problem...
I order my coffee from Mattie's Mountain Mud in New Castle, Virginia. (So does one of my colleagues and my boss, because we field trip up to that city annually with our students for an outdoor trip.) Mattie ships it to me with bumper stickers and a handwritten note, because she is a small business owner, uses certified organic beans, and ensures that her beans are Fair Trade certified. My absolute favorite is BAVARIAN CHOCOLATE. In fact, my husband who only drinks Mochas from Starbucks popped his head into the kitchen to see what that delicious smell was (newly ground Bavarian Chocolate coffee beans) and helped himself to a cup every time I made a pot of it for the next two weeks. 

My second favorite, is also a Mattie's product: COAL. This one has an awesome story of creation, where Mattie charcoaled the beans as far as she could before they caught on fire. Surprisingly, this extra dark roast isn't flavored like dusty carbon or charcoal, and has a deep, full taste, which with raw sugar is smooth and sweetened. It's definitely a headache killer, as a few sips restore the brain of any caffeine addict to normal operation.

If you love coffee, be sure to try her incredible Dark chocolate covered coal coffee beans: they are to die for. 

Pumpkin Spice Coffee Vs. the Pumpkin Spice Latte: HELP ME FIND "THE ONE!" 

Even though Floridian Octobers are incredibly hot still, I still yearn, as do all of the other Yankee transplants in the Fall, for a decent Apple Cider and Pumpkin Spice coffee or latte. I usually default to the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte with soy milk (which I could dare you to try to find a difference to normal milk it's so hard to tell.) However, since this latte is still loaded with sugar, I buy a couple of pounds of the Dunkin' Donuts' Pumpkin Spice flavor. Granted, as that's loaded with artificial flavors, I'm still searching for the perfect blend: care to share yours?

The Starbucks Secret: Peppermint Mochas are available YEAR ROUND.

Sometimes, when I need a comforting warm drink to hold, I order a Starbucks Peppermint Mocha off season. In case you didn't know: they're available year-round. As are these other Starbucks secrets: the "Off the Menu" drinks that you can order. I've tried the Thin Mint Frappuccino and it tastes exactly like a Thin Mint Girl Scout Cookie.

The Best of Normal "House" blends of coffee:

#1. Waffle House regular coffee: the best in the USA!
#2. Starbucks' Pike's Place Blend.
#3. Starbucks' Italian Roast Blend.
#4. Cracker Barrel coffee.
#5. Dunkin' Donut's House with French Vanilla.

Varieties I avoid: 

#1. Starbucks' "Blonde" roast. Ew. Too light. Just drink tea instead.
#2. Starbucks' Dark Roast. Burnt taste. Too sour.
#3. Starbucks's French Roast. There's a whole lot wrong with this.
#4. Dunkin' Donut's regular house: bland, sawdusty.
#5. Fast Food Chain coffee. $0.59 of D grade. No thanks.

So, I've admitted that I'm a coffee snob: preferring to order "Off the menu" at Starbucks sometimes, ordering coffee from an awesome organic roaster in Virginia, and blasting varieties that taste like sawdust or too burnt because I care passionately for coffee. But, if you're reading this, perhaps you do to. 

Please share your coffee secrets, favorite blends and types 
that I should try below and I will love you forever. 

Other Media/Sources/References:
1. Dufty, William. "The Dangers of Refined Sugar." 07 JUL 2013. Web.
2. "Aspartame." American Cancer Society. 07 JUL 2013. Web.
3. Schwaner-Albright, Oliver. "Coffee Pollutant No.1: Cream."New York Times. 07 JUL 2013. Web.
4. Veracity, Dani. "The Hidden dangers of Caffeine." Naturalnews. 07 Jul 2013. Web.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Product Review: Progressive "Snapshot" Device and Discount Program.

A few months ago I decided to try the Progressive Snapshot discount program because I've put very few miles on my car during the past two or three years, I haven't had an auto-to-auto accident in Florida (7 years) and I have never had a speeding ticket (12 years.) [Knock on Wood!] I figured that I was a prime candidate for an excellent driver!

HAH! If you think the Progressive Snapshot Device can truly distinguish a "good" driver, than you (and I) are both wrong.

Let's talk about what it is. It's a tiny wireless computer device that plugs into your car's computer (in the panel by your driver seat) and reports your speeds (estimated based on mileage), hard brakes (when you stop faster than 7 MPH/Second) and the times of day that you drive as either a low, medium or high risk. Then after SIX months of daily reports, (something they don't tell you when you sign up) Progressive can choose to offer you a discount based on these reports.

I did a little research on other Snapshot product reviews and found that many people had similarly frustrating and negative results as me. DailyFinance reviewed the device accurately, noting Progressive's false advertising of the device as rewarding "good" drivers for the truth, that it only rewards "low risk" drivers, good luck if you drive during the rush hours!

Then there's the class action lawsuit that the device drains car batteries, which I know for absolute certain that it has been doing so to mine, over the past three months, as I had a new battery put in just before this trial and the car has barely been starting up recently, which is probably going to cost me anywhere from another $80-120 dollars to replace.

This blogger also reported the same experience that Tom and I had with it: that the "Hard Brakes" seemed a bit overzealous. There were times when I slowed down from 40MPH to 0 with over a hundred feet, and a fifteen second brake, and it was considered too fast. There was another time, in our first week of device reporting, where Tom got four hard brakes (in a row of four seconds) for going over a speed bump at 5MPH. The truth is, this calculation of "hard braking" is faulty. It even encourages users to run yellow lights!

Then there was the hugely irritating e-mail after only ONE month of the six month program that suggested that I had a 0% projected discount from the program...but I still have to leave it in for the remaining months so that it can drain my car battery. Even after three months now, my report says projected discount at 0%. To say that both Tom and I have been driving carefully is an understatement. Which is why even after a week of consecutive days of no hard brakes, and only a dozen or so thus far, I am annoyed.

Review Summary: This product is falsely advertised by Progressive. The device does not monitor or reward actual good driving. It depletes your car battery. It encourages aggressive driving to customers who avoid hard brakes in order to see a higher return on their discount percentage. It assesses risk regardless of past driving history. It does not monitor evasive or defensive driving as a result of other poor drivers, regardless of past driving history.

Advice: Honestly, I'm so disappointed in the false advertising, poor product and analysis, and program length at the cost of my battery that after more than five years of being a client of Progressive, I'm considering switching to a different insurance at the end of this policy length. Don't be fooled by Flo, friends.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Our China Trip Video!

Aimee, Liz and Richy travel in June of 2013 for two weeks to China, visiting Dalian, Beijing, Xi'an, Hangzhou, Suzhou, Wuzhen, and Shanghai. Here is a documentary about their adventures. Enjoy!

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Review: Carnival Cruise Lines: Carnival Paradise, Western Caribbean 5-Day.

A lot of people looked at me incredulously when I told them recently that I was going with my family on a Carnival Cruise this summer. This was mainly due, no doubt, to the bad press that Carnival had been getting this year: first with the stranding and sinking of the Costa Concordia last year where 32 people died off of the coast of Italy (yes, owned by Carnival,) and also by the multiple-day "Feces cruise" stranding of the Carnival Triumph after a fire in the Gulf of Mexico. Then, there were also problems this past spring with both the Carnival Legend and Carnival Dream and even while we were on our own cruise, there was yet another man who died on the Carnival Magic after tragically slipping off the railing on his balcony. However, regardless all of the negative press, even analysts were surprised to report a rise in the company's profits for the first half of the year, even above estimates, due to promotions and discounts that the company ran, as well as the publicized planned $300M upgrade to every ship in its fleet by the middle of 2015, which, as the Carnival parent company, currently holds ten cruise brands, has a corner on 50% of the cruise market worldwide. Knowing one of the members of the "Carnival Care Team" which responded to the springtime incidents, she advised me that now was a better time than ever to go, especially with the heavy discounts from the cruise line, and so I asked my mother in law Robin and my sister in law Christy, if they wanted to go, and we booked our adventure.

Me, Christy & Robin on Carnival Paradise - July 2013
Our Cruise: Our 5-day, Western Caribbean (Tampa--> Grand Cayman--> Cozumel, Mexico--> Tampa) cruise was a first for me and my two fellow cruise mates, Robin and Christy. Considering that we had all never been on a similar extended overnight cruise before, our expectations were moderate. Knowing all of the incidents that had happened with other ships this past year and definitely this past spring, I shared our own Nadow-family motto, "It's all a part of the adventure," our standard catchphrase in vacation episodes of surprise, disappointment, change, delay, cancelations, annoyance, sickness, or danger, knowing ahead of time that something could very well go wrong. Robin was able to find a great deal on a single room, three berth (two twins, one lofted bunk) for the 5-day cruise online, and an even better rate if you were a Florida Resident (which I was). Also convenient (for me) was the fact that it sailed out of Tampa, twenty minutes from my house, so my husband could drop all of us off, and we didn't have to pay the exorbitant overnight car parking fees at the Cruise Terminal. 

Review of the Cruise Activities, Ports and Shore Excursions: I was nervous that we didn't sign up ahead of time or on the ship for the advertised Shore Excursions in either one of the countries that we visited. Christy, smartly steered us toward making reservations once we were off ship and in port, and the first day we paid about $40/p.p. to take a Sting Ray City boat ride in Cayman out to a sand bar and reef to snorkel, with gear included, and drinks available. It was absolutely worth the savings of anywhere from $60-100 more that the contracted ship booked excursion would have cost. In Cozumel, again we waited to get offshore to book the ATV and Beach excursion, and even though we didn't save any money on it getting it for the same price as advertised, we were able to get into the earlier group (for the sister ship in port, which was departing Cozumel much earlier) by booking in port (our ship's ATV excursion wasn't until 3-hours later) so we jumped into that group, enjoyed the experience, had extra time at the beach, and still time to shop in port before getting back onto the boat earlier than our ship companions, into the dinner line earlier than any of our companions, and to the Serenity level to get lounge chairs for sunset before anyone else on our ship did. So both excursions were great experiences, we saved some money, we avoided the ship crowds, and had a great time, even though we didn't book through the ship. 
The Carnival Elation & Paradise docked in Cozumel

On the "At Sea" days, of which there were two as we made our way to Cayman and home from Cozumel, there were lots of various activities to do all day long. Each evening, we received a "Fun Times" printed mini-magazine which listed the activities for the day, the dress style for dinner, the lunch and dinner options, and "open" times for places like the library, pools and ship info desks, sales that were going on in the shops, teen activities and the like. The only Ship complaint I had for the whole trip, was that there was no "weather" report listed anywhere to figure out what to wear for the day off-ship, or on board, or to plan for gear to take ashore as well. 

The ports were havens for shoppers, eaters and drinkers. Naturally, I felt a bit adverse to staying there long. The Cozumel port was much more fun, with "photo ops" readily available, many more stores of different kinds, vendors, and restaurants to choose from. Cayman had much less to offer, although seeing as we were some of the first ones on a tender (ferry) ashore at sunrise that day, we did have the local coffee shop and free WIFI to ourselves! The only Port complaint was that regarding the tender ferries, the time available to be ashore in Cayman was less than six hours total. It was hardly enough to go on our snorkeling adventure, have 45-minutes to poke around the port before we had to take a ferry to go back to the cruise ship. An oversight that we easily remedied by postulating Carnival Paradise leave Tampa at noon the day before, (instead of 4pm) so that the ship would be docked and readied for ferries much earlier in Cayman, and that would allow us to have more time there, as well as more time the following night in Cozumel if we arrived in Tampa later and disembarked at noon (instead of 8-10am.) 

Us with Sergio and the surprise Creme Brûlées!
Review of the Hotel and Food Accommodations onboard: Our room was just spacious enough for three people to live comfortably. I would definitely not recommend four, with using the additional cot stored under one of the twin beds, there would be no room to walk anywhere. We also stored our luggage under the bed, and were able to hang many of our outfits up, put our shoes away, and fold other items on shelves. The bathroom mirror hid all of our toiletries and hair appliances easily. There were chairs and stools as well in the room. The room and bathroom was cleaned in the morning and turned down at night, daily, with an adorable "animal towel" creature greeting us with "sweet dreams" chocolates.

The dining room staff (which you could request by name each night) fostered first name relationships with the guests and were very timely, efficient and courteous. Our server Sergio even put in a special request for Creme Brûlée for us, off the menu! There was entertainment, like singing, dancing and musicians each night during dinner too. The meals are all included and it was a great experience!

Review of the entire experience: I had a fantastic time. Granted, I did not get sea sick, luckily, and was able to have a great time even though the ship was swaying hard for several hours, and softly for most of the rest. The food was great and plentiful, the service in the dining rooms and cabin flawless, the activities fun, and the offshore experiences memorable. You should know before you cruise, that your "Sign and Sail" room key is an easy gateway to spending even more money than the cruise originally cost, especially if you have more than two drinks per day, buy photos, and memorabilia on ship, we didn't even VENTURE into the Casino, the Salon or the Spa, luckily, but there are many ways that you can spend money on board, and you will. I ended up spending most of my trip money on the formal and informal pictures that the professionals took on the ship, and I would have purchased even more if they were less than $21 per 8x10. However, knowing how hard professional photographers work (since my dad is one) I didn't feel too guilty about buying them legitimately, especially because their quality was far superior to photos of my own!

Tips for future cruisers: Google a good cruise packing list. Carry on extra water bottles. Don't forget your "cruise elegant" or formal wear! Bring all of the necessities, bathroom products, items that you could need (like sunscreen and aloe) otherwise you will definitely pay for convenience. (About $10 more onboard than you would find it at CVS per item!) For drinkers: look up what you can take onboard to save money. For shore excursions: consider booking in port to save money. For shoppers: don't miss the money saving coupon book and shopping info session on board. For art enthusiasts: the art auctions generally raffle off "mystery items" which are usually free bottles of champagne for fun.

What cruises have you been on? 
What would you recommend to future cruise travelers? 

Friday, July 05, 2013

Lean and Green Frugal Living: A great blog you should check out!

Check out my friend and colleague Nicole's Blog about Lean and Green Frugal Living! She has great tips, coupons and reviews about living green in a challenging consumer economy! 

Friday, June 28, 2013

China Trip Travelogue: Summer 2013.

Friday, June 7th, 2013:

Greetings from China! Staying in Dalian at a beautiful hotel. Sightseeing begins today! Travelled 31 hours, slept five. Can't wait for coffee! 

Saturday, June 8th, 2013:

After an exciting day touring the spectacular rock cliffs of Tiger beach with views of the Yellow Sea: Richy, Mom, her mother and I were able to people watch at Xinghai Square, which had a beautiful sculptures and a giant lawn (think Wash D.C.) which rolled out to the sea where there was a giant "book" made of concrete which could house several hundred tourists sitting, walking, and milling about. There is a children's fair of amusement park rides, which played Maroon 5, J-Lo, and other American pop songs. I was very surprised to see English translations on nearly every business sign and advertisement in the city of Dalian! Saw dinosaur bones and preserved giant whales, sharks and fish at the Dalian Natural history museum.

We met up with Richy's grandmother, aunt, cousin and father for dinner: one of the most spectacular meals I have ever seen! 

Sunday, June 9th, 2013:

Today we headed to Pebble Beach and to a meal at the Lan's family house. In the morning, we were able to see the Chairman Mao museum, the Dalian Wax museum, a "trick art" interactive photo exhibit, as well as a "Body Worlds" exhibit and several other places at the Pebble Beach area. It was a very fun day!

Monday, June 10th: (Flew to Beijing)

In Beijing we were able to see the 2008 Olympic area, and although it was raining lightly we had fun seeing the Birds Nest and the modern National Swimming Center, and the Water Cube, which was financed privately by donors who contributed  over $100M to build it in advance of the Olympics. Surprisingly, Beijing is still a developing city, with most of the buildings having been built after the Revolution and WWII beginning in 1949. Many other even more modern buildings in the downtown area were built between 2003-2010 for the tourists coming for the Olympics. The ancient buildings were two thousand to six hundred years old!

Especially memorable was the tour of the Forbidden City. With seven massive walled courtyards leading to the political buildings and the family living spaces for the Emperor, to the Imperial Gardens, the Forbidden city was truly a tourist highlight of the trip. 

The other parts of the city, like Qianmen (Tianmen Square) were massive. Our tour guide Jasmine said that the area can hold over half a million people. The ground was all squares of cut stone, and the intersections were blocked for pedestrians who needed to go underground to cross streets using the subway walking routes. Two or three times we sent our purses through x-ray machines just to go underground or into the square, but the police mostly waved us (my mom and I) through. Richy said it was because we were foreigners and more trusted. I wondered if it was because it was too much of a API in the neck to translate the directions to us. In Tianamen Square, was the Final resting place of the beloved General Mao. It was explained to us that he is submerged in "medicine" probably a chemical, in a crystal coffin, where he can still be viewed for limited hours. (We did not see him.) Also in the square is "the Chinese White House" where the politicians work, but the Preside does not live. Also, directly across from this building was an enormous museum (Beijing history.) I really enjoyed people watching in the giant square, seeing the little girls run with streamers, people with touristy hats, many foreigners. There were very serious guards, and marching groups of soldiers who were so quiet we were almost run over and had to jump out of the way! Attached to the famous Square is the more modern (Olympic revitalization) shopping center of Tianamen street with a Zara, KFC, and Starbucks where I bought a collectible Starbucks mug to add to my collection for 80Y ($20) which Jasmine and Richy thought was crazy- but it's worth it, because I had to travel so far to earn one just like Pike's Place with Rachel.

In Beijing we also saw an exciting night market where there were scorpions on a stick to eat, sea horses too, and fried cicadas.  We especially enjoyed the sounds and sights of these shopping alleys. Alleys in Beijing are called Hutongs, and they are the neighborhoods for most of the populations living in the city. There are over 3,400 hutongs or alleys in Beijing with restaurants, barbers, and shops of all sorts.  

I bought a bronze horse statue for about $70 USD, Richy was awesome at negotiating it down from a lot more.

Tuesday, June 11th, 2013:

Yesterday, (Tuesday, June 11th) we saw one of the most memorable sights of my life: the Great Wall at Badaling, about a three hour drive (because traffic was so terrible for the Dragon Boat festival) up into the majestic mountains of northern China. Reminiscent of the Grand Tetons only without the snow, I was haunted by the rows of cultivated mountainside cliffs where shrubs grew in rows as we drove into them. After sitting in a traffic jam for thirty minutes from the Great Wall highway exit, we finally exited our van with our tour guide Jasmine and liked towards the mountain city: facilities, restaurants and shops created to support the massive influx of tourists where "You are not a man until you climb the Great Wall," greets you in huge stone Chinese characters everywhere you go. There was even a "Hero Certificate" you could earn by climbing it! After waiting in a very long queue for the squat toilets, we made our way up to the Wall, where you needed a ticket and to pass through security to enter the entrance stairs. Like a moving river, people were climbing the North and South sections, taking photographs as much as us, taking in the impressive sights of the man made structure as it snaked up the impossible mountain cliffs with varying staircases and leveled street-wide walking way. Jasmine walked with us through two turrets, and Richy and mom even further to the next one, but I was determined to reach a high point, visible to mom and Richy as I ascended, and I sprinted as far as I could until the stairs became too steep to navigate safely at a quick pace. I was smiling the while way. I would have loved to have a whole day to explore much further, but in retrospect with the sloping descents and rail gripping deep stairs, my legs were sore enough today that I'm glad I didn't! We took photos and videos everywhere along the different points of the wall. It was incredible.

Wednesday, June 12th, 2013:
Today we took a flight from Beijing to Xi’an and when we were flying over China we could see incredible vistas of farmland. There were rice paddies, deep mining quarries, and terraced agricultural leveled mountainsides. Closer to Xi’an there were deep ravines of trees and plateaus of farmland above. The city appeared, again with hundreds (thousands?) of skyscrapers and buildings over five levels. Incredible in size. We met out tour guide at the airport, and were driven to the hotel downtown. Then we went out to see the Wild Goose Pagoda, the water fountain show (think Bellagio in Vegas!) and the Muslim Market where we made a dinner of street snacks and the famous Xi’an noodles. So incredible. Did I mention that we are seeing the Terracotta Warriors tomorrow? :) I can't wait. Also will see a dinner and dancing show. Will update again tomorrow- yay for WIFI!

Thursday, June 13th, 2013:

In the morning we drove one hour from downtown Xian to the farmlands where in the 1970's a farmer drilling for a well discovered a Terracotta Warrior head. (We met him yesterday and got his autograph!) He placed the head in his house and prayed to it for three months for rain, but none came, so he left it out in a field, disgusted. A visiting government official heard the rumor of the head and went searching for it, understanding its probable archeological value. After an initial assessment, the government sent an archeological team to excavate, and the three famous pits were found. The local farmers were rewarded with new homes and income, as the land became one of the largest "open digs" on the world. Teams still are excavating, having today only covered about half of the buried territory! We were able to see some restorers working to reassemble broken soldiers, horses and chariots: it was fascinating! I have a great video of my mom seeing the first pit for the first time- it captures her genuine surprise, wonder and emotions at seeing one of the 8 Wonders of the World. I loved getting that moment on film, I can't wait to share that and other clips of video with you. Be prepared for a long one! :)

From the dig sites and museums,  we went to see how silk is made at a local factory and silk shop: so interesting! It was fun for me to see Richy be weirded out by the dead worms in the cocoons where many yards of silk thread are unwound from the cocoon. Eight cocoons are wound together to create an even tougher thread and you wouldn't believe the silky softness of the stretched cocoon or the thread! We shopped in the store and bought matching traditional shirts which we wore later to the formal dinner and show!

After the silk area and lunch we drove to the nearby hot springs to see where the Emperor Tang and Lady Dian spent time relaxing and living when they were in this area. There was such an interesting story of how they met: Lady Dian was originally married to Tang's son, but when the Emperor saw her sing and dance he took her for his concubine and they lived happily for many years. Eventually, after a war he lost, the enemy demanded that Tang kill Lady Dian, or they would kill him. So Lady Dian was hung by her own scarf from a tree, aided by a helper, by herself. So tragic!

The grounds, pools, mountain views, elaborate pagoda style houses were inspiring. We took many photos and videos there.

After the hour drive back, and a rest in the hotel, we left in a taxi for dinner and a traditional show. The dinner had a delicious tomato and dumpling soup, and about twenty different kinds of famous local dumplings! We tried a "rice wine" which was too sweet for me! We had "healthy munchkins" which tasted delicious- made from rice, but tasting like a munchkin anyways.

The show was SPECTACULAR. Amazing costumes for the cast of over twenty dancers, acrobats and tumblers. My mom said that it reminded her of Circe de Soleil, with all of the cool tricks they could do. Many videos from that show too- there don't seem to be many copyright laws here! ;)

So now we are waiting for the plane after an INCREDIBLE day in Xian: put this city on your list! :)

Friday: June 14:

We flew to Hangzhou from Xi'an in the morning, met our tour guide and driver, and immediately drove the one hour into the downtown area to meet Richy's friends, other Chinese international foreign exchange students (Romo and his girlfriend Candy, John, Tom and Kartal) from my school for lunch at Romo's Uncle's restaurant: Hot Fish. After a delicious meal of fifteen or so different kinds of dishes, we departed for the West Lake area of Hangzhou. 

We took a man-rowed boat tour of the lake as a group, (now lacking Romo and Candy who didn't join us for the second part of the afternoon) seeing a lone gas powered speed boat amongst a hundred rear oar one man row boats which could fit about 2-8 people inside out on the water and moored near shore awaiting passengers. The boat ride gave us beautiful lake views of the greenery, rolling famous tea plant hills, a temple, pagodas and later the city skyline. I enjoyed the Chinese chatter of the kids, together again, and had fun communicating with these familiar members of our big International family again in English. They seemed so refreshed and happy since I had last seen them after exams (especially Tom and Kartal) it was almost like seeing new people! 

Back on the causeway of the National Park of the West Lake, we walked over the incredibly scenic and traditionally landscaped street wide paved paths. There were magazine quality scenic photo spots everywhere I turned: a pagoda amongst a hill of flowers, manicured lawns of closely mowed grass, half moon bridges, a moon gate over a river pebble stone walkway, a pond of koi fish, water birds along the shore, weeping willows hiding gently lapping water, secret paths through rock gardens, it's no wonder that this was the favorite spot of Emperors. I took landscapes and portraits, videos of walking, enjoying the scenic beauty of the distant bass of the local music festival and a loud group of tourists following us all over the paths that I jokingly coined "my friends" because clearly we had a bit in common!

[Random side note: Mom teases me for making friends everywhere we go because I have pantomime conversations with the locals multiple times per day. On the plane to Hangzhou, I mimicked stealing another passenger's breakfast brownie after pointing to one and our row mates laughed, and one asked me with fingers if I was two or four years old. (Richy helped to translate.) I've offered successfully to take photos of multiple groups clearly missing that photographer from the shot and on the Great Wall, one group raced to catch up with me and asked with gestures to take a picture with me! So I did and the we kept seeing them everywhere so we laughed and smiled with them the whole time at the Wall. Then I met a group of American girl college students traveling to most of  the same places as us. Then there was a little Chinese boy on the played hide and seek with who asked me basic questions in English (with help from his mom). She let us take his picture- he was adorable. End side note.]

After the lake side and park walk, our group traveled, a bit squished, to a  famous Buddhist temple nearby. My mom was especially looking forward to this addition to the itinerary because of her appreciation for spiritualism and affinity for calm, zen-like serenity and peace in such places. We entered the lines and had our tickets scanned, and were met by a long avenue of cafes and shops for visitors. We continued through the throng of street sellers towards the entryway. Our tour guide navigated us toward the notable spots, like a 600-year old concrete rebuild of a telescoping pillar where the founding monk was buried 1,000 years ago. He was inspired by the Buddhism of India, and there were hundreds of carved Buddhas in various forms in the outside rock walls of an inner natural cave with mountain goat paths of steep steps closed to the public from times long past. We saw a few monks during our time at the temple, and our tour guide explained to us that this was a day job, and that many of them went home to their houses and in some cases, wives at night, and even drove BMW's from tourist donations and ate meat even though they were allegedly vegetarians. I don't know whether or not this was true, by it was fascinating. While they were very wealthy, these few monks who had earned this status did have at the very least a Masters Degree and were very educated.

There were three temples of such size, scope and wealth as I had never seen. The Buddha of the second temple was the largest indoor Buddha in China, gilded wood rising from a concrete lotus and a rising alter of over forty feet high. 

There were dozens of other impressively large idols (15-40 feet high) of important figures in Buddhism in all of the temples, too. Most impressive, was a wooden wall with a hundred and fifty characters from local legends and idols of Buddhism together, made from clay, balancing on ledges looking down on visitors as high as the ceiling over sixty feet above us.

We shopped in the temple gift shop and headed out, as the temple was closing, to head out for dinner.

Our tour guide brought us to one of her favorite restaurants, which was in this cute tiny residential area tucked into the tea hills along a running brook, up a very narrow street off the beaten path of tourist cafes. It had the mood of a country bed and breakfast and they made original dishes of creative culinary art from local sources. John and Tom ordered some of the best dishes that we'd had in China yet: amazing dragon fruit and watermelon in sweet milk, frog leg curry, a quartet of exotic desserts, braised lamb ribs, and a delicious cooked local lake fish in broth. I ordered a green tea with millet and it was plain and not very delicious so I ended up drinking mine and my mom's, haha. Oh well!

After dinner we dropped the boys off downtown and drove to another part of West Lake to see a spectacular show directed by the man who staged the entire Beijing Olympic Opening Ceremony. Due to the drizzle that morning we had secured seats on the top, covered level of a lakeside boat, which had a perfect view of the water. The show began with spotlights on a lone white figure walking out on the water towards the grandstand! It was miraculous! The entire lake where the show took place was on a man made stage just under the water. The cast of about a hundred played, ran, sprinted and walked in the water in the dark! The show lights ran all around the grotto, and lit up a bridge and a mobile water two-story pagoda where the characters lived. The musical sequences with illuminated fish, controlled by invisible actors in the dark, and a feather sequence, where each actor had a giant oversized feather to wave in perfect unison were breathtaking. I eventually kept my cameras on because I was tired of missing stunning choreography. At one point in the show, a giant metal inverted 'V' set piece came from being hidden underwater to rising like an erector set fifty feet over the actors, streaming water like rain, flood lit in wonderfully romantic colors as the main couple danced in love. Eventually she was torn away from him and they never found each other. Richy said this was because all Chinese stories (like the Lady Dian one from my last update) end in tragedy. So sad. 

Eventually we made it to the hotel, enjoyed the view of downtown Hangzhou from the twelfth floor for a moment, showered and crashed. No journal updates that night!

Saturday- June 15th, 2013

We awoke this morning and ate a Chinese breakfast (Dragon Boat festival lotus leaf wrapped sweet rice, "healthy munchkins" or sweet rice balls, sausage, fruit, fruit juice, delicious steamed pumpkin slices) and took pictures from the 17th floor where breakfast was located and them we checked out and met our tour guide to travel to a tea plantation. This very small district of Hangzhou makes the national tea of China, and has the best green tea leaves in the world. (The plantation we visited had been visited by Queen Elizabeth in 1986!) We had a tea ceremony and toured the tea drying process: very interesting! Then we drove to lunch. We tried twenty more new small plate dishes of Hangzhou specialties. My culinary vocabulary is currently stymied by my fatigue so I will just mention that again, this meal was spectacular! 

Then we took the most interesting ride in China so far, past the famous farmlands of Hangzhou, known for pearl cultivation, silk, and tea. I saw a chicken farm, bogs with fisherman and varied styles of houses ranging from a concrete forest of skyscraper apartment buildings as far as the horizon is wide, a sight unknown to the USA, except in Manhattan, to waterfront villas, to humble battered brick buildings.

We drove up though the famous small town of Wuzhen, where hundreds of cars, tour busses and vans were parked awaiting tourists and took our luggage, 5 rolling suitcases, up to the visitor center across very challenging stone walkways. Inside, our bags were taken by a porter, to be ferried to us an hour later. The water town of Wuzhen is a quaint "Venice, Italy" style multi-island river town and we were staying in a refurbished farmhouse style inn with adorable hosts, who were quick to help us choose a breakfast, accept luggage, even carried all of our luggage upstairs (we would never have let them if we could have grabbed them!) We were relieved that they accepted a tip, and our watermelon! [Tipping is generally unacceptable in China- as each service is a vocation and it is a socialist society.] After walking to dinner with our tour guide, she left us to explore the walkways, bridges, water views, scenery, locals, tourists, shops and boats by ourselves for the early evening. Walking in the evening lights in Wuzhen is one of my fondest memories in China. We shopped at many stores, took photos, and ate ice cream before heading back to the inn, our princess netted canopy beds in the adorable wooden cottage style room above the river.

Sunday, June 16th, 2013:

The next morning we ate breakfast (shrimp fried rice, hard boiled eggs, dragon boat bean rice wrapped in lotus leaves, coffee!) and continued to walk through the morning walkers. We ate second breakfast an hour later: we all had vanilla ice cream cones. It was so early that one of the locals actually laughed at us licking them!

Eventually we made it over a high stone bridge with views of an ancient very tall pagoda, then headed out to take a short tram ride to the main building to await out luggage which was again being ferried by taxi boat back to us. Such a charming city! I wish we could have spent another night enjoying it. Our tour guide showed us pictures of it from her trip in the snow and it was equally beautiful.

Then we drove to the town of Suzhou, where we explored a local restaurant for lunch, another Silk museum, and most memorably, "The Humble Administrator's Garden," something my mother and I had been looking forward to since reading the trip itinerary months earlier! I will definitely appreciate looking back on the photos and videos I have of this spectacular inner-city walked haven, even more than seeing it in person as it was stiflingly hot there. We absolutely melted with the crowds in the heat and after about an hour we exited to the busy street vendors along the walls of the garden to meet our driver and travel to the Glamor Hotel! I suppered with Richy as mom packed an incredible amount of things into her suitcases in preparation of the return trip to America.

Monday, June 17th, 2013:
This morning, we traveled about two hours to Shanghai, where we walked around in the famous Hutongs (shopping alleys) and again ate ice cream before lunch. Delicious beef curry, rice paper vegetable roll "trees," and other dishes. Hundreds so far this trip. I'm going to have to start running again in Tampa on Wednesday! 

Richy went shopping in the glamorous Xintiandi Shopping Area (Dolce and Gabbana, Harry Winston, Chopard, Armani, think Newbury Street!) for a Prom dress, and my mom and I walked around, saw a Shikumen 1920's style Shanghai open house museum: delightful antique artifacts! Then we walked to Starbucks and waited for the meet-up time. (I bought more Starbucks collectible mugs to add to my now international collection.) I ordered iced teas and then waited for the thirty people ahead of me to get theirs. It was hard to understand the order calls, but he called mine in English:) luckily! 

Later, we were able to see 360-views of the city from the top of the "Shanghai Pearl" building. Scary glass floors but awesome pictures! We had famous Shanghai dumplings for dinner: but I have good news, we have some just as good in the States! ;) More shopping in the fashion district with Richy!

Had a driving tour of "the Bund" then to hotel. Early airport time on the morning to begin our 24-hour trek home! Bon voyage! Can't wait to see all of you! Thanks for keeping up with our exotic trip! 

Tuesday, June 18th, 2013: Flew to Seoul, then to Atlanta, then to Tampa.