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

Swiss fall

Before we knew it, it was autumn. Glorious summer was over, and the shorter, cooler days began. But we still made the most of it! We spent weekends enjoying the area, with all-season farmers’ markets and sunny afternoons.

The skating rink opened in town – a cute little covered arena that is free to the public (plus the cost of skate rental, if needed). We took the kids several times. And I enjoyed the attached “buvette” – pop-up refreshment stand that serves hot chocolate and vin chaud (mulled wine). Basically vin chaud is my favourite drink of all time. I spent most of the season looking for opportunities to visit markets and events to “sample” the various vins chauds, you know, for science.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, it was Halloween! But it’s not such a big deal here, so we kept it small. We spent an evening with our friends, which mostly turned into a vodka sampling party. You know, for science.

On Halloween proper, we did some trick-or-treating in a nearby expat neighbourhood with some other friends, and that was insanity. There were a limited number of houses actually giving out candy, and more than 100 kids running wild down the streets trying to figure out who was offering candy and who wasn’t. It was like Lord of the Flies: Candy edition. At one point, we saw a group of kids (not ours) just open up someone’s door and walk into their house… they didn’t have any candy. We wrapped up early and headed home to enjoy the spoils.

Another weekend, we made the trip into Geneva to watch a lightshow on the University buildings. It was a narrated digital projection of – basically – the journey of evolution, told from the perspective of amino acids. Sounds really fun, huh? Actually, it was very well done, with a lot of amazing images, and even audience members who couldn’t follow the French narrator enjoyed the show…

…With one caveat: from the start, there was a single, random lady at the front of the building who was dancing a sort of modern ballet routine in time with the show. She was so tiny compared to the scale of the building and the projections, it was hard to even see her. We weren’t even sure she was actually part of the event – was she just an audience member who was feeling really inspired by the role of amino acids in the formation of life?? Eventually one other tiny dancer appeared and they spent the whole show doing their interpretation of the narrative. The jury is still out about their legitimate involvement.

Other times we played football with friends, went to a hockey game, and hiked around the area. One weekend, there was a festival in Geneva – l’Escalade – which is a celebration around mid-December each year, commemorating one night in 1602 when the Genevois defeated invaders from Savoy by dumping boiling soup on them while they tried to scale the city walls. Hence, l’Escalade, which means “the climb” in French.

Nowadays, it involves getting little vegetable soup-shaped chocolates, which you smash with your fist and yell “Thus perish the enemies of the republic!” and then eat the pieces. We did that. Also, you go into the old town, eat vegetable soup on the street and watch super old army reservists shoot super old muskets in a demonstration of the Genevois prowess. Anyway, we got to see an old canon go off, so that was neat. But the mulled wine wasn’t very good – I know these things because I am a sampling expert now.

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Sky giant

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While visiting Rotorura, New Zealand, we walked through this forest of giants – looking up, sunshine obscuring the upper canopy, the trees continued on forever. We measured the trunks with our bodies, circled around in a family hug, amazed at how small we really are.

Great Canadian Tour 2015: The great outdoors

And so begins a series of posts about our summer holidays. I still have a few more Asian trips to share, but I’ll dig them out of the archives when winter hangs thick and we all need a bit of jungle and beach scenery.

Our summer was loooooong. We were basically living as transients across Ottawa, Toronto, Washington and Montreal until our Swiss visas could get sorted out. This involved a lot of moving suitcases back and forth across cities, sleeping wherever we could, and pissing off neighbors all over the country with our travel-weary kids.

We started off in Ottawa, our home base for the summer, and the first thing we couldn’t wait to do was go camping. We love camping. We love it so much that we filled our parents’ basements with all our gear when we moved rather than sell it or give it away. So it’s our duty to use it when we come back to town, right?

We booked a short trip, only 3 nights, at Silent Lake near Algonquin Park. Now, I hesitate to tell the internet about this, but it was amazing. It wasn’t too full, the sites were clean and perfect, the beaches were rugged but groomed and uncrowded, the weather gorgeous, and the night skies starry and clear. But please don’t go there, so it can stay that way.

We passed the days with swimming, outdoor games, roasting marshmallows, napping, roasting more marshmallows, watching the fire and listening to the sounds of the forest. We went on a hike one day and went a bit mushroom-crazy with our macro lens.

The kids had a good time. Mostly they just dug holes – like, they dug holes in the ground at our campsite, at the beach, in the lake bottom, in the gravel near the outhouses. What’s with kids and holes, seriously? I picked sand out of their hair for weeks afterwards. And they alternated the hole-digging with whining about eating marshmallows (when they weren’t actually eating marshmallows).

And then there were the 10 minutes when we lost LittleB in the forest while we were hiking. Oh man, other parents, you know that horrible feeling when you’ve lost your kid somewhere scary and dangerous? Yeah.

We were on our way back to the car park, and he got ahead of us, but I wasn’t worried because it is a one-way track… but then I got to the car with J and he wasn’t there. I looked around the area, checked the beach, checked the parking lot, and started to freak out. I ran back into the forest to BigB (who was still photographing mushrooms) and we split up, calling his name and looking around.

After 5 minutes of escalating frenzy, LittleB suddenly showed up at the trailhead, in tears but totally fine. It turns out he was smarter than us and actually got into the car, but I didn’t know it was unlocked so I never looked directly inside when I was in the lot, because why would he be in the locked car? Eventually he freaked out because we hadn’t come out of the forest and came looking for us. So… actually I guess we got lost rather than him.

But it really was a great trip. There’s nothing I like more than a toasty campfire, watching the flames lick the logs down into glowing coals and ashes. I like sitting up late, playing cards by torchlight, making early morning pancakes on the portable stove, snuggling into the sleeping bag when there’s a touch of dew in the night air. And I’m always heavy in the heart to pack up and go home.

 

Flores fun – part 5: water, water everywhere

Later on in the afternoon (after we visited the waterfall), three of us went for a drive around the edge of the lake. It was a great sightseeing trip, although the roads were pretty rough. And by rough I mean the rockiest, skinniest, most unsafe donkey trails you can imagine. Around the far side of the lake, we stopped to visit a little rock island accessible only by hiking down a steep hill and across a VERY sketchy “bridge” made of rotting bamboo. I almost didn’t make it. But once across, we could see the beautiful green of the lake, as well as our own campground on the other side of the water.

Next we stopped at “coconut village” (comprising two houses and some coconut trees) to have a fresh coconut drink. It wasn’t much to write home about. I’ve had fresher coconuts. But it was a neat little stop and I was happy to support the family business. LittleB was most keen on the litter of puppies they had out back, and couldn’t care less about the guy climbing 20 m up a tree to get us a snack.

Our last stop of the trip was at the local hot springs. If you can call them that. Having seen our share of amazing geysers and thermal pools before, this pathetic trickle of water falling into a pool of garbage was pretty underwhelming. But at least we enjoyed a beautiful sunset on the beach. And it was nice to see that the locals were well sustained by this little bit of geothermal magic, using it for the cooking and cleaning ease that they wouldn’t have otherwise.

For our final day in Flores, we packed up and took off to see another waterfall on the way back to town. These falls were a bit of a further hike and more secluded, but they promised nicer views and privacy.

The drive took us down some narrow cliffs and into a dry, sunny valley. We stopped to register at the park desk and pick up a little old man guide, then we parked our truck at the top of a forested hill. With swimsuits and lunch in tow, we headed down towards the valley floor.

The walk was steep in places, and very rough on J. She spent most of it crying and balking at the big steps. It took major persuading and negotiating to get her down the whole way. Also, our (barefoot) guide managed to cut his foot and was leaving a blood trail the whole way along the path. Needless to say, it was not a peaceful, one-with-nature kind of trek, and we were aching for a beer and some rest by the time we emerged at the base of the falls.

The falls were cut into a huge rockface, carving their way out of a cavern and along a cliffside. The only way to see the falls was to swim about 50 meters along the trench and squeeze through a small opening into the cavern.

The water was cool and pleasant, and there were ledges along the way where we could easily rest our tired kids. Soon we made it to the cave opening. Two adults went first, to make sure it was safe for the rest of us. We had to pass through a small opening guarded by a bunch of spiders, but it was worth it. The space seemed to have been carved over thousands of years and thousands of liters of water, swirling away a small domed cavern in the rock. The water was thunderous and strong, but the bottom was shallow enough to stand in places.

 

After our swim, the sky was starting to darken, so we hurried up to the truck. Thankfully J had a much easier time going up than down, and we were quick to make it back to the top. Unfortunately, the rain was close behind us, and we made it into the cab just as the clouds opened up. It poured so hard that the dirt road back to the park entrance turned into a river, and the truck was fishtailing the whole way up. I was pretty sure we were going to fly off the cliff edge on the side of the road, but we made it. We stopped for a few minutes at the park building to decide what to do, and to mourn for all of our things getting totally soaked in the back of the pickup truck. We decided to skip the planned final stop at another viewpoint/village, and return to the big city where we had booked a hotel for the night.

We made it there in time for a last beautiful sunset as the rain cleared, with enough time for warm showers, a chance to hang all our clothes around the room to dry, and to enjoy a few evening beers before bed and back to Jakarta in the morning.

Thanks for the visit and memories!

From the archives: Cottage trip no. 2

Playing catch-up on some old topics.

I should start this one by telling you that my friend C is coming to visit from Canada this weekend! This is very exciting, because we have been friends forever and I can’t wait to see her – plus we have an awesome trip planned to Flores, so stay tuned for that. But thinking about her visit reminds me that I neglected to post the final details of our trip with my other dear friend and visitor, J!

After our memorable (though rather ill-fated, for her at least, heh) few days in Kalimantan, we came back to Bogor for some rest. And where better to relax than at the cottage in Puncak?

We drove up the pass midday, which was great – very little traffic, clear views across the mountain, and just general good spirits. We made good time. Unfortunately, when it came to finding the cottage again, we were getting a little bit lost. Google maps is wholly unreliable here, and really did not want to send us straight there. We seemed to be going in generally the right direction, but it was impossible to find the exact alley road that would take us to the cottage itself. After getting lost a couple of times, some kindly security guards directed us to the right way, so we set off again. But wait – the car in front of us has suddenly gotten itself stuck in the ditch on the side of the incredibly narrow road, blocking our way!

Until you’ve seen a car stuck in a ditch in an Indonesian alley, you haven’t lived. This is how it works: 1. Car A, being driven by a barefoot child, very slowly drives down the alley road. 2. Barefoot child does not know how to drive, and thus gently slides one car wheel into ditch. 3. Barefoot child, not knowing how to drive, cannot correct for this error and proceeds to drive a second car wheel into the ditch. 4. Seventeen more barefoot children appear out of nowhere and begin to dangerously rock the car up and down, back and forth, in attempt to dislodge the car, effectively trapping car further into ditch and pulling off important items like bumpers and side mirrors. 5. Random adults appear and tie a rope to the car and try to tug-of-war the car out of the ditch.

At this last step, B finally took pity on them and got out of our car to see if he could help. I’ve never seen a group of tiny people cheer so loudly at the sudden appearance of a giant who wants to help tug-of-war their car. Alas, even his bear strength couldn’t move the car out of its death hole. Meanwhile, friend J was running around, also barefoot, snapping pictures of the hilarious spectacle – I think she fit right in around here.

We thought we might stop at "KFC" for lunch.
We thought we might stop at “KFC” for lunch.
Car tug-of-war. Those kids were so excited to see a man giant!
Car tug-of-war. Those kids were so excited to see a man giant!
That car ain't going nowhere
That car ain’t going nowhere

Eventually someone brought around a bunch of rocks and barrels to fill up the ditch under the wheel, and the car drove itself free. It was pretty wrecked, I hope that kid wasn’t in too much trouble – certainly it was not his car.

Anyway, at last we made it to the cottage to enjoy a couple of nights of quiet living. In fact, I did basically nothing for those few days, and took no pictures. I thought I forgot the camera, but as it turned out, I had just forgotten to take the camera out of my bag the whole time. But everyone did the tea mountain climb again and they took some more photos. It looked like they had a beautiful view, not as misty as last time we were there. And no leeches.

Soon it was time for J to go home. We spent a last day in Jakarta, enjoying some food and shopping, and sent her on her way with a lot of stories and a bunch of batik. Miss you!

 

New Zealand Part 3 – Maori & Geysers

While we were in Rotorua, we decided to take a tour of the local geyser, which is housed within the property of a Maori cultural center. They had a special ticket price where we could have a tour of the village grounds, the carving and weaving schools, a kiwi habitat and the geyser, as well as an evening Maori music/dance show and dinner. Sweet!

The afternoon started with the tour. The grounds were lovely, and they had a lot of nice artifacts, carvings, and buildings. We watched them weave baskets, carve some decorative wall panels and tour the meeting houses (where we would later see the show). After that, we walked down toward the geyser. Whoo mama, it was awesome! Apparently this one is rather sporadic, unlike Old faithful, for example. This one just randomly decides to “geys” (*is that the verb??) whenever enough steam and gases build up. We were lucky enough to arrive during a particularly large geysing. It was hitting about 25 feet into the air!

We wandered up and around the geyser site, checking out other steam vents and fizzling pools. We also saw a bunch of bubbling mud holes, which they use to make cosmetic products. (Some of the photos are actually from a second set of bubbling mud pools we visited another day, but I figured they all went together well enough!)

After the geyser, we visited a kiwi viewing habitat inside a building. Now, apparently kiwis are nocturnal – who knew! So we were ushered into a pitch black room and told that the kiwis were somewhere inside this bushy area, vaguely near the back of the habitat. Yeah, I think I might have seen its beak. Anyway, so that was not as cool as you would have hoped. At least we saw a building in which kiwis were possibly living, so there’s that.

Next, onto the show! It started with us gathering at the great lawn and waiting for the warriors to invite us in. This involved a lot of chubby guys yelling and gesturing with sticks. Then there was a bit of singing, and we were brought into the meeting house. Then, we enjoyed a few singing and dancing numbers, with the troupe of warriors and lady.. warriors? Anyway, they were pretty good. It seemed a bit like a high school play. In fact, I’m thinking it might have been the school break job for some of them, like you would go and work a summer camp for a few months – well, maybe you join the Maori troupe and entertain tourists. Anyway, they did the hakka dance – it’s cool, look it up. It’s the big-eyed, tongue-sticking-out dance – here’s the ending:

After the show, we chowed down on “real” Maori dishes, some of which were cooked in an underground pit. Honestly, most of the food seemed pretty normal to me, but it was still yummy. Later, we took another twilight tour of the geyser, but it had quieted down by then. Still, the area was misty and surreal, with the moon hanging low in the sky, muting all the yellow sulfur and blue rocks. It was getting chilly, so we lounged for a few minutes on some thermally heated rocks and shared a few cups of hot chocolate before heading home.

Perhaps it was just the magic of the evening, but I came away from Rotorua wondering if maybe we have a drop of Maori in our family tree. It certainly felt a bit like home!

 

New Zealand Part 2 – Touring Rotorua

Our second stop in our New Zealand adventure took us to a town in the middle of the north island called Rotorua. It’s famous for being a “thermal wonderland” – home to hot springs, geysers, volcanic lakes and a wicked sulphur smell. Like the town was built on rotten eggs. It’s also home to a large population of Maori, though of course we could really only see the tourist side of the culture, kitschy knick-knacks and culture nights. But it was still good fun.

We rented a little apartment overlooking Rotorua lake, mostly because it had a hot tub. The neighborhood was a bit run down – the neighboring house was an empty shell and I’m fairly certain the next one over may have been the residence of a particularly friendly professional lady.

When we arrived in town, the rental wasn’t quite ready, so we wandered down the street and discovered a fair/flea market set up in the park. It turns out these kinds of fairs are pretty much the same everywhere: a few kids’ rides, people selling handmade soaps and earrings, dudes with a bunch of random items from their basements, grannies selling crocheted everything, a young girl selling an entire table full of princess Diana memorabilia.. ok maybe that one was unique, I’m not sure. Anyway, the kids were pretty excited to buy something, so we gave them each a few dollars – J bought a coloring book and LittleB bought a tiny chess set. Not bad!

Eventually we checked into our apartment and settled into the hot tub for the night. It was freezing, actually. Apparently they had just filled it. But hey, we’re Canadian so it felt ok to us.

The next day, we had a great time wandering around the area. We stopped at the nearby Blue and Green Lakes to check out the view. Beautiful! Then we made our way to a Tea House at a historical Maori village. The tour was $30/person, so we only stayed for the tea. Luckily they had some of the best scones I’ve ever eaten in my life. Worth it.

We stopped at a redwood forest for a looksee. Having lived on the west coast of Canada, we had seen huge redwoods before; but they’re always amazing! This forest had been planted in memoriam of NZ servicemen who died in the war(s). We decided to measure the trees in “Bs” – how many Bs fit around the trunk? The biggest one we found was 4.5 Bs around. That’s a big tree.

Overall the walk was beautiful, except for the fact that J fell about a thousand times and got a teeny tiny cut on her knee, and, well, that was the end of that. There was no way she was going to be able to walk back to the car without wailing and collapsing in agony every ten steps. Then we got to the gift shop and she wailed and collapsed at the injustice of us not buying her something. It’s a rough life to be four with a teeny tiny cut on your knee.

Anyway, the rest of us had a nice time!

Aussie Adventure Part 3 – Beach tour

We started off Sydney right by visiting the famous Bondi Beach. It was beautiful. Well, I should confess that we didn’t really go onto the beach itself, we just kind of looked at it from the top of the hill nearby. We had taken the bus to get there, and we disembarked just beside the beach. Going all the way down to the sand would have been the end of our tour – once kids touch sand, there’s no moving from there. That’s it. An afternoon of them digging in sand. So we snapped some photos and shooshed them along. Our goal for the day was to do the Bondi to Coogee coastal walk.

We started up the trail, surrounded by shirtless joggers and dog walkers. We were seriously overdressed and frumpy by comparison. I know there’s the whole no-ozone thing in Australia, but that seems to just be a convenient excuse for explaining away all the skin cancer there. Really, Australia, put on some clothes. You’re as bad as smokers who smoke and then blame the cigarettes for cancer instead of the habit. I’ve never seen so many white-turned-brown people in my life. There was one old dude lying on the beach in a speedo – he was so sun-cooked, he looked tanned. I don’t mean tanned, like he has a healthy glow, but tanned like leather – like he was wearing an old man skin costume made out of used cowboy boots. Now that I think about it, he very well may have been dead and just lying there cooking the sun for a few days without anyone noticing.

The walk was beautiful, though. The ocean was a lovely dark turquoise colour that I’ve never seen before – too bright to be the Atlantic but too dark to be tropical. The waves were pretty rough, another reason not to visit the beaches themselves, but it looked like a good day for surfing. We stopped for a while to watch them. I like watching surfers – it’s like a little game, trying to guess what percentage of them will get tipped over or not get up on their boards at all. The answer is, pretty much all of them, all the time. Really, what a horrible sport, it’s like a never-ending exhausting fight against mother nature: You spend 86% of your time trying to swim to the sweet spot, 10% underneath waves, 3.5% drowning, and a fleeting but joyous 0.5% actually standing on your board.

After the surfers, we wandered through the old Waverley Cemetery. I like old cemeteries too. This one was cool, because the rows of graves were chronologically filled. It was also so huge that we only managed to make it through 1876.

Alas, we didn’t get all the way to Coogee. The kids conked out around Bronte, so we hopped on a bus to take us home!

Bonus gallery:

Here is my narration of my Dad trying to take photographs of the family. Yeah, it’s basically impossible, resulting in this series of hilarious and unflattering images that are pretty much unshareable with our family and friends. So, here you go internet, enjoy!

Cottage & Tea

It’s been a busy couple of weeks!

I had a friend visiting from the UK, mainly for work, but we were able to enjoy a few great nights out during the week. More exciting, we took him up to the “cottage” that my work maintains in the mountains nearby. Ostensibly this is a place where you could hold work retreats and have a bit of isolation, but really I think employees just rent it out for party weekends – which is exactly what we did!

Let’s backtrack a bit, though. Last year, we had a really great masquerade party at the end of our Annual Meeting. During the course of the night, I won the door prize, which turned out to be a free night at the cottage. Until now, we had never been able to find a time to go up, but the certificate was expiring in October, so it was becoming a bit desperate. Luckily, with our friend in town and some other friends interested in joining, it was perfect timing.

We headed up after work on Friday, only getting trapped in about an hour’s worth of traffic. So it only took us 2.5 hours to drive the 25 km to the cottage – a holiday miracle! The cottage is located up in the Puncak area, which is nestled into the side of the local volcano and generally considered vacation country. It is much cooler than the city, and the cottage itself is quite private. Calling it a cottage is not really fair – it’s more like a small mansion, with four bedrooms and a huge living space. There were 7 adults and the 2 kids, and we fit very comfortably. It apparently sleeps 16 if you pull out all the extra bedding and mattresses.

After we arrived, we enjoyed a great evening of drinking and impromptu ukulele karaoke. In the morning, we lounged around and the kids had fun exploring the area. In the afternoon, we took a little hike up the hillside to a nearby tea plantation. The guide said it would be about a 40 minute walk, so we figured that wasn’t a big deal. He neglected to tell us that it was literally 40 minutes up a cliff. It was a bit of a workout! I really shouldn’t have drank that Smirnoff Ice right before we left. Anyway, after braving the rainforest, a few mosquito bites, a couple of leech attacks, some major kid whining and several long rests, we made it to the top. And it was worth it!

The view was a bit cloudy, but it was cool and lovely, with a breeze washing over us. We enjoyed the scenery for a while, took a meander up an old cobblestone path and rescued LittleB when he tripped and gouged his knee skin off on said cobblestone path. We had to peel the skin back and rinse it out with water, bleh. But he’s a trooper.

Soon the rain clouds were threatening so we headed back down. It was a bit slower going with the kids, who tended to build up too much speed and start tumbling, but we made it. We only found one leech on our friend after arriving home, and we blasted that sucker with salt – it was science in action. Afterwards, we took a swim in the still-filling pool, which unfortunately was a bit grimy, but we did find some frog eggs! We kept them in a jar and watched them grow over the weekend. More science in action!

On Sunday, we relaxed and swam some more, in the now-filled-and-cleaned pool. We headed home in the afternoon, again getting stuck in some initial stand-still traffic, but once it got going, we made it home in about 2 hours or so.

Definitely worth it, and I think we’ll be making a regular weekend out of it!

 

O Canada: part six – Beaches

There are many wonderful beaches in the Cheticamp area. Cheticamp beach itself is a lovely sandy/rocky coast that is sheltered from the open water. It has a sand bar close to shore which makes it easy to walk out quite far, even with the kids. There are sometimes jellyfish, but we were lucky to avoid them all this year. It’s close to town, so we spent several lovely afternoons enjoying the sun and warm water – well, warm for the north Atlantic at about 20 degrees or so (celsius).

We also took a special trip over to the western coast of Cape Breton to visit Black Brook beach. This is another little sheltered bay where a waterfall/brook meets the ocean. The waves were perfect – not too big, not too small. And there was a great rock cliff to climb and look out over the beach. We whiled away the afternoon jumping in waves, building castles, and hunting lobsters (but not catching them!). It was lovely.

O Canada: part four – Cheticamp

The real vacation part of our vacation started in Chéticamp, Nova Scotia, where B’s maternal family comes from and where they still keep a family cottage. B’s mom, brother and his wife joined us for a week of R&R on the beach. The cottage is located along the Cabot Trail, which is the famously beautiful coastal road along the edge of the island. You can’t ask for a nicer place to vacation.

To get there, we flew to Halifax and rented a car to drive up the coast into Cape Breton. We were all excited for a road trip! We blasted our favourite east coast tunes along the way, and stopped at our usual rest stop – the Atlantic Superstore in Antigonish – to stock up on essentials like Cheerios, mustard and marshmallows. It was going to be a good week!

We rolled into the cottage mid-afternoon and spent the rest of the day catching up with the family and enjoying fresh fish and chips for dinner.

The week was filled with visiting, sightseeing, swimming and eating. Plenty of lobster, of course, although I have discovered that I prefer crab. Also plenty of beer and goods from the local bakery. (Yeah, we all put on at least ten pounds that week.)

We did a whale watching tour on our first day, but it was so great it deserves its own post. We also headed up the Cabot Trail almost every day to check out the beaches and trails in the area.

We were in town during the Festivale de l’escaouette, which is an Acadian arts and culture celebration. We did catch a show featuring one of the cousins and his father on guitar. Shameless plug here! It was great music, and even the kids had a good time. The festival ended on the weekend with a parade, most notable for the gobs of candy the kids collected from the floats – it was like Halloween, disgusting toffees included. It would have been better if some of the treats had not been freezies that leaked everywhere, but hey, free candy is free candy. Other floats were for local businesses or VIPs, but with an Acadian twist (i.e. with fiddlers onboard), and of course the fire truck got the most love, bringing up the rear.

During the rest of the week, we went swimming as much as we could at the beach, which, other than being a bit chilly, was great fun. In fact, we had so many beach days, it too deserves its own post. Stay tuned for that. We also had a couple of great dinners out, including one where I stuffed myself on the fruits of the sea until I thought I would be sick. We also enjoyed a few cookouts at the firepit at B’s brother’s hotel – including one night where we literally outran a sheet of rain coming at us from across the harbor.

Overall our visit was the perfect cap to a long few weeks of travel. At the end of our stay, we drove back to Halifax filled with love and lobster, begrudgingly ready to hop on a plane (or two, or four) and face the real world again.

 

thecayas vs. the volcano

This weekend, we finally went on our trip to KRAKATOA. Yes, it was awesome!

Saturday started early, with us getting up at 4 am to catch our van. It picked us up from home and drove toward the west coast of Java. From there, we caught a little speedboat out into the Sunda Straight and headed to the group of islands making up the Krakatoa area.

J ready to go (still wearing PJs)
J ready to go (still wearing PJs)
Enjoying some sun (also in PJs)
Enjoying some sun (also in PJs)

By about noon, we caught our first sight of the smoking beauty.

There she is, smoking in the distance - Anak Krakatoa
There she is, smoking in the far distance – Anak Krakatoa

Next door was another huge island, Rakata, originally part of the first Krakatoa, but half of the island was obliterated in the 1883 eruption.

And her sister, Rakata
And her sister, Rakata
Rakata up close - that giant crater is from the 1883 explosion
Rakata up close – that giant crater is from the 1883 explosion

As we got closer, we saw that Anak Krakatau was a bit smaller than we expected, but still huge considering she is only about 120 years old. We pulled up onto the banks of the island at the foot of the volcano.

We've arrived!
We’ve arrived!
Pulling up to the island... I wonder where we will stay tonight?
Pulling up to the island… I wonder where we will stay tonight?
...Right here!
…Right here!

While the guides were setting up our tents, we took the opportunity to explore the black sand beach and go for a swim.

It was a black sand beach - and as hot as lava!
It was a black sand beach – and as hot as lava!
White volcano rock against black volcano sand.
White volcano rock against black volcano sand.
Splashy girl
Splashy girl
The boys a-swimming
The boys a-swimming

So now that we were on Krakatoa, what else to do but climb it?? So we did. Both kids climbed it all by themselves! The whole experience was incredible.


Later that night, after dinner on the beach, we took a walk along the deserted coast – lit up by only the stars and moon. It was wild and beautiful.

In the morning, we cast off and visited a nearby lagoon for some snorkeling. It was especially great, because the coral reefs are relatively young and have grown up out of the completely obliterated crater area.


Then we hopped back in the boat to start our journey home. It was a perfect weekend!

*******

Now that you’ve seen all the highlights, let me give you a peek into our “off-camera” experience:

-When you camp in Indonesia, it means something different than we are used to in Canada. Yes, there were tents, but the only bedding we received were thin children’s play mats placed on the floor of the tent. No covers, no pillows, nothing. Luckily it is warm enough here that covers are totally unnecessary, but a bit of forewarning about pillows would have been nice. So, the makeshift pillows we had consisted of: 1 mostly empty backpack, 1 wet backpack, and 1 hiking boot. LittleB took the empty backpack, I got the wet one, and B had the boot. J slept mostly on my face. It was a rough night.

-After we spent the whole weekend taking awesome photos and protecting our camera like it was a dragon horde, B managed to snag the camera on the edge of the dock while disembarking – then the strap broke and we watched our treasure fall to the bottom of the marina! The marina water was not too deep, but it was filled with jellyfish. Luckily, we were able to pay one of our boat crew kids to jump in there and get it. Good thing it is an underwater camera!

-While visiting the island, we saw at least 3 giant monitor lizards coming right up to the campsites. It was amazing. Unfortunately, they were mostly just coming and eating garbage. So 99.8% of the pictures we have of them are just lizards sitting in piles of garbage. Classy.

Monitor lizard visiting our campsite - our only good photo without garbage
Monitor lizard visiting our campsite – our only good photo without garbage

-What do you do with two bored kids when you’re trapped on a volcanic island? Well, letting them “help” the cooks is good. We were having squid and shrimp for dinner, so first they watched all the shrimp heads get cut off. Then they started an assembly line for preparing squid – the guy pulls out the guts, LittleB rolls all the skin off, J puts the body into a bucket of dirty water. The only problem was that LittleB wiped all the leftover bits of squid skin onto his pants. That’s never coming out.

-What do you do with two bored kids when you’re trapped in a van for 5 hours? Well, telling a bunch of stories that all end with someone getting poked in the eyeball and dying is good for at least half an hour.

-Volcanic sand is neat. It’s black and fine. But it turns out that, not unlike other sand, it gets everywhere, but unlike other sand, because it’s black, you can see it everywhere: in hair, in swimsuits, in shoes, in bum cracks. Walking up a 70-degree incline of the stuff is also not easy. Every step slides you back down and fills your shoes with dirt and gravel. At the bottom of the hill, LittleB dumped out what he pretty accurately described as “almost half of the volcano.” I’m still finding sand in places where no sand should be.

It was still a perfect weekend!

Sri Lanka part 2 – the safari

After our beach experience, we were picked up by our fantastic travel guide, Sanjaya, and we headed around the bottom of the island. On the way, we saw plenty more beautiful beaches and stopped at the Galle fort – an old colonial army base. It was brutally hot, so we left rather quickly, but we got a few nice pics of a lovely ocean lookout.

Our final destination was a city called Tissamaharama – not because we wanted to visit it, but because it was the perfect base for exploring Yala national park, best known for its leopards.

We left early in the morning and arrived home after dark. It was a long, fantastic ride through the park. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any leopards, but we saw hundreds of other animals.

The ride was rough but really great. Because we were in a real 4×4, we were able to do a lot of off-roading that other safari tours could not do. We definitely saw more animals because of it.

One of those animals was a “tusker” elephant – known to Sanjaya as being a bit aggressive. We came across him in the road and we gave him lots of space as he chased us backwards the way we came. No harm done, and he gave us lots of great photo opportunities – but he has attacked trucks in the past. Luckily he went his way and us ours without any problems.

At sunset, we said goodbye to the park and returned to the hotel. The next day, we visited an elephant orphanage during “feeding time” – the babies were given milk through funnels and tubes followed by some tasty greens. Our kids were not so into it, but that could have been because of the hordes of local schoolkids lining up to see the show as well.

Afterwards, we spent a few hours touring Udawalawe national park. This one is known for its elephant herds, and it most certainly delivered. We saw over 100 elephants that afternoon, and many of them were right up close in the road or beside us. We had a picnic lunch in the jeep right next to a herd of at least 10 elephants, including one baby that was no more than a few days old. That evening we drove north into the mountains for a visit to Ella.


For extra credit, here is our (mostly complete) list of animal sightings:

White-breasted kingfisher
Jacana (water hen)
Water buffalo
Peacock
Land monitor
Termite mounds
Cows
Grey tit
Wild boar
Painted stork
Large egret
Spot-billed pelican
Spoonbill stork
Black wing stilt
Great thick knee (plover)
Green bee-eater
Snakebird
Cormorants
Mugger crocodile
Sri Lankan Elephant
Spotted deer
White sea eagle
White ibis
Crested hawk eagle
Chestnut bee-eater
Ruddy Mongoose
Grey heron
Grey headed fish eagle
Ducks
Tufted Gray Langur
Pied hornbill
Rabbits
Jungle fowl
Purple heron
Toque Macaque
Black-necked stork
Open bill stork
King mongoose
Jackal
Jaguar (tracks only)
Fishing Cat (tracks only)

 

Week in Yogyakarta – part 2: Borobudur

This past weekend, we visited Borobudur Buddhist temple, a UNESCO heritage site and the biggest tourism draw in Indonesia.

We rented a car and driver through a local company, and set out early to miss the heat and crowds. It was about an hour drive, and we took the scenic route to get there – enjoying some lovely views of rice paddies and Yogyakarta’s neighbouring volcanoes. We arrived and headed into the site. Luckily, since we’re here on work visas, we were able to get in on local prices ($3 instead of $19 each!).

Joining the throngs of visitors, who were mostly Indonesian, we started the trek up the hill toward the temple itself. It was a bit of a walk, but not as far as I thought it would be. Even the stairs weren’t quite as numerous or deep as I expected.

The temple was beautiful. I can’t believe it was built over a thousand years ago. Frankly, it has weathered better than most of the sidewalks in Bogor! The bas relief was still finely detailed and the statues lovely.

Unfortunately, our trip was soured a bit by the other visitors – they kept asking to take photos with us and of us, and we would often get caught by a crowd of Indonesians clambering for a photo of us or the kids. I’m not really sure how a handful of chubby “americans” is more exciting than a UNESCO heritage site, but it sure seemed that way.

After about an hour, we headed home, with a quick stop at a nearby sister temple.

All in all, it was a lovely morning. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves: