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Photo Essay – “Art in Paradise”; a fun, little, interactive museum in Bangkok

4 Nov

We’ve been going a fair bit to the Esplanade Mall here in Bangkok, as it’s the location for a great indoor skating park for the kids.  Each time, upon entering this mall, we noticed these colourful signs for this interactive, art display.  And I don’t know about you, but when your kids beg to go to a museum, you take that opportunity and run!  After taking the escalators up to the fourth floor, we arrived at the entrance of  “Art in Paradise” (http://www.artinparadise.co); a permanent exhibition of interactive, colourful art.

Here, kids (and big kids), are allowed to touch paintings, sit on them and take funny pictures ….their interaction provides the allusion that they are part of the art works themselves – how cool!  It really did bring out the imaginative and fun side in Emile and Filou, and they’ve never asked to be in so many pictures (they are usually quite good with picture taking because of our world tour adventure and my frequent insistence on capturing their cute faces…but they don’t call mom the “sleazy photographer” for nothing; they can do without the multitude of posing).  But not this time…they wanted to pose, interact, be part of the art…and had a fabulous time. I guess what is not to love when you ask the Mona Lisa a question and she answers you right back?

Our visit to this fun place, is best captured visually – so see below.  For those who want to visit:  The Esplanade Mall is located at the Thai Cultural Centre – MRT Stop in Bangkok. Cost: 300 Baht for adults (about $10), kids are cheaper if they are less than 120 cm tall.

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ECUADOR: Quito, Canoa Beach and Guaquil (via Montecristo)

4 Jul

El República del Ecuador – a Spanish speaking country in northwestern South America that has a great deal of nature to offer: the Andes Mountains, the Amazon Jungle, the Atlantic Coast and certainly the world-famous Galapagos Islands.  The country is home to such a great variety of species, that it is considered to be one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world.  Needless to say, a perfect destination for us!

 

QUITO

We flew from Peru into the beautiful capital of Ecuador; a city situated in a picturesque valley with surrounding, towering mountains. Last year, National Geographic voted Quito (declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1978 because of its largest, least-altered and best preserved historic centre), as one of the top 20 destinations in the world to be visited. However, exploring this photogenic town with its 17th century churches and mansions, was not in the cards for us. Our 9 days in the city can be summed up with one word: CHICKENPOX.

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The Historical Capital of Ecuador: Quito

 

CANOA

A little disappointed that we had to skip our week in Banos; the adventure capital of Ecuador (rock-climbing, zip-lining and hot springs. were out), but with natural immunity for life in our back pockets, we were off to sunny Canoa – a small beach town on the west coast of Ecuador. We were pleased that the roads leading to this small community were surprisingly good, and that our hotel for the next month was indeed the beautiful beach property it promised to be.

Instantly, we marveled at the under-developed nature of this beach area (some investment opportunities perhaps?). We were but a 15-minute beach stroll from Canoa town, and encountered only a few properties along the way. Long stretches of pristine beach with few people on it, surrounded us both left and right….And of course, the stunning, rolling waves and sunny skies threw out their welcome mats. Canoa is a popular hang out place for surfers due to its consistent surf and so we quickly turned Emile and Filou into little surf dudes… signing them up for surf lessons (thanks YiaYia!).

Guided by surf teacher Walker, the kids quickly found their groove and were up on their boards. They couldn’t get enough of it, and especially liked for us to film their progress – Anthony was eager to oblige with his new Go-Pro camera and I happily jumped some huge waves as not to get my Iphone wet, while taking action shots!

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Canoa, Ecuador

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With surfing teacher Walker

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Emile riding the waves

While the kids conquered the ocean, Anthony and I took 10 classes of beach Yoga with Leanne Holder, a wonderful US expat (https://www.facebook.com/CocoCottages).  Downward dogs and balancing tree poses (“be any tree you want to be”) are quite hard when you are starting out, but having your feet solidly planted into beach sand certainly makes it a little easier (and the “whatever you have available” line of encouragement helped a lot too)!

Guided by Leanne’s wide range of yoga moves and soothing voice (which was amplified by the wonderful sounds of crashing waves in the background), we learned to find some inner peace, balance and ability to stretch. I think Anthony and I are both hooked now and just need to create a big sandpit in a yoga studio in Bangkok somewhere!

Thanks Leanne for the fabulous t-shirt…the saying on it says it all!

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Wonderful Beach Yoga with Leanne and Don

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“Explore your Bliss – Ecuador”. Perfect trip t-shirt!

As equally nice as Leanne was, were her mom Cynthia and her partner Ron – who regularly joined us in yoga. We had the pleasure of attending Cynthia’s local art show that displayed many beautiful acrylics and watercolours (was thinking of you mom!). Inspiration is probably not hard to find in this town as it is surrounded by magnificent nature – and Cynthia’s leaf and flower scenes were full of lovely detail and vibrant colours.

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Cynthia at her art-show, with some of her inspired art pieces (first column)

One day, Cynthia, Ron and Leanne took the kids to the local caves where our fearless yoga instructor saved Filou from what she described as a “near-death experience” when he was taken by some huge waves that would have smashed him into the rocks had she not scooped him up quickly. Good thing, too, because he’s kinda precious to us!  Of course, to this day he himself is absolutely oblivious about this incident – and describes his day with them as “the very best day in Canoa”. 

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Canoa cliffs full of blue-footed boobies and other birds

These wonderful 3 people also invited us for a bonfire to celebrate my 45th birthday! Great memories; connecting with new friends, lovely music, hot-dogs and jumping contests with Annie – an energetic and fun 30-yr old, who has her eyes set on Emile in 10 years. She named herself the kids’ “teacher of fun”, a role that described her joyful nature perfectly!

And talking about joyful….when picturing high altitudes this is NOT a word that comes to mind for me. Not even close…I’m DEATHLY afraid of heights; don’t do anything at high altitude! But Canoa is a key destination for paragliding and the boys had been eyeing the colourful parachutes in the sky.

Could I overcome my fear and let Emile and Filou do something cool that they would remember for years?  There was only one way for our family to find out; locate the safest operation in town!  This part was easy: everyone knows in Canoa that you have to be with Alicia Harmon of Alas Y Olas (http://www.alasyolasecuador.com).

She is a strong, little dynamo who is all about safety and creating the right conditions for an enjoyable flight (we know, as it took us a couple of times of checking out wind conditions before we actually took of).

When the day was finally there, we got our instructions and were buckled into a tandem harness (Watanabe family member in front, Alicia behind)… and were suspended below a lightweight, large wing – looking like a long rectangular parachute; we used a nice bright yellow one.  Filou was giving it a try first, with Emile and Anthony shortly following him. They all had a lovely flight (no fear whatsoever) and were making their excitement known from high in the sky….

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Alica strapping Filou in and doing the final checks

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Emile making a smooth landing

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Thumbs up for a great flight

It was terrifying enough seeing the kids and Anthony held up in the sky by some ropes and fabric, but now it was my turn. Was I really going to risk my life and run off a 200-metre cliff into the abyss? For some reason, at that moment I was really compelled to do it (although with racing heart and very shaky legs)…and there I jumped and flew like a bird. It was AMAZING; so much more peaceful then I imagined it to me.  And of course, the views were magnificent!

The reason for doing this became quickly clear to me – of course, it was important to overcome one of my own fears but more importantly it was a lesson for the boys that if you put your mind to things, you can grow and overcome. In Paris, I had been too afraid to climb the Eiffel Tower as it was so high, and now I was paragliding – a sport many people would never dream of doing. I think I made a little progress – thank you World Tour (and Alicia and Bret for your help)!

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At take-off; smiling but with racing heart and shaking knees

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Spectacular views while paragliding over Canoa

And so Canoa will be remembered for many great things: adventure sports (and yoga), World Cup Soccer & the wonderful beach community.  We cheered along with our new Ecuadorian, US and Swiss friends – but mostly we were there in orange to scream for our Dutchies.  There were the easy wins: 5-1 against Spain (Holland certainly had something to prove after last World Cup’s defeat against them…and they brought it big time), and then there were the nail-biter games such as 2-1 against Mexico (where the Dutch scored two goals in the last 10 minutes).

It was almost more fun to watch Emile than the screen, as he was so into each and every game. What a soccer fan; he knew all the stats, teams and especially the strategies for the Dutch….and that for only a half-Dutchie (mom trained him well!).  While we sat by ourselves dressed in orange for the first game, the fifth time around, we had all of our friends “converted”, and sporting beautiful naranja. What a great group of assistant fans like Gerry and fellow supporters!  HUP HOLLAND!

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JOY and HUP HOLLAND after the 2nd. goal for the Dutch against Mexico; a real nail biter of a game! (2 goals in the last 10 minutes!)

As we are nearing the end of our world tour, it is certainly wonderful to receive, many lovely comments in regards to our boys. Many of the people in Canoa were sharing with us that they are inspired by what we have done this past year: travelling, learning and sharing as a family. And as nice as it is to get this kind of feedback – we are equally inspired by the travellers and expats that we’ve met around the world – such as some of the couples in Canoa.

For example, Ron told Cynthia: “I’m going to sail around the world, are you in?” It didn’t take long for Cynthia to leave her corner office and quit her very successful job to literally sail away with Ron. That first trip lasted 3.5 years. Ever since then, the two of them have been co-pilots, travelling to and living in many places. They are now settled in an idyllic beach-front property in Canoa. Cynthia paints, Ron does boogie boarding and together they are enjoying life- what a lovely couple!

And then there was Gerry and Ursula – a dynamic expat couple from the US who were well connected to a host of locals. They travelled the world, partly working for the Peace Corps and had the best travel stories ever (you could just listen to them for hours!). Gerry, a successful, semi-retired businessman, had a dream of buying cattle in Ecuador. And so the couple settled in Canoa, had bought 60+ cattle and were working with great enthusiasm – and a local partner – to bring their vision to life. It’s called Hacienda Rio Canoa. We had the pleasure of visiting their ranch in Gerry’s new, “photogenic” truck).

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Some of the calves at Gerry and Ursula’s cattle ranch

We love meeting people like this who have an incredible outlook on life, and in return, life has treated them well. They are following their dreams and sharing a bit of the journey with us along the way. And Canoa was chock full of people like this, both long-term residents and passersby.

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Inspirational people; Gerry and Ursula. In their early 70s, he still calls her “cutie” and they laugh together all the time!  

We are in all in agreement that our time in this laid-back Ecuadorian town is going to be on the top of our list of enjoyable travel spots. Main reasons: the incredible community, the beautiful, pristine beach offering a host of activities and of course, the wonderful seafood! (Check out Korayma and find Charlie on the beach for some great local dishes such as my personal favorite: Pescado Encocada – fish in a light coconut curry sauce). Thank you Don – for all your wonderful tips on the town and surrounding areas. You are an ambassador for Canoa and we are grateful…and Gerry, Ursula, Cynthia, Ron, Leanne, Annie, Tom, Willemijn, Alicia, Brian, Josh, Patience and Michael. We appreciated our connection with each of you and you all made for a very fun stay!

And so after a last cook-out (American version of a potluck!) and a delightful Canoa sunset, we moved onto Guayaquil.

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Canoa Sunset

 

GUAYAQUIL  – VIA MONTECRISTI

We left Canoa, took a taxi to Manta and then a bus to Guayaquil – but with an important stop in Montecristi; the town known for the production of the finest straw hat in the world, the Panama Hat. Yes. That’s right, those cool hats do not come from Panama City; they come from Montecristi, Ecuador.

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Montecristi Panama Hats

The hats are made from Toquilla straw, hand-split into strands not much thicker than thread and woven so finely, that the Montecristi Panama Hat appears to be made from linen. Depending on quality, one cost anywhere from $20.00 to over $25,000!! (the best and superfine ones are called Montecristis). And although the Panama Hat continues to provide a livelihood for thousands of Ecuadorians, fewer than a dozen weavers are capable of making these finest “Montecristi superfinos”.

So we were excited to visit a small shop and workshop place (www.montecristifactoryhats.com) where two young guys had lots of hat samples on display. In the shop, a lady was demonstrating the weaving process; she was leaning over a block of wood while carefully moving superfine strands of straw over one another.

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Ecuadorian Toquilla or Panama Hat weaver

The art of weaving these traditional Ecuadorian Toquilla or Panama Hats is so unique that the process was added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural List in 2012.  It was really cool, we got to see this up close…and of course indulge in buying an example as a great memory and stylish fashion accessory!

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With our new Panama Hats – pretty cool eh?

And after a restful night and a great swim at the Nucapacha Hostel (http://www.nucapacha.com) in Guayaquil, we were ready for our final stop.

Really hard to believe, but we are off to our LAST travel destination. Galapagos Islands, here we come….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penang, Malaysia

26 Feb

MALAYSIA – PENANG

Penang, or Pulau Pinang as the locals call it, is a small island off the west coast of peninsular Malaysia.  In ways it is similar to Toronto as it is highly diverse in ethnicity, culture, language, and religion – however it is different in that the sun shines here every day (average of 35C during our stay; consequently our deodorants ran overtime!).

We chose to base ourselves in the highly popular district of Batu Ferringhi and rented a nice, 3-bedroom apartment at Eden Fairway Condominiums (www.penangguesthouse.com); mostly a hangout place for British and Dutch retirees (with whom I had lovely chats during my morning swims); a centrally located place with ample space and a lovely pool.

Our stay in Penang was focused on homeschooling, as well as taking in the unique, local culture & arts scene, enjoying the widely varied and delicious assortment of foods (Penang is dubbed the greatest street food capital of the world) and learning some new skills.

In Thailand, Emile and Filou started to get really excited about learning music (mostly after jumping on stage and giving an impromptu performance with Anthony at a local bar in Chiang Mai).  So to encourage their excitement for guitar (Emile) and piano (Filou), we signed them up for some music lessons and took them to Cornerstone Music Studio (https://www.facebook.com/CornerstoneMusicStudio). They loved it! Emile is now eyeing Papa’s new travelling guitar and both kids are dreaming about a boy-band!

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Emile taking his first guitar lesson (with his delighted Papa in the background!)

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Filou made excellent progress during his four piano lessons

Also, what better way then to take in more arts and culture, then to visit nearby George Town.

George Town

George Town is a UNESCO world heritage site as it is one of the most complete surviving historic cities on the Straits of Malacca, with a multi-cultural “living heritage” originating from the trade routes from Europe through the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and the Malay Archipelago to China.

The city reflects a mixture of influences that has created a unique architecture, culture and townscape. In particular, it has an exceptional range of colonial shop-houses and townhouses.  George Town is also very well-know for its unique street art which is something that piqued our interest.

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Shop house in George Town

Anne, our landlord, pointed out that there was an art exhibition in town, by street artist Ernest Zacharevic.  The“Art is Rubbish”, his first solo art display in Penang, was a wonderful open-air showing of some very unique art pieces.

I have to admit that I’m pretty particular about the art I like; not many works please me easily. But these pieces were just incredible; not only does Ernest Zacharevic use very unique, sustainable media to paint on – old city walls, antique doors, used window blinds or coffee-bean sacks – he paints the most vivid facial expressions (the face of the little Asian girl was so real, it seemed to pop off the old wood it was painted on – just surreal)!  There was frankly not one piece in his collection of 20 artworks that I didn’t want to bring home. Absolutely loved it! But alas, all the works had already been purchased.

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Man in rickshaw, painted on old window blinds

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My favorite piece!  The face of this little Asian girl was mesmerizing!

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Mother hugging her son, painted on an old coffee-bean sack

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Man sleeping on a bench, painted on an old door

Now, we were inspired to see more art – so a few days later, we got two trishaw drivers to take us around town and show us the street art. We were happy to have taken this approach, versus walking around ourselves, as many of the pieces were hidden in small street alleys.

Ernest Zacharevic’s beautiful wall paintings of children, all across historical George Town, are funny, fascinating and open to interpretation…and the attention for his work is apparently building rapidly. He painted his first series of murals for the George Town Festival in 2012. But what really started the art in the city, was when a Kuala Lumpur based art company won the Penang state art challenge ‘Marking George Town: An Idea Competition for a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The company proposed to tell stories of Penang inspired by their residents and culture through 52 steel rod caricatures placed all over George Town. Together with the wall murals, they are now catching the world’s attention.  We were certainly happy to observe how the walls of George Town are gaining a new lease on life…with art that is not only beautiful and fun to watch, but that is is also helping to implement a brilliant city beautification strategy!

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Little Children on a Bicycle Mural, Armenian Street, George Town

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Boy on a Bike Mural, Queen Street, George Town

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Steel rod caricature art

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Reaching Up Mural, Cannon Street, George Town

Tropical Spice Gardens 

Situated in what was once an abandoned, rubber plantation on the north-west shore of Penang, the Tropical Spice Garden (http://tropicalspicegarden.com) was on our hit-list to visit as part of Emile’s homeschooling repertoire.

This eco-attraction, tucked away within a natural valley fronting the Straits of Malacca, houses over 500 species of herb, spice and tropical plants. Together with our new friends Alana and Ian, we set out to learn about spices and were directed by our guide Tan Choon Eng (CE), towards the Spice & Ornamental Trail.

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Emile and Ian Minton at the Tropical Spice Garden, Penang (only natural and recycled building materials were used from pre-war shop houses & local antique stores to landscape this garden)

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We quickly gathered from CE that Malaysia boasts one of the richest collections of spices in the world due to its long trading history (spices were discovered and traded by the Dutch and British who planted the best of its varieties in Malaysia).

She also taught us many interesting facts about spices such as:

  • Spices can be obtained from seeds, fruits, flowers, roots, bark etc.
  • Rice, Wheat, Bamboo and Sugarcane all belong to the grass family. Bamboo is the fastest growing grass type and comes in over 1000 varieties (we saw the yellow, black, green and fishing pole kind)
  • Nutmeg is a pit of a green fruit about the size of a peach and Penang is called the nutmeg state. For more info: (http://tropicalspicegarden.com/2011/03/nutmeg-state-penang-island-malaysia/
  • Cardamom is the fruit of the ginger plant
  • Turmeric is a type of ginger that has anti-bacterial and tumor fighting tendencies and is used both for cooking and religious ceremonies.  In India, turmeric is used to stain the robes of monks, due to its rich orange colour!

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“When we cut away forests, we take away medical miracles”.  Emile’s conclusion: let’s hug our trees instead!

It was all very interesting and educational and upon parting CE stressed that “when we cut away forests, we take away many medical miracles”.  We, and I am sure our YiaYia, couldn’t agree more!  With this important message and a cup of very fragrant and fruity “cooling tea” called Luo Han Guo, we were on our way….

 

Penang National Park

Penang National Park is the world’s smallest national park and one of the few natural forested areas left on the island. With 1181 hectares of forest and 1381 hectares of wetlands, the Park’s ecosystem is a diversity of habitats with hills, sandy and rocky beaches, streams and coastal forests – representing much of the local natural habitats.

Together with our new friends from Texas, the Minton family, we set out to explore this natural wonder. After a beautiful, fierce hike for about 2 hours through dense forest (during which we encountered some unique, long green snakes… to the delight of some and dismay of others), we reached Turtle Beach.

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Hiking Penang National Park with the Minton family

The Penang Turtle Sanctuary is located on this beach, set up to help protect the dwindling populations of Green Sea and Olive Ridley turtles in Malaysian waters.  These species of turtles come onto the beach at night to lay their eggs, which are then protected by the sanctuary from predators, until they hatch up to 60 days later.

Emile was a little disappointed we only saw the baby turtles in a basin, and not in their natural habitat on the beach. So, with a pre-arranged local boat, we moved on further to Monkey Beach.  This beautiful, small isolated beach, certainly gave honour to its name, as we saw several Macaque monkeys around – jumping the trees.  But after our Cambodia incident (where a monkey chased Filou), the kids are not so keen on them anymore – and had more fun swinging on tree ropes.   All in all, a fun and active day!

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Can you spot the snake?

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Peanut eating Macaques on Monkey Beach

Food & families

With the incredible quantity of amazing hawker food stalls, Penang is a dream come true for those who love to eat; such as the Watanabe-Swagemakers family!  The many different food cultures and traditions spanning from Chinese, Indian, Malay, Mamak and Nyonya cuisines make for a very unique eating experience. We tasted such diverse and rich flavours in every dish: just out of this world!

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My favorite hawker stall food: Chicken Satay (grilled chicken with a delicious peanut sauce and sticky rice squares)

Eating is always more fun with others and Penang seemed to be the perfect place for get-togethers – as it is a very popular stop-over for travelling families.  We loved meeting up with 5 of them – from the US, Australia and England – and had a few great meals together.  Our most favorite hang-out: the “Long Beach” hawker stalls!

We seem to share a unique bond with these travelling families; people we have never met before but instantly click with.  They share our deep passion for travel, for wanting to give our children a “world education”. They gladly share their best travel tips & stories as well as the ups and the downs of being long-term on the road.  So from commiserating over  homeschooling difficulties to sharing the many wonderful ways in which our children are developing and learning on the road… we discuss it all and agree full-heartedly that travel is the very best thing…a priceless adventure that we are thankful for every day!

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Kids on the move

So thank you Malaysia, for have given us a great social and learning time …we have enjoyed your wonderful culture and arts scene, our bellies are full and we’ve soaked up enough of your hot hot sun….now it’s onto New Zealand!