w r i n k l e d
ADVENTURES IN TRAVEL, WRITING AND AGING GRACEFULLY
I am going to do something I am not supposed to do. I'm going to put Macau, Hong Kong and Beijing in the same post. Before you start yelling, I totally know that these are very separate administrations, languages and cultures, but I am just too behind to write the three separate posts that these amazing locations deserve. But the one thing in common? We had an amazing time in each.
We endured another 17 hour travel day to drag our sorry selves from Australia to Hong Kong. Despite our late arrival time, my cousin Carol insisted on taking the bus an hour from her village in the New Territories to meet us at the airport. For the record, I really did try to keep her at home, but she showed up anyway and frankly, she was a sight for sorry eyes. Carol and her brother Charles are a good 10 years my junior, which means that while she was still swinging on a playset, I was long in NYC, being the world's biggest college nerd. By the time I'd returned to Chicago, she had lived in as disparate places as Guinea, Africa, Southern Illinois, and most recently, Hong Kong. She was, as long as I could remember, the little sister I'd always wanted.
But in Hong Kong, she was the big boss and she, her husband Shannon and her two kids kicked off the trip by touring us around the school where Shannon taught. About the school, Isoo (a.k.a., world's pickiest child) said it most succinctly: If I had three wishes in the world, I would use one wish to ask that I go to this school. Of course he only went to one class - gym, which lasted for 72 minutes and during which time they played soccer. The students were incredibly well-behaved and welcoming, the staff friendly, the amenities great. Oh and Isoo made, a super cool new buddy Ben so what isn't there to love about this school?
After school we met up with my other cousin Sylvia, who took the ferry over from Macau to take us to fancy drinks over a fancy view and a terrific dinner that we tried very valiantly not to sleep through (darn jet lag!). If Carol is my cool little cousin, that Sylv is my cool older cousin. You know - the one that always disappears during family events to go to some crazy party. The cousin that's been everywhere and knows people with boats and the perfect place to hang out and oh yeah, can hook you up with a ridiculously plush room at the Banyan Tree Resort. Despite being in the throes of an intense work schedule, she carted us to all over Macau, introducing us to really some great people, treated us to so many fantastic meals and spoiled the kids rotten, complete with huge American breakfasts of JOHNSONVILLE SAUSAGES, AMERICAN BACON, and french toast with MAPLE SYRUP. After months of adapting to rashers, various cold breads and noodles for breakfast, the kids were so excited to see their beloved American products. Honestly, after what was a fun, but "rugged" tour of NZ, it was such a treat to be well-cared for and pampered. It came at just the perfect time and was more recuperative, fun and generous than we deserve.
As for Macau, I found it much more interesting than expected. As a special administrative region of China, it had been under Portugal's rule from the 16th century till its handover in 1999. Now it's Asia's, gambling mecca grossing $45 billion annually (7 times that of Vegas' earning). Sylv always referred to it as Jersey to Hong Kong's New York (more like Atlantic City, I say), but after having been to Portugal and learning about its history of exploration and discovery, I found it fascinating to see its art, architecture, culture and food echoed and adapted to Chinese tastes. There's a great canvas tile at the foot Padrao dos Descobrimentos that charts all of the land conquered during the Age of Discovery. It's amazing to think that at one point, Portugal controlled much of the world (for about a minute). While it's lost much of its influence and economic power and is in recent years, struggling for solvency, it's pretty cool to see its historical significance playing out in Macau. It was a great lesson in showing the kids how interconnected the world is, and why history, even 100 years later, still matters. It was also a little weird to see Chinese people walking around what looked like little Lisbon, with a big fat does of Las Vegas, I mean.
Before we embarked on the hour long ferry ride from HK to Macau, Sylv took us to the IFC building for fancy drinks on the rooftop terrace. Think young folks with hip clothes and hair cuts hanging out with a view of glimmering high rises and old-fashioned junks. No wonder HK is referred to as the Chinese Manhattan.
Sylv introduced us to her good friends Miguel and Cristina, their adorable kids and her other buddy, Eddie, at Fernando's, a famous Portuguese restaurant near the seaside in the charming Cologane Village. The food and company could not be beat. We gorged ourselves on fresh seafood while Miguel and Cristina, expat Portuguese, told us what it's like to be Portuguese in Macau. They, as well the rest of the world, are curious as to what will happen once the 50 year "one country, two systems" amendment expires and Macau's government officially reverts to Chinese law. Until then, its business as usual.
After Miguel and Cristina so generously treated us to lunch, we strolled Hac Sa beach and hiked along the water's rock formations. Hac Sa, as its name implies, is technically a black sand beach, but after recent erosion, the shoreline was supplimented by yellow sand, giving the beach an interesting striation of colors.
Oona and Maria became fast friends because, you know, these two girls are so shy. Walking the rocky coastline.
All smiles with Sylv.
Macau consists of the Macau peninsula and the two islands of Taipa and Coloane, which were connected by a landfill to create Cotai, We hopped a cab from Sylv's modern high-rise in Taipa to hit the sights in Macau Peninsula. Walking the windy streets near St. Paul's is a trip: colonial era European architecture mixed with more recent Macau low-rises. Signs in both Portuguese and Cantonese. Shops selling Pastel de Nata and Chinese beef jerky.
Largo do Senado, where dragon dancers lounge among classic Portuguese tile work.
The Ruins of St. Paul. Commissioned by the Portuguese, designed by an Italian, built by Chinese and Japanese craftsmen, and placed on a hill on the Macau Peninsula. The facade includes a fascinating blend of Asian and Western images - Jesus, doves, lotus blossoms, dragons and Mary crushing a seven headed hydra.
St. Paul's Ruins are Macau's most famous sight, but not its most popular attraction. That would have to be the casinos. Casino Lisboa is an oldie, built in the 60s.
Before checking into our digs at the Banyan Tree, we walked through the Venetian and took the kids to Carnevale. Oona especially, loved the glitz and glamour.
And we were spoiled by too much great food. With the exception of the chicken feet, the dim sum here is outrageous. Some dining tips from Sylv and Shannon: Raise your hand for service, bring your own napkins/tissues and reserve the specially colored chopsticks for serving. Since the SARS outbreak in 2002 that resulted in nearly 800 deaths, empty rice bowls arrive in a larger bowl of boiled water to indicate that all utensils and eating vessels have been properly sanitized.
When I say our hotel room was sweet, I mean it. Here is one of two relaxation pools in our room (the other is a Japanese soaking tub). THANK YOU AGAIN, SYLVIA!!!! We are not worthy!
Or if you prefer, you can get wet outside in the wave pool.
After Sylv went back to work (boo!), Carol, Shannon and their kids joined us in Macau for an afternoon of sightseeing. We went back to the ruins.
Counted the cannons at the top of Macau Fortress Hill.
And tromped around the Mandarin's House.
Thanks for an awesome time, Sylvia. And to the cousins, you should definitely plan a visit!
While in Thailand, I met an Aussie. I told her that I was contemplating a stop in NZ and Australia to which she responded, “If you go to Australia, you should check out Sydney. But if you only have time for Australia OR New Zealand, definitely pick New Zealand.” I’m not saying Australia is not worth a visit, but I couldn’t agree with her more. I expected Sydney to be a laid back, hip, amazingly beautiful, friendly place and sadly, it didn’t quite meet all of my expectations. In a nutshell: the weather was fine, the beaches are gorgeous, the food was a little bland, the people not very nice, and the sights underwhelming.
I know this sounds vaguely Naomi Campbell of me, but at this point, I was desperate for a day sitting on the couch, watching Grey's Antamony and drinking red wine. For a pea-brain like me, it's hard work to research and learn stuff every single day. And unless it's like, super amazing, I was in serious need of a nap. So maybe Sydney wasn't boring. Maybe I just needed to be bored. Nonetheless, here it is,
We had rented a tiny house in the Paddington area, a little suburb known for charming cottages with wrought iron terraces, cute cafes, boutique shops and a great Saturday market. While the house itself was pretty gross, I could very well have happily spent our entire trip kicking around Paddington, especially the sprawling Centennial Park with its great running trails, playgrounds, and much to Isoo’s delight, fantastic birding. I said it once, but I’ll say it again: When possible, eschew the touristy areas for local neighborhoods. Get up and run in the park with the locals, wander grocery shops to get a sense of traditional foods, see the kids come home from school in their uniforms, pick a neighborhood café and make it yours. It’s the best way to meet people and get a sense of local life. It’s also a welcome respite from the anonymous hustle and bustle of the generic hotel.
This is going to blow your mind, but the Sydney Opera House is NOT white. The 1,056,000 self cleaning tiles are, in fact, cream-colored. The day we visited was overcast so the Opera House seemed dingier and smaller than I'd imagined. We also took a walk through the small, tidy Botanical Garden and along very crowded Sydney Harbor. Sadly, there was none of the picturesque gleaming whiteness.
The day we visited just happened to be National Greek Day so the area was filled to capacity with Greek nationals, and cheesy Miami Beach-like club hoppers. It was like a contest to see which could be louder - the amplified Greek folk songs or the thumping hip-hop Opera Bar soundtrack. Not sure who won, but I definitely lost.
We took a bus to the quintessentially Australian Bondi Beach and did the coastal walk to Bronte Beach to spend the afternoon digging in the sand. Yes, there were the requisite long-haired surfers, golden bikini babes and picturesque blue waves tipped with white surf. But I was thrilled and surprised by the breathtaking rock formations and very cool rock pools that lined the shores. Sydney’s beaches absolutely deserve the hype.
What are rock pools, you ask? Australia's known for their killer waves: great for surfing, but a little rough for kids, a challenge for lap swimmers and can harbor the occasional shark. So every swimming beach has a protected salt water pool carved out of the rock. Here you can enjoy the sun and float peacefully around the chlorine free pool. Or not!
Another good thing - Art Gallery NSW's free Asian Art show. It was an incredibly well-curated show repurposing medium used in traditional Asian art in contemporary form. It was smart, fun and the kids loved the awesome children's trails. And did I mention the free admission?
I don’t know if it’s because of Australia's long history of discriminating against racial minorities (see White Australia policy, Chinese Exclusion Act, second class treatment of Aboriginals) or because Aussies don't like Americans(?), but I was frustrated and disappointed by the way we were treated in Sydney. We were spoiled by the warm welcome we received in NZ, but with very few exceptions, the Aussies we encountered seemed hostile. There was none of the famous Aussie laid-back friendliness depicted in the U.S. media. Cabbies and servers had no interest in answering questions or serving us. Bus drivers would flat out ignore us. I was berated loudly and sternly by an airport official who threatened me with a $300 fine for having my cellphone out several hundred feet from the Customs desk (while ignoring everyone else who was texting in much closer proximity). Restauranteurs definitely did us a favor by serving us.
The one exception were Steve and Begly, two older gentlemen Isoo and I met while birding Centennial Park. While Chris and Oona spent the day petting koalas and kangas at the behind-the-scenes tour of the Taronga Zoo, Steve and Begly took Isoo under their wing (wink wink), letting us trail them for several hours while schooling him on local birds. Isoo was in heaven.
You didn't seriously think you'd get away without seeing a koala bear, did you?
Next up after my nap? Back to Asia to reconnect with family in Macau and Hong Kong.
New Zealand is breathtaking. Sprawled over two islands and riddled with volcanoes, geothermal hot springs, bubbling mud pits, golden beaches, emerald coves, world-class wineries and snow-capped mountains. If you can stomach the long flight, it’s definitely worth a visit!
We started in the North Island, where we spent six fantastic days exploring Auckland. The Airbnb gods were on our side and we lucked out with a luxurious cottage in the very cool Grey Lynn/Ponsonby area. We brunched, gallery hopped, hiked Mt. Eden and One Tree Hill, biked Tamaki Drive and took the ferry to Waiheke Island for wine tasting and beach romping. Auckland may very well be the laid-back California of my dreams; a diverse, urban environment surrounded by mountains and water, perfect weather, emphasis on clean, outdoor living and some of the nicest, most laid-back people we’ve met thus far. In fact, it's impossible to stay lost for very long because if you linger even one beat at an intersection, a Kiwi will sense your hesitation, sidle up and ask, “Hey mate, need some help?” It was, perhaps, the only place other than Rome that I could imagine myself living.
Hanging out at the Ponsonby Central Art Show.
Just a 40-minute ferry ride from Auckland, Waiheke Island is a haven of secluded beaches nestled among quaint towns and lovely vineyards.
We “wasted” a perfectly good morning swimming and wave jumping.
And then hit up Stonyridge Vineyard for a fantastic lunch.
Auckland rests on 55 volcanic cones; among it’s most famous is Mt. Eden. The great views are worth the hike.
We also made it to One Tree Hill with its grassy terraces and dramatic, wavy landscape.
The kids hate museums, but loved the Auckland Museum where you can experience a simulated eruption in the Volcano Room, repellent with an explosive blast and jerking furniture. And of course we had to pry Isoo from the stuffed kiwis.
Auckland Art Gallery is located next to Auckland University and shares its outdoor space with the pretty Albert Park. The great location and accessibility (free admission!) make the mostly “meh” collection forgivable. My favorite piece was Seung Yul Oh’s giant plastic bubbles entitled Soom (which for the non-Korean speakers translates to Breath).
On our sixth day, we picked up our RV and headed north to Coromandel to dip our toes in the famed Hot Water Beach. We had wanted to kayak Cathedral Cove, but as novices to the RV pump and dump (it’s as fun as it sounds), we got a late start and had to race straightaway to Rotorua for our scheduled Hobbiton Tour and dinner at the Mitai Maori Village. I can’t decide which felt more like Disneyland as both were expensive, crowded, commercial and gimmicky, but despite its “culture lite” approach, we ended up having a blast and managed to learn a lot.
Near Tongariro (a National Park in which much of the Lord Of The Rings movies are filmed) we hiked to thermal spas and waterfalls, and trekked the Northern Circuit of the Alpine Crossing, which was pretty much like hiking Maui, Southern Utah and the West Coast of Ireland all condensed into a stunning four mile mile stretch. Oona really wanted to do the 12 mile hike and climb to the top of Mt. Ngauruhoe to drop a ring into the fires of Mordor, but we were short on the time, stamina and the $150 needed to buy the reproduction “ring to rule all rings” sold at the Hobbiton gift shop.
The RV was pretty nice as far as RV’s go, but NZ roads are notoriously windy. Here we are in the few rare, smiley moments. Truth is that we spent most of the drive car sick and picking up stuff that slid off the counters, tables, etc.
Getting into hot water at Hot Water Beach. The day we hit the beach was a cold and rainy one. Good thing a geothermal spring bubbled beneath the shore. Arrive two hours on either side of low tide and wiggle your feet in the sand for a blistering hot foot bath.
Beach girl in Hot Water.
The campsites in NZ were not what we expected – more pavement than grass, not a scrap of privacy and a strict “no fire” ban that left the kids hungry for s’mores. But we lucked out with our beachside campsite in Coromandel where we woke up to crashing waves, sandy feet and morning coffee with a view.
I’m not a Hobbit nerd, but even I found this tour interesting. It took Peter Jackson two years to build the Shire for what turned out to be 15 minutes of movie footage. It was dismantled and then rebuilt for each installment until the owners of the farmland suggested leaving it up as permanent attraction. Jackson agreed and while the houses themselves are empty, in accordance with NZ laws, each Hobbit hole is built to code and officially deemed livable. Just wipe your hairy feet on the doormat before entering.
We joined the hordes of tour groups and headed to Mitai Maori Village for a show, traditional Hangi feast and glowworm bushwalk.
We stopped in Taupo to visit the Thermal Spa and hike to Huka Falls. Along the way Isoo and Chris couldn’t resist jumping into the super deep, emerald green river, but despite much urging, Oona insisted that she was too scared. Isoo was thrilled when she surprised them by taking the plunge.
Hiking the Alpine Crossing at Tongariro National Park. Next time we sleep in a hut and do a three day hike like the real trampers.
Isoo got a floppy hat. It’s official: He’s a birder.
In Wellington we camped in a parking lot downtown overlooking the harbor. I won’t even call it a “gloried parking lot” because it didn’t even try to be anything other than an expensive city car park with a couple of stanky public toilets. It was noisy, dirty and incredibly crowded. When we told the kids we were staying two nights, they threatened to call the NZ equivalent of DCFS (cue eye roll). Despite our location, it was great to be in a city again and we managed to fit in a couple of delicious meals, museum visits and strolls by the water. If ever you’re in Wellington, you must visit the Te Papa Museum – its Maori exhibits are a fantastic way to learn about the culture and history of the indigenous New Zealanders.
While we were in Wellington we met a 60 year-old Cambodian refugee who had escaped Phnom Penh during Pol Pot’s reign. His father, a member of the old Parliament, had been murdered, and he himself only survived by hiding in the jungle for 6 months. He finally made his way to Thailand where he was reunited with 10 surviving family members. After several months at a relocation camp he and his family were granted asylum. They had to submit paperwork to enter a placement lottery. Each form had room for only 4 names so between the 11 of them they filled out 3 sets. They did not realize they could staple the forms together, which is how he and 3 of his family member ended up in Wellington, and the other 7 family members in the U.S. We told him that we had just visited Cambodia a month prior. As most of the elderly were killed and only the lucky few managed to escape, we were deeply grateful to be able to meet him and hear his story firsthand.
Home sweet home - our Wellington digs. Oh well, at least we had a sweet view of the harbor.
Wellington and its famous cable car.
Outside the excellent Te Papa Museum, thrill seekers take turns diving into the bay off the South Pacific.
Loading the RV onto the ferry to cross the Cook Strait.
Chris and I spent the 3 hour ferry ride pouring over a map, trying to figure out a way to hit all of the South Island’s sights. In the end, we gave up – two weeks is just not enough time to see everything – so we stopped briefly for a wine tasting and some petanque at the Cloudy Bay Winery in Marlborough before heading west (a lucky pick as Cyclone Pam was already on its way to close down all attractions on the east coast).
We ended up at Abel Tasman National Park setting up camp at a great little RV park across from the beach. A speed boat dropped us off on a gorgeous stretch of golden sand for a picnic lunch and from there we hiked through forests, crossed rivers and splashed around emerald green coves. We had a fantastic time at Abel Tasman until the very last second when Chris made a spontaneous turn and hit a post on the way out, pulling off the RV’s side rail.
After a relatively quick and painless repair, we were back on the road, headed to the Pancake Rock of Punakaiki. Everyone we spoke to warned against spending too much time in the north or lingering too long at each spot saying, “There's just too much to see in the south!” In the end, we wish we’d slowed down and spent a couple of days watching the surfers and the seals ride the waves of the west coast.
The NW corner of the South Island has gorgeous stretches of sandy beaches and emerald green coves that empty out into the crystal blue ocean.
NZ takes Customs very, very seriously. To keep their environment pristine Customs officials inspect the soles of shoes to ensure that visitors don’t accidentally import plant or animal pests. Also prohibited? Outside food and drink. We ended up having to dump all the snacks and drinks we’d brought for the long flight. Abel Tasman National Park takes it one step further – in 2007 the island of Adele poisoned all of its stoats and rats and is officially pest free. You know I totally want to move there.
The Rope Bridge at Abel Tasman.
I loved the wild west coast with its gorgeous rock formations, clean beaches and killer waves.
Lunch at Bay House Cafe overlooking surfers. After our tasty meal, we walked to Foulwind Seal Colony and watched hundreds of wild seals swim and play in the water.
The stacked rock formations at Punakaiki’s Pancake Rocks. Go at high tide and watch the blow holes spout water high into the air.
Oona watching nature’s TV.
Hands down the best thing we did in New Zealand was visit the Franz Josef Glacier. We hiked over volcanic rocks and past waterfalls to the base, but to get up close and personal, you have to board a helicopter. We donned crampons and snow gear and even managed a three hour heli-hike. Our guide Ollie led us over the blue tinged terrain through ice tunnels and past ever changing ice formations. Talk about bucket list!
Ironically, despite our heavy snow gear, the weather on the glacier was warm and sunny, a sharp contrast to the temperature in Queenstown. We rolled into our urban campsite/parking lot just in time for lots of freezing rain. Queenstown may be the NZ’s adrenaline capital, but all we wanted to do was cuddle up under some blankets and watch a movie. We ran to the supermarket for snacks and DVDs and spent most of the Queenstown segment in the RV. But we did manage to get in come luging before the rain washed away our plans to bungy jump.
Hiking over the volcanic rock to Franz Josef.
Getting ready for take off. All systems go!
Ollie gave Isoo an ice pick and let him lead the hike. Thankfully, Isoo did not trip!
Emerging from ice tunnels and scaling hills.
The really cool thing about glaciers is that they melt, move and re-freeze. Ollie says no two hikes are alike. This ice formation was only expected to last a couple of days till the next rain.
I’m not much of a skier because I absolutely loathe the chair lift. Unfortunately, it was the only way to get to the top of the luge course. Here I am holding on to Isoo for dear life. Why do my kids insist on doing things that require scaling tall heights?
Isoo speeding down the hill with Queenstown looming in the background.
Isoo really wanted to see the critically endangered, highly elusive, Black Stilt. We drove to Mt. Cook/Lake Pukaki prepared for disappointment, but instead, eagle-eye Isoo found several in the first five minutes. To my right loomed the majestic Mt. Cook, to my left the sparkling turquoise waters of Lake Pukaki. Black birds chirped, rabbits hopped and all I could think was that in two blessed days we would be in Christchurch, in a hotel with internet, heated pool, marble bath and a proper bar. When a school bus pulled into the campsite and unloaded 85 screaming kids, we considered Mission Black Stilt complete, unplugged the camper and cut out early for Christchurch.
Driving to Christchurch Isoo pointed out, “Mom, I don’t think we are RV people; I think we are luxury hotel people.” Oona put it more bluntly: "All I want is to shower without wearing shoes, sit on a real toilet seat, and get some space from you people!” I couldn’t agree more. I don’t know what I was thinking suggesting a motorhome. It’s not like we needed any more together time, least of all in a tightly packed space without doors to separate us. But New Zealand is expensive and sprawling with gorgeous scenic drives, low fuel costs and well maintained roads. At the time it sounded like a no brainer. Now I know!
Lake Pukaki's amazing turquoise waters.
Hiking Mt. Cook.
One perk to RVing? A table with a view.
Isoo applauds as we pull into the RV return center.
Last but not least, we had low expectations for Christchurch. Since the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes the city is still in a state of rebuild. Yes, cranes line the city streets and most of the major sites are still cordoned off, but the city’s love of art and spirit of innovation are evident. Re:Start, a mall of temporary shops housed in metal shipping containers is helping to revitalize the commercial district.
The biggest of the earthquakes hit 7.1 on the Richter scale, and in just 24 seconds, resulted in 181 deaths, leveling a quarter of buildings in the city’s center. From the looks of it, the 20 year plan to rebuild the city is very slow going.
Yet another great NZ museum – the Antarctic Centre, is compact, informative and hands-on. A concierge greets you at the front desk and then helps to plan out your itinerary so you don’t miss any of the good stuff. We got to experience a simulated Artic Storm, brave the chill of freezing cold water, learn about life in modern day Antarctica, watch Little Blue Penguins dive for fish, watch it snow…indoors! And enjoy a rollercoaster Hagglund Ride. Not to mention I finally understand that whole global warming thing. Every museum should take a page out of this one!
If I could do it all over again, I would have added another night in Coromandel to kayak Cathedral Cove, an extra day lazing on the west coast and booked a whale watching trip in Kaikoura (minus Cyclone Pam). Despite everyone’s claim, we actually preferred the North Island to the South Island. Queenstown/Mt. Cook/Lake Pukaki felt very much like the Inter-mountain region of America and while beautiful, it lacked the culture and diversity of the north. And next time I suggest an RV trip, remind me that I am a “luxury hotel person”. But whatever you favor, however way you see it, NZ has something for everyone.
A city with a plan.
Learning about the seasons in Antarctica's. Boarding the exciting Hagglund.
Art abounds! Prettying up a city in transition.
Yup, NZ in a nutshell!
Bali was not on the original list, but when we decided at the last minute to add New Zealand and Australia to the docket, Bali seemed like the perfect place to break up an otherwise super long flight, catch up on some writing and flesh out details for the next leg of our trip. Unfortunately, by the time we got around to locating housing, our options were limited, which is how we ended up in the very sleepy village of Lovina in north Bali. I won’t bore you with details of our Lovina stay because frankly, we didn’t do much except overeat, homeschool, curse the crappy internet connection and take turns swimming with the insatiable mermaid/attention monger, Oona. Lovina was not terrible, but a little dull, and therefore requiring the full patience and enrollment of Camp Mom and Dad. I most definitely did not have time to plan our trip or write, but it did give me some time to reflect on how much the kids have grown and evolved during this trip, the characteristics that have come into sharp focus, and what I hope they will take away from this experience.
Those crazy homeschool moms with the vegan shoes and hemp tunics totally called it: “You might have grand plans for sticking to the standard curriculum now, but just you wait!” I threw out half their textbooks months ago, whittling it down to just a couple of math books. Their blogs replaced their writing books, reading up on native birds became Isoo’s research paper, Oona flooded her Kindle with Wimpy Kid titles (which thankfully was later replaced by the C.S. Lewis series). I did exactly what I promised would never happen: I let them lead their own learning.
In Ireland, we would wake to find “out birding” scrawled on a square of toilet paper. Breakfast in Spain meant a bowl of cereal and vulture sightings on the terrace. By HCMC, Isoo would grab my cellphone and his binocs, walk down to the store with some dong, buy himself a banana muffin, and bird until his scrambled eggs were ready. This is what I wanted to give my kids (and frankly, what I wish I could give to myself) the chance to selfishly, greedily indulge in their passions.
It is interesting to see what happens when your kids are stripped of the white noise of traditional school expectations, peer pressure, cultural norms, and especially in Isoo’s case, comparisons in physical growth. Their true self rises to the surface and it’s fascinating to see who has emerged. This is Isoo: obsessed with birding, solitary, filled with worry. He does not miss his friends or soccer or piano or the over scheduled structure of his old life. The other day he lowered his bincos and said “Mom, you remember in the school yearbook I wrote that I want to be a soccer player when I grow up? I really regret that. I just felt like that was what I was supposed to say because no one my age knows what an ornithologist is. But you know that’s what I’m going to be when I grow up, right?” I look at him, still so small, and slack from 6 months without sports. I nod, “of course,” I say. Inside I pray this kid, this tiny, nerdy, passionate, super cool kid will not be undone by middle school. Re-entry for him will be toughest of all.
Who could not love a kid who after months and months is still haunted by a momentary lapse of authenticity? Isoo is the most truthful person I know. He is also the kindest. He walks into the bathroom to find me chasing a spider and whispers, "Go spider, go, please escape down the drain!" And at 11 years old, he exhibits an envious amount of focus and discipline for his passion. And yet it’s been a real challenge to be around him. His anxiety runs on a frantic never-ending loop: Is that cooked enough? Are you sure this ice is machine made? Is this water clean? Do I have to do math? Ugh, why do I have to do math???? Are you coughing? Why are you coughing? Am I reading too slow? Do I have to take away minutes if I’m distracted? Are your hands clean? Am I eating too much? Am I eating too little? Do I have a fever? Are my cheeks red? Am I brushing my teeth too long? What happens if I skip a day of flossing? Will this food make me throw up? Can you feel my forehead again? Does this look like a rash? Is that cooked enough? Is it? Is it?
He needs to know the exact temperature, the population, the average income; statistics that can help him quantify and prepare for any given place. He bombards me with requests for probability: What are the chances we will miss our flight? What are the chances there will be a tsunami? What are the chances I’ll get sick? What are the chances we’ll be back by 9 p.m.? 8 p.m.? 7:30? None of this is new; he has always struggled with anxiety, but it comes in big gulping waves with every new location, sometimes blanketing and shading the entire experience so that no one else can breathe. Lately Isoo is convinced that water will make him vomit. In the 90 degree heat it’s a challenge to keep him hydrated, Chris and I take turns being the heavy, resulting in tiny sips parsed over hours of urging. Most days we fall into bed, exhausted from exercising either too little or too much patience. But I get Isoo. We are in many ways alike, his worries an echo of what I hear inside my own head and work so desperately to tamp down.
And then just when you think you can’t do it anymore, just when you are convinced that this neurotic, obsessive, uncompromising little individual has spoiled the entire trip, Isoo closes his magazine, turns his liquid hazel eyes on you and says something like, “Well, Mom and Dad, I think I’m going to go upstairs now and work on my novel.”
Oona continues to miss her old life. In the last few months I've see her growing away from the brother she once worshipped. She finds Isoo’s mania annoying and is resentful when he fills the room with worry. They pass each other like strangers. If Isoo is like me, Oona is definitely...not like me. Think Sigourney Weaver when she gives birth to the alien that rips out of her abdomen. Except my alien came out with jazz hands and doing cartwheels. Oona's life, if left to her own making, would be filled with gelato, sports, monkey bars and friends. She is wonderful and exhausting in her own way. She talks nonstop, skips everywhere, snacks constantly and needs chronic attention. She wants to eat and try everything. Each child is allowed to select one excursion in each country. Isoo without hesitation opts for birding. Oona’s picks are annoyingly exciting, comprised of waterparks and ziplining. In Lovina we take her to the Bali Treetop Adventure Park, a series of open-air treetop climbing circuits. I complete 3 out of the 7 courses before deciding that a fear of heights does not define me as a failure. Isoo betters me by completing an additional circuit, but as he steps onto the wobbly criss-cross sky bridge suspended over a ravine, he curses his sister saying, “God! Why does she have to be so good at this stuff?” Chris, not wanting to let her go it alone and refusing to be bettered by an 8 year-old, persevered with stoic determination, his misery and fear only betrayed when he looked my way and mouthed “You owe me!” But Oona didn’t need any of us. She raced ahead, clipping and unclipping the carabineers, adjusting her own harness and climbing her way through the jungle.
Oona has the cheerfulness of someone who is aware of her charmed life. I see her in a crowd of tourists with her high swingy ponytail, Converse sneakers, strong, tanned legs, her big eyes and pretty face and she just reeks of privileged America. When strangers approach her and ask to take her picture, she obliges, always smiling for the camera. At the Vietnam War Museum a man with no hands, a victim of Agent Orange approaches and then smiling, extends a mangled arm. Oona takes his squishy stump and without missing a beat, shakes it saying, “Hi, my name is Oona. It’s very nice to meet you.” I hope she never changes. I hope she never loses this confidence or becomes boy crazy or a mean girl or spoiled brat or a vidiot. I hope she never becomes trampled by the mundanity and uncertainty of life, the acceptance of everyday tedium that so often defines maturity. Because right now her brother may fear the world, but she knows that it, and everyone in it, is her friend.
And yet, the thing she wants most is to go home. Of all the places she’s been, Evanston is still the place where she feels most herself. She meets some girls in the pool. As we walk back to our room, I ask her if she had fun playing with her new friends. She shrugs her towel clad shoulders and says, “It was OK,” code for “She’s not Mia or Eden” because nothing can beat her old friends, her old neighborhood, the sold house she still calls home. Re-entry will be hard on her, too.
When this trip is over, I hope the kids understand what a privilege and joy it’s been to see and experience the world. I hope they LIVE WITH APPRECIATION of the big and little things we take for granted in our lives back home. And when we’re back home, eating dinner in the car as we shuttle from swim team to soccer practice, Oona struggling to pull on her swim cap and Isoo grumbling about the shower and the homework and the piano practice that still lie ahead, I hope they will recognize what a gift it was to have this freedom and time to grow into ones’ self. When it’s all said and done, isn’t that the real journey?
As for Baii, only a fool wouldn't love this paradise. It's an island lush with palm trees, terraced rice fields and overgrown bush. Raging waterfalls, the lapping sea. Incredibly warm, kind people. We were lucky enough to see Lovina, Ubud and Jimbaran Bay, but it's true that our visit would have been made better with more research, patience and fresh eyes. Bali was a little heavier on lux and lighter on culture than we all preferred (especially following Cambodia). Everything was a supreme hassle to get to and when we got there, it was not necessarily worth the trouble (Sekumpul Waterfalls, Banjar Hot Springs, the Rock Bar, etc.), and frankly, it was not our first time experiencing island life, seeing rice terraces or swimming with dolphins (I know this sounds obnoxious, but it's the truth). Alas, I can see why most visitors prefer to just lounge by the pool. As I said, only a fool wouldn't love Bali.
The villa in Lovina was pretty sweet. We had not intended on renting such a big house, but it was the only one we could find with fully enclosed bedrooms (yay! air-conditioning!). The remote location made it a steal - much cheaper than a hotel. It was hands down the fanciest place we stayed.
The outdoor living area. I am now an expert at distinguishing gecko poop from mouse poop.
And it came with a crazy infinity pool and views of the ocean.
Isoo takes his mandatory turn playing with Oona in the pool. A rare moment of togetherness.
Isoo had a nice little set-up going at the villa. Generous breakfasts and a huge upstairs suite for all of his private tween needs.
Our view from the terrace: sunset overlooking the rice fields.
But the best thing about the house? The amazing staff! Komang and Elah were not only the kindest people and most talented cooks, but also became family friends. One night the ladies brought their boys over to play and watched all the kids while Chris and I went out to dinner (our second date in over 6 months!). It was great to come home and hear the kids around the table giggling with their new friends.
We hired a driver to visit the nearby Banjar Hot Springs. It was fine, but in the heat and humidity, we would have preferred a cooling pool.
We hired a driver and made the trip to Sekumpul Waterfall. It was a very long and very expensive ride. When we got there, we were tricked into a hiring a "guide" who turned out to be two 12 year old girls. We had hoped to go swimming in the waterfall, but after a few meters of hiking, we learned that the path down to the falls was closed. Grumble grumble.
The short hike to Sekumpul.
Oh well, it still made for gorgeous views.
We also hired a driver to take us to the Bali Eka Karya Botanical Gardens in Bedugul. Did I mention that Balinese sculptures are very dramatic?
The plantings are beautiful, but because the grounds are so sprawling and the weather so hot, everyone just drives through. Weird to be in nature and sit in a car.
Inside the Botanical Gardens is the Bali Treetop Adventure Park. Note the lack of helmets and guides.
Little missy doing what she does best.
"When is this over?" Isoo on one of the rope bridges.
The drive up to Bedugul was very twisty and slow going, but the views were stunning. This is the real Bali of lush foliage, beautiful lakes and children walking home from school. Yes there are touristy towns with their manicured resorts and pools, but I much, much prefer the wild, green drama of the real Bali.
A departure from the usual brown uniforms and requisite braids. School kids dressed up for the full moon celebration.
After Lovina we drove down and spent a week at the Intercontinental in Jimbaran Bay. I wanted to give the kids a chance to do some watersports not available in the north, which is known primarily for dolphin watching (and polluted black sand beaches). The kids had their own ideas and preferred to hang out in the pool instead.
Shirleys at the swim up bar.
It was not terribly cultural, but it also was not horrible.
I literally had to drag them out of the pool and into surf school. The instructor made them do their own paddling and wave catching. Oona and her little arms were exhausted at the end of the day, but both did great.
The kid is a natural.
We took a field trip to Ayana Resort's famous Rock Bar for drinks. The views were great, but the drinks were terrible, the wait was ridiculous and the scene was 20-somethings trying too hard.
Ubud was really more our style. I loved the rice fields and the laid back vibe. If we had planned better, we would have done less Lovina and Jimbaran Bay, and more Ubud.
We ate at Sari Organic, a little restaurant in the rice fields. Our view (Isoo is somewhere in the field tromping around in the mud).
My guy doing what he loves best.
Phnom Penh kicked my ass. It was, hands down, the poorest place I’ve ever been. Not just like a perspective making, “Gee, I’m so lucky to have what I have and let’s move on” feeling of gratitude, but poor like "I have money, and I should buy a villa and get some of these naked babies and suffering people off the streets and give them a break because there is no freaking chance for them," kind of poor. Phnom Penh was mind-numbingly, heartbreakingly poor. So much so that I actually did the math and looked up real estate thinking I had to do something about it, except, I just could not bare the idea of living there, especially with my kids. Being in Phnom Penh, I have never felt so fully, positively bleak.
Yes, Cambodians are wonderful. They have lovely smiles and everyone is friendly, which does not make their suffering any more palatable. Cambodia is still a country in turmoil, actively living their history of mass genocide; of country person turning on country person which is about as big a mind fuck as it gets.
I could go on and on about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, but here is the short version: Pol Pot was born Saloth Sar in March 1925 in Prek Sbav, Cambodia. While his little fishing village was modest, his family was well-connected so despite his flagging grades he was sent to the finest schools, finally “earning” himself a scholarship to a French technical college in Paris. As a young man in France, he became a follower of Ho Chi Minh, and joined the French Communist Party which esteemed the uneducated rural pleasant as the true proletariat. After flunking out of college, Sar moved back to Cambodia. In the 1960’s the Cambodian government was doing its best to quell the rising popularity of the Communist Party already thriving in neighboring Vietnam. Sar used this opportunity to align himself with the Viet Cong and the leftist leaders persecuted by Prince Sihanouk. He quickly moved up the Communist Party ranks, moved to the countryside and began to build the Khmer Rouge army. By 1975, Sar, now, Pol Pot, had chased Prince Sihanouk to France and begun his mission to transform Cambodia to a purely agrarian, self-sufficient society. His first course of action was to empty Phnom Penh by relocating its 3.3 million citizens to the countryside, confiscating homes and all material possessions. There, they were separated from their families, forced into labor camps, starved and brutally abused. People were often tortured and mass executions were common with prime targets being professionals (doctors, teachers, lawyers, etc.) and monks. By 1979, when the Vietnamese finally invaded Cambodia, chasing out the Khmer Rouge, approximately ¼ of Cambodia’s 8 million citizens had already been exterminated. Despite this the Khmer Rouge retained its seat on the UN for another 14 years and was still internationally recognized as the leading voice of Cambodia. Pol Pot transplanted himself to the Cambodian-Thai border and despite his many crimes, went on to lead a reasonably full life. He finally came under house arrest and is rumored to have committed suicide shortly thereafter, at age of 72.
I am not going to lie, we spent a lot of time reading and watching movies about Cambodia’s history, and while it was meaningful and important for us to understand, the genocide and the impoverished conditions of Phnom Penh made for a very somber visit. I had read conflicting reports that somewhere between 20-40% of Cambodians hover below the poverty level (depending on who and how that line is being determined) with the average Cambodian living on $1 per day. Regardless of what percentage you want to believe, the gap between poverty and solvency is paper thin: If the average Cambodian family made 30 cents less per day, the percentage of those living below the poverty line would jump by 40%.
While we were in Phnom Penh (and also in Hoi An, Vietnam), we had considered visiting the local orphanage to play with the children and bring them gifts. But after some research, we learned that most of the children are not in fact, orphans. Three-fourths of the 12,000 Cambodian children currently in orphanages have at least one living parent. These orphanages approach families, mostly in the rural areas where poverty hits hardest, and offer to take care of their children, providing free housing, food and promising them education and interaction with Westerners. In turn, the orphanages set up volunteerism opportunities, inviting wealthy tourists and well-meaning bleeding hearts the chance to hang out with the kids for a couple of hours or days while they blow through town, all for a hefty “set-up fee” (I’ve seen fees of $600-$700 for a three day visit). In the end, self-satisfied tourists get to post FB pictures with smiling Cambodian kids; the kids are separated from their families and without any sense of continuity get to (re)learn their ABCs or a couple of nursery rhymes (and not much else); and the orphanages get very, very rich. The business has grown so dramatically in the last few years that the number of orphanages has doubled. If you don’t believe me, just hang out in the parking lot of an orphanage and you can catch sight of the huge tour busses that pull up to the orphanages as part of a sightseeing package. In recent years, UNICEF has been campaigning against orphanage visits, discouraging well-intended tourists from funding a practice that keeps kids from their families. And to make an already painful situation worse: some of the tourists have been identified as pedophiles, visiting orphanages for the sole purpose of targeting new prey.
Are you depressed yet? Because there is more. Chris and I searched for a place near the river where we could enjoy a refreshing aperitif, only to realize that many of the bars in PP are strip clubs or hostess bars. Despite recent regulations on Cambodia’s sex trade (mostly for taxation purposes), forced prostitution (mostly underage), human trafficking and professional girlfriending (kept mistress) are still a thriving industry. I had never heard the term “sexpat” until I visited Janice in Thailand. Since then, I’ve learned that as many as ¼ of visitors to Cambodia (as well to Thailand and Vietnam) are there to take advantage of booming sex industry.
So far, our travels have been (while not exactly luxurious), for the most part, enjoyable. PP was the first time we all felt incredibly saddened. Like heart-heavy-wanna-get-out-of-here sad. And yet, you feel like an asshole for wanting to turn away. I’m still trying to reconcile this for myself: How can I help? What are my responsibilities as a human being? What are my responsibilities as a traveler? Do my efforts help as much as they hurt? What do I want to see vs. What should be seen?
By the time we made our way to Siem Reap, I didn’t know what to expect. We should have known by its proximity to Angkor Wat that it would be crawling with tourists, but I didn’t expect it to be so Westernized, and relative to big city sister PP, so upscale. While I typically hate uber-touristy streets like Pub Street hawking baggy Khmer pants to backpackers and hippies, it was a welcome reminder that commercialism, somewhere in Cambodia, was alive and kicking. But moreover, the dozens of ancient wats were breathtaking and a true testament to the stunning cultural and religious history of Cambodia. We spent days exploring the gorgeous bas-relief carvings at Angkor Wat, the temple Ta Prohm consumed by overgrown trees, the sprawling Bayon with its many-faceted sculptures and our favorite, Preah Khan, with its piles of rubble and ruins shaded green and pink with moss and lichen.
Many tourists only venture to Cambodia to see Siem Reap and Angkor Wat and while I understand the temptation to do so, I’m glad I got to visit both PP and Siem Reap. If I’d only seen PP, I would have missed out on experiencing the extraordinary beauty its people are capable of producing. If I only saw Siem Reap, I would have remained blind to the country’s history of genocide and the nation’s active struggle for recovery. I think it’s important to see both to not only understand a place, but to realize the beauty, resiliency and challenges of its people.
Cambodia wasn’t the easiest, most relaxing or fun place to visit, but after 6 months of travel to 12 different countries, it stands out as the most memorable, not just to myself, but also the kids. Its a complicated country, and while I don't pretend to understand how to navigate it, it's a place I hope to come back to in a few years.
A Disneylandish looking momument for King Norodom Sihamoni. Cambodia is one of the few countries that rule by elected monarchy.
Kick the can along the Tonle Sap River.
Recent reports state that overfishing, overpopulation, pollution and industrial waste disposal have upset the Tonle Sap ecosystem, endangering both the dietary staple and primary livelihood of Cambodians.
It's hard to find an establishment without a sign for "Happy Ladies". Even mainstream websites like Tripadvisor openly review popular tourist friendly restaurants as featuring "nice girls".
It's like the kids missing the laundry basket except it's not dirty socks but trash, and lots of it. So much litter on the streets the smell and scurry of rats are unavoidable.
We walked from our hotel in the central tourist district to Wat Phnom, one of Phnom Penh's prized Buddhist temples. The route took us through a squatter's park right outside the temple. We saw dozens of similar encampments all over town - naked children, emaciated adults seeking solace under trees, mats or modest bedding strewn on the sidewalk. Absolutely heartbreaking.
Oona was desperate for a playground. This one outside Wat Phnom was supposed to be the best. Again, littered with piles of garbage. Lots of broken equipment. To think, people in Evanston get mad if you don't have a public water fountain.
The day we visited Wat Phnom just happened to be a Buddhist holiday. You can feel, despite the poverty, the deep religious devotion. All over the city, altars like these were heaving with beautiful fruit and offerings.
One of the few truly sparkling places in Phnom Penh is the grounds of the Royal Palace. Sprawling, well-kept gardens and beautiful pagodas. Unfortunately, most are closed to the public.
Just outside the Silver Pagoda.
Could you imagine having to post a sign like this in a hotel in America?
Both kids were deeply affected by Phnom Penh, but Isoo most of all. It was the first time he was able to truly witness poverty on such a widespread level. I didn't want to hit him over the head with it, but I do hope the perspective stays with him.
While in Phnom Penh we visited Tuol Sleng, an elementary school campus converted by Pol Pot into a prison where inmates were routinely tortured with beatings, water boarding, organ removal and in some cases, skinned alive. The lower floor rooms have single cells, however, as torture became more common, the larger upper rooms were also employed, allowing for multiple beatings to take place at once.
The most common charge of the guilty was espionage. Most just happened to be teachers, doctors, journalists and monks. Others were brought to the camp simply because they caused "disturbances" at the labor camps. One such example: a man beaten and tortured because he was so hungry he was caught eating a rat.
As Pol Pot's power grew, so did his paranoia. It was reported that he never slept in the same bed two nights in a row for fear that he would be murdered. As his distress escalated, the killings became more frequent and widespread. Jails like Tuol Sleng lost favor over more efficient mass graves. We visited Choeung Ek, just one of 20,000 killing fields uncovered since the genocide. This is Oona listening to the mesmerizing audio guide.
The Khmer Rouge believed that if you killed one person, you had to exterminate the entire family for fear of retribution. Not even infants were spared. I won't even tell you about this tree.
Thirty-six years later the grounds of the Killing Fields continue to tell the story. Heavy rains sometimes unearth bits of clothing and bone fragments of the victims.
The commemorative stupa features 17 stories of victims' skulls. During this time of travel, I've seen a fair share of witless tourists straddle sacred religious symbols, pretend to shoot weapons at the Vietnam Remnants Museum, take flash photography of fragile works of art. But at Choeung Ek, there was nary even a baseball capped head. It was eerily and startlingly pin quiet.
Bullets were precious and reserved for fighting enemies. With so many bodies to execute it was more cost effective to use hoes, machetes and sticks. You can see the telltale wounds on the skulls. Even more remarkably was the fact that the soldiers doing the killing were usually teenage children taken from their families and enlisted in the Khmer Rouge army.
New beginning. New day. After all the heartbreak we inaugurated our first day in Siem Reap by getting up at 4AM to see the sunrise over the famous five towers of Angkor Wat.
Angkor Wat is famous for its amazing bas-relief sculptures. This one tells the Hindu tale of the gods and demons working together to churn the Ocean Milk to release the nectar of eternal life.
Oona at Ta Prohm (a.k.a. the temple where Tomb Raider was filmed). The massive trees grow over, atop and through the temple ruins.
Isoo gets blessed by a "wat granny", elderly women who have taken monastic vows to care for the temples.
The rubble at Ta Prohm.
The multi-faceted stone faces of Bayon Temple.
The lesser known (and blessedly quieter) Preah Khan temple. Love the pink stained stone and overgrown trees.
More beauty: the gorgeous Apsari dancers do their thing.
Dinner on touristy Pub Street. Bolognese and margaritas anyone?
Our lungs are black. Time to move on. Hope to see you in a few years Cambodia!
I've always wanted to see more of Vietnam. I got my wish. We flew into Hanoi, sailed a junk through Halong Bay, flew to Da Nang, drove to Hoi An, took another flight to Ho Chi Minh City, and then floated down the Mekong. Here it is: Vietnam in 4 parts.
Oh Hanoi. I've always had a love-hate thing with Hanoi. Love the gorgeous French colonial architecture, the colorful, vibrant street life, the traditions kept alive and kicking in the Old Quarter. But I do hate the haggle, the tiered pricing system (everything's double the cost for foreigners), the pollution, the dirt and the inescapable feeling that you are a walking, talking dollar bill. We rented a Western-style full-service apartment in the expat friendly West Lake area. It was meant to be luxury lodging, but after the first day, a face towel was said to have gone missing. Everyday thereafter, the staff would stop both Chris and I to insist that we search for the towel. I finally told them that we did not have their towel and to back off. Later that day we returned to our apartment to find that housekeeping had confiscated all of our towels, except, you guessed it, one face towel. Petty, ridiculous, but also sort of hilarious. Still, there is no place like it.
Some of my best travel memories are of Vietnam. Seventeen years ago Chris and I went to Hanoi and stayed with his friend Lam and his then girlfriend Hai Yen. We camped out in their posh French villa off West Lake. Lam was an excellent tour guide. We drove motorbikes past rice fields to dine at a lakeside restaurant. While the owner dug a pit, filled it with coal and then threw in a freshly butchered chicken for cooking, we fished off a tiny bamboo hut that sat on stilts overlooking the lake. That night we slept in a concrete bunker, the walls stopping short a foot from the ceiling, the shower free of hot water. I stayed up all night watching for bats and possums wide-eyed at every snap of a twig. Hai Yen, a fashion designer, took us to a fashion show where impossibly skinny girls with long slick hair and dour expressions walked up and down a runway. Using toothpicks, we plucked out the fat meat of snails caught on the shores of Hanoi by a grandma with a bucket, her teeth stained red by betel nuts. We drank bia hoi in what looked like a run down garage, sitting on plastic stools, staring at the pock marked walls decorated with a single curled calendar. One morning, Chris, wedged in the tiny bathtub, wrenched up and knocked the spigot out of the wall with his ass, flooding the bathroom and earning himself a bruised buttock. Another time we, along with 8 other expats, rode motorbikes to the edge of town to a wild game restaurant. We walked down a narrow pathway filled with dark, growling cages, appalled and intrigued when we saw that on the menu was dog, porcupine, fillet of snake stuffed with rat, goat udder, boar. We rode home at sunrise, all of us, weaving, singing a Tom Petty song, drunk on 333 beer consumed on an empty stomach and the freedom of the wide road free of the usual traffic.
It was that trip, in many ways, that sparked my love of true travel - not the easy vacations of concierge and room service, hammocks and massages, but the ones where you recall Chris, a meringue of shampoo melting down his face as he held his hands Dutch boy style on the hole where the spigot used to be, naked and trapped, laughing so hard your belly hurts. The feeling of the air moving through your hair, neither hot nor cold, oddly free of temperature as you felt the subtle shift of weight to make a left turn, my chin resting on the satisfying hollow of Chris’s collar. You recall the taste of the salt on the snails, the slime of butter and pungent garlic trailing down your throat. How the sounds of the animals spooked you so badly you drank your dinner with your feet hooked around the chair legs, afraid that if you put them down, an escapee from the cooking pot would go scampering up your calf. The kind of travel that provides such good stories you are willing to overlook the discomforts and annoyances of travel.
But children don’t like discomforts. Or annoyances. They don’t like sleeping in bunkers or eating lake snails from a bucket. They don’t think it’s funny when you have six small bowls of the wrong order for lunch, or 3 star hotels that in SE Asia translate to nothing better than a questionable Motel 6. Isoo, especially, does not want to be told that the chopsticks are clean, just maybe don’t actually touch them to your mouth.
So this time, we did Vietnam their way and while it was safe, easy and convenient, this approach (more and more common in Vietnam) in many respects also stripped it of the stories; so we got the watered down version of Vietnam, not the technicolored one of my memories. I guess that’s okay. There were still good times to be had, but with it, the sharp realization that things have changed in Vietnam. Yes, the tourism industry has evolved since the last time we were here, but not necessarily for the better. And despite this growth, things are still more than a little ragged around the edges.
Isoo searching for the giant asthmatic tortoises of Hoan Kiem Lake outside Ngoc Son Temple.
The iconic Huc Bridge overlooking smoggy Hoan Kiem Lake.
Temple scenes. An oasis of calm in the bustling city center.
There is nothing like the buzz of the Old Quarter where the streets are named for their products (i.e., Hat Street, Belt Street, Silk Street, etc.). Here we are at the start of Shoe Street where we had to buy Oona her second set of new shoes. The girl's feet are huge!
Bikes, whether motorized or not, are still the vehicle of choice. And yes, they can carry anything.
One of my favorite things about the Old Quarter are the trees. The giant banyans are believed to house spirits. They won't be cut down, instead, they are honored with incense.
Anyone can open a restaurant in the Old Quarter. Just pop a squat and light some coals. This one specializes in grilled mushrooms. At lunch time the shop keepers gather on the sidewalk, open small jars of something or another and sit in a tight circle around a rice cooker, sharing news of the morning.
Two pot washing method: Swish dirty plate in pot of soapy water. Dip into pot of clean water. Fear of germs are for sissies.
The Vietnamese love to keep birds as pets. You can hear their music all through the city. But ask Isoo what the thinks about birds in captivity.
Another iconic image of Hanoi are the heaving electric and telephone wires. While there are strict rules preserving much of the historic Old Quarter, this is one aspect that is rumored to be updated. The city plans to sink the wires underground, but the massive project has yet to begin.
And then there is the traffic. Chris lived in Hanoi 20 years ago. I can't believe he had the nerve to ride a motorbike through the city. If you want to ride like the locals, don't forget your socks and flip flops, a surgical face mask and your iPhone tucked into your helmet for hands-free talking. And if you get too close to your fellow commuter, be prepared to get gently kicked out of the way.
Chris would draw a crowd whenever he got his hair cut at open air barbers like this one. Strangers would gather to gawk and laugh at the (then) blond American getting a trim.
Evidence of the France's occupation of Vietnam. The gorgeous St. Joseph's Cathedral.
While in Hanoi, we played tourist and took the kids to a water puppet show, visited the Ethnology Museum to learn about Vietnam's 54 tribal groups and took a cyclo tour of the city. When Chris' driver stopped mid-pedal for a smoke, Chris couldn't resist asking for a puff. I think he coughed the rest of the way home.
We also stopped at the beautiful Temple of Literature.
Another thing we did: Took a street foods tour with our sweet guide, Mae (a.k.a. Money). Here we are eating Bun Cha. Oona sipping Lemon Tea. In all we tried 9 different dishes ranging from the traditional Banh Mi to a medley of crispy fried Nem and regional favorites like the Egg Coffee (custard froth on coffee). If you decide to take a similar tour (and you should), make certain you do not accidentally wander into the "kitchen".
Making Banh Cuon, rice flour pancakes filled with minced pork and mushrooms.
Adventurous eaters sometimes get a little food poisoning. Or in my case, you feel like you're dying and lose and entire day lying on the bathroom floor. This happened not once, but twice in Hanoi. (The food handling laws are a little lax in this neck of the woods.) Oh well, it tasted good going down.
I have this romantic fantasy of sailing around the 1,969 islands of Halong Bay on a junk. Unfortunately, the junks have been replaced by cruise boats, with the sails hoisted periodically for touristic photo opportunities. We booked the smallest boat possible and headed for Halong and the quieter Bai Tu Long Bays for an overnight tour. Sure our guide abandoned us at handicraft shops along the way so vendors could hard sell us into trying to buy crap, but kayaking among the eerily quiet rocks rock formations was a dream come true.
Chris and Oona could not resist swimming in the bay, but you know, it's WINTER people! Here is my fool husband in the water with our junk in the distance. (The sails are up, quick! Take a picture!)
While kayaking the bay we broke off from our group. Chris and I were happy to float around in the quiet, but the kids insisted we keep up. Later, they confessed that they were scared we would get lost on the water without any place to beach. I see their point. Some of the islands are named after the animals they resemble, but most are just numbered, making it very hard to identify for a lost tourist.
Isoo and I opted to explore the rocky beach instead.
The food on the cruise was some of the best we had in Vietnam and the other 13 passengers were very nice. There was one cuddly young couple who I SWEAR TO GOD WERE IDENTICAL TWINS. I could not take my eyes off of them. After dinner our shipmate Jonathan and the kids tried their hand at squidding. Here is Jonathan with a catch.
We were awoken at dawn to watch the sunrise and then we boarded small boats to sail to the local fishing village. In 1994 the fishermen and their families were relocated from (very cool, but inconvenient) caves to the floating houses. There are now 7 floating villages in the bay, with 67 families in the village we visited.
The houses used to float on styrofoam rafts which would break off and pollute the water, harming the fish. Only recently did they start floating the houses on plastic drums. In 2006 when tourism began to boom in Halong Bay, several of the tourism companies began working together to clean up the water and help to established Halong Bay's first elementary school. Now kids paddle themselves to class in small boats and one teacher schools all 30+ children. Still, the lifestyle is hard: a fisherman's typical day begins at 2 a.m. and brings an average daily income of $22. There are no doctors (most treat themselves using local herbs), but there is a floating general store. Fresh water, food, and all supplies must be purchased and shipped in and waste must be shipped out. The monsoon seasons brings additional challenges although the islands do a great job providing some shelter from the wind.
Despite our beautiful cabin, Chris and I had trouble sleeping on a boat. Here we are looking exhausted.
Catching some winter rays on deck.
The small boats ready to take the next group of tourists to the bay.
We flew into Danang and headed straight for Hoi An. Once a bustling trading port, the area is so well preserved and charming that the entire Ancient Town is a UNESCO site. We were pleasantly surprised by its quaint, laid-back feel and loved walking around, taking in the Japanese, Chinese and European influenced architecture.
The Japanese Covered Bridge
When night falls, the Ancient Town is illuminated by lanterns. Wish we could have brought some home with us.
Lots of great shops selling custom clothes. Oona and I got bathing suits made and Chris got a pair of custom shorts, all complete in less than a day and super cheap.
The port is bustling with little boats with sinister looking eyes painted on the bow. The eyes are said to help sailors find their way back home and to scare off crocodiles in the river.
Our favorite house in the Ancient Town was Tan Ky. The house opened to the port in the rear so ships could ferry cargo directly to the house. Goods were stored in the back, the front of the house served as a shop and the family slept upstairs. Another great traditional house is Duc An, where intellectuals and patriots met to discuss and plan the overthrow of the French occupation. Here is Chris giving the kids a history lesson. In the photo is General Vo Nguyen Giap, a national treasure and with whom Chris once shared a cup of tea.
We borrowed bikes and rode the kids to Nah Trang beach. Many of you have commented that the kids have grown a lot; it's true; they've gotten very heavy.
Order lunch at one of the beachside restaurants and you get an umbrella lounger and free use of their boards. This is my kind of winter.
Basket boats ready to take you out on the water.
While we were in Hoi An the boys got a haircuts. Chris sporting the Beckham. Next time they'll also do the ear clean.
For lunch we went to the famous Madame Khanh - The Banh Mi Queen for sandwiches. At the age of 78, Madame Khanh still oversees this modest little storefront restaurant. While we were waiting for our fantastic banh mi, her octogenarian husband came shuffling out of the back apartment in flip flops and boxer shorts to retrieve something from the kitchen. Chris and I just looked at each other and grinned.
The local specialty is cao lau, a slightly sweet, chewy noodle dish served with a tiny bit of broth, vegetables and pork. You can only get this dish in Hoi An because for real cao lau noodles, you must use water drawn from one specific well located on the edge of the city (kinda like the myth of the NYC bagel). They are delicious and worth a taste if you're in Hoi An.
We love Vietnamese food so we took a cooking class to learn how to make a few of our favorites. First stop: the local market to buy fresh herbs and produce.
The class was fun, but not terribly challenging. I think they underestimated our kids' knife skills so the teacher and the sous chef did most of the actual cooking in the kitchen. Sort of a bummer, but we did enjoy the fantastic dinner that followed.
We stayed in Van Lan Riviera Villas among the rice fields just outside the city center. Run by Phuong and his nieces, the hotel is a homey little place with a great pool and a well-tended garden. Every day one of the staff would hang a pair of enormous white panties on the wall to dry in the sun (see my comment re: ragged around the edges). Our two bedroom villa was huge and Phuong would serve us breakfast on the banks of the river and chat with us while we ate. One morning, while we were eating breakfast, Phuong rode up to the hotel with a special package. He gleaned from our passports that it was Chris' birthday so had gone into town to get him a fancy cake. We were so touched by his thoughtful and generous gesture especially because chocolate is difficult and expensive to procure in Hoi An. It's always hard to be away for special occasions, but we felt, thanks to Phuong and the ladies, that we had celebrated with our incredibly kind (if not slightly eccentric) family.
HO CHI MINH CITY
Ask anyone in Hanoi or Hoi An what they think of HCMC and you get the same response: too much traffic, overwhelmingly noisy, taxi drivers that rip you off (and this is from the Vietnamese!). From what we saw (which admittedly, was not much), their assessment is true. Hanoi's traffic doesn't hold a candle to HCMC's madness. And yes, we totally got ripped off by the cabbies. Luckily, we stayed in a low rent expat resort apartment in suburban District 2 and spent most of our time floating in the pool.
HCMC's take on the family sedan.
We did manage to make it to the War Remnants Museum. The main floor is heavily slanted toward the Vietnamese, featuring propaganda posters decrying the U.S. attack on Vietnam. The upper floors feature the victims (mostly civilian) who were killed during the war. The pictures are grisly (and definitely not kid friendly - Chris and I took turns waiting outside with I&O). Particularly affecting are the giant photos of the Agent Orange victims, a legacy of the warfare that still continues to resonate throughout the country generations later.
Our only other excursion into the city was to visit the Fito Museum, a history of traditional Vietnamese medicine. The mandatory tour was led by a woman who told joke after heavily accented joke. It was sort of like being held hostage in a bad SE Asian comedy club. At one point she approached a French tourist, patted his big belly and cackled, "Ah ha! Look here! This man have baby! He man! He pregnant so fat! Hahaha!" So freaking Asian.
The apartment complex is located next door to an international school so there was a plenty of kids activities and tons of new English speaking friends with whom to play. The kids swam, played tennis, took a karate class and had a massive World Cup match with new Dutch, German, Japanese and Polish friends.
Hanging out with the boy.
Everyone says, "You must float down the Mekong Delta!" And from the likes of it, everyone was listening because the Mekong was bursting at the seams with tourists. Two years ago, the Delta underwent a tourist friendly makeover. New restaurants were built, boat tours launched, packages created with elaborate five-course lunches and pointless stops tacked on to justify exorbitant prices. The result? A orgy of gross consumerism, tacky sales pitches and the feeling that you're being shuttled like cattle from one inauthentic spot to the next (this despite our "custom" tour). At the Bee Farm a young woman poured us a thimbleful of honey tea and then proceeded to hard sell us into buying honey products, grabbing our hands to slather it with sticky ointments. The ladies at the Coconut Candy factory opted to skip the workshop altogether, leaving us to browse the monkey shaped lacquered coconuts while we waited for the tour guide to save us. The 2.5 hour "Cycle around the village to experience the feeling and meet the locals" segment was canceled when we realized that there were no bikes for the kids and the road had been razed for repaving. The piece de resistance, the tour of the Mekong Delta, was so clogged with boats that I nearly lost a finger when another boat tried to cram past ours; hardly the promised "gentle glide down a scenic natural canal to observe daily life in the Delta". We ended up coming home 3 hours early, but was only offered a smile and a consolatory $15 refund off the $250 tour price.
During my first trip to Vietnam, Chris and I rode an overnight train to Sapa. We slept on bamboo mats and shared a sleeper car with two strange men who snored in the bunks overhead, their skinny limbs hanging down like bars in a cage. At the train station a young man agreed to let us borrow his old Russian Minsk motorcycle, hopping off as he handed us his keys in exchange for Chris’ passport. We packed little wheels of kid cheese wrapped in red plastic, a baguette and a bottle of red wine and drove down the terraced green rice paddies past Hmong boys carrying sticks in a basket made of sticks. We crossed a rope bridge, parked the Minsk next to a water buffalo and ate our bread and cheese. When we were done, Chris took off his shirt and jumped into a lake to swim with the local kids. As the afternoon faded, we tried to ride back up the hill, only to have the bike conk out. Again and again Chris would start the bike, with me pushing from behind, and then hopping on just as the engine petered out. By then a mob of kids trailed behind us, laughing at the two foreigners wearing stupid Vietnamese patchwork skullcaps, covered in dust, me sweaty from pushing the bike and Chris halfway up the hill. When a young man on a scooter stopped next to us, he pantomimed that we should trade bikes so we did and I hopped on the back with him, wrapped my arms around his waist as he zipped me up the hill with Chris following behind. I didn't know this person. There was no plan. No safety net. No itinerary, but we knew that everything would be alright.
I'm glad we went to Vietnam. We were happy to share it with the kids and Halong Bay will remain a favorite. But I can't help but feel a little moony for the way the country, and we, were before we all got so savvy. I hear they recently built a super highway that can take you from Hanoi to Sapa in under 4 hours. No doubt it is wide enough to accommodate a tour bus.
Our guide was very sweet, but not terribly knowledgeable about the Mekong region. Here she is with the kids.
Coconut candy ladies. They do not care about you one bit.
Local boys watching the cavalcade of tourists board the small boats.
Ready and waiting.
The milky waters of the Mekong.
Making coconut milk out of coconuts? Life is just a bowl of coconuts? Oh whatever. Cheers!
We packed our bags in Istanbul, leaving behind our winter coats and boarded the long flight to Bangkok where we would hop yet another plane for Chiang Mai. Chris and I had been to Thailand before; 17 years ago we toured Bangkok, during which time a rogue tuk-tuk driver "kidnapped" us to a dead end alley filled with shady looking men (we screamed at the top of our lungs until he finally drove us to our desired location). By the time we left the city, I was overwhelmed and overheated, with an inexplicable and raging case of athlete's foot ON MY HANDS. And then there was Ko Samui, with its gorgeous beaches, sugar cane fields and cheap waterfront massages, back before it became an overdeveloped resort town teeming with tourists. But we had never been to Chiang Mai and we weren’t sure what to expect. Later, Facetiming with the Monroe Street gang, Mike asks, “So what is Chiang Mai like?’ and despite having been there for nearly two weeks, I found myself struggling for an answer.
Here’s the thing: Chiang Mai, is in so many ways, really very ugly – its low cement buildings ensnared under a tangle of telephone wires, the city taken over by 7-Elevens and the distant green mountains trapping the exhaust of tuk-tuks and song thaews and of course, the endless stream of motorbikes. Drive 20 minutes outside the city walls and watch as the landscape melts into rice fields, the clucking of chickens, and the tin and wood shacks that line the murky Ping River. There is much to be wary of here: the mosquitos, the pollution, the stray dogs that stalk the streets, avenues choked with grungy backpackers. Despite it all, Chiang Mai is irresistible. Everywhere you look there are gilded wats, saffron-robed monks, perfect 82 degree weather (their winter!), and the kindest people we’ve thus encountered. Last but not least, Chiang Mai has a cost of living so low you could drown in Thai massages and the insanely delicious food. It’s no wonder it has become a popular landing pad for expats, adding to the diversity of this fairly intimate city.
Chris and Isoo meet an older gentleman birder, Steve, who had spent decades traveling the world. When his wife passed away, he returned to his house in Cleveland, only to realize that without her, it no longer felt like home. So he asked himself where it was that he was last happy, and boarded a plane for Chiang Mai. He’s been here for 7 years. My childhood friend, Janice, spent a decade in New York City before work and school took her to locations as far flung as London, the Philippines, Korea and Germany (just to name a few). Despite her frequent travels she found herself returning again and again to Chiang Mai, finally settling here 4 years ago. Tammy, the landlady of our villa, was a successful HK consultant who took a gap year to decompress and travel only to find herself running a small resort in the countryside of Chiang Mai.
It's Tammy’s gorgeous resort we called home for the last two weeks, but if you ask any of us, we could have stayed much longer. Who knows, perhaps years from now we, too, will find our way back.
The overnight flight to Bangkok was 9 hours. The kids hate long flights, though I’m not sure what they’re complaining about. I feel much more sympathy for their seatmates. For the record, I was wearing that sleep mask between Oona's toes before she literally kicked it off my face and then plopped her foot onto my crotch. So much for trying to sleep.
Chris sometimes uses his powers of persuasion for good. When he was able to talk Tammy into letting us rent out the entire resort for our private use while she was away on a family emergency, he used it for very, very good. The property, located 20 minutes outside the walls of Chiang Mai, is actually a small resort comprised of an outdoor kitchen, meditation Sala, the owner’s villa, main house (with living, dining and kitchen) and four one bedroom villas anchored by a swimming pool. We loved being out in the countryside, listening to the geckos and watching the fish farmers across the Ping River. But we didn’t have as much privacy as we’d thought: The day we arrived in Chiang Mai was a sweltering 91 degrees. After the sweaty business of unpacking was complete, Chris and I peeled off our clothes and jumped into the pool. The kids came running and screamed, “Ewwww! Gross! Put your clothes back on!” We later discovered the closed caption security cameras. If you see us skinny dipping on Thai Internet, the answer is yes, we know we need to work out.
The oversized grown-ups villa.
While Chris and I had a more traditional semi-enclosed bathroom, the kids' was completely open to the elements. Very cool to be surrounded by so much nature, that is unless you're asleep and a gecko falls onto your bed. Just ask Isoo.
Walking down to the river for a little birding.
Just behind the villa is the meditation sala where Chris and Oona would work on their novel.
Isoo tries his hand at fishing in the Ping River behind our house. Here is Oona reminding him not to scare off the fish.
The fish farm across the river.
In the front yard is a little “Spirit House”. A component of Animism, the Thai believe that spirits live among us, and to discourage them from haunting the houses we live in, they create a little shelter to entice and house the spirits, honoring it with flowers and incense. Every couple of days village women would refill the vases with fresh flowers. You see this all over Chiang Mai, on the outside corner next to every house and business.
Sunset over the gorgeous rice paddies near our villa. Isoo especially loved birding the fields. One note about Chiang Mai – every evening around 6pm, everything stops for the King’s Announcement. And by stops, I mean you are not allowed to walk, drive or talk. In the countryside, our small farming village also did a morning announcement at 7am. Chris and I would lie in bed, the pillow over our heads, reminiscing about alternate side parking warnings in Evanston.
We visited a lot of wats, and I mean a lot. This is the Elephant Chedi in Wat Chiang Man.
Chiang Man Wihan
The gorgeous golden ruins of Wat Chedi Luang.
Monks sweeping outside Chedi Luang.
We went to Doi Suthep to visit Wat Phrathat, famous for its undulating serpent staircase. At the foot of the staircase are a couple of Hmong girls dressed in traditional costume. They pose with tourists in exchange for money. I asked Oona what she thought of the practice and her response: "Well, they seem to be having a good time, and if they can make money to buy food for their families, I don't think it's such a bad thing." We talked about it for awhile: What happens when the girls grow up? What about respect for culture? What are the tourists' responsibilities? Should parents rely on young children to support them? I'm not sure who's being exploited here, but for me, it's a complicated and uneasy alliance, and one I find myself wondering about again and again. So for whatever its worth, yes, I took a picture.
But our hands-down favorite was the tiny teak Wat Phan Tao where we got to listen to the mesmerizing chants of the Buddhist monks.
Wat else did we do? We went to Art in Paradise, Chiang Mai's 3D museum. I found the place to be pretty stupid, but Oona, being a ham, loved it.
We also went to the Chiang Mai's super crowded Sunday Walking Street. We had a great time sampling nearly 1km worth of street food and browsing the craft stands until we lost Janice and the kids and I had a near nervous breakdown searching for them. (They had broken off to buy these sleep masks.) I have never been so happy to finally see their goofy, ridiculous faces!
Scenes from Walking Street. Please walk on the left or your will incur the wrath of Janice!
We also went to Huay Tung Tao at the base of Doi Ithanon for lunch at one of the lake front restaurants. It was a lovely day hanging out with Janice, gorging ourselves on fresh fish, playing with the local cats and birding. Afterwards the kids and I took paddle boats onto the lake. A wonderfully relaxing way to spend the day.
Me and the girl devouring the fresh deep fried ruby fish smothered in crispy garlic. Yes, I did gain this much weight - no cardio and the food here is delicious!
So many things to do in Do Ithanon, like hike Wachirathan Waterfall...
Visit the terraced rice fields at Ban Mae Klang Luang.
Walk around the traditional stilt houses of the Karen tribe.
Bird the magnificent gardens. Isoo was so overwhelmed by the number of cool birds that he exclaimed, "I don't even know which way to look first!" Chiang Mai was one of everyone's favorites.
Janice turned us onto a great organization called We Women, a foundation that helps to educate ethnic minority refugee women from Burma. Yes, we knew about the ruling military regime in Burma, but we had much to learn about the civil war between the Burmese and it's seven minority groups. We were grateful for the chance to make lunch for the staff and volunteers, and learn a little about their mission. Here are Chris and Janice trying not to set fire to the kitchen.
The kids making salad and prepping the dragon fruit. In addition to making lunch, as part of their homeschool, they interviewed recent graduate Num Mye about growing up in Burma.
Lunch with just some of the staff and volunteers at We Women. To make a contribution and to learn more, check out their website: http://wewomenfoundation.org.
Another worthwhile endeavor: a visit to the Elephant Nature Park. Once revered in Thailand, elephants were free to roam wild in the forests of Chiang Mai. In more recent years, they were captured, violently tamed using arrows and hooks, and then used to haul trees in the logging industry (the cruel joke being that they played a principal role in the deforestation of their own habitats). After the national logging ban of 1989, the domesticated elephants suddenly found themselves unemployed, some left to wander the countryside no longer able to take care of themselves, others relocated to Bangkok and taught tricks to panhandle from humans, and most re-trained to ferry tourists on elephant rides. Believe it or not, despite their strength and size, elephants are not built to carry weight on their backs. In the process of training, most were injured or blinded. Others, after years of carrying around humans, suffer from dislocated hips and spine ailments. The Elephant Nature Park, unlike other elephant trekking parks, is a sanctuary for rescued and abused elephants. We didn't ride them. They didn't do tricks. But we did get to observe them in their natural habit.
A kind mahout, an elephant's best friend.
We were handed buckets and joined the elephants in the river to give them a bath.
It used to be that 60% of Thailand was covered in forests, but due to an increase in population and the thriving teak industry, only 16% of the forest remain. After a flood in Southern Thailand the government recognized the necessity of trees in preventing landslides. Laws were established to curb logging and efforts made to replant trees. However, illegal logging continues. Lek, the owner of Elephant Nature Park, enlisted the help of Buddhist monks to bless the trees. Once blessed, it is considered a sin to cut down the tree. You see the blessed trees, marked by pieces of the saffron colored monks' robes, throughout the forest.
We drove to neighboring Bosan Village for the Umbrella Festival to get a glimpse of the town's signature hand painted umbrellas. Lots of street food, a beauty contest, concert and parade. The parade, which featured floats from neighboring countries reflected Thailand's integral role in the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations - an economic alliance similar to the European Union) community. Here are children from some of the tribes thoughout the Southeast Asian region.
No bathing suit competition. Instead, the beauty contestants wobble by on bicycles, smiling, waving and holding their umbrella. No easy feat.
Each of the kids got to select an activity. Isoo's? Birding, of course. Oona asked to go zip lining (remind me to cut her out of the Will). Don't let the expression on Isoo's face fool you. The kids had nerves of steel; I was the one shaking!
There were 33 platforms that made for 17 zip lines (the longest was 1/2 mile, one of the longest in the world), several rope bridges and rappelling. I'm smiling here, but I was really not happy about this sky bridge.
Chris doing the Superman.
LAST PLATFORM!!!! WOO HOO!
Our girls lunch and spa day with Janice was much more my speed. Oona got her first Thai massage (ask her about it). But a Chiang Mai highlight for me was getting to hang out with Janice. She spoiled us with a fantastic home cooked lunch, gave us awesome recommendations, and we got to meet several of her very cool friends. Janice, we're definitely coming back to visit again in the future!
And Mike, to answer your question, here are some Chiang Mai street scenes for you.
I was not kidding when I said the city is crawling with 7-Elevens. Thailand just opened its 8,000th branch, surpassing the number of 7-Elevens in the U.S. despite being a country the size of Texas with one-fifth of our population. While convenient, air-conditioned, and with better snacks than our disgusting rotisserie hot dogs, they are slowly putting the local Thai mom and pop shops out of business.
Last meal in Thailand! At the hot pot down the street from our villa.
We had hoped to use our month in Rome to plan the next couple months of this trip, but because we decided at the last moment to add Paris, Brugge and London, we never got the downtime we had anticipated. So of course, we found ourselves 10 days out of Cappadocia before realizing that we forgot to purchase plane tickets. By the time we got around to it, we were shocked to find that they were $1,000. Each. Gulp.
Chris, I know, preferred to skip Turkey altogether and head straight for Asia. We'd already been in Europe for what felt like forever and after our bout of fast travel, he was itching to get to Asia and slow down in the countryside of Chiang Mai. Besides, not only was the flight to Turkey super expensive, but the planned itinerary was inconvenient, requiring three flights in five short days. But there were three things I really wanted to do on this trip: kayak the sandstone formations of Algave in Portugal, hot air balloon over Cappadocia and ride a junk in Halong Bay (cross fingers). Due to weather conditions, I never did get to kayak Algave, something I'm still lamenting (just ask Chris). I'm sure he bought the tickets to Turkey just to avoid having to listen to any more of my moaning and groaning.
Thank God I'm such a pain in the ass because otherwise we would have missed out on some of the most breathtaking vistas we've thus encountered: the rock cut churches and monasteries of Goreme Open Air Museum, hiking the Fairy Chimney's of Pasabag, hot air ballooning over Love Valley and Red Valley. And then there was the sleep-inducing Whirling Dervish show, the amazing 10-story Derinkuyu underground city, the old and new cities of Cavusin, the incredibly kind people of Turkey and some of the best meals we've had on the trip thus far. We even got to bed in a cave hotel, complete with heated bathroom floors, jetted spa tub and mini bar. We've all been keeping our own individual Top 10 List, with some favorites like the Sahara Desert (Oona), Lisbon Escape Game (Chris), and go-karting in Cork (Isoo), making some folk's lists, but not others. But Cappadocia made everyone's list several times over. Seriously, if you're contemplating your next vacation, YOU SHOULD GO HERE.
How on earth does it look like this, you ask? A jillion years ago, three ancient volcanos erupted and blanketed the region with ash that solidified into a soft rock. Wind and water acted to erode the plateau leaving behind a landscape of cones, pillars and "fairy chimneys". Throughout the centuries, mankind gave mother nature a hand, carving out the interiors to create homes, churches, sanctuaries and tunnels.
Our first stop was the Goreme Open Air Museum - a monastic complex comprised of 11 refectories and a series of churches cut into the volcanic rock.
I am not a terribly religious person, but faith, trust, belief are things I respect deeply. These Byzantine frescos in Karanlik Kilise (the Dark Church) are amazing. Sadly, the faces on the frescos at arm's reach are scratched out (the ones on the ceiling out of reach are preserved). The kids and I had a long talk about religious freedom, respect and the amazing art that comes out of faith. It was surprisingly emotional both in regard to religion and art and one of my favorite moments of homeschooling.
If you want to see the interior, you will have to come here in person to experience it firsthand.
What it's like to live inside a cave today? Our hotel suite consisted of a huge living room, bedroom, kitchenette and spa bathroom. Who knew caves could be so luxurious? Perfect for hibernation.
However, the arid weather really got to me. I draped the radiators with soaked bath towels and still woke up with sore throat.
The Whirling Dervish ceremony is a physically meditative state that focuses the body on expressing the belief that all things rotate: We live and return to the earth, we spin around the earth, blood and atoms float and return in a circle. The hat is a tombstone. A black cloak is removed to reveal a purity skirt. One hand is extended upward to God, the other extended downward to those in need. It begins with a bow, a song, a prayer and then five stages of transcendental whirling. I don't know why, but Isoo and I found the whole thing to be really sleep-inducing. Like could not keep my eyes open. But it was really cool (so say the people who managed to stay awake).
We also went to Derinkuyu, the largest underground city in Turkey. Think 10 subfloors deep, created in 7th century B.C., originally used by Christians during the Arab-Byzantine War, but also utilized during the Ottoman war during Roman invasions. The place is amazing. It's got everything from wells, wineries, graveyards, schools, a "communication system", homes, etc., housing up to 10,000 people (with their livestock!), for up to one month.
The cave is quite sophisticated. There are a series of tunnels and tubes which comprise a "telephone" system for relaying information throughout the cave. While some tunnels reach the surface (light wells), this is a water well, which reaches only below to avoid water contamination and poisoning from enemies on the surface. More details: Clay pots acted as toilets and were emptied on the surface. Animals were tied to rock formations on the first sub-floor and fed in rock cut troughs. Water was limited so no one bathed. Seriously. Animals, waste and unwashed masses trapped in a cave. Fragrant.
Every few meters you see a giant Indiana Jones rock which would be rolled to block a passage in instances of attack. It's engineered to take four men to roll it into place, but 10 men to roll it out.
Here is a typical underground "house". This small space would sleep as many as 10 people. The more the merrier as they used good old-fashioned body heat to keep warm.
Want to hear something crazy? Cappadocia was crawling with Korean tourists. I mean busloads of them with selfie sticks. Even the tiny town of Goreme has two Korean restaurants. When I told my mom about it, she said, "Oh yes, it's true. I saw them when I was in Cappadocia years ago." What? My parents went to Cappadocia and never even told me????? I didn't even get a lousy t-shirt!
We eschewed the pricey tour package and instead called a taxi to take us to some of the sights. Turns out our driver, Ali, went to tourism school and spoke perfect English. He was happy to hang out with us for the day, taking us to his favorite locations. The kids at Goreme Panorama.
Oona is happiest when she's out hiking. Jumping for joy at Pasabag.
These are the "fairy chimneys" of Pasabag. And yes, they look more than a little phallic.
Headed home after a long day of sightseeing, Ali asked, "Want to see where my grandmother used to live?" We were exhausted, but not wanting to be rude, we agreed. We were so grateful for his suggestion or we would have missed Cavusin, a small farming town where up until the 1960's, its inhabitants still lived in the pink rock wall. The city gradually migrated down not for the sake of modernization, but according to Ali, "because the rocks started to fall." We hiked up to the Flintstones like "condo" to witness the crumbling rock first hand.
When you see the modesty with which the Cavusin people lived, you can't help but feel like a jerk for complaining about an outdated powder room. It really puts things into perspective (though I do believe they all had granite countertops).
Every restaurant we went to was better than the last. So much great food and such wonderful, hospitable people. We had an early New Year's Eve dinner at our favorite - Topdeck Restaurant. The owner came out and invited Isoo to light a rocket sparkler so we could celebrate early.
We had originally booked our hot air balloon ride for early in our visit, but high winds forced them to cancel. The balloons were grounded for six straight days before we got the all clear for lift off. The van picked us up at 5:30 a.m., but when we got to the booking agency to fill out our paperwork, it started to rain. It was our last morning in Cappadocia and we feared it would be Algarve all over again. But after 2 hours of waiting and coffee drinking, we got the green light!
When we got to the launching grounds the balloons were still being inflated. Up to 100 balloons are allowed to alight each day. To wake up to the sky filled with balloons is like waking up to a dream.
Taking flight over the Red Valley. I was too excited to remember that I'm terrified of heights.
Things were a little tense in the basket when we got caught in a cloud bank. It took an extra 20 minutes for the hot air balloon operator to googlemaps his way back toward the landing pad.
Landing a hot air balloon is fascinating. A flat bed truck is driven close to the descending balloon. A rope is tossed down and then a couple of big guys literally pull the basket toward the ground and onto the flat bed. Then the balloon is batted down, folded, tied into the basket and driven away. Isoo and Oona lending a hand.
Toasting a successful landing! A quick sip before dashing to the airport. What a great way to start 2015!
We were all a little sad to leave Cappadocia for Istanbul, and was even more so when we saw our Airbnb digs. Knowing we only had one full day to explore the city, we opted for location over space and booked a super cheap studio in the heart of happening Beyoglu. I don't want to spend a lot of time bitching about the studio (though I could) because I plan to write a longer piece about Airbnb vs. Hotels at a later date, but let's just say it's true that you get what you pay for. Still, we hit the ground running (or in my case, limping, as sleeping in a cave is very dry and I woke up with a terrible cold). We ran through Istanbul on a quick "Greatest Hits" tour, taking in the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Basilica Cistern and the Hippodrome. I have to admit, as wonderful as it all was, I was feeling pretty crappy and a little anxious about our upcoming overnight flight so our day of sightseeing felt more like a job than a pleasure. (Now I know how the kids feel). The next day, we managed to squeeze in a quick ferry ride for a fantastic lunch and a stroll around the Asia side before heading back to the airport. A lovely, relaxed ending to a mostly frenetic trip through Istanbul.
But despite it all, we felt for the first time that we finally got the hang of this travel thing. And it only took five months! Despite missing friends and family, we are all having a blast and psyched to keep going. What works for us? A mix of fast and slow travel (2 or more weeks in one location), Airbnb plus the occasional hotel, comfortable housing (a must), lots of nature, a bit of exercise, scheduled lazy days and a relaxed approach to homeschool (apologies in advance to next year's teachers). Most importantly, Chris and I realize that the whole "showing the kids places we love" is not nearly as much fun as discovering a new place together as a family.
The minarets, domes and tiles of the Blue Mosque are gorgeous. After hearing the Call to Prayer five times a day during our weeks in Morocco and Turkey, I was eager to finally get a glimpse of the inside of a mosque.
In addition to removing shoes and for women, covering one's head, Muslims must wash in preparation for prayer. Here are the washing stations located just outside the mosque. (When water is absent in the desert, Berbers use sand.)
The Prayer Room.
Once a church, then a mosque and now a museum, the Hagia Sophia is stunning; the frescos, the lights, the domes. I acknowledge its beauty, but it was so crowded and covered in scaffolding that we opted for only a quick visit.
The Basilica Cistern is essentially a giant underground water tank built in 532 B.C. to service the Great Palace. It's made up of 336 symmetrically placed columns, many of which were salvaged from other buildings. Once the Great Palace was no longer occupied, the cistern went unused. It was rediscovered 1,000 years later, when locals reportedly caught fish from hatches in their basement floor. Over the centuries, it was everything from junkyard to graveyard until 1987 when 50,000 tons of mud was hauled up, platforms were built and the cistern opened to the public. Of all the sights, this one was my favorite. It's absolutely eerie with mysterious droplets of water, faint outlines of giant swimming carp, and the sideways and upside down columns of Medusa heads.
We interrupt this report for a shot of super strong Turkish coffee (equal parts coffee and grounds) and a couple dozen Turkish Delights.
Granted, I was pretty wiped out toward the end of the day, but Topkapi Palace was one I could have skipped. It may have been the home of Ottoman royalty for 400 years, but now it's a museum with a pretty uninspired display of royal artifacts. BUT, the one really cool thing is that the palace grounds offer outstanding views of both the Asia and Europe sides of Turkey. Here we are standing at the midpoint (and me looking like death warmed over).
After a cold, sleepless night in our dumpy little studio, we jumped on a ferry to Kadikoy where we saw tons of fishermen lining the docks and bridges.
Evidently, the fish were biting! I should've made a video so you could see these little suckers flopping around. Talk about fresh.
While in Cappadocia, we'd met a family that suggested we try Ciya Sofrasi for traditional Anatolian food. You go up to the glass counter, peer into a couple dozen vats and point. The chef serves it up and brings it to your table. While this format is great for most non-Turkish speakers, it's terrible for Chris and I, as our eyes are always bigger than our stomaches. I'm pretty sure we had two of everything on the menu.
We really loved walking the Asia side of Istanbul. We didn't encounter any tourists, just locals going about their business: shopping, working and drinking Turkish coffee in one of the numerous cafes.
Sharing bread crumbs and saying good-bye to the birds of Istanbul. Till next time!
Let’s say you’re in Europe and you suddenly realize you have two weeks in which you can traipse, jumping planes and Euro rails to wherever you like. Sounds like a dream, right? Now add to it a limited budget, the most expensive and congested travel season, the high stakes of a family-less Christmas, five suitcases, two tired kids, one cranky husband and a partridge in a pear tree.
We had planned to stay in Rome through the holidays, but when the Pigneto loft fell through, we found ourselves scampering for substitute housing. The Trastevere apartment was wonderful, but unfortunately, only available until the 15th. We took it as a sign that we should see more of Europe and so we scrapped our plans for Croatia and decided to head north to Paris and Brugge before landing in London to celebrate Christmas with our friends John, Becky and their two kids.
When last we were in Paris, just as we were recovering from jet lag, Oona caught a nasty stomach bug so we spent the majority of our trip cooped up in a tiny one bedroom apartment in the Bastille, passed out between bouts of laundry. Isoo, who suffers from an extreme case of Emetophobia is still haunted by the trip, so much so that three years later, he still associates Paris with vomit. So debilitating is his fear that he is a chronic hand-washing germaphobe, hates flying for fear of motion sicknesss and is a very, very picky eater. It is both a miracle and a testament of his courage that all of his hair has not fallen out during this trip. But needless to say, he was not excited for our Parisian jaunt and was near hysterical when Oona, right on cue as if to torment her brother, boarded the plane to Paris and promptly threw up.
I tried to comfort her as Chris discretely walked up and down the aisle collecting unused airsick bags. Isoo had fled to the back of the plane and was facedown on the tray table, his coat thrown over his head and his hands covering his ears. By the time we landed in Paris, Oona was white as a sheet. I seriously thought she was going to pass out and/or get detained in Customs for Ebola.
Due to the last minute nature of our planning and our limited budget, we were resigned to an albeit spacious, but inconveniently located apartment in the 18th Arrondisement. We quickly rounded up our bags and hightailed it to the taxi stand only to learn that Paris was in the midst of a strike with cab drivers barricading the streets to inhibit the passage of Uber cars. We queued at the bus stop, Oona squatting on the ground as Chris used a map and his Google translator app to figure out how to get to our apartment on the other side of town. We boarded a crowded bus, and then an even more crowded metro train which deposited us in the middle of bustling Gare du Nord. I staggered up the stairs with two suitcases, my purse and a backpack cursing Gard du Nord for its lack of escalators and muttering “It’s okay baby, we can do it. Almost there, just take one step at a time,” words of encouragement as much for myself as for Oona. The boys led the way, briskly walking the 15 minutes to the apartment with Chris trying to shield Isoo from the trail of sick left behind by his sister. I followed with Oona, who stopped every few feet to lean against a pole or rest in a café chair. At one point she lurched forward and threw up all over a bus stop as I stood there helpless, trying to hold back her hair, surrounded by our bags, both of us soaked beneath our coats. A young man stood watching us, and I looked at him embarrassed and apologetic; two gross Americans who dare sully their gorgeous streets. But he returned my glance by digging into his pocket and passing me a packet of tissues. You can say whatever you want about the French, but everyone was absolutely wonderful to us. By the time we made it to the apartment Oona had thrown up at least a dozen times and in my desperate urging I had promised to buy her a car on her 16th Birthday. She crawled into bed and did not emerge for three days.
If we hadn’t prepaid for our hotel and already booked the car, we would have skipped our plans to visit Brugge. But the morning of our departure, Oona, bolstered by the idea of waffles and chocolate, peeled off her pajamas and climbed into our tiny Fiat. It's impossible not to adore Brugge. It’s a magical fairytale city of medieval buildings, cobblestone squares, horse drawn carriages, picturesque canals and many, many chocolate shops. Add twinkling lights, an ice rink and a bustling Christmas market and you have the makings of a perfect holiday distraction. Our visit went something like this: waffles, fries, chocolate, mussels, beer, chocolate, shopping, chocolate, canal ride, chocolate, birding Minnewater Lake, chocolate, ice skating, chocolate. You get the picture.
Due to Oona’s stomach flu and our side trip to Brugge we were in Paris several days before we hit any of the sights. Frankly, this was fine by us. Not only had we seen many of the sights during our previous visits, but, and I can’t believe I’m going to say this, the magic and romance of Paris has for us…faded. Even walking around the once beloved Marais and Ile St. Louis districts, I felt the city had gone the way of New York (and I dare say, London), its charm and individuality depleted by too many chain stores; overpriced, uninspired restaurants; pushy, noisy crowds. With the exception of the residential avenues in Montmartre, I suspect it will be awhile before we feel the itch for a return visit.
Speaking of itch, we had even more trouble finding a place in London. The top contender was a three bedroom house in southeast London. On paper it sounded great: movie projector, a sprawling yard, treehouse, trampoline, fireplaces and even a fully decorated Christmas tree. The catch, and this was a big one, was Mr. Darcy, the resident cat who needed feeding and loved to sleep on everyone's beds. Chris is very allergic to cats, but after several futile days of searching out alternatives, we deboarded the Chunnel armed with a suitcase-full of Benadryl. Upon entering the foyer, we were more than a little dismayed to find that the house smelled strongly of cat and cumin, and was covered in a layer of Mr. Darcy's fine black hairs. After just a few hours, Oona walked upstairs to find Chris' eyes red and nearly swollen shut. Through the angry slits of his eyes, he was surprised to see a similarly puffy face squinting back at him. Who knew Oona, too, was allergic to cats? Like father, like daughter.
It's crazy the amount of time I used to spend researching and preparing for a trip. Months out I'd book hotels and restaurants, scour the library for books on the destination, read up on the history, prep the kids with movies, gently introduce the local cuisine, insist on learning the fundamentals of the culture, language, etc. But with spontaneous fast travel there's just no time to plan an itinerary. As soon as we shut the cab door headed to the airport, Chris and I would do a basic Google search: currency, how to say "Thank you," "Please," "Hello" and "Good-bye," tipping etiquette and whether the tap water was potable. Armed with this (very) basic knowledge, we'd hit the ground running, drop our suitcases and then bump our way through the city in the hope that something, anything would rub off on us by osmosis.
But the beauty of London is that it didn't require a tremendous amount of preparation and since Chris and I had already been, we didn't even pretend to do much sightseeing, opting instead to monopolize all of John and Becky's free time. We took in a play, made a fantastic dinner at their gorgeous home, and even left the kids with their grandparents for our first adults only night out in over four months. We drank fancy martinis at the Connaught Hotel and then caught a cab to the only burger restaurant open on Boxing Day. Who cares that it was a fast food joint located in a mall? The burgers were excellent and the company even better.
We may not have gotten much out of this leg from the homeschool/cultural enrichment/learning front, but I do know that what we got was more sorely needed: to sleep, recuperate, dumbly stand in front of a magnificent building noshing on crepes with nary a clue nor curiosity. The kids needed to play. We needed to go to the trouble of cooking a real dinner, to catch up with friends and NOT talk about our travels. We needed to shop for underwear and celebrate my birthday lounging in bed reading silly magazines. In true Christmas vacation form, we needed to simply shut off our bodies and our brains and enjoy our family, food and the company of our friends. It was uninspired, undisciplined and an absolutely perfect, wonderful waste of time. I sincerely hope your holiday was the same.
Next up? Several long, inconvenient travel days as we tour Turkey and finally make our way to Asia. Five flights in eight days. We'll see how the kids hold up!
Little lady trying to keep it together on the bus ride from Orly.
With Oona sacked out at home, Isoo and I walked around the 18th, home to a bustling immigrant community, lots of great ethnic restaurants and Halle Pajol, a sprawling new multi-use building housing a library, arts center and several cute restaurants.
Once Oona felt better we all walked to neighboring Montmartre, winding through the charming residential streets and even to the top of not so quiet Sacré-Cœur.
The view of Paris from Sacré-Cœur. Yes, the weather was as dreary as it looked.
Eating our millionth crepe.
Planted back in the 30's, this tiny "secret" vineyard in Montmartre is the only one that continues to grow inside Paris. It still produces 1,700 bottles per year with the proceeds donated to charity.
Moulin de la Galette - only one of two remaining windmills in Paris. The other, of course, being the one at the Moulin Rouge.
How is it that I've been to Paris a handful of times and never made it to Musee d'Orsay? We spent an afternoon rectifying the situation. The ladies outside the Orsay.
Christian Peacock's Clockface.
Looking for a charming, cozy meal in a fabulous Parisian bistro? Good luck getting a last minute table! Most of our meals consisted of (delicious) Thai and Indian take-out in our neighborhood. But we did snag a table at the institution Bofinger. It may not be Paris' best restaurant, but a favorite nonetheless.
Adding our love lock to Pont Notre Dame.
We were just one of many clowns who participated in the tradition.
Notre Dame dressed up for Christmas.
Wait! Something Isoo liked about Paris! Feeding house sparrows at Notre Dame.
An hour wait in the freezing cold and rain, but we finally made it to the ice rink at the top of the Eiffel Tower. The rink was tiny, but the views were great. And it made Oona so happy.
While Brugge is lovely in the summer, it's especially magical in the winter. There's something about walking in the crisp air scented with mulled wine, listening to the clip-clop of horse drawn carriages and knick-knacking the Christmas markets that just feels so festive.
First stop: the surfboard-sized waffles at Lizzie's Wafels. Yes, they were as great as they look, but even better was the hot chocolate: a clear mug of steamed milk served with a tulip shaped bowl made of chocolate and filled with chocolate shavings and fancy marshmallows. You drop in the chocolate cup, watch it sink and then stir. Best hot chocolate ever!
Love the gorgeous architecture.
A couple of tidbits about the buildings: It used to be that residents were taxed according to the number of windows they had in their home so homeowners would brick over extraneous windows before the tax assessor's visit. You can still see evidence of bricked over windows thoughout the city. And of course pianos were bitch to move up the steep, narrow houses so they hoisted them up from the outside and then in through the window. You can still see the hoist rings at the top of the older homes which were also pitched forward so the furniture didn't swing and shatter the windows. The more recent homes have rings imbedded near the front door to keep safe Brugge's most common mode of transport.
And I didn't even mention the canals yet!
We were surprised to find that despite the cold, canal rides were still being offered. Of course we had to take one. What we didn't plan for was our underage driver.
When the tour guide invited Isoo to drive the boat, he thought he was kidding. So did the other 30 passengers. His three point turn was a little sketchy, but he did a pretty good job despite the wind. After disembarking, I asked Isoo what he thought of driving the boat and he said (in typically dry Isoo fashion), "Well that was pretty unprofessional of him." But the opportunity was not lost on Oona who burst into tears, and shouted, "No fair! Isoo got to DRIVE! A BOAT! In BRUGGE!"
Fortunately, Oona had her own fun. Skating with Chris in Grote Markt.
This is the canal behind our hotel, the Walwyck. The main house has great views over the water, but because we needed a family room, we were given a larger room in the top floor of the owner's house, a mansion just around the corner. It was sort of weird to go tromping through their home after our dinner. The owner's son, who was about Isoo's age, was having a party and their family room was filled with tween boys playing video games and eating junk food. Isoo didn't say anything, but I'm sure the scene made him miss his buds. Anyhow, the big canals are nice, but this quiet little flower-lined one has to be my favorite.
We strolled/birded Minnewater Lake.
Last but not least, the chocolate. The chocolate in Brugge is not for mere mortals. They are works of art. Chicago has the Macy's window, Brugge shows off its holiday spirit in the chocolate shops. Yes, these sculptures are made of pure chocolate.
While the kids really, really missed home, we all had a great time hanging with our friends in London. Despite having a full house of visiting grandparents, we were grateful to be so generously included in their celebration.
We didn't have much Christmas shopping to do this year, but thought it would be cute to hit up Oxford Square and Carnaby Street for the Christmas lights. The streets were so crowded we could barely move.
We much preferred our night watching Theatre503's hilarious, family-friendly pantomime, Cinderella and the Beanstalk. The kids even snuck a picture with the actors.
This is the living room of the house we rented. Isoo was the only one who would sit in it because Mr. Darcy liked to perch on the couch and smother his cat hairs all over the cushions. (This is a rare Oona sighting.) While the house came with a tree, the kids insisted on getting one of our own.
This was the compromise. Tiny, but all ours. We used earrings and ribbon for ornaments.
These are the lame stockings I made. I know. So sad. But the kids didn't care because I was able to locate and include Reese's Pieces!
The kids did not ask for a single thing this year. I'm sure the knowledge that they would have to schlep it halfway around the world influenced their decision. With the exception of a couple of small souvenirs we'd collected throughout the trip, we were happy to oblige!
Post jolly Christmas dinner.
What's Christmas without a little birding? The boys in Regent's Park.
I was feeling a little guilty about not having done much London sightseeing so I let the kids guide me in selecting a tour. Their pick? The Muggle Tour of the locations included in, and inspired by, the Harry Potter movies. It was sort of fabulous. Here's the "Leaky Cauldron" Fun fact: In the third movie, the Night Bus drives down this road and delivers Harry to the Leaky Cauldron. They chopped off the top of a double decker bus and affixed it to another double decker bus to create three tiers. Unfortunately, when they delivered the bus to the site, they realized that it was too high and had to re-doctor the bus on site to fit under the bridge.
We also took a walk down the street that inspired "Diagon Alley" to this bookstore that sells first edition Harry Potter titles. And this is Oona with our excellent tour guide, Sophie McGonagall.
I swear I did try to show them a little more of merry old London. Evidence: the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace.
Look kids! Big Ben!
And Westminster Abbey, where either Isoo was going to die of boredom or I was going to kill him.
And then we did modern London. At the Tate Gallery for a little hands on crafting a la Turner.
And where Oona stopped in front of this picture and asked, "Okay mom, what's this picture about again?"
The whimsical Alice in Wonderland-inspired tea at the Sanderson Hotel was more relaxing.
Champagne birthday toast on the London Eye. A lovely farewell to the European leg of our trip, and a wonderful way to ring in the new year.
It was bad enough that our flight out of Marrakech was delayed, but an hour after we finally landed we were still hopelessly watching the baggage carousel turn, empty of our suitcases. The good news is that there is nothing more entertaining than witnessing a bunch of angry Romans scream and gesticulate over lost luggage. No one has ever accused me of being a laid back pushover, but compared to the Italians, I am a mere amateur. When we finally collected our bags, we jumped into a cab, and headed to our loft in Pigneto.
What is Pigneto? Why, according to several travel guides it is only “the coolest neighborhood in the world." Artists, bohemians, great bars and cool cafes? I mean, when would you not want to stay there? When the mattresses are doused in blood, urine and body hairs. Filthy bathroom walls, floaters in the toilet, not a single clean utensil, dealers loitering on the corner, chairs thoughtfully marked "BROKEN. DO NOT SIT HERE", and the doors and windows covered in bars. After a terse discussion with the owner and several emails to Airbnb requesting the return of our $3,200 payment, we quickly booked a hotel, jumped into a cab and hightailed it across town. We arrived at the Hotel Alimandi and was told that despite our online reservation, they did not have our family room, so Isoo and I ended up on one floor, and Chris and Oona on another. By the time we dropped off our bags, made our way to a restaurant and ordered our dinner, it was nearly 11:00 p.m. and we had already spent our entire daily budget on cab fare.
Desperate to find a last minute place to stay (in expensive Rome), we ended up booking a sweet two bedroom apartment in the charming Trastevere neighborhood. Yes, it broke the bank, but the beautiful, airy, light-filled apartment was exactly what we needed after hectic Marrakech and our bumpy start in Rome. When we met Silvia, the owner, I couldn't stop staring; she was stunning and chic. It made total sense when I later learned that she is an Italian film actress.
The Coliseum, Roman Forum, St. Peter's Basilica, Sistine Chapel, Piazza Navona, the Spanish Steps, Pantheon. I could go on. A city could be built around any ONE of these monuments and yet Rome greedily houses them all. Everywhere you turn there is a mosaic tiled church, hidden piazza, ornate bridge. The city is just unreasonably beautiful. Even our local Farmacia, purveyor of foot spray and band aids, is ensconced in a centuries old ivy covered building. And you can keep your Pigneto, I could not have loved our Trastevere neighborhood more: charming winding streets, sparkling Christmas lights, cobblestone lanes, leisurely sidewalk cafes, gorgeous people, Santa Maria church bells, bookshops, the lazy Tiber River.
We had originally planned to hunker down in Rome for a full month to celebrate Christmas, but the new apartment wasn't available for that length so in all, we only had 17 days in this glorious city. With all the hassles of travel, and the prevailing homesickness, I thought I'd never say it, but I could live here forever. Even Isoo, who is not easily impressed nor a fan of urban environments threw an extra coin into Trevi Fountain to ensure his return.
The Pantheon. Nearly 2000 years old and perfectly preserved. It was raining the day we visited so we got to see the ancient Roman drainpipes in action.
There are so many priests and nuns walking around Rome. They are everywhere - the local pizzeria, the newsstand, standing at the bus stop listening to music on headphones. It's a cool and wonderful reminder of how human we all are.
The Map Room in the Vatican Museum.
St. Peter's Basilica. We thought the kids would enjoy climbing to the top of the dome.
The view of Vatican City from the top. Oona loved it.
Isoo did not. In fact, he thought found the entire Vatican City visit to be "pure torture."
Poor baby. We felt terrible for him.
Inside St. Peter's: Michelangelo's La Pieta. Believe it or not, we all preferred the sculptures and was somewhat underwhelmed by the Sistine Chapel.
We took a walk to the Coliseum, but after wandering around with a guide book, we decided to return with a tour guide.
The day we returned was freezing and rainy, but Elena did such a great job even the kids were captivated. Isoo was full of questions.
The Coliseum's remains. The stage was partially rebuilt to give visitors an idea of the the layout. The Coliseum's true floor was covered in sand to conceal trap doors and soak up the blood of the gladiators. The labyrinth beneath housed a series of rooms where animals where starved and then hoisted up in rudimentary elevators and released for the games. The three rows of arches were where the spectators sat - the wealthiest closest to the action. Just like the Bulls game!
The Roman Forum and Isoo among the umbrella pines.
Soaked to the bone, but the kids were great sports.
La Bocca della Verita. Tell a lie, it bites your hand. Oona must be telling the truth.
We spent a lot of time hanging out at the Spanish Steps eating gelato and people watching.
Trevi Fountain is being given a good cleaning (courtesy of Fendi) so unfortunately, it's under scaffolding and heavily concealed. However, if you want to throw a coin to ensure your return, this PHOTO of the fountain will be happy to accept your Euro.
We rented bikes at Appica Antica to check out more ancient ruins and ride on the very bumpy original cobblestone roadways (not pictured).
Gorgeous sculpture of Goethe at Villa Borghese park. According to Isoo, also a great place to bird!
Piazza Navona by night.
On December 8, Piazza Navona hosts a carnival in celebration of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Most Romans celebrate by going to church. We visited the Sant'Agnese in Agone cathedral, then we hit up the carnival. When in Rome.
The Orto Botanico Roma was right behind our apartment. We thought it would be an easy way to kill a half hour. Turned out to be a fantastic place to bird and write. Chris and the kids went twice.
Modern Rome? That would be the Maxxi, the new contemporary art museum. Still trying to gain traction, the museum's exhibitions are very slight. In fact, the day we visited, there was not much to see, which even the museum acknowledged by reducing our entry fee. Give it a few years before making a visit.
Rome does Christmas well! Just ask these happy Santas.
Better yet go to the Christmas tree lighting at Piazza Venezia!
National flags represented on Via Corso.
Just some of the gorgeous lights around the city. While I wholly intend on returning, I honestly can't imagine that I could enjoy Rome more. There is something magical about discovering a wonderful city for the first time at Christmas.
While walking around our neighborhood, we stumbled upon a little shop that teaches mosaic art. Of course we had to take a class. This is Nadia teaching Oona how to break tiles. I thought this was about the most therapeutic thing I've done in a long time. Absolutely loved it.
The tools of the trade. First we drew a picture on a small piece of paper. Then we selected bits of glass and tile and then broke them down to our desired size and shape using the wooden block with the embedded ax point and the crazy hammer looking thingy. After that we used glue to paste the tiles to the pictures. Note: Nadia did not speak English and we don't speak Italian so we might be a little unclear on the correct terminology.
Oona set the tiles. Then we mixed cement and filled a a 4'x4" square, placed the tiles inside the cement and then gently pulled off the paper.
Isoo learns how to set tile in cement. So fun.
But our learning did not stop there! We also went to Gladiator School where we learned all about the battles of Ancient Rome.
Oh yes, there were costumes involved.
Lots of them.
Any many useful tips like "How to Stab Your Father When He is Wearing a Ridiculous Helmet"
And "How to Catch Your Father in a Fisherman's Net". Btw, I was under strict orders by the kids not to share these images so you don't know anything about them or else you will get stabbed by a three pronged pitchfork.
But don't worry. When it came time for the duels, we parents got our revenge,
Needless to say, we had a blast. Our teacher was fabulous. I think we all laughed incredibly hard that day.
And we have been eating exceedingly well....
Top: Gelato at Frigidarium. Best pizza ever at Pizzarium.
Middle: Aperitivos at the Eden Hotel. So much pasta.
Bottom: Our favorite resto, Pianostrada Laboratoriodicucina. Just another insanely charming little corner trattoria.
But mostly we just hung out in our neighborhood of Trastevere.
Lounging in our beautiful apartment.
Walking our winding streets.
Keeping the kids up past their bedtime to hang out in the Piazza Santa Maria.
Running by the Pont Sisto.
And dreaming of all the things we'll do when we come back!