Flores fun – part 2: here be dragons

The main reason we went to Flores was to visit Komodo island, which was much closer to our resort than the mainland (one of the reasons we stayed there). So the first day, we booked a day trip that took us about 2.5 hours by boat to Komodo for a hike around the island, with some stops planned at a few good snorkeling sites on the way back to the resort.

The boat ride was smooth but long – especially for the little excited people we had with us. At first, they were both heartbroken that I wouldn’t let them ride on the roof of the boat with some of the adventurous adults on our tour, but they settled down on the main deck and we passed the time playing “the movie game” – where someone thinks of a movie character and the rest of us have to guess who it is by asking yes or no questions. LittleB is a master at this game, and J is pretty good, although I have a feeling that she just waits until you guess someone she likes and says that’s who it is without having had to think of someone herself. It’s a very subversive way of playing. In fact, now that I think about it, she basically makes us do all the work but gets to be in the game. Sneaky!

Anyway, we spent the rest of the time watching the islands and ocean go by. Flores is so dry, the land we could see was painted in scorched browns and reds. They were the kinds of deserted islands that a pirate would ditch you on and you would die immediately because there wouldn’t be a single scrap of food or drop of water. It looked just like the kind of place you might expect to see dinosaurs, and I admit I broke out into the Jurassic Park theme song more than once. Soon we arrived at Komodo, and it was much the same, only bigger. And very, very hot.

The island offered three walking tours, and our tour group decided on the medium, 2-km hike. As it turned out, we couldn’t have taken the longer 4-km tour even if we wanted to, because it was so hot, the park rangers themselves wouldn’t go that far. Luckily, we didn’t have to walk very long before we saw our first dragon! And luckily, it was so hot, he wasn’t doing very much. Mostly he just lay in the shade and tried to ignore us as we all milled around at a cautious distance. At one point, he stood up and ambled about 3 meters to another bit of shade and lay down again – but you would have thought we were all seeing our baby taking his first steps, with all the excited giggling, gasps and furious photo taking. “Ohmigod he’s walking!” “Quick, move out of the way!” “Aw, look at his little feet!” etc. etc.

Here’s a video of our second dragon, a lady dragon walking very slowly through the woods:

After the rangers cajoled us all into taking close-up shots with the once again stationary dragon, we moved along on our way. Did I mention how hot it was? I would guess it was probably about 45 celsius, no breeze, blaring hot noon sun, burning hot volcanic sand, and only scrubby trees without much shade. Needless to say, the kids were pretty whiny. The only thing keeping LittleB going was the hope of seeing all the dragon poop in the forest (we took pictures of it), while J spent most of the time complaining about just about everything. But they still did the whole walk, even up a huge hill and down through a rocky pathway, and I was proud of them.

In the end, we managed to see 4 dragons in all, though the last one we saw, lying in the shade at the side of the toilet hut, seemed more like a lazy pet than a wild, fierce beast.

At the end of the walk, we spent a few minutes resting at the entrance, trying our best to avoid buying overpriced kick knacks, all mostly in the shape of komodo dragons. C succumbed and bought a fridge magnet.

Soon we hopped back on the boat, hot and sweaty and ready for a swim with some manta rays – next stop!

 

Kebun Raya – Chaperone edition

Well, now that we’re done with the weeks and weeks of updates about our holidays in ANZ (That’s “Australia-New Zealand” for you Northern Hemisphere people, or as we in the Southern Hemisphere like to derogatorily call you, “Northems”), life has sort of settled back into our old rut. Well, not EXACTLY into our old rut, but the new rut seems awfully familiar to the old one. I think they’re related. They’re at least cousins.

One thing that has changed, however, is that I have a TON of time on my hands. I finished up my work contract here in Bogor just before the in-laws arrived for Christmas, and from the day we got back home from sunny Auckland, I’ve been trying to find things to fill that time up. I’ve watched a lot of hockey, granted, but the other thing I’ve started to do is to help out at the kids’ school. It’s a small school, but they do quite a bit of field trips, and I was invited along as a chaperone for LittleB’s class as we took the kids on a tour of Bogor’s botanical gardens, Kebun Raya.

As we were loading into the bus on our way to the gardens, I realized how attached folks here are to the culture of “school uniforms” – despite the permission form specifically allowing kids to wear regular clothes on this field trip, LittleB was the only one to wear “casual” clothes… every other kid had elected to wear their school uniform instead of their regular clothes!

Other than the uniform snafu, the trip went as well and as predictable as one could expect:

  • the kids went crazy and touched every single plant within arm’s reach
  • the loud and rambunctious kids were louder and more rambunctious when given more space to do so
  • quiet and introspective kids can be coerced into being loud and rambunctious with a healthy dose of peer pressure
  • we almost got kicked out of the Orchid house because of an impromptu game of Hide and Seek that had started up
  • cactuses are sharp, and some kids won’t believe it, despite your warnings, until they find out for themselves
  • When kids see a frog orgy, they will ask you to take a picture of the frog orgy, and not stop talking about the frog orgy for days and days
  • irrigation canals are not water slides
  • suspension bridges can be scary when 11 kids are jumping on them simultaneously, actively trying to cause a catastrophic failure
  • museum employees are surly and apathetic here too, it’s apparently not just a north american thing
  • Indonesian museums are “charming-yet-underfunded” at their best, and “an unholy hall of twisted godless terrors, haunting you for eternity with long suffering eyes that will sear into your mind and and manifest themselves as your worst nightmares until the sweet embrace of death finally lifts the curse that has steadfastly followed you for nigh all these years” at their worst
  • expat kids are like catnip to Indonesians, who literally cannot help themselves from either pinching cheeks, or asking you what your name is or where you are from. And then asking you to sing for them, apparently.
  • And, finally, I took a bunch of pictures (including several of the frog orgy)!

-B

New Zealand Part 4 – Journey to the Shire

The highlight of our trip was without a doubt our tour of Hobbiton. Yes, of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit fame – that Hobbiton! On our way out of Rotorua, we made a special trip to visit the set of the Shire. It is situated on a sheep farm, and they offer tours of the site.

The kids were pretty excited. Ok, maybe B and I were more excited, but still, everyone was looking forward to it. The tour started at a farmhouse converted into a visitor’s center, where we boarded a bus and were transported up a hill and around a corner. We stopped for a few sheep, a bus coming the other way, some more sheep, and then suddenly, there was the Shire, just ahead!

We saw everything – Hobbiton’s gardens, all the hobbit holes, Sam’s house, the cranky old man’s house, the party tree and field, the bridge and the water wheel, the Green Dragon pub, and of course, Bag End. It was fantastic.

The tour guide kept telling the kids that they would get to go inside one of the hobbit houses, and oh man J was so excited for that. Finally, we made it to the special hobbit house that was open for viewing. She was no nervous to open the door, so I helped. I pushed it open and peeked inside…. And it was just a tiny dark hole filled with dirt and umbrellas. So yeah, that was a bit of a let-down, but not enough to dampen our spirits.

We ended the tour at the Green Dragon pub – the real one! We drank cider and ginger beer and sat by the fire until it was time to go. I think I was a hobbit in a past life, because I could have stayed there forever.

 

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 2 – Around Sydney

Our Sydney holiday started with checking into our rental house for the week. It was in the Kings Cross area, just outside downtown, and I was looking forward to being within walking distance to lots of food and shops. It turns out we were very close indeed to some shops! Unforuntately, they were almost all *ahem* adult shops. LittleB was super excited to walk past a row of “toy” stores and really wanted to go in – we figured he should wait another 11 years or so before checking out those particular establishments.

But actually, the place we rented was along a very sweet little neighbourhood road nearby. The landlady was from France, so B and I woo’ed her with our language skills, and she was very excited to have her Canadian ‘cousins’ staying downstairs. We had the run of the bottom half of the family’s house, with three bedrooms and two bathrooms, only a few hundred metres away from a subway stop and a grocery store, bottle shop, and plenty of restaurants.

We had six days to explore Sydney, and we barely scratched the surface. The first day, we decided to make the kids happy and visit the Aquarium. We showed up early to avoid the crowds – but it was still packed. We shuffled along, checking out all the fish, sharks and platypuses. The kids got these little quiz cards and got to move from station to station, answering questions and stamping their cards. They were so excited, and just wanted to run straight from station to station. So yeah, we basically paid $25 each for them to get a free piece of paper, oblivious to the wonders of the ocean all around them. But we did see some cool stuff. There are viewing tunnels through the tanks, where sharks, manta rays, and a lonely dugong swim right beside and above you so you can more easily check out the weird holes and crevices on their undersides. We also made it to the top of the tank during feeding time and got to watch all the sharks fight over chum. The aquarium also had all the other usual stuff – penguins, coral tanks, seahorses, jellyfish. It was a good time.

Afterwards, we wandered around Darling Harbour, checking out the boats and other tourists. Then we found Paddy’s Market – a huge asian flea market, where we bought some touristy junk (probably made in Indonesia) and paused at a playground nearby to let LittleB climb around on some kind of rope death trap structure. J tried to climb it but only managed to get stuck and then complain loudly and anatomically accurately about the rope hurting her lady parts. Yeah, I think Australia is going to miss us.

On our way back to our subway stop, we took a break in a park to rest our whiny children. Afer a few minutes, we started noticing that there were a lot of rather scruffy characters around. It appeared we had stopped in what might have been the local homeless park. My dad suggested the bench we were on was probably someone’s bed, so we moved along. But I’m not convinced the park was entirely full of homeless people, and I think most of them may have just been scruffy regular folks. In fact, most of Australia seems to be full of scruffy regular folks. So much so, that B and I started playing a game called “Hobo or Hipster?” – every young person in the city was put to the test. It came out pretty even, I think.

Overall, one thing we were particularly looking forward to on our trip was Australian wine. My parents make a point of buying Australian shiraz even back in Ontario – we definitely needed to visit the source of this nectar. So I booked us on a day tour into the Hunter Valley. I checked around online until I found a tour that first, would take all six of us, and also, would include stops not only at wineries but at a chocolate factory, a brewery, a cheese shop, AND an animal park where we would get to hug some Aussie animals. I should tell you that for the six weeks leading up to our trip, J would say every day that she just wanted to hug a joey. That was it, hugging a joey was all she wanted from the entire country of Australia. Luckily, this was the place!

On the day of the tour, we stopped at the animal sanctuary first. Our guide took us to meet the koalas right away. First of all, they were much bigger than I was expecting. And much more active – I guess I always thought they were more slothy. But no, they are actually more like curious kittens, except with huge razor claws that they want to use for climbing up your soft human flesh. Ok, they’re actually pretty horrible creatures. I mean, they were cute to look at and their fur was spongy and oh so soft, but they are not cuddly at all, despite what childhood books on the other side of the world may teach you. I’ve also heard that they all have gonorrhea, so there’s that.

Next, we entered the roo pen. The friendliest one was this old crotchety guy, much smaller than the others, and who, as it turns out, was actually a “walleroo”. I made some kind of (possibly rude) inference about awkward cross-breeding between a kangaroo and a wallaby, thinking that why else would you name an animal after a mix if it’s not actually a mix, right? Like a Liger. Nope, the somewhat offended guide told me that they are a completely separate species. Sure they are, Australia.

Anyway, finally we found the friendly actual kangaroo (she had a collar to set her apart) and J got to hug her! Wish fulfilled!

Inside the sanctuary building were some other crazy pets. Like a dog that was totally blind and deaf, so she just ran up to every person to sniff out who it was, while the owner called her to no avail. Then there were these two sneaky parrots that used all us humans in the room like a bridge, hopping from one to another until they reached the cookie shelf to steal treats. They were bitey.

Next we moved on the the chocolate factory. Ok, we grew up in the town near the Hershey factory, so I wouldn’t call this place a factory in comparison. There was one tiny chocolate stirring machine and then some chocolate for sale… so I guess it was a chocolate producing place at least. It was expensive but tasty.

Luckily the wine was great. The first place we visited was a family vineyard, where we bought a bottle of delicious and expensive merlot to bring home with us. We also visited another vineyard in the afternoon, where we took home some yummy dessert wine. That place had a strange quirk of scattering the ashes of dead family members on rows of grapes and then naming the wine after them. I still can’t decide if that is sweet or a bit creepy. Either way, we drank some “Rosie” and she was pretty tasty.

Lunch was a stop at a big vineyard called Tempus Two, where we had some awesome umami burgers and did our cheese tasting. That was a bust, since all the cheese was just spreadable goat cheese with different flavorings. Um, where is all the actual cheese? Anyway, at least we got to drink some more wine with it.

Last stop was a local microbrewery, where we tried some strange options like “Christmas pudding” and some other ones I can’t remember. Also there was a bouncy castle to keep the kids busy while we drank. They knew how to do drinking right. Oh yeah, and I forgot to tell you that we were on this tour with another family – a family of Irish folks, half of whom were not drinking and the other half who barely drank anything/could not hold their liquor. Talk about going against stereotype. At least B and I drank enough for all of them combined, you know, just to make up for it. It was the least we could do.

 

Pre-holidays holiday fun

Before I can get into trip details, I have to share a few pesky little things that happened in December called “overseas visitors” and “Christmas” and “LittleB’s birthday”.

First of all, mid-December was especially exciting because my parents came to visit! They arrived on the last day of school, but wisely chose to stay in and sleep off their 30-hour flight rather than go to the end-of-term assembly. What’s that? You would have gone, out of grandparental obligation? Well, the next time you are sleep deprived on the wrong side of the world, I will force you to watch two hours of awkward elementary school kids performing off-key songs and dancing to Gangnam Style. Or as J planned to do: bounce a basketball and sing “Who Stole the Cookies from the Cookie Jar?” by Sharon, Lois and Bram at the same time (she can’t do either very well).

One of many ballerinas...
One of many ballerinas…
One of many gangnam dancers
One of many gangnam dancers

Unfortunately, my parents were here for the week before our travels when I was fresh off bed rest from my horrible back injury – so I wasn’t able to take off much time, having used up all my work goodwill the previous week. B got the lucky job of showing them around town. This consisted of going to the one mall, swimming at my work and touring the botanical gardens. Surprise, they managed to accomplish all three that week!

We always like going to the botanical gardens here. They’re so strangely unkempt. As if someone just put a fence around a normal forest and started charging admission. There are some nice areas, like the orchid house and the great lawn (it is literally just a big lawn), but the rest is rather overgrown and, frankly, a little boring. To be fair, I’ve heard that there are a number of unusual species kept there, which would probably be more exciting if I knew anything about unusual species of tropical trees. I don’t. Instead, we are usually the exciting thing for the locals – and as usual, everyone wants a picture with us instead of the trees. When B took my parents, they were swarmed by local students who, for some bizarre reason, were trying to get my father to sing for them. My father is not a singer, and I’m certain he doesn’t look like any Indonesian singers, so I have no idea why this was even a thing. Who randomly asks strangers to sing for them? Indonesian school kids, that’s who. (He declined.)

Swimming with grandma and grandpa
Swimming with grandma and grandpa
Testing
Testing out our new underwater camera
Like I said... a bit unkempt
Like I said… a bit unkempt
The Great Lawn
The Great Lawn
Swarmed by kiddos
Swarmed by kiddos

We also took my parents for a swanky Christmas brunch at a hotel in Jarkarta. Those are always a good excuse to eat too much. At least they had some really impressive Christmas decorations!

Huge Christmas decorations in a Jakarta hotel
Huge Christmas decorations in a Jakarta hotel

Because we were leaving for our travels on Dec 22, we would be on the road for both Christmas and LittleB’s birthday. I decided it would be best if we had those celebrations beforehand – I’d like to say it was because having Christmas at home is more special, but really I just didn’t want to bother bringing presents with me either there or back home again. So… I wrote a special letter to Santa asking him to have Christmas early, on Dec 21. As it turned out, he was happy to comply! Christmas morning was fun, with some nice presents for the kids and some Baileys for the adults. We did LittleB’s birthday early too, and he got a nice little haul for turning 7!

7 time
7 time
Grandpa couldn't eat the icing, so we cut out a piece beforehand
Grandpa couldn’t eat the icing, so we cut out a piece beforehand
Percy Jackson books!
Percy Jackson books!
"You bought me a box of yeast??"
“You bought me a box of yeast??”
"Oh yay, it's an iPod!"
“Oh yay, it’s an iPod, not yeast after all!”
Calm before the storm
Calm before the storm
Stockings!
Stockings!
Presents!
Presents!
The great opening begins
The great opening begins
Opening up
Opening up
Do you want this?
Do you want this?
Grandparent presents
Grandparent presents
Christmas cuddles
Christmas cuddles
Yay, more books!
Yay, more books!
This is my "now I have to clean up all this crap" face
This is my “now I have to clean up all this crap” face

On Sunday, we piled into a van I rented from work (our car was too small for all of us) and headed to the airport. Now, we have missed a flight before so we’re a bit airport-wary, and many other folks had been saying the airport traffic was really bad around then, so we left about 7 hours early for the flight. Of course, that was the one day when no one else was on the road, so it only took us an hour to get there. There’s not much to do in the Jakarta airport. We stood around for a while… we watched tour groups of Indonesian pilgrims pile through the airport… the kids cried a bit… finally check-in opened… then we spent another few hours waiting on the other side… Anyway, we eventually made it to Sydney!

Waiting....
Waiting….

Our first night in Sydney was rather uneventful. We picked up a van from the airport, and after B nearly had his fingers cut off by slamming them in the car door, we headed into the city. We had the morning to kill before we could check into our hotel on the outskirts of town. We booked something farther out because we were heading West into the Blue Mountains the next day, so staying downtown would have been silly. Anyway, it turned out we stayed in the sort of low-income, industrial area of the suburbs. Food options were a bit limited, but we managed to find our way to the Chinatown area and enjoyed some awesome bbq pork buns, as well as a really tasty Italian dinner nearby. We needed to conserve our energy for the real fun when we headed out the next day! But that’s the next post. Stay tuned!

O Canada: bonus round – NYC redux

Our bonus round was an extra visit to NYC after our plane was delayed and couldn’t be rebooked for several days. We holed up in the airport hotel and took a few trips into the city again. The first day, we visited the NYC aquarium and Coney Island – both newly reopened after hurricane Sandy. On the second day, we headed into Manhattan for a bit more sightseeing, including the Flatiron building, Madison Square Park and a trip to Eataly, Macy’s, and the NY Public Library. Even though we were more than ready to head home, it was nice to have another chance to redeem our less-than-stellar first visit to the city!

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.

 

O Canada: part two – Toronto

The first stop on our trip back to Canada was Toronto, where we enjoyed a few nights with my sister and some friends.

The flight in from NYC was bumped by about an hour, but we saw Gina Torres on the plane, which personally, I think made up for the delay. She was just doing normal mom stuff, so we didn’t hound her for photos or anything, although I did go super stalkery in my head, watching and analyzing her every move. “Did she just notice me?” “Look, she plays Scrabble on her iPad too!” “OMG she accidentally glanced at me, I think we’re friends now!”

Our time in Toronto was short but lovely. The kids got to play with their cousins and we enjoyed the country chic hospitality at my sister’s house, hoedowns included.

On Sunday, we all ventured out High Park to do some fishing, see the zoo and play at the so-called “castle park.” My brother-in-law caught one measly little fish and B and I came up empty using the Barbie and Tinkerbell fishing rods, respectively. Well, we both caught some pond weeds, inexplicably named “water dogs” by the youngest cousin, but I don’t think they count since they were not, in fact, real fish or dogs for that matter.

The zoo, as it turns out, was a small selection of animals on display along a side street in the park. It was a little depressing, but they seemed to be well cared for. It’s always a little weird to gawk at animals. I’m always reminded of this poem (sorry, that was the best link I could find).

The castle park is a crazy kids’ play structure built to look like – you guessed it – a castle. Apparently part of it burned down a while ago and was rebuilt (or overbuilt) by local celebrity builder Mike Holmes. It was pretty cool. Before going in, my sister said “the kids just kind of disappear into it and you don’t see them again for 20 minutes.” She was right. At least three times, I was about 80% sure they had been abducted or wandered off, but no, they were just running around like madmen in the mazes and circuits. I guess that’s the point, anyway. Well done, Mike.

Other highlights of our visit included a great home-cooked meal with our friends, and I had a nice girls’ night out with my bff at a hilariously hipster bar in the neighbourhood. I had some kind of drink called an “elderberry mist” (I think). I admit, it was tasty, although I expected it to come with a moustache or ironic coaster, alas, it did not.

Our visit was over too soon, and we headed off on the train to Ottawa for our next adventure.

 

O Canada: part one – NYC

What’s that you say? New York is not part of Canada? Well, on our way here, LittleB said: “But mom, Ottawa and the United States are both inside of Canada!” There you go, US – you are now the 11th province. How’s them apples?

We arrived on Wednesday afternoon after about a million hours on flights. We foolishly thought that we could navigate the subway to our apartment rental, which actually was not so much an issue until we landed on our 4th subway train that had no A/C. Oh yeah, and did you know that there’s a heat wave in NY right now? I’m pretty sure our shoes melted today. Anyway, back to the subway – there we were, packed into a sweltering rush hour train with two dead-to-the-world kids who refused to hold on to the pole and three suitcases. I’m pretty sure I almost passed out at least twice. But we did make it to our apartment eventually, and settled into the 30-sq-foot luxury that is the upper west side.

So anyway, let’s be honest here. We’ve had a rather mediocre time in NYC. I’m going to blame it on the fact that our kids are overtired after the long plane trip, or maybe that the temperature has reached into the 40s for the past few days. We didn’t get to do a lot of the things we planned, and the things we did do were cut short by whiny kids, or by us being tired of carrying whiny kids around, or by us having to find food or beverages for whiny kids. Right, so here are the rules we have established for visiting NYC with kids: 1. Do expensive ticketed items first thing in the morning. You’re going to regret arriving at, say, the museum at 2 pm and your 84 bucks go to waste when your kids refuse to actually look at exhibits at the museum. 2. Don’t bother going to NYC with your kids. They would be just as happy going to a toy store anywhere else in the world instead.

But we did get to see lots of great things: beautiful Central Park in the summer – Rockefeller plaza and the MOMA design shop – Times Square in the afternoon sun – Neil de Grasse Tyson’s planetarium – the Manhattan Skyline from the Statue of Liberty – and our friends’ new baby. So there are lots of reasons why our trip was wonderful. Even better, we’re heading on to Canada tomorrow where the real fun begins! (After another trip on the subway back to airport… wish us luck!)

 

Beach Weekend

This past weekend we traveled down to Pelabuhan Ratu on the south coast of Java. Another group of friends made the plans and booked a villa to celebrate a few birthdays, and they very kindly let us tag along. We went into it knowing that the trip takes a long time, the roads are crap, the beach is beautiful but basically unswimmable, and the places to stay are of questionable quality. After writing that out, I’m sort of wondering why we went… but it had to be done for the sake of adventure!

Going

Knowing that the traffic can be bad, especially on a weekend, we decided to leave early after lunch on Friday. The rest of the group was planning to leave Bogor at 7 or 8 at night, which was just too late for us with the kids. So we piled into the car with our friend and set out. I drove. Now, to put this trip into perspective, here is a google map showing our route:

Okay, 110 km, just under 3 hours. Sounds pretty reasonable, considering we are driving through a volcano range in Indonesia… Actually, just writing that makes me wonder again why we did it.

The drive started slow as we headed up the first mountainside. There was a lot of traffic, and, as it turned out, several of the roads were under construction, slowing down even more what was already our snail’s pace. But, I pulled a couple of *ahem* questionable passing lane moves (basically I just drove into oncoming traffic until I couldn’t any more, that’s a thing here), and it only took us an hour or two to get through the slowdown.

By then, we had reached the “bad” part of the road. I would describe this section of road as 30% road and 70% potholes. And very curvy. Luckily, LittleB only barfed once. I think that’s a pretty good average for this road, from what I’ve heard. Apparently there was a former school principal who used to go up every weekend and his kid would be sick in the car every time. That sounds like a good family bonding activity to me! We averaged about 25 km/h.

This is a fairly normal part of the road. Like I said, 70% potholes.
This is a fairly normal part of the road. Like I said, 70% potholes.

Six and half hours later, we rolled into the hotel.

Staying

We stayed at a charming villa nestled into the side of mountain, overlooking the coast. It was built of teak and boasted of luxury on its website. The truth? It was kind of a crazy haunted mansion / grade 5 matchstick building project / Frankensteinian monstrosity dangling precariously off the edge of a cliff. Yes, it was made out of teak, but it looked as though someone took parts of other buildings and glued them haphazardly together, holding it all up with random pieces of wood and twine. Also, the driveway was at about a 75 degree incline, which our automatic Avanza was not happy about.

The view from the second floor to the main floor and cliff
The view from the second floor to the main floor and cliff
That is the front of the building. Above the colored tiles is a guest room, held up by the random posts.
That is the front of the building. Above the colored tiles is a guest room, held up by the random posts.
One of the second-level sitting rooms.
One of the second-level sitting rooms.

Anyway, we were the first ones to arrive, so we had our pick of rooms. Originally, we were supposed to be in the Panorama room, which I assumed was the nicest because it cost more. It turned out to be a strange little room at the bottom of the house (without a panoramic view, despite its name), and it only had three single beds in it. There is nothing comfortable about squeezing two above-average-sized adults and two children into three single beds (let’s be honest here, they were actually cots), plus to reach the room you had to travel down an unlit, slippery, misshapen walkway. Um, no. So we took the room upstairs that had a king bed in it. At least we mostly fit into that one.

Other than the wasp nest in the bathroom, the rest of the accommodations were ok. Oh wait, there was also a pool. I use this term loosely. It was kind of a little rectangle of water surrounded by a bunch of old wood and tarps. It’s possible someone swam in it once… but no one ever found them again, so it’s impossible to know for sure.

By the way, the rest of our party arrived at 2 am.

Playing

We spent the day on Saturday at the beach. It was beautiful. Big waves, dark, ferrous sand, rugged coastline. But the undertow was vicious. I didn’t even bother putting on my swimsuit, because I didn’t want to float away. The only people in the water were professional surfers. And B.

Big waves!
Big waves!
Beautiful coastline, though
Beautiful coastline, though
Let's play "Where's B?"
Let’s play “Where’s B?”
The surfers were enjoying the waves
The surfers were enjoying the waves
There were a few guys with boogie boards, too
There were a few guys with boogie boards, too
Lovely views
Lovely views

I stayed on the beach with the kids, building sandcastles and digging up crab holes. Once in a while, a giant wave would sweep onto shore and wash everything away. Like our friend’s flip flops. Like the kids. Like J’s swimming suit. Seriously, it got ripped right off of her, or rather, she got pulled right out of it. I had to choose: J’s bottoms or J herself? It was a tough choice (we paid 20 bucks for those shorts, they were Roxy brand!). In the end, I went with the kid. She spent the rest of the morning in her underpants. At least she thought it was hilarious.

Abby helping the kids build a sandcastle
Abby helping the kids build a sandcastle
The kids making a new friend
The kids making a new friend
Watching the surfers
Watching the surfers
Still beautiful!
Still beautiful!
J's new friend Eloise.
J’s new friend Eloise.
We didn't catch a crab, but this dog did. All he did was roll in it. Gross.
We didn’t catch a crab, but this dog did. All he did was roll in it. Gross.

Here is videographic evidence of such a wave:

Eventually the waves got big enough that even B had to give up, so we headed to a resort down the beach for lunch. We spent the afternoon enjoying beers and pasta on the beach, watching the local kids play some rousing games of football and “dunk your friends in the ocean” (I’m assuming that’s what it was called).

Afternoon view from the restaurant
Afternoon view from the restaurant
Another view from the patio
Another view from the patio
Having some lunch
Having some lunch
Some kind of deep conversation happening
Some kind of deep conversation happening
Good food & friends
Good food & friends
Also up to no good
Also up to no good
Kid up to no good
Kid up to no good
Watching the fishing boats. Shortly after this, some buffalo walked by
Watching the fishing boats. Shortly after this, some buffalo walked by
More coast views
More coast views

That night, we just stayed in and got drunk. It was a birthday party, after all. I don’t have any photos, so you will just have to believe me.

Returning

Sunday morning came early, as usual, with a bright-eyed J up and at ’em at 5 am on the dot. We Cayas tend to have a GTFO attitude on the last day of a vacation, ready to just throw everything in the car at 5:30 and head out. I hate suffering under the looming trip home. But we waited it out to spend a few more precious hours on the beach. And drink some caffeine.

Mid morning, we headed out back on the road, thinking it couldn’t possibly be worse than the trip up. WE WERE SO WRONG. First of all, it took us nearly two hours just to get away from the coast. It would appear that every person on the island of Java was at the beach that day. And there was only one lane of the road open because of construction.

Heading out on the road
Heading out on the road
So repaving a road here means literally putting a whole new road on top, so it's basically unusable until it is done. Real helpful.
So repaving a road here means literally putting a whole new road on top, so it’s basically unusable until it is done. Real helpful.
Stuck in traffic...
Stuck in traffic…
Stuck in traffic behind bananas
Stuck in traffic behind bananas
Aaaaannd now, chickens
Aaaaannd now, chickens

It took another six hours to make it through the mountains and back into Bogor. At one point, we literally sat still in traffic for about an hour. It was a long ride… But we made it home in time for a dinner of fruit loops and peanut butter. We live a charmed life.

Moral of the story: Don’t go to Pelabuhan ratu.

Bonus feature. We found this video on the camera that LittleB took of himself. He appears to be narrating our lunch at the resort on Saturday. It’s amazing, so we figured we should share it with the internet. Enjoy!

Sri Lanka part 3 – the hills

Our last two stops on the trip were to Ella and Kandy before returning to Colombo and home.

Ella is a beautiful little village in the high tea mountains. We stayed at a boutique hotel which had a single-family bungalow perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking “Ella Rock.” We arrived in the early evening when the fog had rolled in, so we weren’t sure at first whether or not the location was very good. But then suddenly the mist rolled away and we saw a beautiful view across the mountains and valleys. It turned out to be another perfect few days.

In the morning, we visited a heritage tea factory and saw how the leaves went from green to tea. They didn’t allow us to take any photos, and although B snapped a few illicitly, they didn’t turn out. Suffice it to say that making tea is a rather labour-intensive process. And honestly, the tea we drank in Sri Lanka was the best I’ve ever had in my life. Also, we drank so much of it so often that I felt like I was living with my mom again. We bought a few boxes to bring home with us, so if you are lucky you might get to try some.

We enjoyed the rest of the day wandering down the (very small) street of Ella village and stopping for some lunch and snacks. That night, we played cards on the balcony and watched the full moon rise and light up the mountains.

The next day, we said goodbye to Ella and hopped on a train to Kandy. The views of the countryside were astounding. In fact, it got to the point where we just had to literally stop taking photos because it was so exhausting. It was a long trip, but we enjoyed it. The windows opened and we could watch everything passing by. The train only travelled at about 15 km/h, so it was easy to see it all.

We arrived in Kandy around dinnertime and made it to our hotel. Luckily we had booked into a very new, higher-end place with western-style amenities. We were all ready for a warm shower and a night of TV watching. So we ordered some room service sandwiches and hunkered down.

In the morning, we headed into the city to wander around. We walked through markets and temples, and it was Easter Sunday that day, so there were a lot of festivities happening. I guess even Buddhists like Easter. Well, there were a lot of churches too. Anyway, we bought some snacks and checked out some stores. We unsuccessfully tried to find a cool colonial graveyard I had read about, but the day was still fun. We spent the afternoon back at the hotel enjoying the pool.

The next day, we checked out early and backpacked our things back through the city (our train didn’t leave until the evening). At last, we managed to find the graveyard we were looking for, as well as a great batik store that is highly rated. After a picnic lunch beside the lake, we headed to the Botanical Gardens for the afternoon. The gardens were large and lovely. We saw flowers, ferns, cactuses, trees, lakes. At one point, J fell and hurt her hand, so we stopped to bandage her up and grab a snack. A herd of monkeys came through and started aggressively circling us. They were getting between me and my cubs, so I sort of yelled and stomped at them and almost started a human-monkey turf war. We GTFO of there right away, luckily no harm done!

We carted a pair of tired kiddos to the train, and after a couple of hours on the train to Colombo, we flew home early in the morning back to real life.

We’ll miss you, Sri Lanka!

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.