Natural Wonders of Arizona

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20130704_113706-1When Lara was here in the 2011-2012 school year, we took her from coast-to-coast….from Washington DC and New York City….to California and a Baja Mexico cruise to Ensenada, Mexico. But we didn’t show her many natural wonders right here in the state of Arizona. So, on Independence Day/4th of July, we traveled to the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park near Payson.

The Tonto Natural Bridge is about a 90 minute drive from our home. Our goal was to drive up for the day and be back by about 7pm to see the fireworks here in the Valley. The State Park is surrounded by a forest of pine trees and the bridge is believed to be the largest natural travertine bridge in the world. It stands 183 feet high over a 400-foot long tunnel that measures 150 feet at its widest point.

We hiked down a short trail to start and then down the 20130704_124511main trail to see the geological wonder in it’s glory.  It was discovered in 1877 by David Gowan, a prospector who stumbled across the bridge as he was chased by Apaches. Gowan hid for two nights and three days in one of several caves inside the bridge. In 1898 he persuaded his nephew, David Gowan Goodfellow, to bring his family over from Scotland and settle the land permanently. To learn how the bridge formed, check out http://azstateparks.com/Parks/TONA/feature.html.

20130704_121658Once we hiked to the bottom, which was a pretty steep hike down…. we walked over a bridge, under a slight waterfall and over large boulders. The moisture in the bridge makes the rocks very slippery to walk on. Me, Terry and Travis stayed on the one side while Lara and Brittany went exploring to the other side. Then we just sat in awe and used the backdrop for some beautiful photos.

Afterwards, the hike back up to the car was a good workout. A mile trail all uphill, some areas with natural stairs or stairs made of railroad ties and other areas just dirt trails. We were all huffing and puffing a little…. and we all exercise! I can;t imagine if we were out of shape!

As always… enjoy the photos! An upcoming post covers another natural wonder… our trip to the Grand Canyon!

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The Suite life in Las Vegas

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SAM_0982Living the ‘Suite” life took on a whole new meaning for our kids and for Lara, our former German Exchange Student, who is back with us for her summer vacation. She made a second visit to Las Vegas…but this time it was with her American family! During her 10-month stay in the 2011-2012 school year, she traveled to Vegas with her mother during the last month she was here and her mother was touring the western United States.

The “suite” life didn’t start until we arrived in Vegas… and after a 5 hour drive with the funnest kids around,… our two kids, Brittany and Travis, Lara and one of the girls’ friends, Katie, who is half German, whose German-speaking Grandparents are from Germany. Lara got to know them during her 10-month stay here. Driving with 4 teens/young adults, SAM_1085Bages 16-20, was quite the experience… especially when it came to their luggage resting on the back of the vehicle. The girls were so worried their clothes for Vegas were going to get lost that they were actually comical…looking back to make sure it was all there!

Our room at Mandalay Bay was a 1,450 square foot, 2-bedroom SUITE! It was about $100 more to book the suite than 2 separate rooms… so I grabbed the suite! I mean, really…. how often do you get to live like a celebrity? It ended up being SAM_0973on the 15th floor facing the strip with floor-to-ceiling windows the entire length of the suite! The kids were so excited, walking back and forth from room to room comparing everything! Which bedroom was bigger? Was there really a TV, phone and jacuzzi tub in BOTH bathrooms? Did the drapes open and close on EVERY window with the push of a button? What was in the fully stocked refrigerator? I thought one of their favorite moments was when we saw all the lights of the strip after sunset. We were facing the Luxor, where Lara stayed during her last visit to Vegas. We watched the lights moving up and down the sides of the pyramid and the huge spotlight shooting into the night sky! It was awesome to fall asleep to!

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SAM_1014The girls spent a lot of time at the “beach”, wave pool and lazy river at Mandalay Bay. I think their favorite part was watching the lifeguards! Typical teen girls! Terry and I spent a little time there too enjoying a souvenir cup filled with a Pina Colada or Strawberry Daquiri! Where else can I do that in the middle of the desert when it’s 110 degrees? There were hundreds of lounge chairs in sand so with a little imagination… it felt like a beach… kind of.

SAM_0983Our first night in Vegas was spent at Caesar’s Palace, The Forum Shops and a trip to the Belagio Fountains. Inside the Forum Shops, the kids were in awe of the decor and designer stores. If you haven’t been there, it is like walking the streets of Rome with the architecture and the moonlit skies. Katie had never been to Vegas so it was fun to see her reaction to everything! The H&M store was a popular place for the kids. Lara LOVES H&M. It’s European and she made a point of it to tell us that! She shops SAM_0989there in Germany all the time so she was right at home. In fact, her outfit that night was almost all from H&M…so I snapped a few pictures of her with the mannequins! Afterall, she’s about as tall as they are and the clothes look better on her than the mannequins! My highlight was Lara and Travis in matching sunglasses from H&M!

On the second day… we hung out by the wave pool and just relaxed for once. I thought the girls would have gotten so sunburnt as long as they were out there! In the evening, we walked the passageways from Mandalay Bay thru the Luxor SAM_1038and thru Excalibur… then took the overpass to New York New York where SAM_1052we had dinner in a restaurant called “America”. It had a huge map on the ceiling of America with three-dimensional images representing each state. It was fun for us to look at the states and remember how many Lara had traveled to when she was in America. After dinner, Terry and I went to Blue Man Group Show, which was amazingly different than anything we had ever seen. Travis played arcade games and won a bunch of stuffed animals while the girls went to the M&M store across the street.

SAM_1080Before leaving for home, we made a stop at Circus Circus so the kids could play arcade games and go on rides in the AdventureDome.

Overall, I couldn’t imagine going to Vegas with a better group of kids! From living like Rocks Stars in a Luxury Suite to their funny antics and little videos… to their crazy poses for pictures… they were hilarious!

Enjoy the photos! The next blogs will be our other road trips to see area landmarks! SAM_0971 SAM_0970 SAM_1090

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Back in America 385 Days Later

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385 days after saying good-bye to our German Exchange Student… we are welcoming her back to America! What a fast year plus 20 days it was! If you don’t already know the story, Lara came to us in August 2011 for the 2011-2012 school year at age 15 and in 10th grade. She left us June 2, 2012 at age 16.  She was home for a just couple days when she told her family she wanted to come back to America for her next summer break. Oh, how time flies! It went so fast that I figured the blog was still active so I’d start writing again. I initially started the blog to document my experience of being a Host Mother who was responsible for another woman’s daughter halfway around the world… and for a keepsake for Lara’s, and our, experience! Almost two years since the blog started and we have had more than 11,000 hits! A link for the blog is also on the website for the Exchange Company Lara used for her trip here so students can read about her experience. Lara also volunteers there by helping other students prepare for a similar journey to America. You can read the very first blog here: https://lifewithlara.wordpress.com/2011/08/16/the-exchange-experience-a-host-mothers-view/

1001176_10201421529129353_687189846_nSo…385 days later… we are back at the airport with most of the same friends who were there when she left,  We waited impatiently for 90 minutes until she came out of the International arrival doors. She was welcomed with a banner and everyone yelling, “LARA!!” We were definitely the largest group there to welcome someone at the airport!

385 days later… Lara’s room at the house remains intact. When we returned home from the airport, Lara quickly went to “her room.” It’s a little different than it was when she left but I made sure some items were left in place, like her Bible that she decoupage with the YoungLife kids still resting on a shelf, her old school notebooks on the desk and some of her pottery she made in Clay Class. In the closet were some clothes she decided to leave here, like her Homecoming dress!

20130622_194926385 days later… Lara’s friends are still giggling with her, telling old stories and ready for a night of swimming in the pool after a BBQ.  Some things never change! Brittany, Morgan, Gabby, Erin, Addy, Charlie and Jack were in and out of the pool for most of the evening, along with our son, Travis, and his girlfriend, Rubyann. Then they had to make the traditional trip to Ocean Blue, a yogurt shop around the corner, was a must-do, followed by a movie. It was certainly a late night and a long journey for Lara after 15 hours on planes and jet lag!

385 days later… I realize nothing has really changed since Lara left. Social Media helped us all keep in touch almost every day. I’ve been texting with Lara at least 3 to 4 times a week through WhatsApp, a phone application that’s free texting. We can send photos, videos or record our voices too.  Of course, we’ve Skyped about every other month and had fun sharing things on Facebook and Instagram. Brittany, and has kept in touch with Lara a lot through SnapChat, along with Morgan and Gabby.

SAM_0836385 days later… it’s like Lara never left. Everything is in the same place in the house… some furniture has moved around or is missing but it’s still “home” to her. As I write this, she’s back in the pool on the rafts and playing with the dogs! When she got to the house, she walked right in and checked out the pantry, some of the cabinets in the kitchen, the fridge. She’s just like anyone else in the house and knows I won’t do everything for her. She’s on her own and has to make herself at home again.

385 days later… I’m back to planning some trips with Lara. During her 10 month stay we visited Washington DC, New York City, went on a Baja Mexico Cruise and to Los Angeles and Disneyland. Somehow… we never made it to the Grand Canyon. I know… pretty sad on my part, right? So… a trip to the Grand Canyon is in order. I’m also taking her to “small town America” for the 4th of July. It’s just too hot in Phoenix to do anything so we’re headed up to cool country and Prescott, Arizona for a carnival, live music, fireworks and an Arts and Crafts Show. A trip to Las Vegas is in the works, staying at Mandalay Bay where there’s a beach and lazy river. Lara met her mother in Vegas for a couple days towards the end of her stay in America but I’d like to take her to see some other sights there with Brittany. And if we still have time…we might make it to the beaches of San Diego and Sea World.

385 days later… I can see it’s definitely going to be an action-packed and busy summer! And of course, I’ll document our reunion along the way right here!

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The Final Chapter-A Host Mother’s Thoughts

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Almost 2 months since Lara, our Exchange Student, returned home to Germany, after 10 months of living with us. And it’s taken me this long to absorb it all, write the Final Chapter of this Blog and turn it into a book. Don’t get me wrong… I will still cry… and I will have to take a tissue break… but it’s important to reflect on the year and answer questions so many people have asked about this once in a lifetime journey.

In my initial blog post, https://lifewithlara.wordpress.com/2011/08/16/the-exchange-experience-a-host-mothers-view/, I shared the hopes and fears that I had being a Host Mother to a teenager whose family and friends were on the other side of the world. It was an overwhelming feeling at first but I took it one day at a time. Now, almost one year later, I’m amazed at how fast the time passed and how much our family learned about another culture, about life and about love for a complete stranger.

One of the most common questions I’ve been asked is, “Will you host another student?” My answer is a quick, “No”. It catches some people by surprise and the first question they shoot back is, “Why? Was it a bad experience?” My answer again is, “No”. In fact, it’s the complete opposite. It was such a wonderful, heartwarming experience that I don’t think it could ever be repeated. You see… we didn’t only host an exchange student who wanted to learn about America. We added a member to our family. And that has grown into an extended family that includes her mother, father, brother, grandparents and best friends.

The goal of the Blog was to keep Lara’s family and friends informed on everything she was doing. From experiencing things for the very first time… to how school was going…. to making friends… to adapting to the American culture. From the connections I’ve made around the world, I can only assume the project was a success! Lara’s friends in Germany became my Facebook friends. I imagine, if they saw that Lara liked me, they could like and trust me too. They saw that I was her “Mother” and helping her complete a 10-month adventure.

One of the most special relationships I’ve developed from this experience is with Lara’s Mother, Ana. From the moment we met on Skype, when we learned Lara was going to live with us, and she cried knowing who was going to care for her daughter… to the day we met in person… we formed a special bond.. one that only two Mothers can share caring for the same child. At times, it’s an unspeakable bond. I would email Ana and talk to her about things Lara was doing here… just between us Mothers. I felt her pain and cried when I learned she was struggling with Lara being gone during the holidays. I imagined how I would feel if my daughter, Brittany, were to leave for 10 months. Honestly, I don’t think I can do it. But Ana stayed strong for her daughter…so her daughter could live an American life. Isn’t that what we do for our children? We stay strong? We guide them through the best and worst of times? It’s what Ana and I both did for 10 months but from halfway around the world.

The day I met Ana, it was a very emotional moment for us. (Yes, here come the tears again). You may recall, Ana traveled to America two weeks before Lara went back to Germany. She arrived at our home just 4 days before Lara left. I can clearly relive the moment Ana pulled up to our home and we went outside to greet her. We met in the middle of the grass and hugged and cried and cried and cried. And the tears were those big alligator tears that just pour down your face! Finally, the woman who trusted me to care for her most prized possession — her daughter — is at my home so we can share Lara TOGETHER! That night, we sat at the kitchen table and talked for hours about everything Lara has done, how she has changed, the friends she made, the woman she had become… all while Lara, Brittany and their friends were running around the house being silly. Her mother said, “I see a different girl than the one that left Germany. But it is a good difference. She has grown as a person.” She thanked me so many times for taking care of Lara and for the Blog. So I guess… the purpose of the Blog was a success.

I’ve connected with others around the world who just wanted to see what life was like as an Exchange Student. Maybe they are thinking of doing the same. Others wanted to see inside just one America family’s lifestyle. Others enjoyed the travel aspect of our time with Lara and how a German student was able to experience trips to Washington, DC, New York City, a Baja Mexico cruise, Los Angeles and a first-time visit to Disneyland! Others I have connected with are experiencing a similar German-American relationship and we now follow each other’s blogs.

There’s also been an unexpected surprise to writing this Blog. The German  Company that coordinated Lara’s trip has asked to share the link on their website. They think it will help other students understand the Exchange Student experience. Of course, for those of you who followed our adventures, many said living with us was like living in Disneyland, with all the people and places involved! And we all know everyone’s experience will be different. But I hope others can see the potential for Host Families to be caring, loving and open to teaching a student about America. One friend called me an “Ambassador for America”. I laugh at that but, in a way, I can also relate to it. 🙂

So, what happens next? I’m turning the Blog into a book so that we will have the experience captured in hardcover. Lara will get one too. Lara already has plans to visit us next summer. I plan to go to Germany in Summer 2014 when my daughter graduates from High School. Of course, there’s always Skype, Facebook “Likes” and private Facebook messages that go to our phones…as if Lara and I are texting each other. So, we are in touch all the time. And, of course, there’s always that unspeakable love for her as if she was one of my own children. Some things… like love for a special person… never change.

I leave you now with a greeting card we just received from Lara. Below the picture of the front of the card, I share the inside caption. She also listed all the things she misses about being here. They are the exact things I knew she would miss… the little things about being a family.

  

Inside the card: “Not only do I miss you, but now I’m really hungry.” 😦   Some things with teenagers just never change!

We love you Lara!  XOXOXOXO

Victoria… your silly Host Mum forever!

Life Without Lara

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It’s been 5 weeks since Lara, our Germany Exchange Student, left America. And in just those 5 weeks, our life without Lara is so very different.

Life without Lara means… there is an emptiness. We still refer to her room as “Lara’s Room”. Nothing has changed in her room. Everything is exactly how she left it. I’ve told the kids to go get hangers in her closet. They say they can’t because they are Lara’s hangers. The door is open but there is no activity in and out. It’s just different.

Life without Lara means… we think about her when we go grocery shopping. I walk down the aisles and don’t pick up the things she liked most. And items I do pick up, that Travis and Brittany like too, remind us of her. Brittany and I went to Ulta and TJ Maxx the other day. It felt strange not having Lara with us. Those were the stores we went to most. I used to look across the store and see Lara and Brittany looking at the same things. I was the outsider all the time. Now, I stay close to Brittany’s side. Of course, my taste is different than Lara’s so I may not be as much fun to shop with for Brittany. It’s just different.

Life without Lara means… we are no longer recording TV shows like “Good Eats” and “The Amandas”. It means that extra person isn’t sitting on the right side couch, across from Brittany on the left side couch. Only one blanket and pillow is being used on the left side. The right side is empty. The foot rest is kicked up on the left side. Not on the right side. It may not seem like much to the average person. But to us, it’s just different.

Life without Lara means… we have to remember to feed the fish. Yep. That was Lara’s job. And she was so efficient at it. I remind my husband to feed them or they will starve. It’s one less person to pet and play with the dogs, brush their hair or brush Angel’s stinky teeth. Yep, she did all that…. and she liked it. Well, most of the time. I think that even the dogs think it’s just so different.

Life without Lara means… I don’t have as much office help as I used to have. Lara used to make my magnets to put on our dry erase board that keeps track of all the homes we manage as Rentals. Every week we add more homes, every week we need more magnets and every week, I have to carve out time in my day to make them. And no one is sitting at her desk. Well, sometimes Kirk, our other Property Manager, will sit there but he’s like 6’4″ and a big brully guy. So definitely different than seeing Lara there.

 So many people ask how we are doing without her and if we talk to her at all. The answer is YES! We Facebook poke, Like, or message almost every day. And now that Lara has an Android phone with internet, we can talk via Facebook messages as if we are texting. It’s fun. And we skype. The last skype session was 1 hour 45 minutes!!! We told her we could just set up a camera and be online all the time and it would feel like she was still here! She laughed about that! The biggest problem is the time difference… 9 hours! If we skype right after church on Sunday at Noon, it is 9pm in Germany. That seems to be the best time for us. We giggle, going in out of the room, hold things close up to the camera so she can see it. She goes in the other room to get things to show us and we get to talk to her mother too!

Skyping and facebook help fill the void of Lara being gone but still…. it’s just quieter and different than it was for 10 months when she was here. I think it will always be that way. She became part of the family. But we hang on to the memories and keep in touch almost every single day half way around the world. Yes, life without Lara means… it’s bittersweet… and at the same time… just so different.

One more post to go until we close this Blog. Next…  A Host Mother’s Final Chapter.

Arriving Back Home

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Lara and her Dad

I’m adding in a quick post here after receiving pictures from Lara’s mom of her Homecoming to Germany!  As a Host mother to an exchange student, there is nothing more comforting than seeing pictures of her friends and family welcoming her home…especially her father! Poor kid went from crying at the American airport and then smiling at the Germany airport! And how awesome is it that everyone back home is looking through her Yearbook from High School! Next will be the Blog turned into a book for her family and our family to cherish the memories!!!

Welcome Home Lara… although all of us here in America still miss you like crazy!!

Saying Good Bye

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It’s been 2 weeks exactly since Lara went back to Germany…and it’s time for me to complete a couple of final posts. I’ve been putting off re-living the day she left… for obvious reasons…. but here goes….

Lara’s last 24 hours in Arizona were filled with laughter and tears… and more laughter and more tears. We all knew this time was going to come but I’m not sure if we knew how difficult it was going to be. On Friday, June 1, Lara spent the day packing. She came with 1 suitcase and left with 2! We got her a suitcase for her birthday because shipping her extra things home was going to cost more than taking an extra suitcase on the airplane for $60. She had to decide if some things were actually going to make the trip home, like a couple of books. And she left a few things here… like her homecoming dance dress. She said she would get it next time she comes back. I don’t think she would be wearing it much in Germany anyway. 🙂

We were able to take a break mid-afternoon so we could bring Lara’s mom, Ana, and her friend, Gisela, to Lara’s favorite place to east… WENDY’S! From the first time Lara went there, she was hooked. And I don’t think it was so much for the food as it was for the soda machine. Yep… the $1-million dollar soda machine that offers 103 different kinds of soda! The Wendy’s closest to our home has one and it’s a hit with everyone! Of course, we had to get a picture of Lara by her favorite machine! Her favorite things to eat there… chicken nuggets or a Caesar Chicken Go Wrap, the fries of course and a chocolate Frosty. She even liked what we call an “American Teen thing”…. dipping french fries into a Frosty! I don’t care for it but for some reason, it’s liked by many teenagers!!!

That night, Lara and Brittany gathered with friends at Jack’s house. It was the last time their group of friends could hang out and be silly. At first they were planning an all-nighter and wanted to camp out in Jack’s backyard. But both Ana, Lara’s mom, and I advised her that the next day was going to be very long and emotional and she should get some sleep. After several hours at Jack’s house, they decided to go to iHop (International House of Pancakes) for a very late meal. The funny thing was they went dressed up in costumes! Jack’s mom, Becky, pulled out Halloween costumes and they put on the strangest combinations of clothes! When they got to the Restaurant, the server said, “Should I even ask what you are doing?” They told her that Lara was leaving for Germany the next day. The Server said, “Is this a German tradition?” and they all laughed. Lara’s reaction was, “No, this is only something crazy Americans do!” She’s kind of right, isn’t she? Especially with this group of kids! They’ve really learned how to think outside-the-box with all the antics they do with YoungLife!

We all got up early the next morning so we’d have plenty of time at the airport. I was doing fine getting ready in my room… up until I walked downstairs. It hit me at that moment that it was going to be time to say good-bye. Our son Travis had to go to work and couldn’t ride along to the airport so Lara and Travis had to say good-bye here. That was my first jolt of tears… and it was’t easy to stop. I didn’t want Lara to see me cry just yet so I walked to the other side of the house. A few minutes later, two carloads of her friends arrived at the house. Morgan’s mother came along to drive one of the cars because she was worried the kids would be too upset to drive home after Lara left.

When we got to the terminal, all the kids were sitting together. Lara, Ana and I went to the ticket counter to check-in. We also wanted to request a pass for Ana to be able to walk Lara to the gate. For days, I was worried about everyone saying goodbye to her and then her having to sit at the gate, waiting for her plane, by herself. when we walked back to the kids, there they were standing off in the distance holding a bright yellow banner that read, “Goodbye” (with the Goodbye scratched out)… and then “See you Soon, Lara”. Ana, Lara and I just burst into tears… and then the kids did too. I knew that was the end of trying to hold in the tears. You can see our red eyes in the pictures Ana took right after that.

We gathered our emotions and decided to move further into the terminal. We took up an entire section of seats. That’s when the kids started writing messages to Lara on the banner so she could take it back with her. I couldn’t tell you what the messages were, because I couldn’t bring myself to read them. After the banner was signed, Ana folded it several times to fit it in her suitcase. A memory forever for Lara.

Soon Ana said it was time for Lara to go through security and head towards the gate. We walked her as far as we could go and then the hugs and tears started. Travelers all around us were watching as about 14 people were just hugging and crying. The third to the last person to say goodbye was Brittany. The second to last person was Terry. I was the last one. And as we held each other and cried, I think everyone else cried even more. We let her leave and watched her walk down the lane for the security checkpoint. As she walked around the final corner, we knew it was time to go home… with one less friend and family member by our side.

There’s really only one more Blog post to write… the final words from me to close this chapter of our lives. I started the Blog to share the experience of being a Host Mother to an Exchange Student living half way around the world, away from her family and friends. The last post is a time for me to express my feelings after this 10-month adventure. In the meantime, enjoy the pictures!