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We have a teenager!
Jan 23rd, 2010 by Kate

Tess turned 13 on January 5th.  Can’t believe it.  My baby. 

A black "emo" jacket, a "peace" bikini, and Twilight - is she a teenager or WHAT?

A black "emo" jacket, a "peace" bikini, and Twilight - is she a teenager or WHAT?

 Of course for her birthday she wanted to do something “awesome”, which of course, for Tessa, means hurdling herself into harm’s way.  Skydiving was her first choice, but we have heard over and over again that Queenstown is the place to be for skydiving (we’d be there in a week) – so we needed to find some other extreme sport to satisfy her need for danger.

Tessa ZORBING!

Tessa ZORBING!

 So we went “ZORBING”.  It’s pretty much a huge clear hamster ball inside an even larger hamster ball.  They take you up a giant hill, put you and a big bucket of water into the inner ball, and roll your butt down a steep, curving track.

 Tess tried her best to run inside the ball, but the water and the centrifical force turned her into a laughing tumbling dizzy mess.  It was totally hysterical to watch. 

 Phoebe and Olivia faired little better, but had a blast and all came whoosing out of their balls with huge smiles on their faces. 

Phoebe, Olivia, and Tessa - post-zorbing

Phoebe, Olivia, and Tessa - post-zorbing

 A totally awesome birthday for a totally awesome kid (if I do say so myself!).

Lucky lucky convicts…
Jan 10th, 2010 by Kate
The Sydney Opera house is way cooler than we ever imagined!  A MUST see!

The Sydney Opera house is way cooler than we ever imagined! A MUST see!

Sydney is a really really beautiful city in a really beautiful country.  From what I’ve read, it was pretty harsh for the convicts that were sent over here in the 1700’s, but the hardships of the settlers really set up thieir decedents for the good life!

One of many great historic rooftops in Sydney

One of many great historic rooftops in Sydney

Sydney is a water city.  The harbour has a zillion waterways, and the land surrounding the harbour is very hilly, so you can barely turn a corner without a beautiful view.  There is a serious amount of really primo waterfront real estate, and there is a great mix of old 1850’s-1920’s architecture with a healthy dose of really excellent modern architecture thrown in for good measure.  There are hip old neighborhoods with great shopping districts everywhere, and lots of parks.

The Royal Botanical Garden roses, and the American roses

The Royal Botanical Garden roses, and the American roses

The Botanical Garden is smack dab in the best part of town – and its FREE!  We wondered around there for hours enjoying the native plants and formal gardens, but the highlight of the garden was definitely the BATS!  There were thousand upon thousands of them.  The are called “flying foxes” and are quite giant but have faces like cute little fox puppies. 

Yes, all those black dots in the tree are bats with a 2-3 foot wingspan!

Yes, all those black dots in the tree are bats with a 2-3 foot wingspan!

flying bat

The backside of the garden runs along the harbour and has the most wonderful view of the Sydney Opera House.  It is magnificent.  I definitely think it is one of the most amazing buildings in the world.  The sailboats on the harbour and the roof of the opera house against the blue blue sky and the blue blue water made for one of the prettiest sites I have ever seen.  I took pictures, but they don’t even do them a bit if justice.

We splurged and took the behind-the-scenes tour of the Opera House that afternoon.  It was originally expected to take 3 years to build and cost $7 million.  It took 13 years and cost $112 million – and was totally worth it.  There are precious few things in the man-made world that can compete with the wonders of nature as far as beauty goes – but a building like this gives nature a good run for its money.

Tessa on the purple stairs in the opera house

Tessa on the purple stairs in the opera house

In Sydney we stayed with a great family that we met while in China – Jenny, Jerome, Georgia, and Maddie.  Jenny and the girls had befriended our friends the Terrell’s in Yangshou before we arrived to meet up with them, and Julie Terrell introduced us.  Jenny and I only chatted for a few minutes while in China, but she is a vagabond soul sister and invited us to stay with them while in Sydney.  As it turned out, they were on a family holiday when we were planning on being in Sydney – but they very generously let us stay in their house while they weren’t even there.  We did have a really fun 24 hours with them on New Years Eve though!  A shout out to the Briggs Fink family – we’ll see you in Sydney again soon!

Sydney is my new favorite big city – its like a really good mix of San Fran, Seattle, and Vancouver.  I’m going back.

A street perfomer in Sydney blew these giant bubbles, Phoebe entertained the crowd by blowing the huge bubbles around

A street perfomer in Sydney blew these giant bubbles, Phoebe entertained the crowd by blowing the huge bubbles around

Australia – the land of nice people!
Jan 9th, 2010 by Kate
Even though we’re now in New Zealand and I have SO much to write about THIS amazing country – I must go back to Australia as my last email certainly did not do it justice.  Might I suggest going and making yourself “a cuppa” and settling down in front of your computer because I’ve been slacking on the blog writing and I’m about to make up for some lost time!

 I really can’t even begin to talk about Australia until I tell you about the people.  I’m going to go out on a limb here and make a whopping generalization – but I reckon Australians just might be the nicest people on earth.  They are friendly and helpful and outgoing and really just plain fun.  All of them.  Yep.   

 In the month that we were in Australia we camped for 6 days and the entire rest of the time we stayed with Australians that we met while traveling in countries other than Australia, or through couchsurfing.com.  And while we find the country of Australia beautiful and fascinating, in retrospect, it ends up that the people were the highlights of our entire month!

This is the view from our bedroom window on Ian & Leone's beautiful farm.  They have 4,500 macadamia nut trees, 150 head of cattle, and about 50 really cute alpaca! Plus a swimming pool and tennis court - my kind of farm!

This is the view from our bedroom window on Ian & Leone's beautiful farm. They have 4,500 macadamia nut trees, 150 head of cattle, and about 50 really cute alpaca! Plus a swimming pool and tennis court - my kind of farm!

 We met Ian and Leone (Ian is Phoebe’s new best friend – sorry girls back at school, she likes you too but you don’t have alpacas and let her work in your macadamia nut factory) in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam and stayed at their beautiful farm on the Gold Coast.  I think I already mentioned that I found this farm to be a little slice of paradise – and our time here was exactly what we needed after 4 months in Asia.  The air was clean, the scenery right out of one of my favorite magazines, and Ian is one of the most genuine people I have ever met.  Phoebe and Ian were inseperatable the entire time we where there (because she followed Ian around relentlessly) and I dare to say that both of them loved every minute of their time together.  Ian needs to be a grandpa (and soon!) – he will be one of the best ever if his time with Phoebe was any indication.  He was interesting, an incredibly hard worker, funny, kind, and amazingly patient.  I’m so sad that I didn’t get pictures of Phoebe and Ian working side by side in the “nut house” (the macadamia nut processing plant) or Phoebe working at Ian’s booth at the local farmer’s market.  Both are memories that I hold dear and that I know Phoebe will remember forever.

Our view from the porch...

Our view from the porch...

After Billinugel, we moved on to Brisbane.  We met our Greg the old fashion way, through the couchsurfing website, and he spoiled us rotten in Brisbane.  Greg drove all the way down to Coolegata to pick us up, and in addition to letting us stay at his great place, he lent us his car and GPS so we could terrorize the City!  What a great city and a great new friend!  Brisbane is definately a city that deserves some more exploring – we drove by tons of hip looking cafes and a ton of great looking clothing and shelter stores… maybe someday when the US dollar is stronger against the Australian dollar I’ll come back and and do some further retail exploration!

The most fun way to explore Brisbane (Brisy) is by boat - the river runs right through the middle of the City.  We took it to the Contemporary Art Museum - a super wonderful day in a great museum in a great city!

The most fun way to explore Brisbane (Brisy) is by boat - the river runs right through the middle of the City. We took it to the Contemporary Art Museum - a super wonderful day in a great museum in a great city!

And the Kanters in Noosa – we go WAY back with them… all the way back to our hostel in Osaka, Japan!  We had a total blast in Noosa – staying with them was like being at a top rate bed and breakfast, and their kids Nick and Annika were some of the coolest teenagers I’ve ever met.  Noosa reminded us of La Jolla in California (a lot of Australia has reminded us of CA, but with a LOT fewer people and lots more open space).  Pieter and Jane were SUCH amazing hosts – Jeff and I felt like we had known them for years and our friendship came very easy.  They are both teachers and have really great outlooks on life, and on raising kids.  It is so refreshing to come across people (halfway around the world too, imagine that!)  that share similar values about family and friends and the bigger world.  It was also great for the girls to be around teenagers who are fun, respectful, good students, and good people. 

The Wells and Kanters clans

The Wells and Kanters clans

 In Noosa we hiked, beached, kayaked, shopped, went to the movies (movies are OUTRAGOUSLY expensive down under – kids tickets were $16 and adults $22!) and (not so proudly) my kids introduced the Kanters kids to “The Office”.  An “Office” marathon was the highlight of the week for ALL the kids – I think when it was all said and done they managed to get through the first four sessions in their entirety!

 We can’t wait to see the Kanters again, and we hope they’ll put the US on their travel list soon (or at least send the kids out to us for the holidays!).

 After Noosa, we headed back to Brisbane for our flight down to Sydney.  We had a week to kill before Christmas, and didn’t have a plan (or a clue) about where we wanted to be.  Jeff really wanted to do some surfing, I wanted to lay around on the beach, hit a few farmer’s markets and explore the quaint beach towns, and the girls were looking for some kids to play with… so we decided to head to the beach south of Sydney.  We got into Sydney late at night, and couldn’t pick up our rental car until the next morning, so we spent the evening searching the internet for a cheap beach hotel.  And we had NO luck. 

 Australia is really expensive for us to travel in right now – their dollar is very strong against our dollar and they have had major inflation for about 8 years now so we really couldn’t find a single good deal that fit into our budget.  Have I mentioned ever that our budget is $150 a day for the four of us including travel, food and lodging?  We couldn’t find a single hotel even remotely close to any beach for less than $150 to start!

 We were just about to give up and book ourselves into this expensive, lame hotel when this bright green van drove by that said “JUICY” on it.  It was yet another “campervan” that we’d seen all over the Gold and Sunshine Coasts.  For those of you that don’t know this about Australia, they are obsessed with camping.  Many families have their own campervans, but for those that don’t, they have a zillion rental companies (“JUICY” being one of the biggest) that rent all kinds of variations on on the campervan. 

 Phoebe said it first.  “Let’s see how much one of those costs – we can drive it instead of our rental car, and we can live in it too”.  Tessa (having camped more with me that Phoebe has) just rolled her eyes and said “yeah right”.  Jeff said he’d check it out.  I said I’d be game as long as we could get a hotel if it was raining.  So off Jeff and Phoebe went to find us a campervan of our very own.

 But the campervans were totally expensive too.  Two-hundred and fifty dollars a day!  They had one other option – a “camperwagon” for only $70 a day – and it came with a tent, a stove, some chairs, and some other random camping gear.   SOLD!

Our 1995 Ford Falcon camperwagon stationwagon was a real looker.  It had a giant “RENT ME” sign in the back window, a badly dented front bumper, and it shimmied when you went over 80km (about 50mph).  Our tent smelled really bad of mildew, and they forgot our stove.  And it rained on the very first night but it was too late at that point to find a proper hotel.  None of us were happy.

Tessa & Phoebe's bed for 6 nights - in the back of the ole Ford Falcon!

Tessa & Phoebe's bed for 6 nights - in the back of the ole Ford Falcon!

Our little camp site...

Our little camp site...

 But the “holiday park” was really nice – and in a zillion dollar location.  A really nice family moved in across the drive from us and let us borrow a tarp and some poles and Jeff fashioned a nice little living room for us.  Phoebe and I dragged a picnic table over from a empty campsite a few “pads” up – and a bottle of Fabreeze cleaned up the tent smell quite nice.  The sun came out, we got some fresh bread and some amazing local cheese from the farmers market, and even managed to find some proper surf boards to rent.  We had planned on staying for 2 nights, and we ended staying for SIX nights!

This was actually the view from our campsite - our favorite surfing beach was down the cliff on the left side of the pic about 100 meters

This was actually the view from our campsite - our favorite surfing beach was down the cliff on the left side of the pic about 100 meters

  

Phoebe being Phoebe...

Phoebe being Phoebe...

 Tessa and Phoebe, always being the center of their social worlds set about amassing a gang of trailer park kids – they played, swam, surfed, made up dances, learned the ins and outs of rugby, and highly amused the kids and their parents alike with their “American accents”.  It was for sure the best camping location in the world, and much to my surprise, it was a blast and I was sad to leave!  But the vagabonds that we are – we packed up the old Falcon and moved on…

The Surf Beach Holiday Park Gang - Tessa, Phoebe, Jai, Anna, Monique, and Jellena

The Surf Beach Holiday Park Gang - Tessa, Phoebe, Jai, Anna, Monique, and Jellena

And our reason for coming to Australia in December – Bobby – our fabulous friend we met through couchsurfing when she “surfed our couch” back in Phoenix in November of 2008.  She casually mentioned to us that we should stop by Canberra for Xmas, we are SURE never imagining that we’d actually take her up on it!

Day-after Christmas brunch with Bobbi & Chappo- she is a crazy good cook and fattened us up!

Day-after Christmas brunch with Bobbi & Chappo- she is a crazy good cook and fattened us up!

We had a great time in Canberra – everyone told us that Canberra was boring, but we totally enjoyed the National Gallery and their great science center called Questacon.  We had a quiet Christmas morning (Santa even managed to find us and brought the girls olives and pickles – their favorite gifts!) and then had a total Christmas dinner feast with Bobby and her fiance Ben (Chappo).  As an added bonus, a family of real wild kangaroos hopped thorugh the backyard while we finished dessert – a perfect ending to our Australian Christmas!

Not your typical Xmas treat - but we've been without olives and pickles for months so Santa scored a big goal with these treats under our Xmas plant (see plant in background).

Not your typical Xmas treat - but we've been without olives and pickles for months so Santa scored a big goal with these treats under our Xmas plant (see plant in background).

Moon Festival
Oct 7th, 2009 by Kate

We have SUCH awesome holiday luck – this past week the Chinese celebrated (and I mean CELEBRATED) two  major holiday – the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and the Mid-Autumn Festival or Moon Festival. 

60th Anniversary Celebration of the People's Republic

60th Anniversary Celebration of the People's Republic

The 60th Anniversary was very interesting – we were in Shanghai so we were treated to lots of fireworks, and lots and lots of Chinese flag banners that went up literally overnight.  It seemed in Shanghai to be like a souped-up 4th of July in the States – just with red starred flgs instead of the old stars-and-stripes.  But in Beijing – well that was another story.  With successful Olympic extravaganzas under their belt, they pulled out all the stops!  We considered trying to get up to Beijing for the parade, but there was just no way.  They had a six hour long parade with 60 floats and over 100,000 performers.  We only caught it on TV, but it was like the opening ceremonies with a bunch of major military equipment thrown in for good measure.  Boy can they march in unison! 

But the highlight of our holiday week here was Saturday night, which was the celebration of the Moon Festival!  It was AWESOME! 

We almost missed it.  We had been in Suzhou all day (and as you may have read in prior posts – we had quite a day!) and got back into Shanghai late.  From our taxi on the way to dinner we saw these strange floating, glowing balloons from off in the distance but we figured, hey, its China, there’s always something odd going on…  We were finishing up  dinner when the fireworks started.   They were still going off as we made our way back to our aparment which was about 20 minutes later.  Phoebe was about to come unglued – she wanted to go find the source of the fireworks SO bad.   We told our taxi driver to head towards the fireworks using a combination of exploding hand motions and explosion sounds and a few minutes later we were standing in the middle of the “People’s Park” with (I am not exaggerating) about 100,000 people! 

It was a very festive atmosphere- tons and tons of people, delicious smelling mystery food being cooked on the backs of bicycle-food-carts, Chinese military music in the background, massive fireworks going off non-stop (to Phoebe’s delight), kites with lights being flown all over, and these beautiful red lanterns floating off into the full moon-lit night sky! 

The lanterns were SO beautiful!  They were about three feet tall and about 2 feet in diameter.  They came flat, like a chinese lantern from the store, and you twisted it a bit and it became 3-dimensional.  It was made of really thin red paper (eventally, as the evening went on and the lantern vendors ran out of red, the other colors came out – but none were as pretty as the red) and had a very fine wooden structure.  It came with a little square of wax that contained something that, once lit, made it burn for about 15 minutes.  We watched group after group of people lit their lanterns and release them into the sky.  Some people wrote on their lanterns first.  They took about 4-5 people to launch, so often you’d see a small family (dad, mom, and their one child) stuggling with their lantern and then some total strangers coming to their aid.  It was really nice.  Even though there were lanterns going up all around, every time another would take flight, a cheer would go up in the crowd as it was released.

We bought three, one to release, and two to send home.  We had no lighter, but the first family we saw was happy to share their’s with us.  I was snapping photos and Jeff was lighting the wax so the girls needed help holding the lantern.  It was no problem finding help as we had attracted quite a crowd at this point.  Many many hands held our lantern steady as it filled up with hot air.  Of couse no one spoke English so it was hard for us to communicate when it was actually time for us to let it go – but with a few starts and stops, we finally gave flight to our pretty lantern!  A big cheer went up and the girls smiles were from ear to ear. 

I have to say, I had one of my “moments” right then and there.  This has happened a few times since we’ve been on the trip – I feel so overwhelmed with happiness that we are having these amazing experiences that I feel like I might just explode.

Sending up our lantern

Sending up our lantern

Our Moon Festival lantern (top center) floating into the sky with a bit of the Shanghai skyline in the background

Our Moon Festival lantern (top center) floating into the sky with a bit of the Shanghai skyline in the background

As a side note, Jeff and I decided that it would be a very bad idea to release these beautiul lantens in Arizona when we saw a few of them catch fire at about 500 feet in the air and come plummeting back to earth.  So we used the two other that we bought and then bought about three more since it was so much fun.  We wrote messages of peace to our Chinese friends on our lanterns and sent them off into the universe!

Just when we think we mastered traveling in Japan…
Sep 27th, 2009 by Kate

So we’ve been here in Japan for three weeks now – and I was feeling pretty good about our ability to read the train timetables, find the right trains (and actually get where we want to be), navigate the subways, find food that we’ll all eat, get us to wherever we are staying… oh but throw two little “national holidays” into the mix and it all becomes a giant crapshoot!

 Elder’s Day and the Autumnal Equinox – who knew?  And to celebrate the whole country gets a FIVE day weekend!!!!  AHHHHH!

 Our plan was to stay in Hiroshima for two nights at a hostel, then head back north to Kyoto for 5 days with our couchsurfing host.  We have been traveling really flexibly – meaning we don’t really make our plans ahead of time- and just figured that the hostel we had booked would keep us for a second night… um… wrong.  There was no room at the inn – there, or anywhere else in a 500km area!  Between the two nice receptionists at our hostel, Jeff and myself we probably contacted 200 hotels, hostels and inns… and there was nothing. 

 The girls started making plans to camp in a nearby rice field.  I started to think of that as a viable option.  It was pathetic.

 Thankfully, our couchsurfing host in Kyoto got our late night message that we were homeless and offered to let us come a night early.  So with our trusty Japan Rail passes in hand, we boarded the bullet train and four hours later we had a roof over our heads in Kyoto. 

 The moral of the story for me – when your guide book says that on national holidays everyone in the country goes on vacation – BELIEVE IT and book early!

Happy Bahamian Independence Day!
Jul 10th, 2009 by Kate

Bonus!  Two Independence Days in one week!  In honor of the island country that we love, please check out this most excellent rendition of the Bahamian National Anthem…

http://www.facebook.com/p.php?i=558072450&k=Z6G5ZYP2TYYCUCD1QB63VUSUW3DJ

** You need to have a facebook page to view this (sorry, couldn’t figure out to import the video), but trust me, it is worth it…  if it doesn’t bring you right to the video, click on “Jack’s Debut”.

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