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.

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From rainforest to concrete jungle (aka Malaysia part II)

The road to Taman Negara was long and winding. George and I cosied up to read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, interrupted occasionally by Nick’s shushing as I got louder in the exciting parts. Outside the window were scenes of destruction. Vast areas of rainforest decimated for palm oil production and lorries carrying huge logs passed us on the road. Malaysia has the highest rate of deforestation in the World. 14.4% of its rainforest cover has gone since 2000, thats an area larger than Denmark. We all know the theory of deforestation but seeing it for ourselves was truly upsetting.

We found a comfortable hut in Kuala Tahan across the river from the park entrance. It had two sets of bunkbeds which turned out to be 50% more beds than we needed as the kids still wanted to sleep with us. After a good night’s sleep (no, really) and a delicious roti breakfast we stocked up on drinking water and headed to the jungle.

 

Nick’s insistence on singing a certain Guns and Roses song anytime someone said jungle got old quickly as we walked along a boardwalk through the rainforest. We noticed interesting leaves and insects as we pootled along at Tom’s pace. That is until we met some people walking in the opposite direction who informed us that the canopy walkway closed at midday. It was 11.40am and we had a mile to go. We chucked Tom in the sling and legged it, getting there just in time. Our lack of planning worked in our favour as we had it to ourselves and got to enjoy being up in the treetops without anyone else around.

We had planned a circular trail that would take in Bukit Teresik look out point. However, the heat and humidity along with George’s complaints got the better of us and we followed the trail downhill instead of up. We marvelled at the huge trees and tried to guess how long they took to grow, parts of the forest here date back 130 million years. I felt humbled and saddened again at the rate of receding rainforest. The trail lead us to Lubok Simpon where we stripped to our underwear and took a cooling swim in the river. We had confirmed our suspicions that a multi-day trek sleeping in the jungle would be too much for us.

 

We made the most of having good wifi and booked our accommodation for the coming weeks. Whilst we were otherwise engaged the boys made friends. They went on a scooter ride round the village and learnt about some indigenous crafts.

 

As we wandered down to the jetty, that evening for our night walk in the jungle, a man tried to scare Tom with his deformed hands. He was accustomed to children running away in fear but his party trick didn’t work on Tom. He held the man’s hands, looked at them intently and asked what had happened. The man was shocked by Tom’s reaction but it made sense to me. During our travels we have seen many people with missing limbs and deformities so the boys have learned that there is no reason to be scared because a person looks different.

The night walk was far from intrepid. We joined the throng of tourists and were separated into groups. In conveyor belt fashion we followed a trail just inside the jungle, where at various points our guide would point out insects and give a commentary. Our guide didn’t teach us anything we didn’t know already, thanks to our very interested-in-nature 5 year old, was unable to identify a spider I found on a tree and he didn’t even have a UV torch (everyone knows you need one of those for scorpion hunting – right?!).  But we did see a snake and a scorpion so it was a good creature count for George and that is good enough for me.

The driver was going way too fast on the bumpy road on the way to Cameron Highlands. Tomas announced he felt sick and whilst we were busy focusing on him George puked. Happily, with 4 hours to go, it just smelt of the chocolate roti he had eaten for breakfast. We got the minivan to stop did a quick clothes change and got back on the road, having asked the driver to slow down. We have gotten off lightly, this was our first incidence of travel sickness in 10 months. The boys have coped with the crazy driving in India, Nepal and Vietnam so it goes to show how fast this guy was going.

As we were stopped to change a tyre the driver shouted that we would need to sit on the puked on seat as another passenger was getting on. We said fine but asked for something to cover the wet patch. During the exchange the driver was using a very loud voice which did not sit well with Nick. He asked the driver to stop shouting. The driver didn’t seem to understand. To which Nick shouted “THIS IS SHOUTING” needless to say this did not go down well and I hastily tried to placate the driver whilst inwardly cursing Nick’s unique brand of how to make friends and influence people.

 

We spent a very relaxed few days in Brinchang in the Cameron Highlands. The area is renowned for tea, vegetables and hiking trails. Sadly George had a bad blister so that ruled out the hiking. Instead we drank tea and ate vegetables. We visited a tea estate and celebrated Nick’s birthday with a delicious afternoon tea. Nick and I took advantage of the cooler climate to stretch our legs with a run round a nearby golf course. And the children enjoyed having a TV in our room, especially because the only channel it picked up showed back to back Pixar movies.

And so to Kuala Lumpur. City of skyscrapers, mega malls and amazing street food. This is our third time here on this trip albeit the first time we have seen the outside of the airport. We’ll be seeing the sites in between plenty of rest before Nick heads to Borneo with the boys whilst I pop back to England briefly for a family wedding. George and Tomas now have their very own UV torch to hunt for scorpions in the jungles of Borneo. What could possible go wrong?

 

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…

Keralaaaaaa

A three hour bus ride took us from Mysore to Sultan Batheri in the Wayanad district of Kerala. The journey passed very pleasantly marred only by a slight concern that a fellow passenger’s luggage may escape it’s precarious position and land on my head.

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We found a great restaurant and enjoyed a beautifully spiced biryani and set meal. Fully fortified we squeezed into an auto and headed to Spice Garden Farmhouse where we would hang our hats for the next few days.

The farm is set on 15 acres of coffee, rubber and spice plantation, with a stream, swing, tree house and rabbits. It was a really beautiful place to while away the hours. The boys loved having company in the form of Santosh’s daughters and nieces. During our visit we got to pick coffee beans and learnt how to make rubber sheets.

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We arrived on a Sunday followed by a Public holiday and a state-wide strike. Whilst this meant we didn’t get to visit the nearby wildlife reserve it did afford us with plenty of time with Santosh and his wonderful family who were hosting us. Not to mention all the delicious South Indian food we devoured!

Our next destination was Fort Cochin (read about the fun we had getting there here). We enjoyed having a go on the Chinese fishing nets, seeing a crab sculpture made from waste plastic and wandering through the back alleys admiring Indian antiques and the beautiful architecture. Other than that it was hot, expensive and full of mosquitos. We were quick to move on.

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A chance conversation lead us to Mararikulum. A beautiful and wild stretch of beach on the Keralan coast near to Alleppy. Think postcard perfect; white sand, palm trees and few people.

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We turned up and schlepped down the beach with our backpacks looking for a place to stay. Happily we found a great guest house with a lovely garden, hammocks and lots of friends for the boys to play with. One of whom invited us to visit her school, which is memorable not least for Nick’s basketball demonstration during break time.

Our next stop was another homestay. This time in the backwaters of Kerala.

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I was really looking forward to this part of the trip and it more than exceeded expectations. We were taken on an afternoon tour by canoe through the waterways around Munroe Island and Ashtamundi lake. It was very peaceful and we enjoyed close encounters with many bird species and a beautiful sunset.

The following day our host Vijeesh took us out on a walk round the village. He is very funny and was great at engaging the boys. He told us about many of the plants including a hydrophobic leaf that has been used to model technical waterproofs, an exploding seed pod and he showed us what happens when you slap a fern leaf against your skin.

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(we haven’t been able to it ourselves so will need to find out the trick!)

We also popped into the village kindergarten where we experienced an uncomfortable silence until Nick burst into song, which at least made me laugh, if none of the children.

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We also visited the ladies working hard sorting nuts in the cashew production factory, and some others spinning cotton. The boys cooled off with a dip in the river.

Kerala is a beautiful state; the spice covered hills, the golden sands and the palm fringed back waters. The pace of life seems slower than elsewhere in India, and the food is some of the best we’ve had. It is with happy hearts and happy tummies that we head into Tamil Nadu.

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We saw Mysore

‘If you haven’t been to Mysore, you haven’t seen South India’, so says the Lonely Planet. If rather conceited, it is certainly no overstatement. With its glittering royal palace, bustling bazaars and relatively relaxed pace of life, Mysore was indeed well worth the twelve hour sleeper train journey from Hospet.

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We enjoyed our four night stay in a budget hotel just off Gandhi Square, from which we explored the city’s highlights including: Mysore Palace, a stunning and opulent royal residence of the former maharaja (rebuilt by a Brit in 1912 after the original building was gutted by fire in 1897); Chamundi Hill and the Sri Chamundeswari Temple, the Hindu temple that sits at the 1062m summit of the hill; and the obligatory trip to Mysore Zoo and the Museum of Natural History. Alas, we we didn’t get to visit the Sand Museum! Shame, I know.

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Our trip to Mysore was made all the more pleasurable by the arrival of our friends, who we’d first met in Goa a few weeks earlier. Bridie (4), her Mum and Aunty joined us for a few days and, whilst the children enjoyed playing Mr & Mrs Dolphin (it made sense to them at least), the grown ups were afforded some time for retail therapy at the Silk markets and Sam and I took up their generous offer to babysit and enjoyed our first Date Night since departing Brighton. We all enjoyed squeezing four adults and three children into various rickshaws to see the sights.

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Finally, this short post on Mysore wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the camera-shy yellow cows and, without question, the finest Indian breakfast I’ve ever eaten. The former, we were informed, was due to Makara Sankrati, the festival of harvest held a week prior to our visit. We only discovered their camera shy nature when Sam and Tomas were charged by Daisy, much to George’s and my amusement.

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Whilst the latter came about by a chance recommendation by a local gentlemen who pointed us in the general direction. After 15 minutes wandering the back allies of Mysore, we were soon tucking into wonderful Masala Dosa and Vada.

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Don’t worry be Hampi

As we approached Hampi we were greeted by an incredible landscape. Paddy fields and banana plantations interspersed with surreal giant boulders sitting on top of each other at improbable angles (I still have no idea how they came to be here and need to pick my Geologist Uncle’s brain).

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We’d heard a lot of positive things about Hampi but spent the first day feeling somewhat underwhelmed. Hampi Bazar is the kind of traveller enclave that offers respite from the onslaught of Mother India. However after a month of easy living on the beaches of South Goa we were over the same same but different chill-out vibe.

We had breakfast at the rooftop restaurant of our guest house and loved seeing all the beautiful birds including parakeets and kingfishers as we looked out on the river.

We had a wander round the nearby sites on our first day, giving us time to recover from the sleeper bus journey. We visited the Virupaksha Temple. With its troop of resident monkeys and Lakshmi the temple elephant this was lots of fun for the children.

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In the afternoon I had a spontaneous haircut looking out over the Tungabhadra river. It may not be the best style but it is definitely the best view I’ve ever had during a haircut.

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The next morning George and I wandered down to the ghats to catch Lakshmi the elephant have her morning bath. We were told she would be there about 8.30 but in fact arrived nearer 10. It was worth the wait. She seemed to really enjoy her bath and George loved feeding her bananas and having a smooch (blessing). I really enjoyed the one to one time with my boy as we shared bananas and chai and watched the world go by.

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We spent the rest of the afternoon touring the ruins in an Auto Rickshaw. This is when I fell in love with Hampi. Trying to imagine life in its hey day when it was a bustling commerce hub and home to 500,000 people. The boys had fun running around playing hide and seek and being explorers. George got a driving lesson from Sadiq our tuktuk driver.

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The sites in Hampi are spread over 36 square kilometers so it is easy to explore in relative solitude, unusual for India where tourist attractions are often overwhelming with the number of people. The grand elephant stables were a highlight for the boys. We stumbled on an art class at the Vittala Temple, it was really lovely to see all of their watercolour paintings of the impressive stone chariot.

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We had fun over the river in Anegundi. It shares the remarkable landscape and ruins of Hampi but remains a sleepy village. The boat across the river squeezes on motorbikes with the passengers and one wonders how it can possibly stay afloat.

We had a fab thali and the boys played with the cafe owner’s daughter. After lunch we explored the ruins of army barracks and elephant stables. I enjoyed seeing the contrast between these stables and the ornate ones across the river that housed the royal elephants and the boys enjoyed chasing lizards.

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It was great fun to be the only people around, scrambling over boulders, humming the Indiana Jones theme tune as we went. A couple of local boys tried to sell us baby birds but we declined, it wouldn’t be a very jolly life for them in our backpack!

The streets of Hampi Bazar are car free. There are rickshaws and the odd motorbike but the kids could play and make friends without us worrying they were going to get run over.

I’m happy to say that after a couple of days exploring the ruins we really enjoyed our time in Hampi. And would definitely recommend it as a great place to go with children.

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And just like that Christmas is over

I haven’t missed all the Christmas hype at home in England. It begins sometime in October and builds momentum until the children are in complete frenzy come December 25th.

You could be forgiven for the big day passing you by entirely here in South Goa. There were some children on the beach trying to sell us their handmade cards (the snowmen seemed particularly incongruous). The boys helped decorate the tree at our guesthouse. There are a few detailed nativity scenes around complete with

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living grass and flowers. And a few restaurants even offered roast turkey dinners but that’s about it.

The boys slept until 7.45. A lay-in by any standard and completely unheard of on Christmas Day! (being woken around 5am by my niece running in to our room yelling “It’s Christmas!!” will remain one of my favourite festive memories).

As soon as his eyes were open Tomas asked “has Santa been?!” and after checking whether Rudolph had eaten the carrot we’d left out for him the boys had a jolly few minutes opening their stockings containing a couple of trinkets and some sweets.

They were delighted with their presents of Shreddies (for Tomas who has asked for them everyday since we left Brighton) and a snorkel (for George who wrote a beautiful letter requesting one upon our arrival in Goa). The usual chaos of mountains of gifts and tantrums over wanting more presents to open happily passed us by (mind you there were tears over both boys wanting the chameleon toy which went missing later that day sparing us from further dispute).

We did miss our family and friends and a paper hat would have been nice as we ate our seafood dinner (and did the quiz) with an old friend but we have all become accustomed to living with fewer possessions and I hope we remember the beauty of this Christmas without ‘stuff’.