Our attempt at traveling the world

To see pictures of our trip = www.traveltheworld.ca 

Steve = Firefighter, age 40

Hobbies = Hockey, lacrosse, Snowboarding, playing with the kids and watching the Canucks

Favorite music = Sarah Machlan, Green Day, BNL, Brian Adams, Black Eyed Peas, The Who, Dixie Chicks, Michael Buble

Helen = Nurse, age 38

Hobbies = Working out, Volleyball and watching the Canucks

Favorite  music = Elton John, Sarah Machlan, Green Day,  Brian Adams, Rod Stewart, Queen, BNL

Nikolas = Struggling Student, age 9

Hobbies = Hockey, lacrosse, Snowboarding, Art, Game Cube, and making comics

Favorite music = Green Day, Nickleback,  Linkin Park, Good Charlotte, Black Eyed Peas, Sum41, BNL

Nikolas has written a story about every destination we visited

To read his stories go to www.traveltheworld.ca 

Danika = age 4

, Hobbies = Ballet, Babies, Drawing, watching Scooby Doo & Sponge Bob, also causing as much trouble as possible

Favorite music = Shania Twain, Hillary Duff, Green Day, BNL,

 

We used to live in Surrey , British Columbia , Canada

                             

          

The following information was written before we left on our around the world adventure

 

Steve's Story: (written Jan 2004)

I have traveled to many parts of the world and like many people have found that I just can't get enough. Helen and myself have both been to Europe , and when you travel for more than a couple months at a time, you will get the Travel Bug. One thing about traveling alone is you meet so many people. I have one word of advice for kids coming out of high school that don't know what they want to do: Get a backpack and hit the road! They will mature more on the road than they ever would in that first year of College, That's only if they don't know what they want to do. (That's just my opinion) I am not talking about heading to Hawaii or Florida with your buds for a couple of months. I am talking Europe, Australia , South America or Africa , and the smaller your group the better. I am fortunate that my wife loves to travel too, only she is terrified of flying, can't stomach ships or boating and gets car sick very easily. I know what your thinking, how is she going to make it through the next year without asking the Gravol Corporation for sponsorship?  I think the screaming children, and non-stop travel will hopefully get her through those first few weeks, and we will never look back. If not, we are in big trouble! 

Planning this trip? 

This trip has been planned since 2000 when I applied for a 1 year pre- paid leave from The Surrey Fire Dept. after being there for 10 years. In Nursing and Firefighting we get to see a completely different side of life. It can be very wonderful and rewarding, or it can leave you a little depressed.  For me, being a Firefighter is a childhood dream come true, and I somehow managed to get hired by a  fantastic Department and got to do a job that makes a difference. Planning a trip like this is tough when you have two children, a house, cars and aging parents. Our first task was to try and raise some cash to pay for the trip, and we guessed it would cost between $75,000 and $100,000 for the four of us for 12 months on the road. The real estate market had been poor for the last few years. We thought we would buy a house and fix it up and make some of the cash if the market turned. So we purchased a home, a real handy-mans special, and we planned to fix it up over 3 years and sell it in hopefully a hot real estate market. 

The number one question we get asked is "What made you decide to take a trip like this". Hopefully the next few lines will give some kind of answer.

 My wife and myself have been together for over 20 years, and are best of friends.  Like every couple, we've had  our ups and downs. Although our Marriage has always been on solid ground, it never hurts  to try and improve on what you have. I hope this trip will make us stronger. I always ask people who have been married for 50 years, what there secret is. And what's funny is, you would think communication would be #1, but respect and the joy of doing things as a family appears to be the most important. We came to realize how important traveling was before we had kids, and how difficult, or should I say different it became with kids. We thought we would wait till our kids got a little older before we did  any big trips, but some events happened in our lives that made us realize we should get on it now. From high school to the Fire Department I have always had a kind of care free life. I never took life too seriously, always playing jokes and having a ton of fun.  I still enjoy everyday, but life for us now has much more of a serious side and we try to cherish everyday now, because tomorrow may be so different. You see, we had not been to many funerals or had to deal with any sick relatives or family, so we were a tad immature and just took that part of life for granted. Then our perfect little world seemed to change in a hurry, and in a matter of two years, we started losing family and loved ones to cancer, mental illness and addiction. Those happy-go-lucky smirks we had on our faces were quickly erased and we found ourselves dealing with some very dark aspects of life. Having someone you care about get taken away from you can be a very difficult thing. I cannot speak for my wife, but there is one, or should I say, a series of other events that followed the ones I just spoke of, that changed the way I feel about life.

People, who find out that we are going on this trip, always ask the same one question: "What made you decide to take your kids out of school and go away for a whole year". I always give them a short reply without getting too personal, but I have no problem telling it now.  The next paragraph may seem like baggage, but it the most important lesson about life I was fortunate enough to learn. 

CARPE DIEM

 The one major event in my life that made me think about doing this trip, was when I lost my older brother.  He lost his battle with addiction and mental illness at the young age of 46. My family having to make the decision to disconnect my brother from life support, and then stay at his side while he left us, was a real wake up call for me. My family tried for two years to get my brother clean and back on track, but we failed and it was very overwhelming for everyone. Within a few months my wife gave birth to the most beautiful little girl you have ever seen! I know that's what all the dad's say, but this kid was a beauty, I'm telling ya! I had all but forgotten about the last few months and losing my brother, and was totally consumed with this new bundle of joy in my life. It was very brief though because our daughter became very ill and contracted a potentially deadly virus at 4 weeks of age and came very close to dying. She was admitted to our city's Children's Hospital.  I found spending time in that Hospital to be very emotional, and my heart goes out to anyone who has to go through it. We were trying to prepare ourselves that we might lose her, and I can honestly tell you that you can't prepare for that. We saw many sick children, many that never came home from the hospital and that was a very humbling experience. I felt weak and vulnerable, like I was losing control of everything that was important to me. I was having a very difficult time staying in Isolation with my wife and little girl, so I decided to go back home to be with our son and to go to work for a bit of a break and distraction. That proved to be a Big Mistake!  My first call after being on shift for only 3 minutes was a non-breathing 3 month old boy, who was dead when we arrived, but we spent half an hour trying to revive the little guy. That week of work was one of the most draining weeks of my career I can ever remember. In those first 7 days I returned to work, it was very busy, and three of our many calls involved children 2 months, 3 months and 11 years of age, and all had died or been killed. All of those events happened because of someone else's wrong doing and not the child's, and it made me feel really angry.

Our daughter was brought home to recover in the same week. Just so you know, our little princess recovered nicely. My wife unfortunately, now had another problem.  I had become very depressed, and it took me many months along with some help, to shake all those dark feelings. The Department I work for is made up of the greatest people you'll ever meet.  It's an organization that I feel very proud to belong to but, unfortunately, it was going through a tough time. Let’s just say some restructuring was being done and we had a new boss, the moral was at an all time low. I felt very tired and did not want to return to work.  With moral the way it was, I had been questioning myself about my career choice. It was in that time that I became the person I am now, and I can assure you I am very different from who I used to be.  I had two healthy kids and a great marriage, and my wife made me realize that all that started when we were able to bring our little girl home from the hospital.  I still found myself wanting a change though, so we started to examine our options. We started by looking into exchange and sabbatical programs, we chose a sabbatical. Of course my wife was supportive as always, and we started focusing toward this goal, well at least I did.

 And so that's it, that's how we decided to try and take this journey, it was our wake up call. We have an opportunity to try this adventure at a time when we can afford to, and at a time when we all have our health, which is the most important thing.

 In 2000 I applied for a  Sabbatical that took five years of payroll contributions which ,in turn, allowed you to take 12 months off with pay. So here we are, and we are very excited about this adventure and hope that we can endure the pressures a trip like this can put on a couple, never mind a whole family. My father keeps telling me on a daily basis how crazy we are to be traveling, especially now with all the problems in the world.

We had this great plan to sell our home (the fixer upper we had purchased) and use the profit we had made for our travel, even though our family and some of our friends thought we were nuts. Even our own parents thought it was a total waste of money and laid on the guilt by saying, "how dare you take the grandkids away from us for a year". My wife is very nervous about taking this adventure, and if I said lets cancel it, she would be O.K. with that. Our two kids have also let us know they are not happy about this silly plan, and they don't want to leave their friends. Our plan changed a bit in Feb, 2002, when a very magical financial event happened and we no longer needed to sell our home, and it made it possible to upgrade the way we see the world.

 

Helen's Story: (Written June 2004)

When I met Steve, my husband, just about 20 years ago, one of the things that attracted me to him was his sense of adventure.  We have a lot in common but one thing that is very different about us is that I am the biggest chicken in the world and he thrives on taking chances.  I was brought up in a very strict European household with a mother, who was absolutely wonderful, but worried about everything.  And well, yes, aren't we all products of our parents.  My mother has this amazing ability to call me the day before any trip we go on and come up with at least a hundred things that could go wrong.  Then she adds the guilt trip and questions why I would put my children at risk for nothing.  These calls come even if we are headed up to the local ski mountain for the day.  I resent these calls even more so because they always have the same effect no matter what; I always end up worrying about everything she cautions me about.  So when Steve asked me how I felt about this trip 5 and half years ago, I said 'sure' thinking it was a lifetime away.  Now that it's right around the corner, I'm starting to get cold feet.  There is no way that I will not go because I know this will be an experience of a lifetime but I have to be honest and say that I am scared to death.  But I also know that this is exactly what I need.  I just have to let loose and trust the fact that things will go wrong and we will deal with them as best as we can.  There have been many trips that I have been less than enthusiastic about but I have forced myself to go and without a single doubt I have never regretted the decision.  In fact on a number of occasions I have found myself thinking how sad it would have been if I had not gone and was not standing in the middle of a spectacular location having the time of my life.   I must go.

I have been a registered nurse for six years.  I have been fortunate in that I don't have to work very much and can spend a lot of time with my young children.  When I do work, it is a job that isn't always that pleasant but  is very gratifying.  When I worked on a Medical floor, I remember talking to many elderly patients that were in the last stages of their lives.  I would love to ask them questions about their lives and watch their faces light up as they told some incredible stories.  I would ask them their advice on life and their wisdom was very educational.  Most said that, of course, family was most important and many stated that if they had to do anything over again they would live life less seriously and travel much more before retirement.  Most had incredible stories of the many places they went and it made me want to do so much more so that when I am 90 years old I, too, will have wonderful, exciting stories to tell.

 

LIFE IS FUNNY

 

Written on Dec. 28 2004 at the airport hotel in Vancouver (day of departure)

Well, I just watched a 747 take off from our room at the airport and the more planes I see take off, the more excited I become.  Still quite nervous about flying and I keep telling Steve that the party will begin when we land safely in New York .  It has been a long and interesting journey to this point and I think we are both to the point where we just want to go already.   Enough talking, enough planning, enough worrying, let’s just go!!! 

We had a really nice, quiet Christmas in our cozy little B&B with our tiny little Charlie Brown Christmas tree.  We made homemade paper decorations and threaded popcorn on some string, it was really fun and the kids loved it.  It was a little hard for us to totally relax though, because we were thinking of all the things we had to do in the following days.  The 26th and the 27th were spent packing; both our luggage and the ‘stuff’ that had to be stored in our storage locker. As usual we were astonished to see how much stuff we had to put in storage and it took us two whole days to do it.  Steve’s idea of spending two days at the hotel at the airport has turned out to be brilliant so far.  We are able to relax and get in the traveling mode.  We are, of course, living out of suitcases and it gives us a chance to figure out what we need and what isn’t working.  Steve had to buy one more suitcase, two extra wardrobe cases and he had to bring out a duffel bag from storage just to carry our shoes and winter stuff for New York .  I know that he wasn’t too impressed with this but has been quite wonderful about it all!!  His threat to me is only that I have to be prepared to carry four bags by myself.  We’ll figure it out when the time comes.

It’s hard to believe that TOMORROW our journey really begins.  Wow, amazing.  All the thoughts going through my mind are making it a little hard to sleep, along with Danika coughing up a storm.  She caught the cold from me and I caught it from Steve.  It was pretty nasty and I guess you could say better now then when we leave, but we still don’t feel a hundred percent.  It’s funny because all these little things that have happened have taken my mind off the nerves.  Now as I sit here and wait I’m starting to get nervous.  But enough already, the count down is officially on, in just hours (well 31 actually) we will be on our way!  UP UP AND AWAY!!!!

 

 

 

A pre-trip hiccup

 (Written by Steve on Dec 5, 2004, 3 weeks prior to departure)

Well, we have almost everything in place for our trip, we just have a few loose ends left.  I had decided to go for a few tests before we go because of a few dizzy spells I have been having over the last few months. I have also been having some chest discomfort along with the lightheadedness, so my Doctor decided to send me for a stress test. I was not worried because my week consists of playing hockey two to four times, lacrosse twice and I jog on the days I don’t have any sports planned. Aside from feeling like I am going pass out every once and a while, I am in the best shape of my life. The morning of the test was a very busy day, so I headed down to the hospital on Nov 30 at 6am. When I got to the testing room they hooked me up to all these electrodes and had me run on this tread mill. I was running on this tread mill when all of a sudden I got hit with one of those spells, and the doctor asked if I was O.K. I told her that I felt dizzy, and at that same moment her computer started telling her my heart was not getting enough oxygen. They laid me down and told me that this type of result is usually from a blocked artery. I had a busy day ahead of me and thought I would just put it out of mind so I headed to downtown Vancouver for a meeting.  My mind was racing all over the place as I drove. What just happened I thought?   What am I going to tell my wife?  We are supposed to be leaving the country in only a few short weeks and I have no idea what all of this means. I would wait till 9:40am, because she would have had the kids at school and I would just leave a message, but she answered the phone and I got all choked up, and told her all went well and I would have to call her back when I got into the city. I arrived downtown feeling very sorry for myself and thought maybe I would walk the streets a bit and get my head together before giving my wife a call. As I was dragging my sorry butt down the streets, I spotted this homeless gent I knew. I walked over to a coffee shop and grabbed some soup and a cup of java and walked back to the homeless person. There he was sitting on the ground on the coldest day this year, with his Jesus loves you sign and his money collection can. I said “Hey Mel, how’s it going, aren’t you freezing you’re a$$ off?” He replied that he was, as I gave him the food. We talked like we usually do and I asked about his girlfriend and some other things going on his life. Mel told me that his old lady had just got off the heroin and was trying to get into a methadone program. He also told me the cops had been chasing her when she got hit buy a car and she was suing for one hundred thousand. I told him I was glad to hear she was off the heroin, but it was very important she got clean before she gets any large sums of money. Mel put his coffee down and looked me straight in the eye when he said “Listen to me, you can have all the money in the world, but you’re nothing if you don’t have your health”. I laughed and said thanks, shook his hand and headed off. I just got a lesson in life from a homeless gentleman and was no longer feeling sorry for myself, just terrified. I was in a meeting all that afternoon and when I came out I noticed a ton of messages on my cell phone. The 3rd message was from the intern who did the stress test.  She told me she had sent the results to a cardiac specialist at Vancouver ’s biggest cardiac hospital. The message said under no circumstance could I drive, go to work and I should try to stay away from any stressful situations. I am in the middle of the city at 4:30pm and it’s the peak of rush hour, so I did what any guy would do, drove home. I was told to go to emergency with my test results and they would give me an angiogram within a couple of days. I went to the Emergency of Vancouver best cardiac Hospital and they told me it must be a false positive because I was in great shape. I was booked me for an angiogram in Feb 2005 (4 months away) and I will most likely be bumped as the date gets closer because I am 40 and in good shape. I really want to go on this trip but our insurance will not cover me now with this possible blocked artery, so I can’t chance it if I am a walking time bomb. The best case scenario is that I have a small blockage and they can fix it, or I just have an arrhythmia. Then I think we can still pull this thing off, I hope. As of right now, we are going to keep the plan the same and I will pay for the test myself, and we will decide then. I am heading down to the U.S. where I can pay cash and get that same test in less than seven days. I am quite angry I have to wait 4 months here in Canada and wish I never took that darn stress test, because when or if the results are negative all this anxiety could have been avoided.

(Our Problem) We have sold our home and are renting a suite that we must vacate before the end of the month. We have sold both of our cars and are renting a car till the end of the month (Dec 04). We have every single thing we own except for the clothes we are bringing on our trip in a storage unit. We are within the last couple of weeks before we leave and the cancellation insurance company has said we can not get a refund of any kind because we are to close to the departure date. The (Cardio) Internist that I am seeing has told me we can not go on this trip. I am totally stressing out, because it is going to be way more stressful if we can not go. I guess the main thing is here, is to find out I am healthy. I guess?

(Written Dec 18, 2004) I just got back from the U.S. after 2 days in the hospital. I just had an angiogram and I don’t have a blockage. Geeez, that scared the hell out of me.                                                     

 I am happy, really happy! I had to spend the last 2 nights in hotel in the U.S. and the night before my Angio all by myself because Helen had to go back to Canada and take care of the kids, and I will tell you that I was terrified.  I am really thankful the test was negative. Less than 10 days now before we leave and I am still not sure if we can go because we still don’t know why my heart is not getting the oxygen it needs. The American Cardiologist thinks is confident it is an arrhythmia, but I would have to stay for more testing. Now I am really stressing out!

(Written Dec 22, 2004) We are back from the specialist and have decided to continue with our plans.  One of the Specialists told us not to go, and our family doctor told to give it a try, so that’s what we are going to do, give it a try. Our doctor told us that we can always come home if we have problems and he thinks that going on the trip might just settle down this whole arrhythmia thing. The last 3 weeks have been very stressful, we have seen a ton of doctors and we are both very tired. Getting on with this trip will hopefully be the best medicine a doctor could prescribe. If we have to come home and continue the testing, then we will. We don’t have a lot of answers, but the Echo and the Angiogram were normal, so the walking time bomb theory is out. Yehaaaaaaa!

(Written Dec 28, 2000: day of departure) We are in the Vancouver Airport and I am writing this last little bit before we leave for New York . We have planned this trip for the last 5 years and everything almost came to an end in the month before takeoff. I am so ready to just get the heck out of dodge and get this trip underway. For the first time I am starting to get a little nervous, cold feet I guess they call it. We’ll I have them!

                                                                             So having said all that! We both still have fears about getting sick or injured, or something happening that we can't control, but we can only hope that it will be a positively wonderful experience.  I do understand why some might not think this is such a great idea, and how we may be putting our kids at risk, but I think it will enrich our children's lives, and I hope that they will be better for it. What is important is that we are trying to live life to the fullest and we'll have fun wherever this journey takes us, I hope.

I think you need four things to travel around the world, the time off, the money to do, your health, and the will power to pull it off. We are very fortunate that we have the first three things, it’s that “will power thing” that will be interesting. How do you know if you can get along, or survive the tests of traveling as a family, I guess we find out soon enough, wish us luck.

 

 

 Special thanks to: Dr. Natha, Dr. Jaffer and Debbie, Dr. Warner, Dr. Kennedy and my buddy Jack at St. Pauls Hospital , and all of our family and friends who have supported us. This trip would not be happening without you guys,

Thank you.

 

We traveled across the West Coast of Canada and the Mid Western United States by car in 2003. We hit the Eastern Canada in the summer of 2004.

Our World Trip starts on Dec 30, 2004 in New York ,

Our tour will be 1/3 by Boat, 1/3 by Air and the rest by land.

Then as follows : Ft. Lauderdale, Willemstad  Curacao, Fuerte Amador Panama, Acapulco Mexico, Los Angeles California, Honolulu Hawaii, Kailua Kona Hawaii, Papeete Tahiti, Moorea Tahiti, Auckland New Zealand, Lyttelton New Zealand, Sydney Australia, Melbourne Australia, Adelaide Australia, Fremantle Australia, Padang Bay Bali Indonesia, Manilla Philippines, Nagasaki Japan, Osaka Japan, Keelung Taipei, Hong Kong China, Laem Chabang Thailand, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur Malaysia, Colombo Sri Lanka, Mumbai India, Dubai UAE, Muscat Oman, Salalah Oman, Aqaba Jordon, Marmaris Turkey, Naples Italy, Barcelona Spain, Malaga Spain.

We will most likely head down to Spain , Portugal and maybe the tip of Africa . Then work our way back up through Europe by land, and then hopefully fly to South Africa , finish in Australia . Most of the trip will be by the seat of our pants, so we don't really know.

 

Take care and we will see you all in 2006,

 

Steve, Helen, Nikolas, and Danika

 

The Start

 New York City

 

  We're Off and Running

Written by Steve - December 30, 2004

As you will find as you read along with us on our journey, you will find no matter what we do it will most likely not be the easiest way. We have some good friends who came to stay over with us and see us off at the airport, and that was wonderful. It was at that moment that it hit me that we will not be coming home for maybe a long time. The plane we boarded was fully loaded and we would have to change planes in Toronto, which normally is no big deal. The only problem was we had someone sitting in one of our seats and he was very drunk. His phone rang just before they closed the door of the plane and he started screaming into his phone, loud enough that the whole plane could hear him. The flight attendant came up to him and told him to keep his voice down and he just motioned her away.  This upset me and my kids because we were sitting right next to this guy and I was not looking forward to the surprises that were about happen on our 4 ½ hour flight. My son was next to me and I could see he was very upset, so I went up to the flight attendant and told her I thought this was going to be a very long flight and this guy was loaded. She understood and had the flight crew keep the door open and asked the gentleman to step outside the plane back into the gangway so they could speak to him. I then told my son to relax because that gent was not coming back. All we heard was about 10 minutes of yelling and screaming and then the plane door closed and we never saw him again. We had to wait 20 minutes for them to get his bag off the plane and without any other problems, we took off.
Nice start eh?

We landed in Toronto and cleared customs and hopped back on our plane to New York, no problem. We had a car pick us up from the hotel because we had 14 pieces of luggage and unless the taxi was made by Freightliner, it was not going to happen.
 


 

New York

I had been to New York once before back in October 2001, 3 weeks after the towers fell. I and my fellow Firefighters had joined hundreds of thousands of Firefighters from all over the world to support our brothers from the FDNY. We were greeted at JFK by the National Guard and their massive guns, and we had to strip off almost everything before clearing customs.  From there we were loaded onto a shuttle to our hotel for a bit and then straight to ground zero, well you all know about 911 but that was my only memory of New York.

Let's just say that I am very glad to be here in New York with my family as a tourist ready to ring in the New Year at Times Square.  We arrived at the Plaza hotel which sat right on the edge of Central park on 59th ave. at Central Park south. The hotel is very old and fully loaded. We had been traveling for more than 15 hours and needed some shut eye A.S.A.P. We were all ready to grab a nap, but Danika and I headed out into the streets, and I don't think I have ever held her hand that hard. We came back to the room and the other two were out like a light and we waited around the room for a couple of hours. We then did the Central Park stroll and took a cab to Time Square, so we could test how long it would take us to go and back for tomorrow night. Everyone we spoke to, told us to go the New Years bash at Times Square, that it will be safe, just stay on the outside perimeter. When you talk to people here, they all say its safe and they thank Rudy Giuliani. I read in the newspaper that the murder rate has plummeted from 2245 in 1990 to 566 in 2004. We feel very safe here. I will let Helen tell you the rest about our first day, but I would like to say one thing. We have done many things as a family in the last tens years, but I can not remember a day that way was any better than today. We were all very tired, but we had a great walk, a fantastic meal and the kids were awesome. I won't forget this day for a very long time.

Helen’s Version  

Staying at the Fairmont at the airport was a brilliant idea.  It was very therapeutic for the traveler that hates to fly.  When you sit there and watch plane after plane take off, it kind of takes the seriousness out of it.  I would sit in our room and think, Wow this is just in this city, think of how many planes take off at any given moment all over the world.  We also had some wonderful distractions.  My sister works at the airport so I tried to spend as much time with her as I could.  We went for breakfast and lunch and it was fun.  My mom and my nephew also arrived bright and early on the day we were leaving to spend the day with us.  It was wonderful.  Dear friends of ours stayed one night in the airport with us as well as their daughter was leaving for Hamilton bright and early the morning of the 29th.  We had left a message with friends and family to meet us at the Haida bronze monument at the airport between 3-7pm and the Beaumont’s and the Dennis’s came and we spent a wonderful 4 and a half hours drinking and visiting and making my nerves feel like jello.  The only downside was that there was a miscommunication with my sister and I ended up missing 2 hours of quality time with her as she could not find me when she came back with her other son after working a full shift at work.  She was not happy with me and made no attempt to hide her anger.  It made my final good-bye with her awkward and nothing how I had imagined it would be and for that I am very sad.  It was really hard saying good-bye to my mom.  Even Nikolas couldn’t believe she was crying and I think it bothered him to see that.  I did tell my mom earlier in the day, after she told me how nervous she was that we were going.  I said to her that she should remember back to when she was my age and she escaped a Communist country by running through a dark forest one night with my 5-year old brother.  I told her that the courage she had to do that and then come to a country with no money and no language and make a life for herself and her family is more dangerous than anything I am doing now.  I also told her to feel proud because she told me that she did all that to give her children a better life.  Well, I told her that I probably would not be lucky enough to do this amazing trip if we were still living in a communist European country.  She told me that yes, that did make her feel better.  And I truly am grateful for this opportunity of a lifetime.

 Waiting for our flight to Toronto was a long agonizing wait.  But finally we were walking onto the plane, me with my Ativan pill nicely dissolving under my tongue and Gravol working its magic on our children.  Our flight was to leave at 11:05pm but they notified us that they had to delay a few minutes because apparently Toronto instills a fine on all planes that land before 6:30am.  When we got all settled and cozy in our seats a couple told us that we were in their seats.  We realized our mistake and went across the aisle to our seats.  Well, there was a very husky, extremely intoxicated man sitting in my seat.  Steve told him that he was sitting in our seat and he very nicely told Steve to shut up and pretended to be asleep.  At this point, the Ativan and all my positive thinking went right out the window and my heart was beating a mile a minute.  Danika and I took the row ahead of this guy and Steve and Nikolas took the seats right next to him.  I was sitting in the very first row and the plane door was still open and I must say it took every muscle in my body to stop myself from running out of those doors, never to fly again.  At this point the guy’s cell phone rang and he was yelling at the top of his lungs into his phone in another language loud enough for the whole plane to hear.  Shortly after he hung up and told my husband a second time to get lost about the seats the flight attendant politely asked him to join her just outside the planes doors.  They had a very loud and heated discussion and much to my delight and I can confidently guess, the delight of everyone else on that flight, the door closed without him.  We were then delayed another 20 minutes while they found his luggage and got them off the plane as well.  I have to say, this is the second time we have flown with Westjet and we were once again very impressed.

The flight was wonderful, very smooth and it went by so quickly.  Danika slept the whole way but the rest of us had only little cat naps here and there.  Yes, I actually did fall asleep a few times, maybe my phobia is diminishing!!!!!  We landed in snow covered Toronto, went through Customs and boarded our flight for New York.  It took less than an hour and soon we had a spectacular view of NEW YORK CITY!  It was a beautiful sunny day and the city is humungous!

 

 

When we landed we had a lady waiting for us with the little sign and she was astonished at all our luggage.  We had rented a limo thinking that we would have more room but she proceeded to inform us that in fact a limo has very little cargo space.  Oh well.  It was fun driving through New York in a limo and the driver ended up giving us a 45 min. tour of the city and we found out that he is a boxer and his trainer use to train Mohammed Ali and George Forman.  His name is John Hill and he was very nice.

We arrived at the Plaza and it was a circus.  There was a line up for everything and it was just crazy.  Our room wasn’t ready but with us sitting there with two exhausted children and 14 pieces of luggage, Steve decided to take an upgrade that was offered at an extremely discounted price.  The room is nice, very elegant and grand but I have to say, for the price, I was expecting a little more, until I realized the prices in New York.  We actually have a beautiful view of Central Park albeit through a very small window.  That’s the thing with some of the Fairmont’s; they are grand old buildings with rooms that are smaller and by no means contemporary.  Some people really enjoy this; I on the other hand enjoy the more modern style.

After a 3 hour nap we decided to take a stroll through the streets of New York.  We walked across the street to Central Park and this sounds easy enough but noooo, you put your life at risk just crossing the street.  This city is crazy.  I have never been here before but I have watched my fair share of Sex in the City, NYPD Blue, and Third Watch and I can honestly say that the way it is portrayed in the movies is exactly the way it is, if not worse.   As you walk on the street all you hear continually, and I mean NON STOP is the beeping.  And everywhere you look you see yellow.  Yellow Taxis.  Everywhere!!!  And everyone drives like maniacs and the streets are so full of people you can hardly walk.  I thought it was like this because of the holidays but everyone we talk to says it’s actually quite quiet right now.  Oh my gosh.  It is unbelievable.

    

 

We then decided to hop in a cab and see how far our hotel is from Times Square.  Well, once we jumped in at our hotel it took the cab 20 minutes to make a full circle in traffic and we were right back where we started but going in the opposite direction.  All the while he is talking or should I say yelling, on his cell phone in a different language.  Danika, Nikolas and I were in the back seat behind the security glass and Steve was in the front seat.  We finally arrived and as we walked towards the lights of Times Square it was just getting dark and the experience was mind boggling.  It’s just so happening!!!  Does that make sense?  The lights are so bright and busy, moving and changing and you are pushed along by hordes of people and the beeping and the smells of the hot dogs and pretzels on every corner.  It’s just such a sensory overload.  I even said to Steve that it reminded me a little of Las Vegas but grittier and busier.  I wasn’t even sure if I liked it all that much, I think I was so overwhelmed.  But as we walked I started to take it all in and I realized that it is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.  We took the kids to the gigantic Toys R Us store and they were in awe.  There is this huge t-rex in there that is very real looking and every so often it lets out this incredible roar.  Danika was in her glory in the Barbie World section.  We wanted to go to a little restaurant somewhere and not a real commercial place like the Hard Rock Café.  We came across this pizzeria that looked good and clean and there were lots of people inside.  It was called Angelo’s Pizza on West 57th Street and it was excellent.  Steve and I shared a pasta dish and a cheese and proscuitto pizza and the kids shared a plate of Fettuccini Alfredo.  The food was delicious and Nikolas begged us for a New York cheesecake and it was fantastic too.  With full bellies we walked back to our hotel and are now getting ready for our first night’s sleep in this amazing city.

 

 NEW YEARS EVE

(Written by Steve)

We headed out for a little walk around the city and and we found a little deli and sat and had a few snacks. We saw thousands of Police taking positions all over the street corners and putting up barricades. We asked one what was going on and he told us they were getting set up to block all the streets. It was only 2pm and the crowd was already down at Times Square, and on the next corner about 2000 police were lined all the way down the block. I asked one of the NYPD gents how many members they were bringing for tonight's event, and he said that they had brought 10,000 off duty police back to work for Times Square and Central Park events. 10,000 WOW! Well, I started to wonder, what the heck am I doing here, never mind bringing my 2 little kids. We walked around and ended up at FAO Schwarz toy store. I felt safe there, but was certainly wondering if going out with our kids tonight was such a great idea. We had spent a couple of hours in the Toys r Us store yesterday, so why not spend an hour in this one today. After talking to the police, I had no problem spending our New Years in the store. This store was the most amazing store I had ever seen, it was 3 floors with everything from a vintage Barbie collection to a 50k Ferrari go cart . That's right 50,000 US for a go cart with a Ferrari shell and a Honda engine. When I asked if it was only a display, the cashier told me, they sold 3 of them just before Christmas. I guess the building and the crowds are not the big thing here, the Christmas trees and presents appear to be a tad larger too. What else was nuts, is we spent all afternoon in this store, and loved every moment of it. If you come to N.Y. City make sure you go to FAO Schwarz, with or without kids.  We went back to the room so Danika could sleep for a few hours and we could make a plan for tonight.

(Written by Helen)

After so many years watching this incredible moment on television, I had to pinch myself to make sure it was for real.  From very early on in the day the preparations were in full force.  I can honestly say it was a little unnerving to see sooo many police officers all over the place.  Some were in there regular cop uniforms and there were lots in their full riot gear:  with shields on these huge helmets, the biggest batons I've ever seen and some with machine guns dangling from their belts.  At one point during the day, a bunch of them had gathered in one spot and it was amazing to see thousands, yes I said thousands of police officers in one spot.  In one moment I felt really safe, and in the next moment I thought, "what the hell are we doing here?"  Looking around though, no one else seemed the least bit concerned so I just took a deep breath and tried to enjoy the experience the best I could.  The crowd started gathering at Times Square around noon but we decided that we would wait and kind of just hang out near the edges and be a few blocks away.  Little did we know that we would end up 7 blocks away with absolutely no view of anything except a blockade fence and a row of riot police.  We went to Mickey Mantle's Restaurant for our New Year's Eve dinner.  It was okay, not great but the memorabilia was fun to look at.  When we headed out to Times Square we walked three different directions with thousands of other people and realized that all the streets leading to Times Square were blocked off already by huge blockades and two police officers every 8 feet.  We had to walk all the way back to our hotel and along Park Avenue and to the end of the line.  We had decided to stand and just listen to the crowd because there was no possible way we could see the ball drop or even the lights of Times Square.  We stayed by the blockades and spent 5 minutes discussing our escape plan with the kids if there happened to be a surge of people for whatever reason.  There were a lot of drunken people but I was really impressed that nobody got out of hand and anytime something might erupt, a police officer would pop up behind the fence surrounding Central Park.  You didn't realize they were there until all of a sudden one of them would appear out of nowhere and the crowd would just settle down.  We stood there for about two hours and every few minutes you would hear a wave of cheering and hollering make it's way from Times Square down the seven blocks and then we would cheer too.  No one knew what we were cheering about but it was fun and the kids had a toot of their horns and it would get us all pumped for the big moment.  We started talking to some of the police officers at the blockade and asked them if we were safe there and they said absolutely, although I questioned that slightly as I looked up and saw three or four helicopters hovering above us with their spot lights checking out the tops of the skyscrapers around us.  They were actually very nice and at about ten minutes to midnight one of the officers asked us if our kids wanted a better view.  We said yes and he directed us down the street a bit to where there was an opening in the blockade fence.  He took us through the blockade, across the street that was closed off to the public and to the main street that leads to Times Square.  We were still 7 blocks away but at least now we could see the lights of Times Square and we could see the big screen with the countdown to midnight.  This was actually quite a big deal because as we had been waiting for 2 hours there were hundreds of people asking the police if they could just get across the street because they lived there, they even had i.d. with their addresses but the police would just shake their heads and laugh and say no way.  We thanked that officer profusely and brought in the New Year with a small but fabulous view of Times Square.  The roar from the crowd at midnight was thunderous and you could see clouds of confetti falling from the sky.  Everyone was hugging, even the police officers.  It ended up being a perfect spot for us because right at midnight there was a spectacular fireworks display right behind us in Central Park.  We started walking towards our hotel to beat the rush and everyone was saying Happy New Year as you walked down the streets, it was so cool.  All the doormen were out and every time you walked by they had big smiles and they were wishing everyone a Happy New Year.  I wanted to jump up and down and scream, 'we did it , we survived!' but I thought better of it and just happily made our way back to the hotel. 

 

 

Spooky = 10,000 NYPD Officers were brought in for crowd control, welded man hole covers and enough barricades to block off around Times Square for 8 blocks in every direction

 

 

NEW YEARS DAY

Jan. 1st, 2005

We've been getting up really late every morning because, first of all, we go to bed late and second of all, we are still three hours behind on Vancouver time.  We usually get up at about 10:30, have breakfast, shower and by the time we are ready to head out, half the day is over.  Hopefully this will change in a few days.  Today we decided to take a ride on the infamous New York Subway System.  We asked our Concierge the best way to get to Soho and she gave us directions and off we went.  As you head down the stairs into the subway station the odours that await you are quite interesting.  I would have to say that urine is the predominant smell and Steve (the germ freak) drilled into our children's heads that they were not to touch anything!  It is very dark and dingy down there and it feels like there is an earthquake happening as the cars barrel down to your stop.  We studied the map three times before we realized that we were on the wrong side and had to cross over the tracks to head the other way.  The car we hopped on was pretty empty and as you are whizzed along the dark scary tunnel you think back on all the things that can go wrong.  Well, I did anyway.  Fire? Collision?  Breakdown?  Hold up?  I know I'm stretching it but that's just how my mind works.  It took us about 10 minutes and I can say that our skytrain system at home looks brand spanking new compared to this system.  The windows are a little hard to see out of because of all the graffiti on them and the cars are a very dingy grey colour.  It was actually quite a cool experience and we arrived safely at Prince Street in Soho.  As we emerged from the bowels of the subway station we came upon Broadway and this incredible shopping district.  It reminded me of Robson Street but 100 times the size and 100 years older.  The place was packed with shoppers and as I have noticed since we got here the people dress very fashionably, we are definitely underdressed.  Even their casual clothes are cool.  Nothing like our nerdy fleece jackets and hiking shoes.  They all have these very funky jackets on with wildly coloured  scarves and everyone wears high heel boots with their jeans rolled up to the tops of them.  Some of the stores we ventured in to were very funky.  To give you an idea on the pricing I walked into this one store called Lounge because it said their sale was 50-75% off.  Excellent, except that the first little cotton blouse I looked at was regular $395.00US. 

We walked for hours and hours and when you look down any street it stretches as far as the eye can see.  This city is so huge it's unbelievable.  We walked down some residential streets as well and it was exactly how you would imagine.  These old brownstone buildings with iron gates around the front doors.  Each place has a few bikes sitting outside and there is a pile of garbage bags sitting on the curb.  I have not seen one garbage can anywhere.  Even in the really high end sections of the city, every night they put out piles of black garbage bags outside each building.  The mixture of people on the streets is amazing.  There are some yuppie-type people jogging or walking their dogs.  There are some seedy looking people hovering in front of some of the seedy pizza parlours, there are kids here and there and they all go about their business with no problems at all.  The culture mix is interesting too.  Lots of Hispanics, lots of Asians, lots of African Americans, lots of Middle Eastern people and they all hang out together in their separate groups. 

On every street there is about three or four delis, restaurants or pizza places.  It's hard to decide where to eat but we usually pick one that has a lot of people inside and that looks relatively clean.  We found a place called Mary Ann's (yes, the kids wanted to go there because of their aunty) and it was excellent.  It was this very neat Mexican restaurant and the salsa was great.  BUT, the margaritas were fantastic.  The sign outside the restaurant states that they have "killer margs" and the sign was right.  We had a great lunch and then decided to hail a cab back to the hotel.  Again, it is so cool to just stand at the street and wave your hand in the air and within seconds there is a cab waiting to whisk you away.  I'm starting to really like this place.

 

All the shows we wanted to see were sold out, like Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, so we got tickets for The Radio City Music Hall's Christmas Spectacular Show starring The Rockettes.  I thought the show was fantastic even though Christmas is over.  Steve said he liked it but I know it wasn't his kind of thing.  Nikolas thought it was okay and Danika liked it but I could tell she didn't love it like I did.  When the Rockettes came out the first time and started to do the can-can all in a row like I've seen so many times on T.V. I almost got choked up.  I know that's silly but I thought it was pretty amazing.  This was the second to last day for the show and they have been doing shows five times a day since early November.  You honestly cannot tell that they are doing the show for the 200th time, they have so much enthusiasm.

After the show we walked to Rockefeller Center and admired the huge Christmas tree and the crowds of people skating on the rink right under it.  It was freezing outside and we didn't bring any big jackets with us because the weather has been so mild.  We then decided to walk to Times Square to see if the Toy R Us was open because we promised Danika that she could use her Christmas money to buy something.  The streets were so packed as we walked that it actually kept us warm.  All the stores (except Toys R Us) were open; now you have to remember it is about 11:30PM on a Saturday night on New Year's Day.  Unbelievable!!

On the way back to our hotel we stopped at a deli and had some spaghetti and meatballs.  It was alright, not great but we were all starving so it hit the spot.  We walked back to our hotel and were in bed by 2AM.  Another wonderful day in New York City!

 

Jan. 2, 2005

Once again we woke up at 10:30am and had our room service breakfast in our room.  This time it was closer to 1pm before we ventured out.  We decided to take a cab to Ground Zero as I have never seen it before and it's been over two years since Steve saw it.  When we were dropped off there it felt surreal.  There were lots of people there but you could tell that it was a somber mood and there was not a lot of chatter or laughing.  You walk down these cement stairs into a sort of viewing area that is encompassed by a huge chain link fence and a mesh blockade.  It really was hard for me to even imagine the full scope of what happened there as you stare into this huge piece of land that really looks like a building site.  As you look up and around you can still see the damage on some of the surrounding buildings, especially the older ones that are difficult to totally repair.  The newer glass buildings all have their new glass in so they look brand new but the older ones that are made of brick have chunks of building missing and presumably never to be repaired.  All around the site there are pictures of what the towers looked like as they were being built, what they looked like before they were hit and what they looked like after they fell.  There are 4 or 5 signs with lists of names on them with the heading: "Heroes of 9/11".  I was very impressed with the memorials as they are not super fancy or super patriotic like I had expected.  They are very tastefully done and you can tell that what happened to this city is something that hit them harder than anyone can really imagine.  I have to confess and say that I am not a huge fan of the "American way" but standing there I felt a sadness because I realized that the people in this city are innocent hard-working individuals who love their city for what it's worth and are now determined not to feel anger or hatred but to overcome this evil by joining together and rebuilding.

 

  

 

From here Steve wanted to walk to Battery Park and along the way we stopped into a neighbourhood boxing club.  Nikolas thought it was the coolest place and we ended up talking to the guy at the counter who was originally from Toronto.  He told us that there have been quite a few movies filmed there and just recently the contestants from America's Next Top Model had been in to film a segment.  (I saw that one!)  Battery Park is where you can hop on a ferry to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.  We didn't but we got a great view of her and that was very exciting.

From here we decided to go to the Empire State Building and when we got there the wait was two hours so we decided to come back later.  We then walked for hours again in and out of stores until we finally made it to Macy's. Wow, what a place.  Nikolas said it best when we arrived there and there was this big sign stating that it was the biggest shopping store in the world.  He said, "why does New York have the biggest EVERYTHING?"  We laughed as we walked through floor after floor of Macy's.  They even have their own D.J. playing music throughout the store.  From there we took 2 hours trying to find a place to have our final dinner in New York.  We were trying to find a perfect 'New York' eatery but ended up at the Olive Garden where we had a fabulous pasta dinner instead.  From here we walked back to the Empire State Building and went up and watched their Imax theatre show where you sit in these seats in front of a huge screen and when the show begins the seats move and it feels like you are flying over New York City in a helicopter.  A few people in the audience even got a little motion sickness but the kids loved it especially Danika.  After that we went up to the observatory which is 86 floors up and the view is breathtaking.  I kind of wish we had done this the first day because it really does give you an idea where each section of the city is and the major streets that connect them.  You actually walk outside and it was a little scary when a plane flew by quite close, or so it seemed, to the top of the building.  Everyone kind of looked up and you could hear a little nervous laughter here and there.  As touristy as it seems it certainly is a must see and it reminded me of all the movies that had references to this incredible architectural marvel.

 

(Steve's two cents) 

I love New York! I love everything about it except for staying in a hotel, it would be much better staying here with someone who lives here. My favorite thing here is the taxi rides. If you have never been in a NY cab, go rent the video game "Crazy Taxi" and play it, that's exactly what it is like. Like most Americans I have ever met, New Yorkers are super friendly and polite. We have been treated as well or better than in Canada, and people have often gone out of their way to help us with directions, telling Helen she will be pick pocketed when she had some money sticking out of her back pocket, and entertaining our kids. We are leaving today and I hope we come back and see all that we missed like Long Island, Harlem, Bronx zoo, Coney Island and a Rangers-Canucks game.

 

FT. LAUDERDALE

 

 (Written By Steve - January 5, 2004)

We pulled into Ft. Lauderdale around 8:30 am and grabbed a cab to the south side of the beach around 10:30am; it’s only a $10 cab ride from the ship.

Long known as the party capital for spring break bad behavior, Ft. Lauderdale has rid itself of that reputation since the late 1980’s. This place is a very busy cruise ship port and tons of huge incredible yachts. The beach strip has numerous bars, restaurants and shops. The strip is far more sophisticated than its spring break image, with its huge homes and high-rise hotels. The beach itself is wide, combed with hard packed sand, and the surf appears to be a little to rough for swimming. Most of the people are doing exactly what we are, sun tanning, playing and just relaxing. Yes, you heard me right. I am actually relaxing! The wide roads along side the beach are popular with joggers and inline skaters. You can take a boat trip along the intra coastal waterway, where large homes, mansions and manicured lawns line the waters edge. After a few hours on the beach, some lunch and after hitting a couple of shops to pick up a few things, we headed back to the ship.

 

 

 

 

Willemstad, Curacao - Arrived January 8, 2005

 

(Written by Steve Jan 8, 2005) - received January 8

We have arrived in Curacao

 
We can not get a full story out not even from the phone, so I give the skinny on the ships system. The seas have been really rough, and last night was a killer. Well at least we thought so, but the crew said those were only ten foot waves. They told us they had just got hit with 50-60 foot waves before arriving in New York and bigger ones when they were crossing the Atlantic,. Great! Helen is not doing well at all, and we were told to just get to Curacao and it will be the first magical part of our holiday. The beaches are spectacular here, but we have only one problem. We are in a monsoon, and rocks and trees are moving onto the roads and places are flooding. Well after getting hammered in our room for the last 2 night, we went to beach anyway. The Taxi floated through the streets and dropped us off at a wonderful little beach. We played soccer and looked for shells (Yes in the rain) and then we went to one of the many grass huts for lunch. It was fantastic, and as long as you did not look outside. Danika said she wants to move here. So far every place we have been, one of the kids want to move there, or Nikolas as Nikolas would say "Lets just buy a cabin there"  We then grabbed a taxi and toured the island, and Curacao is one of the prettiest place I have ever seen, except for the refinery or two in every city you drive through.
We will send out a full story as soon as we can get our phone to transmit it, maybe from Panama city. Helen is going to try and go to bed early, as she is not looking forward to the next 2 days in the Caribbean sea. She heard it's snowing like crazy back home, and would love to be there if she could. Talk to you from Panama City,
 
Steve

 

(Written by Steve Jan 8, 2004) - received January 11 

I am still trying to figure out why this ship comes all the way down here to Curacao, it’s a really long way from Florida. Then we get back into the roughest sea I have ever been in (Caribbean Sea) and burn all the way back up to the Panama Canal, it’s a long way. Hey, don’t get me wrong, Willemstad is a very cool place and I am very glad to be here, especially since it’s dumping snow back in B.C., but we are here for only a day.

Curacao was protected by the British in the 1800’s and then turned it over to the Dutch in 1863. The Royal Dutch Shell Company chose to come to Curacao with its perfect harbour and political stability. The site was an excellent location to build a refinery and process Venezuelan oil. The refinery brings prosperity to Curacao and people come from all parts of the world to work here.   Willemstad is the capital and full of 18th century Dutch colonial houses that look over St. Anna Bay. The island itself is 60 km long by 12 km wide and has a population of 175,000. The currency is the Netherlands Antilles Florin and Guilder. I have never been to Bermuda, but I have always imagined it would look just like this place. Except Willemstad has a lot of refinery stacks and it kind of takes away from the whole cute Dutch feeling thing.  It is really beautiful here and you can walk right into town from the ship, and not even the rain will stop us. After getting roughed up for the last two days by the ship, it’s so nice to be on land. We are going to spend most of the day at the beach, even with rain. I didn’t think Helen was going to be coming right away, because she did not sleep a wink last night due to the rough seas, but she got up and we all went to the beach.

The beach is nothing less than superb; it stretches out in the shade of coconut palms and is completely vacant because of the rain. The beach we are on is called Kontiki Beach and is located right next to the Breezes hotel and the Plaza. This place is usually humming with activity I’m sure, but not today, we were the only ones. We did a bit of shopping and had been on the beach for about and hour playing soccer with Mark from Amsterdam. We then went to a bar restaurant located right beside the beach, it was very tropical. There were about 20 grass huts that hold 6 people each and someone from the restaurant comes over and takes your order. This was very cool and we were glad the rains had let up a bit so we could relax and have some food and drinks. Our Taxi driver came back and picked us up and took us for a tour to a bit of a tourist shops that overlooked the Spanish Waters Bay. In the bay you could see a big oil rig that had been brought in for repairs and it was cool because we have never seen one before. After about an hour of sightseeing, Franklin (Our Taxi Driver) took us back to the ship. It was a great day considering it monsooned down rain till 3pm and then lightly rained for the rest. Back to the ship for another bumpy ride to Panama City.  I really hope not.

 

                

 

Fuerte, Panama - arrived January 11, 2005

 

(written by Steve - received January 10, 2005 )

 

Hello Folks,
 
We just went through the Panama Canal, in the Caribbean sea in the morning and Pacific in the afternoon. What an amazing trip that is going through the canal. I know many of you have done it, but we never have and it was absolutely incredible. We have tons of pictures and we are also fully loaded with stories, only one problem. We can't get you the dang things. We hope to have them posted, well at least the stories on the web page by the 14th or 15.  Nikolas is writing up a storm and having the time of his life.  Danika is getting a huge head and can barely walk anymore because everyone on this ship thinks she is just the cutest thing. They have not seen the little princess when she has not had enough sleep and does not get what she wants.  Anyways we are all having a much better time, even Helen has found new life. She has even wrote a little story, even though I can't get it to you. The problem is the ships email is like 14.4, and it would take 1/2 hour to get out 100 word story. I usually load them onto my phone and send them as a text, but I can't log on to this Central American network.  So I am mailing the pictures to Captain Ron (The Webmaster) and I hope to send the stories when we get into Mexico in 4 days. I guess I could try and find a Internet Cafe in Panama, but Nikolas and myself have been invited to go to an Indian Village. We are taking a coach into the jungle and then paddling 40 minutes across some alligator infested swamp to a native village. I am not kidding, Helen was going to go but the guy on the ship who is putting it together said it would not be safe for Danika.  So at that's when Helen said she was out too, but we are going to go with about 12 other people from the ship. So I have to be quick, and please excuse the spelling errors, as this is just an update and I'll replace once I get online.
The trip so far is going great, the seas roughed us up a few days ago, but we had one nice day and Helen got to sleep and has relaxed a bit. The seas were so rough and the ship was rocking so bad that our porthole was actually under water at times. I have a picture, and it was kind of freaking us all out. I love everything about this ship, from the crew to the layout. Everyday we meet a few people who just enrich our lives with their stories about life and about the travel they have done over the years. Some folks have come on this cruise to get away from little kids and make no bones about letting us know we are out of bounds. We just ignore those folks and have a good time in spite of them. The kids are having a blast and everyday seems to bring them something new. Helen is not happy about being in the Pacific because she is terrified of the crossing to Hawaii. Oh well, we can't turn back once we start across so we will let you know how it goes.
 
Please give us a couple of days to get those stories posted and we will talk to you then.
Take care and miss you all,
Steve

(by Helen - received January 11, 2005)

Well, here we are in Panama.  The canals themselves are absolutely mind-boggling.  We hear people say that it's their fifth or sixth time through and it's still exciting and we can now understand why.  When you read about the construction, the fact that the locks are almost 100 years old, it is truly amazing when you enter a lock and look at the gates and the walls that have endured for so long.  Our ship just barely fits through.  There is literally just three feet on each side of the boat and the ship is almost too long.  It costs the Cunard line 250,000 dollars to pass through the canals because of it's size and because it is a passenger ship.  It is amazing to go through and have a cargo freighter right beside us within a few feet going through the locks right beside us.  There is one point where we pass a building and there are hundreds of people on the decks and they are all cheering and clapping as we slowly float by.  It is amazing to watch as we enter a lock and we wait for the gate to close behind us, then they empty the water from the lock we are in and it lowers the ship about 45 feet.  Then the front gates open and we slowly sail on through.  You do that a few times until you reach the Pacific Ocean (starting from the Caribbean Sea).  We started at 8am and were done by 5pm, it is an art in itself.  Beside the ship on either side are these carts on rails called mules and there are about eight of them, four on each side.  They have these cables connected to the ship and they roll along beside us making sure we don't hit the sides.  The tension in the cables keeps the boat straight. 
We anchored today off of Fuerta Amada which is a short distance away from Panama City.  It was very hot and muggy, someone said it was 110 degrees out.  Steve and Nikolas went to an Indian village today.  They were in a canoe that took them up this lake to this authentic village, where they were greeted by the wonderful people.  Steve said that the ride up was quite interesting.  The canoe is just a dug out log with a motor on it and every so often they would ground out and almost tip over.  They were wearing life jackets but Steve said they were told that there were vipers (snakes) and crocodiles in this lake.  Yikes!!!  Once there though, they had an excellent adventure.  They ate authentic food, they watched the local dancing with drums and homemade instruments and Steve said that the locals actually put on some clothes for this visit, normally they don't wear much.  Nikolas was given a homemade bow and arrow by a local who said he was the first young boy to visit his village.  Needless to say, Nikolas was thrilled!
We are now headed back to the ship and are at sea for two days on the way to Acapulco.  Hopefully it will be a smooth ride and hopefully by the time we get to Los Angeles the bad weather there will pass. 
Take care and talk to you soon!!

 

Panama Jungle - RAIN FOREST AND EMBRA TRIBE  

(written by Steve - received January 15, 2005 )

 We just went through the Panama Canal yesterday, and I can only say that it was one of the most spectacular things I have seen in a long time. I never knew 25,000 people lost their lives making the railroad and 85 million gallons of fresh water move out of that lake with every ship’s pass, that’s right, 85 million! And the gates are the original ones from 1914. What part of school did they teach this, and where was I? The price for the Queen E to go through is 250,000us not 92,000, and it will be twice that for us to go through the Suez. Anyways I was so blown away with all that I could not imagine anything on this trip affecting me the way the canal did. I had kind of wished it came a little later in the trip because we now don’t have anything that cool to look forward to. Boy, was I wrong, less than 16 hours later Nikolas and myself went on a trip that he nor I will ever forget.

We left the ship at 7:30am and boarded a tender to take us ashore near Panama City to a place called Fuerte Amador. Waking up Nikolas at 6:30 in the morning is never an easy task, but I was surprised how easy he got up considering he never got to sleep till 11 pm. I was very surprised how many people had heard about this trip into the rainforest to meet an Indian tribe. The region we were going to was the jungle area that was up in the mountains behind the City of Panama. There were two cruise ships in that morning and many of us wanted to go to this part of the jungle and see one of the 4 tribes that lived in the National park. The tribe we were going to see was the Embra Tribe and lived the furthest way up the river. Panama is right in the middle of its dry season and the river we were going to go up was very shallow. The crocodiles and cayman would not pose any problems because the river was quite cool, so they would come down to the lake and sun. If there was going to be any problems it would be with one of the 40 types of different snakes in the region. Our translator and guide (Anna) told us that the tribe would have all the dogs out and let them run around to keep the snakes away. Oh ya, that made Nikolas and myself feeling real secure about our little adventure. Originally we were all going as a family, but one of the directors asked if the boat overturned would Danika be able to swim on her own. We had no idea what kind of boats we would be getting on and no one said anything about Crocs and Snakes when we agreed to go. I am so glad we went, but if we had all the info right from the start, I don’t think we would have taken the chance with Nikolas. Anyways we got on a bus and headed through Panama City and up the mountain to the national park reserve. Forget about the reptiles, driving through a 3rd world country like this was your best way to get killed. The drive lasted about 1 1/2 hours and was very entertaining, but we made it and the boats and tribesmen were waiting for us at the lake when we arrived. The canoes were carved out of a single trunk of a tree and were about 35 feet in length and each one had an 8 hp motor on the back. I was thinking, was this some kind of a setup, with the locals dressed up with a couple of handkerchiefs for Speedo’s to make some quick cash off the tourists? That all changed when I heard them speak. This was no act, these folks were most definitely from the jungle and now I was getting a little bit more nervous. Of course like any blind tourist I was willing to risk myself and my young son for a little adventure, because we had already come all this way. O.K. not really, there was only one time on the whole trip, when I felt we were in any danger. And that was when the canoe almost flipped in the river after we hit the bottom on the way back. That was the only time. So lets move, because Helen might read this and then I’ll be in real trouble, I can hear her “what are you nuts” she’ll say. We crossed the lake and made it half way up the river with no real problems, but then we came to shallow water. We stopped and the tribesman gunned the motor while the other tribesman used poles to push us off. After about 45 minutes in the canoe, we came to a spot where women wearing beautiful skirts and head dresses were on the shore greeting us. Anna, our guide gave us a quick lesson on what we could do and what we could not. Pictures were allowed and we could go into their houses if we asked and were given permission. We were welcomed by the chief and his greetings were relayed through the translator. He told us that he moved the tribe (4 families) there from the Columbia / Panama border just over 30 years ago. We were told that the gorilla army had come to that area and was attacking the women and killing the men, so they had to move. The village now had 24 families for a total of 92 people. The greatest celebration in the tribe is when a girl becomes 15, and that is the day that she is a women and they have a great celebration. He also told us that they do not mate with their own tribe, you must leave the village to find a sole mate. They do not marry but will be with their mate for life. If a Westerner comes into the tribe and falls in love with a tribal member the member must leave the village.

Walking through the village was like being on assignment for National Geographic, and Nikolas was in awe. This was one of those moments when a father and son share something that will be with them forever. I can honestly tell you that I absolutely loved watching Nikolas in this environment, and it did not hurt that he came running up to me every 2 minutes saying, “ Dad come and look at this”. We were told not to wander out of the village and to stay close to the houses, but I wanted to see the water pipe up the hill, so I headed up there a bit. Nikolas would not come, he went to the craft table instead. I heard that they had some running water and they had a ½ inch piece of poly pipe that ran down to one of the little shacks, with a facet on it. Later I was told that the pressure from the river pushed the water up to this one tap and they used it for everything. They also used the river for everything from food source (Fish), to bathing, to transportation, to washing laundry. They don’t have much laundry because they mostly walk around naked, but the adults were wearing clothes for our visit. Nikolas came running up to me and said “dad a man wants to talk to you”, so I headed over to the crafts area. A tribesman came up to me and said “I give this to your boy, he is first boy to come to my village”. The man (Mattu) gave Nikolas a bow and one arrow to hunt with, he said. I asked how he knew English, and even though it was only a few words, he said he went to a school for a bit in Panama City. Mattu cut his hair like a westerner, and said he knows someone who went to California so he keeps trying to learn more English words. I was very humbled by his gift and Nikolas wanted to go get Danika and Helen to see if we could move there. For a kid who did not want to come on this trip, I was very surprised by the statement that he said and has said at every port we have been to. You know I could move here, he would say. I laughed at it everytime, but was very surprised that he was willing to move to an Indian Village in the middle of the Jungle in Central America. I think there are very few times that you can actually touch or affect the way a 9 year old feels. I don’t think things are that important in a young kids life, and they very rarely get the message, if you know what I mean. Well let me tell you that this kid just got rocked and was very aware of how these people lived and he really enjoyed their lifestyle. He told me that he wanted to help Mattu and the tribe by maybe giving them money because he thought it would help. Yes, this tribe did use money unlike some of the others, but only to buy rice and fuel and metal parts for crafts and some electronics. I told him that they did not need help, in fact they were probably living a better lifestyle than us and that Mattu did not give him the Bow and Arrow to get money. Nikolas was not convinced, but he was glad that they had everything they needed and he was so happy he made a friend. I’ll try and get the picture online of Nikolas and Mattu, it’s a keeper.

There was a man in the village that was bitten by a viper and survived, he did almost die and was missing most of his lower calf. He was the son of the medicinal healer and even though he did end up going to the hospital, he was treated in the village with roots and herbs for about 3 weeks. I can go on and on about this place, but nothing I say will do it justice and I will never forget the gift it has given me and my young son. I know I just said this yesterday, but I can’t see anything that will have an affect more than this adventure, that’s why I am glad I took so many photo’s. Most of the pictures I took are of the young kids and babies playing and running up to you. There was this one little guy (2 year old) who would grab onto you when you knelt down and just touch your clothes and look into you eyes and just laugh and laugh. I have many pictures of this little nino, and I will ask our webmaster if he could make a separate photo album for this place, so I can show them all to you. I am going to stop because the pictures will tell the rest of the story and hopefully inspire you to travel to Panama and see all it has to offer. This place still has a 3rd world feel and I am sure the drugs still move through, but the people, water, city and culture are worth coming to see.

I really wish Helen could have seen this wonderful place, but I told her we will just have to come back. Yes, Helen and Danika could have easily made the trek, but taking a 4 year that cannot swim is not a smart thing to do . It would have been great for her to see it, but we didn’t want to take the risk.

 

 Next stop Acapulco

I have never been to Mexico, but one of our friends (Vanessa) lived there for a while, and her stories have always made us want to go. I am sure it’s going to be hard, but we will try to get away from the all inclusive beaches and the tourist traps and at least see a little of real Mexico.

Take care, 

Steve

Acapulco, Mexico - arrived January 14

 

ACAPULCO

 (Written by Helen) 

The ride to Acapulco has been spectacular.  I have been telling Steve that if the rest of the trip is like this than I will be kicking my heels up and having a helluva time!!  The weather has been very warm and we have taken advantage of that by heading out to the pool and doing some sun tanning on the pool deck.  It’s not a huge, beautiful pool, it’s actually quite small and its sea water, but it does the trick when you’re hot and Nikolas has enjoyed it.  The first few times we went out it was a little shocking to see our white bodies in bathing suits with a little winter insulation around the waist (that’s me and not Steve) but when we looked around we actually looked fabulous in comparison.  I know that’s mean but…..

We anchored in Acapulco which meant that we had to take a tender boat to shore which is a little annoying, especially when it’s so hot and they cram you into these little boats like sardines.  It amazes me to watch these elderly folks walking onto these boats.  I can hardly stand up in one because they are so wobbly and a lot of these folks can hardly walk on solid ground! But, off we went to shore and it was me and Steve’s first time in Mexico.  Acapulco is truly unique, from what we were told, as it is very mountainous compared to some of the other Mexican destinations.  I guess that makes sense as they are so famous for their cliff divers.  The harbour we anchored in gave us a great view of the cliffs with all the amazing homes built into them, and below them along the shoreline, the beautiful white sandy beaches.  We were a little nervous about where to go when we finally arrived on shore as we heard that often times the taxi drivers will rip you off if you don’t know how much is normal to pay.  We came across a man that claimed to work for the Tourist Board of Mexico and he was kind enough to advise us where to go and how much it should cost us.  He directed us to a taxi stand that he said we could trust and that is where we met Manuel, our taxi driver for the day.  He was a wonderful man that spoke great English and we asked him if he would drive us across the city to the Fairmont Princess because we heard that the beach there is beautiful.  For a fair price he agreed and he promised us that when we were done there he would come back for us and take us into town to do some shopping and then he would take us back to the dock.  It was a great arrangement for us and him.

As we drove to the hotel he took us on a mini tour of ‘old’ Acapulco and ‘new’ Acapulco.  We drove past a Wal Mart, a Home Depot, and a Costco!!  It was quite funny.  He also drove us by a house that he said was just bought by Sylvester Stallone.  It was big and beautiful and built right into a hillside looking over the beautiful harbour. 

 The land is quite lush and green and I was really surprised at how beautiful it was.  You don’t hear a lot about Acapulco anymore compared to the other places like Puerto Vallarta and Cancun.  The taxi driver said that it is slowly starting to have a come back and I can see why.  The city itself looks like it is doing pretty well because there was quite a bit of construction going on as we drove along. 

The Princess Hotel is spectacular.  It is located on the quieter side of the city on a long stretch of pristine white sandy beach.  We just walked right in and walked through the huge lobby and by the very tropical swimming pool area.  We got to the beach and the only unfortunate part is that the minute your foot hits the sand you are bombarded with the locals selling their wares.  It is relentless and throughout the day the same people will approach you five or six times even though you say no thank you.  They sell things like t-shirts and jewellery, horseback riding to para sailing.  We found a spot on the beach and I sat and suntanned as the kids and Steve played in the water that was as warm as the bathtub.  Crazy me forgot to lotion my legs so I ended up with a slightly uncomfortable burn on both legs. 

After that we headed back to the hotel and decided to have lunch at the restaurant right at the beach.  It was just perfect.  I have to say it was the first time in a long time that I actually sat back and took a deep breath and really, really relaxed.  We had the most delicious margaritas we have ever had with some of the best guacamole that we’ve ever tasted and there was a warm breeze blowing and they had this great Mexican band playing and life was really good at that moment.  I didn’t want to leave.  But, Manuel was coming to pick us up so off we went and we drove back into town.  The driving there reminds me a little of New York, with lots of taxis and some really crazy driving but on a much smaller scale.  The only other disturbing part is that there are no seatbelts and it just feels so bizarre to drive in a car and not have a seatbelt on. 

Manuel took us to a market and specifically walked us into this one jeweler store.  It had a ton of silver jewelry and the guy was very insistent that I try everything on and that Danika take a look at all the little dolls he had.  It was a little uncomfortable and when I found a pair of earrings and Danika found a little doll that I swear I’ve seen at a dollar store somewhere, he said that just for me he had a great price of 50 dollars American.  I almost laughed out loud and told him I wasn’t interested and from there the price dropped to $38.  I would not have paid 20 so we left and I felt bad but that was just ridiculous.  Unfortunately this whole market was like that, the prices were outrageous so we just bought Danika this cute little outfit for 10 bucks and decided that we had had enough.  The market was in the very old, poor part of town and the kids were gagging at some of the smells so we asked Manuel to take us back to the dock.  When we pulled into the parking lot this little boy about the age of Nikolas starting running beside the car waiting for it to stop.  He ran for quite a while and the minute we stopped he had the doors opened for all of us with the biggest smile on his face.  Steve gave him a dollar and he said, “Thank You” in perfect English.  We gave Manuel some extra money and he was extremely grateful.  He was a wonderful guide and a very nice man.  He told us about his two boys and was very open with us about his life and the beautiful city he lived in. 

We had to wait for over an hour to get back on the boat because it looked like everyone decided to head back at the same time.  The line-up to get on the tender was huge so we went in the little waiting area that was air conditioned and had a Corona and some pop. 

Overall our first encounter with Mexico was a good one.  As we sailed away, Steve and I went out on deck (the kids went to the Kid’s Club) and sat and watched the beautiful city at night.  It was warm outside and the sky was full of stars as it was a completely clear night.  We both agreed that one day we would come back.

 

Los Angeles, California

 

(Written by Steve - January 17)    Sites we hit today:

Sunset strip, Rodeo Drive, Hollywood and west Hollywood, North Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Laurel Canyon Drive, Ventura Blvd, Santa Monica Blvd, Hwy 405, Torrance

 One of the things I remember about L.A. when I was a kid was how many cars they had, and how large the freeways were. Helen had mentioned to the kids that we may be able to see Universal Studios when we got here, so they had only one thing on there mind. Last night I got on the internet and rented a Mustang convertible to drive around Beverly Hills and the sunset strip. I was never keen on going to Universal because it would take up the whole day and I wanted to see some other things while we were here. This was the first real time on this trip Helen and I have butted heads, not bad for almost 3 weeks but we were cranky today. Anyways by the time we got off the ship and to Torrance where we had rented the car, it was in the afternoon. We still had to get the car and drive the hour plus trip to Universal and then leave early enough so we could drop the car off and get back to the ship before it left. So we left Torrance and headed down hwy 405 towards the city. We pulled off at Santa Monica Blvd and headed into Beverly Hills and West Hollywood. Our first detour on the way to Universal was Rodeo Drive, it was very cool and glitzy. Porsche’s, Rolls, Bentley’s and more BMW’s than you could shake a stick at. This is only half a block from where the street folks are panhandling down the middle of the streets. Every big city has its posh areas close to slums or its run down parts. But this place was over the top we were most definitely in the land of the have’s and have not’s. These people need to be seen and there was no better place than the Hollywood area for that kind of thing. We spun our car around and headed back through Beverly Hills and the Sunset strip. Now aside from Johnny Carson and Beverly Hills cop, I had never seen this place before and it just fascinated me how glitzy it was. The shops and restaurants were very high end and lots of window dressing to try and outdo the neighbors. From  Sunset we headed up Laurel Canyon Drive to the other side to North Hollywood and Burbank. The drive would normally be really nice but the map we had only showed a few streets so it was a tad stressful driving because we were worried we would miss the turn off.  I, by the way, was driving for the first time in a long while, and what a better place to get back behind the wheel than Los Angeles. Anyways we were now at Universal studios and parking the car was a bit of an amusement ride in itself. Did you know that you can have Frankenstein valet your car for you if you like, or you can just park it yourself like we did? The street that you first walk through before getting to the actual gates of Universal are filled with shops, stores, games, a 30 theatre cinema, many restaurants and of course loads of souvenirs. We spent 2 ½ hours looking, eating and playing games, so we did not even make it into the park. We headed out at around 4:30pm so we could drop off the car back in Torrance by 6. We did not get very far on hwy 405 before we ran into some of that L.A rush hour that everyone needs to try. I was getting a wee bit stressed out, mostly because I have not driven in quite a while and even if I had this bumper to bumper thing was a killer. The whole day our family was off. Helen was not very happy with me, and I was a little short with her; Nikolas was incredible and had become quite the little smart mouth in the last 2 days. He has been quite ill, so I try and cut him some slack but he just keeps pushing till he gets me to explode, and I have blown a fuse a few times in the last two days, including on the ride home. You know what he said to me the other day? He was in a bad mood at lunch and we are sitting with the couple from New Mexico and we are talking about the drive to Universal.  Nikolas is testing me at the table, but I have no polite way to discipline him and he knows it, so he just kept arguing. So I said to Nikolas in front of this nice couple “listen buddy, me and your mom are the boss when we are on this ship” hoping that would be the end of it and he would just clam up. But no way! he quickly comes back and say’s “no you’re not”, well I had had enough and was ready to take him back to sit in the room and then he said “Ian Mcnaught is.” Who is Ian Mcnaught you ask?  He would be the Captain of the ship. I was so mad, but could not help and laugh at that come back, he was definitely going to take a few years off my life, but that was a good one. 

Anyways we did not spend enough time in L.A. to do anything really so I’ll keep it short. Plus I don’t know if it’s the Norwalk thing on the ship, or if we are all tired or if it’s because the kids are sick, but we did not get along real well today. It is only 9pm and we are still in port and everyone but me has gone to bed, so maybe we are over tired. When you board the ship, Cunard always hangs this big banner that say’s “QE II Welcome Home” and Helen said this is the first time it really feels like we are coming back to our home.

After a comment like that maybe we just might pull this trip off after all!

We did get to Budget car rental after an 1 ½ of grueling driving, and I was grateful to give the car back. We then went to Albertsons to load up on supplies for the big voyage, and then a 20 minute taxi ride back to the ship. We set out tonight on our 4 night journey across the mighty Pacific Ocean and Helen is all but TERRIFIED, so we will try and drop you all a little note on the 19th via satellite to let you know how it’s going. 

That’s it, our first super boring one, but I am sure it will be the first of many boring stories. O.K. that’s it, I’m hitting the sack too.

 Goodnight.

 

 

 

Hawaii – January 21

 

 

Honolulu, Hawaii

 (Written Helen)

 

The ride to Honolulu was very rough and so when we arrived in Hawaii we were very happy.  Right after breakfast we got our beach stuff together and off we went to explore.  Both Steve and I had last been to Oahu 20 years ago.  Me for grad and Steve went with a few friends.  It has changed a lot since we've been there.  The main drag in Waikiki is like Vegas now, every few feet there are street performers and people hand you things as you walk by.  Nikolas and Danika thought the performers were great, Steve and I were sad because it wasn't like it use to be. 

We took a cab to Waikiki to get our rent-a-car but in hindsight we should of rented it from the airport because it was much closer to Pearl Harbour and our ship.  Oh well, you live and learn.  We were going to rent a convertible again but the weather wasn't that great.  It was quite cloudy and there were showers on and off throughout the day.  There was one point where I actually turned the heat on in the car because it was a little cool.  I guess Hawaii has a winter too.

We were advised by many people to go see Pearl Harbour earlier in the day because it can get quite busy in the afternoon.  It took us a couple of wrong turns here and there but we finally made it.  When we got there we were surprised that there is no charge to get in.  You just get tickets and then they bring you into a large theatre and you watch a 15 min. show about what happened that fateful day in 1941.  Nikolas had researched it a bit so when he saw the show he was completely floored.  They show actual footage that's been obtained by both the Japanese and American governments.  It is unreal. 

 

 

After the show you are brought to a tender boat and they take you to the memorial site of the SS Arizona.  This is the battleship that was bombed and still lies at the bottom of the harbour with bits of it still sticking up out of the water.  One amazing sight is the oil slick that you can still see floating on the water's surface.  Wow, after 63 years it is still leaking oil.  The legend says it is the black tears of the fallen. There is also a huge marble wall with everyone's name on it that perished that day.  Most of the bodies are still entombed down below in the ship.  There is also a small list of names of some veterens that asked to be entombed down there in present days.  Overall, we were very touched and we were very glad we went to see it, it is worth the trip.

From Pearl Harbour we drove to the North Side of the Island.  Steve and Nik wanted to go body surfing in the big waves on that side but all the beaches were closed to swimmers because of the strong undertow.  Nikolas kept saying he would have no problem swimming there and kept bugging us to let him go until we saw an ambulance, firetruck and a huge military search and rescue helicopter hovering above the shoreline looking for something or someone.  Once he saw that he changed his mind!! 

The North Side has the most amazingly beautiful landscape and beaches but the area itself is very rundown with shacks and lots of stripped and abandoned cars in the yards.  Every once in awhile you do see a mansion but overall it is a very depressing area.  We did stop at the Turtle Bay Resort for lunch.  It is a resort built inside of a huge golf course that was built by Arnold Palmer and it is very beautiful.  We had a delicious lunch by the first tee off and Steve and I had some great Margaritas AGAIN.

From there we stopped at a store and bought a couple of body boards and some snorkels because we were thinking of heading to Hanama Bay.  Unfortunately the day was going way too fast and it was already 4:30pm and we were still an hour and a half away from the bay with the sun set to go down at 6pm.  Instead we decided to take a short cut and head back to Waikik beach to have a quick swim before it got too dark.

Nikolas and Steve headed straight into the waves and me and Dani stayed on the beach and played in the sand.  As the sun went down they started lighting all the tiki torches along the beach and it was so tropical and beautiful.  Steve's wish was to find a tropical and romantic restaurant near the beach to sit and have a Mai Tai or a Pina Colada.  As we were walking down the strip looking for this wonderful place what should we come across but the almighty golden arches.  The kids were ecstatic as they have not had a Happy Meal in, what, 30 days.  So Steve pouted a bit but the kid's won out and we spent our romantic dinner in McDonalds!!!!

Overall, Waikiki was fun but a little too commercial for us.  Once again as we travel through different countries we always notice that the natives of the land are always the one's that suffer the most with poverty.  Somehow it just doesn't seem right.

 

Back to the ship and we set off at midnight to Kona.  Unfortunately the rough seas followed us there and we were unable to safely tender off the ship so the captain cancelled our stop there and we set off for Tahititi a day early.  The captain has told us that they are trying to come up with an alternative and we are all crossing our fingers that it will be Bora Bora!  We were also told that our stop in Bali, Indonesia had been cancelled because of security reasons so we are now staying in Fremantle, Australia for an extra day.  That's a bummer!

We are about a third of the way to Tahiti right now as we write and thank goodness the seas have been quite nice.  Or are we just getting use to it??

Anyways, take care and we will talk to you from Tahiti.

 

 

(Written by Helen, January 22) 

Hi everyone,

We are on our way to Tahiti a day earlier than expected.  We were in Honolulu yesterday and it was lots of fun.  We rented a car and just drove around most of the island.  We went to Pearl Harbour which was very interesting and depressing.  Nikolas just loved Waikiki and he and Steve went body surfing as the sun went down and it was just beautiful being on the beach at night.  The weather during the day wasn't great, it rained on and off but it was still warm.  It's been 20 years since both Steve and I were in Waikiki, I went for grad and he went with some buddies and it has changed a lot.  It is soo busy and there are big highrises everywhere.  Waikiki is still pretty nice but a little more dirtier than I remember.  We were supposed to be in Kona today but the seas were a little too rough and they were too dangerous for the tenders (the ship anchored off shore) so we had to skip it.  We were very disappointed because that is an island we have never seen.  It looked beautiful from the boat. 

So here we are sailing the South Pacific and it is quite bumpy.  I finally succumbed to the patch behind my ear as we are embarking on one of the longest at sea portions of the trip, four days and five nights!!!!  Will I survive it???  Poor Steve!!!

The kid's are still having a great time but they miss everybody and seem to talk about that more in the last few days.  We were hoping to phone home today from Kona but unfortunately it's not happening.  We wanted to personally wish Michael a Happy Birthday but we are going to have to do it via the internet (not quite the same). 

 

 

Talk to you soon,

 

 

Papeete, Tahiti –January 27

 

 

(Written by Steve)

 

Ever since I was in my early 20s, I have wanted to visit Tahiti. I am not quite sure why but maybe it was postcards, pictures or maybe a documentary, but I have always wanted to go. On of the reasons we never went earlier is because of the price. The deals you see from where we live in Vancouver are sometimes 3 to 4 times as much as Mexico or Hawaii. I was so excited when I heard the Captain tell us we were going to have an extra day in Tahiti because we were unable to go to Kona. Well this was the day and we were all ready to get off this ship. Don’t get me wrong I have said it many times, I really love this old ship, but those days at sea were just too much.

Papeete – Well, we sprung out of our room and skipped down the gang plank and were hit with what felt like 100 degree heat wave. Who cares, we were here and ready to see one of the most beautiful places in the world. I have heard about the renowned sandy beaches and the turquoise blue waters of Tahiti and was bursting to get there as quick as possible. So we walked the 1000 meters from the ship into the tourist center, and we could tell already something was amiss. We asked where was the best beach, and got the reply that there was only one and it was quite rocky. WHAT? I thought this women had had way too much sun, it must be some kind of cheap tourist trick I thought. But she was right; Papeete did not really have a good beach for swimming, snorkeling or sun tanning. I had heard that Bora Bora was spectacular and was only an hour ferry ride away.  So I quickly unloaded this info to her as if I had been here many times before by asking “where’s the ferry to Bora Bora then”. Her quick reply back was,  “there is no ferry, but you can take a cargo ship, but it is an 18 hour trip, or you can fly in 1 hour” Now you know how Helen feels about flying, but it appeared we had no choice. So after looking like a complete fool we headed up the street to Air Tahiti to find out prices on our flights to Bora Bora. There was only one thing that would stop us. RAIN! And I don’t mean any of that little sissy rain that we get up in Vancouver; I mean the hardest rain I have ever seen. Did you see the pictures from Curacao? Well that was nothing and we were stuck under a bus stop with no place to hide. The rain seemed to miss the canopy over our heads and bounce off the ground in front of us and then on to our clothes. We were getting soaked and cranky after only ½ hour of standing there, so I suggested we run the 100 feet to the sidewalk bar down the street with the canopy. Well, we ran and we could not have gotten any wetter than we were. We ordered one pop for the kids to split and 2 beers which cost us 25 dollars, just to add insult to injury. It did not matter, I thought, as we will only be here for another 10 minutes until the rain stops and then we will go to Air Tahiti and get the heck off this Island. Well 2 hours later and the rain showed no sign of stopping. Fortunately we were joined by Martyn, our cruise director and his wife Louisa from the ship. We spent an hour having a nice little chat and a couple more drinks with those folks before we left. Super nice couple!

 

 

Anyways, we arrived at Air Tahiti only to find that our only choice of planes was a little propeller plane and Helen was not so sure. I have to give her credit because she said she would do it, but I knew in my heart she would be absolutely terrified. I would rather us stay on this crappy little island than drag my family somewhere else only to be disappointed. You see, I had only heard that Bora Bora was beautiful, only that was from the same person that told me it was only an hour ferry ride, so I really had no clue at this point. But what I really wanted to know was, why in the heck (I am trying to be nice) did I ever want to come to this place?

We decided to go back to the ship to change, eat and give Papeete another chance after dinner. I still had to see if I could get some messages and pictures out from one of the two internet café’s the information center told me about. So Helen and the kids headed back to the ship while I tried to find an internet café. After walking a block in the pouring rain I found a Bar/Internet café. The only problem was, so had the entire ship and the line was out the door. I can usually get my messages out through my phone as a text message, but it would not work on this island. SURPRISE!  I am very cranky now and not willing to wait a couple hours in some bar soaking wet, so I kept going. The information lady told us that there was one only a couple of blocks further so I headed down that way. Only 3 blocks from the ship, I found the area to be a lot less friendly. Prostitutes and tattoo parlours seemed to be the main businesses in this area so I quickly turned around and headed back to the ship. I can’t believe how bad this whole thing was, I was so dejected and just wanted to get back to the safety of the ship. We ate dinner and no one even mentioned going back out, so we hung around the ship and watched it rain.

 

Day 2 Tahiti

The next morning we awoke and started in on Nikolas’s school work and after that headed to lunch. The ship was leaving tomorrow for an Island called Moorea so we were hopeful that we would at least go to a beach. Martyn the cruise director we had drinks with told us if we went to the Sheraton hotel and showed our Ship ID, we could swim in the pool. So we gathered up our suits and towels and dragged our sad little butts down the gang plank (actually 2 big ones and 2 little ones). We got outside the security gate and this lady handed us an info pamphlet on the Island of Moorea. I asked her if they had any nice beaches and how long it would take to get there. She said it had many beautiful beaches and it only took 30 minutes by Catamaran. I looked at Helen and we both said lets go! and headed the 300 meters down the sidewalk to the ferry dock. We asked when the next one was leaving and he said in 15 minutes and he confirmed that it would only take 30 minutes to get there. We had a problem. The last ferry back was at 4:40 and it was already after lunch, so we would only have a couple of hours. We had heard that transportation was not easy on that Island so would have to decide if it was worth it. What are you nuts? I would have done it if it was only for an hour. You see after Tahiti we  had another long stretch at sea to New Zealand and I would have given anything to have an hour on the beach with my family. So we got on this very large catamaran and headed out towards Moorea. Once the catamaran cleared the break water and we hit the open sea, a bad thing happened. The swells were tossing this boat up and down and I could see that look of sea sickness, not just from Helen, but Danika and Nikolas were turning green. By the time we reached Moorea, Nikolas was in full barf mode and Helen looked like death. As a joke I said “well kids we’ve got 2 hours and then we have go back on this same boat” I won’t tell you what kinds of looks I got back, just use your imagination. This day had the potential to be worst than yesterday, there is no way the kids will relax on a beach knowing they have to get back on that bucking bronco.. This was supposed to be a wonderful stop and since L.A., we only had one stop in Hawaii and then this disaster. For the 2nd time on this trip, I was again starting to second guess myself about this whole thing.

 

 

MOOREA  Tahiti – January 28

 

(Written by Helen)

 

Reading Steve’s stories makes it sound like I am having a terrible time on this trip.  I just want it noted here that there have been a few days that have been a little difficult but the majority of the time I am having the time of my life.  It just seems like we mention a lot of the ‘bad’ things that happen, they always seem more interesting I guess.  I always bug Steve and tell him he should have married someone that was more adventurous than me.  Imagine going on an adventure like this when you don’t particularly like to fly or cruise.  Poor guy but he’s stuck with me so anyways……back to Moorea.

 

  

When we finally got off that horrendously rough ferry ride a twist of fate occurred and we were about to begin what will most likely be the most memorable portion of our trip. Just to go back a bit, when we were on Papeete and were at the ferry dock paying for our tickets we noticed a couple from the ship there too.  We had seen them a few times at the casino, as a matter of fact she was sitting beside me when I was in the blackjack tournament.  She was the one who won the whole thing.  They are this most amazing couple that are so alive and exciting. Whenever they are around there is always laughter and they brighten up the room when they come in.  They are from England and they are very attractive and they have the ability to draw people to wherever they are.  It’s quite amazing.  Anyway, they were buying tickets for this same ferry and then they disappeared and we didn’t realize that they were on the same ferry as us but just upstairs.  When we arrived on Moorea we saw them again and we noticed that they were talking to a driver of a bus/truck.  We wanted to get to this beach we had seen on a map we were given in Papeete so Steve went up to this same guy and asked him if he would stop at the beach for us.  He said yes so we hopped into the back of this vehicle that can only be described as a long flatbed truck with benches as seats and a makeshift cover over it.  It was filled with locals and the six of us, Steve, me and the kids and this couple.  We ended up sitting beside them and we got talking and introduced ourselves and they told us that they were going to a hotel and that they were going to stay the night.  You see, the next morning the ship was coming to Moorea so instead of spending the night in the ship as it cruised around in the bay they decided to stay on the island. 

This, of course, peaked my interest but I thought that Steve would never go for it.  So we drove along in the back of this old truck and as we were driving along I thought to myself how careful we are at home to make sure the kids are all strapped in to their seats with Danika in a booster seat and then I look and we are bouncing along, sitting on benches with not a seatbelt to be seen.  For some odd reason though, it felt completely fine.  I can’t explain it but it just felt like a natural thing to do.  Well, the drive took about 20 minutes and as soon as we pulled into the Sheraton Moorea Lagoon Hotel, we fell in love.  Instantly.  No question.  It was the most beautiful place we have ever seen in our entire lives.  This place was exactly what we had imagined the South Pacific was going to look like.  The entire hotel is made up of grass huts.  The huge reception area was one massive one and all the ‘rooms’ were separate little grass huts with your choice of a garden site or the ones on stilts over the ocean. 

  

The beach was the most beautiful white sandy beach with turquoise water and it was a sheltered coral reef that was huge!   The swimming pool was the same colour as the ocean and it was beautiful.  We knew right away that we were not going anywhere.  The other couple made sure we got the same rate as them and we immediately stripped to our bathing suits and jumped in the pool.  It was as warm as a bathtub, the swimming pool AND the ocean.  The kids were in their glory and I was really happy for them because they have been real troopers on this trip so far. 

 

 

It was nice for them to have a chance to just let loose and have some fun.

The weather is so tropical here as it is their rainy season.  Every so often, a cloud will blow in on the soft breeze and the rain will start.  It will fall for a few minutes and cool you off and then within minutes the sun is scorching hot again.  Beside the pool there was a bar and soon it was time for a drink and some lunch.  We had a couple of tropical drinks and shared an enormous sandwich filled with tuna and mahi mahi.  It was delicious and the kids had French fries and hamburgers.  Nikolas was a little freaked out because this chicken was walking around all the tables and chairs and it was like a dog.  It was eating all the crumbs off the ground.  He kept asking me if the chicken was going to jump up on his lap and peck at his face.  I said no but he spent the whole lunch with his feet on his chair and his eye on that chicken.  And of course, who does the chicken gravitate to?  Nikolas.  Every time it came close I would clap and it would run away.  When Nikolas clapped at it, it would step towards him and stare at him.  It was quite hilarious. 

 

When we finally made it to our hut we were pleasantly surprised to find a huge grass hut with a king size bed that had a beautiful mosquito net around it.  The hut had a vaulted ceiling made out of very tightly woven grass and on the inside were beautiful wooden beams holding it up.  The bathroom had a huge shower and a wonderful claw footed bathtub.  The toilet and bidet were behind saloon style swinging wooden doors.  A nice shaded deck out the sliding doors and we were only steps from the pool which was very convenient.  We all showered, Danika took a little nap and soon it was time for dinner.  We realized that there was one other couple at the hotel from the ship.  They were a young couple from New York and coincidently all of us, including the couple from England were on a year long world tour of some sort.  It was so bizarre that we all ended up together at this hotel with this in common.  We all had dinner together and all got to know each other and we realized we had just made friends with some great new people.  We were so happy to be there.  The restaurant was a huge grass hut that was open all around so that the warm breeze from the ocean washed over us as we all sat, ate and drank some good food and alcohol.  In the background there were about four or five natives at a table singing a native song and one of them had a drum.  It was so perfect.

After dinner we all walked down to the beach and we stayed there for hours telling jokes and having a great time.  The kids really connected with the couple from England,  their names are Mel and Ann and the night was just magical.  We were a little worried because Steve and I did not tell the ship that we were not returning that night.  Steve sent them an e-mail but he had no way of knowing whether they got it or not.  We were all laughing at about midnight because we were wondering whether our names were being called over the p.a. system with the ship wondering what had happened to us.  Our other thought was what would happen if the ship couldn’t anchor the next morning in Moorea like it couldn’t in Kona.  Worst case scenario?  We had to stay in paradise.  We knew they had left without us when in the far distance we could see the lights of the ship as it rounded the corner from Papeete on its way to Moorea

As we were on the beach we noticed that some of the huts that were on stilts over the ocean had a bright light under them.  We found out that these special huts had glass floors in them and at night when the light went on in the water you could see all the coral and tropical fish from the comfort of your own hut.  Wow!!!  These ones were about $700us a night.

The next day we requested a late checkout and spent the whole day in the pool and at the beach.  I met a young woman and her 14 month old son in the pool and found out that her husband was the director of the hotel and that they had just arrived 2 weeks ago for a 2year stay.  She was very friendly and her son was just gorgeous and they had just moved from Switzerland.  Wow, what a life!!!

Nikolas tried snorkeling but, you guessed it, he freaked out when the fish came towards him so he spent the day in the pool.  Danika had brought a floating tube with her so she spent the whole day floating around the pool having a great time.  The kids just loved this place and we did not want to leave.

It was really neat at one point, when a group of staff from the ship arrived at the hotel to relax.  They were the staff from the casino and because we have spent so much time there Steve and I and Mel and Ann knew a lot of them very well.  It was nice to see them in their regular clothes (bathing suits) having a good time.  Everyone just raved about the surroundings.  Steve rented out a bunch of snorkeling gear for them so they could have a chance to see the coral reef.

Unfortunately, the only negative part of the day was that Nikolas woke up feeling very nauseated.  We thought maybe it was the Norwalk virus from the ship but then we narrowed it down to his shower the night before.  While he was showering I heard him slurping up water.  He does that at home a lot.  I yelled, “You’re not drinking the water are you?” and he said, “NO, well just a little bit”. The next day he woke up and puked for most of the day.  He puked in the bathroom, and then many more times in the garden beside the pool.  He always felt better after he puked so he would swim and have fun until the next wave hit and then he would get out of the pool head to he garden and throw up.  He is the best puker I have ever seen.  By the end of the day he was fine.  Me, on the other hand, starting feeling seasick on land.  I needed the motion of the boat and being off the boat for a full 24 hours made me ‘land sick’ , can you believe it?  As soon as I got back on the boat I felt better. 

The ship was anchored in a bay just around the corner from the hotel.  We walked to the end of the pier and we could see her anchored there in all her glory.  It really was a beautiful sight.

And as all good things must come to an end, we packed our stuff, which wasn’t much.  We had a change of clothes and sunscreen, that’s all.  No toothbrushes, no hairbrushes, no deodorant.  Boy, we felt a little like the contestants on Survivor, we probably smelt like them too.  We got into a van that had seatbelts!  All of us shared a cab and we drove to the sight of the tenders.  When we got there the line-up was huge so we all found a spot under a tree, Steve bought us all fresh, COLD coconuts and we sat there and drank coconut milk straight from the coconut and waited to get on the tender to get back on the ship.  The locals had some of their wares for sale and we bought a couple of things, got on the tender and got back on the ship.  We had had such a good time that it felt like we had been gone for a week.  Hopefully, one day, we will come back and stay in paradise for a much longer time! 

Helen

 

New Zealand – February 2

 

 AUCKLAND     

 

(Written by Steve)

We have just traveled half way around the world only to end up in almost the same country as the one we came from. New Zealanders are super friendly, very good looking (Helen says that about the men here) and very similar to Canadians. This is the first place we have been to on this trip that I will say, I think I could move here. I think! We have walked down Queens Street a number of times and you see the same thing, everytime,… colour.  It is like looking at a bouquet of flowers.   Auckland is full of culture and even though I‘m sure I am being naive,  I feel a sense of safeness. People here are from everywhere, India, Japan, China, Australia, England and anywhere else you can think of. This country is in the middle of nowhere, yet it’s a hub for this part of the planet,  that is why there is a Flight centre on every block. I have never seen as many travel centers as I have seen here in Auckland, on every block there are at least 2 or 3. The one thing that is the same is that the folks here all have the same thing in common, that snappy, sexy Kiwi accent. It’s so funny to see someone who appears to be from another country and hear that refreshing New Zealand slang.

 

 

 

Auckland is so much more advanced than North America, it is absolutely astonishing, everything here makes so much sense. The toilets here have 2 buttons on them, one for #1 (uses very little water) and the other is for #2 (which uses about the same as in North America). The taxi driver said, “yellow is mellow, brown has to go down!”  How smart is that? And who the heck (being nice) is in charge of helping us conserve energy? When we first got here I thought “who designed these wall plugs? After looking at them, they certainly  work better than ours. There is only one type of plug instead of our 3 different types.  North America has the standard 2 prong, the wide ground 2 prong and the 3 prong, what’s with that? Did I mention they do not use pennies here? That’s right, they have a 5, 10, 20, 50, $1, $2 coin and NO PENNIES! They just round everything off, I love this place. Wake up North America, get with the program! If you see their buses, their cars and the size of their homes, everything about this country makes sense and is so practical. If they would only drive on the right side of the road! I am sure somehow that makes sense, but I just don’t know how.

Does it sound like I like this place? Well I do. We will come back and explore the whole country, not like the little part we did this time.

Anyways back to Queens Street. For the people back in Canada, it’s like a short Young Street or a super long Robson Street. It’s full of shops, business and café’s, really bustling. The architecture in Auckland is a mix of old historic and new Deco design, a very nice city. I can see why those English folks fly the 29 hours to get here and relax, it must be a different world from London. When you travel ( by no means are we experts) you get a sense of feeling safe, and New Zealanders are very polite and courteous. Aside from watching the guy get thrown in the paddy wagon on our first night, I think Auckland is quite a laid back city. It certainly is nice looking, one of the most beautiful cities we have seen so far. Just think of Vancouver without the snow capped mountains and replace it with rolling hills and clear turquoise water. The harbour looks like Victoria B.C. but a lot bigger and not so touristy.

 

 

We went to Kelly Tarlton’s Antartic World and I can only tell you coming from Canada,  that it is a bit of a tourist trap. Yeah, it’s nice, but 63 bucks to get in and 40 bucks in cab fare, I think it a was a little much. The aquarium is nice but aside from the Penguin exhibit and the underwater aquarium, the only thing left to do is to spend your money at the gift shop. The aquarium itself is pretty cool, as the fish (Sharks and Sting rays) swim right over top of you. The kids thought it was very cool for the first 10 minutes and then you end up in the gift shop. Say no more!

I speak for the whole family when I say Auckland is a must see! We are sure the rest of New Zealand is as nice and most likely more beautiful, so if you want a reasonable holiday, check this place out.

 

 

Auckland and Waiheke Island   received February 4 @ 3:45 am

(by Helen)

 

What a great idea this was to take a break from the ship and stay in Auckland.  I think it was exactly what we all needed.  I’ve have a couple of wonderful night’s sleep without the ‘motion of the ocean’ although I have woke up each morning feeling dizzy.  It’s amazing how your body gets accustomed to your surroundings.  Our hotel is very nice.  Somehow through Steve’s ingenious work he got us on their club floor for a very reasonable rate.  We are at the top of the hotel and have to swipe our card in the elevator for it to reach our floor.  Another perk is that we have breakfast included and the best part is a “happy hour” from 5-7pm.  Yahoo, free drinks and canapés!!!!  It’s quite embarrassing because we take full advantage of this treat! The room that hosts the happy hour has an incredible view of the harbour and we sit there and stare out at the beautiful sights.  Our room has a view of the Sky Tower.  It is a huge tower in the center of the city that looks very much like the Space Needle in Seattle.  Steve was going to jump off of it but he chickened out.  Just to clarify, it’s a base jump by wire off the top of the Sky Tower at 630 feet.  Airtime is about 16 seconds as you plummet at around 75 km/h.  Maybe I can convince him to give it a go before we head to the airport tomorrow! 

Like Steve said this city is really beautiful.  It has all the beauty of Vancouver with the one thing that is missing at home and that is beautiful blue water and white sandy beaches.  The weather has been pretty good.  It has that tropical feel to it.  One minute it’s scorching hot and the next there’s a cool shower falling.  It makes the heat bearable. 

We’ve noticed that the prices are quite high here, for drinks and food especially.  The shopping is quite good and the neat thing is that all their prices are exactly what you see on the ticket.  When it says $25.00 on the price tag, that is the price.  The tax is included in the price so you don’t have to think about how much it’s really going to cost you because it’s right there.  Doesn’t that sound practical? I went shopping tonight, right downtown, by myself and felt absolutely safe.  Not sure if I’m right but it felt very safe and there were lots of people on the streets.  One thing that surprised me was the strong Asian influence here.  I know I should have expected it since they are quite close to Asia but it still really amazed me.  A lot of the shops, especially those below our hotel all are Asian.  There is Hello Kitty everywhere and tons of Thai, Vietnamese, and Japanese restaurants. 

 

Today we decided to take a 30 minute ferry across to Waiheke Island.  We were told by a nice lady that works the happy hour in our hotel that it is a must see for tourists.  We hopped on the noon ferry and while we crossed the harbour we met a nice couple from Boston, Pam and Paul.  They were very friendly and showed us pictures of their adorable grandchildren and we exchanged e-mails and this wonderful couple invited us to Boston to visit them. 

When we arrived we hopped on a bus and it drove us, very quickly, to a beach that we were told was great for kids.  When we got there we were a little disappointed.  It was nice but the way the beaches were described in the brochure and by the lady at the information desk we expected it to be a little nicer.  It was in a little cove and the sand was white but it was also quite full of ocean debris.  We finally figured out that the body of water we were admiring was the Tasman Sea.  The beach was pretty quiet when we got there but throughout the day more and more people arrived.  We found a nice spot under a tree to shade us from both the sun and the rain.  The kids also had a little playground with a jungle gym and swings which was very nice.  They did spend most of the time playing in the sand with Steve while I had a lazy day and spent the whole time lying on a towel reading my novel.  After spending a few hours here in Little Oneroa we decided to walk the 10 minutes to Oneroa Village.  It is another larger bay that has a bunch of shops and restaurants above it.  We found a great little restaurant called Vino Vino and sat in the back on a small balcony that overlooked the bay.  It was beautiful, even when the rain started and the wind picked up.  They rolled down the plastic walls and that kept both the rain and wind off of us but we still had the view.  We had a fantastic dinner there.  Steve and I ordered a platter for 2 that was loaded with Italian sausage, chicken, bar-b-que ribs, calamari, salad, and focaccia bread with two dips and roasted garlic.  We also ordered a bowl of olives and a great bottle of New Zealand wine.  This island is full of olive groves and vineyards and tomorrow is their annual Wine Festival, too bad we missed it!  We finished off the great meal with cappuccino and espresso and then Steve went into the wine store in front of the restaurant and picked up two bottles of the wine we had just drank because it was so good.  We then jumped in a taxi and drove back to the ferry terminal. 

 

This island reminded us a little of the Gulf Islands back home.  The people that live on it are a little beatnik and even the waitress at our restaurant said that it attracts a lot of backpackers from all over the world.  She in fact was one of them, from England and she told us she had met her boyfriend on the island, he is from Canada.  There is a very laid back, easy going feeling on this island and the landscape is a cross between Ireland, P.E.I. and the Caribbean.  I know that sounds crazy but hopefully the pictures will prove my point. 

Overall, we had a great time on this island and in this great city.  I have a feeling, if I can knock myself out for 18 hours, that we will one day fly back here and have a much longer more in-depth visit.

 

SYDNEY February 9

 

 

SYDNEY 

(by Helen)

 

There is a picture that Steve took of me and the kids in front of a flag that says ‘Welcome to Sydney”.  We took it in the airport after coming off a very bumpy plane ride across the Tasman Sea on a 767 Qantas flight.  Without repeating myself there were lots of different reasons why we left the ship in Auckland but one of the small reasons was that we heard that the Tasman Sea is one of the roughest bodies of water in the world.  I thought, forget that I would rather fly across.  The irony, of course, is that the voyage across ended up being one of the smoothest on record.  Even the captain commented over the P.A. system that it was unusually smooth.  Go figure!!!  Actually it serves me right.  It was our first flight on Qantas and apart from the weather, which cannot be controlled, the flight was excellent.  There are very few airlines out there that offer that kind of service and it was very refreshing.  We had a delicious meal.  Well, I should say, everyone but me as I cannot eat on an airplane.  The drinks were free, alcohol too!  We all got an ice cream bar as well.  I definitely ate that, couldn’t pass it up!

We had this great plan to spend 2 weeks in Australia and then fly to Exmouth to catch the ship but after that flight our plans changed a bit.  Poor Steve.  I did tell him that I would do it, fly that is, but he said that it probably was silly to stay off the ship for that long when we are paying to be on it.  I think he is only trying to make me feel better but he was adamant that we get back on in Sydney. 

Anyway back to that picture we took at the airport.  If you notice in the picture I have a huge smile on my face and it looks like I am ready to jump up and down.  Well, that’s exactly how I felt.  I don’t know why I had such emotion when we landed but it felt so amazing to have finally arrived in Australia.  Australia!!!!  I never thought I would ever make it here only because there is no way I would ever fly the 18 hours to get there.  So when we were finally there after a month long journey on a ship across a huge body of water (the Pacific) I felt elated.  I actually thought how amazing the explorers must have felt when they sailed forever and then finally reached a piece of land they had no idea was even there.  When I thought about how far from home we were and where Australia is located in the grand scheme of the world it was mind boggling.  Obviously I don’t get out much but it really did affect me immensely. 

From the airport we hopped in a taxi and made our way to the Sheraton Hotel located in downtown Sydney right beside Hyde Park.  Steve and his amazing computer got us booked into this beautiful hotel and when we walked into our room I almost cried when I saw the King-Sized bed.  Slight exaggeration but it was great to see a bed that’s big enough to hold a grown man.  When Steve sleeps in the single bed in our room on the ship his feet hang over the end.  The hotel had just been renovated and they did a terrific job.  The location of the hotel was great too.  It was not right at the harbour but that was a good thing.  The hotel was situated right beside this beautiful park that had huge green spaces and walking paths and these amazing trees that create a canopy over the walkways.  We walked there every night of our stay and the kids were able to run around and play while Steve and I sat on a bench with our Starbucks coffee, having a relaxing conversation.  We would then come back to the hotel and have a swim in their rooftop indoor pool that had a fabulous view of Sydney and then get ready for bed.  We had asked for a cot for Nikolas but they sent a crib instead.  We were going to send it back but Danika begged us to keep it and she ended up sleeping in it for the whole stay.  She goes through these phases where she wants to be a baby one day and then the next she will be posing in front of the mirror with a new outfit on and she looks like a 21-year old.  It’s frightening!!!

 

The second day we were in Sydney we took a ferry over to the Taronga Zoo.  I won’t go into detail about that trip because Nikolas wrote a story about it and it pretty much covers the whole story.  What I will say is that we thought it was the best zoo we’ve ever been to and we highly recommend it as a must see.  The kids got to feed the giraffe’s apples and carrots and the gorilla exhibit is outstanding.  Danika was in a bird show.  When we were talking to a couple from another cruise, one of the workers came up to me and asked me if Nikolas wanted to be in the bird show.  Ha Ha!  I laughed, because Nikolas has a bit of a bird phobia, but I told her that my 4-year old daughter would probably do it.  Sure enough, when the lady asked Danika if she wanted to be part of the show she said Yes!  The lady told me that Danika would wear a leather glove and that a ‘baby’ owl was going to fly up and land on her arm.  Sounded very cute and wonderful.  Well, when it was time for Danika to do her thing we all looked up and there was this HUGE owl flying towards her.  They failed to inform me that ‘baby’ owls are full grown when they leave the nest.  She was a real trouper and even though you could see the terror in her face she still did it with a very nervous smile to boot.  We have a great picture of that.   As you can see in the background it was a beautiful, sunny, very hot day.

 

 

The next day we decided to check out the monorail system in Sydney.  It looks like our skytrain at home.  We got a family ticket and that got us on the monorail all day and into the Powerhouse Museum.  Luckily for Nikolas there was an exhibit on from Lord of the Rings.  He wrote a story about that too so I won’t go into too much detail again.  It was very interesting because they had all the costumes and weapons they used in the movie.  They also had little information videos talking about how they created all the special effects and how they created a lot of the monsters in the movie.  The make-up for one of the Orc’s took 10 hours to apply.  The guy actually sleeps through most of it because they apply the make-up and mask during the night.  It was very interesting for all of us!

 

After that we got back on the monorail and headed to Darling Harbour and the Sydney Aquarium.  It was great too.  It’s quite big and we saw some cool sharks and a platypus.  The kids loved it and it was a super hot day so it was a good idea to get out of the heat and head for some air-conditioning. 

We had promised Nikolas that we would go for Chinese food for dinner that night so we got back on the monorail and headed to Chinatown.  There is a massive Asian presence in Sydney, similar to Auckland.  The Chinatown area is huge and when we got off the monorail we starting walking as we were looking for a specific restaurant that Nikolas had seen advertised on the T.V. in the plane.  We walked and walked and walked because Steve was sure that this restaurant was just around the corner.  He finally did stop and ask directions but twice we were directed the wrong way.  After walking for almost 2 hours (I’m not joking) we finally found this restaurant and wouldn’t you just guess that it was just down the street from where we initially got off the monorail.  Was it worth it, you ask?  Yes.  The food was excellent, especially the sweet and sour chicken.  The restaurant was called the B.B.Q King.

 

We had booked our room at the hotel for another 4 more nights but Steve decided to cancel the rest, unfortunately, and we packed up the next morning because the Q.E.2 was pulling into Sydney that morning.  When Steve had e-mailed the ship to ask them if our rooms were ready we got a very brief reply from the Purser’s Office (Mathew) that our rooms were “back in action” with a whole bunch of exclamation marks.  When we got back on board and got to our rooms we found that our one room was actually not “back in action” and I question whether he even bothered to take a look at our rooms before he made that comment.  Just a hint of bitterness there, sorry!  Steve had to actually put one of the beds back on the frame and the closet floor still had tons of dust and debris on it.  We were not too impressed.   We put our things away and decided to walk around the harbour and sight see around the port. 

Our ship was docked at the Overseas Passenger Terminal at Circular Quay West.  Circular Quay is the area that surrounds Sydney Cove.  There you will find The Rocks, Sydney’s first settlement.  You’ll find historic streets, shopping and dining, museums and galleries here.  Circular Quay is also the ferry hub where you find the ferry that takes you to Darling Harbour.  Circular Quay is also where you get the great view of both the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House.  It reminded us of Granville Island in some ways but way bigger and way more busier.  The restaurants are all along the waterfront and they all have tons of outdoor seating.  As you walk along you just pass one restaurant after another with no real dividing line between them, and they were all packed at all times of the day.  Very expensive!  Most entrees averaged around $25-30.  Lots of seafood and lots of Asian food.  We went back to the ship for dinner and the headed back out and went for a walk to the Opera House.  It was such a beautiful night and just below the Opera House we stopped at an outdoor bar area and got two glasses of wine and sat right at the seawall.  There was a funky band playing and there were tons of young professionals at the bar having a great time.  The kids played on the stairs and we had a very relaxing evening.

 

The next morning we woke up early and met with Ann and Mel, Lana and Curt, as they were disembarking that day.  We had a quick visit with them and then we packed an overnight bag and set out for the Sydney train.  Last Christmas when we went to Banff on the Rocky Mountaineer Train we met a wonderful family from Australia.  Peter, his wife Keren and their kids Kiera and Cameron had Christmas dinner with us and we really seemed to ‘click’ when we were up in the Rockies.  We had told them about our traveling plans and we had kept in touch via the internet for the last year.  They actually took time off work to meet up with us and we were very excited to see them.  We took two trains out into the suburbs of Sydney and Peter picked us up at the train station and drove us to their amazing home.  Steve calls it the Batten Ranch.  It’s a beautiful home on five acres and it backs onto a creek.  Their backyard looks like a jungle with not a house to be seen for as far as the eye can see.  Steve fell in love with their swimming pool because it was created to look like a natural pond with huge rocks in place of a diving board.  To top it all off there is a huge rock waterfall that flows into the pool and the one end of the pool has a low lying ledge so the water looks like it is flowing off the edge of the ridge it is on.  They have a two-level backyard with a huge grassy yard on top and another down this big hill.  Beyond that is just wilderness and Peter took us down but we couldn’t quite make it to the creek because the terrain was quite steep and treacherous.  We felt like such ‘city folk’.  They were the most gracious hosts and we felt so totally relaxed and comfortable there, it was truly amazing.  It felt like home and the kids went swimming and played with their very cute dog named Sonny.  Cameron had play station so Nikolas was in heaven.  Nikolas and I also went to watch an indoor soccer game that Cameron was playing in and it was a great experience for Nikolas.  Having a home cooked meal was such a treat and that night when we went to bed it was amazing to hear absolutely nothing but the sounds of crickets.  The next morning when we were packing up the kids were begging us to stay.  We are so very grateful to the Battens for the wonderful hospitality!!! They drove us back to the city and on the way we stopped at the site of the Sydney Olympics.  It was amazing to see the arenas and stadiums that were built for the games and we toured inside the aquatics centre.  What an amazing sight!!  It made us excited for the upcoming Whistler event.

 

They drove us to the Sheraton at Hyde Park because we were meeting Mel and Ann there.  When they disembarked they decided to stay at that hotel because we had raved about it.  We were to meet them for lunch because they were leaving the ship and touring around Australia.  We are going to try and meet up with them when we come back to Australia later on in the year.

This couple is truly amazing.  They have this aura about them that is just intoxifying.  They are so fun to be with and the kids just adore them, especially Danika.  She does not leave Ann’s side and just beams when she looks up at her.  We had a fabulous lunch at the Circular Quay with the ship just behind us and then it was back to the ship for us as Mel and Ann stood at the pier and waved us good-bye.  They had made so many friends on board that you could hear people yelling good bye to them from all over the ship.  Danika actually cried when we were waving from the ship.  As we left Sydney there was quite a crowd on the pier waving us off and there were tons of passengers on deck with a band playing in the background.  It was quite the send-off.

 

Back on board turned out to be okay.  It was nice as we walked through the ship to hear so many people say “Welcome back”.  We had a great little break from the ship and we were happy to be back ‘home’.

 

Manila, Philippines February 24

 

(by Helen)

Well, the trip from Australia to the Philippines was awesome!  The Indian Ocean was so amazingly beautiful.  We would sit on deck with the drink of the day and watch the water.  The ocean was clear as glass, a dark turquoise and every so often you would see a school of flying fish burst from the water, fly for at least a few metres and then disappear into the glassy water again.  It was mesmerizing.  It was also scorching hot.  It was between 30-35 degrees on deck with no wind if you can imagine on a moving ship!   You couldn't sit out in the sun too long because it was unbearable.  What made things worse is that the ship's air conditioning system is not designed for these hot climates so the ship is just stinking hot inside as well.  When we would get ready for dinner and get in the elevator to go from the 5th floor up 6 floors to our restaurant we would need another shower by the time we got there because the elevators were an oven.  Then if you mix the lovely aroma of sewage once in a while somewhere as you walk through the ship the combination is toxic.  Boy, I don't have a lot of nice things to say about this boat do I?  I have to tell you that most times I am exaggerating when I describe things, overall it really has been an amazing trip so far.

 

When we arrived in Subic Bay in the Philippines we were a little cautious about going out because we were told to be careful because it is an impoverished country.  But what we experienced was quite the contrary. 

 

Subic Bay was an American Navy Base until 1992 when civil authorities  assumed control.  The area has since become one of the most fashionable districts on Luzon Island.  Unfortunately we didn't get a true sense of the Philippines as such because there are many amenities here that I believe are not available elsewhere because of past American influence.  Because we were a little nervous at first we were eager to meet up with our friends from the Casino crew again.  We met up with them at the ferry terminal as we were headed to Grande Island where we heard there was a beautiful beach.  I should mention that the minute we got off the boat we were covered in sweat because it was 37 degrees and the humidity was through the roof.  This was where Terry Waite was disembarking so we were fortunate enough to get a picture with him as we were leaving the ship at the same time. 

 

 

I, as usual, was a little worried about the safety and 'floatability' of the ferry we were about to board but we were all very pleasantly surprised at the condition of the ferry.  It was very modern and well-kept and it got us there safe and sound.  We had paid 25 dollars per person, except for Danika, which we thought was too much at the time but then we realized that we were doing the exact same route as some passengers on board that had paid 150 dollars for a tour.  The 25 included round trip on the ferry, lunch and use of their exclusive resort on the island.  What a deal!!!!

 

 

Like I said earlier, this was not the true Philippines but the resort was very beautiful.  It had so much potential.  You could tell that at one time it must have been an amazing place.  It did have some things that have become run-down but the people who work there are some of the most friendly people we have met so far.  They were so gracious and the service at lunch was unreal.  They literally stood there and jumped if you needed anything and they would run if they went to get something. 

There was this huge pool, if you could call it that.  It was more like a huge pond the size of a football field that had sea water in it with little tiny fish inside and some shells and sea plants but the bottom was cement.  Every so often this huge machine would roar and it would create waves in the water.  Nikolas just loved it!!!  He also had a friend from the ship with him and together they played all day long.  There were two huge water trampolines in the middle and also a banana boat for the waves.  We had a blast.  All around the pool were little huts with chairs and loungers and we swam and suntanned and drank their $1.60 beer all day.  We were all excited at one point because they had a massage service available for $9.00 for 2 hours.  Unfortunately, they were completely booked.  I guess so!!!!!!

 

We had to get back on the ferry at 4pm and we were very sad to leave.  We would definitely come back here for an extended vacation, it was beautiful.  We would love to see Manila as well, but it was at least 4 hours away.

 

Steve and the kids went back to the ship and I went to the Duty Free with some of the gang.  It was a little bittersweet as we were walking there because there is an area right outside the gates to the ship where they have set up a spot where family's can get together with some of the crew on board.  There are hundreds of Philippino crew members on board and a lot of them got off and a new bunch got on.  But the ones that still have another 5 months to go on their contracts (like our cabin stewardess) get only a few hours to be with their families and it was hard to walk by and see them hugging and saying good-bye.  When we talked to Sylvia after she came back on she said her boys have grown so much since she saw them last.  I had to walk away because it made me cry.  She was crying too.

 

Because their wages are so low here, the prices in the stores are just so cheap.  There were clothes and shoes and the average price was 10 bucks.  I didn't buy a lot because we didn't have enough time and their sizes are on the small side so I bought a few things and we got back on board. 

 

All in all, we had a wonderful time in the Philippines and it's too bad we could not get to Manila to get a true picture of this country.  The landscape was beautiful with huge lush mountains and beautiful white sandy beaches.  Not what we expected.  It was a very pleasant surprise and the people were truly gracious and very friendly and we loved it in the Philippines.

 

Helen

 

 

 

JAPAN – February 27 – March 1

 

 NAGASAKI   

(Written by Steve)

 

“I was very thirsty, and went out for water. I found the water with something like oil all over it. I wanted water so much that I drank it as it was with oil all over it.” Sachiko Yamaguchi (age 9 at the time of the 1945 Nagasaki bombing)

 

Peace fountain in Heiwa-koen (Peace Park) is dedicated to those who, like 9 year old Sachiko, died in a desperate search for water following the Atomic blast.

That was more than 50 years ago but, each year a somber ceremony recalls the horror of that fateful day. Just after the bomb’s deafening destructive wave shook the city as though an earthquake had struck, an eerie quiet fell upon Nagasaki. At precisely 11:02 am there was silence.

 

There is no escaping the atomic bomb with Nagasaki. It fell on an unsuspecting population in the ancient community just after 11 am, August 9, 1945.  Referred to as “Fat Man” the bomb was twice as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb that was dropped a few days earlier.

 

In nearby Hypocenter Park, a black monolith stands to mark the exact epicenter of the explosion. A ghostly, charred section of the original Ukrakami Cathedral has been preserved. The Buddha-like statue of peace holds out his hand in an appeal for mankind to cease the madness of war. At the same time he points towards the sky reminding us of the horrors that human beings have often unleashed on each other. A black box at the base of the statue contains the names of the innocent victims of the 1945 bombings. Each year the names on that list are read aloud. Nearly 1/3 (74,000) of the city’s residents were killed in the explosion and another 1/3 (74,000) were seriously injured (that data was taken on Dec. 31 1945). All of which were left homeless when virtually all the property was instantly destroyed in the heat that rose to a million degrees (that is hard to believe, but that’s what the museum posted).

Each year, on the anniversary of the bombing, a somber pro life demonstration is held in the park.

We walked through Peace Park and were very disturbed, that’s the only way I can explain it. It has the original foundation of the prison that once stood on the site and is surrounded by monuments by countries from all over the world. The walk in the park was very peaceful and I am so glad we went to see it, we are very fortunate to be here.

 I just wanted to give you a quick run down of our first impression of Nagasaki and Japan before I tell you about the Atomic bomb Museum.

We loved it, really loved it, and we are going to move here! (I can hear my mother-in-laws voice again) just kidding. But what an experience for someone to come to this wonderful land for a year or so and learn the language, and see the way they live.

We are not the worldliest travelers quite yet, but we have noticed one thing that hits us every time we enter a new country. You get a feel if you’re going to be safe, if it’s clean and basically if you are going to like it. All of this seems to happen in the first ½ hour, and it has been bang on so far. Well, we absolutely love this place! The people are nice and the food is fantastic and everyone is so polite, it’s awesome. The only problem we had today was with the kids.  They were a bit of a gong show. That was mostly my fault (Steve’s) because I wanted him (Nikolas) to be so interested and he was not. Helen told me to leave him alone because, as she said “how many 9 year olds do you know that would be interested in this park”? I guess I would not have bought into it either if I was his age, but it really angered me. I am standing in the middle of the epicenter and looking into the sky to see if I could see any planes, and out of the corner of my eye I could see Nikolas moping around walking on the forbidden grass and having no part in this place. O.K. it was not forbidden, it was not even green, but I was angry so it sounds better. Anyways I lost it on him and the rest of the day between us went down hill. I even let him wander in the museum and I think that was a big mistake, a little too much for a 9-year old to be thinking about.  He was here and he saw it, I just hope it does not get inside his head. Or maybe I do, I don’t know. Standing there myself, I was blown away, so I am not sure what effect it should have on Nikolas in the future.

We went up the block to the Atomic Bomb Museum and before you climb the stairs up to the Museum itself you have to go through a park. The park has a handful of monuments and the grass area is covered in little sticks and things, and part of an original wall still standing from the Urakami Cathedral. It’s quite amazing that the wall and the steps were able to withstand the blast and it is in very good condition. As you walk up to the steps you see more of those little sticks in the ground everywhere. I am not quite sure what is planted there and could not find the words in the phrase book that we could use to ask.

That’s one problem with not knowing the language, you spend ½ an hour putting 3 words together that you hope make sense. Then you ask someone the question as if you are fluent in Japanese and they blast you back with about 25 words in less than 2 seconds. After they hit you with that rapid fire response, you just bow and smile and say A-ri-gat-to (Thank You) and bow and then walk away as if you are going to exactly what they said to do, but you don’t have a clue what the heck they just said.  

O.K. now back to the depressing part, the Bomb Museum. I am so glad we came here to see it, but it was much more graphic than I ever imagined. They had a Fat Man bomb cut open so you could see exactly how they made it and it was the actual size. It was 3.25m in length, 1.52 m in diameter and weighed 4.5 tons. Ya, the thing is huge but the nuclear pocket in the middle was actually quite small. I just find it hard to believe that that’s what killed and injured 150,000 people. The rest of the exhibits are as follows; lots of very graphic film footage, steel helmet with the remains of a scull, a work uniform of a worker that was 1.2 km away and the right side of the uniform is blown away, hand bones melted into glass bottles something that was right out of the x-files. There were 2 pictures of 2 different walls from the blast area and they were both of dark shadows that somehow were imbedded into the walls. The first shadow was of laundry hanging on the clothes line and you could clearly see that shadow. The second was of 2 men on a ladder. One man was holding the ladder at the bottom and looking up and the other was on the ladder. I know this does not sound too fascinating as I tell you, but it was as if it was painted in charcoal paint right on the wall. You have to see it! This museum had a ‘peace on earth’ theme throughout the whole thing, and it even showed how many nuclear warheads there are remaining in the world right now. And let me tell you, nothing horrified me more than knowing this one incident could happen over 100,000 times more if all the warheads were released. I had no idea.

After leaving that place I felt a little guilty for being mad at Nikolas that morning and I was wondering what was going through his 9-year old head. Everyone asked us afterwards what Nikolas thought about the Museum and it wasn’t until that moment that I realized we just let him walk through and look at whatever he wanted. When you are walking through it, I can only say that you and everyone around you are in a trance. I know what happened and how it happened but being in there with the film footage running everywhere and all those pictures, you just go from one room to another. There are hundreds of people in there, only not a sound is heard, and we are all just walking. If you ever get the chance please come to this Museum or Hiroshima, it is a very important place.

 

 

Phewwwww,  enough about that, now back to Nagasaki.

We got off the ship and walked until we found a train and then I pulled out Lonely Planet Japanese Phrase book and started speaking Japanese like it was my second language. Well I managed to say Hello (kon-ni-chi-wa), Thank you (a-ri-ga-to), goodbye (sa-yo-na-ra) and the number 4 (shi/yon). Pretty good for one day, no one could understand a word I said, but I must have used those 3 phrases about ten times today.

O.K. I know I am a supposed to be a mature adult, but I was so excited today I just had to bring my camera into the bathroom to get a picture of this thing. We were eating in an average kind of Japanese diner when Helen came out of the washroom and told us we had to see this thing. I went in and came right back out and got the camera. Move over New Zealand, because the toilet we saw today was unbelievable, it had more gadgets on it than a Binford 4000 (Tim the Tool Guy) dish washing machine. This thing sprayed the seat with cleaner, wiped it, had a seat warmer, and you do not want to know what it did to your bottom when you were finished. I’ll just let you know what Helen said when she came back, “we have to get one of those, I could have stayed in there all day”

We just had a super great day, and are so looking forward to Osaka and our 2nd day in Japan. We are most definitely coming back to this country!

 

 

 OSAKA -  

(written by Helen)

 

I have not seen the film “Lost in Translation” yet, but after walking through parts of Osaka I am looking forward to seeing it.  Steve and I have never been to Japan and for some reason were both really excited to see it.  From the movies we’ve watched to the images you see and envision, to us it was a far away land full of culture and very interesting people.  It helps too that we both love Japanese food!  Nagasaki was small and quaint and we loved it there but we were eager to see the ‘big’ city of Osaka. 

 

We were told that Japan is extremely expensive and that the weather was going to be bitterly cold so we bundled up and brought very few yen (thinking we wouldn’t buy anything).  Well, much to our surprise, it was cold but we ended up taking off some of our layers during the day and sunglasses were definitely an asset.  The temp. was about 2-5 degrees but it didn’t really feel that cold unless you were close to the water and the cold breeze blowing was bone-chilling.  And, the prices were not bad at all.  I bought a beautiful blouse for 500 yen which is 5 dollars American.  Not bad at all.

 

Lucky for us, our friends from the casino (they hate it when I call them that) allowed us to tag along again and so the nine of us headed off to the subway to get to the temple.

 

The very first thing you notice as you walk the streets and enter the subway system is that there is not piece of garbage to be seen on the streets.  I saw no graffiti and really the place is spotless.  The other thing you notice when you enter the underground subway system is the silence.  You really could hear a pin drop and I even looked around to see if the place was deserted but there were people everywhere.  It’s almost eerie. There is very little noise, or should I say human noise, talking, shouting, laughing, nothing!  They just seem to go about their business and that’s it.

 

The other thing we were surprised about is the lack of foreign people around.  We were in the heart of Osaka’s shopping district and every time I saw a ‘Westerner’ it was someone from our ship.  It was amazing.  We were even stared at and pointed at, in the most polite ways I must say.  People were stopping and smiling and saying lots of Japanese words we could not understand.  They loved Nik and Dani and they got the most attention. 

 

Back to the subway system.  It is so well organized.  Each stretch of the city is divided into different sections and each subway train going to that section is a certain colour.  Does that make sense?  For example, we looked at our map and discovered that we had to take the ‘green’ train to a certain station (they are all marked for easy id) and then we had to get on the ‘red’ train to reach the temples.  So it doesn’t really matter that you cannot read a bit of Japanese because unless you are colour-blind you can figure it out.  In fact Steve was a little disappointed that he could not practice his fluent four words he has learnt in Japanese, he didn’t really need to ask anyone a question.  He would however, much to Nikolasembarrassment , say “kanichi-wa” (Hello) and “arigato” (Thank-you) to every person that was within a 2 metre radius.  He also did a lot of bowing and I knew instantly that he loved this place.  It’s almost like a comedy skit with him, as the person would bow and then he would and then the person would and then he would and so on and so on.  He didn’t know when to stop.  I had to walk away and pull him along or we would have been there all day.  He was also the typical tourist.  He took over a hundred pictures and he swore that he would never laugh at the Japanese tourists back home again!

 

Again, the best thing we did was not take a guided tour to the temples.  Instead, we figured out the subway system and made our way across the city to the temple area.  Actually, there are temples all over Osaka but we were interested in the one that claims to be the “oldest” in Japan, it’s called the Shitennoji Temple.  It was originally built by Prince Shotoku in the year 593 (and no I did not leave out the one at the beginning).  We had to walk down this street on our way to the temples and it was so wonderful.  The merchants had their ware layed out in front of their stores and they all bowed and said Hello (in Japanese, of course) and even one gentleman gave us all a sample of his turtle-shaped muffins.  He was so gracious we ended up coming back to his store after the tour of the temples and we all bought a bunch of stuff from him.  Again, after that, he sent us on our way with a bag full of his turtle-shaped muffins for us to enjoy for free. 

 

As we were walking along we had to be careful because not only were there a few cars on this road but more often than that were the bicycles.  You turn around and there goes another one zipping down the road.   A very smart and convenient way to get around a busy city.  We also noticed quite a few of the Japanese people wearing white surgical masks.  Steve thought it might be because of the pollution but others suggested it was to stop the spread of a disease like SARS or the bird flu.  We didn’t get a chance to ask anyone this question so we will have to figure it out maybe in Hong Kong.

 

We finally reached the temple and we were pleased to find out that it was a huge area with a stone fence around it and it was the sight of many temples not just the ‘oldest’ one.  As we walked inside, again, we realized how quiet it was here.  We walked along and came to one temple that was located next to a cemetery with many mausoleums made of granite.  Actually there were many of these pockets of cemetery throughout the compound.  This one temple had a big half circle that stood about 10 feet high.  It was made of some sort of grass and dangling from the top was two origami lightning bolts made out of paper.  We were all just standing there staring and we didn’t really know what to do.  I kind of felt a little nervous because I wasn’t sure if we were supposed to talk or not, or laugh or not , or take pictures or not, or walk up to the temple or not.  I’m a little superstitious so I was contemplating all this in case it was bad luck to do either.  This one lovely lady finally motioned with her hands that we were to walk under this arc but first she motioned that we must take off our hats first.  After walking under it we walked up to the temple and looked inside.  It was beautiful.  The giant golden Buddha sitting there with candles burning and lots of incense burning as well.  Every so often one of the locals would walk up the stairs, bow with their hands in prayer and then walk away.  We watched one lady walking back and forth between two granite pillars and when she came up to the temple she would read a page from her prayer book, bow, and then walk back and around the pillars, turn the page and read another prayer.  She was there the whole time we were and you could tell that lots of people do this because the ground has worn tracks from all the people that do it.

 

 

We walked from temple to temple and each was more beautiful than the first. I wish we had someone to explain each one and I wish I knew more about Buddhism because the rituals look fascinating.  Throughout the day you could only hear the ‘bonging’ of a gong (is that what it’s called?).  Well, they would walk up to a temple and there would be a huge rope hanging down and at the top of this rope is a solid ball and when they swung the rope the ball would hit the gong and make a ‘bong’ noise.  It sent shivers up my spine when I would hear them.  We also saw a huge pond with a ton of cute little turtles in it and again I wonder what the association is with the turtle.  When I find out, I will write it in.

 

It rained a little and we were starting to get a little cold so we decided it was time to get back on the subway and head to the other side of the city.  We were headed to an area called Namba.  The area is right beside a river and all along there are stores and restaurants and it is THE happening place.  When we got there we were not disappointed.  We actually met a nice guy from New Zealand and he took us to this area and gave us a short sightseeing tour as we made our way there.  He even recommended a place to eat and told Steve where the internet café was.  He is living in Japan and he teaches English to people aged 12 and above.  He was a really pleasant guy and when we asked him if he had learnt any Japanese, he said that he can speak it and understand most of it but could not even begin to try and learn to read it or right it.  He said there are about 2,000 symbols in the Japanese language and it would take a long time to even scratch the surface.

 

This Namba area was incredible.  It was a Tuesday afternoon and the place was packed with locals.  The street itself is hard to describe, you’ve got to view the pictures.  It reminded us a little of Times Square, with all the neon lights and the noise (it wasn’t quiet here!).  For as long as the eye can see and down each street there are stores and restaurants and tons of people.  It was so fun to people watch.  I found that the businessmen in their suits reminded me of the old Beatles fashion.  They wore dark tailored suits with very narrow pants and they all had this hair cut.  It was exactly like the way the band Duran Duran use to wear their hair in the 80’s.  Quite long and kind of spikey but very messy.  And the women, to me, all looked alike.  They all had the same type of hair style, very jagged blunt cuts with bangs.  They also had some very strange fashion statements.  Lots of high cut black stiletto boots with short skirts.  Or else you would see a lot of almost punk-look.  Very interesting.  And everywhere you turn there is a trinket store full of things like “Hello Kitty” and tiny little dogs and animals. 

 

The guy from N.Z. told us to go to this one building for lunch and when we all got on the elevator and made our way up to the 5th floor we came upon a most incredible view.  It is also hard to explain this place and all but one of Steve’s pictures turned out because it was so dark inside.  This building must have been very old, it was made of stone and the walls on the inside were also made of big blocks.  It was somewhat like a castle and before you actually walk through it you are given a card and with this card you can pay for everything: food, clothes, and souvenirs.  When you are all done and you exit the building they scan your card and you pay then.  It’s a really cool concept.  We wanted to find a restaurant that had room for all nine of us but all of the restaurants in this building were tiny little spots here and there with a few stools sitting around the cooking area.  It was more of a fast food, take out kind of place so we didn’t end up eating there.  It was amazing though to walk through and each spot had its own particular aroma, some smelt delicious, others almost made me gag.  There were the gadget stores in here as well and also in one dark tiny corner sat the fortune tellers with their palm charts and tarot cards.  Nobody was brave enough to give it a try plus I don’t think they knew any English.

 

We decided to head outside and find a place to eat and ended up in a nice restaurant where we had some tempura, udon noodle soup, rice and green tea.  It wasn’t the best I’ve ever eaten but it was an experience and we were glad we did it.  The kids didn’t like it that much because we poured the wrong sauce on their rice.  It was not Soya sauce and it made their rice taste ‘funny’.  Soooo, from there we dropped Steve off at the internet café and the kids and I went to McDonald’s!!!!!  I didn’t mind actually because everyone told us you had to try it once.  We didn’t find it any different than at home other than the fact that they actually have a menu that you look at and on the back is the English version so it’s easy to order.  Plus our girl knew a bit of English so we got exactly what we wanted.  The other cool thing is that you must accept money, like your change with both hands, it’s their custom.  And they bow.

 

From there we walked a little down the streets and decided to head back to the ship because there was a shopping area right beside our ship as well.  Good thing we left when we did because we made it back to the ship just after 5pm and the All Aboard was at 5:30.  We did a tiny bit of shopping and then headed back to our home away from home!

 

We felt so safe in Japan.  The one funny thing that we saw to verify this was their “Loomis” guys, the ones that transport money to and from bank machines and such.  These two guys are walking by us and they have on these very casual uniforms  and one guy is pushing a dolly with about 10 big bags of coins on it.  One huge bag actually fell onto the ground when he took a corner and he had to heave it back up.  The other guy was holding a bag full of bills and neither of them had a gun or anything on them.  It was so amazing to watch, we all just stood there and laughed and shook our heads!

 

Well, we all really loved Japan and I would love to come back here later and travel to some more remote areas and see more of the culture of this incredible land.  Maybe by the time we come back Steve will have learnt another 4 words in Japanese!!!

 

HONG KONG, CHINA – March 5 TO 8

 

 

HONG KONG  - Part 1  

(Written by Steve)

 

I don’t even know how to start to describe this place. If you took Manhattan, Rio and Sydney Harbour and put them all together, maybe that would give you some sort of idea of the size. Then take a thousand boats of every size and tell them to cross the harbour as fast as they can, and then light up every skyscraper with lighting from Times Square and then you might just have half of Hong Kong Harbour. It’s gigantic, crazy, smelly, all night, crowded, wonderful and fantastic all at the same time, if that makes any sense.

We came into the Harbour just as the sun was setting but had a hard time seeing the shoreline due to the heavy smog. When we docked at around 8 at night, the light show from the buildings was spectacular. We got off the ship around 9 pm and headed up to the Night Market, which turned out to be around a 25 minute walk. If you can imagine a 10 block stretch of closed street, lined with thousands of stands that take up the entire width and length of the street. The stands sell everything from pirated DVD’s, Nintendo games, clothing, watches, toys, every kind of electronic gadget you can think of. The place is packed and if you have small kids with you, you had better get them up on your shoulders to keep them out of the crowd. If someone in front of you stops to look at something, don’t think it will stop the person behind you. I really like it here, it’s all business and people just want to keep moving. It’s so funny to watch the Westerners deal with this type of attitude, they give the dirty looks, and the head shaking. The people here could care less about what happens in a crowd, they are on the move and just keep on going.

When our family found out we were coming close to Hong Kong they all told us to be so careful because of the SARS, Avian Flu and any other diseases they could think of. The funny thing is, before we could leave the ship we all had our temperatures taken and if we were not in the normal range we were sent back. I found it quite funny that the Chinese were as terrified about us bringing in diseases as we were about getting them here. I come from Vancouver, Canada and in the last few years our city has had SARS, Avian Flu, Mad Cow and who knows how many more. SARS and the Avian flu flooded the news last year in Canada and people were terrified of Canadian Travelers, but on the news we were told to watch out for Asian travelers. I guess it all just depends what side of the fence you are on.

On a side note, my Sister gave me the heads up on another thing my father was real concerned about. I guess I talk about Father O’Shea a bit when I write these stories, and it has my father a little worried. He is wondering if I am becoming Catholic, and I am still smiling about that comment. I really miss my Dad, and its comments like that one that makes him so much fun. You see, I sit right beside Ray (Father O’Shea) every night at dinner and have a great time. I don’t think of him as a Priest really, he is more like buddy because he is so witty, great with our kids, loves magic and just an all around nice guy, a real treat to be around. So Dad, just concentrate on the bird flu and I promise I won’t sign any religious documents till I get home.

 

 

O.K. back to Hong Kong. The first thing you will notice is a zillion people walking everywhere, and doing it very quickly. The second is a thousand double-decker buses zooming the streets with a million cars flying all over the place. You get what I am trying to tell you? It is crazy, but very cool and I have not even got to the shopping part yet (I will let Helen tell you about that).

After docking and getting a physical from the Hong Kong security officers, we headed off the ship around 10pm.We of course have to go through a mall to get to the street from the ship. The mall beside the ship has 3 levels and is 4 blocks in length and has everything a westerner wants but for ½ the price. We managed to fight the temptations and got out onto the street with our pals from the ship. Of course Hala (one of our friends) took us to another fantastic spot called the Night Market, and then after 1 hour of walking away from the ship, I heard those words that no parent wants to hear, when you are a long way from home. Danika looked up at me and said “daddy I don’t feel well, my tummy is rumbling” It was 11:30 pm and we were about a full ½ hour into this market and there was no easy way out of this place to grab a cab. We had to meet with the gang from the ship at midnight, so we had to find one of them before we headed back to the ship. Let’s just say we ran into one of them, found a cab and flew back to the ship. We thought we would quickly phone home and just about finished yakking, when my 4 year old started puking like Mt. St Helens. Helen was just finishing up on the phone when the little vomit machine went into action. I’ll let Helen fill you in on what our next couple of days were like. Not fun!

                                                   

 

Hong Kong

By: Helen

Well!  That was interesting!  We were so excited to see Hong Kong and were planning all these great things to see and do.  The one little thing we failed to factor into our plans was The Dreaded Stomach Virus!!!  I had literally just gotten off the phone with my mom and she had asked me how the kids were doing, whether they were healthy and I said, “Oh yes, so far they have been great.”  I should have known better.  Just 2 minutes later, Danika was puking on the sidewalk.  We kind of thought maybe it was because she had seen some men catch a fish and the fish was bleeding and squirming and she was very upset with the whole thing.  But, when we got back to the room she threw up again and we knew that it was definitely something else.  During the night she threw up all over her bed and so we had to call Housekeeping and the poor guys came down, we woke them up because they’re uniforms were half unbuttoned, and they only let one guy in with gloves and mask.  I felt like some kind of alien, you could tell they were being very careful not to touch anything and they even took out her mattress.  We finally got her settled with some Gravol suppositories (sorry, too much info?)  and she fell asleep.  The next morning the ship’s doctor came to see us and by that time Nikolas was feeling a little green himself.  To our surprise he downplayed their illnesses and told us it was probably  fever-induced vomiting.  I thought that was kind of strange because she started vomiting before she spiked a fever.  Anyway, we didn’t think too much at the time but in hindsight we are guessing that he did not want to add our two kids to his long list of stomach virus victims.  He told us to keep her away from the Nursery and to let her rest in the room.  He did not quarantine her and now that I look back it makes me quite angry.  He didn’t even look at Nikolas and told us to call him the next day if we needed him.  That evening the Nurse called and asked how they were doing and told us that the doctor would be in to see us first thing in the morning.  We waited until 1pm and then called them and they said they were on a break off the ship, shopping I’m sure, and that they would be back at 5pm.  Steve said to me, Forget that! And we got the kids dressed and off we went to see the sights of Hong Kong. 

We bought Danika an umbrella stroller from the ToysRUs in the mall and that was a saving grace for our day.  We decided to take a taxi to the Ladies Market, which is exactly like the Night Market but during the day.  It is also a lot bigger as it includes three separate streets.  One is for electronics, the second is for ladies items and the third is for sports.  We spent most of the day walking along the Ladies Street and bought lots of junk.  I say that because that is what it really is.  Very cheaply made clothes, shoes, purses and tons of trinkets that you would find in a dollar store.  Still, it is all so inexpensive and you get caught up in it all and we bought some “Gucci” purses, “Ferrari” jackets and a Hello Kitty for Dani.

We were quite hungry so we found a restaurant that looked full of both locals (good sign) and tourists.  We sat down and ordered our usual, boring Chinese food:  sweet and sour pork, noodles, rice and wonton soup.   It’s amazing how scarce chicken is on any menu in Asia.  It looks like pork has replaced all of the chicken dishes.  Anyways, the lunch was delicious, still not as fantastic as we keep expecting but we did enjoy it all except we screwed up with the noodles again.  It happened in Japan as well, we expect thin chow mein noodles and get the thick udon noodles instead.  Oh well.

Everyone told us how fantastic the shopping is in Hong Kong and I have to say I was a little disappointed.  I’m sure it’s because we have not gone to the right areas but I really thought it would be a little better.  Steve wrote that the mall beside the ship had stuff half the price of North America but I beg to differ.  The mall has a lot of the high end clothing like Prada and Escada and I thought the prices were comparable.  I did find some gorgeous stores on the kid’s level where I bought Danika, who is the one that least needs more clothes, some outfits that are just beautiful.  Some of the stores had 60 percent sales and the clothes averaged about 15-25 American dollars.  We are talking good quality Oshkosh and European designer clothes.  

Steve wrote that he would leave it to me to talk about the shopping in Hong Kong.  I have never been a huge shopper and my biggest thrill is getting a bargain deal on something.  I feel inadequate when it comes to critiquing the shopping here because it would been unfair for me to say anything when I’m sure we did not even begin to experience what Hong Kong is all about. 

This place is way more amazing than I ever imagined.  When we sailed into the harbour it was this most surreal experience.  First you seen the land from a distance and it just looks like any one of the many islands we’ve passed on our journey.  Then all of a sudden you see buildings and then more buildings, high-rises stacked along the shoreline.  The smog makes them look like an illusion and then you start getting closer to Hong Kong Harbour and the boats appear and they are everywhere and it seems like they follow some sort of organized chaos.  It was nighttime by the time we actually docked and the view of Hong Kong is so spectacular it is too hard to explain.  From the edge of the water to the base of the mountains behind there are huge skyscrapers and they are all sorts of sizes and shapes and most of them have neon lights that are flashing or changing colours or laser beams streaming up and down and side to side.  These lights and lazer beams run the full length of these buildings  and one huge round one that is huge has writing that is the full length of the building and it rotates around it.  Wow, it’s unreal.  Hong Kong has surpassed all my expectations and I just love it here.  I must come back with my sister one day and spend a week here.  I love it so much I am willing to take that dreaded, what would it be, 12 hour flight here!  Yes, you have that in writing!

 

 

HONG KONG - 

PART 2 – (written by Helen)

 

Our last day in Hong Kong was supposed to start bright and early but as usual we all slept in and didn’t get off the ship until 11am.  We missed breakfast on the ship so we headed to the nearest Starbuck’s and had it there.  Yes, the tall, decaf, no foam, none fat latte tastes just like the ones at home!  All the baristas speak great English too.

Our ship was docked right beside the Star Ferry so we hopped on and made the 10 minute ride across.  It is very reasonable as it only cost us about 2 dollars for all four of us!  Once we reached Hong Kong Island we saw our bus right away that was to take us to the base of Victoria’s Peak.  Steve had to run and get some change because the bus only takes exact change.  The bus ride was the same price as the ferry ride.  As we drove to the Peak I couldn’t help but notice how beautiful Hong Kong was.  Somehow I envisioned it being an ugly, dirty concrete jungle but it’s not.  The buildings are a mixture of old and new and there was a surprising amount of greenery around every corner.  There were palm trees and huge trees that looked like massive bonsai trees, they were beautiful. 

When we arrived at the base I was a little nervous about going up the tram.  It’s actually a funicular and when you enter the trolley it is on a slope and when you look forward you can see this very steep track that awaits you.  The trolley is on tracks like train tracks and it has a rope in the middle that hauls the trolley up the mountain.  It takes about 10 minutes to get up to the top and at one point the slope is so steep that you almost feel like it’s going to tip over backwards.  I was holding on for dear life!  The tracks run along past residential sections and past schools.  We could see the kids in their uniforms out in the schoolyard playing soccer.

The tram has been in place since 1888 and the Peak Tower was renovated this year.  When you make it up the 1,800 feet to the summit, the view is spectacular.  The view of the harbour and Kowloon and you get a real sense of the density of the towers that line the coastline.  It really is breathtaking and the lookout is huge with a two level restaurant as well.  The kids wanted to go to the wax museum and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! that were also up there, but we said no.  We didn’t stay long because we were really short on time so we got back on the tram and rode down the mountain backwards.  The seats all face up the mountain, it’s really quite bizarre.

We hailed a cab and just at that moment a lady came up to us and asked us if we needed any help translating to the taxi man.  She spoke excellent English and was able to tell the driver where we wanted to go and she also told us how much it should cost in case he tried to rip us off.  That was so nice of her and we thanked her profusely.  We had the driver take us to Aberdeen which we heard was the site of the sampans.  We got out of the cab and walked down a pier.  At the end there was a bunch of these old rickety looking boats tied to the dock.  I was about to turn around and walk away when one lady came running towards us and motioned for us to get on her boat.  She kept saying, “200 dollars” over and over again.  Much to my surprise my husband said, “Sure!”.  I looked at him with, I’m sure, my worst “are you out of your mind” look and grabbed the kids and tried to walk away.  He just said, “oh, come on, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity!”.  So, hesitantly, I joined him on the boat with the kids and sat down.  Steve gave the husband the money, he jumped off, she sat down, gunned the engine and off we went.  I kind of had that feeling where things are going a little too fast and I have lost control of the situation.  I looked around and I couldn’t see any life jackets anywhere.  The boat, quite honestly, needed A LOT of work and it really just barely putted through the water.  I smiled a lot at the lady driving and she seemed so pleased to have us on her boat.  I finally found the life jackets hanging in the rafters and I mentioned quietly to Steve that there were only 3 jackets and 5 of us.  He smiled and said, “that’s perfect”.  I tried to relax and after a few minutes I realized that she actually was a very good driver and she took us to where the fishing boats were all tied up on the water and to some boats where I am guessing that some people actually live.  I heard that it was now against the law to live on the sandpans like they use to so we didn’t actually see anyone other than some fishermen.  At one point, she turned a corner and it seemed like we were stuck in amongst the fishing boats.  We thought she was turning around to go back out but we realized that she was actually trying to squeeze between two huge fishing boats.  She just barely made it with mere inches on either side and when we came through she actually started clapping and cheering and well, so did we!  She was very cute and we were out there for about half an hour.  It was actually very interesting and the water was just filled with garbage.  It was floating all around us and I’m sure some sewage was in the water too because the smell was not all that pleasant.  We made it back safe and sound and Steve gave her a tip and she seemed quite happy with us.

We got into another cab and he convinced us that it would be cheaper and faster if he just drove us back to our ship instead of taking the ferry.  He spoke very good English and it was a nice ride through the city and under the harbour through the tunnel.  He complained about how difficult it now was to make money in Hong Kong since China took over and he was very vocal about how displeased he was with the government.  When he found out how much we paid for our cruise he kept slapping Steve on the shoulder and laughing, saying he was a very good man.  I think what he was really thinking was that Steve was a very stupid man for spending that kind of money on a trip.  You could tell he thought we were nuts.

We were back in time to do just a little more shopping and then we sailed off towards Thailand. 

As I mentioned before, we really loved Hong Kong and would love to come back and spend more time here so that we can see more sites, rather than  just the shopping districts.  I found the people to be very friendly and it is very easy to get around as a lot of people here speak English.  It seems so much more Westernized than Japan and it was a little more comfortable to us.  Living in Canada, I always had this sense that the world kind of revolved around us and the U.S.  Being her, in Asia, has shown me that we are just a speck in the broad sense of the world.  It’s amazing to see these cities with all these people.  The biggest surprise for me is that they, the people and even the cities are not all that different from us.  I am truly on the other side of the world and it’s not that different.  I don’t know exactly what I was expecting but it has really opened up my eyes.  Even the people on board that we have met.  All are from different parts of the world and yet we all have similarities and the conversations are as if I am talking to my friends.  Wouldn’t it be nice if the whole world could embrace the differences and celebrate the similarities of the world?  One can only hope.

 

 

THAILAND – March 11

 

Bangkok - part 1

(Written by Steve)

We pulled into a port called Laem Chabang, which is right next to Pattaya. I don't know if you remember Pattaya, but it is where the GI's used to go for R&R during the Vietnam War back in the 60's. We hopped in a van with our 2 friends Suzzanne and John (from the Florida Keys) and drove just over 2 hours into Bangkok.  I will start off by telling you what we enjoyed about Bangkok and then I will tell what I really feel about the place.

The sites are absolutely incredible and something you can't see anywhere else. There is the Emerald Buddha next to the Grand Palace, and the Golden Buddha which weighs 51/2 tons, and then there is our favorite the Reclining Buddha. It feels like you are standing next to a 10 story building that is laying on its side. It is absolutely massive (see pictures) You can go on a canal tour that shows you how so many people here live in complete poverty, which was very sad.  The canal tour is on a home made long boat powered by a Chevy 350 engine (sans muffler) and a prop connected to a long drive sticking out of the transmission.  What a ride! You can go for a famous Thai massage or eat the wonderful food, or just swim in the river. NOT!!!!!!!!!!!! There is a picture in our photo album of this woman washing dishes with the water from the river. Just before she started washing those dishes a kid went to the washroom right where she got the water, and he did not urinate.  Whoops, I am starting to tell you how I really feel and I have not finished the pleasant parts yet. The people here are very friendly, and the gracious jesters that are made when greeting or saying thank you are very nice; they hold there hands as if in prayer, close to their mouths and they bow.  O.K, that lets me tell what I really think!

 

I was worried about coming here because of the devastation from the tsunami, but Bangkok is a good 12 hour drive from Puket. The people here don't seem affected one bit, and really the few we asked did not know anything regarding the tsunami, and that surprised me a little. We have been in Thailand a full day already and I can assure you it’s NOT a place for kids. We have done a canal tour, lunch, seen a couple of Buddha’s, an alligator and snake farm that we ending up leaving after only a few minutes because it was in such poor condition. Bangkok is super dirty, crazy, overloaded with people and it stinks, in everyway you can think of. Six million people live here and a whole whack of tourists come here for a lot more than just sun. We are staying at the Peninsula Bangkok, and are on the 35 floor over-looking the city, or what we can see of it due to the heavy smog.  I just watched the sun come up and it looks  incredible at night with all the lights from the boats and buildings, but no so nice in the day time. This is a whole new world here folks, let me tell you it took me by surprise. I expected Hong Kong to look  this dirty, but thought Thailand was a lot different than what I am seeing today. The City of Bangkok is really, really, big! We sat in traffic for about an hour and we only had a few miles to go. The area that we are in is a really run down area and not a hope that we will be walking the streets around here without a police escort (at least with our kids). A good friend of ours has asked me if it would be O.K. for her 16 year old daughter to come here to work in a school, after she spends a few days in Bangkok. I told them I would not let my daughter spend one minute in this city alone, and they should be nervous about sending her to this city.  
I told you back in Japan that as soon as you walk out of the Airport, Ship, Bus or whatever your means of transportation is, you get a feel for the place. Well as soon as we got out of our van, Helen said "this is a naughty place", and I felt unsafe the minute we drove into the city, I did not even have get out. If I was coming to Thailand on a relaxing holiday, I certainly would not come to Bangkok. I would come here for a history lesson or if I felt the need to see a couple of monster Buddha’s.  I most certainly would not come to get away from it all. Cruising around on the long boats was very cool for about 2 minutes, until you sit in one and get splashed with all that sewage water from the river. The folks here throw everything from their garbage to food, wash clothes, and use it as a toilet. O.K. all the world travelers out there must be saying “this guy has not seen anything yet” and I am sure I will get the big wake up call in Bombay. I have to tell you though, this place is not a smart place to bring small kids, and had we known we most definitely would have went to a beach close to the ship instead if we were given the heads up. I am glad I saw Bangkok, and we loved the hotel but I don’t think we will be back as a family for a very long time. The sex trade here is right in your face, right in this 5-star hotel and in no way do our kids need to learn about that at this age. Bangkok is very beautiful at night and the people here are very friendly, and I would have no problem coming here with a few buds way back when, or just Helen and myself but not as a family. The city transportation is a little better than 3rd world and crossing the street is not the safest thing to do if you value your life.  I met a couple last night who are here on their honeymoon and I thought, what for? After talking to them for a bit, they told me they are going home in a day and have barely left the Hotel. That I can’t understand, what the heck is the sense of flying into this place if you are not going to see it. I am glad we saw it, but that does not mean we have to like it, right? I am so glad Nikolas got to see the way these people live, and maybe he will think twice about crying when he can’t get a new game cube. I doubt it, but it did have some impact on him, you could see it in his face. On that note, I still question myself about what he is thinking about all this, and we should have spent some time with a family Psychologist before we left to find out what kind of effect it would have on them.

That all I am going to say, Helen will write you in a couple of days to tell you how great the shopping is here.

 

Bangkok - part 2

 

(Written by Steve)

I just finished reading what I wrote about Bangkok and I don’t think I was the happiest person when I wrote that. Have you ever said something but  wished you hadn’t, but it was too late to take it back. That’s how I feel about what I wrote about Bangkok.  It may have been a bit unfair to say all that.

 1000 years of history is absolutely amazing, and the people were very friendly, so I think I should write it a little differently today (3 days later).

I think I was so worried about going to this country because of the Tsunami, but I don’t think life in this city changed one bit since it happened. Our drive from the ship to the Hotel was a real eye opener, and then the area the hotel was in was very poor. I felt guilty for staying there when the people right outside the front door lived with so little. We then went on a canal tour through the shanty shacks of the city, and it again was very disturbing. That night when we were in our Hotel I saw something happening with a couple of Thai Girls and an American guy that made me want to get the kids up to the room. As the comedian at the show said last night “He did not realize that Bangkok was such a family oriented city, Watching the dads walk down the street holding hands with their daughters”. He was unaware that so many western men had Thai children. That’s Bangkok and Pataya in a nutshell, very disturbing.

So please forgive me if that little message I wrote on Bangkok seemed a little harsh, I was just a little overwhelmed.

So, if you ever get the chance to go to see the Temples and the Buddha’s in Thailand, do so because it is incredible.

 

 

(Written by Helen)

We were so excited to get to Bangkok because it was an overnight stay and we were going to stay in a hotel.  We were imagining how wonderful it was going to be to sleep on a normal mattress and a king-sized bed of all things!  We had made arrangements with a couple to share a ride from Laem Chabang (I love saying that!) which is where the ship docked to downtown Bangkok.  We lucked out and found a guy that would rent us his van and driver for $75.00 each way.  That was way cheaper than the going rate of $125 for a taxi and not even a van.  The ride takes about 2 hours and we were actually quite comfortable in the air-conditioned van.  The driver knew a little English and all in all it was a good ride apart from the occasional moments when I though for sure we were going to get in an accident.  It really wasn’t anything our driver was doing, it was the other cars and BIG trucks that would change lanes in front of us and I mean they would literally veer in front of you.  This is while we are going over 100km/h on the freeway.  They also tailgate like crazy so that when someone slows down up front everyone slams on their brakes.  It was pretty scary.  As we drove we noticed a lot of farmland that looked like sugar cane.  Every so often a building would pop up and in between would be these beautiful shrines and temples.  Even in the parking lot of a huge manufacturing plant there is a temple set up, it quite amazing.

 

We arrived at our hotel and the minute you step through the doors you realize what a magnificent place it is.  The white gloved doormen are their instantly and will not let you carry anything.  They greet you by holding their hands in prayer close to their mouths and they bow, it really is gracious.  When Steve booked our room he was told that they only allow a maximum of 3 people to a room so we had to book a deluxe suite.  When we got to our room we went crazy.  I guess after spending the last 2 months in a room that measures about 9x12 feet anything would look huge.  But this place was massive.  It had a living room with wrap around floor to ceiling windows, two bathrooms with one that had a marble bathtub with a TV. built into the wall, a shower, a separate room for the toilet and two huge sinks.  The bedroom was also large and it had a huge floor to ceiling window as well.  All of the windows had curtains that opened and closed by the press of a button.  The kids sure got a kick out of that!  We actually figured that the one bathroom in the hotel room was a little bigger that the whole room on the ship.  Our hotel room looked over the Chao Phraya River which runs through Bangkok and is Thailand’s lifeline.  From this river run many canals and at one time Bangkok was compared to Venice.  From our room we could see the many boats of different shapes and sizes whizzing here and there.  We would have a quick lunch in the hotel and then our plan was to take a canal boat tour.

 

We went to Chinese Restaurant for lunch that was in the hotel.  The service here was truly the best we have ever received.  We had about 3 or 4 waiters standing by our table while we ate and if we needed anything they were there before you even realized you needed it.  When me and Dani got up to go to the washroom they jumped to hold our chairs for us.  And the food was spectacular.  We had lobster filled wonton soup that was excellent, the best sweet and sour pork we have ever tasted and believe me we order it wherever we go.  Steve and I ordered these prawns in garlic and soy sauce that were brilliant.  They were perfectly cooked and delicious!  The kids enjoyed it as well but they were very hesitant to try anything because it all looked a little different then usual.

 

After lunch we hooked back up with the couple we drove in with and set out to take our boat ride.  The hotel is situated right on the river so we just walked out the doors and across the outside restaurant to the boat dock.  It was so funny because we had booked a tour through the hotel and when we got to the dock there was this brand new gorgeous looking boat sitting there with the name of the hotel on it.  We thought, Wow! This is going to be great.

Suddenly however, this boat motors out of the way and this old decrepit long boat pulls up and is waiting for us to jump in.  The thing looked like it was hardly holding together.  It was shaped like a canoe but the front was pointed and it curved upwards.  In the back was this cute little shoeless man holding a pole that was connected to the motor.  Imagine an outboard motor that was actually a 350 motor from a Chevy car and it actually had a transmission from a car connected to the back of it.  It was absolutely unbelievable.  The exhaust from this thing was black and the noise it made was deafening.  Once again I crawled into a boat that I felt very unsure of.  I was actually really mad until I saw the life jackets and I made Dani put one on.  The ride across the river was so bumpy because the boat traffic is unreal.  Everyone travels by boat because the car traffic is ten times worse!

I was trying so hard to find the perfect word to describe the colour of the water in this river.  Olive green with a splash of coffee perhaps?  It is so disgustingly dirty.  There is garbage floating in it and the smell is very hard to describe.  Burning tires and sewage mixed together maybe.  We were sitting so low in the water and every time we would hit a wave we would get splashed.  I had to yell at the kids not to lick their lips and I kept wiping our faces with my clothes.  At one point I actually started laughing because I was thinking, what the hell am I doing?  But in hindsight it was an amazing experience and very well worth it.

 

 

Once you leave the river and enter the network of canals the water settles down and the ride is quite smooth.  The sights however, are mind boggling.  I cannot begin to describe what we saw, how some of these people live.  Their houses are shacks built over the water and they look as if they are ready to fall over any minute.  It’s amazing to see that some of these places had beautiful pots of plants and flowers on the decks and you could tell the people were making the best of the situation.  They apparently use the river for everything.  We saw a young boy having a bowel movement into the river, we then saw his mother scoop up a big bowl full of the river water and start washing her dishes.  We saw a group of young boys swimming in the water and someone told me they saw a couple of dead dogs floating in the same river.  Everywhere, you see fishing lines and we were amazed that fish could actually survive in this water.  Then we saw this enormous Komodo dragon lizard emerge from the water onto the steps and Steve got a great picture of it.  I kept thinking to myself, Please don’t tip over, please!

 

We did a little sightseeing along the way and were fortunate enough to see the Reclining Buddha.  It is considered the largest and the most beautiful reclining Buddha in Thailand.  It measures 46m long and 15m high and is entirely covered with gold leaf.  The huge soles of its feet are inlaid with mother-of-pearl designs depicting the 108 auspicious signs of the Buddha.

It is most unusual to decorate feet in this way because the Thai people believe the lowest part of the body represents what is spiritually least exalted.  That is why there are signs in some of the temples saying that you should not touch someone else’s head even in joke, as the head is held in the highest regard.  Also in the Grand Palace you cannot go in unless you have your shoulders covered, pants or a skirt that covers your ankles and shoes that cover your feet completely.  We unfortunately, did not have time to see the Grand Palace but heard that it was just amazing.

 

Another stop on our canal tour was to an Alligator Farm.  We didn’t ask to come here but he stopped anyway so we got out, paid the cheap fee and walked in.  Well, we pretty much walked right back out.  The place just gave us the creeps.  We were the only ones in there and it’s actually a kind of zoo.  When we first walked in a man approached us and told us that the snake show was starting in 10 minutes.  When we looked we saw a round arena with a few benches and in the middle were three sacks.  That’s where the snakes were and who knows what kind of show it was going to be.  The animals in this place were so unkept.  There was one enclosure that held about ten huge snakes and when we looked down we noticed that there was a hole in the wall enclosure and they had stuck pieces of cardboard in the hole to keep the snakes from slithering out.  Steve took one look at that and said, let’s get the hell out of here.  As we were leaving we noticed a small cage with a huge tiger in it and this big sign that said don’t stick your hand in the cage.  And you could if you really wanted to!  It was really sad as we walked out and saw a monkey in the tree and it had a metal leash around it’s neck and it was chained to the tree.  We left very quickly.

 

When we got back to the hotel we decided that we were going to spend the rest of the day and night in the hotel.  We got our bathing suits out and headed to the beautiful pool.  It was great but you could smell the stench from the river as it wafted in with the wind.  And lo and behold we got a little sample of the sex trade as well.  In the pool were a couple of older men and their very young Thai escorts.  It really was revolting and we packed up and ended up spending a lovely evening in our room with room service.  The food was delicious, the view was spectacular ( the city looks great at night) and we felt safe and sound.  My sister’s going to kill me because I didn’t get a chance to try any authentic Thai food.  Oh well!

 

Did some shopping the next day and headed back to the ship.  Steve and the kids went in and I stayed out and did some last minute shopping in the kiosks set up right outside our ship.  And thank goodness I did!  With an hour left before the All aboard I came upon  a kiosk that was selling Thai massages for very cheap.  $20 for an hour.  There was a line up of passengers from the ship and finally it was my turn and let me tell you there is nothing like it.  First she did my feet and legs for half an hour and then she brought me down to a mattress on the floor and started in on my back.  Soon she was sitting on me and grabbing my arms and pulling them backwards.  Then she put her knee on my spinal column and yanked me up again.  I actually started to laugh and then she started slapping my legs with her hands and then she’d flick my ears.  It all hurt but felt good at the same time.  What an experience!  Poor Steve missed out but I told him to come with me and he wouldn’t.  We had heard so much about the infamous Thai massage and he wanted to get one so badly but we didn’t get a chance.  I gave him a massage that night with everything I learned!

 

The Virus numbers on the ship have crept up again and many people are now quarantined to their rooms once again. This thing just won’t go away! 

 

“The Best & Worst”

By Steve

 

We rated the following on our first impression, and sometimes we were only in those places for one day

 

 

Most Beautiful Beaches  = Moorea, Tahiti and The Algarve, Portugal

The cheapest way to talk to your family on the phone = Skype web phone (download and talk for free)

Cities with the most aggressive street panhandlers = Mumbai, India  and Tangiers, Morocco

Best Lunch = Vino Vino Waiheke Island, New Zealand

Best digital travel camera = Canon A400 (Great pics and only $100 bucks)

Nicest highways = Spain

Favorite Winter Hotel = Banff Springs Hotel, Alberta Canada

Most Fashionable = Maastricht, Netherlands and Cologne, Germany

Most Polluted City = Bangkok, Thailand

Most expensive country to travel = U.K.

Our favorite travel CD = Green day (International)

Best travel luggage for families = Eagle Creek

Busiest City = Hong Kong, China

Most interesting food = Salalah, Oman

Most expensive public transportation = Amsterdam, Netherlands

Favorite family Ski Resort = Sun Peaks, B.C. Canada

Favorite Park = Central Park, New York USA

Nicest National parks = South Africa

Our favorite fast food = Subway

Favorite CDN Restaurant La Cochin Dinque  Quebec City, Canada

Favorite Tropical Hotel = Sheraton Lagoon Resort, Tahiti

Worst Hotel stay= Holiday Inn, Kingston Canada

Nicest looking women (As per Steve) = India, Sweden and Germany

Favorite all-inclusive = Sandals, The Royal Antiguan, Antigua

Countries we could move to = Australia and Sweden

Safest coastal mountain hi-way = Sea to Sky Hi-way, Whistler Canada

Favorite Cruise line = Windjammer Barefoot Cruises

Favorite Hotel Chains = Holiday Inn, Fairmont and Peninsula

Favorite Airline = West Jet (Canada)

Most over rated area= Costa del Sol, Spain

Worst taxi ride (most expensive) = London (Mini-Cabs)

Nicest People = Swedish, Kiwi’s and Taiwanese

Most Magical Hotel = Chateau Frontenac, Quebec City

Worst Hotel Service = The Plaza, New York

Our favorite T.V show = Malcolm in the middle

Worst pigs feet trotter = Au Pied de Cochon, Paris

Best priced meal = Pizza Roma, Valencia, Spain

Cheapest fuel prices = 1# Dubai, 2# USA, 3# Canada

Prettiest Cities at night = Rome, Italy and Gent, Belgium

Best city for families = London

Best place to purchase electronics = Hong Kong,

Worst public transportation = Cape Town, South Africa

Best drivers = Sweden

Favorite City (As per Steve) = Auckland, New Zealand

Favorite Rail Co. = Rocky Mountaineer rail Tours, Vancouver B.C.

Favorite Mountain Village = Levonworth, Wash. US

Nicest Harbour = Oslo, Norway

Best Country to live and raise a family = Australia (Crime rate, Health, Schools, Lifestyle)

Best City (As per Helen) = London, U.K.

Nicest intercity parks = Madrid, Spain and Berlin, Germany

Best Zoo = Taronga Zoo, Sydney Australia

Most Disappointing City = Cairo Egypt

#1 fast food chain in the World = Kentucky Fried Chicken

Nicest people in Europe = Sweden and Germany

Cleanest City = Osaka, Japan

#1 automobile maker in the world = Toyota

Best Pizza = O Canonico, Sorrento, Italy

Best looking Men (As per Helen) = Jordan and Belgium

Worlds most beautiful City = Paris

Worst Cruise line = Carnival

Nicest undeveloped Coastline = Morocco, Africa

Best fine food selection = QE II, Cunard

The most modern City = Auckland, NZ

Best Transit System = London, U.K (No one else is even close)

 Best Internet Café = The Travel Lounge, Fremantle, Australia

Cheapest place to buy Brand name clothing = United States and Turkey

Countries with the most potential = India, China, South Africa

Most surprising people = Philippines (very friendly and beautiful)

Best seafood restaurant = Sandbar restaurant, Granville island, Canada

Most dangerous cities = Johannesburg and Cairo

Cheapest Taxi’s = Hong Kong (20 min ride = $4:50us)

Best Hotel service = Peninsula Bangkok, Thailand

Most unique Architecture = Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Most beautiful mountain range = Austrian Alps

Most surprising countries = Jordan and South Africa

Funkiest Hotel = Nordic light Hotel, Stockholm, Sweden

Favorite Bavarian city = Gent, Belgium

Worst driving = Bangkok, Rome, Mumbai and Paris

City with the most potential = Lisbon, Portugal (So beautiful, but so dirty)

 Most reasonable Hotel in Europe = Holiday Inn, Nurmberg, Germany

Most Dangerous driving = Scottish Highlands (Between Inverness and Dumbarton)

Most private security in a city = Cape Town, South Africa

Most passionate people = Sicilians, Italy

Most polite people = Japan

The most relaxing Airports = Vancouver International, Canada & Auckland International

Countries we would like to return to = Sweden, Jordan, South Africa, Japan, Andorra, Scotland

Countries or Cities we won’t return to = Spain, Egypt (Cairo), Norway (Oslo)

Place we would move to for a year = Japan (great education for the kids)

 

 

SINGAPORE – March 14

 

 

(written by Helen)

 

“On a world map, the island of Singapore is just a dot at the tip of the Malaysian Peninsula.  This tiny 625 sq km island has blossomed into one of Asia’s strongest economic countries, having the second highest standard of living next to Japan.  Sir Stamford Raffles established a free port which rapidly grew in importance due to its strategic location on the great East-West trading routes.  The opening of the Suez Canal resulted in increasing prosperity during the latter part of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and from a sleepy Malay village, Singapore’s population grew rapidly with migrants from China, India and neighbouring Malaya and Indonesia.  Today, Singapore’s population of close to 3 million is a melting pot of cultures.”

(taken from the front of our Daily Programme)

 

We were really excited to see Singapore because Nikolas’s best friend from school is from here.  Josh has told Nikolas all these wonderful places to see and we initially had only one day in this beautiful city.   As it happened, the ship broke down and we ended up spending two days instead.

The ship had a bus charter into the city center from the boat dock and we piled onboard and set off.  The ride there took about 20 minutes and it was very enjoyable.  The city of Singapore is such a drastic contrast to Bangkok, it’s unbelievable.  The city is very, very clean and the most remarkable thing we noticed is that all the signs are in English.  Later, when we enquired about this, a taxi driver told us that 90% of the population speaks English.  Even all the radio stations playing in the taxi cabs are English.  We were listening to Willy Nelson, Ann Murray, it was hilarious.  Someone made a joke and said they traveled all the way from New York to find an English-speaking taxi driver.  Not only is the city clean but they have very modern architecture with their sky scrapers surrounded by tons of greenery.  Lots of palm trees and huge green spaces dispersed throughout the city.  They obviously take great pride in keeping the city well-kept.

 

 

More than a decade ago a young man named Michael Fay was caned after getting caught doing some graffiti.  The rules have not softened since then.  Jaywalkers are fined on the spot.  Litter and you pay (including cigarette butts!), you can be fined for chewing gum in public, and drug peddlers earn a death sentence.  Media is scanned at the state level for content and “inappropriate” websites are blocked.  Seems a bit harsh but it works.  You can walk fearlessly in Singapore at any time, day or night. 

 

The tiny country consists of the large island of Singapore, and 63 smaller islands at the tip of the Malay Peninsula.  It is just 90 miles north of the equator so the climate is always tropical.  Of the 3 million that live on the big island there are 14 major nationalities, but most people belong to one of seven or eight Chinese groups.   Chinatown is one of the largest districts and we were dropped off their today and Steve finally bought a camera.  He has been shopping around and was so disappointed that he didn’t buy one in Hong Kong.  He was just about to and then the merchant started to really pressure Steve and actually starting yelling so Steve walked away.  But, he bought one today and as I write he is tinkering with it as if it was a new TOY!  The shopping in Singapore was a big disappointment.  Everyone said that it was as good as Hong Kong but I say NO WAY.  It was very expensive.  Other than the camera, we bought nothing but a couple of T-shirts at the portside market.

 

On our first day in Singapore we took a taxi to the harbour center and got on a gondola that takes you from Singapore to an island called Sentosa.  I think I have finally realized that it is a fear of heights that makes me nervous when I fly because when I was in this cable car I felt exactly how I feel when I fly.  Even Steve admitted (at the end, mind you) that he was a little freaked.  These cars, that each hold about 6 people, tangle from a cable about 15-20 stories above the ground and water.  It is so high it feels unnatural.  On the way back a strong wind started blowing and I just about fainted as it was making us sway back and forth.  Of course Nikolas thought my terror was humorous so he started banging his feet on the bottom and moving quickly so that the car swayed even more.  The ride across only takes about 10 minutes but it felt like hours to me!  It was worth it though, because the island is beautiful.  It is a kind of resort and the whole island reminds me of a very small Disneyland combined with Stanley Park.  There is a tram that takes you around the whole island and you can get off anytime you like if it comes to an attraction that you like.  We stopped at the Underwater World (aquarium), Mini-golf, and a gorgeous beach.  Other attractions included a Bug Museum, nature walks, lost civilization city, volcano land, gardens, golf courses, and a huge resort and spa.  Very beautiful but very busy and everything costs a fee to get in or see.  Very commercialized.

 

Once again we did not experience the flavours of Singapore, instead, we had Subway the first day and McDonalds the second.  Our kids are very spoiled.  But really, after spending 2 months with gourmet dinners every night, I have to admit I was craving it too.   We went back to the ship and we were supposed to set sail by 9pm.  When midnight rolled around we were quite confident that we were not leaving.  At that time, we had no idea why not.  Not till the next morning when we woke up and realized the view was the same out of our porthole did we get the announcement that due to “technical” problems we were not leaving until later in the day.  Apparently, one of the engines that controls the jet propulsion system broke and it took them a while to fix it.  There were rumours circulating that the cruise was now cancelled and everyone was getting flown home.  Steve started that one.

 

So we had another day in Singapore and I already told you that we spent the day in Chinatown buying a camera.  When we got back and talked to the passengers we got a lot of them describing Singapore as boring.  I beg to differ.  Although it wasn’t terribly exciting I really enjoyed our stay there and would most certainly come back.  We will see what awaits us in Malaysia!

 

 

MALAYSIA – March 15

Kuala Lumpur  

(written by Helen)

 

“Port Kelang (where we docked) is a small village, but it is one of the country’s largest ports.  Serving Kuala Lumpur for most commercial trade, it is busy.  The capital is 60 miles away.  Like Singapore, Malaysia is open and tolerant.  Also like Singapore, Malaysian society is cosmopolitan.  Kuala Lumpur refers to the Gombak and Kelang rivers, which meet in the city.  Kuala Lumpur means ‘murky creek’.”  (from our Daily Programme)

 

A day late but we arrived in Malaysia and docked in Port Kelang.  We got up a little late, as usual, and had breakfast in the Lido.  We then got our bathing suits on and lathered up with sunscreen and headed out to a beach.  We didn’t know which beach we were headed to so we started asking some questions and found out that the closest beach was at least an hour away.  We weren’t planning on going into Kuala Lumpur because it was an hour away by taxi but decided to go anyways because the beach was just as far.  There was a big coach bus sitting there and it was getting ready to leave.  It had just dropped off a bunch of people from Kuala Lumpur (travel agents, I think) and was heading back to the city.  Steve went up to the driver and asked if he was going to KL and the driver said yes but that he wasn’t allowed to take any passengers back with him.  Steve said we would pay him cash and the driver looked around and said okay, but don’t tell anyone.  He only charged us 20 dollars for the four of us and two of our friends from the casino got on as well.  It was so cool, we had this huge luxury bus all to ourselves.  It had comfy reclining seats, air conditioning and great music.  We really lucked out!

 

The drive to Kuala Lumpur was comfy but crazy.  They drive just like in Thailand.  Everyone cuts each other off and they all tailgate and nobody really stays in their lanes.  To top it all off there are hundreds of these motorcycle maniacs that drive ‘between’ the cars.  It is very scary.  The difference though, between Thailand and Malaysia is seen immediately.  It is way cleaner! 

 

As we neared Kuala Lumpur you could see the skyline and once again I was totally shocked to find such a cosmopolitan city with huge skyscrapers.  There are two towers side by side that you can see from miles away.  They are called the Petronas Towers and are identical to each other.  They are currently the highest manmade structures in the world although they include the antennae at the top.  The buildings are marvels because of their height and because they have an air bridge linking them together at about a third of the way up.  It looks amazing and apparently a famous movie stunt was filmed on the bridge.  We wanted to go up and walk across but all the tickets were sold out for the day. 

 

 

So, instead, we headed to the mall.  Walking there we were admiring this beautiful city.  It is just huge and bustling and again I was amazed at all the foreigners there and all the English signs everywhere.  I am obviously not the least bit knowledgeable about the cities of the world.  I really envisioned KL as a third world town and instead it is this amazing place.  The majority of the population is Muslim so you see the women walking with their traditional head scarves and covered bodies.  It makes me sweat even more just watching them.  I was in shorts and a tank top and I was just melting, I could not imagine having all that on me.  The colours that they wore though were just so vibrant and colourful

 

We walked into this mall that someone had recommended and it reminded me of a large Metrotown.  It was about six levels and it was humongous.  Of course all the designer stores were there like Liz Claiborne, Guess, Armani, but I just stuck to the cheaper ones.  I actually had some shopping to do for Danika’s upcoming birthday so it was perfect.  I loaded up on lots of cute ‘pink’ things that I hope she will like.  She is getting very excited.  She has been counting down the “sleeps” and apparently the dining room has something planned for her.  I also bought a few pairs of shoes because the prices here are quite cheap and the conversion of their money (ringgit) to American is 3.7 to one American dollar.  So I got my shoes for about 10 dollars each.  Not bad!  While we were there we noticed in the middle of the mall a big stage with two huge pictures of Formula 1 drivers Jacques Villeneuve and another one I didn’t recognize.  They were actually there signing autographs and taking pictures and Nikolas was pretty excited about the whole thing when I told him he was Canadian.  The Patronas Malaysian Grand Prix 2005 is being held here in two days.  Very exciting!!!

 

 

We met up with Hootan and Cecilia, our other friends from the casino and we shopped with them for a while and then we got into two different taxis and made our way back to the ship.  We are so glad we decided to go to KL and consider it one of the loveliest cities we have seen.  I would definitely come back here anytime!!

 

We ended the day with a great show in the Grand Lounge tonight.  It was a group from Toronto, Canada and they are Beatles impersonators.  We actually met them in KL in the huge towers and it was funny to see them on stage with the fake hair, the cool suits and the fake English accents.  Believe it or not they had the whole room on their feet dancing by the end of the show.  I can assure you that is a near impossible feat when you look around the room.  These guys were awesome and I can’t wait until they are back on stage in two nights.  It is the most fun I’ve had in 2 months!!!

SRI LANKA - March 19

Sri Lanka -

 (Written by Steve)

Well after a bit of a run from Kuala Lumpur, we managed to get to the small city of Colombo, Sri Lanka. From first glance it looked very tropical, but we were docked at a container port, so most of the view was blocked by towers of containers. We managed to get on a bus with a bunch of other passengers and ride out of the terminal.  It was a good couple of kilometers to get to the front gate. The one thing we saw as we left the terminal is dozens of sand bag bunkers complete with army personal and a machine gun. We had only been in the city for a few minutes and I have to admit, I was a little concerned about the number of artillery positions spread all over the city. At first I wondered if all these guns were brought out since the Tsunami, but we were told that this was normal and they have been there for years. Apparently, back when the Tamil Tigers (an extremist group that wants its own state) tried to cause problems and still do to this day, the government wanted to portray a show of force to persuade them not to cause any more problems. 

 

The bus we were on took us all over the city, even through a few nice areas. Finding an area that is not over run by poverty is very difficult, but they do exist. We drove past the President’s Palace, the Hilton, and many other hotels. The city itself is crumbling away and then all of a sudden a huge Hotel pops out in the middle of nowhere protected by a few machine gun bunkers. It is a funny feeling walking down a street with your kids and you notice that the machine gun in the bunker in front of you is pointed right at you. The same thing happened every time we walked by, the guy in the bunker would see Danika and wave and yell something at her, yes folks, she was the princess in Sri Lanka too. We ended up at the Pettah Bizarre, and I can assure you that Bizarre is the perfect name for this place. As soon as you are out in the open, people run up to you and try and get you to come in their shop so you can buy some of their fine goods. They are not threatening and don’t mean any harm to you, just right in your face.  I felt very safe, only a little overwhelmed sometimes with all the folks bumping into us and touching us. One problem we had was that everyone wanted to touch Danika’s hair, feel her face, or squish her cheeks. I put her up on my shoulders, but they would just grab onto my shirt and reach up and grab her face, sometimes more than one person at a time. At first it was kind of O.K., but it soon became a problem and we quickly felt overwhelmed, and Danika was freaking out (as Nikolas would say). She kept asking me if we could leave and saying, “I don’t like this place Daddy, can we go?”  I wanted to get out of there too, the only problem was we were a couple of blocks from an exit.  Those couple of blocks were kind of scary for her, and Helen let me know she was not happy, but in the end we were safe and sound. Well not really, to get out of the place, we got into the car of the first person who said they would drive us out. We were moving through traffic in some beat up old van, but the old guy did quite well and got us safely to a hotel. You see, the people of Colombo are very poor, but they are extremely friendly, and we wanted to see more but it was just a little too crazy and we were very hungry. The man picked us up at the Train station, which was one of the worst parts of town and dropped us off at the beach. How the heck do we keep ending up in the bad parts of the city?  We have seen some very interesting places on our journey, since leaving New York. (I can hear my mother-in-law again) Well anyways we managed to get this real nice gent to drive us out of the center of town and it all worked out just fine after all. Helen and myself had some words and then we ended up at The Taj Hotel, which was very nice. We ate lunch there and were allowed (for a fee) to swim in the hotel pool, it was very refreshing. We hung around there for a few hours watching a bunch of cricket players swim in the pool. The national cricket teams from Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and Britain were staying at the hotel and a few of them were walking around showing off their muscles. You should have seen the bodies on these guys.  Why the heck do they need to be so cut to play cricket? Helen would fall into a trance every time one of these guys would walk by her and Nikolas and myself would have to pop a few rocks off her head to snap her out of it. As we lounged around the pool I asked Helen what time we needed to be back at the ship, and she replied with a “Not sure” comment. There are only a couple of ports where you did not want to miss the ship and this was one of them. Flying from Sri Lanka into Mumbai would not be much fun without our passports or any extra clothes, so we decided to leave at around 4 pm and hopefully make it back to the ship in time. We grabbed a cab and headed back into the city and I snapped some more pictures and we soaked up a bit more culture. We spoke to the guards outside the hotel and they were very friendly (they also just loved our little princess) and gave us all kinds of information regarding the Tsunami. The damage was felt right in the area where we were standing but fortunately no one was killed in Colombo.  As he was telling us we were looking out on the beach in front of the hotel and the guard said that the wave just came half way up the grassy area. I can tell you we could not see anything that looked like it had been damaged, but I assure you, these folks need our help. These poor folks live with very little and a tsunami was the last thing this country needed. The tourism appears to be non-existent on this side of the island, and I am not quite sure how these big hotels survive, but maybe it’s just off season or something. I am so glad we were able to come to this place, and I am sure one day we may return. It’s the people that make the difference, and the people of Sri Lanka are very kind and thoughtful.

 Sights to see in Sri Lanka:

Presidential Secretariat

Grand Oriental Hotel

Taj Hotel

Lighthouse Clock Tower

Cargills and Millers department store

Pettah Bizzare

Dutch Museum

National Museam

Vibaramabadevi Park

Jami ul Alfar Mosque

Pinnewala Orphanage (Elephant Orphanage)

 

 (Written by Steve - March 19)    

Hey Folks, we are in Sri Lanka and we have just stepped into the Taj hotel to send this. The email system is very slow, I guess its better than nothing. This place is very 3rd world, we have never seen anything like it. People are very nice, but lots of poverty and very, very crowded. We are going to eat lunch here and then try and get back to the ship. I am not exactly sure why but we have seen many bunkers along the roads with military people with heavy machine guns, its a little scary. We are fine and not going to stay out long, so I'll send you a message when we get back to the ship and give you a full update. I will try and send out some pictures from Kuala Lumpur, but I don't think we will be able to get many of them out from here, so i might have to wait till we get to U.A.E.. Hope all is well back home and bye from Sri Lanka,

 

MUMBAI, India – March 21 & 22          

 

                                                                               

Received March 22, 2005

 

Incredible India

 

(Written by Steve)

That’s what the sign says as you enter the Customs/Immigration terminal, and I will tell you, that’s Mumbai in a nut shell. This place is a must see, and I will have to say that so far it is the most interesting port of all, and we will most definitely come back.  I can’t even try to explain the poverty to you, or the emotions you feel for the many homeless, but I can tell you about the people and the culture and the City itself. The people are super fantastic! They are kind, hard working and very beautiful in every way you can imagine. This city has 15 million in the city centre and 3 million that live on the streets, and beg, so it can be very, very overwhelming. I can’t really sit here and tell you about Mumbai because there is so much to tell, you must come see it all for yourself. I am not talking about just the yucky stuff, I am talking about everything that this city has to offer, stuff like the Laundry, train station, Gandhi’s home, Museums, Parks and crowds and crowds of people. We have only been here for less than 2 days, but I feel like we have been here for a month. I was told about Mumbai from several people and there were 2 stories that made me not want to see it (The city). We were told about a place called the Cages or the Crates, and this is a place where they sold children. The information was not accurate and you can find the information on the Cages yourself on the net, but it was not like we had been told. When the ship pulled into port I managed to go ashore with a couple of friends Bill and Betty, a super nice couple from Scotland. They lived right in the heart of Bombay (Mumbai) in the 80’s when Bill was running an oil rig out in the Arabian Sea. We went out into the city after midnight and I got my first real scent of India, and I say scent to be nice. Have you ever heard of the expression “smells of Bombay”? Well let me tell you, the smell is the first thing you notice and it’s a good distraction for what’s to come. Homeless people in numbers that will blow you away, everywhere you look, and lots of beggars still working the streets 24 hours a day. I picked Bill’s brain about everything from the corrupt police to the cages, and he told me the way the city works. Life in India is very hard and a life is worth a lot less here in India than in other countries, and that is quite apparent from all the 3 year old homeless kids running through traffic at 1 am.  Make no mistake about it, I have lost touch with reality it just can’t be helped when you are on this floating amusement park. We are still on a cruise around the world and find pathetic useless little issues to complain about, when these people have nothing, I mean nothing but the dirty clothes on their backs. What am I trying to tell you? I have no idea actually, only that it is completely overwhelming to be here in Mumbai and again you must see it for yourself. You walk down the street and 10 people are following you, asking for anything you can give, but it’s still quite safe. We walked the streets and we were followed by women with little babies and 2 and 3 year old kids asking us for food as we walked, it was very difficult to see. At first I thought it was not a good thing to do with our kids, but if we were safe, why not walk a few blocks.  You absorb enough culture in those few blocks to last you a lifetime. The first time we did it, I was a quite unsure about it, but it was much harder to try and cross the street than it was to out run the homeless. In Sri Lanka everyone wanted to touch Danika’s face, but no one here even came close to her except for a little 5 year old girl. This little girl just followed us for about 10 minutes as I held Danika up in the air, and she just kept waving to Danika. Danika and this girl just kept waving at each other and then Danika said “look Daddy I have made a friend”. Did I want to pick this little girl off the street and take her home and give Danika a sister to play with? Yes absolutely, but it just does not work like that here, like I said you can’t explain this place, only see it. I am sure in a few years from now, Danika will remind us as she always does, “Hey remember my friend in India” And we will all wonder where that little girl is  and what was she is doing, or is she still alive. That’s what I am talking about, we will never forget this place, it’s very powerful. I wish we could stay a couple of weeks or at least a few more days, but it will have to wait till next time when we see the rest of India.

You can get burned here just like any big City and we got a taste of it today.

I got ripped off today and was a little disappointed with myself, and I only have myself to blame for it. It’s a way of life for these folks and you should expect them to try and be ready for it, but I missed it. Basically we overpaid for lunch, and the bill was done up so that we would hopefully not question it, and I did not, I just paid it. To make a long story really short, we paid $145 us for a small Chinese meal with only pop for drinks and no dessert. The bill came and it had over $30 bucks in tax on it and I think we were overcharged for everything else, and when we found out it was too late. We were also blessed with an act of kindness that easily could have meant $100us to someone who needed it way more than us. We forgot our digital camera in the taxi and before driving away the gent called me back over and said “you forgot your camera sir”. It was a nice ending to a very interesting day.

There is more, but I have to send this out before we lose our cell phone signal.

 

 

(Written by Helen)

It’s funny how certain situations or experiences remind you of other things.  While we were touring Mumbai I kept thinking about a book I read a long time ago called “A Fine Balance”.  It’s the life story of an Indian fella and I must read it again now that I have sampled an inkling of Indian life. 

We decided to book a tour for Mumbai because many people told us a lot of horror stories about the city and we were very nervous about this place.  We had to get up early and we set out with our group at 9am.  We were herded into a waiting air-conditioned bus which, believe it or not, was needed even at this time of the day. During breakfast we had a very long discussion with Nikolas and Danika to prepare them for what they were about to experience.  We didn’t want to scare them but we also didn’t want them to be totally shocked at what they were about to see.  Danika didn’t seem to care but Nikolas started saying that he didn’t want to go anymore.  I think we over did it.  Anyway, we got on the bus and our tour guide was a wonderful lady who spoke excellent English and she welcomed us to her beautiful city.  You could tell she had such pride and she was very excited to get going and for us to see her wonderful land. 

 

We pulled out of the port area and even from that moment I noticed that this city was much different than Sri Lanka.  The streets were lined by beautiful trees and you are instantly aware of the population as the streets are filled with people.  The surprise was that most of them were relatively well dressed and the mixture between poor and middle class was quite evident.  In Sri Lanka we saw really only the most destitute, however, in all fairness we were only there for a short time.  But here it seems so different.  On the streets, the selection of cars is astounding.  From beat up old jalopies to Honda’s and many brand new Mercedes.  Apparently, India is one of only 3 cities where Mercedes are made.  As we drove along I was amazed at the way the city has on one street, a beautiful well maintained mansion beside a falling down decrepit makeshift shack.  Mind you, the mansion has a huge fence surrounding it, but still, it is unreal.  As you drive along you see this beautiful cosmopolitan city and then around the corner and you have to swerve to bypass an ox pulling a wagon.  The two worlds are meshed together and it just doesn’t seem comprehensible. 

 

Our first stop was the laundry market.  This area measures about 4 blocks long and 2 blocks wide.  It is huge.  It is one of the most unbelievable sights I have ever seen in my entire life.  This is no exaggeration.  The bus stopped at the top of a bridge and when you get off and look down you see a sea of laundry in various levels of cleaning.  Some are stacked awaiting wash, some are being washed by the people, some are sitting in huge piles soaking wet, some are being rinsed by being whacked against the walls, some are hung on lines that stretch forever, some are arranged along the black dirty roofs.  It is unreal.  Then when you really look closely you see that the colour of the water that they are washing with is a dark browny greenish colour.  We also saw a man emerge from the water in his underwear apparently after taking a bath in it.  Our tour guide talked about this place as if she was recommending a local laundry mat.  She’s telling us that it only costs 300 rupees for 300 articles of clothing.  She says, “What a great deal!” and then continues to say that you could take your clothes elsewhere but they charge you 300 rupees for one article of clothing.  She said that apart from a few missing buttons and some materials that lose their colour, the service is excellent.  They don’t use electricity for the ironing, they use heated flat stones.  Mind-boggling to say the least.  I’m hoping the pictures turn out!

 

 

While we were there we were accosted by the first wave of beggars.  At the beginning, Nikolas did not want to leave the bus but he did and he held my hand very tightly and kind of hid behind my back as we walked.  The people did come up to us but they were in no way overly aggressive or repulsive the way everyone described them to be.  Most of the ladies here were selling their wares and we only saw a couple of small children and at first it makes you catch your breath because they look so scrubby.  They are absolutely filthy with dirt on their faces and they are literally dressed in rags.  Of course they are barefoot and you would think that their faces would look hardened but when you look in their eyes they look surprisingly bright and curious.  Of course they were staring at Danika and she would smile and wave and then you would be shocked when they smile and you see these dazzling white teeth and the happiest little face.  They don’t look the least bit concerned about the fact that they are begging, it’s almost like they are well practiced and they imitate the act of eating with one hand while they hold out the other.  It’s their way of saying I need money to buy food to eat.  They all do it exactly the same way almost as if they’ve been coached, it’s really bizarre.  And as soon as they see that you are not interested they move on and do it all over again to the people behind you.  The tour guide lady said that we should never give them money because if we did then another ten would materialize instantly and it would create a huge problem.  She said that these people are from communities outside of Mumbai and that they write to their families there and say how lucrative the big city is and that just brings more of them in.  She didn’t speak very highly of them and she even said that the government has provided schooling for the homeless children but they refuse to go.  I don’t know, I find that hard to believe.  Sometimes I wonder if people say these things to ease their conscience.  You know, the typical, Oh if they really wanted to work they would find a job.  Unfortunately I don’t believe it’s that simple.

 

As we continued our tour the bus takes you along streets that are lined with shacks that are literally made out of a couple of sheets of plywood.  Curtains hang as doorways and you can look inside and see families living inside.  The shacks are just big enough for them to lie down in.  There are about 15 of these, all in a row connected and then, surprisingly, at the end is one that is a barber shop and sure enough there is someone getting a shave.  Then the funniest sight is the next shack holds the lotto store.  It is so crazy.  Then you drive a little farther and sure enough there’s the McDonald’s and the Pizza Hut and then when you turn the corner and there is a little baby sitting on the sidewalk eating a piece of onion she found on the ground.  It is just so hard to comprehend.

 

Next we visited the Mani Bhavan Gandhi Sangrahalaya.  This is one of the most important Gandhi Memorial Museums in India and it was very interesting.  I just wished that I had remembered to get Nikolas to research who Gandhi was and what he stood for, it would have made the experience way more educational.  There is a room on the second floor which used to be the living room and working place of Gandhi and has been preserved as far as possible in its original setting.  From here Gandhi took his first lessons in carding, he learnt spinning, he started his historic fast here on the 19th of November 1921 and the list continues.  We will definitely get Nik to read about this amazing man and it will be educational for all of us.  This is a quote from a pamphlet we got from the museum and I thought it was worth mentioning:

“The Mani Bhavan is a place where Gandhi lived and conversed with his colleagues, moulded the nation in the image of his cherished ideals of Truth and Non-violence and inspired his followers and devotees who went forth from here in the world charged with a sense of service and sacrifice.  Mani Bhavan, once the residence of the Father of the Nation is now a source of inspiration for freedom and peace loving men and women all over the world.”

 

From the museum we stopped briefly at the Gateway to India monument.  The city boasts a perfect natural harbour which was developed by the British and today handles more then 40% of India’s maritime trade.  It was a great photo opportunity and then it was off to the last stop, another museum.  This one held Indian artifacts dating as far back as the second century B.C.  Wow! 

 

The bus was to take everyone back to the ship but Steve asked if we could walk to The Taj Mahal Hotel that was just a few blocks away. So after our tour of the museum we were on our own and Steve led us down the street and across a street that I am still astonished that we crossed and survived to write about.  Walking the streets of Mumbai was such an experience and I will never forget it.  The smells, oh the smells, the people, the sounds of honking horns, the thousands of taxi cabs, the traffic, the ox and wagon, the children playing in the middle of an intersection, the women and their babies sitting on the sidewalk.  I have no more words to describe it so I shall move on.

 

We got to the hotel and of course it is like a grand palace.  Marble floors, huge bouquets of exotic flowers, lots of “white” tourists walking around with their designer clothes on.  It just makes no sense at all.  Buuuut, we were hungry so this was the place to eat and Nik wanted Chinese food, AGAIN, in India, so we went into the very fancy Chinese restaurant in the hotel and had a great lunch.  I know, after everything I just said, I became one of those typical tourists again and Steve and I tried to verbalize what we had just experienced. 

 

From lunch we made our way to their swimming pool and pretended that we belonged here and jumped in the pool.  They came and brought us towels and never questioned us so we had a wonderfully relaxing time cooling off.  I wanted to go shopping but Steve ended up paying way more than we expected for lunch so we had just enough money to barely get us a taxi back to the ship.

 

Our experiences in India are memorable and we will never forget them.  We were so nervous about coming here and now we feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to experience this most vibrant city.  I really don’t know if we will ever be back but it would definitely be a place I would love to return to someday and really explore more of the country.  I now understand those people who told us over and over again that India is a place you must see to understand.  They were absolutely right! 

 

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – March 25 & 26

 

                                                                             

(Written by Steve) - received April 2

Dubai is not one, but two cities. Deira is on the Dubai Creeks North side and Dubai itself sits on the South bank. The first thing you will see from the Gulf is the Jumeira Beach Hotel’s Arabian “sail” and several other iconic high rises. The most spectacular thing in Dubai is the Burg al Arab Hotel, the worlds only 7-star resort. This place sits all on its own along the ocean and has a very unique design, but from the outside does not look too fantastic. The rooms start at $1500 us and go up to $35,000 us for a one night stay. For 35k you get the penthouse suite with a complimentary helicopter service and a dozen or so butlers. We usually form some kind of plan before we head into a city, so we decided to head to see this hotel first thing and maybe get in to see it. We were all told that there is a fee to walk through the lobby, but it was too busy this weekend to let anyone in. The drive from the dock to the hotel is through a residential area and then a business section, quite far from the downtown core. The houses were very huge with lots of windows and large entry gates. The drive towards this fantastic landmark was going great and then Nikolas decided he was going to be sick, just as we pulled up to the hotel. Can you imagine us walking into the nicest hotel in the world and Nikolas shooting his breakfast onto the lobby floor?  So we got out and took some pictures from the entrance, and then we walked for a few blocks until the poor kid started to feel better. We stumbled upon this beautiful mall about 4 blocks away and decided to see what kind of Arabic treasures were waiting for us to purchase. The prices were out of this world so we sat at Starbucks and had a few drinks and admired our first taste of Arabic architecture. Everything you see in this city is perfect and clean and made with the finest of materials. The other thing that is very different is the dress code, long white khandora’s are worn by the men and women wear a abaya. The women are sometimes so covered up you can only see their eyes. We decided that the best thing to do would be to go to a hotel so the kids could maybe swim and we could get a bite to eat. We have a membership at the Fairmont and I thought it would be our best chance to get into a pool. You see, a lot of hotels won’t let you use the pool, and if they do they have a nominal fee. We walked into the Fairmont and were blown away by its size, beauty and view of Dubai. They had a Formula one racing car right at the front door as you walked in, and Nikolas was very excited to see it. We saw they had a restaurant on the 9th floor so we headed up and grabbed a table. It was a very nice place to eat and it looked out over the pool and the city. As we were eating we noticed everyone leaving the pool and we thought it was a good time to go for a swim. So we paid our bill and headed over to reception to find out if they would let us swim. The nice lady at the counter said she would honor our membership and give us the special day rate of 600 Dirham, or about 170 us dollars. At first I thought she was joking, and there was no way I was interested and walked out to tell the kids. I told Helen and she was questioning me on how it could be so expensive, and was I sure it wasn’t a mistake. It was not, and that was our first taste of U.A.E., one of the most expensive countries in the world. When I told the kids we were not going they did that thing that kids do when they don’t get what they want. They collapsed on the seat and said, “Please!, Please let us go swimming”. Well just as that little circus act was going on, a man from the pool asked if he could help, and I told him the story and said it sounded outrageous. He went back to the nice lady and came back with the super deal of $65 us and Helen could use the spa and the kids could swim. The kids were now begging to go, right in front of this gent and I thought at least Helen could use the Spa. We trucked the kids to the changing room and then I got them in the pool. It was also on the 9th floor over looking the city and Persian Gulf, very beautiful. After all that, both of my little kids came back with that really sad face and the comment that could ignite the space shuttle. “dad it’s too cold, we don’t want to swim” I felt my left eye start to twitch and I smiled and then growled “Oh you are going to go swimming whether you like it or not”. I can’t believe that after all that they didn’t want to go. It took about half an hour and then Dani made a friend and forgot all about the temperature. Nikolas also made a friend and was talking to a little guy from Britain and the day just evaporated and all of a sudden we had to go.

 

 

We had been told as we were heading into the pool that there was a huge concert the night before and all 4 bands were staying at the Hotel. I try to never judge a book by its cover but the fully tattooed dude’s walking around the pool looked to me like rock and rollers. It was not till I was walking down the hall did I chat with one of them, Justin from The Darkness, a British band we had never heard of. Justin was the lead singer and I think his daughter and Danika were playing up a storm. He was a really nice guy and came over to Helen and Nikolas and was asking about how we were traveling and what it was like on the ship. Anyways we left the Hotel and drove through downtown Dubai in what I guess would be their rush hour. Everything in Dubai is done right, from the roads to the gardens to the way they do construction. Any direction you look in the city would give you a glimpse of the many cranes that cover the city. Right now they are building over a million condos and two islands that are attached to the shore. One island is shaped like a palm tree and the other is shaped like the world, the lots are going for 2.5 to 5.5 million. Construction in Dubai is like no other, the trades here work 24 hours a day on one of 3 shifts a day. Everything here is over the top.  Seeing it after coming from a place like India just makes it all very hard to digest. Have you ever been to Vegas and thought that if you saw any more marble or waterfalls you were going to explode? Well multiply that by 10 and you have Dubai.  The grass here is the perfect colour and the perfect height even though it is in the dessert. We were told that this was one of the busiest weekends of the year with the big horse race, concerts and Easter weekend.

We did not have enough time to see anything really and would have liked to see Abu Dhabi and the new hotel they just fished there. Each room has up to 16 butlers and it is now the most expensive hotel ever built at a cost of just over 3 billion us dollars. Geez, I wonder what it would cost to swim in that pool? So that was little day in Dubai, not spectacular, but enough for us to get an ideas of this very expensive culture.

 

 

OMAN – March 27/ 29

 

                                                                                

Oman:  Muscat and Salalah  - received April 2

 

Muscat:

As we headed towards the Persian Gulf, I have to admit that I was getting a little nervous.  I kept thinking that if something happened, all those people who said we were crazy for going on this trip would say, “Aha!  I told you it was a stupid idea!  What were they thinking?”  For those who know me well it will come as no surprise that all the worst case scenarios were swimming in my mind.  If given the chance I would have voted to skip this area if a vote was taken.  Thank goodness it wasn’t.  We were very pleasantly surprised.

 

My nervousness was due to my ignorance, of course.  After coming in from visiting Muscat, a nice couple beside us gave me an article about Oman and after reading it I had wished that I had read it before I toured the city.  The article states that “Oman is very closely linked to the West.  Britain was an ally for many years and more recently the USA has forged close ties with Oman.  During the Middle East conflicts Oman was the centre for allied command posts.  The coalition forces also made use of Omani naval and air force bases.” 

 

When we docked in Muscat, we hopped on a bus and it took us to the Mutrah Souk.  As we drove in we noticed this incredible castle built right into the mountain.  It is the 16th century fort built by the Portuguese.  The souk or market was quite amazing.  It consisted of a number of tiny shops along a very narrow laneway.  It is so tight that two people cannot pass without one turning to let the other through.  The wares for sale included shawls and scarves and many antiques;  Frankincense for sale in almost every one of these little shops.  Apparently there was a lane that was just full of shops selling gold but we didn’t make it that far; good thing for Steve’s sake!

 

This place was just so different from Dubai.  Islam is strictly observed in this country and while we were walking we suddenly heard, over a loud speaker, a man chanting, reciting the Koran.  It kind of sent a chill down my spine and like I said earlier I felt unsafe for some odd reason.  I kept thinking…. what a great opportunity for some suicide bomber to pick this market that is filled with mostly American and British tourists from none other than the QE2.  Oh, that sick imagination of mine!  Obviously that didn’t happen or else I wouldn’t be writing this story so I will continue.

 

The merchants were actually very friendly and not overly pushy.  We ended up buying the traditional dress and hat worn by the men for Steve and Nikolas.  Steve and the merchants were trying to convince me to buy the dress and scarves that the women wear to cover their bodies and their faces but I just refused.  I truly respect their religion and their beliefs but I still have a little bit of a tough time understanding the way women are treated in this part of the world.  It’s so amazing to look at these women as they walk around in the scorching heat with these layers of black material.  Some have just their eyes exposed and when you look in their eyes you can really see how truly beautiful they are.  They say that the women must stay covered in public so that they don’t tempt other men.  Well, when I look at these women they looked very mysterious with just their beautiful eyes glancing out from under the veil. 

 

We decided to catch a cab and we asked him to take us to the actual city of Muscat.  The ride took about 15 minutes to get there and less than that to drive around the city.  Muscat is very small but actually quite beautiful.  The white stone buildings are built along the coast and right up to the dark brown mountains.  There are mosques, it seems, on every corner and the streets seemed quite deserted apart from the tourists from the ship.  He drove us past the magnificent blue and gold Al Alam Palace.  This imposing landmark that overlooks the sparkling waters of Muscat Bay is the Sultan Qaboos’ official residence.  It is huge and ornate and is surrounded by a very tall and imposing fence.  From here the driver drove us back to the souk and we decided to head back to the ship and have lunch.  We were hoping to find a restaurant that looked inviting but actually didn’t even see one. 

 

After lunch, Steve decided to head out on his own to take some pictures and look for an internet café.  He had an interesting experience and I will let him tell you the story.  We were supposed to go back out after he came back but I decided not to and unfortunately that’s it for our experience in Muscat!

 

Salalah:

 

Lucky for us, our friend Hala had made arrangements with a driver she had met in Muscat to come to Salalah and drive us around.  Unlucky for us, he couldn’t make it and we had to come up with another plan.  When we got off the ship we got in another shuttle bus that just took us to the port gates.  We got off the bus and immediately were bombarded with taxi drivers vying for our attention.  When we were leaving the ship a lot of people were getting back on saying that the taxi drivers were asking way too much for the fare to Salalah.  This was QE2’s maiden call to Salalah and unfortunately the taxi drivers turned most of the passengers off and most did not even venture past the port’s gate. 

 

Hala went into the police station that was located right beside the gate and started asking them about the possibility of getting a van to drive us around.  There were 10 of us and we wanted to travel all together.  One of the police officers said that he had a relative with a van and he called him and said that he would be by to pick us up shortly.  Well, the taxi drivers got wind of this little plan and were a tiny bit pissed off about the whole thing.  You see, the police officer was taking their business away and this was not sitting well with these guys.  Nikolas, me and Danika decided to wait in the police station because it had air conditioning and it was just scorching hot outside.  We were able to witness the arguments as one by one the taxi drivers entered the station and started screaming at the police officers.  We had no idea what they were saying but we were absolutely sure that they were not happy at all.  Finally, the police officers decided enough was enough and starting handing out tickets.  This certainly did the trick but you could tell these guys were furious.  I was really concerned that they were going to block the road so the van couldn’t come and get us, but I was wrong.  We piled into the van and off we went, exploring!

 

Hala speaks Arabic so she was our interpreter.  Our driver was a wonderful man named Ackmad (spelled phonetically).  He said that he would drive us up into the mountains where we would have a great view of Oman and even Saudi Arabia.  The drive up was wonderful as we had a couple from Scotland with us and they were teaching Danika all these cute songs.  Soon we were all singing along and even the driver was smiling as we sang “The Wheels on the Bus”.  The landscape changed from a bit of green here and there to absolute desert.  When we reached the top of the mountain we all got out to see the camels that were resting and having a water break.  There were about twenty of them and it was so amazing to walk up and get a close look.  Some were sitting down and it was fascinating to see how their legs bend the wrong way when they are sitting.  Some were standing and some were drinking from the water basin.  There was even some baby ones that were still nursing.  Nikolas thought this was just out of this world and when he actually pet one he ran up to me and said, “Oh my god, I just touched a camel!!!!”  He was so excited.  The camel herder had just milked one of the camels and was passing the bowl around for everyone to try.  Only 2 were brave enough and they said that it wasn’t too bad at all.  We all took a ton of pictures and had a great time and when the camels had had enough they starting on their journey.  One of the guys with us tried to tip the herdsman but he literally ran away from the money.

 

We got back in the van and he took us to the side of a mountain that was filled with caves.  Just at the base of the caves was a beautiful lagoon.  It looked so refreshing and there were two local men swimming, telling us that the water was perfect.  Steve walked back to the van and changed into his swimsuit and was just about to jump in for a refreshing swim when we spotted this huge sign.  It warned against swimming in the water due to the prescence of these snails and their feces have worms that can cause this very serious disease if they get in your skin.  He certainly changed his mind and we quickly scrambled back into the van and drove away.

 

Hala had gone to a fabulous restaurant in Muscat and the owner of that restaurant had given her a card to his other restaurant in Salalah.  We got the driver to takes us there and we were welcomed into this small restaurant and were brought into this square room with a huge carpet in it and cushions all around it.  We all took off our shoes and sat down on the floor on the comfortable pillows.  We looked at the menu and we all ordered a ton of food.  He brought in a huge plastic table cloth that he placed in the middle of the carpet and handed out plates and cutlery.  Soon, the plates of delicious food arrived and he arranged all the food in the middle of the table cloth.  We had ordered hummus, yoghurt with cut up cucumbers and peppers, buriyani rice, chicken, beef, prawns, and tons of pita bread.  The food was delicious and even the kids ate a ton.  We all pigged out and even after all 10 of us had eaten there was still tons left over.  Remarkably the bill was only about $50US for all of us, including drinks.  Pop, that is, they have no alcohol, it’s against their religion.  The dessert was these candied dates that were absolutely delicious. 

 

We piled back into the van and we made a quick stop at a souk.  We bought some T-shirts because we are pretty sure we will never be back to Oman in the near future.  We also bought some Frankincense and Myrrh.  A few thousand years ago, when new religions were vying with long-established  faiths, Frankincense became an important commodity throughout the known world.  Southern Arabia benefited as the only place other than a small part of northern Africa in which the Boswellia trees grow.  These trees are from where the incense is harvested.  As you walk through the souks you get a sampling of the exotic smells of the incense and some of their spices and perfumes.

 

We raced back to the ship and made it with just five minutes to spare.  This is a little too close for comfort because if any crew member is even 30 seconds late they are punished by missing the next 2-3 port days.  That is they are not allowed off the ship for the following 3 port days.  Since most of the crew does this job solely for the traveling, this is not something they take lightly.  When we got back on time and the crew ran on board we strolled through the tables set up with some of the local people.  There was a group of musicians there and they were playing some interesting instruments.  The most surprising being the bagpipes.  As I’d mentioned before we were traveling with a couple from Scotland, Bill and Betty McIntosh.  Bill is a very proud Scotsman and looks fantastic when he wears his kilt on some of the formal nights.  He also plays a mean bagpipes and he asked them if he could play a few notes.  It was so great to hear him play and when he was finished they all broke out in a tremendous cheer.  They all came around to shake his hand.  It was such an amazing sight.

 

We got back on board and hopped in the shower and as we sat down for dinner we reflected back on our day and were so pleased that everything had turned out so wonderfully.  Thanks to Hala and her expertise travel planning!

 

My side of the story:

 

Steve and Nikolas both told the story of the mayday call from the freighter.  My side of the story explains my feelings and is completely more dramatic than theirs.  I know, it’s hard to believe.

Well, we had just gotten ready for dinner and as we were walking to the restaurant the captain comes on and says that they are presently in contact with a freighter not far from us that have sent out a mayday call.  He says that it has been difficult to understand what the problem is because their English is all but non-existent.  He said that they sound very panicky and that we are going to slow down and stop and see if we can be of any assistance.  Well, right away my heart starts beating faster and of course all these thoughts start going through my head.  Is this just a plot to get us close to a ship before they blow it up?  Are they pirates?  Is it really a freighter?   I start talking to one of the friends we have met on board, Bea, and she starts to talk about exactly what I am thinking about and of course we get each other all worked up.  We head up to the Upper Deck and everyone is looking out the windows, trying to see this other ship.  I see it quite a ways ahead of us and I see that it is turning around.  Pretty soon it is turned right around and it is coming straight for us.  Steve had gone back to the room to get the camera and I was standing there with the kids starting to really panic.  The captain comes over the system again and calls for his Chief Officer to come to the bridge immediately.  I was so petrified.  There were a couple of crew from the casino at the window and I asked them if this is normal.  They also looked a little worried and they agreed with me that it looked like the freighter was heading straight for us at a considerable speed.  I started to grab the kids and was walking them to the back of the ship just in case.  When I looked at the ship, to me it looked like it was on fire.  I saw huge clouds of black smoke coming from the top.  Later I realized it was just their normal exhaust.  Steve told me that I was just being paranoid and he convinced me to come back to the restaurant and to try and relax.  He took Nikolas with him and they both went outside to see what was happening.  He came back and told us that our ship had lowered on of the life boats and just as he told us this the captain came back on and said exactly that.  He stated that one of the crew on board the freighter was seriously injured and that we were sending our doctor and a few others to see if we could be of any assistance.  I started to feel a lot better until the captain came on again with the unfortunate news that the crew member had succumbed to his injuries and that the doctor and life boat were on their way back.  I felt very sad about this as I was thinking that a family will be contacted about this terrible accident and they will be receiving some horrible news.  It made me feel embarrassed with myself that I was so worried about myself when someone was in serious need of some help.  I talked to a lot of people afterwards and I wasn’t the only one that was very nervous.  Unfortunately the events of 9/11 have put everyone on alert and I think we are all a little more suspicious than we use to be.  I was also told that it’s the law of the sea to stop and help and that sounds quite logical to me.

 

 

JORDAN – April 2

 

            

JORDAN - received April 8

 

(Written by Steve)

What can I say about Jordan? It may be the most fantastic place on earth, really I am not kidding around. Nikolas and Danika would have stayed here for a week I am sure, and it may be the only place they may have gone for an extended stay. When we first pulled in we got the feeling that Westerners were not the favourite tourist here, I wondered if we might be taking a risk by sightseeing. I only say this because it appears that everyone here is from Palestine, and I just felt a little unsure at first. We were only here one day, and I can assure you a week minimum would allow you to see the important stuff. Our ship was docked only about a mile from the Jerusalem border and several passengers went over the border to do some sightseeing. We did not have enough time to see everything, so we will just stick to Jordan this time and do Jerusalem next time. The trick here is to find a good taxi driver or guide, one who can speak English and knows the terrain. We lucked out and found a very nice man from Palestine by the name of Rushdi. He has been taking people on tours here for 25 years and was Val Kilmer’s personal driver for the movie Red Earth. The people here are almost all Muslims and, make no mistake about it, they will take your money and drive you around but they do not like Westerners. Rushdi yelled for about half and hour and told us exactly what he thought of George Bush and then once we cleared the air on that subject we went sightseeing. The people here pray several times a day and Allah is the most important thing in every ones life. Several times a day you hear singing prayers over loud speakers throughout the city and people kneel down and pray 4 to 5 times a day. Rushdi did it when we were out in the dessert and as soon as he finished we asked him about it.   He was so cool, he explained to us about his religion and it was so refreshing not to be treated like a tourist for the first time in a long time.

 

 Our first drive was to Petra.  This is the ancient city of Petra, Jordan’s most spectacular historical site.  Its ornate buildings were carved from rose-coloured sandstone cliffs by the Nabataeans some 2,000 years ago, and lay hidden beneath desert sands until being rediscovered during the early 1800’s. The site consists of 2,000 year old theatres, temples and streets. The well-preserved Treasury, with its enormous, intricate temple façade is incredibly carved directly from a sheet of rock.  It was in the final sequence of the film “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”.  There is a row of six carved monuments that are the Royal Tombs and they date back from the 1st to the 5th Centuries A.D.  It is a sight that is very hard to comprehend.

 

 Our 2 hour drive along a 2 lane highway gave us a chance to see some of the most colourful and beautiful countryside we have ever seen. The colours here are amazing and the flat desert with sharp mountain backdrop make for wonderful pictures. We decided to go to little Petra instead of the big tourist one because you could drive right up to it and spend a few hours and then head out to the desert and do some off road stuff in our 4x4. Little Petra is made up of around 50 buildings that were used 2000 years ago and Rushdi told us it was used when they went to war. Everyone from the big Petra would move into the little Petra and they would close up both entrances and be protected from any kind of attack. Big Petra has hundreds of buildings and thousands of tourists and would have made for a long day. I know we should have gone, but we wanted to see Wadi Rum too, and would not have had enough time to do both. We walked through many of the living quarters and the kids ran around like wild monkeys who had been released from their cages. It was so much fun to watch Nikolas and Danika running around and screaming and letting out 2 months of trying to be polite and proper, and man did they let it out. I said there were thousands of tourists at big Petra, well, we were the only souls in this whole village. It was kind of spooky, but it made it so special to be in something so historic and have it all to ourselves. As you walked along these streets and entered the buildings built of granite inside the granite you couldn’t help but wonder what it was like way back then.  We were thinking about what the smells would have been, what kind of music would have been playing and who walked along these same streets 2,000 years ago.  It was such an amazing experience and it will be something we will never forget! 

 

 After a few hours we hopped into Rushdi’s little jeep and started our 3 hour journey out into the desert. We were heading to Wadi Rum a world renowned desert location that has been used in several movies like Red Earth and Lawrence of Arabia. It took us over an hour to get to the road off the highway that goes into the desert. Did I just say road? There is no road, we just turned left at one part and drove out into the sand and kept driving and driving and driving until we were in the middle of the desert.  We got stuck and I was a little worried, here we are 2 hours into the desert and our little 4x4 taxi was stuck in about 3 feet of sand. Actually, I was kind of freaking (as Danika would say) until Rushdi just zoomed back and forth until we were free again. I felt O.K. with this maneuver later in the day as we had to do it at least a dozen times. At first I was thinking,” what the heck are we doing out here, are we nuts to risk being so far away from the rest of the world”. I thought that for only a little while until I saw the most incredible thing I have ever seen. It was a huge bridge that was about 75 feet in the air and 1000 feet long. The cool thing about this bridge was that it was a natural bridge that has stood for over a thousand years and we could climb and walk across it. I had to yell at Nikolas to slow down as he just climbed and was running along and every once and a while he would yell back and say something. He said, “Don’t be afraid dad, there is sand down there if you fall off”. We were 7 stories in the air walking along a 30 foot wide uneven bridge and my 9 year old son is telling me not to worry. I guess it is starting already, my son has more confidence than his father, wasn’t that supposed to happen at 11? Anyways, we got into the middle of this thing so Helen could take a picture and I could not get off it fast enough, but Nikolas was just whistling along.

 

We then found these Arabian men with their5 camels in the middle of nowhere and they asked us if we wanted to ride the camels. They had ridden them in from a village 14 km away in the blistering heat. (The funny thing about the desert was that sometimes the heat was unbearable and other times you were freezing your but off). Well, of course the great rock climber Nikolas said he wants to ride one so we stopped and he went over to the men. Nikolas was only up for a few seconds when you could see that he did not like these bumpy animals anymore and wanted to get off. We walked out in the desert for a bit and then we came back.  The ride was short and very uncomfortable, especially when the camels stood up and sat down.  We thought for sure we were going to fall off.  When we got down the men were trying to convince us to take their five camels in exchange for Danika.  Well, we think they were just kidding but we are not completely sure.  We told her that she was definitely worth 10 camels.  She was not impressed.

 

After riding the camels we hopped back in the jeep and sped down the desert.  Suddenly, Rushdi stopped and said, Nikolas, it’s your turn to drive”. Nikolas did not even hesitate and before we knew it Nikolas was driving through the desert.  What fun it was to watch him go. Rushdi was a very nice guy and the stuff he did for us that day went way beyond making money from this all day taxi hire. He told Nikolas that he could now say that the very first time in his entire life to drive was in Jordan!   Eventually Nikolas got us stuck and Rushdi got us out and put Helen behind the wheel and that ended in less than a minute as she too got us stuck. Well, after all that flying sand and spinning wheels Rushdi challenged Nikolas to run up a 100 foot sand bank without using his hands, but it was almost impossible. Danika and I got into the act and we all played until we were pooped and our clothes were filled with sand.  What a super fantastic day this was, I did not see how it could get any better. Rushdi was praying while we were playing and we waited till he finished and then we moved on. As we drove, we all could see this huge body of water and we thought it was the Arabian Sea. When we pointed it out to Rushdi, he just laughed at us. He told us it was a mirage but I didn’t believe him, it was way too big and I was sure I could even see waves. He drove us down to it, but the closer we got, the farther away it went.  He was right!  That was one of the coolest things I have ever seen, the way your eyes play tricks on you. It was actually a lake bed that is filled with water in the winter.  It is completely flat and hard-packed and we just flew across it in the jeep.

It was now getting late and we had to get back as I still wanted to see if I could get some emails and pictures out. Rushdi drove us across the sand as if he knew exactly where he was going, I don’t know how he could know, but he did.

 

All in all we had a super great day and hope to return and spend a few days in Petra and Wadi Rum and next time go to the Dead Sea.

EGYPT – April 4

 

                                                                                

BEFORE I TELL YOU ABOUT EGYPT - received April 6

 

(Written by Steve)

Egypt was fantastic, if you like machine guns. I am not kidding you. I have never seen so many machine guns and people walking around with guns in my life. What does this have to do with Pyramids and the Sphinx you ask? I will get to that in a second, but I first have to give you a lesson in security.

In 1997, near Luxor, a bunch of tourists just like us were just getting off a bus and some Muslim extremists walked right up to them and mowed them down with machine guns and hand grenades. I am not sure of the exact number but I was told that 57 tourists were killed, mostly French and German. There was also a second incident with a larger number of tourists and a few more small ones to follow.  Our friend who is Egyptian told us that this was a very small group of terrorists that wanted to disrupt the economic environment in Egypt by hurting the tourists. She told us that the government will now go to any lengths to get the tourists to come back, so they provide the security. I did not know any of this before we got into our bus to head out for our tour, but I was certainly awake now. We were told that there were 20 busloads of tourists and we would all travel to the city (Cairo) in a huge convoy with police escort. And you want to know something? They were not kidding. We had motorcycle cops on the sides and police cars in front and back of us with lights and sometimes sirens. As we would get to an intersection or on ramp, a car or motorcycle cop would have all the traffic stopped so we could go through without stopping. Nikolas said he felt like he was the President of the U.S. and he was right, it was if we were diplomats or something. In the front seat of our bus and every one of those 19 other buses, sat a plain-clothed police officer with a machine gun or oozie, it was really bizarre. If we drove under a bridge you would see a few police officers on that bridge stopping the traffic as we drove under it. At one point one of the buses in our convoy lost its air conditioning and we had to stop to get a replacement bus. The police guided our convoy onto a huge bridge above the Nile, right in the middle of Cairo. They did not want us to stop, but a bridge was the safest place to do it. It actually made a lot of sense because if we were going to be attacked, they (bad guys) could only get at us from the front or the back. In total, there had to be at least 100 police cars and motorcycles involved in this operation, and god knows how many police officers. So that is how our tour to see the Pyramids started, and I can tell you there is no bigger target than a line of 20 buses reaching a top speed of only 50 Km an hour driving down an empty freeway. I asked one of our friends from the ship who just retired from the Hong Kong police force after 31 years what he thought about all this. He was very aware of the threat in Egypt and was not surprised in the least about the attention we were getting on this day. So that is the kind of security we were given.  Now I will try and tell you about some other stuff. I have to tell you honestly that aside from a semi-relaxing boat ride up and down the Nile I wasn’t overly impressed. (Yes, we had a police boat on each side of our boat and at least 8 armed police on our boat as we floated along.)

 

It took us a couple of hours to get from the ship to the Pyramids and I can only tell that I was so excited to see them. When we pulled up and drove past them and parked in the lot I was in shock. Not because of their beauty and not because of their massive size, I was blown away that one of the most spectacular wonders of the world was being treated like an amusement park. The parking lot was a huge area and there were people selling post cards, camel rides, toys and anything else you can think of. The closer you got to the Pyramids the worse it got. The ground itself was a combination of sand and cigarette butts. There was no fencing around them, no viewing area, just some Pyramids in the middle of a parking lot. I’m sorry if I sound disappointed, but there is a McDonalds and a Kentucky Fried Chicken within a stones throw of these great wonders. This thing is organized chaos and it is such a shame. I am so surprised that someone has not sprayed graffiti on one of them yet. The Sphinx was just as disappointing as the Pyramids and I can only say that I am glad we came, but am not impressed. Nikolas, Danika and I had a bit of a treat when we climbed down into the centre of one of them; well almost. The opening was very small and you had to walk crouched over for a good 300 metres down into the centre where you find an empty burial chamber. We got just to the bottom and turned around as fast as we could, but we were in there. We only stayed at the site for about an hour in total and were being shuffled around by our security people. Seeing the pyramids in a big group is not the way to go, and if we did it again, we would do it alone.

 

The Nile was very relaxing and the view of the city was spectacular. It reminded me of going down the river in Bangkok, except without all the traffic. We had a wonderful lunch, and saw a very pretty side of Cairo. You’re going to think I am just cranky, but I don’t have too much more to say about Cairo, well, nothing nice anyways. When you take one of the largest cities in the world and then throw in a garbage disposal problem, you end up with one big mess. Cairo was the dirtiest city we have seen so far, I think even more than Mumbai. I was very surprised at the living conditions and how 3rd world it was. Most of the buildings did not have roofs and it was explained by our guide that the reason for this is cost.  The families that own the buildings cannot afford the roof and they also leave it off in case they need more room in the future.  That way they just add another level and it’s easier because there is no roof!   The people of Cairo live with very little and it was not something we expected from such a world renowned city.

I would love to come back and maybe tour other parts of Egypt that we heard were amazing, like Luxor and the Valley of the Dead.

 

 

The Pyramids

(by Helen)

 

I wanted to write a little something about the main attraction for us here in Egypt.  I’ve seen the pyramids in pictures and on T.V. but I must say that when you see them in real life it is absolutely mesmerizing.  As we entered Cairo, just beyond the cityscape, I caught my first glimpse of a peak.  The sky was cloudless yet there was a haze over the city and the tops of the pyramids were dreamlike in the distance.  But, they were there!  Oh, what a feeling that is when you first lay your eyes on them.  I actually got goose bumps.  As we got closer you begin to realize how truly massive these wonders of the world really are.  They are actually situated on a ridge above the city and they tower down on it. 

There are over 100 pyramids in Egypt and the greatest is the one in Giza called the Great Pyramid of King Khufu, or Cheops.  It is the most massive of all the pyramids and also the most famous.  It still stands at almost its original height of 480 feet with a base width of 755 feet.  The pyramid is formed by 2.3 million limestone blocks and each side of the pyramid rises at an angle of precisely 51degrees 52’.  This is just so unbelievable when you realize that this extraordinary building feat was achieved four and a half thousand years ago.  The massive labour force required to build a pyramid came under the direction of one man, the Overseer of All the King’s Works.  His position required him to be a man of science, an architect and a figure of commanding authority and outstanding leadership abilities.  This guy was responsible for a monumental undertaking of national importance.  His project must ensure the pharaoh’s safe journey into the afterlife.  Every Egyptian household had to help in the project by providing food or manpower for the project’s work crew.  He had a lot of decisions to make like where to build the pyramid.  Tradition required that the site be on the west bank of the Nile, close to the land of the dead (known in Egyptian as “the west”).  Also, he had to consider that the site be within reach of a good supply of limestone.  He also had to establish a quarry, the supply ramp, and the settlement for the thousands, maybe even tens of thousands of workmen.  When you stand beside it, the idea that it was created without trucks and cranes is incomprehensible!  It must have been a sight to behold!

 

The pyramid shape is closely associated with the sun and the sun god, Re.  According to history, when the pharaoh died, the sun would strengthen its beams to create a celestial stairway or ramp, giving the deceased king a route to the heavens. The larger pyramids were built for the pharaoh’s and the smaller ones for their queens. 

 

The Great Sphinx is a lot smaller in real life than I expected.  Our guide told us that it’s because most of the pictures are taken with a zoom lens compared to regular lenses used for pyramid pictures.  It has a lion’s body and the head of a king, which wears the royal nemes headcloth and false beard.  Although it’s badly weathered, apparently the features of King Khafre are recognizable.  The function is much debated but perhaps it was built as the guardian of the Giza Plateau.  Remarkably the Sphinx is carved from a knoll of rock that is said to be of poor-quality limestone.  Many legends also state that there are secret passages under the Sphinx.  One explorer hoped to discover a tunnel leading from the Sphinx to Khafre’s pyramid.  The Egyptian Antiquities Organization excavated in and around the Sphinx and located three tunnels under the statue.  They had been found and entered before by an archaeologist who, however, had never published his findings.  There are many myths and legends in Ancient Egypt and it was exciting for all of us to stand before these amazing monuments and it will certainly be an experience we will never forget!

 

MARMARIS, Turkey – April 6

 

                                                                                

TURKEY – received April 8

(written by Helen)

 

After gliding through the beautiful Suez Canal we sailed into the Mediterranean Sea and headed to a place called Marmaris in Turkey.  Marmaris lies at the head of a fjord and when we woke up this morning and looked out the porthole we were very surprised.  The pine-covered hills against a mountain backdrop look amazing as they rise from the coast that boasts turquoise-coloured water.  We docked in a beautiful bay and the whole coastline consists of gorgeous coves and many marinas.  The buildings are all white washed with dark blue roofs.  Although I’ve never been to Greece, it reminded me of what some of those Greek Islands would look like. 

 

We got off the ship at about noon and jumped on a shuttle bus that took us to the town square.  When we arrived we found a quaint little city center with many shops and restaurants lined up for us to browse through.  We walked along and a few of the merchants tried to entice us into their shops but we were just looking.  I was a little excited about this stop because Turkey is known to be a great place to buy leather.  Well, we asked a few prices and they all seemed to be twice what I would pay in Canada so we walked on! We then found a store that sold phone cards and I called my mom.  We thought it was about midnight in Canada but it was actually after 2am but my mom said she had woken up for some reason and said that it was like she knew I was going to call. 

 

We then decided to hop in a cab and drive along the coastline.  In the distance we could see some huge hotels and we told the driver to take us to one.  He dropped us off and we walked around a bit but there was not that much to see even though it was a five star hotel.  Apparently, Marmaris is a very touristy town but the season doesn’t start until May so everything is not open yet and this hotel was like a ghost town.  We decided to walk back a bit on our own and see if we could check out any of the other hotels along the way.  The weather was perfect.  Sunny and clear with the temperature at a comfortable 19 degrees Celsius.  We stopped at a shop and bought a few knock-off shirts like Quicksilver and Dolce and Cabanna.  The prices weren’t great and we’ve come to realize that we are certainly not great bargainers.  I’m sure the merchants laugh when we leave with our loot that we paid way too much for!  We asked one guy where the best place was to have some lunch and he said McDonald’s.  I’m not kidding.  He said that you can’t be sure how clean any of the other restaurants are right now because business is really slow.  He said you can always be sure that McDonalds will be good.  So, that’s where we ate!!!!!  And it tasted exactly like it does everywhere else in the world.  Steve had something different though, he had a McTurcoIt’s pita bread stuffed with their McChicken pattie with lettuce and tomato.  He said it was pretty good.

 

The people here are relatively friendly.  We certainly felt more at ease than when we were in Egypt and Oman.  We did notice that it was very quiet yet you could see the people building and setting up stores and restaurants in preparation for the coming season.  We didn’t really do very much here but it was actually quite nice and relaxing.  We would definitely come back here and we would actually like to see more of the “real” Turkey, like Istanbul. 

 

We got a few souvenirs from here that ended up being quite comical.  Steve bought himself a gorgeous Rolex watch.  It cost $15.00U.S.  It was advertised as a genuine fake Rolex.  It was so nice he ended up buying another one and one Gucci watch for me.  The funny thing was, he didn’t think to make sure the watch actually worked before we left the shop.  When we got all dressed up that night for dinner he proudly said he was going to wear his new watch!  Well, he put it on and noticed that it was not working.  Then, he gave me mine and when I went to put it on I noticed that the band had fallen off and we couldn’t get it back on.  Oh well, it serves us right!  You get what you pay for!!  Good thing we didn’t buy any leather jackets!!! 

 

NAPLES, Italy – April 8

 

                                                                                 

PART ONE (written by Helen) - received April 11

 

NAPOLI – POMPEII – SORRENTO – POSITANO - AMALFI COAST

 

“In Napoli, when love is real,

 When boy meets girl,

 Here’s what they say…

 When the moon hits your eyes,

 Like a big pizza pie,

 That’s amore!”

 

Whenever we hear that song we are now going to think of our wonderful trip to Naples.  We lucked out and found this amazing taxi driver that showed us around this beautiful place.  His name is Salvatore Salomone and he is a very special man.  From the moment we got into his car he made us feel welcome and comfortable.  His English was excellent, actually he sounded like he was from New York; he had a New York accent.  He actually lived in Montreal for a few years in the early 1960’s so he also speaks French, Spanish, German and he even spoke a little Yugoslavian to me. 

 

Our first stop was Pompeii.  The fee to enter was quite reasonable at 20 Euro for the four of us.  This archeological site was more spectacular than we ever imagined.  It was huge!!   You stroll by the forum, temples, homes, shops and other structures that were buried by ash and pumice stone during the Mt. Vesuvius eruption of 79 AD.  The city of Pompeii was built from stone and brick and so much of it is still standing, it actually looks as if the top of the city was cut and destroyed.  The base of it is in remarkable shape considering that it is 2,000 years old.  You walk along the cobblestone streets and you can still see the grooves in the stone made by the wagons of long ago.  It is such a complete city and what is most amazing is how advanced they were so long ago.  We were in there for about an hour and a half and we hardly saw a quarter of it.  You could spend days touring this site and having a tour guide is a must. Here is a brief excerpt from the encyclopedia about this ancient city: 

 

“Pompeii, ancient city of Italy, in the Campania Region, built at the mouth of the Sarnus River (now Sarno), a few miles south of Mount Vesuvius, between Herculaneum and Stabiae. The city was founded about 600 BC by the Oscans, who were later conquered by the Samnites. Under the dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla it became a Roman colony in 80 BC and later a favorite resort for wealthy Romans, reaching a population of about 20,000 at the beginning of the Christian era. It was also a place of considerable trade and was the port town of Nola and other inland cities of the fertile valley of the Sarnus. The city was much damaged by an earthquake in 63AD and was completely demolished in79AD by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius that overwhelmed the towns of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Stabiae. The eruption also changed the course of the Sarnus and raised the sea beach, placing the river and the sea at a considerable distance from the ruined city and obscuring the original site.”

 

From Pompeii we headed to Sorrento with our wonderful taxi driver, Sal.  It was a beautiful sunny day and Sal drove with great care and attention along the coast and we stopped at various locations to take some great pictures.  The views were breathtaking as we looked down and saw the houses perched along these magnificent cliffs.  The beaches looked great with turquoise water that looked very clean and clear.  The busy season starts in May so the beaches were pretty empty. Sal says that in the summer these beaches are just packed as well as all the cafés and restaurants whose verandas are built into the side of a mountain. I could just picture people sitting there having cappuccino as they gazed at the Mediterranean.

 

As we drove along we came upon one of many roadside stands that sell fruits and vegetables.  Sal parked the car and we all got out and he talked to the cute little Italian lady and then they invited us behind the stall for some homemade wine and liqueur.   It was so “European” to be standing in a lemon grove with cherry tomatoes hanging everywhere while we sipped this very friendly lady’s wine and toasted with “Salute”.  We ended up buying some oranges, walnuts and a bottle of this delicious homemade lemon liqueur called Limonina (spelling?).  My sister went to Italy last year and brought some of this stuff back and it is absolutely delicious.  We were starving, so the alcohol went straight to our heads and we were very happy as we piled back in the car (me and Steve, that is, the kids did not get drunk)! 

 

As we continued our drive Sal serenaded us with some Dean Martin songs and boy, can this guy sing.  He was fantastic and then he put on a Dean Martin cassette and we drove along the coast of Italy while listening and singing along to “That’s Amore” and “Volare”, it was so much fun.  We drove to a city called Positano and apparently this is where Diane Lane filmed part of the movie “Under the Tuscan Sky”.  Again, it was so beautiful as we gazed upon the Adalfi Coastline. 

 

We then headed back and stopped in Sorrento for lunch.  Sal took us to this great pizzeria and we all had pizza, even Steve.  Steve and Sal ordered a pizza with no cheese and it was fantastic!  The adults all shared a bottle of wine and because Sal brought them customers the restaurant gave us some of that lemon liqueur on the house. We were going to order coffee but Sal said that this was a pizzeria not a coffeehouse and instead he took us to a roadside coffee bar.  We ordered cappuccino and espressos and Sal took Nik back to the car to get a sweater because he was cold.  When they got back and he saw me and Steve sitting down he got angry.  He said that as soon as you sit down with your coffee the bill will triple.  Well, we didn’t know this and sure enough when we got the bill our 3 coffees cost 15 Euros instead of 4.  Sal just shook his head and kept saying, “Why you sit down?” over and over.  It was quite humorous!  He then took us to a deli that had some amazing gelato and the kid’s were in heaven.  This guy knows his way around!  We then walked through Sorrento and enjoyed this quaint little town and then headed back to Napoli.

 

Throughout our tour Sal drove very carefully and slowly.  He actually got quite a few honks from impatient drivers behind him.  I was thrilled with this of course because the roads are quite narrow and very curvy and there is always a cliff on one side.  Well!  That changed as soon as we hit Naples.  This guy drove like a maniac.  Nikolas just loved it!!!  I truly felt like I was in a video game as he was driving VERY fast and he took these turns at full speed.  I was hanging on for dear life and on more than one occasion I closed my eyes because I thought he was going to plow into someone for sure!  He would take the turns at full speed and turn into these tiny alleyways that were hardly as wide as the car.  The funniest thing was that these alleyways had people strolling in them and they would just step into a doorway to let us go by, as if this was all perfectly normal.  It was unreal!

We finally got back to the ship in one piece and Sal took us for coffee as a final good-bye.  He bought the kids a treat and I must say he will be someone we will never forget.  If and when we ever come back to Naples we will call him and he told us he would show us so much more!

 

Steve has been to Italy before but this was my first time.  I can honestly say it was everything I ever imagined it to be and I am so glad we had Sal to make it such a perfect experience.  It makes me really eager to come back here during our second leg of our journey and see more of this amazing country.

 

SPAIN – April 10 - 13

 

                                                                               

BARCELONA  - received April 11

(Written by Steve)

We just spent 2 wonderful days in Barcelona and we enjoyed every minute of it. The streets, the shops and the café’s are everything you would think that Europe was all about. We are just getting ready to sail to Malaga in the next hour and that is where will end the sailing portion of this great journey. You see, we only have one body of water to cross before we will have completed an entire trip around the world. We will be writing so much more about this wonderful country (Spain) as we will be spending the next 2 months driving the roads and seeing all the wonderful sights the Spanish have to offer us. We will get off this old Gal in 2 days and then pick up a car that will take us through Portugal, Spain, France and Italy and then we will drop the car off in Spain and travel by train for a bit. We then will pick up another car and drive up into northern Europe and spend the next couple of months driving around up there. In total we hope to be driving around all of Europe for about 4 months and then, who knows. Maybe down to South Africa and then back to Japan or Vietnam and finish up in Australia. Anyways, after 100 days at sea will be entering a whole new way of traveling and we are nervously excited about doing it. Oh ya, I‘m supposed to be talking about Barcelona aren’t I? O.K., here are a few facts about this super city and we put a full story in the new section “European Vacation”.

 

A few facts for you:

 

Barcelona city, northeastern Spain, capital of Barcelona Province and the autonomous region of Catalonia, a seaport on the Mediterranean Sea between the Llobregat and Besós rivers. Barcelona is the second largest Spanish city in population and the principal industrial and commercial center of the country. The chief manufactures are textiles, precision instruments, machinery, railroad equipment, paper, glass, and plastics. Barcelona is a major Mediterranean port and a financial and publishing center of Spain.

 

Barcelona Province, the most populous and industrialized of the Spanish provinces, is mountainous, with fertile plains and a low, sandy coast. Agricultural products include cork, olives, grains, vegetables, grapes, almonds, oranges, and peaches. Cement and textiles are the major manufactures, and lignite and potash are mined.

 

The oldest section of the city of Barcelona, formerly enclosed by walls, was built on the harbor and is traversed by the Rambla, a paved thoroughfare extending from the harbor to the Plaza de Cataluña, the focal point of the city. The streets of the old section are narrow and crooked; in the newer sections they are wide and straight, and the buildings are modern. Dominating Barcelona's skyscape are the fantastic openwork spires of Templo Expiatorio de la Sagrada Familia (Church of the Sacred Family), a huge, unfinished cathedral notable for the elaborate patterns and undulating curves characteristic of its builder, the Catalan architect Antonio Gaudí y Cornet. Other points of major interest include the Church of San Pablo del Campo (914), the Gothic Cathedral of Santa Eulalia, a monument to Christopher Columbus, and the nearby peak Tibidabo (532 m/1745 ft). Among the many cultural institutions are the University of Barcelona (1450), the Autonomous University of Barcelona (1968), the Royal Archives of Aragón, the Archaeological Museum, the Museum of Ancient Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Contemporary Art Museum.

 

According to legend, Barcelona was founded as Barcino about 230BC by the Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca. The region became part of the Roman Empire in the 3rd century bc; it was ruled by the Visigoths in the 5th century AD , was conquered by the Moors in 713, and was captured by Charlemagne, King of the Franks, in 801. Under Frankish rule the city and the supporting region became the self-governing county of Catalonia, or Barcelona. The region was absorbed into the kingdom of Aragón in 1137. Barcelona thereafter gained in commercial and political importance as a Mediterranean trading and shipping center. Barcelona's prosperity diminished after the kingdoms of Aragón and Castile united in 1479 and subsequently imposed restrictive trade policies on the city. In 1833 Barcelona Province was established, with Barcelona as the provincial capital. In the 19th and 20th centuries Barcelona was a center of Catalan regionalism, anarchy, and industrial unrest. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) the city was the seat of the autonomous Catalan government and was a Loyalist stronghold. It was heavily bombed in 1938 by the insurgents, or Nationalists, who finally captured the city on January 26, 1939. Barcelona's selection as the site for the 1992 Summer Olympics sparked a massive municipal redevelopment program.

 

We will let you know what it is like to be living on land again in the next few days, until then, ciao!

 

 

If Only We Had Known

 

 

Riding camels in Wadi Rum, Jordan

 

"Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. 

MARK TWAIN

 

 

The world is actually a very safe place, just stop watching CNN.

Pack 2 suitcases per person. One is the must have, the other is the I think I will need. Leave the I think I need one behind.

It's more important to bring home stories rather than souvenirs (could someone tell my Wife that).

It is true. The best things in life are free, unfortunately the transportation costs will kill ya.

The journey is as important as the destination, so try and pick the right cab or driver.

Brings clothes that can be washed and dried in a dryer, don't bring cold water or dry clean only clothes.

 If you are traveling with your kids, teach them always to hold your hand in crowded areas and not to wander. Always check for travel advisories the day before entering a country.

 If you are going to travel around the globe, do it from east to west. We are doing both ways and west to east is a killer.

Travel is as much about the people you meet as it is the destination you visit.

Traveling with children can be  a little trying, but very rewarding.

The greatest travel tools you could buy for your kids is a portable DVD player and a game boy. It makes those 15 hour drives seem like only 10.

Every Hotel is just dying to give you a discount, all you have to do is ask. Ask what kind of discounts they offer; AAA or Amex ,etc.

Always get a hotel membership, it's free and next time they might upgrade you.

Sites like Travelocity, Orbitz and Priceline are NOT the best deal. Book directly through the hotel, most will guarantee the lowest price.

Sleep and sugar will affect your children more than anything else when you are on the road.

Use a Travel agent you can trust!       Thanks Paula.

Get a 40+ page passport as some countries will use a whole page.

If you rent cars, sign up for a membership and try to use only one rental company.

60 percent of the worlds population does not use toilet paper, a tidbit you should keep in mind when shaking hands.

The Hotels or B&B's never look the same as the pictures in the brochure, that's why we book as we go. 

Don't be afraid to travel with kids because people will go out of their way to help you, especially in Asia.

Don't take more than you need!  Too much luggage = bigger sweat stains. And the more you smell, the more laundry you will have to do.

A couple small hockey sticks and a soft ball can make an airport wait quite fun, better yet a hotel lobby can be a blast.

Its better to reward your children for being good, than to punish them for being bad.

Traveler's Cheques use to be a good idea, not anymore. Take two Credit Cards, a bank card and cash.

Eating from street vendors is not the best idea, and bottled water is best.

Keep tabs on the closest Embassy and get vaccinated. To find the vaccinations you need, try  www.cdc.gov/travel/vaccinat.htm

Make sure the Taxi you are taking has a permit to operate, a $25 fair can turn into $75. Use taxi stands and insist that the driver use the meter.

Spot pickpockets before they spot you. Don't wander from the herd, carry only the cash you need and wear a money belt.

Most of the world is very safe, but always check your destination on a foreign affairs web site.

UK = www.fco.gov.uk  Canada = www.voyage.gc.ca  Australia= www.dfat.gov.au US= www.travel.state.gov

More to come, we just have to find it.

 

 

 

EUROPEAN VACATION

 

 

                                                                                             

GIBRALTAR received April 28

 

The British colony of Gibraltar occupies a lump of limestone, almost 5km long and over 1km wide, near the mouth of the Med. Gibraltar was the bridgehead for the Muslim invasion of Spain in AD 711and was held until 1462. In 1704 an Anglo-Dutch fleet captured Gibraltar. Now after 300 years of being British, there is talk of a joint Spain and Britain Anglo Spanish partnership. This does not sit too well with Gibraltarians. When you walk around Gibraltar it feels just like it would be back in Britain in the 1960’s, not that I was around. Getting into the rock is a bit of a pain as coach loads of day trippers from the Costa del Sol create lineups and queues that take over an hour to get through. The really funny thing is that this little place is just long enough to support a runway and they just happen to have one in a very unusual place. As we are waiting in this huge line-up to get into this funky little place, a plane decides to land and that was a site! The border must close because the runway goes right across the main street into Gibraltar.  You sit an extra 20 minutes and watch a British Airways jet slowly taxi down in front of the border crossing; really bizarre.

We were told the things to see are: Gibraltar Museum, Upper Rock Nature Reserve, Barbary macaques, Apes den, St. Michael’s Cave and the great siege tunnels.

 

 

A Day on the Rock of Gibraltar

(Written by Helen)

 

We all had to get up pretty early again as we were supposed to catch our bus to Gibraltar at 9am.  Since my sister and her kids have been here we’ve had some late nights so this was considered an early morning.  The weather is kind of brisk at that time of the day but we can’t really dress too warmly because the day will be hot by noon. 

Steve was getting a little nervous because our bus was about 45 minutes late.  We were just about to go home when the coach arrived and they apologized for being late due to an accident on the way, they had a huge detour.

 

We always thought that the Rock of Gibraltar was just a huge piece of rock in the middle of the Sea.  We had no idea that it was actually connected to Spain and has a city on it with many inhabitants, and British to boot.  The line-up to the border took about half an hour and it is obviously an extremely touristy place because the majority of the vehicles in line were tour buses. The bus stop where all the tour buses park is a huge parking lot that was actually once all water.  They needed more space so they created more land. 

 

We were going to just walk around without a tour because we were still disappointed with the tour to Morocco but the lady told us that the tour was very worth while and it meant that we didn’t have to go up their gondola.  So we decided to take it and in hindsight we are so glad we did. 

We were in a type of van/bus that held about 20 people and the driver was our tour guide and he was born and raised in Gibraltar so he was extremely knowledgeable and very funny.  He drove us up some extremely narrow and winding roads and we went through some ancient tunnels that fit only one car, one way.  I kept looking back at my sister and we both had our nervous faces on.  She’s a little uncomfortable with heights so she wouldn’t look out the windows.  It was such an amazing view.  He took us up to the top of the rock to the Upper Rock Nature Reserve and the view was spectacular.  The kid’s were in awe of the rock’s most famous inhabitants:  its colony of Barbary macaques, the only wild primates in Europe.  It is so bizarre to see them.  They just sit there and stare at you as you approach them and take pictures.  You are advised not to touch them and our tour guide told me that he had a tour once and he had made his usual speech about not touching them.  Well, he said a lady from America wanted a picture with one while she had her arm around it and sure enough it bit her right on the arm.  He said the funniest part was that she complained to him later and he just shook his head and said, “I told you so!”  They are so cute and they come in many sizes.  The baby monkeys are the cutest and when you look down the rock you see them in trees, on buildings, on wires, hanging off the buses as they make their way up the hills.  They just take over.  This one gentleman had his bags sitting on the ground and one of the monkeys grabbed a small bag and ran off.  The guy went running after it, yelling and screaming and luckily the monkey dropped the bag before climbing up to safety.  The bag contained the guy’s camera.

Next, we went to St. Michael’s Cave which is a large natural grotto renowned for its stalagmites and stalactites, which are huge deposits of calcium carbonate that stand like pillars and hang like icicles.  The cave is massive and very dark and damp.  They have placed lots of lights in it to make it safe but it stills maintains its natural aura.  One section of it has been turned into a type of open theatre and apparently they have concerts inside of it.  That would truly be a memorable experience. 

 

As we made our way down the rock we stopped at various locations to take pictures of the spectacular views and every time we stopped the monkeys were there.  We had to keep guard of the door to our bus because the monkeys sit right in front of the doors and make a run for it when the doors open.  One of the monkeys sat on the rear view mirror of our bus and was using his feet to try and slide the window open.  It actually got a little freaky.  That would be a Nikolas word.  Another little baby one was sitting on the back of the car in front of us and was chewing on the car’s antennae.  Steve shooed him away and he ran off but not without giving Steve a very dirty look. 

 

 

The bus dropped us off at the city centre and there was a big square there with all these café’s and souvenir shops around it.  We were all starving so we sat down at a café and ordered mussels, pasta, salad, pizza, soup, and lots of bread, olives and sangria.  It was pretty good.  By that time it was time to head back to the big coach for the hour ride back to San Pedro (where we are staying). 

I wasn’t that keen on seeing Gibraltar but I am so glad we did!  It is beautiful and very interesting, especially if you take a tour and you hear about the history of this ancient site.  And those amazing monkeys are totally worth the price of admission!!!

 

 

 

THE ROCK OF GIBRALTAR

 

The Rock of Gibraltar is composed of limestone. It arises abruptly from the sea in the east; its slope is more gradual on the west. The maximum elevation is 426 m (1,398 ft). Aloes, cacti, capers, and asparagus grow in the crevices. Certain parts contain grassy glens, in which pigeons, partridges, woodcocks, and the Barbary ape (the only wild monkey of Europe) are found. Among the natural caves of the promontory, Saint Michael's, with an entrance 335 m (1,100 ft) above the sea, is the largest. Climate is temperate, with temperatures averaging 15.6° C (60° F) in winter and 21.1° C (70° F) in summer. Average annual rainfall is 889 mm (35 in).

 

The population of Gibraltar in 2003 was 27,776. The overall population density was 4,273 persons per sq km (11,068 per sq mi). Most of the civilian inhabitants are of Portuguese, Italian, Maltese, English, or Spanish descent.

 

The official language is English, although Spanish is widely spoken. About 75% of the population is Roman Catholic, 8% is Anglican, and 9% Muslim. Education is compulsory between the ages of 5 and 14. In 2000 some 2,377 students attended 12 primary schools in Gibraltar.

 

Because few natural resources are found, the major factors of the economy are the processing of food products, tourism, and shipping. A free port and gambling concessions attract tourists. The Admiralty harbor is an important fortress and strategic naval base. The Gibraltar pound is at par with the pound sterling.

 

Gibraltar is administered by a governor, who is the representative of the Crown. The governor is advised by the Gibraltar Council, which consists of five elected and four ex officio members. The Council of Ministers makes recommendations to the Gibraltar Council. Legislative powers are vested in the House of Assembly, which consists of a speaker (appointed by the governor), 15 elected members, and 2 ex officio members. About 1,800 British troops were maintained in Gibraltar in the late 1980s, but by 1999 that number had been reduced to about 700.

 

During the European phase of the American War of Independence, the Spanish, who had entered the conflict against the British, imposed a stringent blockade against Gibraltar as part of an unsuccessful siege that lasted for more than three years (1779-83). On September 14, 1782, the British destroyed the floating batteries of the French and Spanish besiegers. In February 1783 the signing of peace preliminaries ended the siege. In 1830, Gibraltar was named a crown colony.

 

In World War I, the Rock served as a strategic base for Allied naval units and was used as a coaling station for transports en route to theaters of war in the eastern Mediterranean. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), the town of Gibraltar served as a haven for large numbers of Spanish refugees.

 

When Britain gave almost complete control over internal affairs to the dependency in 1964, Spain contended that under terms of the Peace of Utrecht it should acquire sovereignty over Gibraltar. The British step led to strained relations between the two countries and economic isolation of the dependency by Spain. In a referendum held on September 10, 1967, the people of Gibraltar voted overwhelmingly to remain under British rule and to reject ties with Spain. Spain, however, pursued its claim and in 1969 closed its border to the 5000 Spanish workers who crossed it daily on their way to work in Gibraltar. The dependency consequently adapted its economy, which benefited from a general diversification, increased tourism, and military spending by the British.

 

Toward the end of the 1970s Spain began to show more flexibility on the question of Gibraltar. In 1980 an agreement in principle was reached on the reopening of the border, but it was not implemented because of labor problems. It was further delayed in 1981, when the prince and princess of Wales selected the Rock as the first stop on their honeymoon, a choice that Spain regarded as an affront. In 1982, however, both countries again committed themselves to resolving their differences, and in February 1985, for the first time in 16 years, the border with the Spanish mainland was fully reopened.

I know it sounds like I wrote all that, but I stole it from the Encyclopedia, just thought you might want to know.

 

We are going to try and head over to Morocco in the next couple of days, I will let you know how it goes.

 

 

 

MOROCCO - received April 21

(written by Steve)                                 

 

Yesterday we were sitting on the sand at Cocoa Beach watching our kids play in the sand and swim in the Mediterranean. The one thing about this place (Costa del Sol) is that no matter how many condo’s they build or how crowded it gets, the scenery will always be beautiful. The most incredible thing we saw while sitting on this beach was the Rock of Gibraltar and the mountains of Africa just south of where we were sitting. As we looked at Africa we decided that there is no way we could come all the way down here without going over there, to Morocco, Africa.

So we all got up at 5 am.  Helen, our kids, Maryanne (Helen’s sister) and her kids (Thomas and Michael) and headed to Algercira to catch a high speed Catamaran that takes you over to Tangiers, Morocco.

 

 As you head across the straight of Gibraltar, you get a clear view of the rock and Jebel Sidi Moussa (on the African side) and it is amazing how close the two are together. Did you know that this is the closest point between Europe and Africa, and it is only 12 kilometers from the Spanish coast to the African Coast?  In Ancient mythology this is also where Hercules opened the waters to create the Strait of Gibraltar when he was in search of the golden apple.

STRAIGHT OF GIBRALTAR

 

Pillars of Hercules, name given by the ancient Greeks to two peaked rocks that flank the eastern entrance of the Strait of Gibraltar. They seem to have been first visited by the Phoenicians about 1100 BC. Ancient Calpe, the northern pillar, is the modern Rock of Gibraltar, and ancient Abila, situated at Ceuta on the African coast, is now called Jebel Sidi Moussa.

 

HERCULES

 

Hercules, in Greek mythology, hero noted for his strength and courage and for his many legendary exploits. Hercules is the Roman name for the Greek hero Heracles. He was the son of the god Zeus and Alcmene, wife of the Theban general Amphitryon. Hera, the jealous wife of Zeus, was determined to kill her unfaithful husband’s offspring, and shortly after Hercules’ birth she sent two great serpents to destroy him. Hercules, although still a baby, strangled the snakes. As a young man Hercules killed a lion with his bare hands. As a trophy of his adventure, he wore the skin of the lion as a cloak and its head as a helmet. The hero next conquered a tribe that had been exacting tribute from Thebes. As a reward, he was given the hand of the Theban princess Megara, by whom he had three children. Hera, still relentless in her hatred of Hercules, sent a fit of madness upon him during which he killed his wife and children. In horror and remorse at his deed Hercules would have slain himself, but he was told by the oracle at Delphi that he should purge himself by becoming the servant of his cousin Eurystheus, king of Mycenae. Eurystheus, urged on by Hera, devised as a penance, the 12 difficult tasks: the “Labors of Hercules.”

Don’t feel bad, I did not know any of this stuff either. So after what seemed to be an eternity, we arrived in Tangiers at around 11:30 am and were ready to see the sights of Morocco. We got onboard a tour bus thinking this would be the safest way to travel through the city and have someone explain it to us as we only had one day here. Our tour guide was a cross between Rodney Dangerfield and James Brown. He had hundreds of one liners, but no one could understand a word he said, he was quite fun though. We took a drive through Tangiers, through the American, French and Middle Eastern parts of the city, it was very beautiful.  We have been through many countries in the last few months and it does not matter where you are in this world, you will always find one. What you ask? An unofficial American Embassy; McDonalds.

 

 

 

We drove by Winston Churchill’s home and the Kings Palace and then down the other side of the city where we came out at the Atlantic Coast. We have driven through many countries and have seen beautiful coastal roads, but this coast was spectacular. I say that because it was not like the Concrete Condo catastrophe of the Spanish Costa del Sol. This place was a gold mine with its untouched beautiful sandy beaches and endless views into the Atlantic Ocean. The further we drove the more relaxing this place became; even the kids were just staring out the windows at the waves rolling up the sand.

 

 

We soon found ourselves getting out of the tour bus at what looked to be a circus tent park area. There were armed guards on horses at the front entrance and camel’s inside that the kids were allowed to sit on for a few bucks. After watching the camel show we headed inside to eat under the tent, along with a belly dancer and 4 Moroccan gentlemen who were playing music for us up on the stage.

 

 

There were only about 20 people on this tour but we all gave the entertainers a nice applause after each show. We were served traditional Moroccan food which was Chicken, Cous Cous, fried onions and spicy meat chunks. Even though I have been burping up those meats chunks all day, it was very tasty when I was eating it. After lunch we headed back into Tangiers to the souk to try and soak up a bit of culture. I had been warned that Morocco was a crazy place and we were to keep a firm grip on the kids, so I had my back up when we first went in. Yes, it was very third world, and the peddlers were extremely aggressive, but I did not feel threatened or fearful in anyway. Just like when we were in Egypt, you did not want to let these peddlers think you were interested or else they would follow you around for blocks. So all 20 of us just followed our tour guide to 2 of his preferred stores where we got to see a whole new type of peddling. It would always start off the same and some head guy from the shop would come out and greet you and welcome you to his country and tell you how great his merchandise was. Then after he was finished the sales pitching would begin and you would get worked over until you bought something. That is the only problem with going on a tour, they take you to where they want you to go, not where you want to go. In hindsight I think we easily could have seen Tangiers without a tour and even with kids I think you would have very little to worry about. So anyways, after being paraded into a couple of shops and through the back alley ways, we ended up at our bus that took us back to the dock.  We ended up pulling away from the dock around 5:30 pm, and it was a whole lot of traveling for only a few hours of sightseeing. So all in all I am glad we made the trip, but I think you would be better off to spend a night and not try to do it one day, like we did.

 

 

The Algarve  - received May 6

(by Helen)

 

 

 

 

We were almost kind of glad to leave our place in San Pedro.  With my sister and her boys gone, it was time to move on.  We packed up our stuff, locked the door and Steve dropped the key in the locked mailbox for the manager.  What we forgot to do though, is unlock the gate to the complex to let us out.  We stood there with all the backpacks (Steve had already loaded the suitcases, thank goodness) and we couldn’t get out.  Steve climbed over the six foot iron fence and was trying to convince us to do the same.  Danika went over no problem and Nikolas barely made it but there was no way I could do it.  I had a skirt on and I tried but just couldn’t do it.  Steve was getting impatient so I walked through the complex and knocked on about six different doors.  Not one person opened the door.  I approached this one elderly lady and she couldn’t speak a word of English.  I think she thought I was a peddler because she gave me a very dirty look and ran back into her villa.  I finally found a gentleman who could speak a tiny bit of English and he kindly let me out of the gate with his key.  I’m not quite sure if he believed or even understood my story but I got out and that was the main thing!

We settled in for the long journey to Portugal and thank goodness we had that van with the DVD because it really comes in handy on those long drives.  It actually turned out to be a really scenic and relaxing drive.  The highway was well paved and the landscape was beautiful.  A lot of rolling farmland and small little clusters of towns here and there. 

There is no border between Spain and Portugal so all of a sudden there is a big sign that says “Portugal”.  We were there!  We drove a long and noticed that the landscape had a dessert feel to it.  Later we would learn that these hills use to be covered with trees but two summers ago they had some very bad fires and lost most of their vegetation.  At one point they said that 70% of the country was burning. 

We made our way to a town that was to be home for us for a few days.  The town was called Albufeira and we were booked to stay at the Sheraton Algarve’s Hotel.  We were a little weary about what the hotel was going to look like because we had been disappointed with the villa in Spain.  Boy, were we surprised.  This place was magnificent.  I can honestly say that it is the most beautiful, well-kept resort that we have ever stayed at.  The resort is actually called the Pine Cliffs Resort and it is massive.  I don’t have the literature in front of me now but this place was on acres and acres of land and the hotel was so big that it would take us 15 minutes to walk from one end to the other.  That was just the Sheraton hotel portion.  There were also a bunch of villas and townhouses all around the hotel and a beautiful 18-hole golf course set right on the cliffs.  The resort is located right on the incredible red cliffs that drop down to a spectacular white sandy beach that is topped off with turquoise water.  When we took the outside elevator from the grounds of the resort to the base of the cliffs and walked to the beach, I stood there in awe and told Steve that I had never seen anything so spectacular in my life (beach-wise, of course).  There is a little bar built right at the beach and we went there and had the best sangria, better than any we tried in Spain.  We sat there and had a bite to eat and drank our sangria while the waves crashed just a few meters away.  It finally felt like we were on vacation and this place was paradise.  I would go back there in an instant.

 

 

 

The other great thing was that the kids could finally get a break from us.  They had a kid’s club called the Porto Pirata for Danika and a Juniors Activity Club for Nikolas Danika went to her club just after breakfast and stayed for lunch and we would pick her up at 2pm.  They had a great set-up with a huge pirate ship as a playground that they could climb up on.  They had a bouncy castle, a sand pit, a basketball court, a miniature racetrack with cars that they could drive with pedals.  They had an arts and crafts area and the ladies there were very nice and very attentive.  We just observed the first day to make sure we felt comfortable leaving her alone there with them.  They were great and she had a ball.  She also got to meet some new friends and play with kids again.

Nikolas was one of the only kids in his age group so the first couple of days he was the only one at the various activities.  The benefit of that was he got a private tennis lesson with the resort’s tennis pro.  He was with Nik for a full hour and they really did some serious tennis moves.  Nik also got to play miniature golf and soccer and he did some arts and crafts. 

While the kids were busy we were able to grab some alone time as well.  And I’m talking about alone time.  I took off and sat by the pool with my novel and Steve took off and played with his computer.  When you spend every waking moment together it’s normal to need a little break once in awhile. 

The weather was so perfect too.  It was about 25-30 degrees with a nice cool breeze blowing in from the water.  It wasn’t too hot and it wasn’t too cold, it was perfect and considering that April is usually their rainy season, we got pretty lucky. 

I’d say the only downside to the resort for us was the price of food, or everything really.  Me, Steve and Nikolas played tennis one day for one hour.  It cost us just under $100 Canadian.  We had to buy tennis balls because they don’t rent them and they cost $10 each and came in a tube of four!  It was outrageous!  Most of the main course dishes on the menu cost about 25-30 euros, that’s about $50-60 Canadian and don’t forget to add the bread and the water and the olives and pickles.  They are all brought to your table whether you ask for them or not and if you eat them you are charged for them.  Each slice of bread cost 2 euros.  Say we each eat two slices of bread, well that’s 8 euros or $16 Canadian.  Just for the bread! We also asked about laundry.  We were hoping that there was a washing machine and dryer we could use because we had a growing mound of dirty clothes.  The hotel did not have a facility for us to use but they did offer a laundry service and the price was per kilogram, 20euros/kg of clothes.  Well, Steve found a laundry service just outside the resort that charged 2euros/kg.  We had 10kg of dirty clothes so had we gone with the hotel service it would have cost us 200euros or about $400 Canadian.  Instead we paid 20euros.

Anyways, the food was delicious and the place was so relaxing.  The grounds were all manicured with lush green grass and tons of trees.  There were flower beds everywhere and not a piece of trash to be seen.  There were about 4 or 5 pools and one indoor.  We went swimming on our last night in the indoor pool because the weather was finally changing.  We had to buy little swimming caps and wear them in the pool.  Apparently, in Portugal it is mandatory to wear these caps for hygienic reasons.  We all looked pretty goofy in those things!

We were going to stay longer and were about to extend our stay when the weather changed.  It was actually a rather drastic change.  It was very overcast and windy and the lady at the desk told us the forecast was for more of the same in the next few days.  Nikolas was really disappointed because he wanted to stay and ride his boogy board on the waves some more.  He would do this everyday for hours and hours.  Steve went with him but couldn’t stay in the water that long because it was pretty cold.  But Nikolas never felt a thing; he just kept going and going.  It was great to see him have so much fun.

We sadly said good-bye to the Sheraton and vowed that we would certainly be back one day.  No question!

 

 

Lisbon, Portugal - received May 5

 

(Written by Steve May 2, 05)

Originally, everyone we spoke to when we were in Spain told us not to go to Lisbon because it is just another big city. After we got to the Algarve and asked people about where else to go in Portugal, everyone said we have to go to Lisbon. So here we are in Lisbon and the people of Portugal were right. Lisbon is a big city and maybe it is not the most important place in all of Europe, but it could be. I can only describe this place as a cross between Italy, Germany and a bit of London. The architecture here is absolutely fantastic, and there has obviously been a huge influx of cash back when this city held the worlds fair in 98. I say this because even though the city hosts many vacant buildings and others just about to fall over, its buses and cable cars are almost new. On the other hand it is like they don’t care anymore and it is just business as usual and nothing more. Our first day was on Sunday and the whole place was shut down because it was a holiday as well. We were starving from our drive from the coast. We walked our usual 5 miles and could only find about 3 café’s that were open. We did not really get a good feel for the place because it was kind of weird to be downtown in a major city and being the only ones aside from the stray dogs walking the streets. We ate at a place called the Coffee& Pot and had snacks rather than dinner, mostly because we were struggling with the language. We had walked most of the day so we headed back to our hotel and made a bunch of calls back home (Canada) and sent some emails and let the kids go online and talk to their pals. We decided to sleep in till 10:30 am on our second day and headed out to find a place to eat at about 1pm. We ended up at the same café (Coffee&Pot) that we ate at the day before, only because we knew where it was and it had good food. I was very excited to see the city, but we needed our coffee and food before we started all the heavy walking. Today and yesterday we noticed lots of men being very friendly towards each other and everything was cool until we sat down at the cafe. We just sat down at the Café, we did not even have our coffees yet when Nikolas  dropped the matzo ball. How do you become homosexual, he asked us. So I yelled to the waiter, please bring me a shot of whiskey with my coffee will ya. Of course I am kidding about the whiskey, but I knew this was going to be a breakfast to remember. So we were interested in hearing what his thoughts were and are always open to discuss everything, and let him just ask away. So we started our day by talking about the birds and the bees until he asked us to stop talking about it because he was disgusted. Our son is 9 years old, and we are already having these conversations with him, is that weird? I think it was 2 weeks before my graduation from high school (I was 17) when my father said,” son, I need to speak to you about some man things”. I remember saying Sorry Pops, it’s too late, and we never spoke about it again, that was the end of the conversation. Nikolas is only 9 and he see everything, I didn’t have any idea about any of that stuff till I was in high school and he is already talking about it. I guess this has really nothing to do with Lisbon, but it’s something I will always remember about this part of the trip so I am logging it.

 

 

 

Our second day here was really fun, well, that is if you like walking 10 miles up and down hills. We walked to the city centre and hopped on Bus #37 and headed for St. Georges Castle high above the city centre. Now let me tell you one thing that you have to do if you come to Lisbon. If it is the only thing you do, get on bus 37 and go for a ride, it will be one to remember I assure you. The bus goes up streets only bicycles mange to fit through, and around cars, making them back up, pedestrians can see this bus coming from miles and stay clear. The castle the bus brings you to is called St. George’s Castle and it was built in 138 BC, and is the first fortress ever built, and that in it self is very cool. There is a little restaurant up top and a whole whack of shops.  It’s quite a touristy place but very nice all at the same time.

 

 

 

Lisbon (Portuguese Lisboa; ancient Olisipo), capital and largest city of Portugal, and also capital of Lisbon District, in western Portugal, on the Tajo (Tejo) River where the river expands before it enters the Atlantic Ocean. Lisbon is the center of the country’s rail and highway network, and an international airport is nearby. The major industrial and commercial area of Portugal, Lisbon has an exceptionally fine harbor and is also the chief seaport. In Lisbon are shipbuilding yards, petroleum refineries, and plants producing chemicals, foodstuffs, hardware, paper, and textiles. Imports are mainly raw materials, and the chief exports include cork, canned fish, olive oil, resin, and wine.

 

Lisbon, Portugal, the old section of Lisbon retains the narrow, winding streets and aging buildings constructed during the city’s long history. The Monastery of Jeronimos, foreground, was built in 1498 as a monument to the 15th-century navigators who discovered the sea route to India. New Lisbon, background, has the straight, broad, tree-lined streets and modern skyscrapers typical of a European capital and center of trade.

 

 

Some building facts:

 

Triumphal Arch, Lisbon The Arco Triunfal da rua Augusta is a triumphal arch located on the southernmost edge of the city of Lisbon. Lisbon is the capital, largest city, and leading seaport of Portugal. (Portuguese National Tourist Office) 

 

The city is built on the terraced sides of a range of low hills overlooking the harbor. In the older section the streets are narrow and crooked, but the newer section has straight, broad, tree-lined avenues, handsome squares, and extensive public gardens. Lisbon is the seat of an archbishopric and contains many old churches, convents, and monasteries. It is also the site of the , a Romanesque-Gothic cathedral built in the 12th century and partially ruined by successive earthquakes. A Hieronymite convent in the suburb of Belém was built in the 16th century to mark the discovery of a sea passage to India by the navigator Vasco da Gama. It contains the tombs of da Gama and the Portuguese poet Luís Vaz de Camões. Notable educational and cultural institutions in the city include several libraries, museums, and colleges and universities, the oldest of which is the University of Lisbon (1288). The city renovated sections of Lisbon and overhauled its transportation systems in preparation for Expo 98, which opened in the spring of 1998.

 

  Lisbon is believed to have been founded by the Phoenicians and occupied by the Romans in the 2nd century BC and by the Visigoths in the 5th century AD. The city was held by the Moors from 716 until it was recaptured by the Portuguese in 1147. Around 1260 Lisbon became the capital of the kingdom of Portugal, and following a period of colonial expansion, it became one of the wealthiest cities in Europe. It declined in importance during the period of Spanish rule (1580-1640). In 1755 an earthquake, followed by a tsunami (tidal wave) and a fire, destroyed much of the city. Portugal was a neutral nation during World War II, and Lisbon became both a haven and a port of embarkation for refugees from all over Europe. A 1988 fire, called the worst disaster in the city’s history since 1755, destroyed the shopping district. Population (2001) 564,657.

 

 

I am writing this last part from a hotel in Madrid and I can only say that Lisbon has so much potential. No matter where you look in Madrid there is a building getting a face lift, paint, cleaning, road and sidewalk work. Lisbon’s entire city has roads and sidewalks made of chunks of granite and it is spectacular. If Lisbon started a’ clean up the city campaign’ and promote tourism, it would be a city that I would like to come back to. Right now I don’t see a big draw for tourists to come here and that is a shame because it has so much to offer. Maybe the European business people are enough for the Portuguese and they don’t want tourists, but whatever it is I don’t get it. Anyways I am so glad we came to see and met the fantastic people of Lisbon, it was a real treat.

 

EUROPEAN VACATION

 

Andorra  - received May 18    

 

 

 

(Written by Steve May 17)

After 10 hours of very easy driving from Alicante, we pulled into the crazy little country of Andorra. I only say this because it has a rush hour that lasts 12 hours a day and the average speed is less than 2 km an hour. I am not kidding, driving around one of the little  town’s here can take you a couple of hours, and walking would be much faster. Of course, after I mentioned that we have only seen 2 days of rain in the last 141 days, it is raining today.

Anyways, this place is the coolest little country you have ever seen. As you drive in from Spain, you pass a strip of car dealerships like Porsche, Jaguar, BMW and a few mixed specialty car lots for all the other high end cars. The snow is only a few hundred meters above us and the place feels and looks just like Whistler, B.C. Andorra is in southwestern Europe, situated in the eastern Pyrenees Mountains, bordered on the north and east by France, and on the south and west by Spain. Also called Valleys of Andorra, the country has an area of 468 sq km (181 sq mi) and a population of around 75,000.. The overall population density is 148 persons per sq km (383 per sq mi). We are staying in the capital city, which is Andorra la Vella (population, 1999 estimate, 25,000).  It sits in a valley and has many high end retail shops and of course more car dealerships. All the hotels and villas have slanted metal roofs and stone or brick exterior, giving it a real alpine feel.

Andorran Landscape Andorra is a region of narrow valleys and mountain peaks that reach heights of more than 2700 m (8860 ft). The country is bordered on the north and east by France and on the south and west by Spain. Like I said we came in from the only entrance from Spain and the line up heading out of Andorra into Spain was at least 3kms long, so yikes, I am not looking forward to leaving.

 The principal stream is the Valira River and it is only half a block from our little hotel.

The land here has iron and lead deposits and marble quarries; forests of pine and birch are found on the mountains, and low-lying areas have pastureland where sheep graze. Andorra has no railroad or airport but possesses an excellent road system.

The native-born inhabitants of Andorra (only about one-fourth of the entire population) are Catalan in ancestry and language; Spanish and French immigrants make up the majority of the remainder. The main religion is Roman Catholicism. This place appears to have more French than Spanish, but most folks here speak both languages anyways.

Andorra’s economy was formerly based on pastoral farming and the processing of tobacco and timber. Tourism has boomed since the 1950s and now dominates the principality’s economic life. Tourists are drawn by the winter ski facilities, the cool summer climate, and the availability of duty-free goods. The Andorran government collects revenue through a small number of taxes and the sale of postage stamps. Immigration and investment have been encouraged by low tax rates.

Postage stamps? That’s what it say’s here, the whole country survives of the sale of postage stamps, no wonder there are so many high car dealerships. What is up with that? O.K., I know you are thinking the same thing I am, why has this place not been taken over by another country. It is hard to believe that it can sustain itself, or has survived the wars of the last hundred years. This place has a tourist economy with no tax, so the rich French and Spanish come here and play and hide their money here, I have nothing to back that up, it’s just what I think. I am sure this is Europe’s Grand Cayman islands, if you know what I mean.

Here is what I could find on the history of this place:

For 715 years Andorra was ruled jointly by the leader of France and Spain’s Bishop of Urgel, who were acknowledged as coprinces. In March 1993 Andorran voters approved their first constitution, which transferred power to the “parliamentary coprincipality” of Andorra. The constitution defined the fundamental rights and obligations of Andorran citizens and delineated the separate functions of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government. The coprinces remained Andorra’s heads of state but were given very little power. The Andorran legislature is the General Council, which has 28 members, elected to four-year terms. The executive organ of government is the Executive Council, which is headed by a president who is elected by the General Council and formally appointed by the coprinces. The president appoints the other members of the Executive Council.

Andorra is traditionally held to have been declared a free state by Charlemagne in the 9th century AD. In 1278 it came under the joint control of the Catalan bishop of Urgel and of the count of Foix of France; through the latter, French rights passed successively to the kings and chiefs of state of France. Andorra pays a nominal biennial tribute to France and to the bishop of Urgel. In 1970 women received the right to vote. Andorra was admitted to the United Nations in 1993.

The only other strange thing is, everywhere you look you can see the Olympic rings. And places are called Olympic this and Olympic that. I found out that a federation of smaller countries who can not compete in the real games only because they are too small, have games just for themselves.

 

 

 London

received May 31

By Helen

 

 

 

Our flight from Alicante, Spain to Gatwick Airport was great.  We flew with British Airways and it took about 2 hours and 15 minutes.  As much as I despise flying it was actually a really nice flight and it went by very quickly.  I was also really excited to get out of Spain and to finally see London for the first time ever.  Steve had been there before and he said that I would probably like it but, boy, was I surprised.

I officially have a brand new favourite city in the whole world.  LONDON!!  When we got off the plane and got into our cab I knew right away that I was going to like this place.  I think one of the main reasons I fell in love with it so much is because the weather was great while we were there.  That’s what I’m told anyway.  It wasn’t super hot but it was very mild and sunny with lots of cloudy periods.   We actually didn’t mind the clouds and the cooler temperatures at all because Spain was hot every single day we were there.  I know you’re asking how can that be so bad but after awhile you kind of get sick of it and we were dying for a change.

We got to our hotel and it was a very nice and comfortable Holiday Inn (again) and it was so great to talk to people that spoke English.  Our room was just perfect for us and it was very clean.  We have used the Holiday Inn and Crowne Plaza a lot on our trip and so far they have not let us down.  They are very accommodating to kids and are quite reasonable considering how expensive Europe is, especially England. 

Our hotel was located in a place called Wandsworth and it is a little quiet suburb just outside of London’s city centre.  It was actually the perfect location because you just jump on a bus or a train and you’re in London within 15 minutes.  Yet it was very quiet and we felt very safe when we walked around our hotel.  When we did walk around we noticed that we were staying just 5 minutes from the Thames River.  When I saw it I was a little shocked at how narrow it is and how muddy and murky it looks.  But, it still was pretty cool to finally see it in real life after hearing so much about it.

Steve has a friend that has lived in London for the past 4 years.  He came by our hotel and took Steve out for a few beers at the local pub.  Steve said the place was packed and he could hardly breathe from all the cigarette smoke.  Exactly how I would imagine an English pub to be like!  It was really great to see Brian and he gave us some ideas for must-sees and where to buy theatre tickets for half price.

 

 

The next day we got up and headed out to see, what else but, Buckingham Palace. It wasn’t as grand and amazing as I thought it would be but I have heard lots of people say that.  We missed the changing of the guards by half an hour so we kind of just stood there at the big iron gates staring at the building waiting for someone to appear.  There was a small crowd of tourists at the fence and we did see some people come out of the Palace.  We were told that they were there to receive some medals but we never found out who they were or what the medals were for.  The queen herself was actually in Alberta, Canada at the time so it was a little uneventful as we stood there and watched.  It was starting to drizzle rain a little and it kind of made me laugh because we have heard so much about the weather in England and it was fitting all the descriptions to a tee.  The funny thing is that I thought it was great!

 

As I’m writing this it has been a week since we have been there and the details are a little hazy now.  What I want to do is just write some of the things that have stuck in my mind.  London is such a vibrant, bustling, ALIVE city.  I don’t know how better to explain it.  We were there during the week (not the week-end) and as we walked down the streets it was amazing to see that every single bar and pub was just packed full of young and middle-aged business people.  When I would look inside they were all crowded around tables and it seemed like everyone was talking at the same time with music blasting in the background.  The coolest thing was that often times that music was a live band.  I don’t think I have seen that much action in Vancouver even on a long weekend in the summer. 

We’ve seen lots of old cities in our travels and still the sight of these historic old buildings lining the streets for miles and miles never cease to astound me.  These buildings are all hundreds of years old and they have been converted into everything from restaurants, pubs, theatres and private residences.  It is just such a different life over here.  According to Steve’s friend Brian, the world revolves around this city in terms of the financial world and the culture world and the fashion world and THE place to be world.  And you certainly understand it when you are here.  As you walk down the streets, every corner you turn you see a theatre playing a production that you’ve heard so much about.  Everything is playing here and we even saw the start of a premiere.  The movie was called “House of Wax” and apparently it stars Paris Hilton and some other actors I have never heard of but it was pretty exciting to watch them set up.  They had all these barriers set up with posters of the film all over them.  As we stood and waited we watched them roll out a red carpet that took up half of a street block.  There were cameras set up everywhere and big ‘Hollywood’ lights everywhere and the crowd was getting bigger and bigger.  We had tickets to a show so we had to go before the stars arrived unfortunately because it would have been pretty cool to see them walk that red carpet.  In hindsight though, I really have no great desire to see someone like Paris Hilton but it would have been fun to see it all unfold.

How do I describe the transportation system in this city?  I thought that the “jolly old” red double decker buses were just a touristy thing like we have in Victoria.  But noooo, these buses are everywhere and they are the major part of their transit system.  What is so amazing is that the streets are all pretty narrow and the lanes are even narrower but these tall buses just whiz around the corners.  When we were on them and we would sit at the front of the bus on the top level, it would look like you were about to hit a building, they would come so close.

 Then you have the tube which is their subway system which is a network of trains that take you anywhere you could possibly want in London and the outskirts.  Then you have the beautiful train stations like Victoria Station and Waterloo.  These main train stations look like major airports and they are constantly full of people traveling every which way.  It was so fun to people watch in these places.  These people, and I’m talking hundreds, would just stand there and stare up at this massive billboard that showed all the trains and what time they were coming or going and at which platform they would be departing or arriving at.  They all stood there and they would either be talking on their cell phones or eating sandwiches from all the many restaurants in the station.  They all looked like they were very important people and they all had somewhere very important to get to.  When you are not in the stations you can hear the trains thundering down the tube.  On more than one occasion as we were walking down the streets I have said to Steve or the kids, “Hey, it sounds like thunder, I wonder if it’s going to rain?”  Only to realize that it was a train going by underneath us.  Very cool.

Like I said earlier we had tickets to a show.  We had walked to Piccadilly Square to a place that Brian had told us about.  The place sells theatre tickets for half price.  We got tickets to Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang.  The theatre was packed and it was in the middle of the week.  As expected there were tons of kids and whenever the Child Catcher came on stage the whole place would start booing.  It was an excellent production, the car actually looks like it’s flying!!!  Danika kept asking me if it was real.  She meant the whole thing.  She couldn’t quite understand the fact that real life people were on stage acting out a movie she has seen on T.V.  She loved it and Nikolas loved it even more.  He really didn’t want to see it but afterwards I thought he was going to jump up and down when he stood up and gave the cast a standing ovation.  It was a great night even thought we got a little lost on our way home.  (You can read Steve’s story about that, don’t want to repeat it).

We went to St. Paul’s Cathedral and I was so disappointed that it was closed by the time we got there.  I stood on the steps and imagined Princess Diana walking up those steps on her wedding day.  I stayed up all night to watch that wedding.  And her funeral as well.  It is a truly magnificent building. 

We also went on a ride in the London Eye.  It is a ferris-wheel type thing that gives you a birds eye view of the city and it takes half an hour for it to make one rotation.  I felt a little nervous because I am not that fond of heights but the view was spectacular and the day was perfect for it.  We also took a guided boat tour down the Thames and it was very educational and interesting although we were very disappointed with ‘London Bridge’.  It’s just a bridge, nothing special at all.  Again, it made me realize how little I know about world history and I should have studied up on London history as well.  We saw so many places we wanted to visit but we just didn’t have enough time.  We are definitely going to make a point of coming back to London and see some of the sights that we missed.  If I can say this, I advise anyone who has not seen this city to make every effort to try and see it just once.  You won’t regret it!

I am not a huge tennis fan but I have watched my fair share of Wimbledon Championships.  So it was my wish to see Wimbledon and so we set out one afternoon and took a bunch of buses until we finally made it there.  After all that traveling though, we missed getting into the place by half an hour.  It was really surprising to see where it was located.  For some reason I just assumed it was in the middle of a big city but it is located in a residential area about an hour outside of London.  Even though we missed getting in I am still really glad we saw it and Steve was able to catch a few pictures of some of the courts.  Not centre court of course but still it was very neat to actually be there!

Surprisingly, the food was great here as well.  We went to a fantastic Chinese food restaurant by our hotel that was right on the Thames.  Beside that restaurant was another one called The Outback and it was an Australian themed restaurant that served some great food and we ate there the most.  On our last night in London, Brian took us out for dinner there and we had a really great time.  Well, Steve had a really, really, good time but we won’t talk about that now because he paid dearly for it the next day on our train trip from London to Brussels, Belgium. 

I can’t wait until we go back to London.  It really is one of the most exciting cities I have ever been too.  Our plan is to hopefully head back there in July and August and take in Scotland, Ireland and of course Wales to see Father O’Shea.    

 

 

 

London  - received May 29      

 

 

(Written by Steve May 24, 2005)

 

Day 1 – Day one is a bit of a blur, and really there is not much to tell. We got on a flight in Alicante, Spain and landed in Gatwick with no big surprises. Except for Nikolas having really bad gas, and deciding to release a bomb just as the elevator doors were closing in Gatwick Airport. He almost killed the 4 of us and two innocent travelers who could not escape as we had the doors all blocked with our 8 bags of luggage. We made it to Wandsworth, a place right on the Thames River via the trains.

London is old, dark, gray, sometimes smelly and very crowded and yes, rainy. I bet you think I am going to tell you about how depressing this place is? Well I am not! This city is the centre of the planet for everything from business, travel, fashion, football and a mecca for live theatre. We are walking down the street and there is a premiere of “The House of Wax” and the actors were just about to arrive. The red carpet was rolled out and we could only recognize one actor, Paris Hilton. I know, I did not know she could act either?! Also, we are sitting there watching T.V. and Liverpool has won the cup again, so these folks were in a bit of a party mood when we were here.

 Trying to negotiate your way through London on transit is very easy if you know where you are going, unfortunately we did not. Well, we made it to our little Holiday Inn and went for a walk, grabbed a meal and then went out to see Buckingham Palace. I also have a buddy here in London that I have not seen in years and he popped by to see us. We went out for a few pints of Guinness and that’s not very good because I don’t drink much, and we won’t talk about that anymore.  The transit system in London is the most effective system I have ever seen, and you can be anywhere in the city in about half an hour. We headed for Victoria Station and were going to see the changing of the guards but we missed it by about 15 minutes and so went and saw as many sites as you could in one day, see pictures. I am not going to go on too long because Helen has so much to say we will just be repeating stuff. I will tell you one story about our 5 days in London. We were coming back from a show at about 11pm and had already changed buses and were heading back to Wandsworth, but before we got on we asked where we needed to catch our next bus (#77) that would take us the final stretch. The bus driver (Addi) was a super nice guy and he told us to just sit tight and he will tell us when we would have to get off. So we rode and rode and just kept riding until there were no passengers left and the bus stopped. The bus driver opened his little door to get out of the bus and saw us, he was shocked and said, “Oh my god, I forgot all about you” So we sat and chatted with him for about 20 minutes and then he drove us to our stop. It was after 1am by the time we got home, but spending time with Addi and hearing about his home (Nigeria) was very cool.

 

 

 

Belgium

Gent, Brugge & Brussels

 

(Written by Steve May 31, 2005)

 

 

Have you ever imagined what a place would look like and then go there and it looks exactly as you had imagined? Well, that’s what all of Belgium is, exactly how we imagined.

If you made a few thousand ginger bread buildings and put them all together with streets and canals running every where, that would be what Gent and Brugge are like. Have you ever watched “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”? If you have, then you know what we are talking about. The other thing that is kind of new is that everyone is riding bicycles like the one the wicked witch from the west rode on The Wizard of Oz. Everyone is riding these things, with suits and dresses and babies and groceries, it is quite cool and so not North American. As you walked down the streets you would couples in their 20’s going out on a date, each riding their Mary Poppins bicycles down to the pub or night club. Our first stop was Gent and aside from the wonderful old town, we stumbled upon a little known secret. We met some Canadians and many Americans, many folks from all over the world. They all were in Gent and had the same operation. Hip resurfacing. It is a procedure that is not accepted in the western world yet, but one doctor here does 18 of them a week, 800 a year. He does most of them for foreigners, like a fellow Firefighter from Boston we met. All of these folks have been told that they need hip replacements and they would rather do this treatment with little side effects and better results. I don’t know anything about this type of surgery, but can tell you I saw ½ a dozen of these folks walking around the lobby with no problem and little pain only 3 days after the surgery, remarkable. If you want more info on this doctor go to www.hip_clinic.com.

Anyways we drove from our hotel into the old city of Gent and it was quite difficult to find your way around, but we did eventually make it. The old city has trams that run down the hundred year old cobble stoned streets and canals that snaked their way through out the city. The city centre is quite small and easy and very fun to walk around, unless you get hit by one of those trams that quietly sneak up behind you. The two coolest things aside from the fantastic Belgium beer is the Gravensteen Castle and the Bellfry.

The castle kept all the torture equipment that was used back in the good old days, and the Bellfry was just one of those things you have to see.

 

We left Gent after 4 wonderful days and headed to Brugge, another old city close to the ocean. We were fully loaded with maps and ready to navigate the old cobblestone streets in search of our hotel located in the centre of the city. Well, even with the latest maps we still managed to get very lost. Oh, I wish we had a GPS! After an hour of stressful driving we pulled up in front of the Crowne Plaza. I will tell you right now, that I would not have a hope in h%$# of navigating if Helen did not tell me where to turn or what direction to go. Madrid, Gent, Brugge and even the Costa del Sol nearly brought me to tears. Anyways, this city (Brugge) is much like Gent except it is way more touristy and larger. Zebrugge is right on the Canal that all the shipping containers and rail cars come into by boat and into Europe. Did you know that at one time Brugge was the 3rd largest city in all of Europe? You have to see this place to understand what I am talking about, but it is quite tiny in comparison to major cities today. So we did exactly what we did in Gent and that was Churches, Castles, Eat, Eat, and have waffles and coffee. The place is right out of a movie, I could never live here, but I could visit it about 20 or 30 times a year. O.K. maybe not, but it is very cool. I would love to be here in the winter, I am sure they let little elfves out from somewhere and they run all over town, it must be just like the North Pole. The people of Belgium are fantastic, some of the nicest folks we have met on our whole trip.

 

 

 

Ghent or Gent (French Gand), city in western Belgium, capital of East Flanders Province, at the confluence of the Schelde (Escaut) and Lys rivers, near Brussels. The rivers and canals traversing the city divide it into a number of small islands, which are connected by a network of about 200 bridges. Two important ship canals connect Ghent's waterways with the sea. One canal connects the Grand Basin along the northern side of the city with the large harbor at Terneuzen, Netherlands, on the Schelde; the other connects Ghent with Brugge (Bruges) and Oostende. Because of these important sea outlets, Ghent is one of the foremost trading and export centers in the North Sea region. Although the city has decreased relatively in industrial importance since the 15th century, when it was one of the chief textile-producing centers in Europe, the number of its manufacturing establishments is large. The principal commodities produced include lace, woolens, leather, soap, paper, cotton and linen goods, machinery, sugar, beer, and tobacco products. Horticulture, both in Ghent and in the surrounding area, is a flourishing industry, with hundreds of establishments in the city. Ghent is the site of the flower shows called Floralies, held every five years, which attract visitors from all over the world.

 

The most important educational institution in the city is the University of Ghent (1817). The city is also the site of a noted art gallery. The Begijnhof, or Béguinage, a small walled town containing numerous small houses, 18 convents, and a church, is situated in the suburbs of Saint Amandsberg. It is inhabited by 700 members of the Beguines, a lay sisterhood devoted to charitable work. The Cathedral of Saint Bavon, with a crypt dating from 941, houses the celebrated Ghent Altarpiece (1432), painted by the Flemish artists Hubert van Eyck and Jan van Eyck.

 

Ghent is mentioned as early as the 7th century, and in the latter half of the 9th century Baldwin I, count of Flanders, known as Bras de Fer (French for “Iron Arm”), built a fortress in Ghent as a defense against the coastal incursions of the Norse. The subsequent history of the city is closely integrated with that of Flanders. Seized by France in 1792, Ghent was made part of the Netherlands in 1814. In 1830 it became part of independent Belgium. Ghent has been a site for the signing of important treaties such as the Pacification of Ghent, which united the Low Countries against Spanish rule in 1576, and the Treaty of Ghent in 1814, which ended the War of 1812 between the United States and Britain. The city was occupied by German forces during World War I (1914-1918) and for most of World War II (1939-1945). Population (2001 estimate) 224,685

 

We started and finished Belgium by going through Brussels, and I am glad we are not coming back to this city. Well, actually, we might have to come back to get to London, but we will try and stay away if we can. It is probably a beautiful city but after you have been in Brugge and Gent, nothing but the best will do. So I will only say that if you are coming to Europe make sure you come to Belgium because they are some of the nicest people in all of Europe. If you do come you will most likely come into Brussels and you can judge for yourself, but make sure you hang onto to you wallet!

 

Maastricht - received June 2       

 

 

 

The only place in the world that has more bicycles than people, I am not kidding. I thought Belgium had a whack, but it says here in the book that The Netherlands has more bicycles than it does people. We stayed in one of the countries most beautiful cities called Maatricht. Our hotel was right on the river and we could easily walk through town and do our usual. Churches, eat, eat, and coffee. We did not do a canal tour because this was a major shipping river with barges running up and down every 5 minutes so it was not as romantic as Gent or Brugge

 

Netherlands, The, also known unofficially as Holland, constitutional monarchy of northwestern Europe, bordered on the north and west by the North Sea, on the east by Germany, and on the south by Belgium. With Belgium and Luxembourg, The Netherlands forms the Low, or Benelux, Countries. The Netherlands Antilles and Aruba, islands in the Caribbean, are part of The Netherlands. The European portion of The Netherlands has a total area of 41,526 sq km (16,033 sq mi), of which 33,939 sq km (13,104 sq mi) is land surface. The country’s capital and largest city is Amsterdam.

 

In the late 16th century a Dutch revolt against the authority of the king of Spain, at the time ruler of what now constitutes the Low Countries, succeeded in the northern provinces, which later became the Netherlands. The Dutch Republic, officially established in 1648, fell in 1795 when the armies of Revolutionary France imposed a pro-French government. In 1810, France annexed the Netherlands, but with the defeat of Napoleon in 1814 to 1815, the present Dutch state, officially called the Kingdom of the Netherlands, came into being. Originally Belgium was part of this new kingdom, but it seceded in 1830 and formed an independent country. The present boundaries of The Netherlands are essentially those established after the secession of Belgium, although they are similar to the borders of the Dutch Republic.

 

 

 About half of the country’s landmass lies below sea level.

 

The Netherlands, as its name suggests, is a low-lying country. About half of the country’s landmass lies below sea level. This amount would increase should the polar ice caps melt and slowly raise the level of the sea due to global warming. Much of the western part, situated below sea level, is covered with clay and peat soils interspersed with canals, rivers, and arms of the sea. Farther to the east the land lies slightly above sea level and is flat to gently rolling. The elevation rarely exceeds 50 m (160 ft). Most of the land is devoted to agriculture; only small areas of forest and heath remain.

 

Windmills, The Netherlands For centuries the Dutch relied on windmills for energy production and had built about 9000 of them by the 19th century. Traditional windmills, such as these in the countryside near Amsterdam, can be seen all over the Netherlands, and many are still in use. The country’s mostly low-lying terrain has few topographical features to impede the wind that operates the mills.Photo Researchers, Inc./Tony Craddock 

 

The North Sea coastline of The Netherlands consists mostly of dunes. In the southwest are gaps in the dunes formed by river mouths, creating a delta of islands and waterways. In the north, the dunes were broken through by the sea, thereby creating the West Frisian Islands and behind them a tidal sea called the Waddenzee. Adjacent to the narrow strip of dunes is an area lying below sea level that is protected by dikes and kept dry by continuous mechanical pumping. The former Zuider Zee, a large arm of the sea, is being reclaimed. A dike separating it from the sea was completed in 1932, when work was begun to drain about 225,000 hectares (about 556,000 acres) to form reclaimed land known as polders, such as Flevoland and the Northeast Polder. About three-quarters of the area had been reclaimed by the early 1980s. The remaining freshwater lake is called the IJsselmeer.

 

On February 1, 1953, the spring tide severely flooded the delta region in the southwest and about 1,800 people died. The Delta Plan, launched in 1958 and completed in 1986, was implemented to prevent such flooding. Under the plan, the Dutch shortened the coastline by about 700 km (about 435 mi); developed a system of dikes; and built dams, bridges, locks, and a major canal. The dikes created freshwater lakes and joined some islands.

 

I think we were a little pooped out when we were in Maastrict, but we would never hesitate to come back.

 

 

 

                         

 

 

France

 

Euro Disney Rocks! - received June 15

 

 

(By Helen and Steve)

The night before our first day at Disneyland we could hardly sleep because we were so excited!  We felt like kids again.  I guess that’s what Disneyland does for everyone, adults included. 

The weather was perfect for our 5 days in Disneyland except for the last day, it was very overcast.  We all had such a great time and we certainly re-charged our batteries and are so happy we did this.  Our hotel is a five minute shuttle bus away from the park and it’s situated in the most beautiful countryside.  It is the perfect place to come ‘home’ to after a crazy, noisy day at the Park.

We all went on the rides and we even got Danika and Nik on a roller coaster.  Danika cried and would not go on it again, but Nik loved it and went on four times.  Our favourite ride was the Pirates of the Caribbean; we went on that ride about 8 times.  If we hear that song again, I think we will scream!  Going on the ride “It’s a Small World” was wonderful as usual.  It was the very first ride we went on and it got us right in the mood for Disneyland. 

We ate a lot of junk food and walked for hour’s everyday.  Steve went on the massive Space Mountain rollercoaster and when he came off of it he had an extra skip in his walk and a goofy, kid-like smile on his face.  You do feel like a kid again after you come off these rides, especially the ones where you scream your head off.

The park is a little smaller than the one in California and there are not as many rides but it is a lot newer and it is very clean and beautiful.  We had a blast! 

Tomorrow we are headed to Germany and maybe Luxembourg.  We are not quite sure where we are going yet but we do know that we probably won’t be coming back into France.  We had an absolutely excellent time in France and would not hesitate to come back.  For all the rumours we heard regarding the rude French we didn’t see it at all.  We were treated great and even though we speak little to no French we got along just fine.  We are actually very sad to be leaving but are excited to see our friends and family in Germany.

 

Paris

(By Helen) - received June 11

 

 

I couldn’t believe I was finally going to see Paris.  It wasn’t the city I was most excited to see for some reason but I was very eager to finally see it with my own eyes in real life.  Steve warned me so many times that I wasn’t going to like it so I was a little nervous about what to expect.

We got on the metro (subway) at the airport because we had to return our rental “bus” there.  First of all, that airport is by far the busiest one I have ever seen.  I don’t know if this is a fact or not but as we were driving towards the airport I was amazed to see two airplanes taking off at the same time while another two were landing right behind them.  When I looked up into the sky I could see about ten planes at various altitudes all above us.  It was unreal!  To think that it was only one of many in France!

 

It’s hard to believe that our city (Vancouver) doesn’t have a subway system.  Every major city in the world has some form of it and I wonder why we don’t.  I can kind of understand now why the city politicians kind of forced a proposal through to have a skytrain link built from our airport to our city centre.  When we got on our train from the outskirts of Paris and headed into the city centre it was such a convenient and practical form of transportation.  Especially if you have ever tried to drive into or in Paris for that matter.  It is complete chaos.  When we took a taxi from one train station to another when we first came into Paris from Belgium, I was laughing hysterically in the back seat as our taxi driver literally forced his car through the traffic.  Nobody waits in tidy little lines, there are no lanes, everyone just fights for the smallest space or opportunity to move forward.  It is amazing that all the cars are not covered in dents or scratches. 

 

Anyways, back to the subway.  What sticks in my mind most about them is the smell.  It’s kind of hard to pinpoint.  A combination of sulphur, urine and dirty clothes smell.  I wouldn’t say the stations were dirty because there isn’t any garbage on the ground but they are dusty and grimy and stuffy, and when you start moving on the train the walls on either side are just covered with graffiti.  But again it depends on where you are in the subway station.  Some areas have beautiful little bakeries or flower shops or chocolate shops or perfume shops or coffee shops.  And there are people EVERYWHERE!  They are walking in all directions, some are running for their next train, some are strolling along; lots are standing watching the monitors waiting to see when their train is coming.  It is an amazing sight to see and this is going on all day long, it doesn’t matter what time of day it is.  Never mind the fact that there are hundreds of these stations scattered throughout the city and when you walk through them you sometimes take 4 or 5 escalators that take you down, down, down!!!  It’s a little creepy when you think about what would happen if something went wrong down there.  Well, that’s what I was thinking at the beginning but after a while I got use to it all and started to feel very comfortable on them.  The police presence is impressive as well.  We saw lots of police dogs too.

 

Like London, we got really lucky with the weather while we toured Paris.  It was warm and sunny with a breeze that would kick up every once in awhile.  The moment we emerged from the dungeons of the metro station I realized how beautiful Paris really is.  In one of our information books it states that this city is often imitated, but never duplicated and that it stands in a class by itself.  I wholeheartedly agree.  I certainly was “charmed” by its magnificent avenues and cozy cafés, its culture and class and its energetic but composed pace.   So far on our travels I have not seen another city even come close to its beauty.  Around every corner is a statue or monument or grand palace or ancient cathedral.     It’s almost too much to absorb at first.  You really don’t know where to look first or where to start your visit or how long to stay at each spot.  We had three days to see it all and it certainly is not enough time.  We saw a very little of everything but not enough of each. 

What amazed me was how busy the streets were with tourists.  There are tourists everywhere and when we walked down the streets we heard more English than French. 

 

 

 

Our first stop was The Louvre.  It was constructed in about 1200 as a fortress and then it was re-built in the mid-16th century as a royal palace.  It became a public museum in 1793.  The building is massive and takes up 3 or 4 city blocks.  In the middle is a courtyard and there is a huge glass pyramid right in the center and that is the entrance to the world’s largest and most famous museum.  It only cost 8.50 euros each for me and Steve, the kid’s were free.  I thought that was very reasonable.  The collections on display have been assembled by French governments over the past five centuries and again it is hard to decide where to start and what to see. 

 

I’ve heard many people say that seeing the Mona Lisa is rather anti-climactic, but I totally disagree.  When I saw the painting I was in awe even though it was a little smaller than I expected.  You see versions of this work of art everywhere and to finally see it as an original is a huge treat.  Even Nikolas was impressed.  He kept asking me if I was sure that it was the original painting.  That was really the only part of the whole museum he was interested in.  Nik and his sister were not at all pleased that we “dragged” them to this place.  Nikolas actually called it “torture”.  One day I hope he comes back and sees it with a little more enthusiasm.  

The amazing thing about this museum is that you could spend the whole day just admiring the architecture of the building itself, never mind the displays themselves.  The ceilings are beautifully painted and each section of the museum is elaborately designed.  Again, I felt frustrated in a way because I didn’t know where to go or what to look at first; it is all just so amazing.  We also saw Michelangelo’s Venus de Milo and we saw some impressive Greek and Egyptian Antiquities.  On the lowest level of the museum you actually walk around a medieval moat.  It is all truly mind-boggling when you think of the history represented there.

 

From the Louvre you walk along the Jardin Des Tuileries.  It’s a scenic walk with green grass on either side of the promenade.  As we walked along we could see little cafes hidden amongst the huge maple trees.  There were tons of people of all ages sitting on the grass; some having picnics, some sleeping, some in very intimate embraces, some playing Frisbee or kicking a soccer ball around.  We also came upon a man-made lagoon that had lots of families around it with their miniature wooden sailboats.  They were not motorized sailboats, these ones actually had working sails that caught the wind and glided the boats across the lagoon.  When the boats got close to the edge the kids would take a special stick and push them away from the edge and back towards the middle.  It was very nice to watch.  We picked up some hotdogs at a café and we also came across a merry-go-round that Danika went on.  She actually fell off the horse as she was trying to climb up on it and she took a nasty bump on the head but she got back on after she cried a bit and then eventually she really enjoyed herself.  

 

After the garden walk you reach the Place de la Concorde.  It is a huge cobbled square between the Jardin des Tuileries and the Champs-Elysees.  It was laid out between 1755 and 1775.  Its history is a little sinister as it was here that Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and thousands of others lost their heads.  And I mean literally, as it was the sight of the public guillotines.  There is a 3,300 year old Egyptian obelisk (a tall pillar) in the middle of the square.  It was given to France in 1829 by the ruler of Egypt, Mohammed Ali (no, not the boxer). 

From here we walked along the famous Champs-Elyssee.  It is a street that is 2 km long and connects Place de la Concorde with the Arc de Triomphe.  It really is just a busy street that is lined with shops and cafes.  I think at one time it was a lot more chic and prestigious but now I think it has turned into a tourist trap.  Anyway, it was still pretty cool to walk down this street and people watch!

 

As you walk down the Champs-Elyssee you can see standing in all its glory the Arc de Triomphe at the end of the road.  It is Paris’ second most famous landmark and is the world’s largest traffic roundabout and is the meeting point of 12 avenues.  It was commissioned in 1806 by Napoleon to commemorate his imperial victories but he did not live to see its completion.  An Unknown Soldier from WWI is buried under the arch and a memorial flame is lit each evening at about 6:30pm to honour him and others like him.  There is a platform at the top of the arch and it is accessed by elevator going up, and by steps going down.  The only sane way to get to the base of the Arc because of the crazy traffic is by underground passageways.

 

Even though we had a three day metro pass that cost us over 100 euros, we decided to also get a two day bus pass on a tour line called “Les Cars Rouge”.  They are a fleet of huge, red double-decker buses that are open on the top level.  That is, you are sitting outside when you choose to sit on the top level of the bus.  The round tour that they run lasts about two hours with specific stopping points.  You can hop on and off whenever you like and the tickets are good for two full days.  A multi-lingual system is available with headphones to hear commentaries on some of the sights you see.  It is an excellent way to see Paris without using the underground, dreary metro system.  The buses come by very frequently so that when you get off and sight-see for a few hours there is another bus to pick you up within minutes.  The stops are excellent and convenient as well.  For example, some of the stops are The Eiffel Tower, The Louvre, Notre Dame Cathedral and Champs-Elyssee to name a few.  I wanted to see the tunnel where Princess Diana had her accident but the closest we got was when the bus drove over the tunnel and the commentator lady told us that just under the road we were on was the spot where she was killed.

  We would actually just sit there and use it as a break and then continue on when the kids recharged their batteries.  Danika actually loved it and she wouldn’t give up her earphones when mine were not working.  I didn’t think she was really listening but I guess I was wrong.

 

After our day of touring we went to a quaint little restaurant located on the banks of the Seine River.  It was called “Chez Dany’s” and we had a wonderful authentic French dinner.  For an appetizer I had a poached egg smothered with a red wine reduction and sautéed shallots.  There were little slices of toasted baguette on the side to dip in the sauce, it was fantastic.  For my main course I had cubes of pork in the same sauce with mashed potatoes (yay, no French fries) and green beans.  The pork just melted in your mouth, it was so delicious!  For dessert, which the kids ate, I had strawberries with strawberry ice cream and strawberry jam with whipped cream on top.  It looked great!  The kids said it was!

 

After that we headed back down to the metro and took our train “home” to the Holiday Inn at Disney Park.  The train was completely packed like sardines when we got on but half an hour later when we got near our stop the train was almost empty.  We are so glad that we booked this hotel instead of one in the heart of Paris.  It is so nice to come home to the country after spending a crazy day in one of the busiest cities in the world. 

 

The next day……

 

We woke up and dragged the kids back to Paris with threats and promises of Disneyland.  Poor kids, we have slipped badly in our parenting skills and have on more than one occasion said to them, “if you don’t let us enjoy our day in Paris we will make sure one of your days in Disneyland will be ruined as well”.  It works, but we are disappointed in ourselves that we have stooped so low.  It is really, really hard to be with each other 24/7 for this long a time.  I love my family dearly but someday I am ready to scream and pull my and their hair out.  Sometimes I have to tell Danika to just stop talking for once because from the moment she wakes up to the moment she goes to bed at night she is jibbering or jabbering about something.  She has been such a trooper through this whole journey and I really think she is actually having the most fun out of all of us.  Even when I asked her tonight if she had a good time in Paris she said, “oh yes, I just loved it!”  When I asked her to elaborate and tell me exactly what she loved she just paused and then said, “Everything!”  She is so patient and they both walk for miles everyday with just the odd complaint here or there.  Mostly just about museums which is understandable.  I even catch Steve yawning when we have been in one too long.  Without a doubt we are so grateful that our kids are so easy-going and cooperative.  There is no doubt in my mind that if this was not the case we would have been home a long time ago.  I better make sure they don’t read this part because they may get some ideas!

 

Our second day was very similar to our first so I won’t go into too much detail.  The only really BIG thing we did was visit the Eiffel Tower.  When you see the tower for the first time in the distance it is similar to when you see the pyramids in a way.  It’s a structure that is truly the most recognizable landmark in the world and to see it in real life is a little surreal.  To me it seemed a lot taller than I expected but to Nikolas it was smaller.  I can’t say that it is beautiful but it is an extraordinary feat of engineering.  According to my info book it faced massive opposition from Paris’ artistic and literary elite when it was built for the 1889 Exposition.  It was almost torn down in 1909 but instead was used for holding a new-fangled transmission antennae.  The tower is 320m high and has three levels open to the public.  We went up to the very top and the view is outstanding, especially on a beautiful sunny day.  The line-ups for the elevators were a little annoying but it was all worth it in the end. 

 

After that we hopped back on our red double-decker tour bus and made our way to the Seine River and had lunch sitting on the riverbank where they have benches and a walkway.  It was really nice to just sit there and people watch for about an hour and watch the tour boats sail by on the river.  We then got back on the bus and headed to the Notre Dame Cathedral.

 

There have been churches on the site of the Notre Dame Cathedral since the 4th century.  The current 13th-century cathedral was built 30 years after a Romanesque cathedral on this site was destroyed by fire in 1194.  It is one of the few Gothic cathedrals that has not been significantly modified, other than the 16th-century steeple.  When you first walk in the most exceptional feature is its 172 stained-glass windows.  If it wasn’t for the kids I would have stayed in there all day admiring the architecture and the windows.  It is truly breathtaking.  Consequently, it is jammed packed with tourists.  The building is massive and we didn’t get to every section.  Apparently there is a section of the cathedral that displays a piece of cloth said to have been worn by the Virgin Mary.  Unfortunately I learned about this after our visit so we didn’t see it.  Nikolas really loves visiting cathedrals which has really surprised me and Steve.  He says he feels peace and comfort when he is in them and he always lights a candle and says a prayer.  He promised me that the prayer isn’t for anything material (like toys) so I am very proud of him.

 

From the cathedral we walked and walked and tried to find the Moulin Rouge.  That was my idea and after we started walking into some not so safe looking areas we decided to forget the search and find a place to have dinner.  We found a really nice café and had a great meal again.  Steve had duck and I had a steak, they were both delicious.  Actually Steve’s duck was fantastic; it just melted in your mouth. 

 

It was getting quite late so we found the nearest metro, walked down the numerous escalators until we found the right train and headed back to our wonderful room at the Holiday Inn.  We wanted to experience Paris at night but a very nice gentleman at our hotel told us that Paris is not particularly that ideal for children after dark so we decided to play it safe and promised each other that one day we would be back by ourselves.

 

Paris turned out to be everything I dreamed it would be and better.  It is the most beautiful city I have ever seen and even though it doesn’t have the same electricity that London has, I still think it is definitely worth visiting again.  I have never been a big shopper or completely engrossed in the latest fashions but while you are here it is hard not to notice.  The atmosphere as we walked down the streets of Paris made me realize, once again, how teeny-tiny Vancouver is when compared to the rest of the world.  I’m not saying this is a bad thing as I am anxious to get home and just relax and live in a quiet, safe city.  It’s just a totally different world over here and even the States pale in comparison.  The culture and history is everywhere you turn and yet to the Europeans it is just a fact of life.  I hope that when my kids graduate from high school they grab a backpack and hit the road and experience Europe once again.  I hope that this trip will plant a seed in them that will make them want to open their minds up to the world as a whole.  I should have done this trip when I was just out of high school too.  I think it really opens up your eyes and puts things that you experience in life into perspective.  I am so glad we are doing this trip now, even though it can be hard sometimes.  I’m starting to cherish the months we have left on this trip rather than count them down.  Only 51/2 months left!! 

 

     

 

Normandy  - received June 10

(Written June 6th, 2005 by Steve)

 

Well, today we went to the 61st Canadian Memorial Ceremony at Juno Beach. It was very well done and all the folks (students from Canada) who work there did an excellent job. There we some Cadets there, and one military personal from the Canadian Consulate in Paris and about 4 vets. Most of the crowd was from France except for about 30-40 people from the U.S. and Canada. I am not sure if they were just passing through or came just for the Ceremony. Helen spoke to the Cadets and found out that they had to pay their own way to get to Juno Beach for that day. The vets also had to pay their own way to be there and that really bothered me. I am not going to go on and on about this, oh yes I am. How many Canadian vets are left from WW II? Could Ottawa not round up a jet and pay for a few days of a hotel and get the folks and their families over here? Just when I thought our country had its act together!  Actually I never really thought that, it just sounds nice when you’re slamming them like I am now.

Anyways, we were all given crosses and a poppy with the names of one of the soldiers that was killed on the beach that day, and told to place it on the beach somewhere.  All the names are also on a list so we were able to look up the names and learn a little about each of them.  So after the Ceremony our family went down and placed our 4 crosses together and got our Canadian flag and left it there. I don’t quite know how to explain to you what that was like, but it was very emotional. You know when things happen in your life and you relate that to when you were a kid, or you knew someone who had the same thing happen to them, like losing a loved on.  Even though we were not there during the war, we could just relate to it somehow.

Well, we met a vet named Blue and he told us that he was in the Special Services, Transport Division. He was driving the first vehicle that left the boat and he said he was also pretty sure he was the first to make it onto the beach that day. I asked if the Germans were shooting at him and his reply was “Hell yes”. He told us that it was so crazy that his vehicle went right under water but kept going and when he got to the beach there was so much fire that he had to run over his own men to get out of there.

Now, that is what I am talking about, it is impossible to relate to what he was saying. This man was very funny, extremely witty and a pleasure to listen to, but he has been through the most significant event to happen in the 20th century and he is sitting there telling my family about it. After talking to him and spending a little time with him and his son, I realized that there is so much more here than I could ever absorb, and I felt so grateful for everything this man and all the soldiers did back in the 40s, but it felt impossible to show how grateful we were. I watched Nikolas and Blue chat and I thought that if there is one day that Nikolas will never forget, it will be talking to the Canadian hero. For that I am so very glad we came here.

 

 

 

We then went up to Pegasus Bridge and walked through the Museum and looked at all the machines, weapons and a plane they had on display. This place was the place to be if you liked planes, they had a glider right out back beside the bridge. They have the actual bridge (bullet holes and all) that the British liberated back on June 6th, 1944. At dawn on that day back in 1944, 6 gliders crashed to the ground, and one landed within 45 feet of Pegasus Bridge. They blew the backs of these planes off and drove out tanks, jeeps, heavy weapons and caught the Germans off guard and liberated the first bridge on French soil. I won’t go into it, but look it up on the web; it is a very incredible story.

 

 

 I am still amazed that Canada was the 3rd largest army on the Allied side next to the British and the U.S.

That is quite remarkable considering Canada’s population was just over 10 million.

Did you know that the Normandy Invasion was planned and constructed in Quebec, Canada, I didn’t.

Now having said that, no one lost more lives than the British and the U.S, aside from the Germans. I am not sure exactly but I was told that the U.S. lost well over a million soldiers.

We went to the Omaha Cemetery after we left Pegasus Bridge, and found ourselves driving for quite a while and looking for food, and then we came to a little hotel right in front of the Cemetery where we grabbed something to eat.

Once again I cannot explain the size, the beauty or the numbers of graves that are in this resting place. It sits right atop Omaha Beach in Colleville-Sur-Mer and just like the Canadian and British, the land of the cemetery belongs to the country that liberated that section of the beach. So when you are walking in the grounds you are actually in part of the United States, just like when we were in Beny-Sur-Mer-Reviers (Canadian cemetery), we were in part of Canada. Weird eh?

The place was very busy unlike when we were the only ones at the Canadian one, so we read some of the 9,387 white marble crosses and walked the entire length.  It was surreal as we stood at one end and looked as far as you can see; the rows of crosses.  We stayed there until the cemetery closed and we had one more memorial to see.

 We were told by many people to make sure, if we see anything, to go to a place called Sainte-Mere-Eglise. If you have watched the movie The Longest Day, you will know the church where the soldier from the 101st airborne gets his parachute caught on the corner of the church. He hung there all night until dawn when the Germans saw him and shot him. We were all very tired after such an emotional day and we didn’t really want to go, but everyone said the place is full of history and to take lots of pictures. So we drove for quite awhile and got lost several times but finally found it. It was so busy that parts of the town streets had been closed off and we got re-routed. After what seemed to be a very long time, we got into the town and found parking for our 2 ton bread truck. I made sure I changed the batteries and got the camera all ready to take pictures of the town. The place is quite amazing.  They have hung a fake, plastic soldier by his parachute off the same corner on the church. Everyone in town is dressed up in military uniforms and driving old Willy jeeps, it’s quite interesting. Nikolas had asked if he could wear his camouflage army hat before we left, but we felt it might be disrespectful so we told him he could not. We show up in this town and everyone is in camouflage and let’s just say Nikolas was not happy with us. So we walk up to the church and there is the soldier dangling way up there from the roof, so I think I better start taking some pictures. I just walked away from a bank machine and went to reach for my camera just as it was falling out of my pocket. Being as quick to respond as I am (ha ha), I stuck out my foot to try and break its fall before it hit the pavement. I ended up kicking it across the sidewalk and it cracked open and then fell into a puddle.   Therefore I have no pictures of Saint-Mere-Eglise to show you. The funny thing is when I was getting ready to throw it in the garbage, I thought maybe I would check it just one more time and yup, you guessed it, it works just fine. What do you think? Divine intervention?

 

Anyways, it had been a very long emotional day and we were all really pooped out, so we headed back to Caen and called it a day.

We spent 4 full days in Normandy and I can tell you we just ran out of time, but I truly feel we will come back here one day.

 

I can’t really explain how one feels here, only to say that you need a couple of weeks to see it all. The problem with seeing so many memorials is that you kind of get burnt out, so I don’t know if you could actually stay for 2 weeks. I am so glad we came here, and everyone, including the kids, loved it. If you can ever plan to come here, do it! I understand that this place is not for everyone, but there is so much to see besides all the WW II sites. When we were driving to different sites through the huge hay fields we stopped many times to look at all the wild poppies that are growing along the road and out into the fields. I have never seen anything like it, and behind Seny-Sur Cemetery (Canadian WW II), the field was covered with them, as far as we could see.  The beaches may not have been the warmest at this time of the year but they were surprisingly beautiful with miles of white sand and beautiful cliffs.   The other thing about Normandy is the people; they are all very nice and welcoming. I have to tell you that I was surprised how nice everyone is here. The last time I was in France was in ‘84 and I can tell you that people around Paris were not too fond of tourists and would just ignore you. The only problem we had this time was when we went to the Omaha Cemetery and stopped just before the entrance at a small restaurant and hotel to eat something. We had been traveling all day and had not had a chance to eat so we went in and asked if the restaurant was open.  The owner said yes but only for waffles and cakes. We sat down and the waitress came up and asked what we would like and we asked if there was anything else but Waffles, like a soup or even just baguettes. She seemed to think it was no problem and walked back into the kitchen, and the next thing we knew, the owner comes storming out and starts yelling at us that the kitchen was closed, “only waffles I told you!” I guess you know what we all ate, waffles! After being treated like that we should have got up and left, but we had already tried some other places and they were all closed, so we stayed and ate like scolded children.  Ten minutes after we got our waffles and wolfed them down a large group came in and sat down. The owner knew one of the men and they were goofing around speaking French. I heard one of the guys (He was American) ask for some sandwiches. The owner had no problem with their order and went back into the kitchen to help make the sandwiches. That owner gal was really cranky towards us and Nikolas felt uncomfortable eating there, but we were in the middle of nowhere and still had a couple of hours to drive. We had no choice.

Other than that time, the people of Normandy and Caen have been fantastic and stuff like that can happen anywhere.

 

Some things we will never forget about Normandy and WWII. For a county that has little or no military today, Canada had a huge impact in WWII. The United States has a massive WWII campaign and had so casualties in such a short time it gives you a whole new view of WWII.

If you want to watch one of the best WWII series, watch Band of Brothers and you will be very touched. Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks have done a fantastic job making this Documentary and it is a really nice tribute to the US Soldiers who gave their lives.

 

I am finishing this part from Paris, and being back in a big city makes me appreciate Normandy that much more. Nikolas said he liked it so much because it reminded him of home, but it reminded me of P.E.I. more than it did Vancouver.

 

Next stop Euro Disney, or as Danika calls it “Zero Disney!”

 

 

 

Normandy - received June 6

Caen

 (June , 05 by Steve)

So it is about 8pm and we just finished traveling from Brussels to Paris, then on to Normandy. Coming here is like being in a small town far from the sirens of the big city. Getting here was not that easy and we had a very long travel day, actually an interesting couple of days. We were in the Netherlands yesterday and decided we would rather be back in Brussels and stay there for a couple of days. So we packed up yesterday morning and drove into the city centre and pulled up to the Holiday Inn City Centre. We had already confirmed our train tickets to Paris then Normandy for Saturday so that gave us two nights in Brussels. The only problem was that there was a parliamentary meeting with a whole whack of countries to discuss France rejecting the EU membership and they were all staying in Brussels Friday night. I told Helen not to worry, we would book into the Hotel for Thursday night and something would open up and we would be able to get a room. We booked the room, went to the Train station and picked up our tickets to Paris/Normandy.  When we got back to the Hotel we found out it was now over 20 rooms oversold for Friday night. So we went back to the train station and tried to get train tickets out a day early. Are you confused yet? Well hang on, because I am only half way through. I walked the few miles to the Brussels train station and asked if they would change our tickets. They said they would change them but we would lose our reservation. What reservation? “Do I have tickets for the train or don’t I?” was the question I asked. The train ticket lady said we have tickets just not seats. So let’s just say that Nikolas and I sat on our luggage for a few hundred miles and Helen and Danika were a few cars ahead sharing one seat. You know it was not that bad, but when we got off the train in Paris we had 45 minutes to get across the city to another train station and the taxi line up was half a block long. We did get a taxi and it even took our entire luggage, but of course the driver ripped me off, but who cares we had to make the next train. We ran out of the cab and into the new station and sitting right in front of us was our next train to Normandy. At first the exchange in Paris looked like we might not be able to catch our train but somehow it all fell together and we managed to make it here to Caen, Normandy.

Let me just give you a quick note on how great this place is before I go to bed.

You see, we have quite a bit of luggage, but we make it work. Vans or wagons, two trips and usually 2 elevator trips, that’s the norm for us. Today was no different than any other day, we checked in at the Caen Holiday Inn and Helen and the kids took the first elevator up and I waited with the second load of luggage for the lift to come back down. An elderly gent was waiting for the elevator too, so I asked what floor he was going to, so I could decide who should go in first. As we went up I asked where he was from and was he here on holidays or was he here for the WW II ceremony.

You had to be here (Normandy) maybe for it to impact you like it did me. He replied, “I am from England and I came onto those beaches over there almost 61 years ago”. So here I am complaining about our little long day and getting ripped off by the taxi.

This man’s name is Stan Snow and he was in the British Special Service, part of the 51st Highland Division. He was 23 years old and was wounded for the 3rd time only 6 days before the end of the war.

 Stan has many medals for his service I am sure, he was wounded his last time by a German 88mm shell on what was his last tour. He was in the Special Service, which means he was one of the hundreds of thousands of volunteers who stormed these beaches that day. I have some more to say, but it is 2am and I have to get to sleep. One minute we are in downtown Brussels and the next in a hotel full of WW II Vets in Normandy.  Very cool.

 

(Next Day - June 4, 2005 Written by Steve)

Today we went for breakfast and I brought all of our important documents such as passports, cash, and cards in a backpack because our room does not contain a safe. I have a couple of choices; one, to hide it all under the bed or two, put it in the back pack and take it with us where ever we go. The trick is to not set the back pack down or let it out of your sight. Well, today I was getting ready to go get our rental van when I could not find the back pack. Yup, you guessed it, I left it on the floor in the restaurant and that was over an hour ago. Everything from all our cash to passports was gone and we would be in some serious trouble if I could not get it back. I raced down to the restaurant to see if it was there, but it was gone.  I was totally freaked, so I ran to the hotel lobby and asked if anyone brought one in. The gent smiled and went into the back room and brought out my pack untouched, I could have kissed the guy! Anyways we were back in action and I had just learned a very valuable lesson for the second time. So off I went and picked up our station wagon that we were going to use to drive to Paris after we were done in Normandy. They had a huge 6 speed, 9 seat 2 ton van waiting for me, so I said to them that I did not need anything that big. In the end I drove it away, so now I have something that takes up a lane and a bit and I can’t find parking for. Oh well, why not make driving a little tougher in the hardest country to drive in?

We got our van and headed off to Juno beach, where the Canadians landed in Normandy on D-Day. Did you know that they were one of the first soldiers to come on to French soil that day? The beach is quite long and all along the road for many miles all you can see is French and Canadian flags. We walked out into the bunkers and walked the beach and tried to imagine what took place in that spot 61 years ago. The 3rd Canadian Infantry Division and the 2nd Canadian Armored infantry Division were the first to hit the beach in Normandy on June 6th 1944. The 6th British Airborne Div and the 1st Canadian Parachute Div were also on the ground in the eastern Flank of Caen. The 82nd and the 101st Airborne (Screaming Eagles) came in past Utah beach. You know the movies Band of Brother and Saving Private Ryan?  Well, those movies are about Utah and Omaha Beaches, where the Americans came on that same day.

We then drove to the Canadian War museum that is truly a fantastic site. Eleven years ago when all the Canadian vets came back here to celebrate the 50 year anniversary of D-Day, they were very disappointed to see only a couple of Canadian flags waving and a plaque and nothing else. They went back home and put the screws to Ottawa but did not manage to get any help or backing. I guess the Liberals must have been to busy setting up the Sponsorship program. Anyway, these Vets were determined to get some kind of museum built here in Normandy for the 60th anniversary so they looked at the private sector. They had schools, large corporations and regular citizens pitching in to help raise enough to build a monument and museum. You know who the biggest sponsor was? Wal-Mart Canada. That’s right, an American company put up some major bucks to help out our vets, and it wasn’t until that happened before Ottawa threw in a token donation. The museum is out of this world, it is absolutely fantastic! If I sound like I am a little excited, it is because this place is so well done and it pays a real tribute to the 45,000 Canadians who lost their lives in WW II. As for Ottawa, well once again they should be ashamed of themselves!

I know I am not supposed to get political, but if a government is going to spend money anywhere it should be to protect its own country and take care of the folks who did it in the past.

People here hang Canadian flags from their balconies and have signs in their windows that say “Welcome Liberators”.

Did you know in WW II Canada had the 4th largest Navy in the world?

Did you know Canada, at the end of WW II, also had the 4th largest Air force?

That’s right, the 4th largest in the world! Look at us now, subs that catch fire, ships that will float but won’t run and military personal that would love to do a good job, but don’t have the tools to do it.

I am done, no more Ottawa bashing. It’s just sad, that’s all.

So after the museum we drove up to Beny-Sur-Mer-Riviers and saw the Canadian WW II Cemetery. All I can say is that you have to see it for yourself to understand how overwhelming this place is. It is the nicest Cemetery I have ever seen and so it should be. It looks over the beach of Juno from about 5 miles away. I can’t explain how you feel.  It is between feeling so very proud and so kind of guilty at the same time. I don’t know why I feel that way, but it all just seems like such a waste of young lives. It makes me think of what’s going on today in Iraq and it just seems all the more crazy. It was hard to walk past all those head stones and I was doing really well until Danika asked what all the stones were. I told her that some brave soldiers had been killed in a really bad war a long time ago. She then asked if I could read the names of the people and where they were from as we walked. I said sure and we walked down the middle of the cemetery. After reading about 6 head stones I was unable to read anymore names and she was becoming very impatient and kept asking me who was buried here. She then said “Dad, if you ever have to go to war, will you promise to try really hard to kill the bad guys, so they don’t kill you?”

I was very choked up so I walked by myself for awhile. That was not any easier, and we stayed for about an hour and then headed towards Caen.

If you’re ever able to come to this place and see this tribute to the soldiers who gave their lives, please do it. I guarantee, you will never forget it.

I know I am ranting and raving about only Canada here, but you could spend 2-3 weeks just seeing all the memorials .I realize on the first day here I really had little knowledge about what when on here back on June 6th, 1944. So basically we are trying to catch up, and we will start with our own heritage and then work our way over to the Brit’s and the U.S. You know my father saw action in WW II and has told me many, many stories about those day’s in the 40’s, but I don’t think I was listening very well. I don’t think I will let that happen again, (Ah, I can see I made you smile, eh Dad?).

 

On our second day, we went out to Cintheaux, the larger of the two Canadian Cemeteries. It was the same as the first, huge maple trees, beautifully kept gardens; only this one had 1000 more graves. We read as many head stones as we could (not out loud this time).  The ages on headstones ranged from 16 to 32, but mostly between 21 and 25. So many of those stones were dated on June 6th or 7th, and they were from every Province, Halifax to Victoria. We were the only ones there and it was kind of strange because it was the day before the 61-year anniversary ceremonies. We walked and the kids went off on their own.  Every once in a while we stopped to read a head stone. We left there and drove back to Arromanches and watched the 360 degree movie about the D – Day landings. It was all live footage and they had shots of soldiers and tanks moving down a street and then they would fade it to a colour shot of the street today. Very well done, even Nikolas thought it was excellent. We left there and walked down to the little town which was packed with people, bag pipes, vets and old army vehicles racing around. We had lunch there and then tried to drive to Colleville-sur-mer (The American cemetery) but it was too late so we headed back.

 

Tomorrow we are going back to Juno Beach and to Pegasus Bridge and then St Mere Eglise. You might know the bridge from “Saving Private Ryan” and the Church, St Mere Eglise, from the “Longest Day”. A paratrooper named Bob M. had his parachute catch on the spire of the church in the dark of night. He hung there until the light of morning when he was finally spotted by German soldiers and they shot him dead as he dangled. They have a large monument dedicated to him at the same church.

 

Talk to you soon.

 

I just want to say a special thanks to Benoit from Brugge (Crowne Plaza) who went out of his way to provide us info, book a hotel and a train for us to get here. Thank you so much Benoit, we are very grateful.

 

                       

Luxembourg

 

We drove into Luxembourg from the northern part of France. We got our passports ready but, like every other European border we have crossed, there are only buildings of what used to be and no one stopping you or checking your car. We drove into the city of Luxembourg and then realized we would rather stay in the wine region of Mosel. So we turned around and drove out of the city and headed back to the south western part of the country to a city called Remich. As we drove into the countryside we noticed more signs for American WW II cemeteries, so it makes you wonder just how many of these cemeteries there are in all of Europe. We pulled into this little riverside town and started searching for a hotel, and after half an hour of trying to find parking we decided to go for pizza. Remich is a really pretty spot and there was quite a large tour boat on the river in front of the restaurant that loaded and unloaded people every hour.

 There was an old town called Trier across the river on the German side that looked like it may be a better place to stay, so we got back into our car and took off. As we drove up the Mosel River valley, we would weave in and out of Luxembourg and Germany. The countryside was absolutely stunning and all along the river banks were huge vineyards and little houses and the odd Hotel. I have been told that this country is so small that you could miss it if you were not paying attention. It is true that you could drive this whole country in half a day, but it is about 4 times the size of Andorra so it did not seem that small to us.

 

 

The history of Luxembourg:

It begins with its founding in the year 963, when Sigefroid, County of Ardennes,, acquired the ruins of an old Roman fort called "Castellum Lucilinburhuc"  from the monks of the Abbey of St. Maximin in Trier.


Pre-1800s

The Castellum Lucilinburhuc, located on a rocky outcrop known as the Bock, was steadily enlarged and strengthened over the years, making it by the nineteenth century one of the strongest fortresses in Europe. Its formidable defences and strategic location caused it to become known as the 'Gibraltar of the North'.

Luxembourg remained an independent earldom of the Holy Roman Empire until 1354, when the emperor Charles IV elevated it to the status of duchy. In 1437 the ruling family became extinct and the castle passed briefly into Hapsburg hands, before being captured by Philip of Burgundy in 1443. With the death of Mary of Burgundy in 1482 Luxembourg returned to Hapsburg rule.

Luxembourg was annexed by Louis XIV of France in 1684, an action that caused alarm among France's neighbours and resulted in the formation of the League of Augsburg in 1686. In the ensuing war France was forced to give up the duchy, which was returned to the Hapsburgs by the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697. During this period of French rule the defences of the fortress were strengthened by the famous siege engineer Vauban. Hapsburg rule was confirmed in 1715, and Luxembourg was integrated into the Austrian Netherlands. After the French revolution Luxembourg was reconquered by France and became a departement of the Republic in 1795, a situation formalized in 1797.

1800s

It remained under French rule until the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, when it was elevated to the status of grand duchy and placed under the rule of the king of the Netherlands. However, its military value to Germany prevented it from becoming a part of the Dutch kingdom. Instead it was made a member of the German Confederation with Prussia responsible for defence. Luxembourg remained a possession of the kings of the Netherlands until the death of William III in 1890, when the grand duchy passed to the House of Nassau-Weilburg due to Salic Law.

The rebellion of Belgium against Dutch rule in 1830 had serious consequences for Luxembourg. The country declared independence in 1835, and this was recognized by the grand duke three years later. By the Treaty of London in 1839 the grand duchy was cut in two, losing more than half of its territory to the new Belgian state. The loss of its French-speaking lands left Luxembourg as a predominantly German nation, although French cultural influence remained strong. The loss of Belgian markets also caused painful economic problems for the state. Recognizing this, the grand duke integrated it into the German Zollverein in 1842. Nevertheless, Luxembourg remained an underdeveloped agrarian country for most of the century. As a result of this about one in five of the inhabitants emigrated to the United States between 1841 and 1891.

The crisis of 1867 almost resulted in war between France and Germany over the status of Luxembourg. The issue was resolved by the second Treaty of London which guaranteed the perpetual independence and neutrality of the state. The fortress walls were pulled down and the Prussian garrison was withdrawn.

WWI and WWII: German occupations

Luxembourg was conquered by Germany during World War I and remained under occupation until 1918, when it was liberated by U.S. and French troops. Two American divisions were based in the state in the years following the War. At Versailles the Belgian claim to Luxembourg was rejected and its independence reaffirmed.

The Germans returned during World War II. In 1940 the Wehrmacht attacked Luxembourg and quickly defeated its small defence force. The state was placed under military occupation until August 1942, when it was formally incorporated into the Third Reich as part of the Gau Moselland. Luxembourgers were declared to be German citizens and 13,000 were called up for military service.

This action provoked a general strike against the occupying authorities which was violently suppressed: 21 strikers were executed and hundreds more deported to concentration camps. 2,848 Luxembourgers eventually died fighting in the German army. U.S. forces again liberated Luxembourg in September 1944, although they were briefly forced to withdraw during the Battle of the Bulge. The Germans were finally expelled in January 1945. Altogether, of a pre-war population of 293,000, 5,259 Luxembourgers lost their lives during the hostilities.

United Nations

Luxembourg ended its neutrality in 1945 by becoming a charter member of the United Nations. It also became a member of the Benelux Customs Union in 1948 and of NATO in 1949. In 1957, Luxembourg became one of the six founding countries of the European Economic Community (later the European Union) and in 1999 it joined the euro currency area.

Modern history

The present sovereign is Grand Duke Henri. Henri's father, Grand Duke Jean, succeeded his mother, Grand Duchess Charlotte, on November 12, 1964. Grand Duke Jean's eldest son, Prince Henri, was appointed "Lieutenant Representant" (Hereditary Grand Duke) on March 4, 1998.

On December 24, 1999, Prime Minister Juncker announced Grand Duke Jean's decision to abdicate the throne on October 7, 2000, in favor of Prince Henri who assumed the title and constitutional duties of Grand Duke.

I am writing this From Koln, Gemany. We did drive into Trier, but did not find a place to stay, so we just kept driving until we got to Koln. We will stay here for a couple of day’s and then head to Frankfurt to meet up with some friends who are coming in to visit us.

 

 

 

GERMANY

 

 

Cologne, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Berlin, Nurmberg, Dachau, Hiedelberg, Dortmund

 

 

East Berlin

June 26, 2005

 

  (Written by Steve)

    I had some fears about driving into Berlin, the capital and largest city of Germany. I was told that the city is 4 times the size of Paris, and I had driven into Paris and was not looking forward to driving into something 4 times the size. Berlin became the capital of Germany in 1871 when the numerous independent kingdoms and principalities of Germany united to form a single nation-state (see German Unification (1871)). The city quickly developed into one of Europe’s major industrial and cultural centers and became the single most important city in Germany.  After driving through most of the city centre I was surprised at how clean it was compared to other large cities.  The buildings and infrastructure are amazing, and I was surprised at how many and how large the rows of buildings were, they just went on for miles.

 

Like most of our trip, no matter where we go, or how much I think I know, I am always blown away by the little I do know. Berlin is way nicer than I ever imagined and I don’t think I have ever seen so many trees in one city before; truly beautiful. The one thing that is a little surprising is how little colour there is here. I mean folks from Asia, India or Africa are very far and few between. I have read a few articles about the racial tensions in this city, but I did not see or witness anything that would support that theory, but we were only in Berlin for a few days. The other thing about the people here is that they are not as easy to talk to as the folks from Hamburg or Cologne. They just seemed a little more reserved, but it was definitely noticeable.

 

From 1945 until 1990 Berlin was a divided city. Following the defeat of the Nazi regime (see National Socialism) in World War II (1939-1945), the victorious Allied Powers—the United States, Britain, France, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR)—divided Germany into four zones, each occupied by one of the Allied Powers. They also divided Berlin, which was in the Soviet sector, into similar zones. The Soviet-controlled sector of the city became known as East Berlin, and the Western-occupied sector became known as West Berlin. In 1949 East Berlin became the capital of the German Democratic Republic (known as East Germany), one of two successor states established in Germany after the war. That same year the capital of West Germany, the other successor state, was established in the city of Bonn. West Berlin remained an urban island surrounded by Communist East Germany. If you can hop on the net check out a map of the sectors it is really bizarre, it does not make any sense. The city became a focus of Cold War tensions between Communist countries led by the USSR and anti-Communist states led by the United States.

 

  Berlin was a divided city from1945 until 1990.

 

Brandenburg Gate Built between 1788 and 1791 in the center of Berlin, Germany, Brandenburg Gate was modeled after a Greek ceremonial arch. The Gate was sealed off in 1961 when the Berlin Wall was built to divide East and West Berlin. When the wall was torn down in 1989 Brandenburg Gate became accessible again.

 

Modern Berlin covers 883 sq km (341 sq mi). In 1920 the old city merged with 8 towns, nearly 60 villages, and a number of surrounding farms and estates to form the current city boundaries. Berlin’s city limits encompass the entire metropolitan area and include large areas of undeveloped land. Forests and farmlands cover nearly one-third of the city. From reunification until 2001, the city was divided into 23 boroughs. In an effort to make urban government more efficient, an administrative reform that took effect in 2001 reduced the number of boroughs to 12.

 

 

At the heart of Berlin lies the medieval core of the city, located along the western bank of the Spree River. To the west of the medieval city is a formal grid of streets laid out on either side of Unter den Linden, a wide central avenue stretching from east to west and flanked with double rows of linden trees. Before the postwar division of Berlin, this area, called the Mitte (city center), served as the administrative and financial center of Berlin and contained the main banks, publishing houses, large stores, the university, and government buildings. Well-known streets crossing Unter den Linden are Friedrichstrasse and Wilhelmstrasse. The former royal park known as the Tiergarten occupies the land to the west of the Mitte district.

 

Gradually the city’s residential and industrial areas grew around the city center. In the mid-19th century a dense mass of tenements was erected to the north, east, and south of the central Mitte district. Known as Mietskasernen (rent barracks), these buildings were home to members of the working class who labored in nearby industrial plants. In contrast, aristocrats and members of the middle class lived in the peripheral communities of that time (Dahlem, Grunewald, Köpenick).

 

 Wartime destruction left the historic core of the city standing amidst 26 sq km (10 sq mi) of rubble.

 

Prior to World War II, Berlin contained many imposing buildings, many of them built after 1871, when Berlin became the German national capital. Much of old Berlin was devastated during World War II by Allied bombing raids and by fierce house-to-house fighting that occurred when Soviet troops captured the city in 1945 at the end of the war. Wartime destruction left the historic core of the city standing amidst 26 sq km (10 sq mi) of rubble.

 

The victorious Allies faced a daunting task in 1945. Berlin had lost almost three-quarters of its 1.5 million residential units. During the first two months of occupation, when the USSR held full sway over all of Berlin, the Soviet Army also dismantled and removed 67 percent of Berlin’s industrial capacity.

 

After the war, the boundary between East and West Berlin was drawn through the heart of the city. In 1961 the East German government encircled West Berlin with a fortified wall that traced the boundary. This wall was known as the Berlin Wall. In the postwar redevelopment period, both East and West Berlin turned their backs on the wall and the area on either side of it, which remained a partially abandoned zone. So West Berlin was trapped in East Germany and it was almost impossible for people to get to West Berlin, again check it out on a map. It is like an island trapped in the middle of a country surrounded by barbed wire.

 

East Berlin

 

May Day Parade in East Berlin May Day (the first day in May) was an important holiday in Communist countries. It was originally designated by a meeting of socialist and labor parties in 1889 as a day to honor workers. During the time from 1949 to 1990, when East Berlin was the capital of the Communist German Democratic Republic, May Day was celebrated with festivities and parades.  The week we were here however they had one of the biggest parades in all of Europe: the St. Christophers Gay Parade.

 

For several years after 1945, East Germany paid war reparations to the USSR, thereby slowing its economic redevelopment considerably. When funds became available, East German leaders opted to focus on building housing for workers. Postwar housing construction in East Berlin often took the form of prefabricated high-rise apartment blocks that surrounded a central area containing schools, playgrounds, and shops. The largest of these, such as Marzahn on the eastern fringe of the city, housed about 100,000 people. As we walked and drove through what was once East Berlin, we were very surprised  at how beautiful the old buildings were and how many canals were on the East side.

 

Before reunification in 1990, the East German government restored some of the historic buildings on Unter den Linden, including the classical State Opera House and Saint Hedwig’s Cathedral, both built in the mid-1700s. The East German government also restored the neoclassical Brandenburg Gate, an 18th-century city gateway at the western end of Unter den Linden that has become an international symbol of the city. I am not sure what was happening with the gate when we were there, but you can’t drive though it anymore.

 

West Berlin

 

Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, Berlin Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church is one of Berlin’s most famous landmarks. The original church, built in the late 19th century, was almost completely destroyed during World War II (1939–1945). In 1961 a new octagonal church was completed around the remains of the old one. This structure and its adjacent hexagonal bell tower feature honeycomb patterns of stained glass.

 

As Berlin became a focus of the Cold War during the 1940s, West Berlin’s Allied protectors strove to keep the city alive. West Germany gave tax breaks to West German firms that established or maintained businesses in West Berlin or bought goods produced there, and the Western allies provided massive economic assistance. During the Cold War years, West Berlin rebuilt its infrastructure and residential areas, expanded its subway system, and constructed a major international airport.

 

The rebuilding of West Berlin was particularly dramatic in the 1960s, when the West German government and its allies made an effort to make the city a showcase for the benefits of capitalism. A new central business district was developed southwest of Tiergarten along the Kurfüstendamm and other nearby streets. Department stores, sidewalk cafes, throngs of people, and office towers brilliantly lit at night by neon signs made this district the equal of any other modern city center in the Western world.

 

United Berlin

 

Cheering the End of the Berlin Wall, a man could be seen sitting on the Berlin Wall. The divider of East and West Germany from 1961 to 1989, raises a fist and cheers the dismantling of the wall. The wall was a symbol of the Cold War—the struggle between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and its allies, which included East Germany, and the United States and its allies, which included West Germany. The Cold War dominated international relations from just after World War II (1939-1945) until the early 1990s.  If you visit, make sure you head to the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, it is fantastic.

 

At the edge of Friedrichshain, next to the city center along the eastern bank of the Spree, is Alexanderplatz, a large square with restaurants and stores. Prior to unification, Alexanderplatz was the cultural center of East Berlin. Its most prominent feature is the Fernsehturm, a 365-m (1,198-ft) television tower topped by a popular revolving café. Berlin’s tallest building, the Fernsehturm was built during the 1960s in a futuristic style and has become a popular stopping point for tourists. Near the square are the Gothic-style Marienkirche (Church of Saint Mary) and the 19th-century red brick Rathaus (city hall).

 

To the north of the city center lie two working class neighborhoods: Wedding and Prenzlauer Berg. Wedding is an industrial center, while Prenzlauer Berg, which lies just east of the former Berlin Wall, houses workers as well as a growing community of artists and students. Even before unification, Prenzlauer Berg was a gathering point for artists and nonconformists dissatisfied with East German politics and society. Bullet holes from the war still scar the walls of the district’s aging tenement buildings, many of which are in a state of disrepair and neglect.

 

In the west and southwestern portions of the city, the landscape becomes more open, with grasslands, parks, and lakes dominating the scenery. Major natural features in this region include the extensive Grunewald forest and the Havel lakes, whose shores include a kilometer-long stretch of sandy beach. The Grunewald forest, which covers 32 sq km (12 sq mi) in southwestern Berlin, is a major recreational area for Berliners seeking relief from the crowded central city. North of the Grunewald are the residential neighborhoods of Charlottenberg and Spandau. Founded in the 13th century as an independent town, Spandau is best known as the site of a prison that housed Nazi war criminals. Its medieval streets remained relatively undamaged by World War II bombings.

 

In 2001 Berlin had a population of 3,382,200, far fewer than the 4.5 million who called the city home in 1942. Between 1945 and 1990, Berlin’s population diminished slightly in size. After unification, it increased by almost one-sixth. Compared to most major cities, Berlin’s population began aging after 1945. In the mid-1990s the largest age group, which made up 19 percent of the population, consisted of people between the ages of 25 and 34. The next largest group included those 65 years of age or older (16 percent of the population).

 

During the mid-1990s Berlin was home to more than 400,000 foreign citizens. Most of these immigrants came from other European countries to seek better economic conditions in Germany. More than 30 percent of Berlin’s foreigners were guest workers who came from Turkey to work at temporary jobs.

 

Protestants make up Berlin’s major religious group, with nearly 950,000 members. Roman Catholics form the next largest group at 341,000. The number of Muslims stands at 183,000. The smallest religious group is the Jewish community, which has about 11,000 members. This compares to 161,000 Jews living in Berlin in 1933. Most of the prewar Jewish population was devastated during the Holocaust of the 1930s and 1940s, when Nazi leaders organized the systematic destruction of Jewish people.

 

Following the division of the city of Berlin in 1949, the economies of the two halves of the city were integrated into their respective municipal and national economic systems. Although East Berlin constitutes only a third of the unified city and its population, it became the hub of East Germany’s commercial, financial, and transportation systems, and a huge manufacturing center.

 

Much of Berlin’s industrial capacity was destroyed during and after World War II, and the economy of West Berlin suffered again during 1948 and 1949, when the USSR blockaded West Berlin in an attempt to drive out the Western powers. Beginning in the 1950s, however, West Berlin’s economy was revitalized with a great deal of assistance from West Germany and from the United States, which provided support under the European Recovery Program (Marshall Plan). The city eventually became an important manufacturing center, producing electrical and electronic equipment and substantial quantities of machinery, metal, textiles, clothing, chemicals, printed materials, and processed food. The city also developed as a center for international finance, research, and science.

 

With the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the two halves of the city were once again physically integrated. Their economic integration began in July 1990. Of the two sections of the city, East Berlin underwent a greater economic upheaval, with many formerly state-owned businesses becoming private. United Berlin plays a significant role in international commerce. In 1995 the city exported and imported 8 million metric tons of goods.

 

Since reunification, Berlin has been forced to deal with housing shortages, growing unemployment, and strikes and demonstrations by workers. Increased taxes, reduced government subsidies, and cuts in social services resulted as the German government faced the cost of revamping East Germany’s economic system from a state-controlled to a free-market system. Despite these obstacles new businesses were thriving within a few years after reunification. I don’t know why but there were very few panhandles compared to Hamburg or Cologne.

 

After reunification, the German government decided to gradually move the federal government to Berlin from Bonn, which was the capital of West Germany, although eight federal ministries remain in Bonn. This decision to move most government offices back to Berlin precipitated a building boom in the city. It has also put severe financial pressure on the federal government due to the cost of constructing new government facilities and of transferring government offices from the former West German capital.

 

Although the city is 177 km (110 miles) from the coast, river dredging, which began in the late 1700s, and the construction of an inland port provide the city with easy access to the Baltic Sea. The city has 74 km (46 mi) of natural rivers and 72 km (45 mi) of canals. The East German government completed a ring highway around the entire city in 1979. The central railroad hub is located at Central Station in eastern Berlin. The Deutsche Reichsbahn, a suburban railroad, connects the suburbs with the central city. To facilitate trade and the movement of people, Berlin has constructed an efficient integrated system of subways, elevated train lines, buses, and trams. Berlin has three international airports, one at Tegel in the northwest of the city, another at Tempelhof south of the center (and famed for its role during the Berlin blockade that began in 1948), and yet another at Schönefeld in the south and east beyond Berlin’s city limits.

 

 

 

When the Nazis came to power in 1933 under the leadership of German dictator Adolf Hitler, they suppressed all political activities not under Nazi control and put an end to Berlin’s flourishing artistic community. Under the Nazis, Berlin became one of the world’s major centers of political and military power. Hitler and his primary architect, Albert Speer, set out to transform the city through a massive rebuilding program, but they never completed their grandiose scheme. A few Nazi buildings survive, including the Olympic Stadium, site of the 1936 Olympic Games.

 

A reminder of the brutality of the Nazi regime may be found in Berlin’s northern suburb of Sachsenhausen, the site of one of the first concentration camps in Germany, which was built in 1936. The Nazis initially constructed concentration camps as centers for confining socialists, Communists, and other political enemies. Later, they were used as death camps for Jews, Slavs, homosexuals, and other “enemies of the people.”

 

World War II

 

Bonfire of "Anti-German" Books A belief in the genetic superiority of Nordic peoples, plus a romantic tradition disdainful of rationalism, liberalism, and democracy, fueled the National Socialist, or Nazi, movement in Germany. Pictured here are German students and Nazis throwing “Jewish-Marxist” and other “anti-German” books onto a huge bonfire in Berlin’s Orpenplatz in May 1933.

 

When World War II began in 1939, the British and U.S. air forces made Berlin a focus of aerial bombardments because it was the political center of Germany. Street fighting between the Soviet and German armies at the war’s end further damaged the city. By 1945 the war had destroyed about 60 percent of the city. The historic core and government quarter were left partially standing. About 42 percent of the city’s 1.5 million houses and apartments were completely devastated, and another 31 percent were damaged. Berlin’s population was reduced to about 2.8 million from a prewar high of about 4.4 million.

 

In February 1945 the USSR, the United States, Britain, and France agreed to divide the defeated Germany into four zones of occupation. When Berlin was finally captured by Soviet troops in May 1945, it was divided into four sectors, which were jointly administered by all four nations. The Soviet sector in the eastern part of Berlin was 390 sq km (150 sq mi) in area, while the combined British, American, and French sectors in the western part of the city totaled about 480 sq km (185 sq mi) in area.

 

Following the war, tensions developed between Communist countries led by the USSR and non-Communist countries under the leadership of the United States. The former Allies were unable to agree on terms for the political and economic reunification of Germany. The USSR regarded the four-power presence in Berlin as temporary and maintained that the city belonged to the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany. The Western powers asserted that the citizens of Berlin had the right to determine their own future through a democratically elected government.

 

In June 1948 the Allied-occupied zones of Germany, including those in Berlin, adopted a new currency despite Soviet protests. In response, the USSR imposed a complete ban on overland traffic between Berlin and the zones of Germany controlled by the Allies. The USSR acted as though it intended to use the blockade to force the integration of the western sectors of Berlin with the Soviet-occupied part of Germany that surrounded the city. The Western powers, determined to preserve their sectors as non-Communist enclaves, responded with an airlift that supplied West Berlin with food and fuel for almost 11 months. The USSR eventually lifted the ban on overland travel in May 1949. In November 1949 the city was formally divided when the USSR established a separate administration in East Berlin.

 

 

The Berlin Wall

 

Here I am taking this picture of the wall in 2005 and I can tell you it felt like this thing was a fake. I mean how could it be real? When I first saw it I was surprised at how short it was, and how easy it looked to climb. What I did not know was that there were 15 metres of a void space between the wall and the rolls of barbed wire, called the death zone. The East Germans had to bring in Russian soldiers to monitor this zone and they would shoot anyone who dared to enter it. Not only did it look unbelievable, it is so hard to believe the world allowed it to happen.

You see, West Berlin was rebuilt as a showplace back in 1950 to show Western prosperity in the heart of a Communist state. The standard of living in West Berlin rose above that of East Germany and East Berlin. In June 1953 public dissatisfaction with conditions in East Berlin erupted in demonstrations that quickly spread to the rest of East Germany. Clashes with police and attacks on state offices and food stores increased, and Soviet tanks and troops arrived to restore order. Some 260 demonstrators, 116 police, and 18 Soviet soldiers died during the fighting. The government executed at least 100 civilians and imprisoned many more after the suppression of the uprising.

 

Between 1949 and 1961 about 2.7 million people left East Germany by way of West Berlin to take advantage of greater economic opportunities and political freedom. In 1961, in order to stop the outward flow of some of its most educated and well-trained citizens, East Germany unexpectedly constructed a barrier of barbed wire and concrete around West Berlin. Berliners woke on the morning of August 13 to discover their city had been cut in two. The East German government severed telephone links between East and West Berlin and halted any border crossing that did not have official approval from the government. All roads came to a dead-end at the wall (except for a few heavily guarded border crossings). The subway system was rerouted into two separate systems.

 

The newly constructed Berlin Wall angered the Western Allies, but they were unwilling to risk a major international confrontation over the issue. During the period between 1961 and 1989, at least 80 East Germans were killed trying to cross over the wall into the West, even though the book we have said 1000 people lost their lives. The book said that there were 5000 reported cases of people safely making their way to West Berlin.

 

 

When the Wall came down

 

Reunification Festivities At midnight on October 3, 1990, East Germany and West Germany officially reunified after 45 years as separate nations. Many thousands of people crowded the streets of Berlin to take part in the festivities.

 

The tensions over a divided Berlin eased toward the end of the 1960s. In 1971 the United States, Britain, France, and the USSR signed an agreement that formally resolved some basic issues. Both East and West agreed to put aside some contentious issues so that they could reach agreements on more pressing concerns. In effect, the USSR conceded that West Berlin’s political and economic ties with West Germany were valid. It also recognized the right of the United States, Britain, and France to station troops in the city. The Western powers agreed to accept that West Berlin was not legally a state of West Germany.

 

In October 1989 East Germany celebrated its 40th anniversary. But even as government officials praised their accomplishments, the country was quietly slipping into revolution. Government reforms were underway in the USSR, which was no longer willing to use military force to support the Communist regime in East Germany. Peaceful demonstrations in East Germany gained support from intellectuals, church leaders, and even some Communist Party leaders, who called for major social and economic reforms. The border with West Berlin remained closed for East Germans until November 1989, when mass demonstrations throughout East Germany forced the government to allow citizens to travel freely.

 

On November 9, 1989, as East Germany verged on collapse, a government spokesman announced during the evening news broadcast that the Berlin Wall was open. Enthusiastic citizens from all over East Germany raced to see for themselves. In spontaneous rallies during the next week they tore down large sections of the Berlin Wall using sledgehammers, ropes, and their bare hands. On October 3, 1990, East and West Germany were officially united, and Berlin became the capital. I know I watched on T.V. just like everyone else, but I still can’t believe all this actually happened. When we were in the Checkpoint Charlie museum, they showed a video of the first people to run through the barricades and enter West Berlin, it is quite moving.

 

Most Germans agreed that Berlin had to be reunited, but how to accomplish this task was far from clear. Between February and June 1990, the East and West German governments and the wartime Allies agreed to a plan for unification in what became known as the Two-Plus-Four talks. On October 3, 1990, East and West Germany were officially united, and Berlin became the capital of a restored German state. French, British, U.S., and Soviet troops formally left Berlin in 1994, marking the end of an occupation that had lasted nearly a half century.

 

Although the German people eagerly embraced reunification, the social and financial costs have been exceptionally high. In 1990 subsidies to Berlin once provided by the East and West German governments ended, forcing the city to make extensive cuts in its operating budget. Public service jobs were trimmed, and the cost of social services increased. Angry postal and construction workers went on strike. Students and teachers protested cuts in education. Large migrations into western Germany and Berlin between 1989 and 1993 by Germans and foreign asylum seekers threatened to destabilize the society.

The city of Berlin has faced many challenges during its reconstruction. First among these were the costs of moving the federal government back to Berlin. Rebuilding eastern Berlin’s infrastructure, including its transportation systems and municipal services, has also been a costly proposition. In addition, high unemployment among residents of both eastern and western Berlin has proved problematic. Some experts estimate that 25 years of effort will be needed to restore Berlin to its pre-1929 status.

 

We are driving to Prague in a day, but we would love to come back here to Berlin. I think 3 weeks would just be enough to get an idea about what this place is all about, so give yourselves enough time because there is tons to see.

 

 

 

Hamburg

 

Hamburg, city in north central Germany, on the Elbe and Alster rivers, near the North Sea. Its full name is the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg. Hamburg is the second busiest seaport in Europe and a major commercial, industrial, and cultural center. Since 1937 the city has been coextensive with, and the capital of, the state of Hamburg (746 sq km/288 sq mi).

Hamburg consists of an old section on the eastern side of the Alster River, a new section on the western side, and several suburbs. The old section, which contains the heart of the commercial district, is crossed by numerous canals. Among the outstanding features of the city are the many bridges spanning the canals; Hamburg has more bridges than Amsterdam and Venice combined (over 2000). Other points of interest are the Köhlbrandbrücke, a long suspension bridge (1975) across an arm of the Elbe; the Inner Alster and the Outer Alster, lakes created by a dam at the mouth of the Alster River; the ancient ramparts, converted into a system of gardens and promenades around the old section; and the Hopfenmarkt, a large public square. Noteworthy historic buildings include the City Hall, an elaborate Renaissance-style structure completed in 1897, and the churches of Saint Peter (begun 12th century), Saint James (13th-15th century), Saint Catherine (14th-15th century), and Saint Michael (late 18th century), noted for its lofty spire. The composers Felix Mendelssohn and Johannes Brahms were born in Hamburg, and the poet and dramatist Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock is buried in the Altona section of the city.

Hamburg is the principal seaport and a major commercial center of Germany. In addition to vast accommodations for handling oceangoing vessels, the port has both rail and inland-waterway connections with much of central Europe. A large fishing fleet is based in Hamburg. The city also has great shipbuilding and repairing yards, as well as industries producing refined petroleum, chemicals, machinery, metal goods, and processed food. It is a major center of printing and publishing.

Hamburg was founded as the fortress of Hammaburg, established by Charlemagne in 808 as a defense outpost. Extending his campaign to gain converts to Christianity, Charlemagne established a church in the vicinity of the fortress in 811. The church soon became a center of Christian civilization in Northern Europe and was subject to frequent attacks by hostile people. Hamburg became an archiepiscopal see in 834, but in 847, two years after the community was sacked by the Norse, the seat of the archbishopric was transferred to nearby Bremen.

Despite destructive raids by the Danes and Slavs, Hamburg endured and, in 1189, received a charter from the Holy Roman Empire. The charter, an award for services rendered during the Third Crusade, granted the city important commercial privileges. Defensive alliances with Lübeck in 1241 and with Bremen in 1249 led to the formation of the Hanseatic League; Hamburg became one of the league's most powerful and wealthy cities. In 1529 Hamburg accepted the Reformation, and the city became a haven for Lutheran, Calvinist, and Jewish refugees of Europe. During the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), the commercial prosperity of the city declined drastically. A brief revival, spurred by the establishment of trade ties with the United States in 1783, was terminated by the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815), during which the city was occupied (1811) by the forces of Napoleon.

Reestablished as a free city after the downfall of Napoleon, Hamburg became a member of the German Confederation in 1815. The city recovered swiftly from the effects of the French occupation and continued to expand despite a destructive fire that lasted four days in 1842 and a cholera epidemic that resulted in 8605 deaths in 1892. A popular uprising in Hamburg in November 1918 heralded the overthrow of the German Empire, and for a short time (1918-1919) the city was constituted as a socialist republic. The towns of Altona, Harburg, and Wandsbek were incorporated into Hamburg in 1938.

As a submarine base and a center of the German war effort during World War II (1939-1945), Hamburg was severely damaged by Allied air raids, and many of its inhabitants were killed. It was rebuilt after the war and by the 1950s was an elegant, thriving metropolis. Population (2001 estimate) 1,715,400.

 

Hamburg, city centre

We have our very dear friends, Ron and Denise, traveling with us for the next 2 weeks and our plan is to hit Hamburg, Berlin, Prague, and maybe Heidelberg. We have spent the last few days in Hamburg enjoying the food, beer and meeting all the wonderful people. We have obviously gotten used to being treated like tourists because we think Germany is one of the friendliest places we have been in Europe. Our friends on the other hand find it a little harder and feel a little uncomfortable. The folks of Hamburg have no problem coming up to you and asking you if they can help when you are looking at a map on the street. A lot of them go out of their way to help you, and that was something we did not find in France or Spain. We feel very safe and really like this country.

Our sightseeing has included all the major sites, most of which we saw from a tour boat and double Decker sight seeing bus.

Tomorrow we leave for Berlin and we are all very excited to see this revived city. I know Berlin is going to very busy, and we will miss the laid back lifestyle of Hamburg.

Hamburg is quite a long drive if you are just passing through the south of Germany, but if you have time I would definitely recommend it.

 

 

Cologne

 

 

We have driven through most of Spain, the upper portion of France and now we’ll tackle Germany. We left Paris and headed to the tiny country of Luxembourg where we were going to crash for the night, only to get there and decide that we should continue on to Germany.

 Our first stop in Germany was Treir, but it was only for a moment because we felt good and weren’t sick of driving so we plowed on to Koln (Cologne).

The one thing that shocks you as soon as you hit Germany is the Autobahn, driving our little Peugeot bread wagon along at 130 km/h and being passed by a Porsche, or was that an Audi? The cars are going by at speeds of over 200 km an hour, so unless you have a very quick eye it is very hard to tell. We made it into the city centre of Koln (Cologne) and started looking for our hotel. The city is very busy and quite old so navigation and driving was a tad confusing. When we found our hotel it was right in the centre of town.  It was just after 9pm so we decided it might be best to just grab some food in the lobby and hit the sack. The next day we did our usual 10 mile walk and bought some food and got a new simm card for our cell phone and just walked the city until we could not walk any longer. Koln (Cologne) is very beautiful, busy and full of café’s and restaurants. There are trams running up and down the streets and bumper to bumper cars. We loved it!

We were pleasantly surprised how nice the people in Germany are, and most speak some English so life is a little easier than in France and Spain.  When we stopped to ask for directions we were helped by someone who was smiling and doing there best to speak English. I kind of feel a little guilty being here and not being able to speak German, but no one here seems to mind that much.

The Dom Cathedral is one landmark that is a must-see when visiting Koln, and we managed to visit it on the second day. This church survived WW II and that is quite remarkable considering that the city was completely leveled during the war. As you get close to the Dom you will notice many steeples and the changing roof tops of this massive structure. When you enter the cathedral, the first thing you notice is the beautiful stain glass windows that are 60 – 90 feet above you.

Of course the streets and squares that surround the church are packed with people just out for a stroll or heading to their favorite pub or restaurant.

 

(Posted on Aug 5, written by Helen)

Finally I am able to sit down and write about our travels through Germany.  We are in Belgium right now and Steve has been hounding me to write about Germany before I forget about it.  Well, I don’t think I will forget.  We had such an excellent time there.  When I look back it really was a great country to spend all that time in.   We were there for over a month and it was great no matter which area we went to.

 

From EuroDisney we drove through Luxembourg and into Germany and right away we could see a difference between France and Germany.  We saw the little Bavarian houses with the flower boxes outside each window and the cute little white shudders.  I could almost hear the “oom-pa-pa”music playing in the background.  I use to work in a German deli many years ago and I was so excited to eat all of their delicious foods. And eat I did!  I gained a lot of weight in Germany and that is probably the only negative thing I can say about it.  All that sausage and sauerkraut!  I was in heaven!  Oh, and all that great German beer.  I’m not a huge beer drinker but how can you go to Germany and not drink beer.  And their beers only come in these huge glasses or these massive steins.  The dark beer is the best and I didn’t find out until it was too late that dark beer is even more fattening than light.  Oh well, it was worth it (sort of).  To finish off with the food section we also ate a lot of potato salad with the sausages.  It is warm potato salad with an oil and vinegar dressing and lots of salt.  You also get a big basket of pretzels with your meal and the funny part about that is that when the waiter brings your basket of pretzels he just takes it off the table of the last customer.  So those people probably handled the pretzels as they picked which one they wanted and when they were done the waiter brings it over to your table.  Very bizarre.  I was very surprised that Steve (the germ-a-phobic) ate them, but he did!

 

The other thing you notice about Germany is that everyone drives a beautiful new car.  You hardly ever see an older car and they all drive either a Mercedes, a BMW or an Audi.  And they all drive really, really fast.  Sometimes as we were driving along a car would pass us so quickly that we could hardly make out the type of car it was.  We would be flying along in our little bread truck at a healthy speed of 130 km/h and the cars would make us look like we were crawling.  But in that month we did not come across one accident and we did a lot of driving.  It’s smart what they do.  They have the one left hand lane for the fast drivers and the two right hand lanes for the slower ones.  The other smart thing they do is that when there is construction on the road or heavy traffic coming up they all put on their hazard lights as they slow down to warn the cars behind them.  It works really well.

 

 

Our first stop was Cologne and it was a great city to start with because it wasn’t too big or too small and we were able to slowly get a handle on the language barrier.  We have noticed that we seem to catch on a little faster with the more places we visit.  You learn the basics very quick.  Like… Hello, Thanks, Please, Toilet, Ladies, Men’s, etc.  We also noticed that when you ask them if they speak English they say, “a little” and then all of a sudden they are able to explain directions perfectly.  It really is such a shame that we only know one language fluently when the rest of the world knows at least two.

 

 We stayed at a really nice Crowne Plaza that was conveniently located across the street from a laundry mat so we were able to get most of our laundry done.  We strolled the streets of Cologne and again it is a beautiful old city with a massive church, called The Dom, at its center.  This church, however, was the biggest, most amazing looking one we have seen.  It is black (from grime) and very Gothic and looks like it was fresh out of a scene of the Lords of the Ring trilogy.  I don’t have the facts with me but I know that it is one of the tallest in Europe and it really is staggering when you stand beside it and look up.  We got a postcard showing the church just after the war ended and it is the only thing left standing around a devastated city. It is amazing!

 

We also headed out one day to find a huge spa that was located on the other side of the river.  We walked for miles that day and it was so beautiful.  We walked through a huge park that was covered in big fields of grass and it was so nice to see family’s out playing soccer and having bar-b-ques.  Again, it reminded us of home.  A little like Stanley Park because this park was located right on the shores of the river.  They also had a spot that was filled with fine white sand right in the middle of the park.  It was hilarious because you had to pay to get in and they had beach chairs lined up and it was filled with teenagers as if they were sitting on a beach in Hawaii.  We found the spa but decided not to go in because the kids preferred to go back to the park and play on the playground.  We also took a miniature train ride around the whole park, it was cute.

 

From Cologne we headed to Frankfurt to pick up our dear friends Ron and Denise who were coming in from Vancouver to spend two weeks with us.  We were very excited because it had been a long time since anyone had come to see us from home.  My sister and her sons came to Spain in April.  We were also a little nervous because we wanted them to have a really good time because they were coming a long way (9 hour flight) for a short time.  Steve and I argued about what to do.  I thought they wanted to go somewhere hot like Venice or Greece and Steve said they wanted to see big cities.  So we saw big cities and it actually turned out really good.  Since we’re experts, we know that it’s hard to spend everyday with the same people so we were a little worried that our friends would get sick of us or get irritated with our two little kids. But we got along so well and we had such a great time with them it was really hard to see them go.  They are both so easy-going and we seemed to agree easily about where to go and what to see.  We laughed a lot, and ate a lot, and drank A LOT, and it solidified the fact that they are very special people that we hold dear to our hearts. 

 

When we squeezed everyone and all the luggage into our little truck we headed out to Hamburg for our first stop.  Hamburg is a very pretty city as it is situated on a large lake with many intercepting canals.  We stayed at the Crowne Plaza there and it was located just a short walk from the lake.  Our first day of sightseeing was a very overcast day but it was so hot and muggy I really thought I was going to melt.  There was not even a trace of a breeze blowing and my clothes stuck to me like glue.  It made me very sleepy and I hardly dragged my butt around the city.  Thank goodness we went on a boat tour and once it gathered speed we finally had some wind.  Everyone really liked Hamburg and I did too but it didn’t thrill me.  Other than the lake I didn’t find anything about it that spectacular.  That’s just my opinion though.

 

The next day we had dinner at a beer garden that was specially set up by residents of Southern Germany in order for them to show and share their food and beer that is specific to their region.  It was really great because they had row upon row of tents set up with long tables and benches set up and the place was packed.  There were a bunch of little huts that you could choose your food and wine/beer from and then you would sit and eat and listen to German folk music.  They had the full costumes on and they played the accordion and sang German songs.  It was very authentic and very packed full of people.  We laughed a lot that night because Ron was getting roughed up with everything he did.  He ordered food from one hut and sat in the seating area of another hut and the waiter gave him a bit of a hard time.  Then, because the tables were so close together, when the people behind him sat down, the one guy was so close to Ron, their backs were touching.  No matter what he did, the poor guy couldn’t catch a break, it was all very funny!  

 

 

After spending a few days there we squished everyone and all of our luggage into our little bread truck and headed to Berlin.  Poor Ron volunteered to sit in the back seat and had a mountain of luggage piled beside him.  He swore that he was comfortable but I highly doubt it.  Again, our road trip seemed to just fly by and with their wonderful company we made it to Berlin in no time. 

Berlin is a huge city and it was certainly a lot ‘prettier’ then I imagined.  It was amazing as we drove along to our hotel, the contrast between the new and the old.  Some parts of the city were all newer buildings and some parts had a combination of both, others had just older, heritage buildings.  Again, the history here is mind-boggling and we were eager to get to our hotel and start touring!

We got to the Crowne Plaza right in the city centre and were extremely disappointed with our rooms.  When Steve booked through Priority Club they told him we would have two double beds in each room.  Well, when we walked into the room there were two single beds.  They did end up setting up a cot in our bedroom but the next morning the cot was removed and we were told that we could not have four people in one room.  Well, I kind of lost it and went storming down to complain.  This is something I NEVER do and afterwards I realized why.  I felt lousy and it is definitely not worth it.  They did bring back the cot and they did apologize for the miscommunication but they were very rude to us for the rest of our stay.  We have had nothing but great experiences with both the Holiday Inn and the Crowne Plaza but there’s always one stinker in every group.  We had hoped that they would have given us a different room with bigger beds BUT, what we didn’t realize when we booked was that the city was hosting one of the biggest gay parades in the world that same weekend and 500,000 people were in the city at the same time as us.  Ha Ha!

We contemplated whether we should take the kids to the parade and decided to do it.   They have seen so much on this trip, why not a gay parade as well.  It was actually quite hilarious, outrageous, extravagant and once or twice a little sick.  But we didn’t watch for too long and right afterwards it started raining so Denise and I (and Ron) went shopping!

 

The next day we hopped on one of those double decker city tour buses and it took us all around Berlin.  When we got to the site of the Berlin Wall, we got off and walked up to the section that they have left standing.  It is quite remarkable when you stand on the East Berlin side and stare at that wall and consider what happened not that long ago.  The wall itself is not as tall as we would have guessed it to be.  When I saw the site of the twin towers in New York in December I told Steve that it probably would have impacted me a lot more if I had actually seen the towers before that fateful day.  I felt the same way about the wall.  I’ve talked to a few people that actually saw the wall and drove through it on occasion for business when it was still there.  To see what it was like then with all the guards and search lights and barbed wire and guard dogs and to see it today must be a remarkable feeling. 

The history behind the wall is documented on the western side of the wall and it has become quite a touristy place because there are merchants selling pieces of the wall in little plastic bags. 

From there we walked over to Checkpoint Charlie which was the U.S. part of Berlin and was named Charlie because it was checkpoint C.  For example, checkpoint A was called Checkpoint Alpha, b was Checkpoint Beta and so forth.  This area is also full of tourists and there is a great museum there that is a must-see.  It has pictures and documentation of the full history of the wall from before it was built to the day it came down.  The stories cover everything from attempted crossings, both successful and unsuccessful, to the stories of some of the guards that had to defend it’s border.  It was very interesting and quite disturbing. 

Outside the museum and half way down the street was an area of gravel on both sides of the street that had rows of crosses that each stood about seven feet.  On each cross was the picture of each victim of the wall with the date and area where they died while trying to cross.  The ironic part is that about three weeks after we left from there Ron had e-mailed us to tell us that he had read in the Vancouver newspaper that the city had taken all those crosses down.  We were quite surprised and still haven’t figured out the exact reason for that.

There was a lot of Berlin we did not see and that is one thing that we are noticing during our travels.  You need A LOT of time to really appreciate and truly uncover the secrets and beauties of a city with tons of history.  We just don’t have enough time and we seem to just scratch the surface of some of these amazing cities.  I guess the idea is to see a little of everything and if we want we can come back one day to the ones that interest us the most.  Berlin would definitely be one!

 

From Berlin we decided to be a bit adventurous and see Prague in the Czech Republic.  Many people that we have met have told us that it is a must-see.  So we packed up again and headed East toward our next destination with no idea what to expect.  When we got to the border it was the first time in our travels through Europe where we actually had to stop at a border crossing and show our passports.  When we drove up they asked for our passports, took them and told us to pull over and wait on the side of the road.  Well, we did that and waited for quite a while.  We were getting a little nervous when finally a guard came out, handed the passports back to Steve, smiled and walked away.  That was it.  Off we went.

As we drove into the country we started to notice that every kilometer or so there would be a little shack on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere because it was all wilderness here.  These shacks had at least two or three women sitting or standing in front of them.  At first we thought they were just roadside shops or something until we started noticing that the women were half naked and they were waving at all the cars and trucks going by.  It quickly dawned on us that they were actually prostitutes.  It was quite sad to see this and it certainly wasn’t a great first impression of this country we came to see.  We learned later that most of them are from Romania and Russia and that this started just after the fall of communism.  Interesting.

 

 

Austria

(by Helen)

 

 

 

 

I’m sitting here in our hotel room in Austria and it’s about midnight.  The window to our room is wide open because this hotel doesn’t have any air conditioning????  I just looked out the window and it is raining quite steadily.   In the distance I can see the illuminated clock face on the steeple of a 500-year old church.  Every hour I can hear the chimes announcing the passing of another hour.  Our window faces the side of a mountain and all along the base of this mountain and half way up are cute little ‘Bavarian-type’ houses.  When I look down from our window I look upon one of many little cafes that line the streets wherever you go.  We had quite a storm pass through here today and it was so cool to sit in our room with the window wide open while we listened to the booming sounds of thunder and watched the rain come pouring down.  Only an hour earlier we were on a gondola heading up to one tiny part of the Austrian Alps.  Thank goodness we came down when we did or else we may still have been stuck up there.

As soon as we drove across the border from Germany into Austria it was so evident that we were in another country.  As soon as you cross the border you head into a very long tunnel; I’m talking around 8 km.  When you finally drive out of the tunnel you see this amazing landscape of rolling green hills and huge mountains.  The most striking feature of these massive mountains is that they are covered in grass; almost like they are wrapped with green fur.  It is so different from the mountains I am use to in B.C.  They really do look like the ones you see in the movie “The Sound of Music”.  They are spectacular!

 

 

Before traveling to all these wonderful countries I’ve always had visions in my mind about what I expected the places to look like and most of the time I was wrong.  This time, however, I was right on.  Austria is this clean, fresh lovely country that is filled with lush green hills and mountains and it seems like each cute little house has white shudders on every, along with window boxes filled with colourful flowers.  The people we have met so far are so happy and friendly and it has a very comfortable, homey feel to it. 

As I said earlier we went up a gondola to the top of a mountain where we had lunch and the kids got to play on the playground beside the restaurant.  While we were sitting there admiring the fabulous view waiting for our food we noticed quite a few elderly folks coming in and sitting down.  They were all kind of dressed alike as they all wore shorts and they had hiking boots on and all of them had walking sticks that looked like ski poles in each hand.  We realized that this mountain is very popular with the locals because of its great hiking trails and all these folks were the locals that had finished their hike and were now coming in for their lunch.  And beer, I might add.  It was so great to see, as they were all in their 70’s and 80’s and they looked so fit and healthy.  I said to Steve that I could just imagine them a few years ago dressed in their shorts but with the cute little suspenders and the feathered caps as well.  Just as I said this, one of the men came in with that exact outfit on and we both starting laughing.  I said to Nikolas that I wouldn’t be surprised if one of them started yodeling but they didn’t.  That’s Swiss anyway isn’t it?  Our food came and it was delicious.  I had goulash that came with something that I’m not quite sure what it is.  It looks like a cross between pasta and egg and it comes in little clumps.  Sounds gross but it was quite good when it was smothered in with the goulash.  Steve had wiener schnitzel and was not too happy because he realized that it was veal and Steve does not eat veal.  But he ate it anyways.  The kids had soup made with beef broth with shreds of crepe mixed inside and they shared a couple of frankfurters and French fries.  The weather was so hot that even sitting on the top of this mountain under huge sun umbrellas we were scorching hot.  We hopped back on the gondola and enjoyed the ride back down the mountain, all the while, enjoying the breathtaking views. 

Just to backtrack a bit…. as we drove to the mountain we drove through Liechtenstein and Switzerland.  This little town we found in Austria called Feldrich is located right on the border of Germany (kind of), Austria, Liechtenstein and Switzerland.  It is so cool as you drive along because you come across signs that have three countries listed on one sign and each point in a different direction.  The borders are open and a guard just stands there and waves you through.  We had our passports all ready but they never even looked at us.  We must blend in already.  The only clear give-a-way is the CDN sticker Steve put on the back of our car.   Here in Europe every car has a sticker that has a letter indicating which country they are from.  Even their license plates have the EU emblem on the left hand side with the appropriate letter designating their country.  D is for Germany, A is for Austria, CH is for Switzerland, E is for Spain, F for France, etc.  It’s fun when we are driving to see all the different letters showing us where they are all from.

Oh, there’s the bell again.  It only rang once, must be 1am.  It really is quite a haunting, spine-tingling sound.  Especially when you’re the only one up and the town looks deserted out there.

As crazy as this sounds, we just don’t have enough time.  One year sounds like a long time but to see the world properly you need way longer.  We have to leave Austria tomorrow and head back up to Frankfurt to pick up my mom.  We are all so excited to see her, especially the kids.  But spending one day in Austria is just nuts and I wish we could come back and see the rest of this amazing country.  I mean really, we have seen just a tiny speck of it and I would love to see Vienna and Salzburg.  Oh well, maybe next time!

This was a great idea to come here from Nurnburg in Germany.  Our wonderful friends Ron and Denise spent two fantastic weeks with us in Germany.  They left yesterday and we decided to get out of that city so that we wouldn’t get too depressed.  It’s really hard when we meet up with people we know.  We get very down when they leave, like my sister and her boys when they came to Spain.  I guess we really are quite lonely and when we have people with us it is such a treat.  But when they go home it is such a downer.  The best thing to do is to pack up and move on.  So that’s what we did and it was a great idea!  My list of favourites is getting a little crazy but I have to add Austria to it for sure!    

 

 

PRAGUE

 Czech Republic

 

 

 

(Written by Steve June 30, 05)

Yehaa! We made it to Prague and back alive! Why do I say that you ask?

There was a “CNN Factor” that put us on alert about traveling through this wonderful country. We were told and read about how tourists are being roughed up and are targets for thieves. As our tour guide said “That’s capitalism for you.”

Anyways, here’s how it went…

 

We left Berlin about 11am and headed out towards the Czech Republic. You know it was not until we were within about 30 km from the Czech border that I began to wonder if we needed a Visa. I read about most of the European countries we might visit and could not remember what the rule was on this country. Our friend Denise looked it up in Fodor’s and it said we could enter without a visa and stay for up to 6 months.

The drive though the lower part of East Germany was really beautiful and even though it took us all of 7 hours to make the trip, the scenery was fantastic. The one thing that is a real pain about Germany is all the detours they have. One minute we are flying down the Autobahn at around 130/h and then all of a sudden we have to exit and then we can’t seem to find our way back onto the freeway again. I am not sure why, but Germany is working on almost every freeway we drive.  Maybe it’s for the World Cup in 2006.

We did eventually make it to the border but then had to wait quite awhile to get our passports stamped.  In the end it went off without a hitch.

 

Prague (population, 1,200,000) is the capital and largest city of the Czech Republic. Other important cities include Brno (379,185), an educational and industrial center; Ostrava (319,293), a center for metallurgical industries; Plzeň (166,274), noted for its breweries; and Olomouc (103,293), a trade and industrial center. We only saw the capital city when we were there because we have to make our way back to Frankfurt to get our friends Ron and Denise to the airport in 5 days.

 

The official language in the Czech Republic is Czech, a language of the West Slavic subgroup of Slavic languages. Moravians speak a form of Czech that differs slightly from the form spoken in Bohemia. Slovaks speak Slovak, a language closely related to Czech. Members of other ethnic groups generally speak Czech in addition to their own native languages. Jiri (our tour guide) told us that Czech Republic was part of Bohemia and that the people are very different from the people of Slovakia. He also told us that since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the separation, the Slovakian economy has fallen to about 30% lower than the Czech economy.

 Back in 2002 Prague and the Czech Republic had massive flooding and it damaged most of the city and outline areas, but we saw no signs of any damage when we were there.

 

 

As mentioned before, we took a tour with a gent named Jiri who used to live and raised his family in Portland, Oregon. He took us and another couple from Brazil on a 3 hour tour throughout the city.  It was awesome. We hit all the highlights with him and then went back into the old city that evening to soak up some more of this wonderful culture. If you come here you will need at least 5 days, and if you love architecture then you might want to stay for a couple of weeks.

 

The principal religion of the Czech Republic is Christianity. Approximately 40 percent of the population is Roman Catholic. Protestant denominations account for about 3 percent of the population. Jiri, our tour guide, said that 95% of the population have Catholicism on their passports under religion but 80% of them are actually atheists.  He told us that the Jesuits forced them into religion, so now everyone rebels against it. Every little town we went through had at least one church steeple poking out of the skyline.

 

Prior to World War II (1939-1945), the country had a large Jewish population. Most of the Jews died in the Holocaust, the Nazi campaign to exterminate the Jews of Europe. There are currently between 15,000 and 18,000 Jews living in the Czech Republic; the Jewish population is centered in Prague.

 

 

During the Communist period, living standards in Czechoslovakia were among the highest in the Communist world. The reintroduction of a market economy in the early 1990s led to a decline in living standards. However, the economy has begun to recover, and most people in the Czech Republic live comfortably. Czech households typically have refrigerators, washing machines, automobiles, and televisions. Some families have a summer or weekend cottage. I have to be honest, when we first drove into this country we were greeted by a mile of Brothels and women waving and dancing along the streets. Our tour guide (Jiri again) told us that prostitution runs rampant with capitalism and these prostitutes are not from the Czech Republic. They come from Russia, Hungry and Bulgaria, and the police can’t handle or won’t handle the problem. It was quite sad to see, and it was a little shocking because it is the first thing we saw when we came into the country. Of course seeing all these women on the streets dressed for ??? gets Nikolas asking more questions about what these women are doing. Helen and I are always honest and try to talk freely with our son but we gave him a very basic answer and did not go into great detail.  We told him he wasn’t ready for that information yet and he was quite content with that.   Man, last week it was the Gay parade and now it’s Prostitution. We got through it and I hope he (Nikolas) can deal with what we discussed and not put too much thought into it. I know the kid is only 9 years old, but we have to be somewhat honest even when we really don’t want to talk about it.

 

There is currently a serious housing shortage in the Czech Republic. Most urban dwellers live in crowded apartments. Many live in high-rises that were poorly constructed. This is most likely the poorest country we been to in all of Europe. The roads, Buses and Trains remind me of when I drove through Bosnia and Serbia a few years back.

 

Pork is a staple in the Czech diet, which resembles that of Germany. Pickled cabbage and sliced, boiled dumplings called knedlíky are eaten frequently. Open-face sandwiches and frankfurters are often served at snack bars, last night I had a Deer steak and it was fantastic. Czech beer is known throughout the world and is very tasty too.

 

 

The Czech Republic suffers from many of the problems typical of advanced industrial societies. Crime has increased since 1989, and many other problems that were suppressed under Communism, such as prostitution, drug abuse, alcoholism, and juvenile delinquency have worsened as well. New problems have also emerged since the collapse of the Communist government, including corruption, organized crime, money laundering (transferring illegally obtained income through an outside party to conceal its true source), smuggling, and the development of an illegal arms trade. Discrimination against women has become more open. We have read about the rules in this City and we were very careful.  All in all we had no problems.

 

Relations among Czechs and Slovaks living in the Czech Republic are generally friendly.

Illegal immigration and the influx of refugees have troubled the Czech Republic since the end of Communist rule and the breakup of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Approximately 250,000 refugees, principally from the former Yugoslavia and parts of the former USSR, have passed through the Czech Republic annually in recent years en route to the more economically and politically stable countries of the West, including Germany.  

 

We are heading to Nurnberg tomorrow so this is our last full day in Prague. After spending most of the day in the old city, I am so glad we came and were able to see this fantastic city. We were very fortunate to see the city with a great guide. Jiri spoke great English and was very knowledgeable about his country and he knows all about the architecture, art, the people and where to and not to go. That’s what you need when you come to see a big city in just a few days; someone to show you the most interesting parts when you are on a limited time schedule.

Nikolas was a little too nervous to enjoy himself.  Seeing the street gals and being told how dangerous Prague was, did not help matters for him. We, on the other hand, really loved it and would highly recommend you ‘Czech’ this place out!

 

                                                      

 

SWEDEN  - received July 28

 

 

(Written by Steve July 24th, 2005)

 

 Sweden: A nation of tall, attractive types, famously open minded. This country is full of athletic folk, living on the edge of technology and well cared for by the state, spending their long summer days eating meatballs and listening to Abba (O.K. the last bit I took from the Lonely Planet and it might be taking it just a bit too far).

Hey, don’t get me wrong, the folks here are pretty darn good looking but we were expecting that. Take the police for example; every police car has the standard 2 officers, one guy and one gal. The guy is like some kind of WWF, 6’5” chiseled god-like creature and all the women seem to be all around 6 feet with steel blue eyes and long blonde hair. Let’s just say they both look like something from the Barbie collection, except for the Glock they have strapped to their waist.  They are very blonde and very blue eyed, and the rest of the world does not seem to have many people with both of those (natural) features.

We did our usual big city sightseeing in Stockholm, we took a hop-on hop-off tour bus around the city. The old city was like many European old towns, but without all the people. We love this city; it is so hip and beautiful that if you are coming to Scandinavia you must see it. The city lies on the Baltic Sea and if you look really hard across the water you can see Finland and Latvia?. O.K. not quite, but it is only one long ferry ride away. If we had more time we would have done it for sure.

 

Facts: Capital = Stockholm, Population = 9 million, Area 449,964 sq km, language is Swedish of course, Currency = Krona, National bird = mosquito (Just kidding) but there are some monster bugs up here.

Some other wonderful things this country has to offer are their 28 national parks, 28000kms of trekking and bike paths and ten royal castles. The Castle in the old city is where the king lives and we were told it was a must see, but we felt it was a tad over-rated. The old city on the other hand was fantastic! Narrow streets, tons of restaurants and Café’s and fully loaded with people. We have been to so many large cities in the last few months maybe we are a little tired or just a bit spoiled because we could only handle a couple of days in this city. We are glad we saw Stockholm, but all four of us would rather be back in Sundsvall if given only one choice, we really miss that great farm.

 

(Written on Day 2, July 17 2005)

So having said that, here we are; driving over 2000 km in less than 3 days and yesterday we drove 1145 km from the border, but it was soooooooooo worth it. We are staying at Anders and Gunilla’s House, actually a small 2 bedroom cottage in the back of their farm. We are 10 minutes outside of Sundsvall, 400 km above Stockholm and about 20 miles (Swedish ones) from Peter Forsberg’s home town. We are also only 10 km from the Swedish Hockey team Modo, if any of you hockey fans have heard of them.

 

The extreme distance from north to south in Sweden is about 1,575 km (about 980 mi), and from east to west about 500 km (about 310 mi). The coastline totals about 3,220 km (about 2,000 mi) in length. Sweden may be divided into six topographical regions. In the northwestern section are extensions of the Kjølen Mountains, which form part of the boundary with Norway. The highest point in the range, and the highest point in Sweden, is atop Mount Kebnekaise (2,111 m/6,926 ft).

 

The climate of northern Sweden is considerably more severe than that of the south primarily because it has higher elevations and because the mountains cut off the moderating marine influence. The average temperature in February, the coldest month, is below freezing throughout Sweden, with an average temperature range in Stockholm of -5° to -1°C (22° to 30°F). In July, the warmest month, the average temperature range is 13° to 22°C (56° to 71°F) in Stockholm The proportion of daylight hours increases in the summer and decreases in the winter as the latitude becomes more northerly. In the one-seventh of Sweden above the Arctic Circle, daylight is continuous for about two months in the summer, and continuous darkness occurs for about two months in the winter. Where we are right now in Sundsval, it does not get dark. At about 8 pm it starts to get just a little dark, but actually it stays light out all night and the sun comes out around 6 am.

 

 

Precipitation is relatively low throughout Sweden except for on the higher mountain slopes. In Stockholm the average annual precipitation is 540 mm (21 in); in Göteborg it is 790 mm (31 in). Rainfall is heaviest in the southwest and in the mountains along the Norwegian border. Most rain falls in the late summer. Heavy snows are common in central and northern Sweden. The first day we arrived (the 1145 km day) it just poured and we even had to slow down on the highway because there was so much water I was afraid our little bread wagon was going to hydro plane.

This country is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, and made up of really special people. I say this because on our way up to Sundsval we tried several times to find a bank machine that would take our bank card, but we had no luck. We were low on fuel and needed to phone our friends so we pulled into a gas station about 100 km before Stockholm. We got gas and asked if we could try our bank card, and again it would not work and we had to use our credit card. The gal at the station was closing up but stayed to allow us to use the phone. Helen asked if we could use our credit card to pay for some water and snacks and the gal said she had shut down the cash register and was now closed. She then said,” it is no problem, just take what you need”, and she would not charge us, we did not take anything, but her offer was very nice. We have met several other incredible people since we have arrived here, and so far do not want to leave. This country is a place where you would go in a fairy tale to live happily ever after. We love it!

 

 

 

I will have more to say in a few days but the internet does not exist out here in this beautiful land and you know, it is kind of nice without it. We will be heading back to London in a week so we will just soak up what we can here before we have to choke on all that technology again.

 

 

By: Helen

 

Our trip through Germany was fantastic.  As we were driving into Northern Germany towards Sweden we were reminiscing about all the wonderful memories and experiences and we were remarking how everything went so smoothly while we were there.  As we were talking I looked down at my leg and noticed something sticking out right below my left knee.  I thought it was a piece of wood or a skin tag and tried to yank it out but it wouldn’t come off.  It was the size of a large grain of rice but it was black.  As I looked closer I noticed that this “thing” was sticking out completely perpendicular to my leg and upon closer observation I noticed that it had LEGS!!!!!  I had a tick in my leg!  It was sitting there with its head burrowed into my leg and its body sticking out.  It was so shocking, I started laughing.  Then, of course, my mind went to work and all the horrible diseases that I vaguely remember reading about that are associated with ticks came crashing through my brain.  Lymme Disease, arthritis, encephalitis.  And then wasn’t there something about being very careful when you take them out; not to leave the head inside.  Needless to say I kind of panicked and told Steve to take me to a doctor or a hospital right away.  But where?  We stopped at a pharmacy but they were closed so Steve asked at a gas station and they directed us to the local hospital.  We had no idea where to go because the signs were all in German so we just started walking around and soon saw a lady and I asked her where I could go with my problem.  She was very nice as I could tell that she was on her way to her break because she had a lighter and a cigarette in her hand.  But she was kind enough to actually walk us all the way to the emergency department and it was a very long walk.  We thanked her profusely and she handed us over to another nice lady who took all my info and then brought me to the nurse’s station and explained my dilemma to them.  Fortunately they didn’t laugh too loud and they were very nice and told me not to be embarrassed because a tick can be a very serious thing.  I still felt very silly coming to Emerg for something so small but they brought me into a big room and the RN took it out with some tweezers.  She showed me the head and by now the body of the tick was like a balloon as it was full of MY blood.  The doctor, who looked about 20 years old, came in, looked at the bug, looked at my leg and told me all the symptoms I was to look out for in the next few months.  He said that they have lots of ticks in Germany but Sweden has even more.  Oh great, that’s where we were headed!  He told me that I will most likely be just fine but he made me aware of the symptoms so that if they arise I am to go to the doctor immediately for a blood test and antibiotics. They asked about our trip, typed me out a letter and sent us on our way.  Being the hypochondriac that I am I, of course, started to experience each and every one of the symptoms the doctor told me about.  After a few hours I was able to calm myself down and all the symptoms disappeared!  Oh the mind is a powerful thing! So that was my last memories of Germany and that’s too bad because I had such a great time there.  I will write more about Germany later as Steve has asked me for the tenth time to write something about Sweden so I will come back and write about Germany later.

 

Sweden

 

This is one country that I always wanted to see.  It is a place that, for some reason, I thought I would really like.  Steve had kept in contact with our friends Cecilia and Houtan from the QEII and we found out that they were going to be home in Sweden in July.

 

 It was a long way to go but we really wanted to see Sweden and more importantly we really wanted to see Cecilia and Houtan again.  We decided to head out and try our best to make it all the way to where they lived which is half way up this very large country.  We drove from Dortmund in Germany and couldn’t decide which way to go.  We had two options.  One was a bridge which linked Denmark and Sweden and the other was a ferry that linked Germany and Sweden.  The bridge of course would be more driving but we had no idea where or how to catch a ferry.  We had stopped at the airport in Hamburg to ask a question about something else when Steve decided to ask the guy at a rental car desk about ferries.  It just so happens that the guy’s mom lives in Sweden and she takes the ferry very regularly so he gave Steve all this valuable information.  We drove to the city that he told us to and found the ferry terminal and waited in a line to get to the booth only to find out that the ferry was totally booked today and the next.  It was the weekend and most people book well in advance.  The lady said that we could drive through and turn around and try and lift one of the barricades to let ourselves out because there was a huge line-up of cars behind us and we couldn’t back out.  Well, the barricade would not lift up and when Steve went walking up to the booth the lady told us to wait for a few minutes to see if we could get on.  Well, we ended up waiting for two hours and at the last minute she told us that she had one cabin left and that we could get on the ferry.  I was a little leery and very tired because it was now after 9 pm and I kept thinking about our B.C. Ferries at home and envisioning this very uncomfortable 7 hour journey.  Well!  What a surprise.  The ship was beautiful.  It looked like a mini cruise ship.  It had two floors of sleeping cabins and the main floor had a beautiful bar/lounge, a cinema, a duty free shop, a kid’s area and a huge buffet restaurant.  We were starving so we went for dinner and all your drinks are included in the price.  It was delicious.  Then we went to our cabin and it was perfect.  Two sets of bunks beds, a small desk and a small bathroom with a shower.  We showered, fell into bed and had a great sleep while the ship did the driving for Steve.  It was so smooth it felt like we were in a hotel.  Now that’s my kind of cruise!

We woke up the next morning to a wake-up call at 6:30am and went for breakfast and were off the ferry by 8am.  Highly recommended!

We drove into Sweden and noticed right away that there are Volvo’s everywhere.  Even their police cars.  The other thing we noticed is that there really are a lot of blondes in this country.  They are so blond that some of them look white.  The countryside was quite flat with rolling hills and clumps of evergreens everywhere and either a river, lake or part of the ocean around every corner.  It was beautiful.  As we drove along we noticed that unlike Germany there are very few little towns and cities along the way.  We pretty much drove through wilderness until we came to Stockholm.  We didn’t stop so we will talk more about Stockholm when and if we stop there on our way back down.

We drove for twelve hours with only a couple of short stops and everywhere we did stop the people were very, very friendly and they all spoke English very well.  We drove through some major rainstorms and some blue, sunny skies and finally made it to Sundsvall and waited for Houtan and Cecilia to come and get us.

They brought us to Cecilia’s parent’s farm and when we arrived her parents were waiting for us with smiles and handshakes.  They are such warm and wonderful people and we felt instantly comfortable and welcome in their home.  They live on the edge of a breathtaking valley and are surrounded by wilderness and farmland.  They live in a house that Cecilia’s father was born in and they were gracious enough to give us their grandmother’s cottage for us to stay in.  She use to live in it when she was still alive and it is about 10 metres from the main house.  Our little cottage is absolutely perfect.  It has two bedrooms with four beds, a bathroom with a shower, and a big bright kitchen with stove, fridge and microwave.  In one corner of the kitchen is this huge stone oven that they use to bake breads and cakes in a long time ago.  It doesn’t work anymore but it sure looks great.  We keep saying that it would be great to bake a pizza in. The cottage is so cute with its wooden windows and doors with pretty little white curtains hanging a quarter of the way down.  We are truly living in a little spot of paradise here and I understand now why Naslund wants to move back here from Vancouver!

We had picked up some pizzas on our way back so we all sat at the big wooden kitchen table and had dinner with Cecilia, Houtan and Cecilia’s mom and dad.  We had lots of wine and her parents speak a little English and we had a great first night with these incredibly wonderful people.

That night we went to bed and it was so strange because it was sooo quiet and it doesn’t get completely dark here as it is so far north.  We had a great sleep and got up the next morning to fresh country air and the kids got to pet this amazing brown horse.  It was so great to see the kids running around outside in the fresh air.  They have cats and the kids love petting them and it has just been so lovely and peaceful here.  We spent the day touring around the countryside going to the river and lake.  Nik went fishing in the river and Danika and Cecilia picked wild berries that I have never seen or eaten before.  They are so tasty and they smell fantastic.  They are about the size of a cherry pit and they look somewhat like tiny strawberries but they have a very different taste.  Danika and Nik loved them.  Cecilia taught them to string them on a piece of tall grass and eat them like they were candy necklaces.  Her dad also told us some of the history of the area as he was showing us around.  The area reminds us of home so much with all the beautiful lakes and rivers.  It resembles the Caribou country back home.  Maybe that’s why we love it here so much.  It reminds us of home!

Last night we played Texas Hold’em Poker until one in the morning and we had so much fun.  I totally suck at that game (bad poker face) but I ended up in the final two.  Me and Houtan and I think I won!  Casino !

 

Norway

 

Oslo- received July 28

 

 

There was a young couple from Oslo who packed up everything they owned and moved to a small Island named Quadra Island, off the coast of British Columbia back in the early 1900’s. They moved to Canada and this little Island to find a better life, and raise there children in a similar environment as their homeland. That young couple were my Grandparents.

My mother passed away ten years ago and she had told me many stories of growing up on Quadra Island and always compared it to Norway, so it was a place I really wanted to see.

We spent almost 8 hours in the car driving from Stockholm to get to Oslo and it was one of the toughest drives we have done in the last few months. The kids were impossible, and they just kept pushing the big buttons on our back until we exploded. We had one of those family blow outs when you stop the car and rant and rave and then feel guilty for everything you just said. We are allowed to have a break down every once and while, even though I don’t think it is real healthy.

 

 

So having said that, we were pulling into Oslo and were so excited to see some of our heritage and just get the heck out of the car.

Oslo is a beautiful port city with the nicest harbours I think I have ever seen. The city itself has also some of the nicest buildings, and at night they are all lit up, it looks spectacular. The transit system is wonderful, buses and ferries look very modern and the architecture is spectacular. So those are the good points.

Like I said, we were so looking forward to getting out of the car and walking around after such a long drive we could not wait to get there. Once we did get there, I think we would have just kept going if we did not have to stay.

The garbage, prostitution and the homeless folks were the first things we noticed.

I don’t feel threatened by the homeless or the peddlers, it is part of the landscape of any big city. The streets were filthy dirty and after a couple of wrong turns we came upon an area where there were prostitutes on every corner. I don’t know this for sure, but you get the impression that the government here just doesn’t care.  Hopefully they have some outreach programs but from what we saw it’s highly unlikely. The number of drunk or wasted people laying passed out on the main street were more that I have ever seen in any other major city.

Nikolas just kept saying “So, this is where my Great Grandparents are from?”

 I was waiting at the reception in our hotel to see if we could get a room when the gal in front of me asks the person at the front desk, “Can you recommend a good restaurant in this area”? The person at the front desk replies, “ I would not recommend any restaurants in this area.” She told her to go to the harbour area. Now I am thinking maybe this Hotel is in the wrong part of town, but the town is really not that big. We ended up staying at that hotel (Radisson SAS) and it was fine, but I was a little worried.

We did not go to any museums while in Oslo, nor did we take any guided tours so I don’t think we gave Oslo much of a chance. Maybe I was too excited to see it and we expected much more. Maybe sitting around the farm eating lingonberries and watching the horses has gone to our heads. I don’t know if anything could compare to Sweden, they were some of the nicest people we have ever met and it may have been just bad timing for us to go to Oslo. The people here in Oslo were not so friendly and did not go out of there way for tourists.  The people seemed angry and in a big hurry to get wherever they were going.  They had a much colder look to them and the city just felt edgy and kind of unsafe.

 

 

 

Oslo, capital city of Norway and seat of Oslo County (with which it is coextensive) and of Akershus County. It is on the Aker River, at the head of Oslofjorden, in the southeastern part of the country. Oslo is the largest city, leading seaport, and principal commercial, manufacturing, and cultural center of Norway. Major products include ships, electrical and electronic equipment, chemicals, textiles, processed food, wood and metal items, machinery, and printed materials. The funny thing I read was, that is Government activities and tourism are very important to the city’s economy.

 

 

 

The settlement, established as Oslo by Harald III of Norway around 1050, became the site of the royal residence about 1300. During the following century the community flourished as a trading center and port. After Oslo was destroyed by fire in 1624, it was rebuilt by Christian IV of Denmark and Norway and renamed Christiania (or Kristiania) in his honor. It did not reassume the historical name of Oslo until 1925. The city enjoyed an artistic and economic renaissance during the 19th century. From 1940 to 1945, during World War II, Oslo was occupied by German forces and suffered some damage. In 1952 the Winter Olympic Games were held here. In 1993 Oslo was the site of historic peace negotiations between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and representatives of the Israeli government. Population 773,498

I am sure this city does not represent the whole country of Norway, but it is a shame that your capital has these kinds of issues.

I know my Mom would not be happy with what I just said. I am glad we came, but I would give this city a failing grade on cleanliness and friendliness and will mostly likely not return.

 

 

Amsterdam  - received July 28

 

 

After 28 hours of traveling (17 hour ferry ride and 11 hours of driving) we arrived in the big bad city of Amsterdam. I have only heard of the liberal life style and the freedom of drug use and prostitution. I was a little nervous bringing the kids to this place especially after just seeing that lifestyle in Oslo, Norway.

We took the # 4 cable car into the city and got off at Central Station, and it was really expensive. For the 4 of us to go about 3 miles it cost about $15 bucks American.

 

 

At first glance it looked just like any other big city, jammed packed with tourists. We did not see any of the dark side, but you could smell pot in the air on every other block. We walked through the city and found an Ozzie pub restaurant place to eat. We had wings, nachos and ribs, and it was O.K. but we were distracted every once and while by a poor gent who was suffering from some mental issues and would yell at us while we ate.

Nikolas was a little nervous because he was worried the guy was going to come over and rough us up, but he would move on and yell at someone else. It was not that bad, just freaked Nik out.

 So that was dinner, and after that we walked the streets and tried to see some of the beautiful architecture and soak up some culture.

 

Amsterdam has been an important center of European cultural life since the 17th century. The city is the site of the National Academy of Art, the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences, and the University of Amsterdam (1632). Its Rijksmuseum contains one of the largest collections of Dutch and Flemish paintings in the world, and its Stedelijk Museum has an extensive collection of modern works. The Van Gogh Museum includes about 800 works by 19th-century painter Vincent van Gogh in its collection. Amsterdam is also noted as the home of the renowned 17th-century painter Rembrandt; his home is now a museum. The Concert-gebouw, completed in 1883, is the home of Amsterdam's renowned orchestra. The city has numerous examples of 16th- and 17th-century architecture, as well as two historic churches: Oude Kerk (Old Church), built about 1300, and Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), built in the 15th century. The royal palace, originally built in the 17th century as the town hall, stands on a large square in the center of the city and seems to be the tourists hang out.

 

 

The whole city was under construction, I mean every street was ripped up and there was this huge back hoe tearing a huge hole into the ground. It made it very difficult to enjoy the city, but we did. We really liked the place, it had so many canals running through every block with little house boats resting along the shore.

I would not hesitate to come back here or advise anyone else to come here. It is a young back-packer’s paradise, with so many options for lodging and tons of other young back-packers from all over the world.

 

Our next stop is Belgium and then back to London.

 

York (Written Aug 5th by Steve)

 

Well we just spent 2 wonderful days in York and are packing up for another drive, this one up to Scotland. York is an old Viking trading city that was established way back in the 10th century. It is surrounded by a wall and has castles and old churches and many cafés and pubs; it is very cool. If you have any British Heritage and have not been back here, you had better get off your butt, because this place is fantastic. I can tell you that I think Britain is one of the best places in all of Europe to travel as a family, but very expensive. We went to Jorvik, which is a Viking village that was discovered and reconstructed to the way it looked back in 988AD. This place is a must- see, and you may as well spend 2 days at least, because there is a lot more than just Vikings. We also did the Ghost Hunt, which is following some guy around to different locations and he tells you one of the many ghost stories that York is also famous for. It was quite funny and spooky but we loved it and will hopefully return one day. Next stop, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

 

London again (Written Aug 4th by Steve)

 

That’s right folks we are back in London again, well not anymore, we left yesterday (Writing this from York). Not only did we leave, we drove! We drove right through the heart of the city. We went over the Westminster Bridge down through Victoria Station, past Hyde Park, the Marble Arch and kept going till we were on the mighty M1.

I’ve got to tell you that driving on the wrong side of the road is not as difficult as trying to turn a corner when your brain keeps trying to force your body into the oncoming traffic. We made it though, and yes it was extremely stressful, but I am so fortunate that everyone in the car kept yelling “Other side of the road”, I must have heard those words at least 50 times.

So what was London like for the second time? Awesome! We had a blast even with the thousands of police on the streets. The Police were on every block and in every station holding their machine guns and being extremely visible. It was a tad unnerving.

Our hotel was 4 blocks from Victoria Station and Big Ben and right across the street from The New Scotland Yard, so there was never a dull moment.

We hung out in London for 4 days and got our round the world airline tickets all booked and then left for York on Aug 3, and that’s where we are now.

 

Scotland - received August 13

                                                                                                      

(Written by Steve Aug 8)

 

  Aye, here we are in our little B&B in Inverness, the Scottish Highlands. This place is so much like Northern Canada it is remarkable. The only difference is, I can’t understand a word anyone says to me here. People are so nice and they will give you these super detailed directions, the only problem is my brain can’t understand one word from the English vocabulary. Our first stop before Scotland was Carlisle, than on to Glasgow, the only problem there was that we could not get a room for more than one night. We could not get a room in Edinburgh either so we drove up to see our friends Bill and Betty McIntosh. They live in Kirkcaldy and offered to put us up for the night but we declined because we found a room in Glenrothes instead and we didn’t want to be a burden. We hung out with Bill and Betty for the day and had a great visit with these wonderful people.  We had met them on the world cruise and had so much fun with them in the casino.  We went out for dinner with them and had a very enjoyable time; the kids were so happy to see them too.  The next day, Bill took us to the train station and we took the train into Edinburgh for the day. This day we went into the capital was the same day as the start of the Military Tattoo and their world renowned International Festival, so it was the busiest day of the year. We watched the parade and the dozens of pipe bands marching along Princess Street, it was very cool. We then went up to the Castle and had the opportunity to see the stunning Crown Jewels and then walked the streets for a couple more hours. For some reason we were all bagged by 6pm so we hopped back on the train to Kirkcaldy and spent some more time with our friends. The next day we drove from Glenrothes to St. Andrews, and we spent half a day walking around the town which is home of first golf course. We ate lunch and then hopped back in the car and drove to Dundee and then through Perth. This day was also a long one but we managed to finish the day by driving all the way up here to Inverness.

We found a wonderful little B&B called Tiobraid Arran guest House run by Margaret and Noel. If you love flowers, gardens and really nice people then you will love this little 3 star B&B. ph. ++44-1463-238361

 

 

 

(Written Aug 9 by Steve)

We spent the morning looking at St. George’s Fort (Inverness) and then we were ready to search for the Loch Ness monster. We drove along the Loch Ness and kept an eye out for the slippery creature, but he did not poke his head out today. We did however, have a nice rest down on the beaches of the Loch Ness, very nice setting with the mountains in the background. We then drove about 50 more miles until we came upon the most photographed castle in the world, The Urchart Castle. Even though it was mostly destroyed, the kids used it as a gigantic Jungle Jim. We then found our last castle for the day, the Inverlochey Castle, which really pooped us out so we headed to our B&B for some quite time before finding a place to eat. We went to Mctavish’s Restaurant for Dinner, Pipes, singing and Scottish dancing. We only participated in the eating part, but it was a blast. We then returned to our wonderful Highland B&B called The Ashburn House. This property is run by a couple by the names of Christine and Willie and they are both extremely nice and helpful. The B&B has 7 rooms for rent and we had #4 and #2. The rooms are very tastefully decorated and Breakfast was wonderful, everything you needed was available. We were in a jam for clean clothes and Christine even did a load of laundry for us. This B&B is without a doubt, one of the nicest we have ever seen and is a must if you come to St. Williams. We normally don’t recommend places to stay, but think this 5 star B&B would be a six if they had that high of a rating. Ph ++44-139770-6000

 

 

The next day we drove along Loch Ness and stopped at another castle for lunch. After we finished eating we drove down the rest of the Loch though the winding roads towards Glasgow. This stretch of highway is one of the most dangerous stretches of roads I have ever been on. It was very beautiful but the little Shrines, memorials and drive carefully signs made me think that it was a tad dangerous. We made it all the way to the south of the country and caught the ferry for Ireland.

 

 

We are just about to hit the sack, but I thought I would let you know where we are, and how wonderful this place is. Very Scottish I must say, Kilts everywhere, almost makes me want to be Scottish. I said almost!!!

 

 

If you have seen Braveheart, then you know what the hills of Scottish highlands look like, spectacular!

 

 

IRELAND

                                  &nbs