Traveling with Our Kids to the Great Wall and Deciding to Have a Great Time

Great wall photos (7 of 22)

My father likes to say, “The difficulty with communication is the illusion it has been achieved.” In setting up our trip to The Great Wall we had asked to be taken to the least traveled portion of the wall that was accessible from Beijing. While we didn’t want to spend days getting to a remote section, we hoped that with a bit of effort we could get to a spot where we might sit quietly and ponder the architectural wonder in relative solitude.

Somehow what they heard was “we would like to see the most significant portion of the wall near Beijing.” As one might imagine, the “significant” section of something might be visited by a few more people than a “remote section.”

After a 90 minute drive we found ourselves in a traffic jam of buses full of tourists. A serious traffic jam, to the point where folks were bailing out of their buses to walk along the side of the road. As you can imagine we began to suspect we weren’t headed anywhere remote.

The guide explained that with all the VIP traffic to this section traffic can be a nightmare. Oh boy. Eventually we began crawling forward again. It reminded me a bit of arriving at the Disneyland parking lot but with more food stalls, no attendants providing directions, less space, and no lines painted in the parking lot.

After securing tickets, not a quick experience, we rode a gondola a short distance up to a higher point on the wall emerging into a crowd of Chinese tourists reminiscent of a group of SF Giants fans all in good spirits crowding through a tunnel jostling to get to their seats.

(As a side note, of the 1.3 billion citizens in China, my data indicates about 1/3 are armed with selfi sticks ready to be deployed at a moments notice.)

The guide pointed up the steep incline along the top of the wall (jam packed with folks making their way up) and said she would meet us “back here” when we were done. As she wandered off looking at her cell phone, we joined the masses (moving against the tide wasn’t really an option anyway) and slowly moved upward.

Great wall photos (3 of 22)
A light moment in the traffic flow.


I think Aleix's face says it all.
I think Aleix’s face says it all.

About five minutes up the wall, I pulled everyone over to one side and we huddled against the railing. As the tide of happy tourists flowed around us I said, “Ok, clearly this is not what we envisioned.” Everyone’s eyes were a bit bugged out and Colin, being the shortest of us, was looking especially distraught. “We have two choices, we can be upset that this isn’t the experience we expected, which would be understandable. Or, we can decide to have a different experience, laugh at our predicament and embrace it.”

If I had hoped for a response along the lines of “Yes, Dad. Great idea, let’s do it!” I was disappointed. I could tell that if I called for a vote, option 1 was going to be a clear winner.

I tried again, “Look this is clearly a two on a scale of one to ten.” Colin’s quick response, “Really Dad, a two? I was thinking maybe one and half.” In my best Marty Feldman voice from Young Frankenstein I struck back with, “Well, it could be worse…could be raining.” That did it. We all laughed and the fun began.

Great wall photos (12 of 22)

Embrace the chaos!
Embrace the chaos!








We merged in with the crowd, exchanging “ni haos” with our jostling neighbors. We stopped for photos with the boys leaning out over the wall, talked about the poor air quality (we should have been wearing masks according to the US Embassy monitoring system) and posed for photos with folks.

Colin opted to embrace having his hair ruffled by the ladies who were declaring him cute, rather than groaning, and Bryce was a hit with the teenage girls asking for photos with him.


Great wall photos (16 of 22) Great wall photos (13 of 22)







Aleix and I held hands (partly out of affection and partly to not get separated in the crowd) and I tried to take pictures of the portion of the wall not open to tourists so I would have them as a juxtaposition to the reality of our experience.

Great wall photos (10 of 22)

The empty wall, from the full wall. The hazy one is what we say, the clear one is thanks to Adobe's "de-haze" filter
Hazy reality and “de-haze” filter.”








As we moved with the mass of humanity down the wall towards the exit we realized that we were headed away from where we had left our waiting guide. I mumbled to Aleix, “Holy cow, she thought we were going to go up the wall and then turn against the tide and make our way back to her? What the hell?”

We came to a juncture in the path along a large barricade and boy do I wish I had photos of what we did next. If we could only get over the series of barricades we could get back to the entrance and then “flow” with the new arrivals back to our guide’s resting spot. A Chinese gentlemen was standing next to me, clearly pondering the same thing. Our eyes met and he jumped up on the wall and around the first barricade. Not hearing a shout from an authority figure I turned to my team and said,”OK, what the heck…Geronimo!” to which Colin responded with a grin as he jumped up on the barrier.

We took a shot of the barricades on our way out, not during our escape!
We took a shot of the barricades on our way out, not during our escape!
Just before our barricade jump
Just before the barricade jump








We all made it over the series of barricades! Not quite as fast as the other folks who joined us in our escape but with grins on our faces. The guide was a little surprised when she looked up from her cell phone to see us coming from the direction of the entrance.

We headed back down in the gondola to the parking lot area and started the search for our driver and his van. We asked the guide if this site was always this busy, “Oh yes, she said, very important to Chinese history, everyone comes here.”

A final note in the experience: As we made our way back to central Beijing we passed a section of wall that had only a few folks on it. Aleix asked the guide, who was texting in the front seat, “How come we didn’t go to that section?” Our guide’s response, “This part not so important.” The boys both giggled at their mother’s barley audible groan.

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Turning 50 En Route to China

We are in Montreal–a quick stop between the Bahamas and Beijing. I acknowledge that this may be the first time anyone has typed the previous sentence. When we were booking our flights from the Bahamas one of the most cost effective routes was via Montreal. Once we determined that, we did a little research and discovered that adding a few days in the city, versus four hours in the airport, actually brought the ticket price down.

That resulted in my turning 50 here, instead of in Beijing. I can’t imagine a better birthday. We started the day with a brisk walk (in 22 degree weather) to the nearest metro stop, about 1.5 miles away, followed by a 5 stop metro ride and another walk to the Chinese Consulate where we stood in line for an hour to follow up on some visa issues. Once that was done, it was off to breakfast and then a metro ride across town to buy dust masks from the Canadian equivalent of Home Depot and mosquito repellent and bigger Teva’s for the boys at MEC, the Canadian version of REI.

At one point, as we walked along an industrial street on the outskirts of town, we stopped and took a picture of ourselves reflected in a dark window (above.) We were part way into a two mile walk from the metro station to the MEC store along a multi-lane highway. We were all telling stories as we walked along–no cell phones, no internet, and in no real hurry. I can’t imagine a better hour than that.

We returned to our AirBNB apartment, dropped the boys off and headed back out into the cold to buy gyros from the pizza/greek joint a couple of blocks away. After a couple of hours of working on reservations and language apps (it turns out the roughly 70 percent of the words in Thai and Lao are the same, but pronouns, negatives and a lot of common words are not) I am writing this and going to bed.

Everything that I did today, I did with Aleix by my side. I can think of no better partner with which to explore the world, relive and laugh about the adventures of the past, and dream about the adventures of the future.

It was a great 50th birthday.

First Dive in the Bahamas

The descent below the surface is what sticks with me. As my eyes transition from sky to blue water my breath catches as my face sinks below the surface. I take my first breath as I look down at the bottom 60 feet below. It is as if I have walked into a pitch black room unsure of its size only to realize when the lights click on that it is far larger than I expected and filled with unexpected things.

Far below me lies a ship, partly on its side surrounded by a sand bottom with a reef in the distance just beyond the stern. I remember as a kid having dreams in which I would float above the characters in the dream swaying gently much like a kite or helium filled balloon tethered in a breeze.  This feeling is much the same.

I watch as Bryce and Colin descend below the surface for the first time. Within a minute you can see the joy coursing through each of them as they delight in this new three dimensional world. Bryce is spinning around while Colin has his hands out like Superman gliding through the sky. Their instructor, GiGi, signals them slowly to the bottom, reminding them to clear their ears by gently blowing against a pinched nose every few feet.

Aleix and I hover above them like thought bubbles hovering over characters in a cartoon. Every few minutes one or the other of the boys looks up and around, finds us, and gives us the “OK” sign.

GiGi taps gently on her airtank with her knife sending a loud sound rippling through the water and grabbing everyone’s attention. She signals the boys to sit on their knees and they begin “class” 45 feet under the water. The boys run through skills including clearing a flooded mask and most importantly sharing each other’s air should one of them run out. Later they will practice emergency ascents to the surface.

Once class is over we head as a group towards the ship. We fly above the ship, with the deck just inches below us. Small fish squirt out of the openings.

Swimming around the wreck the boys’ excitement is matched by ours. It is like being in a movie, either James Bond (the next day we dove on the wrecks used in Thunderball in 1965) or maybe the Discovery Channel.

When we pop to the surface, the boys are chattering almost before their regulators are out of their mouths.

A fantastic day.

Diving in the Bahamas

This week I was certified as a PADI Open Water Diver. When we first arrived we had to do tons of paper work, get our gear, and get into the pool. In the pool we practiced and learned skills that we needed to dive; we spent all day in the pool doing this so that we could go on a open water dive the next day.

The next day we got on a boat and went out to the David Tucker wreck first–it was amazing–my first look into the under water world. From the moment I did that first giant stride into the water to when I hauled myself back out I was in a whole different world. We were the only humans there, visitors in an amazing new world in which the corals were the plant life and the fish were the dominant species of the reef with crabs scuttling around feeding and hiding. The human race knows more about the surface of Mars than about what lies beneath the waves of our oceans.

The next dive we did that day was called “James Bond” because they sunk the ships for the James Bond movies, Never Say Never Again and another one. One of the wrecks used to be a plane but we could not tell because it was so old and covered in beautiful coral. After we saw the wrecks we swam through a coral tree forest that our instructor had planted.

The next day we got back on a boat and went out to the sand chute. We swam along a 6,500 foot drop off that went from 60 feet to 6,500 like a cliff. It was slightly terrifying but awesome. After that we went to one of the of the only natural wrecks here. We swam up to the propeller and the rudder, saw the breach in the hull, took pictures of us holding femurs (don’t worry they were fake. a prop from a movie shot years ago) and saw a Caribbean reef shark.

Getting Certified in the Bahamas (Padi Diving)

“Hello! Welcome to Stuart Cove’s dive shop!” The first words I heard on my journey to becoming a diver. My family and I walked into the shop and registered for my and my brother’s dive lessons. The first thing we did was a bunch of medical forms and various paperwork. Then we got our gear and went to the pool. After learning how to put on our gear properly we jumped into the pool. The first confined water dive was fairly basic. We reviewed skills that we had learned in the e-learning section. We were also taught new skills. We did the rest of the confined water dives that day, they ranged from easy skills to more advanced skills that we couldn’t complete in confined water. The next day we dove in the ocean.

Breath, pause, breath, pause. Everything moved in slow motion. Sluggishly, I swam onward, breathing deeply, looking around me. That was my first dive in the ocean. I was amazed; I had only seen coral in aquariums and models.

Diving felt dream-like, nothing felt real under the water, but it was very very real. I felt weightless, like I was in space. However, it took a few more dives in order to get used to maneuvering in a three dimensional environment. After riding on a boat for a half hour we geared up and jumped in the water. After our descent we, my family and GG our brilliant instructor, gathered in a circle on the bottom and practiced certain skills that we had to do in the ocean. For example, I had to take a deep breath and take my regulator out of my mouth, breathing small bubbles, I let go of my regulator. Then, leaning to my right side I windmilled my arm and found the regulator, I placed it back in my mouth and cleared it by blowing forcefully into the regulator. I then breathed a cautious breath. Luckily I had successfully cleared it of water, I was able to breathe normally. After exploring the wreck that we were diving near, we surfaced and got back on the boat.

The second dive that day was much like the first, except we were at the two James Bond wrecks from Never Say Never Again and Thunderball.

That night I slept very well.

The next day we dove on “The Wall.” The Wall is essentially a, well, wall. It goes from 60 feet to 6,500 feet. It starts shallow, then it becomes a void. We dove along the wall after doing skills and it was freaky. There were fish everywhere and corals growing along the wall, it was very impressive.

The last open water dive we needed for our certification was amazing. We dove on a huge natural wreck of a transport ship. We first had to do a few final skills like a swim test, but after that we were able to descend onto the ship. We could see inside the hull of the ship because there was a large hole on the top of it. There was coral growing inside the ship and on the hull. We even saw a shark swim by the ship! This dive was the best so far.

Diving for the First Time in Twenty Years

The one thing I completely forgot about was seasickness. The boat was rocking, and my stomach was rolling… it was not a good combination and it was time to get in the water. The kids first open water dive and I was so ill there was no way I was going to be any help to either of them. Thank God for Gigi, their instructor and our dive master. After spending the day with her yesterday, I knew they were in good hands.

Malone buddy checked me and I made my way to the edge of the boat. Thinking I would be scared, I hesitated at the edge, but nothing is a better motivator than nausea. I walked right into the water and swam to the rope to wait. Unfortunately, my stomach liked bobbing around the surface about as much as on the boat so I was feeling pretty bad by the time we all started our descent.

As we went down, I started to panic. My ears weren’t clearing, my air felt sluggish, my stomach was still rolling, my mask was fogging – you get the idea. Everything was going wrong and I was starting to freak out. I figured if I was having this much trouble the kids must be having a hard time too. After a long three minutes of sheer terror where I decided that I was just not a diver, that my air tank wasn’t working, that this whole idea (which was mine in the first place) was a huge mistake – just to name a few, I looked around and there was Colin happily swimming in circles waiting for me to come down and join him.

Suddenly I was calmer. I scanned for Bryce and found him communicating with Gigi, also a dozen feet below me. Everyone was happy and safe and fine. Breathe! Soon my mask was not an issue, my breathing was calm and my stomach settled. Malone was already filming the boys and I started to enjoy the dive. The first moments of terror dissipated.

Watching the boys underwater was one of the greatest moments of my life. They are naturals and flew through their dive skills with aplomb. While Malone and I took in the ocean life around us, they flooded their masks and cleared them, buddy breathed, threw their regulators aside and found them again. Skills I remember doing so very long ago.

It was really our fourth dive where the magic happened for me. Everyone was confident in their skills and we had all been diving together for three days now. Colin and I smiled so big we both flooded our masks and Bryce was playing around swimming upside down.

As the boys ran through their skills with Gigi, Malone and I explored a beautiful natural wreck with some of the most amazing corals I have seen yet. After the “lesson” was over we all explored it. Flying slowly just a foot or two above the deck was a dream come true. I’ve never seen anything like it outside of the movies. And to top it off, a beautiful reef shark cruised slowly by us. I fist pumped in the water I was so excited.

Today we do a shark dive. Where we go purposely close to sharks and then feed them! Yup- we’ve come along way this week.


The Kids Getting PADI Dive Certified in the Bahamas


I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that the thought of watching my kids jump off the side of boat into 60 feet of water along an underwater cliff that drops to nearly 7,000 feet is keeping me up tonight.

The boys have wanted to dive for years, ever since they experienced a few hours of snorkeling in Hawaii. That first experience was reinforced a couple of years later when they spent an hour in an introductory class for kids at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Since we live just over the hill in Carmel, we are at the aquarium every time a relative or friend comes to visit. During the class the boys put on dry suits and floated in an enclosed tide pool. I have video of Colin at eight years old desperately trying to kick to the bottom. He just couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t let him go to the bottom as that was the whole point, right?

We spent today in the pool with GiGi, the boy’s instructor, an amazing young woman from Romania who has been teaching dive class for four years, both here in the Bahamas and in Thailand. It was a long but satisfying day. The boys spent the last few weeks taking an “e-learning” class from PADI so they would be ready to go straight to the pool. We, and more importantly GiGi, were impressed with the recall of what they had learned.

At dinner tonight we reviewed the fun of the day and talked about the excitement, and fear, associated with tomorrow’s first open water dive. As a father one spends a lot of time saying, “listen to me. Do as I say.” But, tonight, I made the point that tomorrow, if told to do one thing by me and something different by GiGi they were to do what GiGi says. Colin smiled and responded, “yeah dad, we know to do what the instructor says but it still makes me feel safer to know you will be there to make sure nothing bad happens.”

I guess that is one responsibility that you can’t put onto someone else.

A Family Christmas in Costa Rica

As we sit here in the Bahamas learning to dive (more on that in the next post) we were reminiscing about our trip to Costa Rica over Christmas last year. As a traveling family, Costa Rica had long been on our list of possible destinations and having finally made the decision to spend Christmas and New Year’s there we were not dissapointed.

The people are wonderfully warm and aside from a slightly increased likelihood of petty theft, Costa Rica is a safe and ecologically diverse country.

Traveling to the Bahamas During a Hurricane

As our family travels around the world, we expect to run into flight and travel problems but flying towards a hurricane would not have been one I would have guessed in advance.

As is almost always the case with an around the world ticket, any change we make involves a fee and having the remaining legs of the ticket “repriced.” Even though we could see the Hurricane and Jet blue acknowledged that yes, the flight would probably be cancelled into Nassau, there was nothing to be done but get on the red eye flight from San Francisco and head to New York.

Once we were “in the system” in New York we would become Jet Blue’s problem, even though, as they acknowledged, it made sense for us to go south to Florida and swing in behind the Hurricane.

We arrived in JFK at 5:25am NY time and our flight to the Bahamas was still scheduled to fly. After a quick airport breakfast we boarded the flight….and then…they cancelled it. No one was terribly surprised.

Instead of dealing with us all at the gate JetBlue sent us off to their service desks…so we all scattered in hopes of figuring out the next step. Bryce, Colin and I were at one end of the concourse in line at a help desk while Aleix was at another. As the first group of us was discussing options with the desk agent, a panting jet blue employee appeared waving her hands while exclaiming, “quick if you are on the Bahamas flight get back to the plane! If we can close the door in 10 minutes you can go!”

Nearly 100 of us moved in mass at a quick march down the concourse. I have never seen a plane load so fast. Folks were cheering each other on, “let’s go!, “let’s go!” I was slinging other traveler’s bags into overhead compartments and folks were diving for their seats.

With a round of applause, the doors closed and we pushed back to get in a 25 aircraft line on the taxi way waiting for departure. We had made the push back deadline and as long as they didn’t cancel us in route we were headed south…

The flight was uneventful with about 5 minutes of turbulence. (Ok, so Aleix and the boys are telling me my skills at judging turbulence are way off. It was longer and much more dramatic than I perceived, and that I slept through most of it. Which might be true. Oh, and they reminded me the landing was fairly exciting.)

We landed at the nearly empty airport with 80 degree weather and a reasonable 10 knot breeze. As you can see from the photo, we were the last flight in….

From there we headed to the local grocery store to stock up as the government had ordered a shut down of schools, agencies, and non essential private businesses. While the store was full, folks were happy and everyone was confident the storm was headed north. The damage done to the central and eastern islands was looking substantial but reports were still coming.

We arrived at our beach front condo and settled in for the evening. Winds are still blowing this morning but the sky has cleared and it is looking like a beautiful day!