Friday, July 23, 2010

Three-day-tour to the Red centre

Dear sisters,

Gavin, our tour guide/driver/cook was a long legged, big-eared man from New Zealand. In a former life he toured Japan performing slapstick comedy, so if he needed to, he could grab our attention by setting fire to his head. He possessed a black belt in karate, but practiced non-violence as far as possible, since he knew how to kill a man with one blow.

Gavin would let one or two of the group, in turn, sit up at front of the bus, to experience the front seat view, and when he did, he talked animatedly, looking often at his conversation partners as he drove, lifting his hands off the wheel to underline a point. Nevertheless, we had full trust in Gavin, all twenty-three of us seated in the back of the bus, as we sped along the Stuart Highway.

Gavin entertained us with stories of former tour participants, like the lady who came all the way to the desert, but did not dare leave the bus because she was so afraid of snakes and insects, and then she was the one to find an ants' nest in her sleeping bag. Or the wealthy Swiss gay couple with huge suitcases, that got so fed up with sleeping in a tent, they offered to put the whole group in a hotel for the night.

We all laughed along with Gavin, who sniggered more than he laughed, but secretly we were quite happy we were there in wintertime, when ten of the twelve deadliest species of snakes in the world, coincidentally all living in the Red Centre, were hibernating, or so Gavin assured us. Keeping all our clothes on against the cold at night seemed preferable to shaking our sleeping bags out for insects and reptiles.

Gavin made us get up at 5.30 in the morning to walk the Valley of the Winds or Heart Attack hill at Kings Canyon. He let us touch “the Rock” but would not make a detour for a cup of good coffee. We slept under the stars at Gavin’s insistence. Gavin told us he tried to set fire to his house when he was five.

Back in Alice Springs , one of the thirty-five taxi drivers in Alice Springs told us to make sure to ring on time if we wanted a taxi around two ‘clock in the afternoon, because that was when the liquor store – 'the Thirsty Camel drive-through' for example, – opened for the day, and it was then they were at their busiest.

Another taxi driver told us that there were only 47 people in Alice that had lived there for more than 20 years and he was one of them. This is not hard to understand.

The Alice Motor Inn, however, has been voted best accommodation so far by the children. We think it was has to do with jumping space.

Now just landed in Queensland. Will keep you posted, but the Rendez Vous resort in Port Douglas could be a new contender for the top spot, if it is up to Jip.
Love S1

Sunday, July 18, 2010

How do you like your crocodile meat?

Dear sisters,

Random writing as I sit on the Ghan train from Darwin to Alice Springs.

I am very happy to be here for various reasons of chaos and confusion. We have, by now, made so many mini-trips, and consequently repacked our bags to store one half of our luggage and take just a few overnight bags, and then returned, preferring to keep the dirty washing together, that any order or searchability has long gone.

So far I know I have lost one blue hat from Panama (taxi) and my sunglasses twice, but the glasses turned up at in both cases, just lost long enough for a good morning of anxiety. I haven’t seen my Bali phone in a while, which is gnawing at me.

We returned late from our three day trip to Kakadu park at the Top End of Australia and as my husband picked up the rest of the luggage we had left in storage, I managed with all the confusion of being thrown out of our bus with our mini-bags, which were half open and overflowing, to leave behind my husbands toiletries bag, which included his glasses and only pairs of contact lenses. He can’t see much without them.

The next morning we had to catch the Ghan train at 9 am and the office of the tour operator didn’t open until then. We still hadn’t eaten at 9.30 p.m. and the children were hyperactive, fighting for the top bunk. We were staying in a family room of a cheapish hotel on the outskirts of town, where the phone didn’t get connected unless you paid a deposit beforehand and you would be thrown out for drinking alcohol on the premises.

The end of the story is not as climatic as you might hope, and does not truly reflect the excitement of the evening. Emergency numbers were called on Skype (at least we managed to get onto the internet), Corona beer spilled on the shiny bedspread, Thai take-away eaten on saucers at 10.30 at night, which, we all agreed, was rather good.

In the morning we heard the bag had been found and could be picked up at 7. Allard jogged into town and arrived back, with no minutes to spare, to leave for the train station, where amazingly we were all there - in the reservations system.

So here we are.

The Australians in Kakadu park lived up to their Crocodile Dundee reputation, joking about American tourists, their wives and vegetarians.

Crocodile skewers, buffalo sausages and kangaroo steak, one of the other or a combination of all three was on the menu all nights. Both kids loved it.

In the morning, fluffy white bread, toasted, with jam or vegemite.

We stayed in permanent tents at Sandy Billabong campsite, a popular one, where, several years ago, a German backpacker was eaten by a crocodile, after she and a few others decided to take a midnight dip.

Bump, bump. Bump we went down the sandy road in our four wheel drive, “Thrill me” written on the side in big green letters, bump bump, bump, before finally arriving at the parking place to join the forty other four wheel drive adventure tour buses, promising a unique and exciting adventure at the Top End.

The land and sights made up for not being off the beaten 4 wheel drive path. Swimming at Jim Jim falls and Maguk Plunge pool, after clambering over rocks and boulders to get there, were my favorite. The idea that most of this land is covered by a few meters of water during the wet season is hard to comprehend.

We saw fat crocodiles in the wetlands.

On the way back to Darwin, we stopped at a roadside bar, where men with bushy white beards, wide brimmed hats, khaki shirts, khaki hot pants and big booted hairy legs, leaned casually against the bar.

Real men. We saw them too. Alas, no photographic evidence.

Now to Alice Springs, where it can get down to freezing point at night. More kangaroo steak awaits us.

S3, I will be scouring the desert for ice cream stands.

Love S1

Friday, July 16, 2010

Czech Italy

Greetings from Moravia, the eastern part of Czech Republic. They say it is the czech Italy here and apart from the language difference and a few details here and there i can't really disagree. We had a very nice and cheap holiday here for five days , cycling around beautiful palaces , nature reserves and vinyards. We swam in lovely lakes surrounded by thick green trees and we ate lots of delicious food. What more could one wish for ? Icecream , yes. And now let me introduce you to one of my favourite czech words : Zmrzlina! What a wonderful word .

The presentation could have been a little more polished but simple is good and the message was clear .
We actually didn't get our icecreams here but around the corner where there was a little patio in the cool shade of trees. It looked much nicer but this one i found very impressive for some reason. I have decided to photograph icream parlour's around the world as my next theme. Dear sisters, would you like to join me on this mission ? Please photograph any icecream palaces you come across on your travels at home or abroad. Thankyou !

It is officially summer holiday so let us take a dip in a fountain pool to celebrate .I Will post soon and take care where ever you all are !

Love , S3

Monday, July 12, 2010

Saigon and beyond

Dear sisters,

Ho Chi Minh today is not the city I visited 17 years ago (17 years!). I think I recognized one roundabout. There are new roads, glass towers and expensive shopping malls standing next to the roadside coffee shops, where people drink together, sitting on tiny plastic stools on the pavement. Cyclists are hardly around anymore and the motorcycles have increased in numbers. The city seems to be booming, no longer hindered by the regime.

Obviously the same rules apply to crossing the road in Saigon as in Hanoi.

Wearing a helmet was made compulsory only a little while back. As a gesture, to avoid the fine, helmets are now worn in all shapes and sizes, which can be bought for less than two dollars on street corners. Safety does not seem to be the issue. The classic head covering helmet, ‘the electric rice cooker ‘as they call it here, is not in favour. The ears must be left free, so you can hear the beeping and honking of your fellow road users. Other than that, there are no limits. Helmets come in the shape of a sunhat, in the shape of a baseball cap or in the shape of a beetle. There are helmets with stripes, helmets with flowers or helmets with Winnie the Pooh. I got one with a stylish Burberry check running down the side. We also bought a bag full of mouth caps, worn against air pollution and the sun. We thought they might also protect against sandstorms in a desert at some point.

I liked the rows of ‘coffee with a hammock’ stalls on the side of the road, just after leaving the city, which allow weary travellers to drink a cup of the strong local coffee with condensed milk, and have a rest before they resume their travels.

In the bus: if Jip could keep the ice cube in his hand an ice cube until we got back to the hotel, he and his sister would be entitled to as much ice-cream as they could eat for the rest of their life. Rosie jumped up and down in her seat. Jip tried first by covering the ice cube with his hand to stop the heat getting to it and then holding it up to the blower, but he quickly cottoned on to it being a losing battle and sat grinning on the back seat, with a slinking cube in his hand, as Rosie urged him to stop it melting.

After this road game got everyone loud and excited, “the-ten-minute-of-silence for an ice-cream the next day” worked well. Rosie even stayed silent for two more minutes than necessary just to be sure, which was nice for all of us.

As you can see, ice creams are being used as a useful parental tool on our trip.
Unfortunately for the children, they cannot claim the promised ice-cream a day for the rest of the trip, "if the Dutch win the World Cup", which fortunately for us means we still have leverage.

We called the emergency number of the Dutch Consulate to find out where the Dutch contingent in HCM would be watching the Final, but ended up watching it in the lobby of our hotel with the night watchman, his friend, the receptionist and a lonely hotel guest who had also ventured down in his pajamas, as our time was 1.30 am in the morning. We brought our children dressed in orange and watched with the Dutch commentary streaming live from our computer, lagging twenty seconds behind the action, which is a little sad when you think about it.

We are now on our way to Australia, having just returned from our mini-trip to Cambodia to see Angkor and its temples. For us a highlight of our sightseeing so far; for the children not so much. “How many temples do we have to see today ?” they asked each morning. Managing expectations (“Five before lunch”) and a swimming break after lunch made it workable for us all.

How many temples can you see? We asked ourselves this question after the first hot day. But of the nine we saw, each one had something new, which we were glad to see; centuries old roots of trees growing through and over the temples looking like enormous pythons, giant squids or alien webs, made for strange viewing.

Visiting out of season has its advantages. We were often on our own, with the ruins, butterflies and grasshoppers to ourselves. Not to forget the girls and boys persistently trying to sell us bracelets, silk scarf’s and flutes. Compared to the Vietnamese, Cambodians have a good grasp of English we found.

We are now preparing ourselves for a change of scenery, diet and budget. It will be a shock to eat and drink for more than 20 USD with the four of us. No more Pho for a while and no more ice cold Tiger beer at lunch time.

On the other hand, I am looking forward to being able to understand our tour guides.



Sunday, July 4, 2010

On our way

Dear sisters,

I felt myself go through the stages; denial, disbelief, anger and finally acceptance. It started at the check-in desk for our flight from Singapore to Hanoi, where the unfriendly lady of Tiger Air, uttered the words: "where is your visa?" as she leafed through our passports.

"We are getting the visa on arrival" we replied cheerfully.

To be able to do that, she told us, we required a letter from the Vietnamese authorities giving permission to obtain the visa. Without it, we would not be allowed to board the plane.

I turned round to my husband, expecting him to be pulling a letter out of his package of holiday documents, but no, his face looked particularly drained of color.

We loaded all our suitcases back onto the trolley, as we were redirected to the customer service desk, where the good news was that the Vietnamese embassy was closed for the day, the required document would take at least 12 hours to process and Tiger Air did not fly to Hanoi again until Sunday and it was Thursday.

The problem was a misunderstanding with our tour operator, which, it soon became clear, could not be solved in time to let us fly.

To cut a long story short, we called our friends, we had left with a hangover that morning and asked if we could come back one more night. Jip pumped his arm with a loud 'Yes!". He had already expressed his desire to stay longer in Singapore, where he had got on well with the boys of said friends.

We had been too smug, congratulating ourselves on our organizational talents. Everything seemed to be running so smoothly. We had managed to spend a successful day at Universal studios, just missing the afternoon rain, we picked up our luggage with plenty of time to spare and even managed to repack the bags so they were all within the smaller luggage allowance of Tiger Air.

So, we had to be punished for our smugness. Not that it was terrible to spend another comfortable night in Singapore, but it was a little too much excitement for my liking.

We managed to get a flight the next day with a different airline and required document.

And now we are in Hanoi, staying in a perfectly nice hotel, of which the room interiors are clearly modeled on a Swedish sauna. "Really good design, don't you think?" Jip said after he had inspected them.

We arrived on Saturday 2, between dusk and dark, in time to see the Dutch team win, and as we drove into town, passing the lights of the karaoke bars, we saw a crowd of Vietnamese crouched on the side of a bridge. I asked our guide what they were doing. Our guide, named Son, with a funny accent on the O, whom we may call Sun, he said pointing to the sky, told us the people were trying to catch a breeze from the Red River.

One of the other things we did not realize before booking, was the climate at this time of year. We are traveling in a particularly hot season which may also include rain; it being the rainy season. No rain yet, but it is 38 degrees C, so any breeze is welcome, and an air-conditioned bus is no luxury.

Our guide is helpful and knowledgeable, although lacks a sense of wit and often keeps talking expansively on the history of yet another Dynasty, while the children are running off to climb yet another Vietnamese landmark.

He did give us some tips for crossing the road in Hanoi:

"Lights do not mean anything, do not look at the traffic lights, look at the driver, cross anywhere on the road, where you can, and walk in a steady pace, do not run and do not stop until you get to the other side. If you must stop, scream."

Today we had our city tour of Hanoi. The highlight of the day was shuffling with hundreds, in orderly communist fashion, under a blue canopy against the blazing sun, passing the guards in white uniforms, who did a toe pointed changing of the guards as we got near, through the massive and air-conditioned Ho Chi Min mausoleum, past the yellowed body of the man himself, before reentering the heat. Seeing a dead man spoke to the imagination of the children. The other highlight was Fanny's ice cream parlor after dinner.

Tomorrow to Halong Bay. Will keep you posted.