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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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NEW ZEALAND – AUCKLAND, ROTORUO, LAKE TAUPO and TAURANGA

13 Mar

Kia Ora or Welcome to New Zealand, the youngest country in the world! This beautiful, far-away land of rolling hills, gorgeous lakes & mountains, volcanoes, aboriginal culture and lots and lots of sheep, has always intrigued me.  Perhaps this is because I grew up with a Dad that was surrounded by wool and sheep all his life. Being the director of a woolen cloth manufacturing plant, he so much idealized the little lamb (as they gave him the quality wool for his yarn), he vowed never to eat one (and so neither did we as a family!).  When our travel agent told us that the cheapest way to get from SE Asia to South America, was via New Zealand and Fiji Islands, I was thrilled.

Auckland

We arrived in the capital of Auckland after an 11.5-hour flight from Malaysia. Following an eventful night (where I miscalculated the time difference which landed us on the street without accommodations at 2:00 am in the morning!), we were ready to explore the city.

Auckland seemed so very modern and sophisticated to us, after 6 months of China & S-E Asia…as well as incredibly expensive! But thank goodness for the fabulous big kitchen at Attic Backpackers (www.atticbackpackers.co.nz/), that not only provided us with the opportunity to make our own meals again (although weird being back in the kitchen after almost 8 months), but also gave Filou the chance to repeatedly play the 4 songs he had just learned (to the delight of the young backpackers, some of whom even wanted to learn his cool tunes!) on the wonderful blue piano that was housed there.

On our first day, we took in the crisp, sunny air and headed towards Auckland’s well-designed and colourful waterfront area. From oversized chairs to stunning boats and brightly painted crates and silos – the area was delightful to stroll along.  We even took in a free video-arts exhibition in one of the silos, where we sat down in beanbags and lied on oversized cushions while seeing the most stunning nature scenes of New Zealand pass by on screen (each video was accompanied by an original piece of beautifully crafted music).

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At Auckland’s harbourfront area

Guided by the brilliantly crafted questions from the book Living on the Loose (www.familyontheloose.com), the children had 2 fabulous hours of art discovery at the Auckland Art Gallery – Toi o Tamaki (http://www.aucklandartgallery.com). To properly discover a few of the 15,000 visual arts pieces there, Emile and Filou went on a mini-art scavenger hunt and skillfully answered questions and made art drawings – visiting a museum this way was great fun! And this free gallery, located in the World Building of the Year 2013, houses such an eclectic collection of art pieces, that we all had an informative and enjoyable afternoon.

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Fun explorations at the Auckland Art Gallery

To further explore the North Island (unfortunately we did not have enough time to also see the South Island during our 2-week stay), we bought ourselves the handy Volcanic Explorer Pass from Intercity (http://travelpass.intercity.co.nz/itineraries/North/7), and travelled by bus from Auckland to Rotorua to Taupo to Tauranga and back to Auckland.

Rotorua

Rotorua (the Maori name for “second lake”) is a city on the southern shores of Lake Rotorua in the Bay of Plenty area (2.5 hours south of Auckland). The city is well-known for its geothermal activity, geysers and hot mud pools, so one our our first visits was to Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland (www.waiotapu.co.nz). We rented a cute little Mini for the day (appropriately named Little Blue by the boys), and travelled along Thermal Explorer Highway (SH 5) to reach this scenic reserve & thermal area.

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Filou in “Little Blue”, our cute Mini rental car 

This conservation zone is literally covered with collapsed craters, cold and boiling pools of mud, water and steaming fumeroles (opening in a volcano, through which hot sulfurous gases emerge).  Wanting to take it all in, we started off by witnessing the Lady Knox Geyser erupt. Although helped a little by a small, eco-friendly soap deposit, it was pretty spectacular to experience as it reached heights of 10-15 metres!

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The eruption of the Lady Knox Geyser

Before we set off on our exploratory walk through the park, we visited the fascinating Mud Pools; violent, boiling, plopping mud that smelled of rotten eggs (due to the hydrogen sulphide – H2S).  After a quick look, we moved on and soon after reached the Artist’s Palette and Champagne Pool – undoubtedly the favorites, due to their innumerable colours (which are all natural tints; there because of the numerous minerals).

The Champagne Pool, which apparently is unique in the world (as it has a fifth of a hectare of bubbling, hissing water), has a beautiful, ochre edge. And the Artist’s Palette, a panorama of hot and cool pools and steaming, hissing fumeroles had an amazing variety of ever-changing colour (yellow, green, orange, red-brown etc.) which we could observe up-close as our walking path went right over it. Thank goodness nobody veered from the path, as beneath the ground we would find a system of streams which are heated by magma left over from earlier volcanic eruptions; temperature: 300C!

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Family by the Champagne Pool

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Ochre red edge at the Champagne Pool

The most bright and colourful of pools was Devil’s Bath, located near the end of our park-journey. The water was so incredibly green – almost fluorescent; it seemed like it had walked away from a movie set, where someone had wanted to use some enhanced colouring to make for a better scene – WOW! The sheer beauty of Mother Nature was evident in the sizzling earth, rising steam, colourful springs and huge volcanic craters at Wai-O-Tapu.  Emile was most impressed with the huge craters – well over a dozen, some formed by eruptions, others by internal chasms.  They were certainly impressive, and after our exploratory morning, we all understood why Wai-O-Tapu (sacred waters) is known to be New Zealand’s most colourful and diverse volcanic area.

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 Devil’s Bath at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland

In the afternoon, we took our Little Blue and drove along the many gorgeous lakes in the area. Our first stop was Blue Lake, a stunning deep blue lake – a favorite local hotspot for boating and swimming (although it was very windy there, the water was particularly warm).  The lake also boasted a fantastic large climbing structure and play-park, where the children had great fun climbing into the sky and making friends with local Kiwis. From there we continued our trip and ended up on another lake where we saw black swans, and Emile and Filou gave a fun dance performance on a local dock. Following some tea and scones at the coffee shop of an excavated Maori village (buriedvillage.co.nz/), we were ready to head back to our wonderful home-base: Rotorua Central Backpackers (www.rotoruacentralbackpackers.co.nz).

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Some cuddles at the Lake with the black swans

  

Mitai Maori Village

To learn about New Zealand’s indigenous people & their way of life, we spent an evening at The Mitai Maori Village (www. Mitai.co.nz) – a sacred and spiritual place that was created by the local Mitai family. As this Maori tribe had no means of written language, all their history is passed down through story telling, songs and carvings – means by which they teach the younger generations, and educate the “outsiders” – while offering a unique, cultural experience.

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Filou with Maori carving

Our evening started off by a brief introduction about the Maori people and some impressive welcome words by our evening’s host (he welcomed all 27 nations present in their native tongue!). We were then invited to the unveiling of our traditionally cooked hangi meal.  Large trays of lamb, chicken, stuffing and kumara (sweet potatoes) that were all steamed in a hangi pit, were lifted from the ground and shown to us. We were totally salivating already (the smell was so good), but our show was first.   

We walked through a natural bush setting and reached a small body of water; the Wai-o-whiro stream. Warrior chantings became more and more audible, and slowly a hand carved waka (war canoe) with 5 traditionally dressed and menacing looking warriors appeared. What a unique experience!  We then, moved to an open-air theatre were we were welcomed by the Maori Chief.  He taught us that the Maori originate from Polynesian, particularly from the Tahitian Island. That they are related to the people of Tahiti, Cook Islands, Hawaii, Easter Island, Samoa, Tonga and many more. Their language is similar, although their culture is different. The Maori tribes have inhabited New Zealand for over 2000 years and in this country, they all speak the same language although they are made up of over 70 main tribal groups.

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Maori warriors in their waka

The Mitai family then captivated us with displays of weaponry and combat, and with the beauty of their songs and dance. Filou’s favorite was definitely the poi dance  (poi dancers swing weights or balls on a taura – cord, and move them in a variety of rhythmical and geometric patterns). In Maori, poi is practiced by women only, although its first use was by men who developed wrist flexibility for the use of weapons, by repeatedly hitting the inside of their wrists.

Last but not least, the Maori Chief explained the significance of the Ta Moko to us. The Maori people are decorated with the Ta Moko or tattoo art that covers large parts of their faces and legs. On their faces, the men have 4 birds; the bat (wisdom), the parrot (skill in speech making), the owl (protection) and the kiwi bird (protection of Mother Earth). The women only wear the owl on their chins.  The men’s tattoos, located on their legs represent ocean waves that mean power and speed.  The spiral on their backsides represent Mother Earth and energy patterns of Mother Nature found in the wind and waters.

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Emile with one of the Maori’s girls, decorated with the Ta Moko

To show off their tattoos and scary facial expressions (wide eyes and menacing looks; the scarier the Maori warrior looks, the more beautiful they are considered to be), the Mitai family gave us a final expressive dance full of quick, determined movements and loud screams. Then, with this appropriate farewell message: Ma te kaihanga kotou e tiaki e manaaki i roto I nga haerenga katoa (let the creator guide and protect you in all your travels), the performance was concluded and we were on our way to a scrumptious dinner (I promised the kids I would try the lamb – sorry Dad – and I have to say that it was quite tasty.  They thought it was “outta this world”).

On our way back to the bus we walked once more through the bush where we saw glow-worms in their natural habitat and observed crystal clear water full of trout.  All in all, we had a very informative and fun evening with the Mitai Maoris.

Redwood Forest

The diverse range of exotic tree species and panoramic views, have made The Redwoods (http://redwoods.co.nz) one of Roturua’s great treasures. This forest is well-known for its network of superb mountain biking, walking trails and of course the incredible Silver Ferns (New Zealand’s national symbol) and Californian Coast Redwoods (wow, are these trees ever impressive!). We love to take in the outdoors, so for our last afternoon in the city, we decided to head for the woods for some hiking.  Our 2-hour hike just gave us a glimpse into the magnificence of this spectacular forest – but we thoroughly enjoyed it.  However, there were some envious eyes towards the mountain bikers who were flying by and having fun on the expertly created and exhilarating mountain paths. A shame it was so expensive to rent bikes here, but the determination of my 3 boys is there now; let’s take up the thrilling sport of mountain biking once we are back!

The delicious smells of pine and fresh forest air, the beautiful towering trees and the overall tranquility of The Redwoods really invigorated us all!  And with this last outing we said good-bye to Rotorua and hello to Taupo.

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 Little break on a Redwood

Taupo

Beautiful Lake Taupo is New Zealand’s largest lake, and the city of Taupo sits at the edge of this body of water, besides the Waikoto River. Taupo is known for its watersports, fishing (one of the last wild trout fisheries in the world) and adventure tourism. As soon as we drove into town, we were mesmerized by the views – there was this stunning big blue lake, with snow-capped mountains in the distance!  Over the lake, there were red helicopters providing what I can only imagine were stunning aerial views, white parachutes dropping from the sky – providing the dare-devils with a thrill, and numerous sailboats and colourful parachutes (para-sailing).

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Helicopter that flies over Lake Taupo 

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Harbour at Lake Taupo

Huka Falls

The Waikoto River flows over a spectacular waterfall called the Huka Falls. As Emile and I were in the mood for a hike, we headed a short distance north of Taupo, by bus, to reach these Falls. There, the water is forced through a narrow rock canyon and then thunders 11 metres down into a circular pool. Appropriately, the Maori name for Huka means “foam”.  We wanted to take a “selfie” at Huka and had fun doing so, although unfortunately the sunglasses that were sitting on top of my head made a plunge into the roaring water (thank god they were only the $5 kind from Cambodia)!

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Our selfie at Huka Falls

From this spectacular water scene, we took the Haka Falls Spa Park; a track that follows the Waikato River above the Huka Falls.  Emile and I enjoyed over 2.5 hours of fantastic views (unique trees, beautiful birds and the bluest of waters) and a great chat, while hiking back to town. On our way, we came across Anthony and Filou, who had decided to rent some mountain bikes (www.gordononline.co.nz/) and were doing their best to master the hilly path. A little further on, we all came across a natural hot stream that flows into the cold river water. It was here that Emile and I bathed for a bit – a real unique feeling to sit in spa like hot tub in the middle of a cold river amidst the most beautiful of scenery. Y.O.L.O!

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Enjoying the natural hot stream

We continued along and near the end of the walk, came across the Taupo Bungy Site (www.taupobungy.co.nz/). Here we stopped for a bit to enjoy the marvelous views down into the river’s gorge and see one brave soul plunge into the deep-end (my knees were shaking, just standing on the bridge watching him!).  Emile thought he could do it, but I moved him along quickly….All in all, a great active hike and mother-son bonding time.

Tauranga

For our one night in Tauranga, we checked into the Taipororo Mansion Guesthouse (http://www.bayofplentynz.com/main/product/?product=taiparoro-mansion), an absolutely lovely place that surprised us in every way. Memphis, the owner, was a friendly, bubbly artist whose works were displayed all over the gorgeous, well-kept mansion. After a very, restful night in a large poster bed, we took a nice walk along the water and realized how very beautiful Tauranga was (we thought it to be just a large port town but o, were we mistaken!!). While enjoying breakfast on the beach in the morning sun, I got chatting with two lovely, local ladies; one of whom was Panilla. This Swedish-Kiwi could not believe that we only had a few hours in Tauranga and was determined that we would not leave her town without seeing the “Mount”.  As the kids were having too much fun, playing in a local park – Anthony stayed behind and I went off for a drive with this wonderful stranger!

What I learned from Panilla was that “The Mount” is what the locals call Mount Maunagui, a lovely beach town that occupies a peninsula at the southern end of the Tauranga Harbour. The peninsula is a huge sandbar with a sheltered bay on the inner harbor side and a wonderful beach (fantastic for surfing apparently), on the Pacific ocean side. At the tip of the peninsula is Mauao, a dormant volcano, which looked like a large, green mountain full of sheep and lovely walking paths to me!  Panilla told me that Mauao had just been given back to the Maoris, but that the walking paths were still open for everyone to enjoy.  How I wished I had more time to take in this beautiful little harbour and lush greenery.  But I enjoyed a lovely chat and coffee with Panilla in the lively area of “The Mount”, and hen raced back with her, in time to catch our bus to Auckland.

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Mount Maunagui at “The Mount” in Taranga

And so after a last quick overnight stop in Auckland, we said good-bye to the 4 million Kiwis and 40 million sheep!  I have tasted good lamb for the first time in my life and have enjoyed the superb Kiwi hospitality (thank you stranger Sylvia for driving me back from the Taupo Pak ‘n Save so I didn’t have to walk back to our hostel with 5 bags of groceries in the burning sun, Neil from Roturua Central Backpackers for letting us download tons of movies and giving Emile and Filou extra money for special chocolate drinks, when they didn’t have enough on them and Panilla for showing me her beloved “Mount” ).

New Zealand, we have taken in your immense natural beauty; mud pools, volcanic craters, fumeroles , Ta Moko, hangi meals and L&P Whittaker’s chocolate; they were a first for us all!  We hope to be back one day to take in your South Island, which many believe to be even more beautiful…  E noho ra – Good-bye!