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Barcelona
Jun 16th, 2010 by Jeff

After our restful break in Benalmadena, we decided to venture on to Marrakesh, Morocco via Barcelona, Spain (cheap tickets sometimes make you fly in strange directions – but we wanted to see Barcelona anyway).  Barcelona was probably my favorite city in Spain.  We ate great food, saw many interesting sites and met some very nice people.

We started our time in Barcelona in a hotel/apartment style rental just a few blocks from Barcelona’s famed La Sagrada Familia.  We stayed at the Hispana Suiza 7 (in case you’re wondering), booking in advance via the internet gave a great rate on the apartment which had two large rooms, a kitchen and ……a washer/dryer combo unit.  (By this time on our trip a washer was great, and a dryer was like we had died and gone to heaven)!  This really was a great place to start exploring the town and the first afternoon there we decided to just walk the streets and take it all in.  We made our way toward the main shopping district in L’ Eixample on Passeig de Gracia (I’ll let you decide who came up with this itinerary), since that is where there are also some unique and architecturally significant houses by Gaudi and Puig i Cadafalch , the Casa Batllo

Phoebe and Tessa outside Casa Batllo

Phoebe and Tessa outside Casa Batllo

and Casa Amatller, respectively.  While we just enjoyed Casa Batllo from the street on this day, we were able to go into the first floor of Casa Amatller.  Here we were able to see some detailed photographs of the house and see a short video (in English) about the restoration effort and family that lived there.  The Amatller’s were a well to do family that made there fortune in chocolate and were pioneers in mass marketing and product branding.  It was quite interesting to see some of the details of this, the first house in the area, to be redone in the new modern architectural style.

Since the next day was expected to be reasonably nice (rain was starting to come into the forecast) we decided to take the big red bus around town (a great way to see stuff and get an overview of the place).  Our first step off was to explore the Guell Park.  This is where the home of Antonio Gaudi was during his later years and it has now been turned into a museum.  The park itself was an unsuccessful housing development that was supposed to be modeled after the English garden city movement.

walkway support

Sitting under the walkway

Girls at park entrance

Girls at park entrance

Being caught in the first sprinkles of rain, we went into Gaudi’s house/museum, which was interesting – with examples of his furniture and some photos of his time there.  It also provided a nice view of the city.  More spectacular to me were the grounds themselves with the space he created with his unique style of construction, with overpasses incorporated into the hillside.  The entrance to the park itself is quite spectacular and moves up some stairs into an area that was intended for a market.  This is covered by a large deck that has many of Gaudi’s signature elements incorporated into its construction, curvy walls with benches designed to fit your bottom nicely (actually modeled from a women sitting in clay) supported by columns mimicking trees.  We were happy to spend our late morning and early afternoon here wandering around the area and looking at all the interesting things he incorporated into the gardens.

On top of walkway overlooking the city

On top of walkway overlooking the city

Along the walkway - some funky angles

Along the walkway - some funky angles

Tess and Phoebs on market deck

Tess and Phoebs on market deck

Mosaic in ceiling of covered market

Mosaic in ceiling of covered market

We hopped back on the bus to explore a little more of the city getting off in the city center to walk around see some of the cities churches and buildings (and to squeeze in a little more shopping – if we found anything really cool).  We ran into some great shops – Tessa was the big winner, scoring a really cute dress to go with her boots (she looks a little to grown up in this one).  We also got some great advice from a local shop owner on places to eat.  We ended up at a pizzeria he recommended and loved it, and the next night we went to a restaurant called Blanc de tofona – which ended up being one of the culinary highlights of our trip.

The next day, Thursday, was supposed to begin our next couchsurfing adventure in a small town just outside of Barcelona called Sitges.  Unfortunately, this became our first (and only) couchsurfing disappointment in all of our travels.  The best we could figure (there was a small language barrier) was our host had an emergency and had to leave the house for a couple of days.  However, she failed to inform us of this and if it was not for the fact that we where double checking with a quick call before we hopped on a train to her home, it might have really been ugly.  As it was, we ended up spending the rest of the day trying to secure accommodations for the next two days during a busy holiday weekend.  We managed to get another night at our nice hotel (at a much higher rate) and Kate booked us into a hostel for Friday night (more on that later).  Since we had wasted our afternoon and early evening away, we decided to splurge on dinner by going to dinner at upscale restaurant that was recommended by our new shop owner friend.  It was quite the dinning experience.  One the girls and I will always remember.  See Phoebe and Kate’s post for the details.

So instead of seeing the La Sagrada Familia on Thursday before leaving for Sitges, we ended up there on Friday, waiting in the rain to get in with the rest of the tourist.

Tessa and Phoebel by Jesus statue outside Temple

Tessa and Phoebel by Jesus statue outside Temple

It was all worth it in the end, because the temple is fantastic.  We opted for the audio tour, and between it and the museum (below the structure) we were able to learn about many of the innovations Gaudi incorporated in the building’s construction.  It was really very fascinating.  We were all impressed with his genius, and Tessa was especially enthralled with his modeling of the structure with string and weights.  This is a not to be missed stop on anyone’s tour agenda of Barcelona (and the world for that matter).  The construction of the building goes on to this day and it is not expected to be completed until some time around 2026.

Inside the Temple

Inside the Temple

After leaving the temple we went back to our hotel to collect our bags and find our way to the hostel.  This all went smooth until we went to check in and discovered we had inadvertently made reservations for Saturday instead of Friday – and they were full for the night.  We quickly got back online and found a room just outside of town, close to the airport.  We would have to go back through the city to get to the hotel, so after seeing the church (and discovering Gaudi’s brilliance) we all decided that we really should tour his house in town, the Casa Batllo – noted above.  So we went there fully encumbered with our backpacks, dropped them off in the lobby and took the home tour.  Again Gaudi did not disappoint.  The house was awesome.  It had great views of the street from the main dinning room with windows that completely opened to the street.  Gaudi also opened up the inner courtyard space to flood the building with natural light.

Looking up to courtyard roof covering

Looking up to courtyard roof covering

He made unique use of all the space, all the way up to forming halls the attic space (used by the servants) into a beautiful rib like structure.  My words cannot begin to do the building justice.  Go see it, if you get the chance!

Me and my beatiful wife on the roof of Casa Batllo

Me and my beatiful wife on the roof of Casa Batllo

We eventually made our way to our hotel and crashed for the night.  We got up bright and early the next day to get to the airport and head to Marrakesh, Morocco.  Everything was going smoothly, until I realized – 20 minutes before boarding the plane- that I couldn’t recall packing the all important (containing makeup, medicine, and expensive dental apparatus) makeup kit!  I made a quick call to the hotel to confirm my heart sinking realization… yep they had it.  I will be forever grateful to Kate for keeping her cool in this situation; she was the model of an understanding spouse! Kate and I made the quick decision to move on without it, and to have it sent onward to our couchsurfing hosts in Paris.  The kind hotel staff said they could ship it to us.  So, in the end, it all worked out fine as the bag was waiting for us when we got to France, and we were able to get by in Morocco with a few small toiletry purchases.

So even with rainy weather and the slight disruptions in the travel plans, Barcelona was a wonderful end to our time in Spain.  I will definitely put this on my places to see more of in the future.

Going to the south of Spain and time for a football (soccer) roadtrip!
Jun 4th, 2010 by Jeff

After our time in Madrid, Kris, Jack, Phoebe, Tessa, Kate, and I all piled into the minivan Kris had rented and made our way south. Our destination was a townhouse near the beach just outside of Malaga, in the small town of Benalmadena. As Kate mentioned in her previous post, everyone in the Wells clan, especially me – since I do the majority of the packing and unpacking, were very excited about being able to have a home base from which to explore the south of Spain. Somewhere that would enable us to be able to pack just a small day bag for our travels out to see the sights of Cordoba, Seville, Granada and any other quaint town we might stumble upon.

t girls

Everyone but me, outside of the oldtown overlooking the city.

The trip down to the townhouse was fairly uneventful.  We were supposed to arrive in the early evening to meet the caretakers of the townhouse to get the keys. We were already running a little late, since we stopped in Toledo for a little lunch and a quick tour of the town.  It was a cool old city, but a little packed in with tourists.  We  had a little lunch and made time for a few pictures.

Jack in Toledo

Jack performing the Bell tradition of statue mimicking

We finally turned off the freeway into Benalmadena about and hour late, thinking we would find the place quickly. Unfortunately, the final directions I had written down were a little off (and the signage in the area wasn’t helping any). We had turned into the right neighborhood, but the map posted on the wall of the neighborhood didn’t show the street we were looking for. We ended up driving around for another 15 minutes before finally turning on the computer and fortunately having the google map still in the cache. Seeing we were in the correct neighborhood we followed our newly rediscovered map. Confidently we drove up a steep hill in anticipation of cresting the top and driving onto the final street where the townhouse was located. We all could do nothing but burst into laughter as we crested the hill into an empty construction lot, with no hope of driving through it to any street. Once we regained our composure, I turned the car around and tried from the other direction, fortunately that worked and we were able to find our new accommodation. However, the caretakers were out for the evening, so we just made sure we knew where to get back to and went out for a delicious Spanish meal of fried squid, fried and grilled grouper and an American style cheeseburger. We returned later to the house after dinner to meet the caretakers and get the keys.

Sunrise in Belamadena

Sunrise from the deck of the Benalmadena townhouse. Not too shabby!

As our gracious hosts had told us, the house was great. Three bedrooms, three bathrooms, a spacious living room and dining room and a well appointed kitchen. After nine months of constantly moving and not having our own space, we were finally able to settle in somewhere. We quickly figured out the neighborhood and where we needed to go for things like groceries, and internet. Kate ran into some of the neighbors (French who spoke English) and discovered a local soccer team that were willing to take the girls in for soccer training on Saturdays. Both Kate and I started an exercise regime to try and work off some of the good food we had been eating. Things in Spain were looking pretty good!

Our next big adventure was to get Jack to see a professional soccer game, European style. Krissy had done all the research, she had checked Yahoo sports and found a game being played in the nearby city, Almeria – a three hour drive away- that was to be played at 11:00 AM on Easter morning. Tessa and I signed on to make the trip with them (Kate and Phoebe took a pass) and the four of us all got up bright and early to get on the road by 7:00 to be sure we could get there on time and get tickets. The drive ended up taking a little longer than planned, due to some construction and since we really didn’t know exactly where we were going once we got to Almeria. Fortunately we had allowed enough time. We ended up meeting two young guys, and using our basic knowledge of the Spanish language, got them to understand we needed directions to the soccer stadium. They graciously said/motioned “Follow us, we’ll take you there”. We assumed they were going to the game too, but they weren’t. They did get us close enough to see the stadium, pointed us in the right direction and waved goodbye. As we drove up to the stadium, ready to cheer for the local team, our hearts sank…nobody was there (maybe that’s why they weren’t going to the game)!

Now what do we do? We needed a recovery plan. This is an old city. Who cares if it is Easter in a majority Catholic country where everything is shut down for the holiday (and for four hours after lunch). This city has some unique history; we saw a castle on the way in; there must be something we can see……right? We headed for the nearest tourist information office to see if it was open and if there was anything we could do in this town, since we were here anyway. We soon discover, Kris had actually gotten the information for the game correct…if we were going to watch the game in the USA in the eastern time zone. The game was schedule for 5 PM Spain time. Now it was noon and we had five hours to kill. Fortunately for us, the main fort (or Alcazaba) was open for the day and there was a open restaurant nearby. We grabbed a bite to eat and made our way to the fort for some sightseeing. We all enjoyed the seeing the Alcazaba which was originally built in the 11th century by the Muslims who then ruled the area. It was perched high above the city and gave us panoramic views of the coast and inland areas. Jack and Tessa really enjoyed climbing all the ramparts and seeing the cannons and large doors. There was also a great garden that still used the basic channels, reservoir and wells established when the area was first built.

After we finished exploring the Alcazaba it was time to make our way back to the stadium for the soccer match. This time we knew exactly where to go and made it to the stadium easily. We had plenty of time to get tickets and got good seats right down on the field katy-corner from the goal.

Soccer Match

Front row seats, go Almeria!

Soccer Match2

Jack, Kris and Tessa pose before the match.

The game was great! We saw a beautiful header goal for the home team and cheered them on through the first half. The onlyl thing missing from the full soccer experience was the beer (the only served NA beer, whats up with that!)  We decided to leave at half time since Kate and Phoebe were expecting us back at 5:00 PM, it was already 6:00 PM and we knew we had at least a three hour drive ahead of us. We got back just before 9:00. Just in time to keep Kate from going into complete nervous breakdown with visions of us lost in Spain or in some accident on the side of the road.

In the end it all worked out fine with all of us getting to see a game and a little of the city at the same time. Kate forgave us for coming home so late and said she was really glad she was not along for the ride and the “extended” visit.

Welcome to the new improved Las Vegas….or Dubai, United Arab Emirates as some call it.
Apr 16th, 2010 by Jeff

If you’re flying in from Mumbai to Dubai be prepared for some culture shock.  Flying into Dubai’s new international terminal is like stepping into the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, minus the smoke, liquor, weirdoes and scantily clad women.  After arriving at our gate we rode the moving walkway through large arched hallways made of glass, marble and glittering gold for probably a mile.

The girls infront of the lift, notice the waterfall in upper background.  I could only get in two of the elevators.

The girls infront of the lift, notice the waterfall in upper background. I could only get in two of the elevators.

The girls stopped briefly on our way to make use of the bathrooms (see Tessa’s post).  Once through customs, we entered one of three glass elevators the size of a small living room in front of the 150 foot tall, 100 foot long waterfall. The elevator brought us down three stories to the baggage claim area.  From the airport we hopped into an immaculately clean, large Toyota sedan and were driven to our new accommodations.  This was about as polar opposite as it comes to our experience of arriving in Delhi’s international airport (look back in the blog to get our take on that).

As far as accommodations go Dubai was another couchsurfing success!  Our gracious host for our time in Dubai was a delightful, funny and intelligent young woman by the name of Staci Haag.  She took all of us into her nicely appointed two bedroom apartment in Dubai proper, which ended up being a great departure point for our explorations of the city.  Even thought she had work obligations for the week, we stayed up chatting into the night, discussing her work in promoting democracy in the region and the trails and tribulations of working in the environment that is the Middle East.  Her stories were all very interesting and entertaining.  (We certainly wish her the best with the work she is doing there).

After our time in India, we all decided we needed some good all American style consumerism, and general merriment.  Therefore, the first item on our agenda was hitting some of the UAE’s gianormous malls for some shopping.

Butterfly cutouts hanging in on of the malls huge atriums

Butterfly cutouts hanging in on of the malls huge atriums

Here again, the Las Vegas analogy comes into play.  We went to a mall that had different themes to the sections, (like Rodeo Drive with the upscale shops and an old time Arabic bazaar).  We went to the mall that has a full size ice rink, the world’s largest saltwater aquarium, an indoor ski slope, and a water show outside in their fountains.

Water fountains sync'd to musical score outside the mall.

Water fountains sync'd to musical score outside the mall.

This mall was right next to the world’s largest skyscraper.  We had originally planned to go skiing here, but after looking at the cost ($80/per for two hours) and the size of the hill, we just decided it just wasn’t worth the cost.  It was pretty cool (and a little weird) to see this inside the mall.

Once we were done exploring the malls, we had our sights set on one of Dubai’s two water parks for some good clean fun.  The girls and I choose to go to the Atlantis Resort water park out on the famed artificial palm tree shaped island.  (Kate opted out on this adventure.  When she saw some expat’s that had nice blonde hair she inquired about their colorist; after that she was on a mission to restore here beautiful hair to it’s normal color from the stripper blonde shade she acquired in Thailand.  She knew this would be an all day job).  This park had some great slides built into a pyramid type tower about six stories tall.  On some of the slides you rode on tubes down a curvy bumpy track and where deposited into a lazy river which you could either ride back to a conveyor, or dump yourself into the rapids ride which would take you around the park.  Also, on the highest level of the tower you could go without a tube down an almost vertical drop through a tube in a shark filled aquarium and out to a waiting pond.  Phoebe was tentative at first, but later in the day got up the courage to do it.  I was very proud of her, seeing as she was probably the smallest person I saw taking the plunge on that particular slide!

On our last full day in Dubai we were invited to a party thrown by some of Staci’s friends.  Unfortunately, only the girls and I went, since Kate had one of her dizzy spells and just needed a day in bed.  We had a great time at the party as it was like a traditional American Bar-bq, with the added touch that it was the day before Easter and the host had eggs for the kids to color.  Tess and Phoebe both grabbed and egg and went to town!  We all enjoyed the grilled chicken, sausages and a garden salad, while the girls regaled everyone with stories from our adventures.

Our quick stay in Dubai was most pleasant and a much needed respite from our third world adventures.  We got in enough time to prep us for our next stop, Cairo – which we knew would be a little challenging!  We all agreed we enjoyed our quick stop and would be happy to go back and explore a little more.

Back to Beer!
Mar 31st, 2010 by Jeff

I lost my way with the beer blog after the Philippines. I think it had to do with my getting Dengue fever, which hit me full force in Australia. I just didn’t want to drink anything alcoholic until I recovered. I think it took me about two weeks to get back to 100%. I then allowed myself to have a few cold ones; I guess I just lost my desire to write about it. But in the spirit of “a little hair of the dog that bit you” (and the fact that some of the comments and emails out there requested and update), I thought I’d get you all caught up on my sampling.

Once I was finally recovered enough to enjoy a nice cold beer, I was already two weeks into our time in Australia. The first thing I discovered about beer down under was that it was expensive there. If I recall correctly, a six-pack of premium beer there set me back about $16 (the beer money savings was probably the only good thing about me getting Dengue). While in Australia I sampled a number of beers, but was not really impressed with anything I tried there. I’m sure there has got to be something good there in the microbrew category, but I just didn’t stumble into it. I loved everything else about going “Down Under”, so I guess I’ll just plan on a second trip there to find out what I missed.

While the beer in New Zealand wasn’t any cheaper than in Australia, I did find a better microbrew selection (maybe I was just fully recovered and ready spend a little more time looking). My two favorite breweries there were Mac’s and Monteith’s. On the second night we were in Auckland, we ventured out with our new friend and couchsurfing host, Lorenzo, to a party, thrown by the nicest bunch of South Africans you’d ever meet. We were told to not worry about food but we might want to bring some beverages. We drove off to the party planning to stop to get some beer. After striking out at two different bottle shops (liquor store to you and I) we finally found one open. The store had a very large selection and I walked out with two different selections from the Monteith’s brewery. The first was their summer ale (don’t forget I’m down-under and in their summer in January). The second was their red ale. The summer beer was a golden lager with a little spice and a bit of honey. The red was a take on the traditional Irish ale where they added burnt malts to give it the red color and some nice chocolate notes which balanced out the hops, so the beer was not to bitter. Both beers went down quite nice with the sausages they were serving from the grill. Kate and Olivia (my sister-in-law) definitely liked the summer ale over the red, and we continued to seek it out and drink it throughout our time in NZ.

As I noted earlier, I also really enjoyed the Mac’s brews. They offer a Black Stout, a Red Ale and a Golden Lager, all of which I could drink on a regular basis. But I especially liked their Great White wheat beer. As I had noted in earlier blogs, I really like unfiltered wheat bears in the tradition of Hoegarden, and this particular beer did not disappoint. It was crisp and refreshing with a hint of orange and some floral notes coming from the coriander they add during the brewing. However, their ads say you might detect aroma of bananas and bubblegum, but I think that is just wrong for beer (and I wouldn’t say I detected that, even if I did). The only disappointment came from the packaging, as I am collecting bottle caps for my nephew Jack, unfortunately this brewery uses a plain pull top bottle cap which is effectively destroyed when you open the bottle.

Lastly, I also really enjoyed Speight’s beer while we were in the city of Queensland. I sampled both their dark beer and a golden lager. The golden lager was just simply well done. It had a nice refreshing flavor that went down smoothly after a day of jumping out of planes (or shopping in Kate’s case). Their Old Dark was also good. I just wish I had more time to explore these breweries beers in a little more depth. I’ll put that on my to-do list for my next visit to NZ.

In front of the brew house in Queensland

In front of the brew house in Queensland

Unfortunately, my beer samplings diminished significantly after leaving New Zealand. It seems the whole microbrew craze has not caught up with Thailand, India, The United Arab Emirates (that one I can understand), or Egypt. While I did drink beer in all of those countries, it was typically your garden variety Heineken, Tiger, and Carlsberg licensed for mass production outside of their original countries. The one exception to that is probably Thailand with Chang beer and Singha. While Chang beer is probably more iconic of the two brands I prefer the Singha with my Thai food. To me it was just a little better at putting out the fire left in my mouth by the green or red curry I had just eaten.

Now that were in Europe, I’m looking forward to sampling some of the local fair. I saw a number of breweries last night on our bus trip to downtown Madrid. I may just let the girls shop as I sit on the sidewalk and quaff a few.

Cheers,

Jeff

The Chiang Mai Experience
Mar 11th, 2010 by Jeff

Chiang Mai is a wonderful city in the north of Thailand. We flew up there from Bangkok while we waited for Kate’s new veneers to be made. We had plans for a number of great adventures while we were in this town, including Thai cooking classes, visiting some of the 475+ Wats (or temples) and to have an another elephant encounter.

The first day spent in Chang Mai we used as what I call a utility or down day. This is one of those less glamorous sides of our extended travels Kate blogged about earlier. A number of things typically get done one these days. Usually this is when Kate and I realize that we’ve been slipping in our parental duties and haven’t forced the kids to do any homework in a couple of days, and they need to do some math and writing (much to their chagrin). Also on this particular day I spent two hours going to the train station to book our train back to Bangkok only to learn all the trains were booked for the next week. After making this discovery, I ended up coming back to the hotel to book a plane back via the internet instead. I then made arrangements for a hotel once we arrived back in Bangkok. Finally, I dropped of the dirty laundry for cleaning at the local laundry. By this time it was 3:00. We did make it out after this to the Chiang Mai Museum of Arts and Culture to learn a little about the area and the northern Thai peoples. It was a pretty good museum that had quite a bit of information in English (so I could count that towards the kids schooling – parental duty done for the day!).

The next day we spent a gluttonous day at the Thai Farm Cooking School. They picked us up from our hotel and took us to the local market. At the market our instructor taught us about the various ingredients we would use in our cooking that day. We then made our way out to the school were we walked through their garden to learn a little more about the various herbs and plants we would be added to our Thai dishes. We then proceeded to start cooking.

Kate and Tessa Cooking Phad Thai

Kate and Tessa Cooking Phad Thai

Phoeve and Jeff Pounding on the Curry - Making for quite an appetite!

Phoebe and Jeff Pounding on the Curry - Making for quite an appetite!

We actually used mortar and pestle to pound the ingredients into the various curries we were making. The curry could not have gotten any fresher! Tessa opted for a yellow curry, Phoebe and Kate made green curry and I went for red. Needless to say we all loved our entrees! We then continued with cooking a five course meal. In addition to the curry we made soups, spring rolls, a noodle dish, and desserts (mango and sticky rice!!! Yum!). We all rolled away from the table after the first four coursed and brought the noodle dishes back to the hotel for them to heat up for us as dinner. We are all looking forward to cooking Thai food at home when we get back to our kitchen in the Phoenix!

The following day we decided to explore the Chiang Mai. This included visiting the local Wats. The highlight of the day for us all was Monk Chat at the MCU Buddhist University at Wat Chedi Laung. This is a great program that has been put together to give tourist and foreigners an opportunity to interact directly with monks on a one to one basis. It is an open forum where the monks and the tourist sit around tables and the monks answer questions from the tourist about their lives and living in Thailand as a monk. The discussion was very interesting. We learned many interesting things about monk’s lives. For example a monk in Thailand can choose at any time to leave the monkhood and return to normal Thai life. If he then chooses to return to the monkhood he can, even if he has been married – as long as his wife grants him permission to return. Also of the three monks we met, each had a different objectives or goals for their future.

Chatting with the Monks.

Chatting with the Monks.

One had started as a novice at the age of 12 and was now working his way through college. He was very frank about wanting to leave the monkhood as soon as he obtained his degree. The second monk of the group had begun his time as a monk at nineteen. He was also working his way through the English program at the university, but he planned on continuing as a monk and hopefully traveling to the U.S. It was also very interesting to find out their take on technology and how it impacts their lives. For example they can use computers in their studies, as long as they don’t use them for listening to music, playing computer games or anything involving entertainment. They also are allowed to use cell phones for communication with their families and other monks. Overall this was an extremely enlightening discussion and we all walked away understanding each others culture that much better.

I think everyone in the family agrees that the best part of our time in Chiang Mai was our visit to the Baan Chang Elephant Park for their Mahout for a Day program. In this day long program we were given the opportunity to work directly with the elephants and their trainers (mahouts), and had direct contact with the animals. The day started with another trip to the market to buy bananas and sugar cane. Each elephant eats about 250 kg of food a day. We then came into the camp, changed clothes and were given the opportunity to feed each of the nine adult elephants and the two babies (eleven months and 2 years old). According to the camp owner, this gave the elephants a chance to meet us and to understand that we nice and that we came with food rewards. It seemed that the elephants were just as curious about us as we were about them. They reached out with the trunks to take the bananas and sugar cane.

Kate & Phoebe w elephant

 The also searched the pockets of our mahout clothes for goodies and gave us sloppy elephant kisses with the trunks. During this whole introduction phase we could get right up next to the elephants, pat their heads, stuff bananas in their mouths and scratch them behind their ears. It was quite an amazing experience in and of itself. After this introductory session, we were given instruction on how to mount, ride, and control the elephants. This was a little intimidating for us all. Phoebe was especially brave, and with a little help, she mounted a large female that was probably fifty times her size (3000 lbs) and rode her around in a circle with the help of a mahout on the ground beside her.

Phoebe the Mahout

Phoebe the Mahout

After all this excitement it was time for a break and we had lunch. After lunch we all got to get on an elephant to take a trek into the jungle. Each elephant carried two people. The person in command of the elephant rode on the elephant’s neck right behind the ears and the passenger rode on the elephant’s back.

Phoebe and Jeff - into the Jungle

Phoebe and Jeff - into the Jungle

It was great fun and the elephants seemed didn’t seem the least bit phase by having an extra 200-300 lbs on their backs. (Part of the reason we chose this elephant park is because of there treatment of the animals. They only do one group a day with one trek per day, they do not use seats – which some feel are at least uncomfortable for the elephants and in the worst scenarios are painful for them, and this park is located on a large private preserve area so the elephants can roam when not working.)

Kate and Tessa on Elephant Trek

Kate and Tessa on Elephant Trek

After our trek, it was time to cool down and clean up. To do this we rode our elephants into a large 30×70x5 ft deep mud water pool. We then proceeded to scrub the elephants down, and get completely soaked in the process. It was great fun. Phoebe even got the opportunity to hop on the 2 year old elephant to sneak around and spray us with his trunk.

The Baby Attacks!

The Baby Attacks!

Scrubbing the ride!  It's wierd to sit on them while you was them.

Scrubbing the ride! It's wierd to sit on them while you wash them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This whole day was unforgettable and a wonderful experience that I know we will never forget. I highly recommend it to anyone making their way to Chiang Mai.

Up close

Everyone say "Cheese"

Our last major stop in NZ…..Ross
Feb 11th, 2010 by Jeff

Our last stop in New Zealand was definitely one of the best! We spent three days and two nights with a lovely couchsurfing host family just outside of Ross on the southwest coast of the lower island. Annie, Ted, Katie (13) and Jessica (9) – how perfect is that for a matching up with the Wells crew- took us in and showed us a great time. Even thought this part of the coast gets 250 days of rain a year, we brought good weather with us and had three straight days of glorious sunshine.

View down the beach at Annie and Ted's - not too shabby!

View down the beach at Annie and Ted's - not too shabby!

To really appreciate how well we had it with Annie and family, you need to understand their setup. They have this gorgeous house on 200 acres of land right up on the beach, with a wetlands preserve to the south and a river to the north that empties into the ocean.  On the farm they have cattle, horses, sheep, a pig, four dogs, and six cats (I think – we didn’t see the cats much). Needless to say the girls, especially Phoebe, were in heaven. They also have all the fun toys and things that go along with the farm: trampoline, kayaks, canoes, gold panning equipment and river rafts.

Some of the animals

Some of the animals

When we arrived at the home in the afternoon, Ted and the girls just happened to drive in right behind us. They warmly welcomed us into their home, gave us cold drinks and let us get a little settled. Once Annie got in from her work (she is a nurse) we ventured to the beach with kayaks, boogie boards and kids in the back of the pickup and the dogs running eagerly along as we drove down the access road. We made our way to the water. The kids, Ted and I traversed a little stream (that gets dammed up between rain storms) on the kayaks and boogie boards while Kate and Annie walked around to get to the ocean. The kids spent the evening swimming in the creek, while the adults walked the beach and collected stuff (needless to say, Kate has sent another box of rocks home to AZ). We also made plans for the next day. We ended our first evening, with a delicious late night dinner of pasta Bolognese a la Annie, and wonderful conversations late into the night.

Tessa, Jessica (left) and Katie (right) in the back of the truck ready for the beach ride

Tessa, Jessica (left) and Katie (right) in the back of the truck ready for the beach ride

Everyone, but Ted – who had to work, slept in the next morning. After my girls helped Katie and Jess move the calves from one paddock to another, Annie, her girls, Phoebe, and I went off for a haircut, leaving Tessa and Kate to fight over the computer (a good internet connection in New Zealand will do that to you). When we got back it was time to head back to the beach. The second day was much like the first evening, but with a few extra adventures.

First of all, we decided we needed to try a New Zealand specialty – mussels fresh from the ocean and cooked on the beach! We planned another walk to coincide with low tide and then found a rock covered in mussels. We picked two large grocery bags full, and brought them back to our beach site where we started a small fire. The kids and I all experimented with the best way to get the mussels in to the fire and cooked, while adding the least amount of sand to our meal. At first we just set the shells in the fire, which worked but added quite a bit of sand to the meal. We then placed them on large rocks we had set in the fire, which worked a little better. Actually, this amounted to the dogs getting a meal of fresh mussels, as none of the people wanting the extra grit with their meal. Finally Ted and the girls decided to use the shovel from the truck as a pan they could hold while the mussels cooked. This worked quite well (they even put water in the shovel to aid the steaming process). Tessa happily devoured a number of the mussels – looking somewhat like a Neanderthal, crouched over, pulling them apart with her hands and munching away. “It’s kind of like seafood gum!” she happily exclaimed.

Dogs waiting for Tessa to discard mussel remains - they went hungry!

Dogs waiting for Tessa to discard mussel remains - they went hungry!

While the girls were using the shovel, I decided to be a survival purist and wanted to only use items found on the beach for my portion of the meal, using a forked stick from the beach I continued to cook my few pieces on the hot rocks and was able to get a few cooked and eaten (but to be honest I think Ted and girls food was cooked better and less sandy).

Getting back to our beach walk that evening, after pulling the mussels from the rocks, we continued on down the beach towards an area that often has seals basking in the sun. We were not disappointed, as the dogs flushed a large male out of the rocks and into the ocean. They never really got close to him, so none of the animals were ever in any peril. On the way back to our beach sight, with mussels in hand, we then spotted dolphins playing in the waves. This was my cue to get back and get in the kayak!

I ventured out in the kayak to try and catch a glimpse of the dolphins and try to ride a small wave or two. The dolphins shot past me once while I was out in the surf. However they did not stick around while I paddled in the water. I did catch a wave or two (after being dumped two or three times – in my defense the kayaks didn’t have a fin and weren’t really set up for catching waves).

Getting across the "dammed" creek

Getting across the "dammed" creek

After the beach we headed back to the house for a proper dinner. While the mussels were a good appetizer, we really saved the vast majority of the mussels for dinner later that evening. We steamed two large pots of them. I made a white wine and garlic sauce and a coconut curry sauce, which were both quite tasty if I do say so myself. Ted also cooked up some fine sausages and no one left the table with any room, as Annie had also made a cheesecake dessert.

The following morning we got our things packed for the next part of our travels before the girls went off with Kate to ride the horses on the beach. From what I hear, Tessa was taken on more of ride by the horse, then actually directing the horse on where to go! But I’ll let Tessa tell that tale. While the girls were riding, Ted and I went off to see if we could find some gold near the creek. I am happy to report that we were successful. The tiny flake I found would probably only buy me a stick of gum- if that, but I’m sure Pappy would have be proud of me anyway!

Phoebe and Jess taking a ride on Gypsie

Phoebe and Jess taking a ride on Gypsie

It was with much sadness that we left that afternoon, in order to get back to Christchurch to start our journey towards Thailand. Ted and Annie said if we stayed longer and the weather held out we could all go rafting. (Ted is a conservation officer and oversees the area he lives in. He knows all the good areas to trek through). Unfortunately we had already purchased our onward tickets, or it would not have been hard to convince us to stay awhile longer. We hope that one day we might get back to NZ to take them up on their offer, or maybe they will head our way and we can return the hospitality they showed us. We would love to share Arizona with them.

Beer Update – Yeah Viet Nam!
Nov 17th, 2009 by Jeff

Yeah, beer is better in Viet Nam! Viet Nam has embraced the micro brewery model and it is everywhere. I unfortunately didn’t get to try it here until we made it to Cat Ba Island. There I was able to sample the local Bia Hia Phong (Hia Phong being the closest big city to Cat Ba Island). There was a hotel next to the one we stayed at that had two large golden kegs on a kart by the street. See photo below. A cold glass of beer was a whopping 5,000 VND (or about $0.28 US). The beer was a light lager that had a definite floral finish, quite refreshing on a hot Vietnamese day (the power was out and is was a little warm).

A tasty treat after a hard day at the beach!

A tasty treat after a hard day at the beach!

Since then we have made our way to Nha Trang (where I am at this very moment). Here there is a microbrewery called Louisiane Brewhouse – right on the beach, no less. I have already enjoyed a cold Louisiane Witbier and their Dark Lager, both quite tasty. The Witbier is in the classic Belgian style with coriander, orange and a special yeast culture. It complemented my fish curry quite well. The Dark Lager was also quite good and I had it as my afternoon dessert. It was still a lager so not too heavy, but it had definite chocolate notes which added to the roasted hops flavor. I think I may spend a little more time here. The beer is a little more pricey here, $1.75 a glass, but the ambiance is well worth it (wifi equipped).

Cheers,

Jeff

Last Day in China
Nov 16th, 2009 by Jeff

Our last stop in China was to be the (relatively speaking) small town of 2.6 million people. We had no real plans for our stay in Nanning, we just had to get there to be able to catch the train form Nanning, China into Hanoi, Viet Nam.

It was our first long bus trip and was quite interesting. Catching the bus was no problem, as our wonderful hosts from Yanshou brought us right to the station. We were told the trip would be six hours. It was a pretty nice motor coach. And, at no extra charge, we were treated to a six hour RAMBO movie fest (in English with Chinese subtitles). I think it started with Rambo 5 and was a countdown, but I don’t think I had actually seen any of the Rambo movies after the first one – back in the early eighties (and this trip just confirmed my sound reasoning on that decision – quite a bit of blood and gore with plenty of action, but very little in the way of plot or character development, no surprise there). I also found this choice of films a little ironic as we were on our way to Viet Nam. At the end of Rambo 3 (I think) we arrived in what we assumed was Nanning as, 80% of the people began to depart. The large group of non-Chinese speaking people all got up and did our best to ask the driver, “Nanning?” since there wasn’t any sign at the station telling us this was the stop. After some debate amongst ourselves, we all came to the conclusion he said yes, so we got off, retrieved our bags from the belly of the bus and marched off to the taxi stand (hoping we were in Nanning). Fortunately for us we were.

Tessa and Phoebe, the cool girls in the back of the bus!

Tessa and Phoebe, the cool girls in the back of the bus!

While we were planning on doing nothing but hanging out in Nanning, a local couchsurfer – Nancy Bushwell- had other plans for us. Nancy saw that we were traveling in China as a family and graciously invited us to stay with her on our day in Nanning. This could not have worked out better! Nancy is an English teacher at the University in Nanning, and asked if we would be willing to come and speak with her class about our travels. I’m sure you all know how shy and reserved we all are, so after about 2 seconds of thinking about it, we all said we’d love to do it.

We were able to spend about an hour with Nancy’s class the next day. The class was a group of about 30 students studying English to be translators. After we gave them a general overview on us and what we were doing, we split up and took a group of eight students for 10 minutes or so at a time. Then they could ask us anything they wanted to know, about us and our travels. There was a lot of good discussion. I talked about the interesting dichotomies we saw in China, for example the killing and dressing of a chicken dinner one block from the million dollar condo we were staying at in Shanghai and how that would never happen in the U.S. (much to their amusement). Tessa was asked if she had ever appeared on Gossip Girl because she looked so much like an actress, and the young men wanted to know if she had a boyfriend (we politely told them they were a little old for her). Phoebe showed pictures of our house and Arizona; and Kate told them, no we are not independently wealthy (although we do make quite a bit more then the average Chinese person). It really was a fun experience and I hope Nancy and her class enjoyed it as much as we did.

A few of Nancy's students with the Tessa and Phoebe

A few of Nancy's students with the Tessa and Phoebe

That evening it was off to the train station and on to Viet Nam. The train was fine, but customs wasn’t much fun. We had a wake-up call at 11:30 on the Chinese border to clear customs (about and hour and ½) then over the border to Viet Nam and another hour and 1/2 to clear our visas and to enter the country. We fell back asleep for 3 hours to arrive in Hanoi at 5:30 AM.

We pulled into the ramshackle station (not the main one) in the east side of town and were told time to get out. There were very few lights on at the station we grabbed our stuff and made our way out into the dawning day. We negotiated with the taxi drivers for a ride to our hotel. The price started at $10 US and we whittled it down to $3 (no one was running on the meter this early in the morning). We pulled up to our hotel, still shuttered for the day at about 6:00 AM and watched the Old Quarter of Hanoi come alive.

Our time in Guilin (and waiting for Kate and her new tooth)
Oct 30th, 2009 by Jeff

After a brief trip to the Chengdu Panda Reserve in Chengdu, and a “soft” lunch at KFC (Kate felt she had better stick with a known food choice with her newly repaired, temporary tooth, and she figured KFC’s mashed potatoes and fried chicken would work), the girls and I donned our backpacks, walked down to the corner and tried to hail a cab for the train station. We had ample time to get to the station when we left the hotel, but 20 minutes later we were still trying to find a taxi. Kate eventually stopped one, and Phoebe, Tessa and I drove off into Chinese traffic heading to the train. Fortunately, the station wasn’t too far and we managed to get there with a few minutes to spare before the mass boarding of the train began. Usually, we get there a little earlier and are able to board with the “soft seat” or “vip” pre-board. Phoebe and Tessa didn’t let the hordes of Chinese get in their way as we made their way to the platform.

The train trip – 25 ½ hours – was mostly uneventful. We were lucky enough to meet a lovely young Chinese tour guide. Jane spoke very good English and helped us with our questions regarding our departure and ensured we got off at the correct stop.

Our accommodations in China jumped up a notch or two with our arrival in Guilin. I had discovered a couchsurfer who also ran a contract manufacturing facility. Jenny; her husband Jonathan; her two children, Albert and Phoenix (ironic huh); Jenny’s parents and the nanny lived outside Guilin in a gorgeous 7 bedroom home in a gated community. Jenny had their driver meet us at the station and bring us to their house. A delicious Chinese home cooked meal prepared by Jenny’s mom was waiting on the table for us.

The day after we arrived we had a “recovery” day, as Phoebe was a little under the weather – motion sickness from the train. So the girls did homework and read. That night we were treated to Beijing Duck as our gracious hosts took us out to dinner. The next few days were spent with rather slow starts in the morning (Tessa and Phoebe into good books and me researching Yangshou and Vietnam) with site seeing in the afternoon. Tuesday we went to the Tiger and Bear Park in Guilin. There we saw over 500 tigers and probably 150 bears, all fairly well cared for in a huge reserve area. We stayed for the circus act, but decided to pass on the tiger feeding show (live bull put into a pen with 10-15 hungry tigers) as I thought this was a little more than the kids needed to see. Wednesday we explored the local shopping area ate some good pizza and sheppard’s pie at an expat restaurant and walked along the river. Thursday I was treated to a tour of our hosts business (a contract manufacturing plant) and the girls and I took a tram to the top of a local karst (a cool limestone mountain structures) at a large park. This park also has a toboggan like the one we rode at the great wall and this time Phoebe was not to be denied her own car!

Group of Tigers (waiting for the bull?)

Group of Tigers (waiting for the bull?)


Phoebe, Tessa, and Jeff at the top of karst

Phoebe, Tessa, and Jeff at the top of karst

Friday was the real day we had all been waiting for because Kate was getting back into town with her new tooth! But in order to pack in a little more site seeing (and so Kate could not say I was slacking on my duties to keep the educational tours going in her absence) we went to another large karst park in town and toured a large cave there.

Phoebe and Tessa in cave

Phoebe and Tessa in cave

From Gulin we made our way down to Yangshou on the Li River. But that exciting story will come with the next post.

Cheers,

Jeff

Beer continued…
Oct 7th, 2009 by Jeff

So far China has greatly underwhelmed me on the beer front.  Not that the beer has been bad, just nothing to write home (or on a blog) about.  Often it has been served somewhat warm and I have yet to find anything remarkable.  Most of the Chinese brews are of the “Budwiser” variety.  One beer did bring me back to the Bahamas, the Tsingtao Crystal - it tasted remarkably like a Kalik (Kate even agreed with me on that).  Derek – you’d feel right at home (accept you’d probably be the only caucasion guy with a Bahamian accent in the country).

But I haven’t given up on China yet.  I’m going to keep trying new Chinese beer at every opportunity – probably with some delicious and greatly underpriced food (our typical entrees are running a whopping $4- 5 US for a healthy portion).

Cheers,

Jeff

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