The Last Stop.

It had long since been decided that New York should be the last stop of our year-long adventure. For Nick we had to literally circumnavigate the globe in order to say we had been around the world. It wasn’t the easiest or indeed cheapest way back to the UK from New Zealand but the little matter of a 36 hour aeroplane journey wasn’t going to stop the Johnsons.

New York, New York. The Big Apple. So good they named it twice. Concrete jungle where dreams are made. New York’s reputation certainly precedes her and my expectations were huge. We got a taxi from the airport, yellow, naturally, and made our way towards Manhattan through the rush hour traffic. The oh so familiar skyline silhouetted against a fabulous sunset. I was buzzing with excitement. But after our epic flight and crossing the international date line our exploration of New York would have to wait.

The next morning we woke up in the city that never sleeps. We’ll have to take their word for it though as we all enjoyed a solid 12 hours kip. We consumed our first cliché of the day by breakfasting on bagels and coffee before heading out to see the sights. Our hotel was just off Fifth Avenue and our aim was to make the obligatory pilgrimage to the American Museum of Natural History to check out the dinosaurs. New York had other ideas.

Although this was my first time there, as the back drop to thousands of movies and TV series, New York was immediately familiar. I walked along her Avenues in awe, making frequent stops to ogle her architecture, with a pervasive sense of deja vu and a suitable soundtrack running through my head. New York is such a ubiquitous part of popular culture that I spent the duration of our stay feeling like I was in a movie.

We eventually made it to Central Park and sat on a bench eating a hot dog we’d bought from a vendor with a striped umbrella. I had to pinch myself with the surrealness of it. We soaked up the atmosphere, watched street performers and fell in love with the vibrant fall colours while the boys clamboured on the famed rocks. We were so waylaid that the afternoon had run away and our trip to the museum would have to wait. Much to George’s chagrin. That evening we ate pizza at a quaint little Italian restaurant in Greenwich village with checked table cloths and a brash waitress. And I pinched myself again.

The next day was Halloween and after a morning with the dinosaurs we went in search of some costumes. We were invited to Trick or Treat with a New York family we’d met in Japan and needed to get into the spirit of things. Macy’s. Bloomingdales. JC Penny. Nothing. We ended up with two very happy boys Star Wars-ed up to the nines thanks to the Disney Store. And a couple of zombie parents thanks to some fake blood and make-up at our friends’ house. The enthusiasm with which Brooklyn celebrated Halloween was infectious. Everyone in costume, decorated houses, a suitably spooky spectacle put on a stage outside someone’s house. Even the local dentist was giving out candy (well, thats one way to drum up business). Later we took the subway home along with a human Watermelon, a Goat-man and all of the Ghostbusters. That evening will remain one of the highlights of our entire trip.

Over the next couple of days we whistled through our Big Apple hit list. We took a walk over Brooklyn Bridge and rode the Subway back again. We thought about taking a helicopter ride to see the Statue of Liberty for about 30 seconds before the fear of the credit card bill got the better of us and we opted to take the (free) Statten Island Ferry instead. We walked through Battery Park and had a go on the Sea Glass Carousel. We stood in quiet contemplation at the 9/11 Memorial and tried to convey what it meant to the children. We rode in a horse-drawn carriage around Central Park. We saw a show on Broadway and Nick ate a mac n cheese burger that was bigger than his head. We strolled the high-line with a dear old friend who now calls New York home. We stood inside Grand Central Station and I was moved to tears.

On our last night in New York as I looked down on the dizzy heights of NYC from the Empire State Building I thought of everywhere we had been and all the things we had done. All the people we had met and all of the places we’d slept in the past year. 24 hours later we would be back in our house in Brighton but it felt good to know that as long as the four of us were together, anywhere in the world, we would always be home.

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New Zealand; we love you.

We have been back from our round the world jaunt for just over two months now, so it’s about time I filled you in on the last leg of our journey. It feels very strange to be writing about camper vanning in New Zealand from my dining table in Brighton but that’s a whole other post.

We got our first taste of the quirky Kiwi sense of humour on our Air New Zealand flight from Sydney. The safety briefing video was performed to ‘Men in Black’ by members of the All Blacks (the national rugby team); giving me and Nick a good laugh. We picked up our Jucy camper van rental at Christchurch airport and were ready to hit the road for intrepid adventure. Our first stop was my friend’s driveway just outside of Christchurch (ahem). Where we enjoyed her hospitality for a couple of days while we got to grips with the van, filled it with food and formulated a plan for our month in New Zealand.

 
Christchurch is still recovering from the devastating earthquake of 2011. The town centre was flattened and our walk around was extremely sobering, not least when we visited a poignant memorial near the temporary cathedral. An installation of 185 chairs, each painted white and donated by a family that lost someone in the earthquake, the baby car seat in particular brought a lump to my throat. We also perused the pop-up shipping container shopping precinct which is helping to fill the void and enjoyed a romp around the Botanical Gardens.

 

Our first true taste of life on the open road was through the gorgeous countryside of Banks Peninsular. Every bend in the road brought a new ‘wow’ from my lips and we had to pull over often to drink in the views. We moseyed around Akaroa, enjoying our first hokey pokey ice-cream and then went in search of our first campsite. We didn’t find it but a helpful local told us we could free-camp anyway. I played on the beach with the boys while Nick made dinner. I felt happy to my very bones.

The following days and weeks passed in an eat, drive, sleep, repeat cycle. We used a fab app to find our campsites, varying from free camping to holiday parks when we felt the need for wifi and a shower. It was great to be travelling under our own steam for the first time in nearly a year and we absolutely loved the freedom that having the van gave us.

We covered many miles on the South Island, ticking off some of New Zealand’s finest tourist attractions. We pondered the improbable geology of Muraki  and Punakaki. We hid from wild

weather at Mount Cook, then were awed by the views when the storm cleared in the morning and we were able to hike. Dunedin kept us all happy with a chocolate factory for the kids and a brewery for the adults. Nick and I were bowled over by the beauty and scale of Milford Sound where the boys were more interested in what was in the cruise’s packed lunch.

New Zealand’s wildlife did not disappoint. We had amazing experiences seeing albatross, seals and penguins. Driving one day we saw an eagle soaring away with a rabbit in its claws, but the highlight was our encounter with a majestic sperm whale. Our time on the South Island was running out so we did a silly long drive to get to Kaikoura. Nick woke early and called the whale watch place and was informed they had a boat going in ten mins but there were no guarantees for later trips as the weather was due to change. This therefore could be our only chance. We hot footed it over, getting the boys dressed when we arrived and took food to breakfast on the boat. The sea was very rough and I was glad the boys were seasoned travellers. As our fellow passengers sought seasickness bags, they tucked into peanut butter sarnies. It was all worth it for the 10 minutes we got to spend watching this amazing creature spout from it’s blowhole, fill it’s lungs and dive back below the choppy sea with a flick of its tail.

 
I would also like to mention that the Kiwis certainly know how to do playgrounds right in New Zealand. We wiled away many happy hours as the boys clambered, swung and slid on whales, dinosaurs and a steam punk elephant. All with beautiful backdrops of lakes, mountains or coast. There was even a play area on the inter-island ferry which kept the boys entertained for the entirety of the 3 hour crossing from South to North.

I would have enjoyed Wellington more, had in not been from the excruciating pain of an infected sandfly bite. Nevertheless, we visited the awesome Te Papa museum and the only Lord of the Rings-related attraction of our time in New Zealand. The Weta Cave is the studio of the special effects company behind the movies and location of Nick’s best ever selfie.

 

As we left Wellington we didn’t have much of a plan other than heading North. And after a brief stop to visit New Zealand’s museum of rugby we ended up at our favourite freedom camp of the duration. A gorgeous deserted spot by a stunning beach where we had heaps of fun building a den and splashing in the chilly sea. While we were there a school of fish flung themselves out of the water and onto shore. Nick and George went all hunter gatherer and had them for lunch.

 
Next stop was with some friends we’d made in Cambodia. Trevor and Kat happen to run a winery in Hawkes Bay and by happy co-incidence (OK, meticulous planning) they invited us to stay the weekend of my birthday. We had lots of fun, eating, drinking and being merry with them. It was really interesting to get the winery tour and taste the wine direct from the barrels to see how that differs from the finished product. They also took me to their local doctor’s so I could get some antibiotics. The doc had a chuckle with me about the irony of getting ill in New Zealand and not India.

 

We continued North stopping to enjoy the geothermal activity in Rotorua and then onto Coromandel. Where we ate “fush ‘n’ chups” on the beach like real Kiwis. We toured round the peninsular taking in the gorgeous coastline and empty beaches. Our next stop was with some friends of friends who live on their land in a yurt. I’d been following Lucy’s blog for some time and am incredibly inspired by what they are doing; unschooling and simple living. We had a lovely evening round the camp fire and the kids became thick as thieves. Actual thieves. The little monkeys managed to pinch a wedge of cash that nearly ended up in the river when they went for a swim.

Photo credit Lucy AitkenRead

The time had come to return the van. We tried at the last minute to extend the rental but as it was a bank holiday we were politely informed that we had no chance. Navigating round Auckland’s one-way system resulted in mine and Nick’s biggest ever row. Tempers were frayed as we had to return the tank full of petrol and somehow ended up back on the motorway heading out of town. It was the only time I wished we had hired a sat nav.

Our last week was spent with some lovely friends and their three boys who moved to Auckland from Brighton. I was apprehensive of how it would go with 5 boys, aged 6 and under all under one roof but they got on like a dream and we were very grateful of Aoife and Steve’s hospitality. Their place was a great base for exploring the city and on the weekend we all got out into the Waitakere area together. A creeping sense of dread came over me in the last couple of days. I had fallen head over heals for New Zealand and really, really didn’t want to leave.

 

We were lucky enough to spend time with lots of friends; old and new. Including the super siblings of a Brighton friend. And we treasure happy memories from those times. Be they frolicking in streams, bouncing on trampolines, having fun on a vineyard or sharing a meal around the dinner table. The people certainly helped make our time in New Zealand really special. We loved the wide open spaces. We ate kiwi fruit by the bucket load. Affected a Kiwi twang with our speech. And pondered a future in the Land of the Long White Cloud. If it weren’t so bloody far away.

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From New Zealand there was just one stop left… start spreading the news… New York blog coming soon.

Money, sex and diarrhoea: our 10 most frequently asked questions

We have met a lot of people during our year of travelling and had lots of conversations. There are some questions that seem to crop up over and over. Here are the 10 questions we are asked most frequently…

1  How can you afford to travel for a whole year?

People often assume that we must be loaded to take on a round the world trip. In truth we have spent less this year than we would have done at home. We were able to remortgage our house and rent it out to fund our adventure. We try to stick to a backpacker type budget and we have spent most of our time in countries with low living costs. We are heading home with a hefty credit card bill.

2  Isn’t it hard to travel with children?

I have said before that life on the road with kids is still life with kids. They get hungry, tired and they fight. But the actual travel part I think is easier with children than without. People go out of their way to help, they make room on the bus, let you jump queues and give you food. The children are great at breaking the ice and we have visited some really cool places that we wouldn’t have done without them in tow.

3  What about school?

This has been asked with every different tone of voice you could imagine. From mild curiosity to outright shock. Our boys are still young, nearly 4 and 5 and a half, there is plenty of time for school. They have learned far more this year than they possibly could in a classroom.

4  Don’t you get on each others nerves being together all the time?

Yes. Sometimes. We are human after all. But we have developed coping strategies like going for a walk, taking turns with the kids or just not talking to each other.

5  Has you sex life suffered?

Lots of people wonder about this but as my Mum is reading I’ll just say that as a co-sleeping family this is a familiar question. When you’re all sharing one bed that is the place for sleep and you find other places to have a bit of a kiss and cuddle. This is also true for travelling.

6  What has your favourite country been?

Up until a month ago my answer was India. We loved the vibrancy and chaos. How every day felt like an adventure. The people, the food and how each state was so different from the last. Now I would say New Zealand. You couldn’t get anywhere less like India.

7  Wow, you took your kids to India! Didn’t you get sick?

Everyone wants to hear about the shits. There were some but only for the odd half a day and never accompanied by anything more sinister. One of us wrecked a pair of trousers with a fart that wasn’t a fart but on the whole we’ve been pretty healthy. In fact the most ill we’ve been this year is in the last week where 3 out of 4 of us have ended up with infections from a hot spring.

8  Have there been times you thought you made a big mistake?

Of course! Nearly going up in smoke on a night bus in Vietnam led me to question what the hell we were doing. We had put ourselves in danger and I had many sleepless nights dwelling on the ‘what ifs?’

9  You must have a lot of luggage?

Nah. We’ve got 30kg all together. And that felt like way too much around South East Asia when we didn’t need our warm jackets and waterproofs!

10  Do the children enjoy travelling?

The children enjoy doing the things that children enjoy doing. They love beaches and swimming pools. They love making new friends, playing lego and hanging out in playgrounds. They love seeing wildlife and visiting museums. They are not so keen on temples.

Happy travelversary to us!

Today (well, two days ago but we haven’t been online) we have been travelling as a family for one whole year. It’s amazing that we haven’t killed each other, are still talking and, for the most part, are actually enjoying spending so much time together.

It hardly seems possible that six months have passed since our half year travelversary; the time has gone in the blink of an eye and yet we have done so much!

Here are our favourite moments from the past six months:

George: all the cool encounters with wildlife. Especially snakes and scorpions.

Tom: going to elephant Katherine’s place and seeing seals at Milford Sound.

Sam: snorkelling with George to find Nemo and sea turtles. Volunteering at the school in Cambodia. Our visit to Boon Lott Elephant Sanctuary. And pretty much all of New Zealand.

Nick: snorkelling in the Perhentian Islands, the school in Cambodia and the elephant sanctuary. The boys tour to Borneo!

Our two weeks at my sister’s house in Sydney did wonders. Family, familiar food, good wine and a heap of toys ticked a lot of our homesickness boxes and we felt buoyed for the last leg.

Now we’ve just a couple of weeks to go before we get home we are thinking more and more about what we are looking forward to:

George: going to the Natural History Museum in London, seeing friends and being reunited with his dinosaur collection!

Tom: playing with all my toys, having lots of baths and seeing my grandparents.

Sam: my friends, a cold Christmas and some time to myself!

Nick: friends and family, real ale and having a fixed abode.

The thrill is gone

Discovering new food was once my favourite thing about travel. I used to love arriving in a new country and becoming acquainted with local dishes. Eating out all the time and avoiding the hassle of cooking and clearing up may seem like living the dream. Not any more. My children have sucked the joy out of it.

Picture the scene:

It is breakfast/lunch/dinner time. The boys go from being fine to “I have to eat right now or I’m going to eat my own eyeballs” so we find a restaurant and settle down at a table.

We get drawing books and pencils out of the bag for the kids whilst we look at menu.

Tomas is unhappy with the seating arrangements. We swap seats.

I draw a horse.

I try to illicit a response from children about what they want to eat.

I ask them to stop using the chopsticks as light sabres.

I ask them not to get to play with the toothpicks.

Nick tries to illicit a response from children about what they want to eat.

We decide what to order in between requests to draw dinosaurs, chinchillas or whatever else pops into their imagination.

I ask them to stop using the chopsticks as light sabres.

Nick moves the serviettes before they pull them all out of the box.

I ask them to stop using the chopsticks as light sabres.

Collect up all the spilt tooth picks (why oh why do they put so many on the table?!) Waiter arrives.

George tries to order fish and chips.

We cancel the order for fish and chips. We order food. We change our order because our choice is unavailable (why oh why is it on the menu then?!)

We try to hold adult conversation (hahahahahahahahahaha).

I mediate an argument over pencils.

I draw another penguin.

Drinks arrive.

We talk about Star Wars.

We mop up spilt drink.

Nick asks the boys to stop using the chopsticks as light sabres.

The boys transform into rabid squirrels during the wait for the food to arrive.

  

 

Food arrives. It is not what we ordered. We send food back.

Food arrives again. We ask for plates (why oh why don’t they bring the plates before the food?!)

This usually goes one of two ways – the children dig in and stay quiet for 5 minutes whilst they devour said food. Or, more likely, they decide they don’t like the look of it and proceed to let their feelings be known. Loudly.

After I’ve eaten approximately 1 mouthful one of them will announce they need the loo.

After two mouthfuls the small one will climb onto my lap and ask for more drawings or to tell me a story or to eat my dinner or, or or… you get the picture.

Three times a day. Every day. Oh, how we’re looking forward to having our kitchen back!

Wheels on fire

Trip Advisor is full of people moaning about the sleeper buses in Vietnam. But when you’ve been thrown about on a broken seat in the Himalayas or taken the nightbus to Pokhara they are the height of luxury.

Our bus was late last night. Two others came and we watched people board with envy as the boys got more and more tired. When it finally arrived we piled on and bagged our place at the back where there are five seat/beds in a row. They were asleep before we had pulled out of Son Trach village and Nick and I settled down for the ride.

Sometime around 1am we were jolted awake by the bus pulling over. There was lots of Vietnamese shouting and frantic activity. Suddenly we could see a fire next to the bus with acrid smoke billowing out. I thought at first the bus had hit something. Some of our fellow passengers piled off the bus and the news filtered back that a motorbike that had been stored in the hold had caught fire.

The boys were still asleep so I stayed with them whilst Nick went to see what was happening. He reported that our backpacks were covered in soot but unscathed. Others hadn’t been as lucky with all their belongings up in smoke.

Another bus from the same company had stopped in front of ours and everyone was told to get off our bus. The staff weren’t communicating but we grabbed our chance and got on the other bus. 2 minutes later it set off. Leaving everyone else at the side of the road. It felt like getting on a lifeboat. We were relieved not to be stranded with two exhausted children. I’d love to know what happened to everyone else.

Our saviour bus had some engine trouble and limped through the night to Hanoi without AC but we were just happy to be alive. The full horror of what may have happened to us without the quick actions of the bus staff do not bare thinking about.

Friends, fresh air and food in South Korea

Our time in South Korea could be summed up with three Fs: Friends, fresh air and food. Or, come to think of it, three Ms: mates, mountains and meals. Or maybe three C’s; chums, countryside and cuisine… Ahem. You get the idea.

The spring sunshine and blossom in Seoul was a delightful backdrop to our explorations of this vibrant city. We enjoyed the changing the guard ceremony at Gyeongbokgung palace.

Wandering along Cheong-gye-cheon, a stream that runs through the centre of the city. Riding the cable car up to Namsan Peak for love locks and city views. Visiting Insa-dong’s quirky shopping district. Seeing the beautiful blossom at Yeoido spring flower festival. And dancing on Gangnam Street’s  eponymous stage. For the children there were numerous museums and parks. But the real highlight was catching up with friends that we’d made whilst trekking in Nepal. Yuni and Jo were wonderful local guides and it was great to have their insight into Korean culture.

From Seoul we spent two nights in Busan but the wind and heavy rain meant it was hard to explore. We ended up succumbing to pester power and shelled out to visit the Busan Sealife centre. The boys enjoyed it but I cant help but think they got just as much enjoyment looking at the tanks of fish, eels and octopi in the seafood market.

Jeju Island was the destination for the second part of our trip. We arrived at our accommodation in Seogwipo by chance with the aid of a helpful coffeeshop manager. We had snuck in to use the wi-fi and having struck up a conversation he phoned his friend who worked in a hostel round the corner. Kenny the owner of Slow Citi hostel did us a great deal and we got a free night on the understanding that our boys would play with his son. Now thats a win:win. The sign on the reception wall reading ‘Don’t be inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise’ was rather apt.

Jeju is a volcanic island to the South of the mainland. It is a big holiday destination for the Koreans. This is probably why there is a museum/theme park for everything. From sex to dinosaurs; teddy bears to chocolate. Happily we managed to avoid these and spent our time enjoying the fresh air whilst exploring Jeju’s stunning coastline. It was sunny but the sea was pretty chilly, that didn’t deter the boys from taking a dip at Jungmung & Hyeopjae’s beautiful beaches.

The football fans amongst you may recognise Jeju as one of the venues from the 2002 World Cup. Many of the islanders we met claimed to have met David Beckham et al and would let us know at the earliest opportunity in our conversation.

We used Jeju’s extensive bus service to get around and at a bus stop one day we met some Neuro surgeons who were on Jeju for a conference. They couldn’t figure out which bus to get and ended up hailing a taxi. It was a little complicated but certainly not brain surgery.

We spent a day climbing Mount Hallasan. The route up was not particularly scenic but the views across the island from the top made it worth it. Hiking is somewhat of a national past time in Korea. There are an abundance of outdoor clothing stores and people get kitted up in technical clothing for the shortest stroll. Even in Seoul we saw older people on the metro decked out in vibrant rain coats (we dubbed them the ‘Goretex grannies’). We must have looked woefully underprepared. As we learnt in Nepal, Koreans take a good supply of treats with them on a hike and the boys were kept happy by a steady stream of sweets and chocolate.

I couldn’t write about our time in Jeju without mentioning the incredible Haenyeo. These female free divers collect sea products by diving to depths of up to 20m. It is somewhat of a dying art as young women no longer want to take up the profession. Many of the remaining Haenyeo are in their sixties still diving to collect sea slug, sea weed and other such delicacies.

Which brings me round to the last F; food. Korean food is delicious and with the help of Yuni and Jo we managed to navigate some dishes that we may not have known about (or dared try) otherwise. Culinary highlights include: Naengmyeon (buckwheat noodles in cold broth), Hotteok (pancakey thing with a sweet gooey middle), Pakeon (green onion pancake) Bindaettok (mungbean pancake), Jokbal (pig trotters), Modeumhoe (mixed raw fish/seafood platter – I’ll pass on the sea slug next time) and of course the famous Korean barbecue.

It had not been high on my list of countries to visit on our round the world trip. In fact I didn’t know much about South Korean apart from kimchi, Gangnam Style and the troublesome neighbours in the North. But I soon fell in love with the warm people, beautiful scenery and delicious cuisine. The one downside was that we only spent two weeks there. Annyeoghi gyeseyo Korea. I hope we meet again.