Ready For Christmas at Casa Aloha!

Meiling hung almost all the ornaments this year by herself – a beautiful job! Every ornament is a memory.

The tree is up, the presents have been wrapped, the food purchased, and WenYu arrives home this week – we are ready for Christmas here at Casa Aloha! I love this time of year, and am again looking forward to us all being together for the holiday. Our son and family had thought they might come, but the grandkids are at a stage where jet lag is a difficult, long-lasting issue, so they’ve decided to postpone a visit until next summer.

We set up a Christmas savings account this past year, and between what we put into that each month and some Swagbucks I earned, we ended up with $1200 to use for gifts this year. We sent $100 to Japan for our grandchildren (although our son would prefer we sent nothing) and they will use the money to either do an activity together or get the kids something they want. The rest was divided so that there was $210 per person – $150 for gifts under the tree and $60 for each stocking. Brett and I typically don’t exchange gifts, but we are this year.

I can’t say what I got for Brett for obvious reasons, and I haven’t a clue what I’m getting, but here’s what the girls will be receiving:

GoToob travel bottles

Each girl’s stocking will contain a travel set of Mālie bath products (we get a kamaaina discount for these), a set of GoToob silicone travel bottles, a cute phone stand (either a dog or a cat), a bath scrubby, a set of decorated paperclips from Japan, and some candy, which will include Lindor truffles, Dove dark chocolate hearts, and Japanese mochi.

Meiling, who loves to bake, is getting a red KitchenAid hand mixer, a set of cute cat-shaped measuring cups, Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, and a $50 Trader Joe’s gift card. We got WenYu a pair of gold earrings from Bali (via Novica), a professional set of 132 colored pencils, and a $40 gift card to her favorite clothing store. YaYu will be receiving a sports watch with a timer, a FitBit with a set of changeable bands, and a “party box” filled with her favorite Korean spicy noodles. Each girl is also receiving a “food bag,” filled with their favorite treats and things they like to make, or in the case of WenYu, things she can fix in the dorm, like macaroni and cheese. We tucked these items into our regular grocery shopping the past few months, so have no idea of the value of what’s in them, but it’s balanced between each girl.

Meiling also set up a family Secret Santa exchange, where we’re not allowed to know who got what for whom and have a $30 limit for the gift. My recipient will be receiving a Regal Cinemas gift card.

We’ve had our little wooden advent tree for 30 years – we bought it when our son was nine years old. After Christmas is over this year, we’re packing it up and sending it to him so our grandchildren can enjoy it in the coming years.

Christmas morning we’ll follow tradition, and early-riser Brett will have coffee and hot chocolate made when the rest of us get up. Everyone gets to unpack their stocking first. Then I’ll serve our traditional Christmas breakfast of bagels, cream cheese and smoked salmon, along with fresh fruit (this year it will be fresh berries), and we’ll eat while we open gifts. For something new this year we’re serving POG mimosas with breakfast (or POG with club soda, for those that don’t drink alcohol). Gifts are opened one at a time so we can admire and appreciate what each person receives, and we will once again go in order from oldest to youngest, with Brett starting things off. Meiling will serve as our “elf” and distribute the gifts.

We’ve traditionally had appetizers for our Christmas Eve dinner, and this year will be no different although we are sticking to an Asian theme and having pad thai, lumpia, potstickers, sushi, and homemade wontons along with rice and a cucumber salad. Dessert will be Japanese cakes and mochi ice cream. For our Christmas dinner we’ll be having ham, macaroni and cheese, roasted brussels sprouts, biscuits, and cream puffs topped with chocolate sauce for dessert. Guess what I’m not having!

If weather permits, we plan to head down to the beach on Christmas Day, but if it’s a less than beach-worthy day we’re going to take a family hike out to the Pineapple Dump. We also plan to watch a movie together, but we’re waiting until WenYu is home to decide what that will be.

This will be our last Christmas in Hawai’i, maybe for a long while (next year we’ll be in Portland), so we’re making this a special one. I almost can’t believe Christmas Day will be here in just a week, but we are ready!

So Much To Be Thankful For

I’ve so very much to be thankful for this year:

  • Our four loving, smart and generous children who get along well with each other, and support and help each other and cheer for each other’s success
  • My loving husband and best friend who steps up without complaint when the need arises
  • Our family’s continued good health
  • Our comfortable home (and no rent increase!)
  • Having enough to eat every day, and knowing how to cook
  • Clean, fresh water every time we open the tap
  • Being able to live in one of the most beautiful places in the world
  • Getting to see the ocean every day
  • The amazing flora and fauna on our island, all of it a wonder – and no snakes!
  • The local farmers who grow and bring their fresh produce to the farmers’ market every week and sell it so affordably
  • Having enough in retirement that we don’t need to worry about covering our expenses
  • Having enough to be able to save and travel
  • Having good, affordable healthcare
  • Two beautiful, smart, fun grandchildren and the best daughter-in-law in the world
  • The generous financial aid that both Meiling’s and WenYu’s colleges provide them, that will allow both to graduate with no debt
  • Fresh, hot coffee waiting for me every morning when I get up
  • Living in a country where we are free to criticize our government
  • The people who continue to come to the blog every day, and who take the time to comment and support my writing
  • The people who touch my life each day in some way, who challenge me and make me think and reflect

Wishing everyone a blessed and bountiful Thanksgiving!

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Christmas At Casa Aloha

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We bought this Native American-made angel at the Grand Canyon earlier this year.

All the girls are home, the tree is decorated, the presents have been bought and wrapped (or sent), the pantry and refrigerator stocked – we are ready for Christmas Day!

Here’s what’s happening at Casa Aloha for Christmas:

First, I’ve changed our Christmas Eve menu: Instead of Pono Market chicken, etc. I’m going to prepare a Chinese feast of mabo dofu, stir-fried pork with peppers, chili shrimp, and rice. I planned to make these dishes for Meiling while she’s home as they’re some of her favorites, and realized I am running out of time because she heads back to the mainland the morning of the 28th.

Christmas morning will start with coffee for Brett and I, and hot cocoa with marshmallows for the girls while they open their stockings. Then we’ll have our traditional breakfast of toasted bagels with cream cheese and smoked salmon, some fruit, and orange juice. I wanted to make something different for breakfast this year, like a breakfast casserole, but was unanimously told no. Tradition rules!

We’ll open our presents while we eat breakfast – only one person opens a gift at a time so we can all admire each gift. Tradition also dictates we open from oldest to youngest, so Brett always leads off. He and I don’t exchange gifts, but we’ve been told there will be gifts from the girls.

Here’s what we’re giving the girls this year:

  • Meiling has always been the most difficult of all our children to shop for, but we’ve gotten smart in our old age and these days ask for suggestions. She’ll be getting a pair of Birkenstock sandals and a Forever 21 gift card.
  • We bought WenYu a cozy, fleece-lined bathrobe and this pair of slippers to wear in her dorm room – she likes to stay warm.
  • YaYu will get an Atlas pasta machine along with a pasta drying rack and pasta cookbook. One of the highlights of her culinary class this past term was learning to make fresh pasta, and she’s been dreaming about having her own pasta machine ever since.
  • We sent a check to Japan for our grandchildren. Our son and daughter-in-law purchased a much-desired Lego Star Wars set for our grandson, and our granddaughter will get a jacket and some baby toys.
  • The girls will each get two Toblerone bars, some assorted Lindor truffles and Ghiradelli chocolate squares in their stockings along with a Mālie Organics travel set, a $10 Starbucks gift card, and a crisp $20 bill.

Our budget this year was $600, and with an assist from some Amazon credit we earned via Swagbucks and our kamaaina discounts, the total spent on Christmas gifts this year was $604.71, less than $5 over our budget (and if I had waited a couple of weeks to buy the pasta machine I could have saved an additional $12, but who knew Amazon would drop the price). The girls saved for and bought their own gifts for everyone but I have no idea how much they spent or what they bought for anyone.

Brett’s sister sent the girls a big box with fun stocking stuffer-type gifts, and she also sent Brett and I a generous check to cover things like meals out and such while they are all are here.

Christmas afternoon, weather permitting, we plan to walk together out to the Pineapple Dump and do some whale watching.

It’s going to be a wonderful Christmas!

A Day To Be Thankful

The original immigrants

Undocumented immigrants!

I am by nature an optimist. I always look for the good, for the silver lining, and remind myself that nothing lasts forever, both good and bad. The world is always changing because that is the way of the world.

This Thanksgiving, the mood here at Casa Aloha is one of great uncertainty, like that of standing in a marsh and unsure of whether the next step will be solid ground or quicksand. Changes are coming, but how they will affect our family and friends, our nation, and our futures are unknown. None of the foundations Brett and I put in place seem as strong as they once did; there are no longer guarantees they will remain as they are, or if they do remain, in what condition.

But, today is a day for expressing gratitude for what we have, not for worrying about the future – that can wait until tomorrow. And today, right now, we have much to be thankful for:

  • Brett and I are in good health. Our children are healthy and thriving.
  • We have two beautiful, healthy grandchildren.
  • My mother is still with us.
  • We have wonderful friends.
  • After 40 years together Brett and my partnership is as strong as ever. We’re still in love, and enjoy each other’s company every day.
  • Meiling and WenYu are attending their #1 college choices, and doing well. YaYu is knocking it out of the park as she moves through her junior year of high school. Our son and his family are healthy and happy
  • We live in one of the most beautiful places on the planet.
  • We have enough to eat, more than enough actually. We have a lovely home. We can pay our bills, save a little, and have enough money left over to travel once in a while. We know how to live frugally.

We remain optimists.

Sending all of my American readers warm wishes for a blessed Thanksgiving Day!

It’s Officially the Holiday Season, Isn’t It?

radiance-lighted-canvas-palm-tree-with-lights-3One week after Halloween, eighteen days until Thanksgiving, and forty-eight days until Christmas – I believe the holiday season has officially arrived. It’s kind of hard to tell here sometimes though with the sun shining and the palm trees blowing in the breeze.

Brett, YaYu and I decided that because it’s just the three of us here this year, we’d splurge and go out to eat instead of my preparing our Thanksgiving meal, and we’ve chosen to celebrate at the Hukilau Lanai restaurant in Kapaa. Brett and I had a wonderful dinner there two years ago for our anniversary and are happy to have a reason to return. They offer a traditional turkey dinner for Thanksgiving as well as several seafood options which will keep all of us happy. Our reservations have been made – by the skin of our teeth – I think we got the last open table. Meiling will be celebrating Thanksgiving at a friend’s home in Oregon, and WenYu with my childhood friends that we visited with this past summer.

And, just to make the Thanksgiving weekend a bit more special, an old friend will be stopping by Kaua’i on that Sunday. She’ll be on a Hawai’i cruise and the ship will be docking in Nawiliwili harbor for the day (how they get those HUGE ships in and out of that tiny harbor, let alone docked, is something to behold). We haven’t made any plans yet – we’ll decide what to do as we closer to the date. She’s been to Kaua’i before, and we’ll be happy to go along with whatever she wants to do.

Christmas at Casa Aloha was a very big deal last year with our whole family assembled here on Kaua’i, but this year it will be just Brett, me, and the girls. Meiling’s and WenYu’s visits will overlap by only a week thanks to their school schedules but we’ll make the most of being together on the days we’re all here. Meiling will arrive fairly early in December, and then leave a few days after Christmas. WenYu arrives just a few days before Christmas but will be home for a month before heading back to Massachusetts. We had hoped to use our Hawaiian Airlines FF miles to bring them home, but Hawaiian dashed those plans by either requiring an excessive amount of miles for a single economy ticket in Meiling’s case, or offering no flights at all for WenYu. We were able to find somewhat affordable round-trip flights for both of them to Honolulu, and then used our FF miles for roundtrip flights from there to here and back.

Almost all the girls’ presents have been purchased, using both Christmas savings and Swagbucks so we’ve stayed in control budget-wise. I honestly have more fun giving gifts than receiving them, and I’ve been enjoying my shopping so far. I keep my ears open throughout the year for what the girls are wishing for or talking about, then try to get them something both fun and useful that they need or want, something that they would not think to buy for themselves. It can be a challenge, especially when it comes to getting something for Meiling (I needed a list from her this year, but saw a couple of my ideas were already there). For the third year we will not be purchasing or using any holiday gift wrap, but will again use what we already have on hand (reusable gift bags and gift boxes, etc.) and filling in with paper bags from the grocery store, or newsprint. Brett and I don’t exchange gifts at Christmas, but instead do something special for ourselves when we travel. This past year we enjoyed a romantic evening of specialty coffee drinks and desserts at the El Tovar lounge while we were at the Grand Canyon.

We’ll be sending a check to Japan versus sending any gifts though – the postage for even a small package has become truly outrageous. We recently sent a flat-rate package with a gift for our granddaughter and a few treats for our grandson and the postage was nearly as much as what was inside the box!

Christmas 2015

Christmas 2015

As someone who used to practically decorate the entire house for Christmas, these days we put up a Christmas tree and a few wooden Santas – that’s all. We bought a large, pre-lighted artificial tree before we moved, one that practically takes up half the living room in this house, but it holds all of our ornaments and we love it. We’ll probably put up the tree the weekend before Meiling arrives home unless she lets us know she wants to be involved. We bought a Native-American made ornament at the Grand Canyon and are looking forward to adding it to our collection of memories.

All three of the girls have already let me know that they want ham and macaroni & cheese for our Christmas dinner – I can do that. Both Meiling and WenYu are also making lists of all the foods they want me to prepare for them while they’re here. I can do that too! I’m already so excited at the thought having both of them at home.

So, I say: Bring it on! Living a simple life these days definitely has its advantages, especially when it comes to the holiday season. All that’s left to do from now is relax and await the time until we’re all together again!

First Trip to India

Photo: Wolf Price

Photo: Wolf Price

I had no desire to visit India until my son asked me to go.

He was living in Nepal and ready for a fresh adventure after volunteering in Kathmandu.

I had missed out on Morocco when he asked me to go with him and a friend when we met in Spain (I had to go to Italy for the first time) so no way was I going to say no to India and a chance to let my son lead me to a brand new country.

So I jumped in with no prior knowledge of India except for seeing the movie Gandhi.

That first trip to India and Nepal changed my life, turned me upside down, and electrified my bone marrow. I was never the same again.

The photo of me above was shot right after rafting down the Ganges River in the winter; drenched with icy waves over our heads as we paddled to stay afloat.

Of course we had to volunteer for the front paddling positions in the boat which means you get the worst of the waves over your head and the rest of the passengers just get sprayed.

But I never felt so alive in my life.

My son pushed me to go.

I just wanted to read a book that day.

India blasted open my spirit, forcing me to leap way out of my comfort zone.

Photo: Bartnikowski, Dalai_Lama in India

Photo: Bartnikowski, Dalai Lama in India

I was cold in the Himalayas, I got deathly sick, but I also ate tasty delectable food, was immersed in a multitude of religions, saw the Dalai Lama teach at his home in Dharamsala, had my eye balls seared with women’s colorful clothing, met gurus, saints, and friendly elephants!

There is nothing India doesn’t have but order.

Amritsar, photo student from Miri Piri Academy, during the class I was teaching

Amritsar, India photo credit: student from Miri Piri Academy, during the class I was teaching

There aren’t any rules in India: you can have bonfires in the street with cows who want to get warm in the high ethers of the Himalayas.

People drive recklessly. Watch out crossing the street. You don’t want to get mowed down by a motorbike or attacked by a monkey.

Some monkeys are mean in India, one stole my new dress off the clothes line and I didn’t find it until 2 hours later in the dark with my flashlight.

I’ve since been to India 4 times solo. And as soon as I left that first time, I wanted to go back. I found myself in Bali which seemed awfully tame compared to jolt your eyes open India.

What made me buck up and get strong?

The fact that yes I’m deliciously free and can make all my own decisions.

This is a huge opportunity for possible risk but it was also a leap into the unknown, an adventure beckoning, a bewildering array of options, food I couldn’t identify and stumbling happily through a language I didn’t understand.

I tried to learn Hindi and the Nepali language.

“Sundar” means pretty in Nepal. And meeto-cha means this food is yummy. That’s all I learned and actually I didn’t need to know anymore on that first trip.

After traveling with my son for a month, we went solo on our own paths. And boy did my India adventure change.

Being solo is misunderstood in India.

Local people from India wonder why you’re not traveling with your in-laws, 7 children and two sets of grandparents. Really.

Many people want to help you in India, some are scammers, and some are saints. Both will approach you especially when you are solo.

Here is what I do now. I surround myself with a shield of white light and send out the message with my mind, you will not approach me unless I invite you.

It works.

Do you remember the Beatles White Album? Much of it was written in Rishikesh, where I shot the photo below.

The Beatles stayed at a now defunct ashram with Maharishi on the Ganges River while they learned meditation and wrote songs.

Rishikesh, India, Ganges River_Photo: Bartnikowski

Rishikesh, India, Ganges River_Photo: Bartnikowski

What I did was I was lay on the marble floor of this gorgeous “ghat.” (a river side temple, dock, or bathing spot)

The nightly puja was happening.

My tripod was only 6 inches high, one of those tiny jobs that don’t extend, but even though a policeman’s foot was inches from my head, I got this shot from a unique angle.

My body commanded me to capture it.

That’s the real secret of how I get the money shots. My body tells me to shoot and I listen.

So this was our happy hour of prayers, offerings, songs, and chanting.

Puja persuaded me to stop drinking wine when I hadn’t decided to give it up.

But Rishikesh is a holy town in the foothills of the Himalayas; you can’t get booze there.

I was not going to get on the boat, cross the Ganges, and go into town to purchase low grade wine or spirits.

I had spirits at the puja so instead of a cocktail I joined the young Hindu priests, the head swami, and countless tourists from India and worldwide.

Rishikesh_India_Ganges_River_Bartnikowski

Rishikesh_India_Ganges_River_Bartnikowski

I was in heaven.

Afterwards we would meet with Swami for a blessing (darshan) then I’d walk back to my room at the ashram, or go hook up with Skype, being careful not to step in the cow flops along the path.

Yes India has the internet. And this was in 2006.

But India is the mothership. All roads lead to her.

You don’t have to go to the Himalayas to turn your world upside down pineapple cake but it was just what I needed after living in Palo Alto, California, the epicenter of Silicon Valley for 29 years, not knowing that outside this comfortable bubble of technology, splendor, and genius, there was a world named India that whispered to me, Just Do It.

So I did and I thank my son for inspiring me to do it.

I took 3 months off from life in Palo Alto, turned down work, closed my apartment door, paid the rent which was significant, and set out for India, Nepal, and lastly, Bali.

If you ever hear the call to go to India, do it. Your life will never be the same.

Wolf, my son, and me.

Wolf, my son, and me.

Mary Bartnikowski is an author of 4 books, award-winning photographer in Palo Alto, Hawaii, and worldwide for 29 years.

She has led programs at Apple, Stanford, Intel, and globally.

Join Mary and Escape to the Best Island in the World, Relax, Recharge, learn yoga and photography on Kauai, in a private luxury 3-day retreat, fall asleep to ocean waves at the Islander Resort, and explore the power places of Kauai, for one or two participants.

Learn More or call 808-542-4566

Change Your Life

Suddenly your gut says one thing and your mind says another.

What to do?

Looking back over the last 10 years of world travel I see that when I trusted my gut and didn’t over analyze a decision the path opened up before me and sometimes it was even lit with sunshine.

Thinking didn’t get me to the source of my own wisdom. It appeared as a tiny nudge in my gut, or a soft whisper in my heart.

One time a voice woke me up and told me Go Home! I was living in San Francisco, 35 years ago, and was wondering if I should go back to New York where I was born.

Clearly I got my answer and was startled by the dramatic way it came to me.

So I bought a one-way ticket and crossed the entire country by train, California to New York. It took 4 days but I knew it was the right thing.

I had connected to my own divine guidance.

You can’t look in a Lonely Planet guide book for it. You can’t ask someone else what to do.

No it wasn’t comfortable and it wasn’t easy but leaping out of your comfort zone isn’t pleasant. It can be messy going into the unknown.

But every time I’ve done it, my life opened up in a way I never would have predicted.

I used to try and meet up with my son Wolf, who has traveled in 50 countries, I’ve only been to 32, and it was difficult to pin him down to one country.

Then when I went on my first round the world no-itinerary global adventure, I couldn’t be pinned down either.

Learning how to let go of planning made me wake up.

And thats how I got to Hawaii. By trusting my gut, what I call waiting for my instructions from Grand Central God.

But you can call it anything you want.

You can test it out by asking your gut little things through out your day. Which way to drive to work, who do I need to get in touch with right now?

I love how when I trust it, I get to a place that I would not have envisioned being in.

The other part of it is to stay positive and focus on a remarkable result but without being attached to the outcome.

I’m still practicing that one.

But every day brings new opportunities to let go and see what your divine guidance says to do.

The more you listen to the layer of truth under your reasoning mind the sharper it gets.

Sooner or later you won’t be able to ignore it.

Recently I found a little cottage to rent here on Kauai and everything checked out but there was just one thing. My gut said no. I wanted my gut to say yes.

I have a strategy for hearing my guidance. When I go to bed, I present the issue or question and I know as soon as I open my eyes in the morning the answer will be there, shining on the inside of my eyelids, in my heart waiting to tell me.

The answer was no. And I immediately felt relieved.

This is all the evidence we need to trust our guts.

Trusting your gut changes your life.

Was there a time in your life when you didn’t listen to your thinking mind and went ahead and acted on your own inner guidance?

Do you want peace of mind, a room of one’s own, and a battery re-boot?

Learn Yoga and Photography on Kauai with me in a 3-Day Private Luxury Retreat. Relax and Recharge. Have the best rest of your life being lulled to sleep by ocean waves all night long. Learn More Here.

Burma, One Woman’s Love Affair

One of the best countries to travel solo is Burma, AKA Myanmar.

I spent 31 days boating and bussing across this incredible, new to the Western world, country and I was amazed.

Warning: Don’t listen to any media news about this isolated and remarkable country. Ask a person who has actually visited Burma.

What did I love?

The non-stop devotional people who are kind caring and told me where to get off the city bus in Yangon before I asked.

This is the mark of a compassionate culture.

I didn’t want to leave, everywhere you looked, more lovely souls.

Example. My passport fell out of my camera bag in the taxi from the airport and I didn’t know it until I was checking in at my guesthouse and noticed I didn’t have it.

The smiling taxi driver returned it within the hour, without being asked to.

Wow.

The Hidden Places

I’d never heard of Pyinoolwin before arriving in Burma, but this place soothed my soul, the orchids and flowers in the botanical garden got me awake and strolling at 8AM in the morning.

I met kind women gardening who painted me up to look like them.

Yangon and Bagan are filled with little known temples, markets, and beckoning Buddhism that doesn’t make you feel like you have to be Buddhist. It’s serenity on tap, a simpler life than what most people are used to. It’s in the air and the soil.

Maybe even in the water but I didn’t drink any. I buy bottled when in Asia.

Burma has everything, kind people, holy places, simple tea shops selling noodles, and markets where the farmers will talk with you as they slice their fish, put out their wares, and haggle over price.

I didn’t feel unsafe at all. Yes I know what happened to Aung San Suu Kyi, but she’s off house arrest and things are beginning to change in this amazing country. Political prisoners are starting to be released and Burma is waking up to the fact that tourism can be good.

Don’t wait. Go now. You will never regret it. 

2motorbikingcuteBurmaGirl

Photo: http://www.bartnikowski.com

Want to see more of Burma and discover the highlights of my 31 days exploring this mystical country?

Check out my Myanmar issue of Vagabond Travel Mag in the itunes store. It’s for iphones and ipads.

Everything you ever wanted to know about Burma but didn’t know anyone who had the answers.

Here is the link.

Vagabond Travel Mag

See my gallery of photography from Burma here

Mary Bartnikowski is an award-winning photographer, author, educator, retreat leader, and lover of world travel. She has led programs at Apple, Intel, Stanford University, and globally. Come say hello at www.bartnikowski.com and get a free ebook, Secrets of Stunning Photographs.