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.

Screen Shot 2016-01-12 at 12.41.35

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

Advertisements

Boys’ Tour

It would be an understatement to say Mrs J was not overly amused when I informed her that, while she was returning to Blighty for two weeks, the Boys and I were heading to Borneo. The flight confirmation had barely arrived in my inbox before they’d dutifully learned the basic rule of all boys’ tours; what happens on them, stays on them. This did little to placate Mrs J, of course.

Fast forward three or four weeks. Time to say our goodbyes to Sam at Kuala Lumpur airport and, perhaps more importantly, time to outline some further ground rules about boys’ tours. Namely disregard for conventional house rules about fizzy drinks and chocolate, brushing teeth religiously, limited TV and not playing rough and tumble at bedtime! And so, with their bottles of fizzy pop and duty free Hot Wheels, we flew to Borneo in search of its unique wildlife and the adventure of a lifetime.

 

There were many highlights and moments that I’ll cherish and no doubt share again with the boys in years to come. But there are two things in particular that I think defined my experience of our short time together without Sam.

The first was seeing the amazing wildlife with George. Or, more accurately, watching George see all the wildlife. After all, this was always going to be more George’s bailiwick than Tom’s. Anyway, we’re scarcely a week in to our tour and we’ve already seen Orangutang in Semenggoh Nature Reserve and visited the Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre that, as the name suggests, looks after all manner of animals including hundreds (perhaps an over estimate) of crocodiles. We’d also seen sea otters, monitor lizards, Bornean bearded pigs and mud skippers. So far, so good.

Yet it was one animal sighting in particular that stands out more than any other for me. We were being led on a night walking safari in Bako National Park. It was sweltering hot, humid and pitch black, save for the lights on our head torches. There was the constant ringing in our ears of crickets and cicadas, frogs and the occasional owl. Suddenly, George jumped off the boardwalk into dense woodland having just spotted a large scorpion glowing under the beam of his UV torch. Aside from seeing a real live dinosaur, which even my 5 year old knows isn’t going to happen, I cannot imagine seeing him more excited! I, on the other hand, nearly had heart failure and so too our guide, who jumped into the bush after him! Tomas, meanwhile, missed most of the excitement of that evening, including sightings of a tarantula, Pit Vipers, more scorpions, poisonous tree frogs, giant ants and millipedes, because he fell asleep on my back. George on the other hand could not stop smiling for days and promised to tell Steve Backshall (his hero) all about it when he gets home.

It’s also worth mentioning at this juncture that by the end of our first week on tour it had become apparent that to some the appearance of a single man with two children was a curiosity not to be missed. And so it was that on numerous occasions I was asked to explain, firstly, the whereabouts of “their Mother” and, secondly, my relation to the Boys! I obliged, naturally, and explained that “their Mother” (who by happy coincidence happens to be my Wife) had returned home for a family wedding and that our family unit would be soon be reunited in Singapore. But it nevertheless struck me as a peculiar thing to ask a stranger. Especially given the lack of other preliminary pleasantries, such as “hi, where are you from?”, which was often the case.

Now for second most memorable moment of my time with the boys. Put simply it was our playtime, of which there was lots. The most popular game we invented was named ‘Animal Theatre’ and entailed the Boys hiding behind a curtain whilst I did a “Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls….” type introduction, before they’d emerge from their hiding place and proceed to the other side of the bedroom whilst mimicking their chosen animal. I’d have to guess which animal they were. You get the idea, I hope. Tomas was in his element, throwing his heart and soul into his performances – a sign of things to come perhaps? George similarly got stuck in, although there’s only so many times I can see a T-Rex impression in the confined space of a hostel bedroom. If Animal Theatre was the main act of an evening, some rough and tumble was the encore. With Tomas and me pitted against George in a Sumo style wrestling match. Happily, our neighbours in adjacent rooms didn’t complain (or so I’m aware) and our matches were only curtailed by one of us either shouting our safe word, “bananas!”, or urgently needing to use the toilet before an accident ensued.

 

And so, dear reader, much of the detail of what happened on tour has stayed on tour. And rightly so. However, I hope you get the gist of what we got up to. We met some wonderful people on our trip; notably a family from Queensland and an expat family in Singapore. Plus we had a lovely time chilling out in Melaka (which is a bit like Camden, only warmer). We even managed to squeeze in Jurassic Park and Singapore Zoo and wash down a few pints of Guinness in a pub. Lastly, I successfully managed to hand our children back to ‘their Mother’ still in one piece!

 

Bangkok to Butterworth and beyond (aka Malaysia part I)

Our border crossing from Cambodia back to Thailand was thankfully uneventful and we were greeted back at our guesthouse in Bangkok like family. After nearly 10 months on the road discovering a new place every few days is getting tiring. It felt good to slot back into a place where we already knew the lay of land; where to find the supermarket, the cheapest place to get laundry done and other fun things like that. We had a fridge in our room and stocked it so we could avoid the joys of dining out for every meal for a couple of days.

We caught up with our friend Earth again and he took us out of town to Amphawa, a UNESCO site and (at the weekend) massive floating market. As it was a weekday evening we had the place to ourselves. We ate the most delicious Tom Yam Kraw and took a magical boat trip along the canal where we saw thousands of fireflies twinkling in the trees like so many fairy lights at Christmas. We had nearly decided to skip the boat as it was late and the boys were tired. We were very glad we didn’t.

 

We took the boys to the Children’s Discovery Museum, whilst under renovation it still gave us plenty of fun with a playground, water park and dinosaur digging area. The best bit was the library stocked with both Thai and English language books. We read and we read and we read. I didn’t think we’d ever get them to leave and there were tears when we did.

  

We survived the 24 hour train ride from Bangkok to Butterworth in Malaysia unscathed. The boys got stuck in to their new sticker books (no pun intended) and George and I made headway on Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Other than us the carriage was filled with a big group of young American Missionaries who made great companions as they were thrilled to entertain the boys.

 

A short ferry ride and we were in Penang. Our stay in Little India in Georgetown whisked us back to the beginning of our trip on the subcontinent. Delicious smells and Bangra beats filled the air as we feasted on yummy Indian food washed down with masala Chai. We explored Penang’s vibrant street art scene; took the train up to Penang Hill to admire views of the island; and had a fun day at the beach which ended abruptly as a tropical storm swept in. We met a British family who have been on the road for 2.5 years and spent a couple of happy days in their company. Their 11 year old son shares his birthday with George and they were definitely cut from the same cloth spending hours playing in the sea together.

 

For once a bus in Asia arrived way ahead of schedule and we were dropped at the jetty at Kuala Besut at 3.30am. Unfortunately the first ferry was not until 7am so we had a few hours to kill before we could head to the Perhentian Islands. It was worth the wait. The sun rose as the boat sped us across the sea and it is a memory I will cherish. Unlike the hunt for accommodation that welcomed us at Coral Bay. After traipsing up and down the beach we finally found a very basic hut where for two nights we got savaged by mosquitoes whilst listening to the loud music from the bar next door.

 

Our days on the island were wonderful and when we moved into a bigger better (more expensive) hut at the other end of the beach we very much on holiday mode; late starts, lazy breakfasts and days spent snorkelling and playing in the crystal clear water. We took a couple of boat trips to get to better snorkel points where we saw turtles, rays and (joy of joys) clown fish. Not for the first (or I daresay last) time I wished we had a waterproof camera. Not to add to the hundreds of snorkelling selfies taken by Malaysian tourists but to capture the look of joy on George’s face at finally Finding Nemo! We swam out to a platform off the beach in late afternoons and had fun jumping off. We rested our travel weary bones and were generally smug about being in paradise. We could have easily stayed another week but our budget was taking a battering and so we bid farewell to the islands and made our merry way to the jungle.

To be continued…

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!

Cambodia

Our first land border crossing of the trip brought us to Cambodia. On the Thai side Nick asked our ‘guide’ what time we would be leaving, which for reasons unknown caused massive offence. This resulted in us being shouted at and separated from our fellow passengers. It was baffling, even more so when one of them called Nick a F***ing Ladyboy. (first, I didn’t understand why this would be an insult and second, have you seen Nick?!)

The border crossing itself was pretty straightforward. I had to make a dash through the rain at one point carrying our 10kg back pack and Tomas on my shoulders. In Poipet, on the Cambodian side, we were told there would be a two hour wait for the bus to Siem Reap but they took pity on us being with children and we completed the journey on a bus full of contraband biscuits. That evening over a cold pint of Angkor beer we decided there must have been something fishy going on as we were the only ones from our bus that already had Cambodian visas.

 

We gave ourselves a day of playing round the pool to recover from the journey and then headed out to get a big tick on our bucket list; Ancient Angkor. Knowing that the kids would run out of steam pretty quickly we decided to limit our visit to the top three sites; Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm. We spent an enjoyable morning exploring the ruins; playing (can you guess?) hide and seek and pretending to be Lara Croft. Nick and I loved the majestic stone faces at Bayon but the highlight for the boys was the millipede they found at Ta Prohm.

 

That evening, after I’d donated blood at the nearby children’s hospital, we treated the boys to a visit to Bugs Cafe. Some mealtimes can last forever persuading the kids to eat unfamiliar food. Not so with our discovery platter where they wolfed down, tarantula doughnut, ant spring rolls, scorpion skewer and the cricket salad. Nick and I barely got a look in.

 

We enjoyed the ride out to the Cambodia Landmine Museum passing some of the lesser known Angkor sites along the way. T refused to go in, preferring to hang out with our tuktuk driver. G handled the visit very maturely; sitting quietly and listening to the audio guide. The museum was founded by Aki Ra, a child soldier under Khmer Rouge who went on to clear the land mines he’d helped install. The mock-up of a minefield shows the sheer number of ordnance that can be hidden in a small area and how hard they are to see. We learnt  more about the ongoing issue of landmines and stories of those affected. Children are often maimed picking up a mine thinking it is scrap metal that they can sell.

On the bus from Siem Reap to Phnom Pen I read First they Killed my Father. One woman’s account of the atrocities that saw a quarter of the population of Cambodia (over 2 million people) systematically killed. Loung Ung was just 5 years old when the Khmer Rouge took power. The narrative, written through child’s eyes, really brings home the horror of the time; forced labour, brutal killings and life as a child soldier. Travelling through the very countryside where the atrocities took place with my own 5 year old made her story incredibly vivid.

The following day we visited the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. This was one of the most moving experiences of my life. On first sight the area covers a peaceful wooded field. But as the audio guide leads you around you come to realise the horror that occurred there. Thousands of bodies of men, women and children were recovered from mass graves and there are still remains coming to the surface so that at times there are bones and cloth poking through the very path you walk on.

The audio guide ends at the memorial stupa displaying thousands of skulls. I was disturbed to see people taking photos, it felt really inappropriate. Even more so when I later discovered the images on Instagram. To me using a hashtag to share photos from the Killing Fields is not only disrespectful but also trivialises the genocide. However as education is key in reconciliation perhaps I am wrong and it is simply a way of sharing history with a younger generation.

Next we visited the Tuol Sleng Museum a former school used as a prison under Khmer Rouge. The museum is filled with haunting photographs of the prisoners taken on their arrival at the prison. Their eyes looking back at you give a human face to the numbers. It is a tough place to visit with photographs and instruments of torture on display. As with the Killing Fields we didn’t take the children. I was left feeling helpless, dispairing of the horror that humanity can inflict on itself. I was haunted by our days activities and didn’t sleep that night.

Phnom Pen itself is a flagship for a new Cambodia. Boutique hotels, fancy eateries and impressive architecture portray an image of extravagance vastly at odds with the scenes of poverty. One can’t help but wonder if the government has its priorities wrong when faced with so many children begging and sleeping on the street.

From the business of the capital we escaped to Kep. A sleepy seaside town, which was perfect for a few days RnR. We stayed in a bungalow and loved being serenaded by frogs, giant geckos and crickets whilst fireflies put on a show. The boys enjoyed the company of other children at the beach and we all enjoyed some fantastic seafood.

 

We spent a couple of days exploring the surrounding countryside on a scooter. We visited nearby Kampot by accident when we couldn’t find the road to a cave we wanted to see. We got there the next day with the help of our 7 year old tour guides. They cycled alongside the scooter to show us the way and escorted us around the site of this pre-Angkorian temple and cave. We learnt that villagers hid there from Khmer Rouge reminding us again how the regime affected every corner of the country.

This week we are volunteering at Khmer New Generation Organization (KNGO) School. Located in the village of Bospo near Battambang, the school is a grass roots project that offers English lessons to the children in the surrounding area. The permanent teachers use a fixed curriculum and welcome native English speaking volunteers to assist with pronunciation. Nick is struggling with the Americanized [sic] English but we’re having lots of fun. The students are smart, engaged and eager to learn. The eldest class is working on ‘the future’ and it is so inspiring to hear them talk about their aspirations.

 

Throughout our time in Cambodia I have found myself trying to guess people’s ages. Wondering  whether they lived through the dark years of Pol Pot’s regime and how they managed to recover. Not for the first time I feel incredibly privileged to have been born where I was and not into the famine and unrest that Khmer people my age have lived through. We have passed through many countries ravaged by war but here the impact is much more evident. Despite the horror of the recent past and the resultant poverty Cambodia is wonderfully friendly and welcoming. It is a truly beautiful country to visit and if the KNGO kids are anything to go by the future is bright.

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.

Our six month travelversary

About this time last year we made a decision that led us to where we are today. There’s no way we could have predicted on that bright and breezy day in Brighton that a year hence we’d be in South Korea but here we are exactly six months since we landed in Delhi and what a ride we’ve had! 

  

We are often asked whether it is difficult to travel with young children. Usually the question is posed by young travellers who don’t have kids. My stock answer is that life with children is life with children. We have the same issues on the road that we’d have at home: disagreements over screen time (George), drama over getting dressed (Tomas), refusal to get a haircut (both) and I still often impale my foot on lego when I go to the loo at 3am.

  

We’ve mediated sibling squabbles at the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China. Their clothes always need washing and they need to eat all the bloody time. But that’s life with children! Now they have six months travel under their belts the boys are seasoned travellers. They can sleep anywhere, greet the locals in their lingo and ‘Home’ is wherever we drop our backpacks. 

  

We have continued with our nightly ritual of sharing a highlight (or highlike as T calls them). As we approached the half way point  of our adventure we reflected on all we have done so far. Trying to nail down a highlight from each of us for the past six months was tricky but here they are:

  

Nick has really enjoyed having time together as a family and we both agree that trekking in the Himalayas was the high point of our journey so far. 

  

I have also loved making new friends, spending time with old ones and eating all the food!

  

For George it was the camel trek we did in Jaisalmer and eating scorpion in Beijing of course!

  

Tomas has enjoyed seeing rabbits in all the countries we’ve visited and the pony trek he did on his birthday in Nepal.

  

Together we have experienced more of the world (and each other) in six months than we’d have managed in 10 years of family holidays and for that we feel truly blessed. Here’s to the next six months there’s no knowing where they may lead!

  

 

 

Cruising the Yangzi River

After many planes, trains and various forms of automobile, we decided it was time to slow the pace down for a few days and book ourselves onto a cruise up China’s longest and most beautiful river, the Yangzi.

 

For the first time in a while, arguably since we left the Himalayas in December, this was to be a trip where the destination was irrelevant compared to the journey itself. 

 

Despite a jittery start involving a bus driver refusing to drive the bus, an occupational hazard some might suggest, we were eventually transported from Yichang to Maoping Port, home of the immense Three Gorges Dam, where we boarded our new home for the coming three nights. 

 

The word cruise may conjure up scenes of opulence, we were however on a bog standard Chinese tourist boat. Our “luxury” cabin, in estate agents’ parlance, was compact and bijoux, comprising of two single beds, a desk and a shower over a poorly plumbed toilet. But we soon settled down as the ship set sail westward up the vast river.

 

We were, unsurprisingly, the only Westerners on board and, for some of our fellow passengers at least, we were as much of an attraction as the Three Gorges themselves. I say we, but of course I mean the Boys who have been the subject  matter of more photos with strangers than we’ve managed to capture of them. I had hoped quietly that the novelty of their presence would wear off after day one. Alas their appeal proved timeless, to the point where our cohorts were still mega-pixelating their way into our cabin (uninvited, but still welcome) on the final evening. Some were still perplexed, if not bemused, at Tomas’s attire, or lack thereof. Yes, despite the cooler weather in China he still insists on being underdressed for every occasion. 

  

Apart from one young boy the average age of our fellow passenger was somewhere in the mid sixties. The men smoked, drank and played cards whilst the women sat around in small groups setting the world to rights. Everyone was friendly enough but our lack of Mandarin did exclude us somewhat from life onboard. 

 

As we sailed our merry way up the Yangzi, we enjoyed the scenery and the occasional opportunity to stretch our legs on shore visits. These being rarer than we’d anticipated as the itinerary we were sold was entirely different to that of the boat. I’d wax lyrical about the temples we visited if only the English translations about them had made any sense. Nevertheless Sam and I enjoyed the architecture whilst the boys were more interested in perusing the souvenir stalls.

 

Happily we did at least get to see the gorges. The most imposing of which were the Qutang Gorge and the Wu Gorge. So impressive is the former that the Chinese have even featured it on their ¥10 bill. A cheesy photo opportunity if ever there was one! 

  

Dining on the boat was a eclectic mix of the familiar: fruit, various Chinese dishes and the occasional peanut butter sandwich; to the less familiar (and slightly peculiar): sausage meat with sweetcorn and fish scented boiled eggs. The latter ended up being binned on the grounds that they were insanely disgusting.

 

On the final night, with the Boys sound asleep and Sam continuing her recent winning streak at Scrabble, we docked in our final port, Chongqing. A dazzling skyline by night, unfortunately dismal by day, when we finally disembarked. 

 

 

 

 

Hong Kong (or how to blow the budget)

Our flight from Calcutta was at 12.40am (aka ridiculous o’clock when travelling with children). And in keeping with the chaos of the city the journey to the airport was rather, well, chaotic. A tram had broken down in the middle of a crossroad causing major gridlock. Happily we had left plenty of time so enjoyed the drama without the worry of a missed flight.

 

Check in was also eventful. Our first experience of Air Asia’s dubious fine print and a hefty pay out for onward baggage transfer. Also the algorithm’s of the booking system are idiotic as 3 year old T was allocated a seat on his own. The journey itself was fine and we even managed to (finally) purchase a Lonely Planet for China.


Arrival in Hong Kong was like a dream. So clean, so efficient and so easy. We were certainly dazzled by the bright lights and after checking into our teeny room we made a bee-line for the familiarity of M&S food hall. 

Our guesthouse was in the backpacker destination of Chunking Mansions in Tsim Sha Tsui. An old tenement block packed with ‘budget’ lodgings. Accommodation in Hong Kong is notoriously expensive and you really don’t get much bang for your buck. Whereas a double room had always been ample for the four of us in India the double bed we were presented with was akin to a large single in a broom cupboard so we shelled out for a (not much) bigger ‘family’ room complete with shower over toilet. But it was comfortable and oh so clean.

 

After five months on the road most of our clothes were falling apart. We were due some serious retail therapy and that is something Hong Kong dishes out in (Gucci emblazoned) bucket loads. We wandered round the many shining shopping malls in open-mouthed wonderment. And we spent. New outfits. New lego. New shoes for the boys. We were the definition of shop ’til you drop. 

We managed to shake free of the consumer trance we were under and venture past the bright lights and shopping malls to see what else Hong Kong had on offer. We visited the Tian Tan Buddha (tallest seated bronze Buddha in the world) and Po Lin monastery at Ngong Ping on Lan Tau  Island. It was a steep climb up to the ‘big Buddha’ and sadly low cloud blocked the apparently stunning views but it was impressive nonetheless.


The weather was kinder to us when we rode the MTR out to the New Territories to follow the Peng Shan Heritage Trail. Where we had a glimpse of pre-colonial Hong Hong with fascinating ancestral halls and walled villages.


The kids enjoyed sampling Hong Kong’s many playgrounds and we enjoyed sitting back watching them play, safe in the knowledge there wouldn’t be a gaping rusty hole in the slide. They loved Disneyland and Ocean Park. I was less enamoured by the latter finding the layout hard to navigate but the aquarium was spectacular.


Temple street night market was a real highlight. We really enjoyed perusing all the wares on offer albeit whilst shielding the boys from some of the more adult stalls. There was a great atmosphere and the fresh seafood (straight from a bucket on the pavement) was delicious.


Hong Kong had us; hook, line and sinker. Our week there flew by in a blur of socialising and fine dining. We loved the ease of the metro and the fun of the Star Ferry. We ate some amazing pan Asian food. We rekindled friendships we’d made long ago and far away with people who now call Hong Kong home. And even had childcare for a night out on the town. 


It was a great place to recharge the batteries (and empty the wallet). And we consumed enough wine and cheese to fortify us through the next chapter of our adventure. Watch out China, the Johnsons are coming. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trains, planes and auto rickshaws

The plan was simple. Travel by bus from Wayanad in Northern Kerala to Kochi on the coast, changing in Calicut. But you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men.

IMG_9216

The first leg passed smoothly enough. We’d gotten an auto from our farm stay to the bus stand in Sultan Bathery and boarded the Kerala State Transport Corporation bus. The scenery was beautiful as we passed through plantations of rubber, coffee, banana and tea. And even the 9 hairpin bends coming downhill didn’t phase us (it was nothing compared to a certain bus journey in Nepal).

IMG_9207

We arrived in Calicut and, after having brought some provisions for the journey, sought the next bus. We were shepherded onboard by a conductor assuring us his was heading for Kochi.

We got comfortable (well as comfortable as we could squeezed into two seats) and settled in for the ride. I promptly fell asleep. Sometime later I woke to the sound of the boys bickering and my frazzled husband trying to mediate. Nick saw I was awake and casually mentioned that he didn’t think we were going the right way.

I dug out our now well-thumbed Lonely Planet and checked the map. We had indeed been going the wrong way. For two hours. We made our enquiries with the conductor who found our situation most amusing. Nick and I did not. Let’s just say we are not proud of our behaviour in the ensuing minutes as the bus stopped and we rather unceremoniously disembarked.

We found ourselves at the side of a dusty road in a small town somewhere. As we gathered ourselves (and apologised to the children for setting a bad example) we checked our belongings. Bugger. George’s backpack was still on the bus hurtling away from us at high speed.

Nick quickly persuaded a nearby motorcyclist to give chase. George and Tomas were upset about the loss of said backpack it’s contents being their books, toys and headphones. I tried to comfort them as I worked out where we were.

Meanwhile the motorbike was speeding down the road weaving in and out of traffic in hot pursuit of the bus. Nick didn’t hold much hope of catching up given the bus driver’s need for speed. Luckily the rider that Nick was clinging onto for dear life recognised our bus at a petrol station about 30km from where we had jumped off.

The boys were hot, bothered and fighting as I tried to work out how we were going to continue our journey. My stress levels were rising and just as I was beginning to fret about Nick’s whereabouts he returned, triumphant, with George’s backpack. What a hero! We tried to give the guy some money to show our appreciation but he was just happy to have helped.

IMG_9210

We made our way to the nearest train station, Mahe, which by happy coincidence was about 5 minutes away. There was a train in half an hour that would take us to Kochi. On the platform we chatted to Ansar, a book salesman from Calicut and he let the boys look at his wares whilst we waited. And I had a random conversation in French with a teacher from a nearby Alliance Française.

IMG_9218
We had naively thought getting the train would be straightforward. We anticipated it being busy and prepped the kids. However, when the train pulled into the station it was longer than everyone had expected and we were therefore stood in the wrong place. By the time we had rushed down the platform the train was pulling out and I had my second sense of humour breakdown of the day. We said goodbye to Ansar who had also failed to get on the train and headed back to the bus stop.

We fought our way onto a packed bus and headed back to Calicut. Where we blew the budget by checking into a nice hotel and chalked the eventful day up to experience as we went in search of a much needed beer.