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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.

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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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PERU: From OLLANTAYTAMBO to MACHU PICCHU

16 Apr

No trip to Peru is quite complete without a visit to the magical, world-famous Inca site of Machu Picchu. From Cusco it’s still a bit of a trek to get there so we decided to break up our journey and explore the beautiful, historical town of Ollantaytambo (also locally referred to as Ollanta, probably as the city’s name is a real mouthful!).

We arrived in Ollanta by colectivo; these are comfortable mini-vans that regularly shuttle between towns and where for S/10 you get a seat on the bus that leaves when full. Go to Calle Pavitos and you’ll know you’re in the right place as everyone yells to get you on their vehicle!

Ollanta, a very small but utterly charming town in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, dates back to the late 15th century.  The locals retreated to this town after the Spanish conquered Cusco and right away we could feel the town’s rich history. The entrance of Ollanta is the Plaza de Armes, which is surrounded by colonial buildings…It was here that we got our bearings, enjoyed a delicious coffee and saw a cool, vintage police car!

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Vintage police car in Plaza de Armes, Ollantaytambo

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Houses and doorways dating back to Inca time

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We first headed to the Awamaki office (www.awamaki.org) to get details about our homestay for the night.  They directed us to the house of Petronilla Gonzales-Orue, her daughter Rene and adorable granddaughter Cynthia.

After warm bienvenidos & hugs from Petronilla and an excited hello from the four-legged friend of the house (the boys were crazy about this jumpy, white, fluffy dog), we left our overnight bags and headed for the hills.  Instead of visiting the very touristy Ollanta Ruins, we opted for the Pinkullyana hike. Walking the very steep and somewhat harrowing path that leads to thegorgeous Incan Storehouses and overlooks the town and main ruins was a real treat (and free!). From the top, we enjoyed spectacular views of the Urubamba Valley.

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Pinkuyllyana Inca storehouses built out of fieldstones on the hills. Their location at high altitudes, where there is more wind and lower temperatures, defended their contents against decay

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Enjoying the view of the Urubamba Valley and Ollanta Ruins

Refreshed, we returned to Petronella’s house, a dwelling located close to the town’s artisanal market where she sells water to tourists by day and hosts Awamaki volunteers and host families by night. During our lovely chat over dinner, we learned that her daughter Rene works with children in Chilka, a small community nearby. Being a teacher, she spoke slowly and articulated clearly which greatly enhanced our conversation with her in Spanish.

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Petronella, our host mom in Ollanta, together with Awamaki  volunteer Francesca

The next morning, we were all a bit off our game as we didn’t sleep too well but nevertheless, we met Deeba of Awamaki (www.awamaki.org), in town for our Quechua community visit. We drove for about an hour, high up into the mountains to the rural community of Atacancha (the drive up through the breath-taking mountainous region was truly stunning!). Once there, we were greeted by a most colourfully dressed group of women (all sitting in a circle, some with young children peacefully sitting next to them or attached on their backs), in the process of spinning, weaving and/or colouring yarn. It was such a lovely sight!

We learned that Awamaki (www.amawaki.org) is a nonprofit social enterprise that works with these rural Andean women and their communities to create economic opportunities and improve social well-being. They do so by empowering these weavers with skills and training and assisting them to sell their products to international retailers of ethically-sourced handmade goods.

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Office of social enterprise Awamaki

Also, Awamaki helps to connect global volunteers and tourists like us with these communities so that they can learn about the local culture and traditions. We love these kinds of interactions and information gathering and learned so many interesting facts…such as knowledge about the traditional dress of this indigenous, ethnic group of people.

The traditional dress worn by Quechua women today is a mixture of styles from pre-Spanish days and Spanish colonial peasant dress (lots of red colours!). They wear up to about 7 layers of skirt (it gets freezing cold in the mountains!) but traditionally with no socks or stockings underneath. Their standard footwear are ajotas; open sandals that are made out of recycled tires, which makes them cheap and durable. Over their many layers of sweaters, they wear a sleeveless chaleco, which is richly decorated with buttons.

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Traditional dress of Quechua woman, complete with bowler-style hat, layers of skirt and chaleco

And the more their bowler-style headpiece is worn to the side, the more interested they are in finding a life partner (if they add flowers to the headpiece they are even more open to “romance”). The straps that hold up their headpieces are all intricately and uniquely knitted with beats – to portray individuality. All in all, such a unique and interesting style of dressing! I loved being surrounded by the abundance of colours and sweet, shy smiles of these Quechua women.

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Amidst a group of spinning and weaving Quechua women

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I was also very interested to learn about the tradition of weaving. This traditional handicraft is a crucial aspect of Peruvian culture and it sits at the very core of Quechua culture, shaping personal and regional identities and acting as a form of inter-regional communication (they vest their entire sense of personal identity in their occupation as a weaver!). This skill of weaving has been handed down from Inca times or earlier. The women use cotton or wool (from sheep, llamas, alpacas etc.), and create a multitude of natural dyes (from locally available plants, minerals and insects such as crushed beetles) to produce a myriad of colours and shades.

They naturally spin their fibers into a fine yarn using a drop-spindle. This very old tool consists of a wooden stick with a weight on one end. Weavers clasp the stick in their hands and give it a spin, letting it hang freely at is spins. The energy from the spinning motion of the spindle travels into the fiber, twisting the fibers together to form yarn. It was very cool to watch!

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Spinning fibres with a drop-spindle

With the yarn, the women then weave and incorporate numerous patterns or pallay into their designs (they are used to tell a story and are woven in stripes centered in the cloth). These weavings that are hand dyed, hand spun and hand woven can only turn into little masterpieces. Upon leaving, we were happy to buy a few in support of these hardworking women and their communities.

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Filou learning first hand the technique of back strap loom weaving, while making his own woven bracelet

After our return to Ollantaytambo and thank you’s to Deeba, we took the VistaDome of Peru Rail (www.perurail.com) to Aguas Calientes (incredible ride through the mountains and parts of the famous Inka Trail).From many we heard that this town was not the most attractive or interesting place to be in, but at this point all we wanted was some chicken soup and a good bed to sleep in. To our surprise, Condor Palace Hostel (www.condorpalacehostel.com) provided just that – the best shower and bed we’ve encountered in Peru so far! So after a really good rest, we were all feeling better and ready to spend our long-awaited day at Machu Picchu.

As Machu Picchu was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, it is technically protected by the United Nations. Peru’s government has also officially safeguarded Machu Picchu since 1981 under the organizations’ “Union de Gestion de Machu Picchu” (UGM), the “Instituto Nacional de Cultura” (INC), and “Instituto Nacional de Recursos Nacionales” (INRENA). It is believed though that at times these organizations do more harm then good to the protection of the site. As Paolo Greer, a well-known US historian and explorer of Machu Picchu told us first-hand during a lecture at the South-American Club; Machu Picchu in Peru is all about money and politics.

He might have a point as new rules announced, but yet to be put in place, are meant to address the issue of overcrowding at the site. “All foreign visitors to Machu Picchu will soon have to hire an official guide to enter the Inca Citadel and follow one of three predetermined routes through the complex and face time limits (2 hours) to keep the traffic going”, under the new rules by the Ministry of Culture in Cusco. Would these new rules actually protect the site, or allow more tourists and money to flow in? The debate is still ongoing but we wanted to play it safe and get in before these took effect! So the week before Easter (the beginning of high season), it was.

At 8:30 am, we were on the bus that took us from Aguas Calientes high up into the mountains to the famous Inca site. The suspense was building, as we rode higher and higher into the mountains and increasingly dense morning mist. Where was this magical city and how did explorers ever find it here?

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What makes Machu Picchu so unique in my opinion is that is embedded within a dramatic landscape between the Peruvian Andes and the Amazon Basin (truly a HIDDEN treasure of a city, located so deeply within nature!).

Once we entered the site and saw the spectacular monument of “La Ciudadela” (the Citadel), we understood what all the hype was about and why Machu Picchu has been named one of the NEW 7 wonders of the world. What a magical archaeological complex, this most significant tangible legacy of the Inca civilization is!

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“La Ciudadela” – the Citadel at Machu Picchu

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The refined architecture of Machu Picchu, with is many beautiful structures and stone terraces, seemed to blend so perfectly with its stunning natural environment. We felt very privileged and blessed to take 4 hours to stroll, sit & ponder and take in this most sacred and truly spectacular setting on earth; one that is absolutely deserving of protection (and where people should not run around naked, but that’s a whole other story!).

 

 

 

PERU: Cusco…Settling in!

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It took us several days to get adjusted to Cusco, our new home in southeastern Peru. As the city’s elevation is around 3,400 m or 11,200 feet and its location is near the Urubamba Valley of the Andes mountain range, we all had various degrees of altitude sickness and were cold to the bone (although the days here are filled with sunshine, the morning/evening temperatures drop substantially and there’s little to no heat in the local guesthouses or apartments  – a real adjustment from tank tops and flip flops in Asia)!

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Cusco, the historic capital of Peru & the Inca Empire

Lainie Liberti and her son Miro, a wonderful un-schooling mom & son team from the US, who I “met” through the Families on the Move Facebook Group, were kind enough to arrange an initial place for us to stay and settle. We were happy to visit Trader Joe’s (www.traderjoes.com) in Los Angeles so that we could bring them some treats from back home.  In return, they came to welcome us warmly and we had a lovely, first dinner in town at Jack’s (http://jackscafecusco.com)

Casa Hospedaje Familiar “Sihuar” (casasihuar@hotmail.com) was a good hospedaje to get our bearings. The place was basic and cold but its warmth came from the lovely owners, Sonia and her husband Luis.

Noticing that Emile had some bad “altitude” headaches, Sonia, who is a local, natural healer, jumped in with cups of Mate de Coca (special tea), head massages and an herbal extract that she made him smell and breathe in deeply – a couple of days later and we had our energetic firstborn back! The local pharmacies also seem to cash in on the gringos having to adjust to the city by selling red & white “soroche” pills.  I did pop a few in the initial two days and they seemed to do the trick.  But it was Lainie who taught us about the local ways of dealing with altitude sickness.

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Altitude sickness, not so much fun!  But healed with a head massage, coca tea & some herbal extracts from Sonia Velazco Flores at “Sihuar”.

During our first 6-hour hike with Lainie, Miro and a few other wonderful families, Lainie designated Emile to be the carrier of the coca leaves & llipta and gave him a special carrying pouch.  We learned that offering a handful of coca leaves to the local Quechua is a sign of respect, and much appreciated by this indigenous, ethnic group of people.

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Emile offering coca leaves to a Quechua woman

These coca leaves (typically raw leaves from the coca plant) are used to brew an herbal Coca Tea or Mate de Coca (also called Mate). Widely available in Peru, this greenish/yellow infusion with its mild bitter flavor and organic sweetness is just enjoyable or used to treat altitude sickness.

In addition, the locals stack a few of the coca leaves in a pile and sprinkle on some llipta (black/greyish rock of ash), then fold it into a tiny blanket and put it in the inside of their cheek. Once softened, this chewy package is supposed to provide oxygen and help combat the symptoms of dealing with high altitudes.

Of course, some of us gave this a try although I later learned that in 1961, the coca leaf was listed on the UN’s list of narcotic drugs, together with cocaine and heroin! (Oh well, starting to experiment with drugs for the first time at the age of 44 should be considered a life experience on the Regeneration Tour, shouldn’t it?).

Emile had great fun handing out coca leaves to the Quechua on our fantastic day-hike of the Inca (and pre and pre pre Inca) ruins in the area, so gracefully guided by Lainie (we visited the Monkey Temple and the Temple of the Moon in Sasayhuaman, as well as the ruins of Quenqo).

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Fantastic group of families hiking together, here at Zone X Caves

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To make the most out of our 4 months in South America, we became members of the South American Explorer’s Club (www.saeexplorers.org).  With offices in Lima & Cusco, Peru as well as Argentina, Ecuador and Bolivia (some of the next destinations on our hit list!), this Club aims to promote a deeper understanding of South American history & culture by providing unbiased information, lectures and in-country clubhouses.

With Claire’s help from the Club (she translated all the apartment ads for me in English), we found our 2-bedroom apartment on Calle Lucripata (just slightly north of the popular San Blas area). William the owner’s son, quickly did whatever he could to make us feel warm (2 heaters!!), and at home.

Once settled and free of altitude symptoms, we hit the ground running to find Spanish and music lessons for the boys.  For language acquisition, we landed on Proyecto Peru (http://en.proyectoperucentre.org/index.html), a program accredited by the Peruvian Ministry of Education.  Assisted by Sonia and Jessica, two lovely Peruvian teachers, Emile and Filou are now learning Spanish on a daily basis. They love it, as their private classes consist of an hour of fun instruction and another one of outdoor learning (going to the market to learn about fruits & vegetables, clothing etc.). This interactive method of teaching works very well for our active boys and Papa & Mama will join them soon!

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Emile and Filou with their Spanish teachers, Jessica & Sonia

And who best to help you settle into a new city then a great group of travelling friends and local families (there are lots of expats and long-term travellers here in Cusco!). It was Rhoni and her lovely son Dylan (already best buds with Filou), who took us around town on the first day and showed us Mercado Central de San Pedro (a fantastic local market where we were pointed to the best juice, vegetable, fruit and nut ladies) and the historical district with its famous Plaza de Armas.

And then there were Kim and Scott, the super nice Americans and their fantastic kids Kane and Kat, with whom we quickly bonded. They showed us some great restaurants and gave us insights into local vendors, play parks and must-see attractions.

During one of our recent restaurant outings with them, Emile had his first meal of Alpaca meat. This dark and juicy beef-like meat that is a standard of novo-Andean cuisine was a great hit with him and his new friend, Kane.

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Emile and his new friend Kane, sharing a delicious dish of Alpaca 

But not only can you eat Alpaca in Cusco, you can also see the animals roam around town. The Alpaca is one of the two domesticated relatives of the Camel (the other is the Ilama). Civilization was built in the Andes on the Alpaca but now they are also used for tourism (for 1 or 2 sol you can take a picture of these interesting creatures and their colourful owners).

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Alpacas and their colourful owners delighting tourists

The city of Cusco, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, has a delightful, old-world charm. Its narrow, cobbled streets with bright coloured balconies & doors and its incredibly kind people wrapped in colourful weavings are surely going to take our hearts and breath away!

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It’s a sure thing, we are going to love our month here…the kids are already talking about staying longer.  Esta ciudad es fantástica!