The bear says "Happy Birthday, P" of course. And then our happy campers tie-dyed shirts, shot arrows at a target, ate trail mix, and did all those things that little campers do. That is how we celebrated a 7th birthday. We kept it small this time too. A mom could go crazy thrying to throw monstrous birthday bashes every year, so I asked myself what would make my little man happy and felt that he would love just a day of fun with some close friends.
The snacks: a make-your-own trail mix bar
We threw in a man in a bear costume, just because.
I'll nap right here mom.
He read a story by the "campfire."
The boys played in temporary tents that we made for the occasion. Which we later dismantled, much to their disappointment. There may be a teepee in our future.
This is not the best of Singapore, but its the best I could do. In December we spent almost two weeks driving through New Zealand, then left behind our lovely RV and headed to Singapore.
It was Christmas Eve.
We wore our Santa hats on the plane. We checked into a lovely hotel close to Orchard Road and prepared our stockings for Santa.
I wish I had better pictures to share, but we had to switch gears and enjoy modern spectacles and man-made wonders after two weeks of majestic and unspoilt nature. The city was so dazzling, clean, and uncrowded I didn't know where to look. The Marina Bay Sands Hotel, the Garden on the Bay, the "Merlion!"
The Universal Studios amusement park.
The boys rode terrifying rides (with some reassurance from us at first) and then asked for more. We went to EVERY show. Philip even volunteered to stand in front of a hundred or so people and chat with Donkey at the comedy show. Nate followed immediately behind, and Donkey exclaimed "I thought I was seeing double!"
We spent an entire day roaming the botanical gardens, where we visited the Orchid Garden and finlly stumbled our way onto the Jacob Ballas Children's Garden. I SO wish Bangkok had a place like this. There was a playground, a maze, a sensory garden, treehouse, exhibits and more. It reminded me of the Heritage Gardens we used to frequent back on Cape Cod.
Our time in Singapore was brief, but so eye opening. And it would be so different from the places we are sent to live someday: the wealth was so apparent that the boys could count the high-end sports cars racing by them every minute. But my favorite trait of Singapore was the amount of green space within the city. It was a city for walking and roaming on foot, for lunching on the grass and stopping to smell the flowers. I would absolutely love an assignment here someday.
But our adventures weren't over yet. One more stop before landing back in Bangkok:
Last night I was browsing a thumbdrive full of over a year's photos, documenting our best times on the town. It was a Christmas gift from a most beautiful, thoughtful friend. All the galas, the plays, the celebrations and silliness. The costumes we wore, the times we danced like no one was watching, the way us together became a "thing" without us ever trying. But that is the way with some friends. (Holly & Dave, I'm thinking of you too.) Sometimes you are lucky enough to have a charmed year or two with a set of people who just make you feel like no matter where you are, you have come home. So the funny thing is that the drive was not the gift; it was like looking at a picture of the gift. It had already been given.
1. Fun. I've been thinking about our life together, and one of the greatest things we share is our sense of fun. I suppose we might miss a thing or two by not being good planners. We might miss a little by not being more thorough. And I suppose paying closer attention to details might benefit us, but we aren't good at that. What we are good at would be playing games together, taking chances, not being afraid of looking a little silly. Like wearing Santa hats on a hike. Or waving to strangers and dancing on the sidewalk and dressing in costume for non-halloween events.
Leaping. And the Franz Joseph Glacier, of course.
2. Trouble. We are living in a bit of a hotbed of politics and culture right now. Its nothing too scary, but its constantly changing, and unpredictable, but at the time exciting. Its also our first time living in such a situation, and probably will not be the last.
3. My loves. They are growing so fast. One is reading big chapter books and devouring The Hobbit and LOTR movies. The other is coasting on a bike without training wheels already. They adore each other, and their personalities compliment each other. They're also mirror-images of our personalities, so we understand them on such an intimate level. I know when Nate is fighting off tears and I know when Philip's attention will flag. And I know that every time I give them a big smile it helps build their confidence. When I think about it now, I realize there is more wordless communication in our home than spoken.
4. This dang bird. Its a Kia. And it wanted in our camper. When it didn't get its way it scrambled across our roof and tried to nibble at the kids through the skylight. They found that hilarious. The Kia didn't. It invited a friend over later and the two of them squalked their loud appeals above our heads around 11 o'clock that night. And again a few hours later.
New Zealand wine and impromptu game of tic-tac-toe with river stones.
5. Date night. Its an added benefit of the expat life. We used to enjoy a date night every few months, if we were lucky that bumped up to once a month. In Bangkok it happens whenever we feel like it. Our nanny appreciates the extra income. We have lots of things we can do in this city, whether it involves getting dressed up for a charity ball, or just going out for some delicious grilled seafood at a sidewalk vendor and splitting a few beers. Tonight is one of those nights. I think. I haven't decided yet, but I'm certainly looking forward to some time with my sweetheart.
6. This kid. He's turning seven soon. He's the coolest kid. Loves his brother. Is up for anything. Gives the best snuggles. Has the most amazing shimmering gold hair. Did a yoga class with me yesterday and was so well behaved! Represented us well at the opening of the kids' art exhibit and was charming and well-behaved while chatting with our "boss." Is smart and clever and imaginative, but has the most ATROCIOUS handwriting.
Right now as I'm typing, a grand-scale protest is happening a few blocks away. We are chilling at home for the day, watching the news, entertaining the kids, and hoping for the best. My mind still wanders back to New Zealand and all our adventures there. Our fourth day in NZ was the day we left Queenstown, and the lovely 12 Mile Delta Campground, and headed for a one-in-a-lifetime experience at Milford Sound.
The journey from Queenstown to the lodge at Milford Sound was the most amazing drive ever. It began with a long road that skirted the lake and led you back into farmland. Gradually, there were fewer and fewer sheep, and in the distance you could see the tallest snow-capped peaks.
We stopped the RV whenever we felt like it, and would get out and stretch our legs. Sometimes we lept. We stopped at a trail called the Mt. Earl Tracks, and the boys thrilled us by eagerly hiking over mud and hills and narrow log bridges. We took turns crossing this wire bridge, even though the thought of my boys slipping made my heart race. It really wasn't that dangerously high, though, so it was a lot of fun and an all-natural thrill.
Incredibly, we didn't bump into another soul on our little hike. So it was just us and the beautiful almost-untouched New Zealand forest. I would love to go back in a few years and do some longer treks. I mean, lets not forget my little guy is only 3. He didn't make us carry him or anything, but we always keep our expectations reasonable enough for him. We gave up the strollers and carriers last year, so wherever we go, he's on his own little legs!
Little P enjoyed the trip too, particularly the amazing tunnel to Milford Sound, where you have to drive through the heart of a mountain down a steep slope! Out the other side you have to navigate a series of hooking curves down a wild incline. Meanwhile, on either side of you are sharp mountains with cascading waterfalls and mounds of snow. It was unreal.
After hours of one gorgeous sight after another, we arrived at the Milford Sound Lodge, and scooted into our little spot for the night. Luckily, we had enough food in the fridge, because we discovered there is very little at Milford Sound at all-just a hotel/campground, a bar and visitors center, and a small airport. While we settled in, our neighbors returned to their car to find a kia had made itself at home with their food, and had tipped over their beer bottles and raided their snacks. With some good humor, they shooed it away. So the warnings were true.
The next morning we hopped the first cruise in the Sound, excited to see the waterfalls and sights I had only seen on TV. It was spectacular- We enjoyed a morning of seals, fresh air, waterfalls, and the most gorgeous fjord to be ever carved out by a glacer. At one point the boat took us practically under a waterfall, and the boys squealed and were nearly soaked.
We had planned on spending a second night, but as the excursion companies refused to let us kayak with small children, we decided to head out that afternoon. In order to get to the glaciers, we would have to loop back up the Queenstown and around, so we set off again slowly, savoring all the sights along the way.
After a night of rest at Lake Hawea, we were ready to see some glaciers!
Somewhere along the way we started really enjoying the solitude. We enjoyed just being together.
In the beginning, it might have been after a meal or two, we decided to pack away the "devices." You know. The iPads, Nintendos, handhelds, etc. It was far too beautiful a trip to be spent staring at your lap. The company was far too good. And the amazing thing? We didn't miss the iAnythings at all. We talked to each other.
When the kids asked questions, we simply answered. And discussed. It was the best ever.
Somewhere along the way we loved just being together.
People did survive without those things, you know.
We camped on the water outside Queenstown, and rode the gondola to get a birds-eye view. The boys bought silly trinkets for their treasure boxes back home. They went crazy over stones and sticks, like boys should. We played on the banks of a creek, and then collected ourselves (and our clothes) to go have dinner back in the RV.
We woke and drove on, through fields of sheep, giant dams, and majestic hills. The roads were never direct. They were never crowded either.
Sometimes we pulled off the road to a riverbank, and the boys would throw stones while I heated soup and made sandwiches for lunch. And after, we would eat an apple or nectarine from the carton we had bought at a roadside stand. Doesn't that just sound like heaven?
If you spend 99% of the year in downtown Bangkok, it sure does.
When you think about vacation, you usually have to settle on one basic idea. It may be skiing, or perhaps some snorkeling, or maybe you're into a cruise. You can't exactly take some time off from work and skip from Canada to Bermuda, then New York City and back again. Its just crazy. But we did something almost exactly like that for our R&R last month. It turns out, Uncle Sam will fly you home for a break-he may not put you up in a hotel, but he'll get you there. And when you're posted on the other side of the planet, that's a pretty pricey flight. Now, if your family is VERY understanding, you might be able to compare flights to other destinations...and, well, if you are willing to stay away from home a bit longer, you can use those flights to venture somewhere new, if you stay below the budget. Did I stress how expensive it is to fly home? Just ask my folks and my in-laws-they can tell you all about it. Well, it turns out you can fly to New Zealand, then Singapore, and finally de-stress your buns in Bali and still not max your allowance. Incredible. So that's exactly what we did, and I'm here to tell you it was worth it. I love you Mom and Dad, and thanks for understanding!
Day One of the Great Adventure began in lovely Christchurch, New Zealand in the brand new Novotel in the "downtown" district. We woke early and prepared to pick up our RV and discovered we were in a ghost town. All around the district were lovely homes, each individually walled in and adorned end to end with cascading flowers, but in the center of the city it felt like a post-war battle zone. It turns out, the hub of Christchurch was completely devastated by an earquake in 2011, and was still sheepishly trying to recover, with new shopping areas and hotels that slowly emerged, but never took hold. It was shocking and strange to begin this way, but the rest of the trip was so different.
A few hours later we checked out of Wilderness Campers with this sleek little number, stocked with groceries (from a REAL supermarket that made me almost cry), gas, electric, and seats for our boys. It was amazing. Among all the white boxy campervans and RV's, we coasted in style inland towards our first destination picked from the NZ Frenzy guide, feeling pretty good about the days to come.
We stopped wherever we wanted, to grab a bite to eat, or make some lunch, like at the lovely Rakaia Gorge. After a smooth 1-hour hike (my 3 year old is a trooper!) we continued on towards Mt. Sunday, and soon the pavement disappeared and we were rumbling over dirt roads, hardly another person for miles. Just sheep. A few cows. But mostly sheep. At first it felt so strange, coming from Bangkok, when we looked at each other around 5pm that day and realized we hadn't seen another human being since lunchtime. Oh, I should add that it doesn't get dark until 9, so if you stop watching the time, and ramble on as we did, you could go a very long time without seeing people at all. Nothing to distract you from the gorgeous peaks and landscape that begin just 30 minutes outside of Christchurch...
Mt. Sunday was my pick, and I had begged Phil to let me get my Lord of the Rings fixx as early as possible so it didn't complicate any future plans. He was glad we did, because this little speck on the tourist map was so remote and so breathtaking-you drive for hours until the mountain tops are covered with snow, and then get out for a leisurely hike to the summit. Mt. Sunday was actually the background or natural structure that they used to place Edoras, and so while there was no "LOTR" sets or structures actually there, when I saw it in the distance it gave me goosebumps.
Behind it, in the sweeping valley was the backdrop for Helm's Deep as well, so double score!!!
It was a beautiful hike, and we returned to the RV and sought a place to stop for dinner after the great workout. Did I mention it doesn't get dark until very late? We were eating a quick supper when someone finally checked their watch and shouted "Oh my god! Its already 7? But it feels like 4! We need to find a place to sleep!"
We drove for a few hours, which sounds terrible, but in New Zealand its not-every mile is majestic, some downright breathtaking. Some miles are just so calm (hundreds of sheep) and all of it is spectacularly CLEAN. Roadside trash or debris? None. Nada. So we "freedom camped" at a place we found online at a quiet abandoned spot, and woke up ready to see what else South Island had in store for us.
Day Two took us on the scenic inland route back out to the coast, on our way to Dunedin. On the way to the seaside campground we had picked, we stopped to check out the mysterious site in Moeraki: the Moeraki Boulders. These stones formed curiously on the beach, and are sometimes almost totally submerged, but luckily for us, that time the tide was low and dozens of these strange stone orbs were sitting on the beach.
We slyly picked at one, and found there were crystals forming on these looong seams inside, which would explain why eventually they split and break apart, but who knows how they initially form!
That afternoon we settled into a campside by the beach with electricity and water and stumbled out to the sand and almost fell over a sealion that was resting close to the water! We kept our distance and enjoyed the amazing view, and the next day when we checked he was gone. And so were we, on to Queenstown, one of our favorite parts of this trip! Stay tuned....