Monday, June 05, 2023

Tampa Adventure: Day 3

[Composed 5/21/2023]

We started our 3rd day in Tampa with an exploration of historic Ybor City. To make this a bit more kid friendly, we purchased an online Scavenger Hunt from Let's Roam. The experience turned out to be a positive one. The scavenger hunt gave the kids little puzzles to track down, which absolutely elevated the experience. This reminded me a bit of our horse and buggy ride hack to explore a city: the kids can enjoy doing something historic without knowing they are doing something historic.

Even if a Let's Roam scavanager hunt isn't available for a city, using Atlas Obscura and the Historic Maker Database (HMDB) it should be possible to compile my own hunt with a mininum of effort. All one has to do is look up a bunch of markers, extract some fact that kids need to determine by standing in front of them, and bam! you're done. I can't believe I've never thought of doing this before.

One near-deal-breaker for the Let's Roam Scavenger Hunts is the cost. The website advertises them as costing about $12.00 *per player*. Not knowing how this all worked, we bought 6 tickets and ended up exploring Ybor City for $72.00. At that price, the game was absolutely not worth it. I reached out to Let's Roam and they explained that it's really $12.00 per device. In a group of 20 something's playing the scavenger hunt competitively, the $12.00 per play may make sense. But in our case, of using it to explore with kids where only Shira had the puzzle on her phone, we needed to only purchase a single ticket. For $12.00, the hunt was perfectly priced. Let's Roam gave me vouchers for 5 future games, so no harm, no foul.

Highlights of Ybor city included seeing chickens roaming around (D is a fan of all birds, even chickens), riding the street car (D got to pull the cord requesting a stop) and stepping into the neighborhood museum, where the kids played dominoes together. We saw various building facades, including the old Cigar Factory which is now a Church of Scientology. As we stood outside the building, someone from the church invited us in for a tour. I'm sure they were being welcome neighbors, but we were in the middle of the scavenger hunt and I wasn't quite sure what to make of the offer.

My biggest highlight of the trip was exploring José Martí Park, a relatively small and unassuming bit of greenspace in the area. What's unique about the park is that it belongs to Cuba. The kids and I were psyched that we got to visit Cuba all without ever leaving Tampa. I couldn't help playing tourist and having the kids pose at the entrance of the park with one foot in Cuba and one foot outside.

After exploring Ybor city, we made our way to T's school play. She was in the production of Willy Wonka, Jr.. As you can probably guess, this is a kids adaptation of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Cholcolate factory. T had the role of the Candy Man, and she played it outstandingly. We were so proud of her. Unlike the rest of the family, I'd never seen or read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, so I didn't fully know what to expect. The play had some strange pacing, and so even a few minutes before it ended I was confused about what this was all about. But, when it finally wrapped up, I think I got it. It was a real treat to see T shine and we gave her and her classmates the standing ovation they deserved.

After the play we took my parents, who had joined us for the play, out for Bubble Tea. This was their first time experincing the tapioca powered trend, and I think they really enjoyed it. But, c'mon, who doesn't love bubble tea?

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Tampa Adventure: Day 2

[Composed 5/20/2023]

The second day of our Tampa adventure began at about 12:15am when I heard a crash outside our tent. Of course, I wanted to ignore it, but I figured I better go take a look.

Outside I found a dark campsite, which was a bit surprising, as I'd intentionally left my improvised lantern on so that the kids could find the campsite should they step away for a nightime potty break. When I scanned the campsite for the missing light, I quickly realized the problem. I'd fashioned a lantern by attaching our recharagable air matress pump, which had a light on it, to a marshmallow roasting stick. I then duct taped the stick to a container of steel cut oats. The oats served as the perfect base to keep the light upright. It also served as the perfect bait to attract critters to the campsite, and that's exactly what had happened. A friendly raccoon had snatched the container of oats and dragged it, as well as the light, over to a nearby tree to feast on its discovery. Before bed I gave the kids a stern warning about leaving food out and how it would attract animals; and of course I hadn't put two and two together that this was exactly what I was doing.

I shined my flashlight at the raccoon and grimiced at it. He, or she, didn't care. It was as if the raccoon knew it was 12:15am and raising the alarm in a tightly packed campground wasn't really an option. After enough gesticulation, the raccoon finally decided to move on and scurried up a tree and disappeared into the canopy. I retreived the light and ravaged container of oats and put them both in the car for safe keeping.

The next morning, we had a delightful breakfast; the oats we ate in the morning had been soaked overnight, and weren't impacted by the raccoon incident the night before. After breakfast we started our first activity: fishing on the park's namesake river: Hillsborough River.

Fishing started off promising enough. We found a nice open area where I coudld safely teach the kids how to cast. All three kids picked up the skill quickly enough. The bottom of the river was absolutely packed with fish, just chilling. I believe these may be South American Armored Catfish that were first noted in the river in the 1990's. There were heaps of them, all just minding their own business.

After about 20 minutes of fishing, I got the sense this wasn't going to be our day. The catfish, as I expected, were completely uninterested in the nightcrawlers we were using. More surprising, the usual bluegill and sunfish where nowhere to be found. Even more problematic, the uber-cheap Zebco Slingshot Rod and Reels were failing us. The rod and reels themselves were actually OK, but the line they came spooled with was absolute garbage. In hindsight, this should have been expected. The problem with the low-grade line was that it would constantly tangle. The kids would cast a couple of times and then reel in a birds nest, which I'd have to cut out and retie their tackle. This would have tested the patience of even the most exerienced angler; these kids didn't stand a chance.

We hiked up the river a bit and tried a few different spots, but it was definitely not our day. The sweltering heat and humidity didn't help anyone's mood, either.

After lunch, we decided to try another activity in the park: we rented a canoe for the girls and a kayak for D and myself. If we couldn't fish Hillsborough River, at least we could boat it.

As we started our floating adventure, the attendant grabbed a canoe for Shira and the girls and dragged it into the water. T would sit up front and it was her job to be the first of all us to step into the seemingly unstable watercraft. She paused for a moment, and then gathered her courage and climbed in. I was proud of her for fearlessly stepping into the unknown. In short order, G was in the canoe, followed by Shira. They were off. D was up front in our kayak and I was in back. This was D's first time in a kayak and he quickly picked up the basics. He did manage to shovel a bunch of water into the boat, and in no time at all I was sitting in 3 inches of water. But, in hot the conditions, this felt good.

We cruised down the river, taking in the scenery, avoiding obstacles, watching the plentiful fish and calling out turtle and bird sightings. Most of all though, we kept our eyes peeled for gators. This being Florida, the river did not dissapoint. We saw aligators of every shape and size; from baby gators swimming in the water, to big guys warming on the shore, to ominous eyes pearing at us from just above the surface. It was awesome. I thought for sure the kids were going to be scared paddling alongside these powerful predators. But, they were fine with it. We all thoroughly enjoyed our trip on the river, and the kids got stories to take back to their parents about near misses with hungry gators.

After the boating, D and I did a bit more fishing and caught some tiny ones. D's got the perfect fisherman's attitude: give me just one more cast; all I need is one more cast to land my dream fish. 15 casts later, we're still just one cast away from leaving.

When we finally finished fishing, we made our way back to the campsite for a delicious quesadilla dinner. After dinner, the weather caught up to us and it started to rain. I quickly tore down camp, while Shira and the kids huddled in the car. I tried to explain to the kids that with their raingear, they could come outside and enjoy the campground. They weren't having it. Instead, they were enjoying playing cards in the car. G explained to me that it was I who was missing out, not them. Earlier in the day we had passed the large canvas tents that people rented to go Glamping. G, now explained to me, that they were Caramping, and that the real fun was out of the rain. I suppose they had a point. I joined them and we played Ship, Captain Crew and 98. It was a soggy end to our camping trip, but we were together and having fun, so that's all I can ask for.

After the sun went down, we headed back to Tampa proper and dropped off three very, very dirty children.

Shira and I weren't especially blown away by Hillsborough River State Park. The pool is currently under construction, and the nearby historic fort is closed as well. So taking both those off our list of activities didn't help. And the fact that a number of the trails were relatively far from the campground, so they weren't especially accessible to us (who wanted to walk, and not drive on Shabbat) also didn't make this an ideal park. However, the time on the river was a blast and a day spent in the outdoors is a win from my perspective. I'd be up for camping again, though we'll probably try a different park.

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Tampa Adventure: Day 1

[Composed: 5/19/2023]

Surely we confused the gate agent checking us into our flight this morning. We were schlepping four bags for a weekend trip to Tampa, Florida. Who does that?

While one bag contained clothes for the weekend, the other three contained camping supplies. Our plan was to overnight with our nieces and nephew in the nearby Hillsborough River State Park. We figured that sleeping overnight at the campground on Friday, and spending all day Saturday playing in the park would make for a fun adventure. Sure, it meant bringing 2 tents, 6 sleeping bags and countless other bits of gear across the country, but it was so going to be worth it.

Our flight was among the smoothest we could remember, and we thoroughly enjoyed lunch at our go to Vietnamese spot: Thịnh An Kitchen & Tofu. Our trip to Walmart to pick up fuel and Frog Toggs rain gear was effortless, as was the trip to Publix to pick up food for the weekend. You can find our gear and food list here if you're curious what it takes to power a camping trip like this.

Because after school activities caused the kids to get out relatively late in the day, Shira and I zipped over to the campground to set up tents and prepare the site. We then went back to my Brother and Sister-in-Law's home to pick up the kids and finally start our adventure.

Once we had the kids, we had to make two more stops: one to pick up Kosher marshmallows and the other to pick up large wooden skewers to cook hotdogs and marshmallows on. It was touch and go there for a moment as to whether we would find both of these items, but ultimately, we did. Whew.

With camp basically set up, we jumped right into starting dinner when we arrived and the kids all helped. This was G's first time camping, so she was especially excited to cook over an open fire and sleep in a tent. The kids navigated dinner well and before we knew it, it was getting dark.

I'd thought I'd been prepared for camp life in the dark, but my plans quickly went off the rails. I'd arranged for each of the kids to have their own headlamp, two of which were apparently not fully charged and died. And, I'd neglected to set up any sort of site-wide lighting. This is normal for backpacking, but I'd forgotten how handy it is when car camping to have lighting that covers more than individual flashlights.

We solved the first problem by recharging the dead headlamps in the car. This had the kids back in business in about 30 minutes. While recharging them was smart, the fact that we did it in our car shows just how much of car camping newbies we are. The site included electricity, yet it never occurred to us to actually use it.

The second challenge I solved with a bit of duct tape. The USB rechargeable pump we use to inflate our air mattresses includes a built in light. I taped the light to the tip of a marshmallow roasting stick, and then taped the stick to our container of oats. The result was an improvised lantern which did an impressive job of both lighting our site as well serving as a beacon for the kids to return to after hitting the bathroom.

While Shira took D and G to the bathroom to brush their teeth, T and I were hanging out back at camp. We heard a rustling sound nearby, and I assumed it was a squirrel. I shined my flashlight in the direction of the noise, and sure enough, it was an armadillo. That's not a typical camp visitor for us in Virginia. I was worried T might not love seeing critters just a few feet from where she and the other kids were sleeping, but she was nonplussed by the whole thing. She thought the armadillo was cute and that was about it.

After regaling the other kids with our run in with 'army' it was time to call it a night. Shira suggested the kids sleep in one tent and we sleep in another. I thought for sure they would be too skittish for this arrangement. But I was wrong: the kids took to their tent and in relatively short order, they were asleep.

After doing some final cleanup, we too climbed into our tent. We were exhausted from a long day, but it had totally been worth it. I wasn't sure what tomorrow was going to bring, but we'd done it: we'd dragged the kids camping and fun was being had. Whoo!