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YEAR IN REVIEW – Our Trip around the World

27 Jul

YEAR IN REVIEW – OUR TRIP AROUND THE WORLD

After:

* Visiting 14 countries, 52 cities and…

* 12 UNESCO World Heritage Sites

* Taking 30 flights

* Riding on 5 trains

* Bumping around on 26 different busses

* And….sleeping in 54 different beds The Watanabe-Swagemakers family is back in Canada.

To reflect, appreciate and let our world experiences settle in, I did a family interview to get everyone’s perspective on the past year. As this journey has ended, a new one is beginning: we are moving to Bangkok, Thailand in September! As a family, we are thoroughly thankful for this past year (an amazing dream come true), and super excited about our new, upcoming life in Asia. We can only wish (and encourage) everyone to pursue their dreams – it makes you come alive in ways you didn’t know were possible.

Thanks to you all for following our adventures on Facebook, and on our blog (http://yolomomonthgo.wordpress.com) – your enthusiasm (even when you despised us as we were posting sunny beach pictures of Thailand during one of the worst winters in Canada) has meant a great deal to us. So, dank je wel, muchas gracias, thank you and merci!

I will try to keep writing about living in Thailand but now we are signing off to spend some quality time with family & friends…Y.O.L.O everyone!

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1. BEST MEMORY OF THE COUNTRIES WE VISITED:

CANADA

Anthony: Driving around Newfoundland in an RV made me proud to be a Canadian. The natural landscape is absolutely stunning.

Rose: Lobster feasts in Nova Scotia with grandpa Jichan, James & Ayako. The kids skinny dipping in the ocean at “Happy Beach”.

Emile: Catching the big codfish with Captain Dave in Newfoundland.

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Felix: Very peaceful RV travel around Newfoundland; you can sleep anywhere you want.

 

HOLLAND

Anthony: Great weather with Oma and Opa in August, as opposed to our many visits during Christmas holidays over the years. The B&B in Maastricht where, without the kids, Rose and I awoke each morning to a breakfast of classical music, linen tablecloth and lekker Dutch treats.

Rose: Seeing my parents show Emile & Filou their country of heritage for the first time….Such joy! Eating herring up-side down, tasting delicious cheeses, climbing windmills, riding bikes in the beautiful countryside, going to the Aalsmeer Flower Market etc.

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EmileThe best was my 10th. birthday celebration with Opa and Oma. And I loved eating all the delicious food.

Felix: Spending amazing times with Opa & Oma. Eating kroketten and Dutch cheese.

 

FRANCE

Anthony: Emile heading off to the supermarket by himself (his independence was starting) and returning not only with a baguette but also a Parisian accent!

Rose: Strolling the local food markets and re-living France memories with the love of my life. This is where it all started!

Emile: Eating Japanese food while dancing in front of the Eiffel Tower.

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Felix: Playing in the beautiful parks of Paris, especially the play park in le Jardin du Luxembourg, one of papa’s favourites.

 

CHINA

Anthony: Walking the labyrinthine streets of the Dong Cheng area of Beijing where there were tons and tons of people walking and eating at all hours of the day. “Shuffling” was the only way to move through the crowds. And rock climbing, it all started in Yangshuo!

Rose: Hiking the wild and most preserved part of the Great Wall of China while taking in the stunning scenery (China & Mongolia). Such a privilege to walk on this incredible structure & piece of history!  And gliding down the beautiful Li river on a bamboo raft in Yangshuo – taking in the stunning Karst mountain scenery.

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Emile: First time rock climbing experience, great food & friends.

Felix: Running ahead of the family on the Great Wall and getting my head shaven.

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VIETNAM

Anthony: First morning in sweltering Ho Chi Minh City, the first taste of Vietnamese coffee knocked me over. By the end of our month, I was making my own and loving it! Pho soup on the streets of Hanoi with Emile and riding a motorcycle in crazy traffic!

Rose: Enjoying the peaceful beach life in Hoi An and riding a motorcycle on the Hai Van Pass – right into the clouds.

Emile: Living through the aftermath of Cyclone Hayan; one of the world’s biggest hurricanes every recorded (lots of rain and wind).

Felix: Everything, especially eating Pho Soup!

 

CAMBODIA

Anthony: Filou getting chased by a monkey at the Angkor Wat temples! Sleeping in a tree hut in the middle of the jungle at the incredible Jasmine Valley in Kep, and helping make a new roof for a family in need in Siem Reap.

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Rose: Seeing the sun come up over Angkor Wat. These temples are truly one-of-a-kind magnificent! And going by boat to gorgeous Rabbit Island in Kep.

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Emile: Tarzan jumping into a beautiful river in Kampot.

Felix: Driving around Phnom Penh with Mr. Key, our amazing tuk-tuk driver

 

THAILAND

Anthony: Booting around on motor scooters, on the left side of the road! The ocean water being almost too warm. Rock climbing with locals and visitors from around the world. Christmas day boating and snorkeling around the islands. New Year’s eve on the beach – kids stayed up until 1am – barely! Hanging with our dads in and around Chiang Mai.

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Rose: Too many great memories – can’t choose one: Christmas Day exploring the stunning islands around Krabi by boat. Riding the back roads of Chiang Mai on a scooter with my 75 year old Dad (and having both grandfathers spent 2.5 weeks with us), seeing the children’s commitment to the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) where we volunteered; an incredible love for animals (elephants, dogs, cats etc.) came to light and….Dancing my way into a new year: 2014 while lighting & lifting lanterns into the sky…projecting that one day soon we would come back to this amazing country. Our two months here were paradise!

Emile: Amazing people, fun on motorcycles, and the awesome experience of helping the elephants at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. Thank you Lek for the amazing work you do to save these beautiful animals. I am going to adopt one (or a dog at your shelter).

Felix: Swimming in the pool at the Best Western. Playing with Zack & Sara on the beach and eating the incredible foods, such as garlic chicken on rice.

 

MALAYSIA

Anthony: Penang and Fiji were tied for hottest places we visited. Fortunately, both had pools. Incredible vegetarian food right outside our apartment – ate lunch there every day after discovering it. Kids’ first music lessons with Nelson near Island Plaza, something which has given us a lot of joy and connection ever since.

Rose: Exploring the amazing street art of Georgetown.  And eating some incredible street food: what a wonderful mix of cultures and tastes, you can find in Penang!

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Emile: Going to the amazing ESCAPE climbing park to celebrate Ian Minton’s birthday (my new friend from the US).

Felix: Starting to take music lessons for the first time: now I love to play the piano!

 

NEW ZEALAND

Anthony: Filou playing non-stop piano in every hostel we visited. At that time, he only knew 2 songs: Mary Had a Little Lamb and Happy Birthday. Just imagine. Great mountain bike ride in Rotorua, stunning scenery and sparking my interest in trail riding.

Rose: Seeing the geothermal activity, geysers and hot mud pools at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland and learning about the fascinating Maori aboriginal culture. For the first time eating lamb that I actually liked! 

Emile: Cool geysers!  Eating delicious lamb, and taking a nice walk around the Auckland Harbour.

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Felix: Incredible poi dance at the aboriginal Maori show.

 

FIJI ISLANDS

Anthony: Definitely the impromptu and incredible dinner with local Japanese eccentric, Taku Murai. In his self-designed house mixing both Fijian (think ventilation) and Japanese features (think sliding walls), he prepared us a feast. After dinner, he shared his philosophy of life with us, much of which was written in English and Japanese all over his wood, unpainted walls. These are the experiences you cannot find in guidebooks. 

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Rose: Being invited by a Japanese man to his house. He promised that he would prepare us a meal we wouldn’t forget. And so he did – scrumptious sushi dinner and interesting conversation with this eccentric, lovely man! And lots of fun pool time.

Emile: Funny Japanese guy and cooking with Seria, making a delicious parrot fish dish.

Felix: Building a fort on the beach and the Japanese man.

 

USA

Anthony: Airport reunion with mom and James, kids screaming and jumping for joy. Family bowling and everyone’s body gestures to help guide the bowling ball. After a delicious Mexican meal, singing Karaoke in the bar, complete with cowboys, line dancing and lots of twang! We sang the Bare Naked Ladies.

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Rose: Hiking the Santa Monica Mountains – enjoying a nice pic-nic lunch and seeing crazy YiaYia (grandmother) still climbing trees to make the kids happy!

Emile: Having fun jumping in the trampoline park and bowling with YiaYia and Nuno.

Felix: Playing in the park with YiaYia and Nuno.

 

PERU

Anthony: Great community in Cusco. Buying the kids their first musical instruments – game changer for their progress. The restaurant owner beside our apartment with gold stars on her teeth – fashion without function? Machu Picchu and other incredible Inca sites. Climbing La Rocca with other families and our guide, Tiffany. Oh, and altitude sickness at 3300 metres during the first week.

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Rose: Taking part in a traditional Depacho ceremony – giving thanks to Pachamama (Mother Earth) for the abundance she provides us each and every day – surrounded by some amazing friends. Spending 3 days on the edge of the Amazon making a commercial for Scotia Bank …and of course, exploring the stunning archeological site of Machu Picchu.

Emile: Making great friends such as Kane Crawford and learning Spanish.

Felix: Having lots of fun with the many friends we made and hiking the hills around Cusco.

 

BOLIVIA

Anthony: Seeing Lake Titicaca as we arrived in Copacabana – reminded me of how much I love water. Our snail-shaped house at Las Olas Hostel. Oh, and the killer llama there – could tell by his gaze. Snow storm during our tour of the Salt Flats, French tourist falling through a hole during a snowball fight with the kids, sleeping in winter coat, gloves, etc.

Rose: Taking incredibly fun pictures on the Salar de Uyuni  (Salt Flats) and taking a boat ride on Lake Titicaca, Copacabana to a floating reef village.

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Emile: Long but beautiful hike on Isla del Sol.

Felix: Uyuni Salt Flat – we took fun pictures and I scooped up lots of salt.

 

ECUADOR

Anthony: Hanging with Filou in Quito while Emile suffered through chicken pox and Rose tended to him. The incredible lightness of being, after yoga sessions in Canoa. Getting into World Cup frenzy with Emile, talking schedules and stats and of course watching the Dutch win their first 4 games. Beautiful beach in Canoa and truly wonderful people there, locals, expats and travellers we met.

Rose: Yoga mornings on the beach with Leanne & bonfires with friends… Of course HUP HOLLAND, and let’s not forget PARAGLIDING!!!

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Emile: Cheering for the Dutch. World Cup frenzy!!!

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Felix: Learning to surf on some amazing waves.

           

GALAPAGOS ISLANDS

Anthony: Snorkelling through the incredible, glass-like water, being a guest in another world while holding Emile’s hand

Rose: Being the first person in the family to see a white-tip reef shark that was swimming right below me!  I screamed loudly so that everyone could swim back and see him too, but they were too late – it was a real big one too! And having a sea-lion play and swim all around me and the kids…so much fun!

Emile:  Snorkeling with the turtles and sharks

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Felix:  Playing with the sea-lions, and playing soccer with David and Martin.

 

2. WHAT WAS THE SINGLE BEST MEAL YOU ENJOYED, AND WHERE WAS THIS?

Anthony: Very difficult, but if I must: Pho Ga on the streets of Hanoi with Emile for $1.50. For each of our 2 nights there, we took a foot massage, followed by the best Pho we have ever tasted.

Rose: Ginger Crab in Kep, Cambodia overlooking the beautiful ocean.

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Emile: Morning Glory (green vegetable dish) in Thailand.

Felix: Noodles in China.

 

3. WHAT WAS YOUR WEIRDEST EXPERIENCE OR OBSERVATION DURING THIS YEAR?

Anthony: I saw anti-corruption messaging on billboards, TV, magazines and newspapers in virtually every country we visited. And at the same time, I was following news of scandal, misappropriation of public funds and dishonesty at every level of government in Canada. Corruption in government is, alas, universal. The difference is the degree and the level of transparency.

Rose: Seeing a skinned dog hanging up-side-down in a Chinese food market (during my cooking class market tour), and learning that many petdogs are killed each Fall as it’s a delicacy on menus during that time of year.  So sorry for the loss of all your dogs ahLong and Jessie!

Emile: Eating Guinea Pig in Peru.

Felix: A lady in a village in Hue, Vietnam grabbing my private part 3 times! Just to be friendly (bit of a crazy custom)!

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4. WHAT WAS YOUR FAVORITY COUNTRY TO VISIT AND WHY?

Anthony: Overall, Thailand had the most checkboxes. But really, every country created unique experiences and memories for us.

Rose: Thailand without a doubt! The amazing hospitality of the Thai people, the scrumptious food, the stunning beaches and mountains, the fun of getting around on motorbikes and the SUN, SUN, SUN!

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Emile: All of them: every country had something special.

Felix: Thailand – cause the food always has a little kick to it and you can swim around some beautiful islands.

 

5. WHAT WAS YOUR SINGLE MOST FUN, EXCITING/THRILLING ACTIVITY?

Anthony: Rosie, you’re killing me – boiling it down to one thing is tough. But I realized that Vietnam had a number of thrilling experiences. Driving through the huge, jam-packed roundabouts in Danang on a motorbike en route to the stunning Hai Van Pass was a nail-biter. Then there was the adventure Emile I took to get to Cat Ba Island from Hanoi, including early morning bus with Vietnamese Karaoke, getting swindled at least twice and seeing a motorcycle death along the way. And once there, we did deep water soloing – climbing rocks without a rope over water – that was also pretty thrilling. Then of course, we returned to you and Filou in central Vietnam only to be evacuated from the beach to an inland hotel because Typhoon Haiyan was coming towards us. So the most thrilling “activity” would have to be Vietnam.

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Rose: Riding a motorbike in Thailand in my bikini – and trying not to hit an elephant – and motoring on a motorbike in the absolute insane traffic of Vietnam where lights or traffic rules do not exist! Paragliding in Canoa, Ecuador and swimming with sharks, huge tortoises and sea lions on the Galapagos Islands.

Emile: Paragliding in Ecuador.

Felix: Climbing up on tall, funky looking climbing walls, playing laser tag, skating and going to the science lab at Kid’s World in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

 

6. BESIDES FAMILY AND FRIENDS: WHAT WAS THE ONE THING YOU MISSED MOST ABOUT HOME & THE ONE THING YOU COULD NOT HAVE DONE WITHOUT ON THE TRIP.

Anthony: Missed most: I didn’t realize how much I missed the clean and green spaces of Toronto until I got home. The world is not so proper and organized. Couldn’t have done without: Besides my co-travellers? My iPhone. Might sound trivial but it was my camera, my connection to locals and folks back home through phone, email and social media. I could have survived with half the clothes, my guitar and my iPhone alone.

Rose: Missed most: Fresh green salads with lots of yummy things in them. Couldn’t have done without: Earplugs; the world is an awfully loud place…and my I-phone for pictures.

Emile: Missed most: Sushi, Greek and Indian Food. Couldn’t have done without: I-Pod to read and contact friends.

Felix: Missed most: Canadian Summer Camp. Couldn’t have done without: My mom.

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7. WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT TRAVELLING THE WORLD?

Anthony: I learned that there are many, many different models for how people live and work and that around the world, some folks actually build their work around their lifestyle – foreign concept for us in the West. I consider myself a tolerant person but I tried even harder not to snap judge those who come at life from a different perspective and who have made choices different from mine.

Rose: Our “once-in-a-lifetime” travel experiences have made me live more in the moment.  They’ve also shown me to value friendships more and be more accepting of others – as people from all around the world have accepted our family this past year and showered us with their kindness. I have learned to have deeper compassion – as it is amazing to see how the rest of the world lives. How can you not care? I also hope that we as a family have lost our sense of “entitlement” and that from now on, we will appreciate that the truly important things in life are not material items, but the creation of unforgettable memories with those you love!   Also, I learned that world schooling is amazing (although I have a whole new respect for teachers) and that travel brings out enormous creativity in children. And finally I have learned to appreciate that there are many ways in which to achieve work-life balance and enjoy life!

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Emile: That I am very lucky to have what I have!

Felix: I never thought Asia would be so poor and that you can make nice friends all around the world.

 

8. WHAT NEW THINGS HAVE YOU TRIED DURING THIS TRIP

As the list would be very long, here is a family recap:

A = Anthony, R=Rose, E=Emile, F=Filou

Family: Paragliding, swimming with white-tipped fin sharks, huge turtles, sea lions, penguins, rays and other amazing marine creatures, eating guinea pig, sitting in a cave mud bath, swimming in a hot & cold geyser stream, floating on a bamboo raft down a beautiful river surrounded by Karst mountains, dancing on stage in front of the Eiffel Tower, going out on a night boat to see fire-flies, rock-climbing and deep-water soloing, eating cricket cookies, flying on a 6-seater plane, volunteering at an amazing Elephant Park.

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Plus for….

Anthony: Let’s just say that I am now a Spanish-speaking rock climber and yogi who has reconnected with his musical sensibilities and enjoys reading somewhat esoteric French novels. Oh, I have tried, and succeeded, in not wearing a tie for a year!

Rose: Blogging, learning to deep-sea dive, be an actress in a commercial, riding a motorcycle on the left side of the road, in insane traffic with no rules, with a child in the back, preparing to be evacuated for a hurricane, learning what world and un-schooling is all about, taking a Chinese and Vietnamese cooking class in the local countryside.

Emile & Filou: Learning to surf, zip-lining, fishing a 30LB lake fish (E), learning to play the guitar (E) and piano (F) and sing, performing music on stage, presenting world travel to a group of Dutch school kids (E), cheering on the Dutch soccer team like never before (E), standing up in the back of a pick-up truck that was driving fast, making a bon-fire by myself (E), learning Spanish, hand-weaving a bracelet, poi dancing (F), skinny dipping, holding a live lobster, taking a Vietnamese cooking class (made a delicious curry – F), riding on a FAST motorcycle with no helmet while being squeezed between mom & the driver (F), learning to compose my first original song (F), karaoke singing, volunteering in a dog shelter, collecting starfish out of the ocean, sleeping in a hotel completely made out of salt, being chased by a monkey (F) and getting our first massages in Cambodia and Thailand.

Boys Massages 

9. DESCRIBE WHAT THIS PAST YEAR HAS BEEN LIKE FOR YOU. WAS IT WHAT YOU EXPECTED IT TO BE?

Anthony: On the surface, it was an unforgettable experience of new places, new friends and tons of discoveries, both geographic and gastronomic. But below that surface, I think we will realize gradually how the year has taught us to communicate better, to appreciate more and to contextualize our life through a broader perspective. As a parent, one of the profound takeaways was of course sharing these experiences with the boys, discussing their impressions and watching them learn and develop. Virtually everyone we met was excited about how such a trip would shape them as men. And while I, too, am eager to see how they develop following this year of privileged family time, there’s a part of me that just wants to hold on to those moments of holding their hand while walking on a beach in a far off country somewhere in the world.

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Rose: I only had one major goal for this year and that was to experience, learn and grow as a family: to create unforgettable memories for a lifetime. This year has given me all that and sooooooooo much more!

Emile: It was so much more exciting – and we made so many more friends than I expected!

Felix: Exactly what I expected. Very best year of my life!

 

10. WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT STARTING A NEW ADVENTURE IN BANGKOK, THAILAND?

Anthony: I’m inspired and grateful that we have found a way to combine the adventure of travel and so-called normal life. Thailand holds new opportunities for growth for all of us: the kids in an international school (or any school, for that matter!) and Rose and I starting a business in the ASEAN region. We are also fortunate that all family members are unselfish and lovingly supportive of our decision.

Rose: Just thrilling…A new start which will once again bring many new learnings, challenges and incredible joys.  Thailand, here we come!

Emile: Can’t wait, it’s going to be awesome!

Felix: I am excited about going to Lycée Français International de Bangkok as this school has a science lab, track & field, pool etc. Here I will be meeting lots of new, international friends.

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11. WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE OTHERS ABOUT FOLLOWING THEIR DREAMS?

Anthony: I don’t have any advice. While I realize this year of travel was a big deal in many respects, for me it was just something we needed to do. The tour itself was truly amazing, but I don’t think that our decision to do it was amazing. It just felt right for our family at this time, and so we went with that feeling.

Rose: As one who LOVES to travel and enjoys being on the water, this quote sums it up for me: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain

Emile: Just do it. It’s awesome…make the most of it!

Felix: Following your dreams will make you HAPPY!

With incredible thanks and gratitude to Anthony, Emile and Filou for their exploratory and open minds. You guys have made this world travel experience for me what it was; a life-changing, incredible journey that I will carry in my heart forever. You are the loves of my life. Now and always!

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BOLIVIA: Sucre and the Uyuni Salt Flats

3 Jun

Sucre

Sucre, the symbolic heart of Bolivia (as it was here that independence was proclaimed) is a real showpiece of a city. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991, the nation’s capital has a rich historical past that is reflected in its many whitewashed buildings, churches and mansions. Sucre is one of the most representative colonial cities of America and during its time, it was very much a Spanish one.

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The multitude of narrow, quaint streets gives the city a definite European feel. And, we instantly fell in love with the beauty and warmth of this ancient South-American town (how delightful to wear our sandals again!). Sucre’s lower elevation of about 2800 metres (compared to La Paz) and its beautiful valley setting (surrounded by low mountains) give it its wonderful temperate climate.

The city is also known for its culture and art. Our hostel; Hostal CasArte Takubamba was decorated with numerous original art works (made by the establishment’s owner). It was a nice hide-away place for a week as it had a wonderful courtyard to enjoy meals (with new friends) and a spunky black whisky dog that the kids adored.

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One of the art pieces at Hostal CasArte Takubamba

 

Festival de Teatro Escenctual Boliviano

We were lucky to be in Sucre during the time of “Festival de Teatro Escenactual”; a local film and theatre festival. Anthony’s love of the theatre compelled him to attend one of the plays called “El Pacto” (the pact); a funny staging about a research couple making a pact to research “love” but then fall for each other in the process.

Anthony really enjoyed his evening (although he had to concentrate to get all the finer details in Spanish).  But then, to his delight, he found the play’s director Fernando Arze, and principal actress Andrea Ibanez Pantoja at our hostel’s breakfast table the next morning. This of course sparked a stimulating conversation about the intricacies of the play and theatre in general.

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Anthony and with his theatre friends from El PactoDirector Fernando, actress Andrea and technician Brian.

 

Dinosaurs

However, it was not the art but Sucre’s dinosaur discoveries that intrigued the children.  This town actually offers evidence of their existence – how cool is that? So off we where to Parque Cretácico!

The Cretaceous Park is home to the largest paleontological site in the world and it’s here that you can see the largest collection of dinosaur tracks. We were excited!

For starters, the entrance had welcoming dinosaur heads. And, included with our admission was a complimentary guided tour. But first, we sat down and watched the BBC production: “Walking with Dinosaurs” which was quite informative (I’ve never seen the kids sit so still for 1 hour – they were intrigued!).

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At the entrance of Parque Cretácico!

Then, we strolled the outdoor exhibit that showed life-size replicas of various dinosaurs, complete with recorded sounds of ferocious roaring (the replicas were apparently made by sculptors who worked under the direction of renowned scientists). There was one HUGE dinosaur (couldn’t even take a picture of it – it was so big); apparently the largest replica in the world, of an impressive Titanosaurus. Now we have some impressive dinosaur replicas at our Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto and perhaps our friend Kiron Mukherjee from ROM Kids (http://romkids.tumblr.com) can confirm/deny who has the biggest replica but nevertheless, it was a cool, large dino!

Ps: Emile and Filou are writing regular posts for ROM kids about their world travels (with Kiron as their cool, encouraging mentor!)

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Life size dinosaur replica

Finally, we got to see the massive limestone cliff that reveals 5055 dinosaur tracks of at least 8 species. There are even continuous tracks from a mid sized carnivore, which apparently is a world record. Definitely, a very unique site!

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Limestone cliff that reveals 5055 dinosaur tracks from at least 8 different species

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Dinosaur footprint

 

Origenes Cultural Show

On our last night in Sucre, we took in some local culture and attended the Origenes – Espacio Cultural (http://www.origenesbolivianos.com)Folklore show.

This 2-hour performance featured many of the traditional Bolivian dances, plus a theatrical rendition of Bolivia’s colonial history.  The children loved it as the show was very colorful and gave us the opportunity to see some of Bolivia’s elaborate Carnival and dance costumes, as well as many cool moves (especially by the male dancers)!

Bolivian Dance

Origenes; a Bolivian Folklore Show

 

Uyuni Salt Flats

After our relaxing days in Sucre, it was time for a long bus ride to get to the Uyuni Salt Flats. We chose Red Planet Expedition (www.redplanetexpedition.com) for our 3-day, 2-night tour. Together with our funny driver Pepe, informative guide Carlos and fellow world-travellers Pierre and Isabelle from Lille, France we set off in our packed, white, 4×4 for adventure.

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Our 4×4

Salar de Uyuni is the world largest salt flat at 10,582 km2 (4,086 square miles) – it’s huge and so impressive!  The salt flats are part of the Altiplano of Bolivia that is a high plateau that was formed during an uplift of the Andes Mountains. This plateau includes fresh and saltwater lakes as well as salt flats – and is surrounded by the most stunning mountains and semi-active volcanoes.

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Semi-active Volcano

It is estimated that Salar de Uyuni contains 10 billion tonnes of salt, of which less than 25,000 tonnes is extracted annually. The plateau is covered by a few metres of salt crust, which has an extraordinary flatness – with average altitude variations within one metre over the entire area of the Salar. The crust serves as a source of salt and covers a pool of brine, which is exceptionally rich in lithium. It contains 50 to 70% of the world’s lithium reserves (used to make such things as car and cell phone batteries).

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Emile with piles of salt

The incredibly large area of the Salar de Uyuni with its clear blue skies, and exceptional flatness of surface make it an ideal object for funny perspective photos (there is a mirror like effect as if you were standing on sheets of ice). As we took too many funny and beautiful shots, a separate photo blog will be dedicated to the Salt Flats, but for now here is Filou’s favorite picture:

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Filou crushing his family

After some fun picture taking time, we moved onto Inca Huasi Island or Fish Island (due to its shape), which houses about 4030 giant cacti.

These cacti grow at a rate of about 1 centimetre per year to a height of about 12 metres (39 feet)!  The hike to the top of this island gave us a remarkable 360-degree view of the amazing Salt Flats.

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Emile on Inca Huasi Island that houses 4030 giant cacti

In the desert wastelands that surround the Salar, we also saw some interesting rock formations that had eroded, shaped by the wind and rain over time.

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Rock formation looking like a condor

And of course, we saw the pink flamingos. There are about 80 species of birds in the National Park but the flamingos are the most common. There are 3 types of them; the Chilean Flamingo, the Andean and the James Flamingo – all of them get the pink colour in their plumage due to the red algae they eat.

Here is me with a James Flamingo (soft pink with a black tail):

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With a James Flamingo

And of course, we saw several llama and vicuna herds roaming the plains.

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Herd of Vicunas

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And llamas 

Due to some unexpected, severe weather (snow and hail), the last two days of our tour kind of bombed.  Although we stayed in a fun salt hotel (where everything from the walls, to the tables and chairs were made of hardened salt) and made some great connections with the other group members on the tour (Filou was the evening’s entertainment with his wide range of jokes), we were absolutely freezing and ready to get back.

We had the option to get get dropped off at the Chilean border, and although that sounded very tempting, our flight to Ecuador made more sense from La Paz.  Therefore, we took the very bumpy, Todo Turismo Bus (http://www.todoturismo.bo/?&lang=en) ride back during the night to the capital city of Bolivia. And it is from here that we are taking a flight to our 15th and last country.

Ecuadorian beach and Galapagos Islands, here we come!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BOLIVIA: Copacabana, Lake Titicaca and La Paz

17 May

With Tour Peru (http://www.tourperu.com.pe/), we took the apparently “dangerous” bus trip into Bolivia.  It all worked out just fine: our journey from Cusco to Puno was overnight – and having booked the cama seats, we settled into oversized, leather chairs that turned into comfortable beds (although the road was rather bumpy; a great sleep tool for some!).

From Puno, we took another bus and drove to Yunguyo, where we crossed the border into yet again, another fabulous country. As Canadians, we are lucky that good relations exist and we do not have to pay hefty entrance fees (like e.g. our American counterparts who pay $135.00 US per person to enter Bolivia).  However, the border process is still an interesting one.

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First, we needed to get exit stamps at the Peruvian side (we couldn’t find the white exit ticket from my passport so that involved more bureaucracy; copying passport pages, paying extra fees etc.). Then we lined up for two different Bolivian state offices to get our entrance documentation. Once completed, we walked across state lines and got back into the bus (with some cheers as we were the last ones!) for our final leg into Copacabana.

Copacabana – Lake Titicaca

Copacabana is a delightful, small town on Lago (lake) Titicaca. The first thing you’ll notice driving into town is this breathtaking lake (apparently the largest freshwater lake in South America and the highest of the world’s large lakes at 3,810 metres or 12,507 feet above sea level). We all quickly realized how much we missed WATER. The sight of this stunning blue body of agua, overshadowed by rays of sunshine put our bodies at ease and gave smiles to our faces.

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Lake Titicaca

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The picturesque town of Copacabana

We smiled even more when we saw what our accommodations were going to be like for the next 3 nights. Our apartment was a 2 level deluxe house, shaped in the form of huge snail shell. The boys were thrilled! Moreover, two free-roaming llamas and colourful hammocks in our garden and in-room fireplace made it the coolest place we stayed in so far. Our “snail house” was located high up on a hill – and had many, small circular windows that gave fabulous views over the lake and nightly spectacle of stars. Hostal Las Olas (http://hostallasolas.com) was the place to be in town and honestly, we had the best hideaway. What a treat!

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Our fabulous “Snail House”

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Our llamas – here in a cage but usually roaming freely in our garden

After a good coffee at El Condor & The Eagle Cafe, we set off to explore the town. We noticed right away that the merchants in Bolivia are much less commercial (“pushy”), then their Peruvian counterparts; we could easily browse without being bombarded with selling tactics. It was a refreshing change and speaks to the less-developed and down-to-earth nature of this country.

When we walked towards the Lake, we met a nice American-Bolivian family (the mother Sonia had left the United States to return to her roots in Bolivia after her divorce. Her daughter Sylvia who still lived in America was visiting her mom & new husband). Together with the three of them, we took a boat tour on Lake Titicaca to one of the floating islands (that the area is so well-known for).

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With Sylvia, Sonia & husband

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Floating Reed Island

The islets are made of reeds, which grow in the lake. The dense roots that these plants develop and interweave, form a natural layer called Khili (about one to two metres thick) that support the islands. They are anchored with ropes attached to sticks driven into the bottom of the lake. The reeds at the bottom of the islands rot away fairly quickly, so new reeds are added to the top constantly, about every three months (or more in the rainy season). These islands are constructed so smartly and apparently last about thirty years.

Although we carefully stepped onto the reed island (the reeds break more and more as they are walked upon), we still sank about 3 inches and had to stabilize ourselves. Once settled, we were invited to come and scoop our own “truita” (trout fish) out of one of the ponds (the trout fish was introduced into the Lake in 1940 from Canada). Five jumpy fish were caught, killed, filleted and cooked to perfection within 20 minutes. Freshness never tasted better – so delicious!

After a nice meal and wonderful chat, we climbed a nearby rock to take in the stunning surroundings from above. It was so nice to be on the water again and for me to take pictures of the colourful, local boats. We all thoroughly enjoyed our day on this famous lake.

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On top of the mountain, enjoying the view over Lake Titicaca

 

Isla del Sol

The water kept pulling us and the next day we set off on another boat tour – this time heading for Lake Titicaca’s largest island; Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun). This gorgeous, rocky, hilly island (with harsh terrain, no paved roads or motor vehicles) is located about 2 hours from Copacabana.

Upon arrival, we were told that hiking from the North to the South part of the Island would take about 2.5 hours (3 hours max).  We enthusiastically took off walking, on a very picturesque mountain path  – with stunning views of the lake all alongside us. Filou was so in his element; he must have climbed every steep slope he could find in the first couple of hours (we told him to conserve some energy but he wouldn’t hear of it)!

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Isla del Sol

We had about 4.5 hours to make it in time for our return boat so felt that we could easily accomplish this task (although Anthony was limping a bit as he had twisted his ankle in the morning and we had forgotten to take extra money out of the bank machine so we had some pressure to make it back to our boat in time, as we had no funds to stay the night).

We admired the island’s many rolling hills that contain beautiful agricultural terraces. These terraces adapt the island’s steep and rocky terrain into agriculture – the main activity of the approximately 800 families living there. It was quite laughable that several much older, native ladies with their donkeys and extremely heavy back loads were quickly surpassing us while climbing the hills (and we thought we were somewhat in shape after globetrotting for 9 months)!

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But we enjoyed the spectacular views, had great family chats and were happy for the first 2-3 hours. It was then when we realized we were up for a major challenge. Crossing this island was not a small task at all – and it took us much longer then anticipated (it didn’t help that there was no signage at all which made us take a wrong turn and that Emile also started to limp as he had made a small slip down a rock).

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Our climbing goat on Isla Del Sol

We were already envisioning what sleeping on the beach would be like…but the kids really wanted to get back to our beautiful “Snail House”. They tried to help and rushed out in front of us to make it in time for the boat. By this time Anthony’s foot was really hurting and although he was a trooper – he and I were exactly 5 minutes late for the boat. Do you think they would wait for us (even with pleas from the children)? NO! We couldn’t believe seeing the boat take off right in front of us.

Thank goodness there was another boat that took us back ½ hour later…and although we accomplished one of our hardest hikes to date, the beautiful start to the day, had a bit of a nasty aftertaste.

However, our last day in Copacabana was a good one again as we bumped into the lovely French family we had met in Cusco. We enjoyed a wonderful dinner out with Renaud, Severine and their 2 children; Mahé and Delpheé, as well as their friends from Germany. There were some great laughs all around and I was happy to have a drinking buddy for the night (and a French one no less!). Together Severine and I finished a nice bottle of red, which was the perfect ending to a wonderful stay in Copacabana!

And so we left the city, after being chased down the many stairs of Hostal Las Olas by the llamas in our garden (we did not want to leave with some llama spit on us, so made a real bee-line not to cross them). One of the more determined llama’s chased another couple in so much haste, that it tripped over a water hose and almost landed on Anthony and our suitcases. What a story that would have been! But full of gratitude for our fantastic stay at Las Olas and unharmed from llama attack we left to take a bus to La Paz.

 

La Paz

Driving into the city of La Paz was quite a unique experience, and one that quickly had us in awe. We were first welcomed by the imposing, triple peaked and snow-capped Illimani Mountain (6402 meters) and then by the city itself. La Paz sits in a bowl surrounded by high mountains. As it grew, the city climbed the hills resulting in varying elevations of 3,200 to 4,100 meters. It was quite the sight!

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La Paz and Mount Illimani

To learn about La Paz, we took the city’s FREE walking tour organized by Red Cap City Tours (http://www.redcapwalkingtours.com). We gathered at 11:00 am at Plaza San Pedro and were welcomed by two bright, well-informed, English speaking ladies that were ready to show us their vibrant town.

They first taught us about the infamous San Pedro prison. This correctional facility is quite a unique one! There are no uniformed prison guards but elected inmate leaders enforce the laws of the community (with stabbings being commonplace!). Not only is the prison home to about 1,500 inmates, who are there mostly because of drug-related charges, but their spouses and children also live with them inside.

What is so unique is that inmates have to buy or rent their accommodation and the sale of cocaine to visiting tourists helps them make money (how ironic as they were incarcerated for drug offences in the first place!). The prison has many living quarters and the wealthiest area “La Posta” provides inmates with private bathrooms, a kitchen, and even cable television or a hot tub! And there is a hospital inside the prison, as well as multiple churches and a hotel for visiting guests – how bizarre!

Although no longer allowed, due to several accidents (who would think?), the prison was an infamous tourist attraction until recently. Youngsters had the opportunity to pay a fee and go into the facility to visit with inmates for fun. The book Marching Powder by Rusty Young describes the experiences of the British inmate Thomas McFadden who became known for offering prison tours to tourists. However, one should think before getting involved with drugs in Bolivia and ending up in this jail as most of the inmates are still waiting (15 years!), to get their “fair” trial.

From there we visited Rodriguez Market – a lively street market where the prominent item sold is the potato. In just Peru and Bolivia alone there are some 10,000 different varieties of potatoes, in colours ranging from green, to black, to pink and white (we saw a lots of chunos; white potatoes that are freeze-dried and can last up to 20-30 years).

Another market of great interest in La Paz is the Witches Market. We were looking forward to passing through this neigbourhood with its colourful stalls and fascinating ingredients (herbs, parts of frogs and insects used for rituals as well as colourful soapstone figurines and other offerings). However, we were quickly a little disturbed as the most prominent product available here are dried llama fetuses (fairly large ones too!). The locals believe that a llama fetus needs to be buried  in the foundation of their new house or business as an offering to Pachamama (Mother Earth). 

And the girls of Red Cap Tours told us the crazy story that sometimes street people are buried alive in the foundation of large buildings as a larger offering – we all just focused on believing this was a true urban myth as it was too crazy a story!

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Llama fetuses in La Paz’s Witches Market – good luck offerings for Pachamama

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Soapstone figures and other colourful offerings

Upon departing the area, we also saw a yatiri or witch doctor, all dressed in black with a dark hat. He was carrying his coca pouch (used to help him tell fortunes). But we are not superstitious and prefer to leave the spirits where they belong so passed on getting details about our future. Why jinx our awesome travelling fortune when we have great wealth and happiness already?

We then saw the gorgeous cathedral at San Francisco Plaza and moved to Plaza Murillo where we learned about Bolivian politics and history. By this time the kids were losing a bit of interest and wanted to feed the pigeons in the plaza – what a delight; there was crazy laughter!

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Feeding the pigeons in Plaza Murillo

All in all a fantastic tour… and from the top of Hotel Presidente (where we had an awesome view of the city), we said goodbye to our lovely tour guides.

The next day was Mother’s Day, which we celebrated in style at Sol Y Luna, a wonderful Dutch café, decorated appropriately with Holland flags and orange banners.  The best was the “Broodje Kroket Sate” (bread crumbed fried meat roll on bread): we all were in heaven. So delicious!I was in my element and happily hummed along with some great Dutch tunes (which I unfortunately didn’t recognize – must have been away from Holland too long) and after we played a fun game of billiards, it was time to wrap up the day.  I received a beautiful orange llama poncho as my mother’s day gift and with that, our visit to this interesting city was complete.

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Dutch style; orange Ponchito for Mother’s Day

Next it is onto the Bolivian capital of Sucre!