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INDONESIA – Bali

1 May

Bali is a mountainous island of volcanic origin. Flying in, it felt like our airplane was hovering extremely low over beautiful, turquoise waters with no land in sight. But then suddenly, we landed and had arrived on a slice of paradise.

Bali – ISLAND OF THE GODS

We instantly felt the “spirit” and “energy” of this heavenly place. Profoundly bound to tradition, the Balinese population is devoutly religious. Approximately 93% of the Balinese are Hindus, and there are still strong traces of what must have been the oldest and most primitive form of religion in Bali – animism, which is based on the respect for all things and all creatures.

In the name of religion, walking the streets of Bali required some attention. The sidewalks are lined with these colourful, shallow woven baskets containing rice, fruit and flowers. Three times a day, they are faithfully placed around family homes, in temples and on the pavements, outside of every business establishment. A truly beautiful sight!

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Canang sari or small offering baskets made out of coconut leaves

These small baskets or canang sari are offerings the Balinese make to their Gods (Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu). Offerings are a very important part of daily life in Bali and these little baskets are seen as a way of giving back what has been given to you, bringing prosperity and good health to the family and maintaining a good relationship between people and spirits.

We also saw larger baskets full of rice in boats…I assume it was an offering for a healthy catch of fish!

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Daily offerings at village & family temples, home or business entrances, or any spot that the Balinese hold sacred (special tree, statue, etc.) 

And talking about boats, the traditional fishing boats that we saw in Jimbaran Bay, known as jukung, are graceful vessels that only use on main cloth sail. These boats venture out into the coastal waters in the evening with their catch before sunrise to sell at local seafood markets. Although we were not so impressed with the seafood at Jimbaran Bay, we did have some delicious fish in Bali.

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Bali – ISLAND OF TEMPLES

But I prefer to talk about the temples, as they don’t call Bali the Island of a Thousand Temples for nothing. We hired a driver and went exploring…..Temples can be found everywhere in Bali, but we quickly learned that most of them are private property! Each Hindu family has its own sacred temple (usually taking up much of their personal yard or terrace space). It’s called a Sanggah or Pamerajan.

The first sacred temple, we visited was The Royal Temple of Mengwi (Pura Taman Ayun). This temple is one of the most important ones in Bali. Built by a King of the Mengwi Dynasty, this impressive complex stands on an island in a river. Its inner temple is surrounded by a moat. Pura Taman Ayun literally means “Garden Temple in the Water” in Balinese.

To protect Bali from evil spirits, this temple was built as a series of garden terraces with courtyards on different levels. An eleven-tiered meru is dedicated to the rice goddess Dewi Sri. We just made a quick tour around this beautiful complex as we were there in the morning at a lovely 40 degrees Celsius or so!

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The Royal Temple of Mengwi (Pura Taman Ayun) – with its 11 tiered meru

But my favorite Balinese temple, without a doubt, was Pura Ulun Dan Bratan. This water temple complex is located in the mountains, on the shores of this gorgeous lake called Lake Bratan. We arrived there at around 5 pm, and could take a breezy, leisurely stroll observing the amazing sights.

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At the Pura Ulun Dan Bratan Temple on Lake Bratan

We learned that, built in 1663, this temple is used for offering ceremonies to the Balinese water, lake and river goddess, Dewi Danu, due to the importance of Lake Bratan as a main source of irrigation in central Bali. This lake, located 1200 m above sea level, is known as the Lake of Holy Mountain due to the fertility of the area.

Pura Bratan, with Lake Bratan and the mountains as a backdrop, was a scene that walked away out of a photography magazine. Just unreal! Anthony and I really enjoyed walking around the complex but more so, discovering what was beyond its gates.

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A row of fishermen was sitting along the shoreline (young and old combined) catching tiny, silver fish. A sort of misty glow that came from the lake surrounded them.

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Locals fishing at Lake Bratan or the Lake of the Holy Mountain

Just beyond their location was a local man burning something by a small temple, his wife making offerings. He was proud for us to take his picture…but then quickly sent us on our way, as I think this was a paradise type scene; only privy to locals perhaps?

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Other nature scenes that take your breath away in Bali are the rice terraces. Vegetation is thick and luxurious and the landscape extremely green.

Agriculture is still very traditionally based. The most important product is of course, rice which has been cultivated in Bali for over a millennium. It is considered a gift from the gods and has inspired many legends and mythological tales.

Vast rice fields occupy the southern planes and the carved sides of hills and mountains, creating these characteristic rice terraces. We visited the Jatiluwih rice terraces (UNESCO World Heritage Site), with Mount Batukara as a backdrop. They have breathtaking panoramas and are so exotic looking. We even got to take a scroll in the high grass (and bought a painting to etch this beautiful scenery in our minds for eternity)!

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At the Jatiluwih Rice Terraces (UNESCO World Heritage Site)

The finale of our day was a stop at Bali’s Twin Lakes. These two lakes – Lake Buyan and Lake Tamblingan are the result of Balinese volcano activity. From a viewpoint, along the road, we took a moment to connect, and observe the magnificent, lush rainforest landscape and peaceful water scene.

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At Twin Lakes – Lake Buyan and Lake Tamblingan

The other days on the island, we enjoyed the small beach town of Sanur, biking along the beach, and indulging in early morning or late night swims. Our gorgeous Ellora villa had 2 sweet breakfast chefs & a private pool – what a treat! (http://www.elloravillasbali.com).

Well, this is Bali for you….but there are other sides too. Such as the yogi, artsy and picturesque town of Ubud. We visited this magnificent little town in the centre of Bali for two reasons. We wanted to get a glimpse of the very avant-garde and greenest school on earth, called the Green School Bali (http://www.greenschool.org), and catch up with some wonderful travelling friends. Aaron Eeden, recently hired by this innovative institution gave us an insightful tour of this wonderful bamboo, open-air school structure with its forward-thinking, sustainable surroundings.

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Green School Bali

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With forward-thinking education specialist Aaron Eeden at the Green School

Then we met up again with Brie & Bjorn & family (our 3rd. world encounter after Peru and Thailand!) for a raw food lunch. Yes, that’s what you do when you are in Ubud and it was surprisingly delicious…even the desserts!

We then proceeded to take in the rural countryside of Ubud with a walk along the top of a ridge, with stunning scenery on either side called the Campuhan Ridge Walk. What a pleasant way to spend hiking for a couple of hours with these wonderful people, surrounded by stunning nature…and incredible art work!

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On the Campuhan Ridge Walk, Ubud with Brie, Björn, Luka & Zora

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So that was Bali, stunning nature scenes, beautiful temples… I almost forgot the scrumptious food (that Nasi & Bami Goreng and those satés from the local night market in Sanur are hard to forget!)….. and the SERENITY….. the SERENITY!!!

There is something truly special about this place…It’s hard to describe, a special feeling. I guess you got to GO to experience it!

We certainly will be back, but for now we say farewell to this spiritual, beautiful place with its wonderful kind and smiley people!

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

4 Jul

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

 

QUITO

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

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The Historical Capital of Ecuador: Quito

 

CANOA

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

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

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

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Canoa, Ecuador

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With surfing teacher Walker

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Emile riding the waves

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

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

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

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Wonderful Beach Yoga with Leanne and Don

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

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

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

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

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Canoa cliffs full of blue-footed boobies and other birds

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

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

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

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

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

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Alica strapping Filou in and doing the final checks

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Emile making a smooth landing

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Thumbs up for a great flight

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

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

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

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Spectacular views while paragliding over Canoa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Canoa Sunset

 

GUAYAQUIL  – VIA MONTECRISTI

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

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Montecristi Panama Hats

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

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

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Ecuadorian Toquilla or Panama Hat weaver

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

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With our new Panama Hats – pretty cool eh?

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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)!

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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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PERU: Cusco…Settling in!

7 Apr

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penang, Malaysia

26 Feb

MALAYSIA – PENANG

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

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

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

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

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

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Filou made excellent progress during his four piano lessons

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

George Town

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

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

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Shop house in George Town

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

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

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Man in rickshaw, painted on old window blinds

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

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

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Man sleeping on a bench, painted on an old door

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

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

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

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Boy on a Bike Mural, Queen Street, George Town

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Steel rod caricature art

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Reaching Up Mural, Cannon Street, George Town

Tropical Spice Gardens 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Penang National Park

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

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

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Hiking Penang National Park with the Minton family

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

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

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Can you spot the snake?

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Peanut eating Macaques on Monkey Beach

Food & families

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

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

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

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

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Kids on the move

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

 

 

 

An Bang Beach; our 3 week home base in Hoi An, VIETNAM

11 Nov

Hoi An

Hoi An, a beautifully preserved port town on the coast of Central Vietnam was our chosen home-base for the next three weeks (as a bit of a rest was needed after 3 months of go-go-go!).  We were delighted to find our accommodations; Be’s Beach Bungalow – a newly built, bright, two-bedroom bungalow situated in a small fishing village, about 400 metres from the beach at An Bang (http://www.hoianbeachbungalows.com/). 

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Be’ Beach Bungalow, An Bang Beach – Hoi An

We quickly adjusted here and got to love the place, the people and our routine! Every morning between 6-7 am, we were woken up, by either the rooster, the family living behind us cleaning their dishes from breakfast, or the locals starting their workday – the villagers all wake up at 5:00 am and go to sleep when the sun goes down…(and then there were the handful of times that the Vietnamese communist propaganda and local information updates blasted through the loudspeakers and jolted us out of bed at 5:00 am!).

Then, between 7-8:30 am, we would visit the local little market to get our delicious French bread (one of the many great French influences still remaining in Vietnam), our eggs, vegetables and fruits (among them the best mangoes I have ever tasted and a large array of the most exotic fruits).  I quickly honed in on my favorite fruit & vegetable ladies at this truly local, little gathering of women and received warm greetings and acceptance (it is uncommon to see men at this market as it is a woman’s job to do the groceries – and for that reason Anthony got less favorable pricing and welcomes, when picking up things).

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My favourite “fruit lady”, at An Bang Beach’s morning market

Following the market, an early morning beach walk or run was in order.  These early morning beach visits gave us a great insight into the local life of the fishermen and hardworking women at An Bang. 

Numerous large baskets dot the shoreline on this peaceful stretch of coastline.  These baskets seem too small to be fishing boats that can handle the incredibly rough waves. However, this is exactly what they are.  For many years they were the most common Vietnamese fishing boat (called Thung Chai).  Around 7:00 am, we would see these mighty fishing boats come back from their early morning run – with the fishermen frantically making number eight’s with their paddles to stay afloat on the breaking waves (often 4-6 people were needed to launch the boat or bring it back to shore)…Once arrived, the women would quickly take the fish and bring it to the market for sale!

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Vietnamese basket boat (Thung Chai) on An Bang Beach, Hoi An

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One of the dedicated and brave fishermen

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Hardworking women on An Bang Beach

Following calm mornings of work (homework for the kids!), we would enjoy the beach or go into town in the afternoon.  We quickly got to like the “beach bum” life, with the boys turning into little “caramels” and “surfer dudes”.

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Surfer Dudes

Strolling through the picturesque, historic town centre of Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was a real treat. This city core has distinctive traits (French, Japanese, Chinese etc.), leftover from its many rulers. Most of the city’s historic buildings are still completely in tact as during the American War, the city with the cooperation of both sides, remained undamaged.

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Street vendor in the historic old town of Hoi An 

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Vietnamese girls making colourful lanterns all day for the tourists

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The old trading hub & port of Hoi An

So, Hoi An is known for its rich history, as well as delectable cuisine (amazing street food, restaurants and cooking classes) and wide range of tailors and shoe makers (on every corner imaginable!).

So we had a little fun, and each got a funky new pair of shoes made.  And if you want a North Face jacket or bag, this is your place (apparently copied but made in the same factory as the real thing, with the same materials!)

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New funky shoes, made for all of us in a day (complete with initials – see F.W!)

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North Face (and other brand name) jackets and bags in every colour imaginable (apparently made in the same factory as the “real” thing).

As well, Filou & I indulged in taking a full day cooking class at Green Bamboo Cooking School (http://www.greenbamboo-hoian.com)Van, the instructor, was an amazing teacher and delightfully warm personality (she LOVED having Filou in her class as he charmed her and the other participants all afternoon with his jokes, stories and cooking skills!).

Van first took us to the market, where we got to buy the fresh ingredients for our chosen dishes  (And fresh it is!  We were told that they slaughter the cows at 3:00 am in the morning and have it at the market by 5:00 am – and as they do not have refrigeration, all that you see is fresh from that day).   As there were 8 participants in our class that day, we got to make a wide range of traditional Vietnamese dishes (chicken  & beef curry, seafood salad, beef noodle soup (Pho Bo traditional dish), Cau Lau – Hoi An special noodles with pork, shrimp & pork pancakes, grilled BBQ fish in banana leaf etc.) – and eat it all – for three hours straight! It was scrumptious!

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Filou, slowly adding water to fresh coconut pulp, which he then had to squeeze by hand into coconut milk for his curry dish

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And with his final creation; a delicious chicken curry in coconut milk

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And for me, a Vietnamese seafood salad with squid, shrimp, basil & chili

Our stay at An Bang Beach, was interrupted when SUPER Typhoon Haiyan (the strongest type 5 Typhoon recorded in history!!!), made its way from the Philippines directly for us. The whole village of An Bang, due to its coastline location was being evacuated.  It was amazing to see how the villagers were pulling together, helping one another to safeguard their homes by putting sandbags on the roofs (roofs made of simple tin plates that had the real risk of flying away), sturdy ropes around their houses – and taping up windows (although most villagers didn’t have any glass windows to worry about).   The owners of Be’s Bungalow (Aaron & Huong), were nice enough to put us up in a luxurious, sturdy hotel on a hill in town (the villagers were all going to government-provided cramped halls where they were ordered to sleep for the night).

Although we had nothing to complain about, there was still concern (trying to get out of the city to no avail as all trains and flights were fully booked, not being together as a family the day before the storm hit as Anthony and Emile were rock climbing in Cat Ba Island – so hoping they would make it back to us safely, not knowing how hard this super typhoon would hit us etc.).  But in the end, all worked out well for us and the people of Hoi An as the strength of this hurricane remained over sea and hit land hardest in Northern Vietnam.  All in all, an eventful ending to a spectacular stay in the wonderful village of An bang, Hoi An. 

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Villagers putting sandbags on their roofs, to protect their homes against Super Typhoon Haiyan

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Be’s Bungalow’s windows being taped up to protect rocks from shattering them

Thank you to our wonderful “landlords” Aaron & Huong who did everything in their power to give us the most enjoyable stay in their beautiful bungalow, their friend Carl who taught the boys how to surf and showed us the good places in town and to Mr. & Ms. Mai – the very sweet housekeepers who made our stay so pleasant & luxurious!