Dispatches from the top of Europe

We focused our summer holidays this year on tourist activities around home. Because why go so far afield when we have some great things to do within a few hours of us? So we made the most of a visit from my mom to tick some big ones off our bucket list. And this was a big one both figuratively and literally – Mont Blanc, the highest peak in western Europe!

Mont Blanc is home to the steepest vertical ascent in a gondola in the world, which takes you up to the “Aiguille du Midi”, a mountaintop viewing point at (nearly) the summit of the mountain. It starts in Chamonix, a little French tourist town at the base of the mountain, about an hour’s drive from our place.

When we arrived at the Chamonix kiosk, it was already packed. People of all kinds were milling around – some with full mountaineering gear. I was feeling a bit underdressed in jeans and a sweater, even though it was one of the hottest days of the year: we had escaped from temperatures nearing 40C back home.

We bought our lift tickets and were told to come back for boarding in 2 hours. The town didn’t hold much excitement on an early morning, but we managed to fill the time wandering around, checking touristy shops and grabbing a couple of crepes at a cafe patio that we shared with a bunch of wasps. Some North American tourist at the next table over said “I can’t wait to get home and eat inside for once” – because a couple of wasps outweigh a beautiful outdoor mountain vista patio? Dude.

Back at the line up, we waited another 20 minutes owing to delays. At last it was our turn, and we were driven through the doors and jammed like sardines into the gondola. We were the last ones on, with standing room only and nowhere to hold on – but we lifted off safely and flew up into the sky, watching our car get smaller and smaller in the parking lot below. Once or twice the gondola shuddered, throwing us around and eliciting “whoas” from the group. I’m not good with heights and might have peed a little.

The first leg of the trip took us over the tops of trees and grass, landing at a midway station at the base of the glacier field. We were already nearly 2000 m high and the air was fresh as we exited the lift to transfer onwards. We stopped at a viewing platform to look out across a sweeping wall of rockfall and dusty glaciers. And to take some selfies.

We boarded like sardines again onto the next lift, this time getting a coveted spot at the front of the chariot, where I was able to get a video of the ride (sorry about the reflection of my hot pink phone cover). This was the leg that took us nearly vertical, up another 2000 m into the clouds.

We arrived at the peak and stepped out onto a walkway in the sky, officially 3800 m up. And wow, could we tell. The air was thin and cold, gusts of wind whipping up from the glacier peaks and misting us with droplets of clouds. It was challenge to walk up the few flights of stairs to the viewing platform, suffering from a lack of oxygen and our legs feeling like lead. But we made it, looking out from the top of the world at the nearby frozen giants and into the etched valley below. A plane flew by, well below us.

So once we had our fill of taking panoramas and selfies, what else could we do but visit the cafeteria at the top of the mountain? So we spent the rest of our visit snacking on some overpriced sandwiches and drinks before heading back to the gondola for our scheduled ride home. It was another long wait in an overcrowded hallway, this time punctuated by mild dizziness, and I’m pretty sure it also gave one of the kids a chance to let off a bunch of farts, because some vapors were following us around and it wasn’t pleasant. But we eventually re-boarded and floated back down through the clouds, as our magical trip to the highest food we’ve ever bought was over.

Mont Blanc panorama

Bonne fête de Suisse

Happy birthday Switzerland! We celebrated by hiding indoors all day to avoid today’s oppressive heat and humidity.

But after dinner we headed downtown to watch the fireworks. And they were great! There’s nothing better than a small town for fireworks, because we were able to get really close and still had plenty of room to sprawl out on a blanket and drink wine until the sun set. Friends brought some firecrackers that kept the kids busy in the meantime.

The show started with a bang – haha, literally – but more actually with a Céline Dion song, thanks for the hometown nod, Switzerland. The fireworks made their way around the lake from Geneva, timed to start and end in each city along the way for a traveling “wave” of celebratory ‘works. We stood right under ours and felt each bang like a gunshot and a rumble in the ground. And the show capped off by lighting a huge bonfire on a barge in the lake. To represent… I’m not sure what. But it was impressive.

Afterwords the fire brigade let all the spectators with their own fireworks set them off safely from the same official location. A few hilariously blew up or plummeted into the water, which is always the best part of discount explosives.

Here’s to another year, les suisses!

Strasbourg snow & Swiss cheese

While my parents were here, we decided to do a little tour. Last year we went to Italy, so I figured we should do something in the other direction – and since we had such a lovely time in Strasbourg last time, I thought it would be nice to go there with them. Unfortunately, it was a bit chilly and snowy! Somehow we managed to arrive over the few days that it wasn’t sunny. But that didn’t stop us, we still enjoyed a fantastic few days.

The main sight is of course the cathedral, which was just as beautiful as the first time we saw it. We also took the same little train trip, as well as a boat tour around the canals. It snowed while we were on the boat, and then something happened to the motor so they had to take us back early. We went to re-book the trip, but it was taking such a long time that we got reimbursed instead. Free boat trip! I also dragged my dad to my favorite game store, where I bought a discounted game that was some kind of unholy union between steampunk and Risk  – it was too complicated for us to figure out (in French)!

That day was also my mom’s birthday, so we booked a nice dinner at the Kammerzell House restaurant. You think sometimes these kinds of famous places are charging for more of a touristy experience, but actually the food was very good, with a great wine list, and the servers were really attentive. It was lovely.

On our second day, we toured the zoological museum, which was small but really interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many weird taxidermied animals in one place. There were probably a thousand birds, many of them misshapen and hilarious. Easily a highlight of the trip!

On the drive home, we followed the Alsatian wine route part of the way, stopping in the medieval village Riquewihr for lunch. This was probably the most adorable little place I’ve ever seen, with ancient cobblestone streets winding around rows of colorful sloping houses. We had lunch, ironically, at a Swiss-style restaurant. But it was nice.

Back at home, I took my mom and the kids to the Cailler chocolate factory. They had been asking for weeks to visit, and the week after Easter seemed like a good time (and there were plenty of chocolate sales to be had). We also stuffed ourselves with cheese in nearby Gruyères, where my mom had raclette for the first time – even though I had made her a homemade cheese fondue the night before and we had sworn off cheese for eternity.

Too soon it was time for my parents to head home. I’m sure they’ll be back again soon!

Fête de Pâques: Flowers, Flowers, Flowers, Ewok

Easter was a quiet time this year, but still full of fun. First of all, I traded in BigB for my parents, who have come to visit while he is back in Canada. They’re here for two weeks while the kids are off school for the holidays.

The weather has been perfect – sunny and beautiful, and all the flowers are in bloom. We’ve enjoyed some lovely walks through Nyon and Geneva, checking out the old town, playing chess in the park, and looking at all the holiday displays.


For Easter, the Bunny brought us a nice selection of gummies hidden around the house, plus a bunch of Star Wars toys – including a hilarious Millennium Falcon ship-car hybrid and an Ewok that makes Ewok sounds when you squeeze it. He was kind of enough to bring me some Cognac-filled chocolate eggs, obviously knowing what I needed to get through the holiday.

Later, we went to Morges for a local tulip festival. Being from Ottawa, which is renown for its own tulip festival, I wasn’t sure what to expect – but, sorry Ottawa, the Morges festival was quite good! It might be a bit smaller, but there were so many many varieties of flowers, including some heritage ones. I spent most of my time taking photos of the odd flowers out – the one weird red one growing in a field of yellow, for example. And then we had to find flowers from each of our birthday years.

Enjoy the gratuitous flower gallery and happy (belated) Easter!

Christmas 2016 (a.k.a. Christ-sick-mas)

Oh man, this past Christmas was such a bust for us. It just seemed like everything conspired to keep us at home, miserable, sick, and tired.

The season was so bad for colds & flu. It started with J getting a bad fever at the beginning of December, developing a lingering red rash all over. It was bad enough that we took her to the hospital and they IMMEDIATELY panicked and asked if she was up to date on her vaccinations – she is – because they were worried about measles. Luckily it was not (vaccinate your kids, people). It seemed to be a bad heat rash or maybe a roseola virus, neither of which needed medicine. So we just waited out. It went away in another few days, but not before I came home from a work trip with a little cough/cold, which I promptly spread around next.

BigB caught it the worst, and by the time Christmas itself rolled around, his cough was so bad that we had to take him to the hospital next. (FYI if you would like to send us a belated Christmas gift, some kind of hospital gift cards or hard cash to pay off our medical bills would be welcome!) He got redirected to a clinic because emergency was packed – he managed to see someone at a local clinic and they diagnosed him with “the worst virus they’d seen all year”, prescribed him some cough syrup and a steroid inhaler and sent him home.

He spent the next few days sleeping all the time and seemingly getting worse by the day. He was so lethargic, I honestly thought he was on his way into a bronchitis-induced coma. As I was preparing for the worst, we had the brilliant idea of googling the medicine he was on. We should have done that first… As it turned out, the “cough syrup” was not what we thought, it had no active medication for coughing but was instead an extremely strong sedative that is only available in this region of Europe, being banned in the rest of the world. It was mild relief to find out he was not experiencing a systemic failure but only drugging himself into a stupor.

He stopped that medicine and perked up after a few days – just in time to go through with our New Year’s plans to visit Paris & Amsterdam with some friends. Except he had a terrible relapse while were on the road and spent the whole vacation lying on the couch of our b&b. So the kids and I had a nice time in the Netherlands… that post coming soon.

Meanwhile, we did make the best of the Christmas season as much as possible, and we felt the love from our family & friends shining all the way through our quarantined misery.

Here we are in happier times, getting ready for the holidays:

Christmas is also when we celebrate LittleB’s birthday, so we managed our best to have a nice family birthday party for him. He basically got 100 lbs of lego and we had an epic lego city set up in the living room and, well, everywhere.

Christmas day rolled around and we had a quiet morning, followed by an excellent dinner with our good friends. B barely made it through the evening, but he put on a brave face.

Hopefully next year will be a bit more exciting! Merry (belated) Christmas!

I left my heart in Strasbourg

We spent a fantastic long weekend in Strasbourg. What a charming little town! The cathedral is glorious, all the historical buildings are perfectly preserved, the food is delicious, and the city is so easy to navigate. I would go back in a heartbeat.

Being there in September, the weather was a bit chilly, and we had some rain. And then there was the time LittleB got run over by a bike. We were crossing the road and a cyclist went against the light and totally plowed him over. He was fine, just a bit beat up. She was roughed up as well, but I had a harder time feeling bad about it since she was the one in the wrong, even though she insisted he “appeared out of nowhere”. Anyway, no hard feelings, Strasbourg. We still love you.

Tuscany towns – cookies and more

The great thing about being in Tuscany turned out not to be just the heavyweights, Florence and Pisa, but the other wonderful little Tuscan towns around the area. We made it to two others that were perfectly charming and not as overwhelming – Lucca and Volterra.

Lucca is one of the best preserved medieval towns in the whole province. It managed to survive the centuries of war and destruction that most other areas suffered under, and as the regional capital for many decades, it has a lot of lovely buildings, churches, and piazzas to enjoy. It is also now known as the place where most European toilet paper is made – this was the most exciting thing for the kids, although we didn’t make to the TP factory… But we did eat lunch in an old Roman amphitheater, wandered the winding streets and fortified walls, and ate some disappointing gelato.

Volterra was my favorite. Although we arrived on a rainy mid-morning, we spent a few hours wandering this hilltop town boasting more ancient churches and adorable twisty alleys. It’s known, among other things, for its alabaster and some unique cookies called Ossi di Morto cookies (bones of the dead). They were surprisingly similar to the texture I would imagine dried up skeleton bones would actually have… After a delicious lunch at a cafe, it was time to go.

We also managed to fit in a day at the beach. The air and sand were hot, but the sea was cold, cold, cold. So, of course, only the Cayas were in there (well, B and the kids), and a random other kid from Northern England who was so happy to swim with someone else because his parents refused to go in. Soon we headed back up over the Alps, just in time for a last snowstorm of the season.

Florence: Art pilgrimage for all

Florence. I spent years studying the art, architecture, religion and philosophy coming out of the Renaissance and beyond. And going to see it all in Florence was a literal pilgrimage. A boon for the soul.

Of course, it would have been soooo much better if I actually remembered anything about that art, architecture, religion and philosophy – but it was an amazing place nonetheless.

We saw all the top sites you can imagine:

  • Santa Maria Novella church, one of the first major basilicas in the city, filled with art from many famous painters
  • The Florence Cathedral and Brunellschi’s dome, an engineering feat that is even more breathtaking in person
  • Uffizi gallery, housing the most important Rennaissance art collection in the world
  • Ponte Vecchio over the Arno, particularly close to my heart from my opera singing days.

I’ll let the art below speak for itself. But what about some of the other highlights from our Florentine adventure?

  • When we stopped to eat some gelato on the shores of the Arno, we saw a guy cycling down the road, and his paper liquor bag broke, shattering what seemed to be a nice bottle of champagne in the street. I said ‘Aw, that really sucks’ a little too loud, but he heard and agreed ‘Yes, it does really suck,’ and proceeded to pick up all the broken glass. I thought that was nice.
  • BigB wanted some authentic biscotti, so we stopped at a market stall where he asked for ‘one of each flavor’, which the girl interpreted as ‘one of each flavor for everyone in the family’, meaning we got about 2 kg of biscotti. Which seemed like too much at first, but we managed to eat it all within a couple of days anyway, so I guess she knew what she was doing.
  • J was really into the art at Uffizi. She stood and stared at nearly every painting for the first hour, it was amazing. Until it turned out she was actually just trying to process all the Jesus paintings from the early periods, and finally said ‘Why are they just painting the same thing over and over?? I’m tired of Baby Jesus and dead Jesus.’ I think that sentiment is actually what started the Renaissance in the first place, so… hooray for that lesson?
  • BigB was also really into the art at Uffizi, but his interest took the form of photographing close-ups of every single marble bust in the whole place. I mean, I like marble busts too, but this was unhealthy. How many statues of Sophocles does one museum really need, and why do we need photos of each of them? The answer is ‘Probably 3, just in case’.

Too soon, it was time to go. I feel like we could have spent weeks wandering the city, but we had to get home and start eating biscotti. Don’t worry, Florence, we’ll be back.

Italy: From the Alps for a piece of Pisa pizza

Over the Easter holidays, we took a trip to Italy with my parents. We piled into our rented van and headed out, destination: the west coast of the boot, where we had rented a little villa for the week.

It’s easy to misjudge how close Switzerland and Italy really are. I think we might actually be able to see Italy from our house… Even moreso, it’s surprising how much a change in temperature and terrain you can see in just a few hours. We drove up around Lac Léman and through the Saint Bernard tunnel (we didn’t see any real Saint-Bernards, but we did see a few statues, with the brandy barrels and everything!). Traffic was good, and we made good time. And before we knew it, suddenly we had climbed over snowy alpine peaks, through dry Italian savannas and arrived at a rocky coastline peppered with tunnels. Italy really likes its tunnels. It seems like the entire coast is tunneled straight through rock.

We spent the night in Arenzano, just next to Genoa, and enjoyed an evening walking the coast and breathing the Mediterranean sea air. However, we quickly discovered that when you take 4 adults and 2 children with picky eating habits and all with a tendency to not make decisions, you run into issues of finding and acquiring dinner. We wandered around town for a while, and most places were either not open yet or unsuitable for one reason or another, until we finally settled on Lebanese take-out. In Italy. And then LittleB almost threw up in the park. So we spent the rest of the night in our hotel room, watching the live-action Scooby Doo movie (the sequel) dubbed into Italian. In other words, it was a classic TheCayas vacation evening.

The next day we made a quick stop in Genoa and ate probably the best gelato ever. Then we spent some time overlooking the city from the Spianata Castelletto, until we were almost literally mobbed by several tour groups and swarms of tiny flies. We also managed to nearly get our rental van stuck in the parking area, when the corners of the narrow Italian streets were too small for us – but with some careful spotting, my dad managed to climb the wheels over several large curbs and get us free. On to Viareggio.

The villa we rented was in Torre del Lago, which turned out to be quite a sleepy little village but we discovered it is famous for two things: 1) It was the summer home of Puccini, who would write his operas in a little tower beside the lake, and continues to be celebrated with a huge opera festival each summer. But we missed it, being there too early. And, 2) Torre del Lago is apparently a famous gay beach, with huge crowds coming in the summer to enjoy all the bars and shows along the coast. We missed this too, being too early. We only saw a couple of mostly naked Italians on the beach and what could have been a few trans ladies, but otherwise it was pretty deserted.

We had picked the area since it was a good home base for visiting the rest of Tuscany. In particular, it was only about half an hour from Pisa – which was on our must-do list, so we checked it out on our first day. As it turns out, Pisa is quite small, and there’s not a lot there except for that crazy tower. And it is seriously leaning, folks. I mean, I knew it was leaning but it really defies sense. But we had a good time wandering around, taking pictures of all the tourists trying to take one of those “holding up the tower” photos and all the pigeons that sit on statues’ heads (that makes me giggle every time). We tried to find lunch, but as usual, our family herd is not good at that sort of decision making. We ended up eating at a generic fast-food kind of pizza place, BUT it was called “Pisa Pizza”, which you can imagine, led to many jokes about “eating a piece of pisa pizza”. It continues to this day. Worth it.

Dungeons & towers: Chateau de Chillon

Spring finally arrived in April, and my parents came to stay over the Easter holidays. The plan was to take a road trip through Italy, but before that, we had time for some sightseeing around home.

And who doesn’t love a trip to a castle?

At the top of Lac Leman, in Montreux, there’s a real honest-to-goodness chateau – Chillon castle. I had heard it was a fun family trip, with a bit of something for everyone: secret passageways, history and art, princess towers, dungeons… So we were excited! Ok, I was excited. We packed the kids into the car and drove up the coast.

All the other times we had been in the area, it was covered in fog. Honestly, I questioned whether there was actually anything to see. But this time, it was clear day and the views were incredible! You really can see all across the water to huge alpine slopes and glacier-capped peaks, and the lake was a vivid blue in the sun. Finally, Switzerland!

The castle is adorable, too, rising up from the edge of the water with spires and arches just like a fairy tale. We walked along the water, enjoying the view.

Inside, the castle is exactly how you imagine: lofty ceilings, stately rooms, twisty passageways, hidden courtyards, tower peaks. And cold. So very cold. No wonder the fireplaces were as big as my living room.

The main rooms had window bays looking out over the water, the perfect place to sit and pretend to be a princess or a page, daydreaming away the afternoon of stuffy lessons. And a rickety ladder took us up to the highest tower, which of course J freaked out on halfway up and I had to coax her back down, backwards, through the streams of people coming up. LittleB and Grandpa said it was cool at the top, but I’ve convinced myself it wasn’t worth it, right, right?

As for the kids, I think their highlights were, obviously, the dungeon and the latrines. There was a fancy outhouse for the royals, way at the top of the castle, so their leavings could fall farther than the commoners, I guess. And I can check off my bucket list another amazing phrase spoken in earnest: LittleB, don’t drop your camera down the king’s poop hole. Also, the room was filled with poop jokes. Ok, maybe that was my highlight too.

The dungeon was dark and damp and creepy and (nowadays) filled with wine. So basically it was the best place ever! Actually, it turned out there was a famous story I didn’t know about before: “Chillon’s most famous prisoner was François de Bonivard, a Genevois monk, who was imprisoned there in 1530 for defending his homeland from the dukes of Savoy. Over his six-year term, de Bonivard paced as far as his chain would allow, and the chain and rut are still visible. Lord Byron wrote the poem The Prisoner Of Chillon (1816) about him.” We totally saw that spot.

Too soon, we had cranky hungry kids and it was time to go. But of course, not before we stopped in the gift shop to tell the kids they couldn’t buy all the kitschy magnets, books about medieval recipes (in French), or 15th century antique armor. Note to self: Gotta stop going into gift shops.

We stopped to take some lovely family photos along the water, which ended as you can imagine, with some more whining and blurry final images. And then we got back to the car before LittleB realized he lost his camera somewhere (probably in the king’s poop hole, seriously), so he and I had to go all the way back to look around. No luck. So I carted a devastated, crying kid back to the car, only to get there and see that he had put it in the trunk already and just somehow forgotten within 2 seconds of doing it. Sigh.

Blurry family
Blurry family

Anyway, the castle was fun, you should go!

Springtime visitors

At the beginning of this year, B was doing a lot of travelling. The best thing about it was I had plenty of visitors coming to stay while he was away. It might not have been the most amazing vacations for my visitors, but it was great for me! I got to work as usual while someone else was doing chores and kid care and I had the added bonus of enjoying their company. Well, I guess that’s how it is with B at home anyway, but, you know, that gets boring after a while.

First, Grandma came to stay in February. The city was just barely starting to wake up – the winter fog was still hanging around, and it was hard to convince her that there were actually mountains across the lake. Luckily the sun came out for a short moment and we managed to catch a few photos on the water’s edge. We took a day trip into Geneva as well, but we mostly just saw swans and ate some chocolate… Actually, that sounds pretty good!

We also took the kids up to a skate park, where LittleB mostly looked at the jumps and J slid on them like slides – no extreme scooter athletes in the making, clearly. And J, turning into a bit of a pianist, got an early birthday piano. I had to drive into Geneva to pick it up, to an apartment right near the UN, and I managed to get a quick picture of the building from the car. There are so many tourists that there are permanent police stationed at the intersection out front, directing traffic so the bus loads of clueless visitors don’t get hit – luckily they didn’t see me taking this photo while driving!

A few weeks later my sister came to stay. It was meant to be a repeat of sister trip 2015, but when B had to travel again suddenly, she was gracious about being my housewife for a few days instead of seeing the country. She also got the wonderful fog and rainy days, but we tried to make the most of it: with a trip up to Saint Cergue and a tour around the Prangins museum, she managed to see more than Grandma L. And we capped off the week with a fun night of make your own sushi.

So the short version is, come and stay with us to watch our kids and see lots of fog! It’ll be great, we promise!

Great Canadian Tour 2015: Ottawa fams & jams

Whenever we head home to Ottawa, our main vacation goal is to see all the family. And visiting in the summer means hot days and sticky nights, farm-fresh strawberries and corn, barbecues every weekend, backyard sprinklers and downtown festivals. Unfortunately, it also means a lot of family & friends are away on vacation. So we never get to see all the people we hope to see. This summer was no exception. I think we managed to see maybe 6 friends in total? Sorry, everyone else! But you can always *cough cough* come to Switzerland *cough cough*.

We still had a glorious few weeks enjoying the summery summertime in Ottawa. It’s the season when everything is bright and awake, with the sun suspended high in the sky for 18+ a day, and everyone spends their evenings on the patio with a drink in hand to soak up as much of the sunset as possible.

B and the kids arrived a few weeks before I did and got to enjoy the first strawberry picking of the year, visit some kid play zones and splash on the beach. It was a great chance for them to catch up with Grandma L, who left shortly after to spend the summer on the east coast.

Once I arrived, we tried to fill our time with some more ‘touristy’ activities, since we were on our own most days while our parents or friends were working or otherwise busy. B and I managed to catch a show at the Ottawa Bluesfest – Dropkick Murphys and The Tragically Hip. It was great music… but we were totally, absolutely 100% rained out. I have never been so cold and soaked in my life. I think my body actually forced a reset at one point during the concert, because I fell asleep standing up for like 2 songs and didn’t realize it. But it was worth it!

B also took the opportunity to enjoy a football game at the new Ottawa stadium. He took about 400 pictures and short video clips, which I narrowed down to just two. You’re welcome.

One of my favorite things about Ottawa in the summer are the downtown festivals. One weekend, it was RibFest, which is exactly what it sounds: a bunch of rib stands selling copious amounts of ribs. We had a great time stuffing ourselves, and the kids discovered their love of grilled meat…

But visiting is always bittersweet. All we’re left with are a few photos with the family, trying to keep our memories fresh while we wait for the next time we can see each other. But still, it is always worth it!

 

Bali weekend magic

We had a wonderful month-long visit from Grandma in April. We figured that this time, we should actually take her somewhere other than Bogor! So we packed up and headed to Bali for a long weekend.

We rented a villa with a pool, right in the tourist area. Funny enough, it turns out we were very close to the place we stayed last time, but we were so new to the area back then that we were a bit oblivious to exactly where we were. Anyway, we did a bit more research before this trip and managed to have a better idea how to get around from our place!

As it turned out, it was the perfect weekend to be there. As you might know, Bali is a Hindu area, so they follow many of the same holidays and calendar as India and others, rather than the other parts of Indonesia. The weekend we went was Nyepi, which is the New Year holiday. The difference, however, is that Balinese Hindus celebrate the event with a day of silence and reflection, rather than with a party. The entire island shuts down, including the airport – no travel, no electricity, no noise. But since we were just looking for a quiet few days of R&R beside the pool, it was no problem for us!

The place we stayed was a sprawling three-bedroom house with a pool, outdoor bathrooms, a large living area, and all within walking distance of restaurants, shopping, the beach – perfect! But we didn’t really go to any of those places. Who needs to when you can spend all day relaxing in the water, dozing in the gazebo, reading on the daybed, playing games at the dining table.

When Nyepi rolled around, we spent the day hushing the kids and trying not to disturb our neighbours. But the magic happened that night, when unexpectedly, we were graced with the darkest, most velvetly black sky I’ve ever seen in my life. With all the lights turned off on the whole island, the stars shone brighter and clearer than anywhere. The milky way glowed deeply overhead and we saw Jupiter, Venus, and handfuls of constellations. It was truly Bali magic.

The weekend was over too quickly, but we came home with a few lovely souvenirs and memories to last us through the final weeks of the Bogor rainy season.

 

Vacation down under: pictures of pictures

While we were on vacation with my parents, B and I came up with a seriously hilarious and sneaky game. The goal was to take as many secret pictures as we could of my Dad… taking pictures.

This turned out to be easier than you would think. And far more rewarding.

Apparently we all look a bit silly when we’re taking pictures, especially when, in the case of my Dad, you have recently gotten a new camera and have to concentrate particularly hard. But it was all in good fun, and in fact, I have to admit that many of the best photos in our recent vacation posts were his from the very moments we captured here.

Personally, this is my favorite album of all the ones I shared over the past few weeks. Love you, daddy!

New Zealand Part 6 – Underground

Our final stop in New Zealand was to visit the Waitomo glow worm caves. The site is a series of limestone caves discovered in the 1880s that are home to millions of glowing bugs, filling the roof of the caverns with tiny, starry lights. This was special enough that we decided to make a special 3-hour drive each way just to visit it (well, that was also partly due to poor planning on our part, but still worth it!).

The main cave is the most famous, and thus the most packed. About 20 of us were shepherded through at a time, stopping to check out a few underground sights – a couple of huge stalactites, some watery pools, and more notably, the cathedral chamber: a section of the caves that have particularly clear and perfect acoustics. I almost broke out in song, but I managed to hold myself back.

Soon it was time to see the glow worms. We were bundled down a set of steps toward a boat dock, where we would take turns being floated through the glowing abyss. Of course, this all took place in the dark, in the quiet, so we wouldn’t disturb the worms and turn off their lights.

Unfortunately, J, being a particularly uncoordinated four-year-old, tripped and scraped her knee about 5 minutes before we headed for the boats. For whatever reason, even the tiniest bit of blood makes her panic beyond control. So of course, there we are, in the dark, in the quiet, packed tightly with a group of strangers, and J is freaking out. We calmed her down enough to get onto the boat, and while we floated along in the dark, experiencing one of life’s beautiful, magical, almost spiritual wonders, a tiny voice spent the whole time whimpering about “something something band-aid.” Sorry, everyone else in the glow worm cave that day.

Luckily we had a second cave to visit, and second time’s a charm. This one came with a personalized 2-hour walking tour. We traveled down into the mouth of the cave, stopping to wash our hands at a rock in a special Maori ritual. The cave started with a walkway of stalactites and special curtain-shaped limestone buildups. Then we dug deeper underground to see some more glow worms. We had a close-up look at them this time. And it turns out they are ugly little suckers. Apparently they’re these rather disgusting maggots that hang on the wall, dangling a bunch of gooey mucus strings from their body in the hopes of catching flies or something. I can’t imagine how many flies these dudes are catching, because, seriously, it’s the middle of a cave in the middle of nowhere, but hey, there must be something for them to eat otherwise they wouldn’t all be there. Anyway, there’s something beautiful about them even though you’re looking at glowing worm colons and snot strings.

Moving along, we came to an area of the cave known as ‘The Pretties’ – so named because it is so darn pretty. It looks exactly the way you think limestone caves should look: beautiful white and yellow spirals hanging from every surface, small springs of clear water dripping musical water droplets onto pyramids of velvety crystals at your feet, dark secret spaces in the back of the walls hiding mysteries. Apparently the Queen (Elizabeth II) was meant to visit some years back but didn’t make it for some reason or another. Her loss!

In the oldest part of the cave, we learned about the history of the site. How a local land owner stood his ground against the government – literally, stood by the entrance with his shotgun until they finally settled the ownership.

That afternoon, we drove back to Auckland for a last night together with my parents before they set off the next day for home (via Hawaii – don’t feel too bad for them!). Unfortunately, we stayed in and ordered room service for dinner and I later stayed up all night with the worst case of food poisoning ever. So that was fun. At least we went out of NZ with a bang. Thanks for all the memories!