Monday, November 14, 2016

Travels as a Hillary Clinton Lookalike




Preface for new friends/visitors: I've spent the past 25 years working in the travel industry. My earliest experience as a tour leader was when I was tasked with escorting groups of travel agents on “luxury” cruise products in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. Escorting a Travel Agent FAM (familiarization) trip is, well, let’s just call that experience “bootcamp” for tour directors - survive it, and you’re ready for career deployment. I was writing, taking pictures, and leading tours within the travel industry for years before I set up my own travel photography business (2000). I supplemented my primary photography business with contract work as an international tour director, leading groups of mostly Americans to over 65 countries around the globe. My story begins on one such assignment. But first:

Oath of Office

As a Tour Director, the single most important unwritten rule is this: Never participate in conversations of religion or politics with the group members. More often than not, my tours would finish with folks still questioning whether I was Democrat, Republican, Christian, Jewish, etc. So here’s a look at how this has played out under different administrations, when you’re me, and you happen to closely resemble Hillary Clinton.





First Lady (Russia)

Late 1990’s: At the height of President Clinton's scandals in office, I was leading a group of Americans on a river cruise in Russia, and my local Russian guide looked exactly like (a thinner version of) Monica Lewinsky. Everywhere we went, the American guests were taking candid pictures of my guide and me together (before digital cameras, iPhones, social media) for their scrap books - sample captions: "Hillary and Monica spotted taking a girlfriend getaway cruise together on the Volga,” or “Hillary and Monica seen commiserating over vodka martinis at the Astoria.” It was all light-hearted, fun, and funny. I was addressed as First Lady for the rest of the trip. Nobody, American or Russian, Republican or Democrat, insulted me for my resemblance, and many said they would travel with me again. And many have since! But that was just the beginning.

Paparazzi (China)



Forward to 2006 (George W. Bush is President) and I'm on assignment as a photographer traveling with an American group. We’re at the Great Wall in China. Suddenly a screaming crowd of Chinese people mobbed around me to the point that I couldn't take a step in any direction on the wall. One by one they handed their pocket cameras (some digital, but still no iphones) off to someone else in the crowd to be photographed next to me. I asked my local guide what was going on. He laughed and whispered, "they think you are Hillary Clinton touring China and that I'm your Chinese government translator - I'm not saying a word." I decided to play along. I was overwhelmed with welcoming smiles and stranger’s hands running through my hair as I put my arms around them and posed for their cameras. I handed my camera to my guide to take MY picture with some of these lovely Chinese people. It was a long morning, but incredibly gratifying to feel so much love and admiration, and to return it to complete strangers. The American travelers I was accompanying were somewhat bewildered. The Democrats loved it. The Republicans, surprised to see how the locals were behaving (which continued throughout China), were nice and enjoyed the spectacle, agreeing “maybe you do look like her, but a younger and MUCH prettier version.” Everyone was kind and civil.

That kind of paparazzi attention popped up with some regularity in my travels, professional and personal, throughout the remaining Bush years. Sometimes it got ugly.

Allies (United Kingdom)

“You bloody Americans, you’re all the same. Just like your cowboy President, nothing but a bully. America is a giant bully, pushing other nations around. Go back to play with your guns at home and leave the world be.” - white male Englishman, London, 2006.

2008 Election Year

I’m in the UK again, in a cab from Heathrow. The driver, an enthusiastic immigrant to the UK, had no end of questions for me about how I would vote and what I thought of Obama. Jet-lagged and struggling to formulate coherent statements, I turned it back on him. “What do YOU think?” I asked. He replied, “It doesn’t matter what I think. It doesn’t matter who is President of the United States. America will always be America in our eyes – the welcoming land of freedom and opportunity. The world looks up to you. Be proud.”

Election Day – China

November, 2008. I was back in China when Barack Obama won the Presidential election. I’ll never forget the moment. My group was comprised of 4 couples – 2 couples were Republican, 2 couples were Democrats. All couples had adult children who voted for Obama. We were in the VIP lounge at an airport in Guilin glued to the Chinese news channel (no satellite tv; internet access was blocked out at the time; but we all had cellphones and texting). Our flight was delayed, thankfully, so we were able to watch the historic moment as the news broke. It looked like this:




I taped the moment, we all toasted, and then our flight was ready for boarding. We came out of that lounge to cheers and hugs from non-Americans, which followed on the flight (everyone wanted to sit next to and talk to us). Clearly, the Chinese people, and other nationalities on our flight, approved. But it wasn’t just China. My American groups and I were welcomed and congratulated with equal enthusiasm for President Obama everywhere I travelled during his two terms.



From Clinton’s, into Bush’s, and throughout Obama’s administration, my travel work took me from Asia to Africa, Europe to South America - Nepal, Egypt, Ireland, Kenya, India, Morocco, Bhutan, France, Namibia, Argentina, UAE, Sweden, Tanzania, Nicaragua, the UK, Zimbabwe, Portugal, Cuba…there’s more, but suffice it to say I encountered a wide and diverse sampling of humanity on our planet. Without exception, the people I spoke to in these other countries applauded President Obama. Indeed, these past 8 years have been my proudest to travel as an American.



Diplomatic Missions (Cuba)


Let’s pause on Cuba. I was greatly honored and proud to lead some of the earliest State Department licensed People to People Cultural Exchange Tours to Cuba as relations eased under President Obama. One memorable group was a true American melting pot. There were first-generation immigrant-Americans – from Hungary, Iran, and Ireland; Christians from Texas; Jews from New York; two Canadians; a venture capitalist; a film maker; a doctor; and me, their tour leader - a laid back southern California vegetarian surfer mom, who resembled the US Secretary of State. They were all seasoned travelers, but this was the first time I actually felt need to apologize for some of my fellow Americans, who arrived to Cuba with very narrow minds, biased agendas, and nasty attitudes. In March, 2013, this group and I arrived at a particularly historic moment, the announcement that Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez had died. When you finish this article, please come back and click my story about that trip here: Cuba from the Heart: Mourning and Music.

Presidential Travels (Morocco)

March, 2014. This one is just for kicks really. My group was another melting pot, but this time a fantastic group of Americans who made me enormously proud. I add this story not so much about my resemblance to Secretary Clinton (though it was certainly pointed out), rather, more for the striking resemblance of my local Moroccan colleague and guide to President Obama. “Maroc Obama” we fondly dubbed him. And he wore it with honor and a big smile…and together, we made a great team.

From the royal Casbahs of Morocco, to The Casbah nightclub in San Diego, October, 2016, I have been approached by strangers commenting on my resemblance, and have been asked to pose for pictures as Hillary Clinton. I always oblige with a smile.

Even those who despise her have been kind: “I hope you’re not offended, please don’t take it wrong.”

I don’t. I’m flattered. She’s a remarkable woman, and she’s a mother. Like me, she doesn’t give up.

As the attention grew this past year here in the US, I’ve continued to roll with it, happily smiling for iphones right up to Election Day, when I went full out and shared this on social media:

Vote! Let's Do This! #imwithher #pantsuitnation #hillaryclinton #igotstamina @hillaryclinton #electionday #electionday2016

A video posted by Kymri / Mira Terra Images (@kymri) on




I’ve never had more likes and shares on Facebook, and I especially appreciated the comments from my Republican friends: they refrained from nastiness and instead, enthusiastically applauded my front handspring. Some comments began as I’d heard before, but with some new qualifiers:

“Wow, Hillary’s really agile! And she’s looking 30 years younger!”

“Much younger, much better looking and probably a better head of state!”

I certainly hope so. I strive to be kind, open-minded, and the very best American I can be when I travel abroad.

But here at home, in these delicate post-election days, I’ve never been more challenged. I’ve started to experience and witness hatred like I’ve never seen before, here in my country, in my state, in my city, and even in my “bubble” of paradise by the sea. But you know why I shared my video?

Because I landed on my feet. So did Hillary. And I hope, so will our country.

I pledge to keep traveling and to keep putting America’s best foot forward out into the world. Agree with me or not, this is who I am.

Thursday, June 02, 2016

Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots in Cardiff by the Sea

“Every single one of us matters, and has a role to play… every single day we make a difference.” – Dr. Jane Goodall, 2016



Cardiff by the Sea Roots & Shoots children visiting a local agricultural farm. Photos courtesy of: Jessica Toth

Recently I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Jane Goodall speak at the 20th year celebration of the Disney Conservation Fund at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.  Here is a short clip in which she talks about the beginning and growth of the Roots & Shoots program she founded:



As she spoke about Roots & Shoots, I recalled the small group that started up in Cardiff by the Sea, when my daughter was in grade school. As a family, we participated in several of the activities, and although our daughter was quite young, those experiences and lessons would stay with her.

I decided to reach out and re-connect with the parent who started our local chapter, Jessica Toth. While many years have passed and she no longer runs the Roots & Shoots program, I thought it would be interesting to see where the shoots grew from the roots she planted almost 10 years ago with her two daughters, Zoe and Quincy, now aged 14 and 16.

I was not the least bit surprised to learn that Jessica is still quite involved in environmental education, and both she and her daughters had carried forward much from their Roots & Shoots experience. (note: all Cardiff Roots & Shoots photos courtesy of Jessica Toth)

What is your current position and title?

Jessica: I currently work as Executive Director of Solana Center for Environmental Innovation, an environmental education nonprofit, providing programming throughout the San Diego region. Solana Center was awarded California's highest environmental honor this year, the Governor's Environmental and Economical Leadership Award for our food waste diversion initiatives.

How did you first learn about Roots & Shoots?

Jessica: While I was getting involved in my daughter's pre-school, exposing kids to environmental concepts, I read about Jane Goodall'sRoots & Shoots program. Roots & Shoots was designed to offer service-learning opportunities to high school students. No other elementary school Roots & Shoots programs were listed on their websites at that time. But I liked the concept, and decided to find ways to implement it with age-appropriate activities for children in elementary school. There are definitely elementary schools involved now.

What inspired you to organize a local chapter of Roots & Shoots?

Jessica: I felt that kids are not easily connected to the needs of the environment, animals, and people. I wanted my kids to be sensitive to what's around them. By including others in our activities, it enhanced the experiences.



I created a program for learning and exposure, which seemed more appropriate for younger kids. While Roots & Shoots was intended more for focused service learning projects for highschool and college students, we did do community support activities, such as beach clean-ups, visiting a retirement home, and donating to the Community Resource Center.

What types of activities did your chapter participate in?

Jessica: I designed a program in which students and parents participated twice a month -- once through an outside activity and once in a classroom setting. The activities were all local so that participants (kids and parents both) could think of what they'd learned each time they passed the sites. We did beach clean-ups, toured our water treatment center, made animal toys and earned money to donate to the animal shelter, decorated re-usable shopping bags and educated people about avoiding single-use plastics, monitored the quality of our waterways, visited a fish farm, toured the recycling line and our landfill, visited agriculture farms, created a lunchroom recycling program, planted our own school garden, toured City Hall, presented at school assemblies, donated books to kids in need, performed waste audits at school, learned about watershed protection, solar energy, animal tracks, and composting, and more!

How did the Roots & Shoots program impact the Cardiff by the Sea community?



Jessica: When I was still running Roots & Shoots, I began developing environmental programming for the Rob Machado Foundation, whose children were also attending Cardiff Elementary. I folded in Rob Machado Foundation support for recycling cans for Cardiff Schools' athletic fields, reusable water bottles for students, expansion of the school garden, reusable classroom party kits, and a bike rack at Ada Harris.  I also had Rob Machado speak at a Cardiff School assembly as we rolled out the lunchtime recycling program.



Elements are still in place in the Cardiff School District. For example, lunchtime recycling and the school garden.




How has your Roots & Shoots experience shaped the way your kids are growing up?

Jessica: I believe that they will each carry the experiences with them forever.  Quincy points to her interest in community service.  She recently started a soccer league for special-needs kids; this is her great passion.  Zoe is interested in working with animals.



My kids amaze me with their understanding of the real world, even though they've grown up in a very comfortable, cloistered environment in southern California.

From an early age, they understood, for example, that marine debris can impact an entire food chain from brine shrimp and small fish to seals and sharks, as one of them illustrated as a 6-year-old.  I think their Roots & Shoots experiences informed them well.

We live beside a canyon inhabited by coyotes and snakes.  I'm pleased that my daughters are not fearful of animals in nature.

How does your family spend (more) time in nature?

Jessica: We enjoy time camping in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. We also love to snorkel around to see life under the sea.

What advice would you give other parents wanting to make a difference?

Jessica: Kids are never too young to learn about their community. It doesn't matter the age; they learn from new experiences, often reflecting back and finding new meaning later.



To learn more about current Roots & Shoots projects and search by community, please visit Jane Goodall's Roots & Shoots.

And if you are involved in a local Roots & Shoots program, please share your experience in a comment!

Many thanks to Jessica Toth for her time and for providing photos. And many thanks, endlessly, to Dr. Jane Goodall for inspiring so many of us!

Sunday, May 01, 2016

How I Discovered Magic at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa

Sunrise view from room at the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa. Photo: ©Kymri Wilt

I had always been somewhat dismissive of the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa at Walt Disney World, after all, it seemed to be just a copy “wannabe” of my hometown’s Hotel Del Coronado. It is THE priciest resort at Walt Disney World. Looking at the website, there's not much to distinguish it from the more moderately priced Yacht Club Resort (a tried and true favorite). Nor does it boast African safari animals right outside the window like Kidani Village (still my top pick). So what’s the big deal?

Well, during a recent hosted stay at the Grand Floridian, I discovered there is more to this place than meets the eye. True magic cannot be conveyed in a photograph, or a “luxury” rating. It has nothing to do with a classic fa├žade, elegant staircase, grand piano, perfect cocktails, spacious pools or fine restaurants. At the Grand Floridian Resort, I discovered that small human gestures of service make a grand difference in experience, turning the ordinary into something magic.

Meet Richard

Disney's Grand Floridian Resort
Disney's Grand Floridian Resort
Photos: ©Kymri Wilt


When I first encountered Richard, I almost missed him. Instead, I had noticed a little girl with a pouty face sitting on a bench outside the entrance to the Grand Floridian. There were no obvious parents in sight. As I approached, I watched her face begin to change, and within moments it lit up in an ear-to-ear grin trying not to burst out in giggles. I looked where she was looking. A smallish man wearing a straw hat was dancing a little soft shoe jig. As he turned my direction, I saw his face, and I was overcome with such warmth and joy that I couldn’t help smiling back. This charming man was Richard, and his 91-year-young face conveyed a lifetime of magic.

In the few moments I chatted with him, I learned that Richard has been working at the Grand Floridian in the very same position, at the very same spot, for 24 years. That means he started there when he was just a spry 67 years of age! I have no idea what he did before that, but clearly, he’s not set on retiring any time soon. I asked him to tell me what he loves about his job. He said, “I’ve seen a lot of beautiful brides.” Then he goes on to tell me he’s seen the newly married couples return year after year with growing families…and he’s watched their daughters grow up and get married, just like their parents did, at the Grand Floridian Resort.There’s something to be said for a hotel that boasts second (and possibly third) generations of weddings in the same family. And lucky for them, there’s Richard, just like family, standing curbside year after year, to welcome them “home.”




I took a selfie with Richard, and introduced him on my social media feeds so others arriving would feel as “welcome home” as I did. The comments poured in – he is known and loved far and wide, and those who’d never met him before, made a point of finding him. He’s as iconic as the hotel itself…but he holds the real magic.

Let’s Say it was “Jerry”

When I received a text alerting me that my room was ready at the Grand Floridian, I went to the Bell Captain’s desk to collect my held bag, at which point I was offered the assistance of a bellman to help with my case and show me to my room. As I followed him past the reception desk, I see a woman checking in as one of the Traveling Mom writers, so naturally, I stopped to meet and welcome her. She exclaimed, “oh, you’re the photographer!” and we excitedly talked cameras for a few minutes as my bellman stood back and waited patiently. As we proceeded through the lobby, I see more of my dear friends and colleagues arriving, so I stop for quick hellos and hugs, while my bellman stands by. I glance at him anxiously. “Take your time,” he assures me. One of my colleagues thanked me for the posting the “Meet Richard” photo. Then the bellman and I turned a corner and I hear my name. I look over to see even more colleagues and friends at a second check-in desk for our media group where I stop and collect my credentials. This takes some time, and I’m certain at this point my bellman is fed up and ready to disappear, leaving my rolling case to roll off into oblivion. But no, he stands by professionally and unobtrusively, one hand firmly on my case. And when I’m ready, he holds the door open and leads me to a waiting golf cart to transport me to my building.

No sooner do we start rolling along the path when I hear “Kymri, is that you?” Without looking back, and already knowing me by name, my bellman-turned-chauffeur stops the cart, and waits as I catch up with yet another friend. “Look how fancy, you get your own cart!” she remarks. Yes, indeed, I felt like a celebrity with my exclusive cart limo and personal bellman-chauffeur. Certainly the paparazzi were lurking in the bushes, but he masterfully averted them.

During our drive he points out where everything is on the resort property, and offers suggestions for the most photogenic spots, the best place to view fireworks, etc. I asked how long he’s worked at the Grand Floridian. “28 years” he replies, “longer than Richard, but I started much younger.” I distinctly heard the wink in his voice. You see, he was so attentive that he’d even noted the “Meet Richard” conversation back in the lobby. By the time we reached the elevator, I felt like he knew everything about me and had been my private chauffeur for years. I’m sure if I’d asked upon entering my room, he would have
unpacked for me and plugged in all my devices.

Fast forward to check out day, and I’m already writing this article in my head. I realized I’d not noted the name of my magical bellman. There were several staff gathered around the Bell Desk on my way out. I asked for the name of the bellman who’d been working there for 28 years. They all look at each other, then blankly back at me, until one of them humbly admits, “that could be any of us.” Wow. Honestly, would you EVER hear that at any other luxury hotel in the world? From the bellmen? So I get a bit more descriptive, and another one asks “Was it Jerry?” I shrugged hopelessly, so embarrassed that I didn’t recall his name. They saw my discomfort and quickly chimed in to unanimously credit the one bellman who wasn’t there. “Let’s say it was Jerry.”

Brenda’s Gift

One might expect that housekeeping at Disney Resorts is performed by fairies sprinkling pixie dust. Or perhaps, Mary Poppins herself. Spoiler alert: Housekeepers at the Grand Floridian are real humans. They make beds, clean tubs, vacuum crumbs, freshen towels, and even leave chocolates on the pillows at turndown. And they do it all without the help of forest bluebirds and magical dancing brooms.

But they make magic in other ways, which I experienced firsthand. I had just come back to my room after my daughter sent a text that our senior dog, Jambo, had stopped eating.She was home alone with the dogs, her dad still at work, and I texted back that I would call as soon as I got to my room….my freshly cleaned, cool, quiet room.

I called using facetime, so I could see our dog and better judge his state. No sooner had my daughter answered the call then a knock came at my door. With phone in hand, I opened the door to Brenda, my housekeeper. She was checking to see if all was in order, and if I needed any more towels or anything. My daughter asked who I was talking to, so I held up the phone and introduced her to Brenda over facetime. While there was nothing I needed from Brenda, she smiled warmly at my daughter and reached into her cart. “I think you might need more of these… I’ll just give them to you now,” she said, handing me extra chocolates. Then she closed the door leaving us to our call. When I asked to see Jambo, my daughter exclaimed, “Look! He’s eating now!” And indeed he was. While I’d like to think it was the sound of my voice, I’m going to go with crediting Brenda.

Tracy’s Roses

Tracy sharing roses at the Grand Floridian
Photo credit: ©Kymri Wilt
With all of our press events over and done, a group of us were making our way back to the Grand Floridian to catch the Magical Express to the airport. We were walking along the path, and a woman carrying a beautiful bouquet of roses was coming towards us. She skirts the path so we don’t have to step aside. As she passes, someone remarks “What beautiful flowers!” She turns around, and offers a rose to each of us. Naturally, we’re flattered and every one of us pulls a rose from the bouquet, leaving just two remaining.

As we all thanked her, I asked if they were meant for a guestroom, figuring she’d just stop and get more. “No,” she replied, “I just got off work and am taking them to my husband. “ “A special occasion?”, asked another. Tracy replied, “Yes, I suppose it is. He just came home from the hospital today.” And before we could finish thanking her or even try to put the roses back in the bouquet meant for him, Tracy kept right on moving, wishing us all a magical day.

And there you have it, four stories of Grand Floridian staff members making magic.

My Small Gesture of Gratitude

Richard, if you are reading this, thank you. Because of you, I saw a pouty little girl smile…and believe me, I’ve been that pouty little girl more than I’d like to admit. So on behalf of this pouty little girl, and probably hundreds before and since, thank you. Your simple charm is nothing short of magic.

Jerry, if you are reading this, or if you even truly exist by that name, thank you. I know you were introduced and wore your nametag. But it was your magical way of performing the same job you’ve done for 28 years that left an impression deeper than the letters etched on a badge. I’m still wondering if I just imagined that whole magical VIP escorted journey from Bell Desk to my room… was it magic? Or were you just doing your job? Either way, a flawless performance.

Brenda, if you are reading this, thank you. My daughter thanks you for the chocolates, and I thank you for being kind. Your small gesture did not go unnoticed. You are proof that every human has the potential for making magic, knowingly or not. But do tell, where were you hiding your wings?

And finally, Tracy, if you are reading this, thank you. I hope your husband knows that for every red rose missing from that bouquet, one more woman was thinking of him and sending well wishes his way. Thank you for touching our lives in that brief moment and reminding us we’re all just humans, and we’re all capable of sharing little acts of magic in this journey of life.

Full Disclosure

I was hosted by Disney at the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, and my assignment was to review this luxury property with lots of pretty pictures. Clearly, that morphed into something entirely different. Had I done such a review, you’d never know the magic.

Instead, your only takeaway might be the noisy drinking adults in the public areas all hours of the night, or the renovation work in progress in my building (6) which made for noisy and detoured ins and outs. And there were plumbing issues – a magical running toilet that failed to flush each night I came back to it. But here again, the seemingly ordinary human maintenance man was full of magic, too. He shared a wealth of knowledge about the hotel’s history and explained in detail the process of updating the “historic” fixtures - we’re talking PVC pipe diameters to/from toilets – yet somehow his enthusiasm had me envisioning scenes from “Fantasia.” He’d obviously been working there for years and clearly loved his job, too.

It is evident at the Grand Floridian Resort that when you have contented employees serving guests, the results are magic.

How You Can Book the Magic

Now I understand why families buy into timeshares and return year after year to places like the Grand Floridian Resort. If you are so inclined to try a resort residence rental for your next family vacation, the good news is, you don't have to belong to the Disney Vacation Club to try one! Check out Vacatia.com, where you’ll find Villas at the Grand Floridian, Kidani Village, and several other vetted and owner-listed resort properties to select from. Wherever you choose to go, remember, real magic is an experience of exceptional service in simple gestures. If you’re not finding it, then start making it, just like Richard, Jerry, Brenda, and Tracy do, every day, at the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa.