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.

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Goodbye India

Our last month in India took us on a whistle stop tour of Tamil Nadu and to ultimate relaxation in the Andaman Islands.

 Our final hours in Kerala were spent in between trains in Trivandrum and rather than carry our packs about in the heat we retreated to the cool of a cinema. The film was not really suitable for the boys (Tomas remarked that he “wouldn’t let his Nana watch it!”) and we couldn’t follow the whole plot not understanding the Tamil dialogue but it was a great experience to be caught up in the enthusiasm of the audience who cheered each time, the star, Ajith Kumar appeared on screen.

 Our next stop was Kanyakumari, the Southern tip of India. Whilst geographically satisfying to stand at this point there was little else to recommend it. Unless you like your hotel rooms decorated in the style of early ’90s teenage boy; black, grey and red colour scheme complete with Spider-Man ceiling fans.

We took a straightforward night bus to Kodaikanal in the Western Ghats where we revelled long walks in the cool mountain air and enjoyed the many playgrounds and town’s quirky tourist attractions. As well as the local street food specialities of roasted corn and bread omlettes.

Next stop Madurai. Home to the huge and fascinating Meenakshi temple and tastiest curry we’d had in a long time.

We spent a happy few days pottering around Pondicherry. From our fantastic guesthouse in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram we strolled along the seafront, explored the different markets and learnt about the beautiful Kollom that decorate the pavements here. Not to mention stuffing ourselves on the French delicacies this ex-colonial town has to offer.

 Chennai was pretty forgettable save for the fantastic food we found in a canteen near our dingy hotel. It was so good Nick had two breakfasts.

 An early morning flight took us to the Andaman Islands. Where we downed devices and savoured the lack of wifi. We chilled on the gorgeous beaches of Havelock and made our own fun with washed up paraphernalia. We walked through rich jungle and I got the pure pleasure of taking George snorkelling above a coral reef for the first time.

Next we shifted down another gear and cycled our way round idyllic Neil Island. G and T got up to mischief with the two resident boys whilst Nick and I enjoyed the company of other adults. Our highlight was a boat trip to a nearby island to snorkel and fish (and in G’s case jump off the prow of the boat into the deep water).

 For our wildlife fanatic’s fifth birthday we went hunting for snakes at Wandor on South Andaman. Much to his delight (and our relief) we found a particularly venomous one with the help of a serendipitous meeting with a reptile expert from Madrid Zoo. Our accommodation at Wandor was superb; peaceful and serene.

 Calcutta came as a bit of a shock. Full throttle, high volume India. The most unhelpful people we had encountered and the most frustrating bureaucracy. Plus I got a night time visit from a small rodent.

 Despite all this we really enjoyed our time there. The boys got to ‘play Holi’ with neighbourhood children. We soaked up the atmosphere across the city as we walked around the flower market and ghats. The boys particularly enjoyed Khalif Street pet market with its multitude of birds and fish.

We visited the marble palace, Victoria Memorial and Kalighat Temple. We marvelled at the Calctta traffic Police’s white uniform and had a great evening catching up with friends we had made earlier in the trip.

 So there we have it. The final leg of our Indian adventure. We got round a lot of the country in our 131 days. We slept in 22 hotels, 9 guesthouses, 3 night buses, 3 homestays, 2 beach huts, 1 sleeper train, 1 ashram and a desert.

 We learnt a little bit of Hindi and made a lot of friends. We got through several pairs of shoes and several more pairs of sunglasses. The boys had their cheeks pinched approximately 900 times. We ate a lot of curry. And we fell in love with India. Watch this space I’m sure we’ll be back.

On being Intrepid

For me being intrepid meant being active, adventurous, outdoors and seeking the next thrill. Indeed, one of the main reasons for leaving the nine-to-five (more like seven-to-eight) was to take my family on an adventure around the world and broaden their, and my horizons. We wanted to leave the fish bowl and explore what’s outside. And, as is clear from our previous blog posts, we’ve clocked up many miles (and spent many pounds) actively being intrepid.

So, I must confess, sitting still on a beach in Goa and just being present in the moment was not really on my agenda. Sitting still does not come naturally to me, as some of you know.

Having been here for a few weeks, however, I’ve realised that being intrepid doesn’t always have to be huge, tiring strides up mountains or hours spent on expeditions. My two sons have shown me repeatedly that being intrepid can be as simple as learning to jump off rocks into the sea and swim back to shore again. Or taking off your armbands for the first time and wading into the sea alone and free.

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Or having the confidence to walk up to other children on the beach and then build such a bond that we enjoy their company for a few fun-filled precious days. They flourish and continue to stretch themselves in ways that I hadn’t anticipated before we arrived in Goa – and stood still – and it’s been beautiful to watch.

But as I watched my sons being themselves, being intrepid, I realised that something still wasn’t right. What was wrong, I wondered. Then, within a few days of our arrival, it struck me. It was Christmas Day, the sun was setting and I was watching my boys mess around in the waves. That was it; I was only watching them and not being and playing with them. It’s very difficult to admit, but sometimes being a dad is bloody hard and I don’t know what to do for the best. “Leave them be, they’re playing well on their own”, although sometimes that’s perfectly true and appropriate, it can easily become a default setting, a comfortable place with limited risk but filled with missed opportunities. There was only one thing for it. I dived in, joined the boys and I enjoyed the best Christmas Day of my life. The sunset wasn’t bad either!

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So as the boys are relishing being intrepid still, I’m enjoying learning from them and just being still. As one of my best friends said recently before we left; somethings are just more important than others. So perhaps putting less emphasis on being intrepid and more on being with the Johnsons is more important.

Happy New Year!

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North India

The final leg of our adventures in India was, for me, the most enjoyable. Whilst Rajasthan, with its well documented Golden Triangle route, was a feast for the senses (not necessarily a good thing, at times) we headed North, to the mountains, for the cleaner air, fewer crowds and Tibetan food.

This part of the trip had us awestruck at not just one, but two, spiritual homes; watch a grown man mummify himself in toilet paper before setting himself alight; gatecrash lunchtime at a school; take a night bus with a blow-up T-Rex; enjoy a full(ish) English breakfast in Kipling’s favourite resort, Shimla; and take a toy train (literally) to a rock garden (literally, also).

The first of the spiritual encounters came in Amritsar, the Punjabi capital and, more specifically, home of Sikhism’s holiest shrine, the Golden Temple.

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With heads covered and secured by knots (as well as with bribes of chocolate for keeping said heads covered throughout our visit) we respectfully bathed our feet and entered one of India’s most serene and humbling sights. Despite the many hundreds making pilgrimages, there were times you could almost hear a pin drop. We walked barefoot on the white marble walkway around the Amrit Sarovar (Pool of Nectar), from which Amritsar takes its name. The boys enjoying carp spotting en route.

The Golden Temple itself, floating at the end of a long causeway, adorned with flowers and animal motifs was a true highlight of our trip thus far. The whole complex had an air of spirituality and even the boys were calm.

Our second spiritual encounter came some days later with our chance meeting with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama at Tsuglagkhang Complex, McLeod Ganj.

The more organised and prepared visitors – worshippers and tourists alike – had in advance researched HH dates in residence, arranged their security passes, made adequate arrangements for sitting on the cold, polished concrete floor for many hours and tuned in to FM92 for live translations of HH’s public teachings. This teaching was a three-day event hosted at the request of Korean Buddhists, who are otherwise unable for various reasons to see their spiritual leader in their home country.

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For us, however, it was an absolute fluke. Being, to put it simply, in the right place at the right time. Suffice to say, both Sam and I were highly excited at the prospect of hearing him teach and, ultimately, were not disappointed.

McLeod Ganj, provided three further treats during our short stay there. One evening we decided to see what was billed as a ‘cultural event, of dance and music’. In fairness, it was all three of those things; and more. His stage name was Lionman (derived, one might imagine, from his long mane) and when he wasn’t throwing himself bare-chested at the walls, electrocuting himself and jumping out of the windows, he was crawling all over the bemused crowd and, as mentioned above, demonstrating the flammable properties of tissue paper. Please don’t try this at home, kids!

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The next day, we thought it would be good for the children to see, well, other children. It was respite for us also. So we made a few subtle enquiries and were told of a local infants school, which coincidently was Lionman’s chosen venue the previous night.

Happily however the charred remains of Lionman’s hair and the tissue paper had been removed and, alas, little people were sitting on the floor enjoying noodles for lunch in the sunshine. We were then invited, by a teacher, to join them and for the proceeding two hours or more we played with the children and shared ‘Children’s Day’ with them – a day where the teachers did very little, whilst students were allowed a free rein to play! It was a win-win!

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Lastly, we headed to Bhagsunag Waterfall. A short trek, not surprisingly, upwards from our guest house and a welcome change from the thoroughfare of McLeod Ganj. We all enjoyed a cold paddle in the falls, whilst the Indian tourists looked on in horror as two fair skinned Brightonian boys stripped off to their pants and made the most of the cooling water.

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Our next destination was the hill town, Shimla, former capital of the British Raj during the hot summer months, now capital city of Eastern Himachal Pradesh and a seven-hour night bus ride south from Dharamsala.

Our journey was made all the less enjoyable by the addition of a blow-up T-Rex, which a fellow passenger (with the best will in the world) had kindly given to Tomas as a ‘cuddlie’ for the night. He eventually tired of it, as well as the days events, and fell asleep. The next morning, after a brief nap in our hotel, we enjoyed a stroll along the Mall, a horse ride for the boys, and a hearty English breakfast near Scandal Point (we never did find out what precisely was the scandal from which the place derived its name?).

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We had intended staying in Shimla for two days. Somewhere along the way however we miscalculated our time available – specifically we had managed to lose a day. Accordingly, we hotfooted it the next morning to the station to board a Toy train to Kalka, with a connection to Chandigarh. The train was, as the name suggests, a jolly experience with a scenic, winding decent from the mountains, passing 103 tunnels On the way (the boys lost count, or rather got bored counting them, after 7).

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The next day, we visited Chandigarh’s Nek Chand Rock Garden. A surreal sculpture garden, which is like something from Alice in Wonderland. A weird and wonderful place created by Nek Chang out of concrete and recycled junk, including broken bathroom sinks and bicycle frames! It was superb.

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In the afternoon, we boarded a dragon-shaped pedaloe and floated for an hour on another of Nek Chang’s creations, Suhna Lake. In short, we had a wonderful day in Chandigarh, playing in the garden and lake and thanks Steve Barnes for the recommendation! We loved it.

Lastly, it was back to the mayhem of Delhi to catch our flight to Nepal.

In sum, through luck rather than design, we saved the best of India until last and left the subcontinent (albeit, temporarily) on a high note.