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I’ve lost my spine. I was the girl who used to jump off 50 foot cliffs, ride roller coasters for the adrenaline rush and surf in the washing machine waves off the coast of Santa Cruz. Now I am just a middle-aged mommy wuss. While on vacation I took Lennon body surfing. He loved it. I thought it was pretty great too until a wave ground my body into the unforgiving shore and left sand imprints and bruises all over me. While I churned in the waves, the thought of my seven-year-old getting just as pounded forced my heart to drop a couple of feet into my knees. He was fine and loved the rough action of the waves. I got all motherly, gave a quick lecture on waves, rip tides, never turning your back on the ocean, blah, blah, safety, boring mother rambling on about something (insert the sounds of Charlie Brown’s teacher’s voice here) and then suggested we hang out in the pool for a bit. He promptly declined my offer.

I had hoped my spine hadn’t completely turned to mush, but I know it began going soft a couple years ago when I rode California Screamin’ with Scott and his cousin Ami at Disney California Adventure. She’s my age and single with no kids. She was thrilled by the rush of the roller coaster, five gazillion loops and those horrible stomach lurching death drops into a hellish abyss. I was not. I prayed out loud, a lot, and cursed, a lot. I remember tearing up with relief when the ride finally ended. I crawled out of the car with sweaty palms, feet and my stomach trying to decide what exactly to do with my lunch. The guy I spoke with afterward who gave me a medical understanding of what the brain experiences on a roller coaster didn’t help my recovery either.

When I was younger, I swore I would never lose my spine for all things exhilarating. I would jump off cliffs just to mess with the head of my boyfriend who was afraid of heights but still felt compelled to jump if I did. I am sure he would enjoy knowing I was getting my karmic justice now. I blame motherhood. I never expected having kids would turn me into a bowl of mealy oatmeal.

I wish I could say I was carefree and relaxed about parenting and exposing my kids to adventurous situations, but I struggle with the idea of letting them experience life on their own. I battle my over-protective demons every single day, try to keep my mouth shut about the little dangers and save the lectures for the big ones. Lennon is getting to the age where he is going to start filtering my warnings, so I need to pick my freak outs carefully. Do I warn him about the slippery, muddy trail that he insists on running down? Sure, but I will try to limit my comments to just once in the beginning of the hike because when he lands hard on his bottom, the mud and bruises aren’t going to kill him. The fall may even teach him to be careful more than my yelps down the trail at him to “slow down!” Do I give him the “respect the ocean” speech and go swimming with him in the waves so his tiny 48 pound body doesn’t get pulled out to sea? Absolutely.

I couldn't have kept up with him on the trails, and yes, I tried.

He wore his mud stains well and with pride.

I know that just because I can’t seem to stomach the adrenaline rush anymore doesn’t mean I should encourage my children to live bland lives. Though the thought of my children jumping into crashing waves off a cliff into the ocean and getting sucked down and disappearing into a cauldron like we witnessed a few local boys do last week makes my whole body quease up–the part where we wouldn’t be able to save those boys should a rogue wave knock them out was particularly painful to watch. Adventure is good, but pushing the limits of life and death, not so much. I need to help my kids discern which is which and then trust that as they get older, they will make the RIGHT, I mean, mindful choices.

After a great deal of prodding from Lennon and some pointed looks from Scott, I toughened up and went back out into the waves and by the end of the trip, I was able to enjoy the ocean with my kid instead of constantly fearing his demise. I realized that the presence of the boogie boards we rented on the last day functioned a bit like an ocean security blanket for me. My reacquainting with the ocean and Lennon’s three days of experience navigating the waves definitely helped. Plus, we weren’t by ourselves on a remote lava shelf jumping into a churning cauldron of death. If something had happened, my chances of saving Lennon or finding someone who could were pretty great. Ironically, watching those boys jumping off that cliff helped me put body surfing on a relatively mild beach in front of a hotel into perspective.

As our kids get older, we will introduce more adventure into their lives. I am looking forward to 10 years from now when we can take them on the Napali Coast Kayak trip, and in the meantime, I will work at using those adventures as exercises to build up the muscles surrounding my soft spine. Perhaps some smaller adventures will keep it from atrophying altogether.

In the spirit of mush, I am re-posting a recipe for oatmeal but with some new toppings. My kids eat oatmeal all year long and since we recently visited Hawaii and already miss the tropical fruit, I suggest throwing in some fresh banana, brown sugar and topping it with chopped pineapple and toasted coconut. See, even oatmeal can be adventurous sometimes.

Homemade Oatmeal (Total cook time is 10-15 minutes.)
Directions:
-Add about a cup and a half of soymilk to a cast iron pan.
-Add in thick cut oats by the handful until they just begin to reach the top of the milk.
-Add a couple of dashes of cinnamon.
-Add a pinch or two of salt.
-Heat until the soymilk starts to boil around the edges, then drop to a medium simmer.
-Stir frequently as the milk begins to cook down and the oatmeal thickens. You want to keep it from sticking to the bottom of the pan. My kids like their oatmeal slightly chewy so adjust the milk and simmer down to desired thickness.
-When the consistency is right (there really is no science to oatmeal), remove from heat and add chopped pineapple, shredded, toasted coconut, brown sugar, bananas and a touch more milk if you like.
-Serve with a side of toast and lilikoi jelly.

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I ate my weight in tropical fruits this week–apple bananas, strawberry papayas and pineapples. While other vacationers were planning their Kauai trip schedules around luaus, snorkeling excursions and weather forecasts, we were busy planning ours around the daily farmer’s market schedules. A day trip discussion between Scott and me sounded something like, “Let’s go to the North Shore on Tuesday. We can’t go on Wednesday because we won’t make it back in time for the Kapaa Farmer’s Market at 3 p.m.” A drive through town most often involved a shout out to pull the car over because the banana lady hadn’t packed up yet, and Monday brought the sinking realization that we had missed the Koloa market and would have to attend the smaller Lihue market instead. We’ve eaten so much tropical fruit I am amazed my gums and the inside of my mouth aren’t raw. Though if I hear myself say, “that was the best pineapple I have ever eaten!” one more time, my ears may start bleeding.

We wondered if the fruit we bought from the farmer's market on Wednesday would last us until Thursday.

We visited Kauai for the first time during our honeymoon 11 years ago and luckily, we stayed in a condo with a blender. On a whim, Scott froze two papayas in an ice cube tray to see what a papaya smoothie would taste like. What started as an experiment turned into a vacation breakfast addiction, I mean tradition. Now whenever we are on vacation in Hawaii, the first thing we ask the hotel is the status of the blender. Room with a view overlooking the ocean? Sure, that’s a nice bonus, but, does the room have a blender?

I love papaya smoothies. LOVE THEM. I dream about their lovely creamy orange sweetness in January when the gray blues are settling into the crevices of my brain. I tell my friends to make papaya smoothies every time I hear one of them is headed to Hawaii. They graciously nod their heads, make some mmm hmm sounds, say things like, “ooh, that sounds good,” and smile at me vaguely. Maybe I am being too pushy and gregarious about our smoothies. Perhaps I should suggest they add rum, or I could get all grandma-like and send around a print schedule of where to find the Farmer’s Markets on Kauai to make things easier. Honestly, it would be a lot more helpful if I could recreate for them on the mainland what I so adore on the islands, but I can’t. Strawberry papayas and apple bananas don’t travel, and to try and blend a similar concoction at home with sub par tropical fruits is not worth the money and disappointment.

But, should you happen to be in the lovely Hawaiian islands this summer, here is the recipe. Make sure you stay somewhere with a blender, and a beautiful lanai and bonus view of the ocean, of course. And remember, there is nothing wrong with scheduling your hiking, snorkeling and various island adventures around the harvesting and purchasing of good, local fruit.

Papaya Smoothie
Ingredients:
-2 ripe strawberry papayas (check with the concierge for a listing of Farmer’s Markets around the island, or careen off the side of the road at the sight of a fruit stand)
-2-3 apple bananas (where you discover papayas, so too you will find bananas)
-Some pineapple is optional but not necessary
-Enough soy milk to keep the crappy hotel blender from seizing on the frozen mass of fruit

Directions:
-In the evening, slice open the papayas and remove the seeds. Scoop the papaya out of the skin by the spoonfuls into an ice cube tray. Onto a plate works fine, too.
-The next morning, add the frozen papaya, soy milk and banana to the blender, pray the engine doesn’t die or overheat, and blend until you have a smoothie with the consistency and creaminess of a milkshake.
-Drink and repeat.
-Serve with fresh, local, mashed avocado on toast.

Like I said, a blender in the room is absolutely imperative.

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When I graduated from college I was antsy to travel. Young, liberal, and idealistic, I was ready to leave the United States for a dose of worldly reality. I had no real understanding of life outside of my comfy home and it was time for me to gain some perspective. So Scott and I left with only a few personal possessions shoved into a couple of dirty backpacks and a rough sense of where we wanted to travel.

While we didn’t have our backpacking trip planned out completely, I knew I wanted to visit my friend Leanne in Mali, Africa. I was drawn to Africa—lush, colorful, harsh, and severe. It was the polar opposite of the world I was used to and seemed like the perfect place to start our trip.

When our jet landed on the single dirt runway of the Ouagadougou airport in Burkina Faso, and I saw the bright red landscape and shanty houses of the city, I thought that maybe it wasn’t such a hot idea to visit sub-Saharan West Africa. Leanne eased us into the country by having us stay in a decent hotel with running water, clean beds and air conditioning our first night. The second day, when we left the city and moved into the countryside, that was a different experience altogether.

On our second night, while sitting in a decrepit little room with a jagged shard of glass for a mirror and roaches the size of small house cats, I freaked out. The foreign scariness, grime, and the possibility of permanent insanity from the Malaria drugs all began to mess with my nerves. Two days earlier I lamented the short amount of time we would be visiting Mali, and after we landed I was terrified at the notion of being there close to a month. Rocking back and forth, knees pressed to my chin, I schemed about how to catch the next flight out to Europe. This was no sheltered safari. We were four “rich” white kids in our early twenties in a very black, impoverished country. With my pale Irish skin there would be no blending in. Children swarmed us, touched our clothes and spoke to us in their native dialect. I felt like I was trapped in a National Geographic photo, only not the glamorous and romanticized image that the glossy pictures depict in the magazine. I wasn’t prepared for Mali or the realities of a third-world country. It was the poverty that rattled me. A quick visit to Mexico a couple of years beforehand did nothing to prepare me for the dire conditions.

Leanne planned out our visit with stops at several different villages throughout Mali after crossing the border from Burkina Faso. About half way through our stay we spent four days at the village she had been living in for two years. Temperatures in Mali topped out at 120 degrees in the shade–this was during the cooler, rainy season. I spent the first day in her village alternating between lying on the clay floor of her hut and staggering to the well to pull up buckets of water to pour over my hot body. Mali is a Muslim country so even though the heat was deathly, we had to keep our legs covered.

Leanne warned us before hand that we would be taking all our meals with the dougatigi, the chief of the village, and that each meal of the day would consist of millet porridge (commonly known as bird seed in the U.S.) and a green baobab leaf sauce, the color and consistency of vending machine slime. Fully aware of the affect of baobab sauce on the psyche, Leanne purchased a bag of humanitarian-grade rice (usually laden with small inconspicuous rocks to be discovered later during mealtime) to give to the dougatigi’s wife and asked that we be fed it for breakfast. It was Leanne’s idea to start the day off with a rice meal and then struggle through the mashed millet and baobab sauce the rest of the day.

Our first meal with the dougatigi was somber. We stooped around the common bowl and carefully stuck our hands into the steaming hot food. I felt awkward. I’ve eaten family style before but not with strangers with whom I didn’t share a language, eating out of the same bowl with dirty hands and crouched on the ground in a squat. Eating millet and baobab sauce required an element of skill. After inserting your hand into burning hot food, you had to dip it into a pool of slimy baobab goo sitting in a well of millet. In order to keep the baobab from running down your chin, you needed to swing it around your fingers a few times and then insert more than half of your hand into your mouth.

The dougatigi’s wife, aiming to please us, added a dried fish to the baobab sauce for “flavor.” Even Leanne, who had spent most of the last two years eating the same meal everyday and had grown accustomed to baobab and millet, was not enthused by the fish flavor. By the third day, the mere thought of dinner caused my stomach to cramp up into a little ball of protest. Scott and I had put our vegan eating habits on hold during our travels, especially during our stay in Africa, and I almost wept with relief when Leanne sacrificed one of her chickens for our last meal.

It was for the best that our hosts didn’t understand English because in all honesty, the millet and baobab sauce was foul. We crouched there forcing back hot millet with the sole intent to not offend our hosts by shunning their food. “Just keep eating” I grunted at Scott with a smile on my face to camouflage my real feelings. My mantra, “just keep eating, just keep eating” was broken intermittently by Scott’s request to cease the meal. We were like two kids, forcing down cold, canned vegetables, praying that our parents would take pity and excuse us from the table.

Eight times in four days, we repeated this task of eating millet. We’d sweat in the heat and focus on pushing past the gag reflex. On the last day, as we sat quietly swearing, encouraging each other through gritted smiles to continue with the meal, the dougatigi, normally a stoic and quiet man, addressed Leanne. She replied in his native language, turned to us and chuckled.

“What did he say,” I asked, mouth brimming with food, hoping we hadn’t done anything to shame Leanne or offend his family.

“He said your friends are good eaters.”

Our trip to Mali put my cushy life at home into clear focus. All of a sudden the slew of things I had been taught to fear all my life seemed trivial. I watched a three-year-old girl, her mother somewhere working the fields, play with a rusted, jagged-edged metal box that someone had thrown away, and it dawned on me that we worry way too much about hurting ourselves. A stop for street food to eat an amazing fried egg sandwich made with hot mayonnaise that never saw the inside of a refrigerator felt exhilarating and risky. Eating from a common bowl didn’t make me sick, but instead taught me humility and the importance of respecting a meal, no matter how modest the food or surroundings. Africa helped me shake off the comfortable, overprotective cloak of home and it was a liberating experience.

But after three weeks in Mali, I was ready to leave. For all the lessons I learned, it wasn’t easy to adapt to that country. I escaped drug-induced insanity (but not the hallucinations) and embraced a flexible approach to life that I never had before. And today, when I start to fret dirty little hands, and feel the urge to overprotect my kids, I stop and remember my time in Mali.

Below is not a recipe for millet and baobab. Instead I am leaving you with my favorite Malian dish called tiga diga na. This peanut stew was my street meal of choice. It is easy to make and, unlike the millet and baobab dish, kept us full and happy long after our jet left the country.

Tiga Diga Na– serves 6

Ingredients
-12oz peanut butter
-¼ cup of tomato paste
-one cube of vegetarian bullion (or the African bullion of choice)
-½ head of cabbage cut into four large pieces
-one to two sweet potatoes cut into large chunks
-Any other random vegetables cut into big pieces (cauliflower, broccoli, etc.)
-three cloves of garlic (or more depending on your love of garlic) cut in halves
-Enough water for desired consistency (I like it thick and soupy)
-Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

-Blend peanut butter, tomato paste and water together and place over low/medium heat (be careful, the sauce can stick to the bottom of the pan easily so make sure that the heat isn’t too high and stir frequently)

-Immediately add all the remaining ingredients and let simmer until the vegetables are cooked (the longer the better, at least for 45 minutes)

-Serve over white rice, preferably not humanitarian grade

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