Our Return … what happened since … and our upcoming Trip

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After our return to Germany in the summer of 2009, life became very busy for a few months. Anna and I started working again, sold old our apartment, bought a house, the kids went to kindergarten and then on to primary school. We all re-connected with old friends and found new ones.

Looking back now (almost 4 years later), it was a fantastic trip. Nothing went seriously wrong, we saw a lot and (mostly) enjoyed ourselves during our time together. Lara is 8 years old now and still remembers bits and pieces of those seven months, Finn was too young at the time and has only very few memories … all of us still talk about it though, and love to look at the pictures we took.

In fact, it was such a positive experience that we are now planning to do it again. We’ll be off in March 2013 for a five months trip through Nepal, Australia and Thailand … here is a link to our current blog: http://familytrip2013.wordpress.com

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A night in Munduk

shapeimage_1We had originally planned to leave Ubud during our last week here and travel around the island a bit. But, to be honest, we got a bit lazy and besides … we really like it here 🙂 The kids are settled in school, we have a fantastic baby sitter for the evenings, endless choice of good restaurants and a pool only two steps away from our porch.

The one thing we did is to move to a slightly larger house, which was easy to do since it’s only a few meters away from our old one. It’s a bit brighter and the porch here is about twice the size of our old one … worth a lot since we spend almost all our time outside. Have a look at it here, we can not recommend it highly enough.

One thing we did not want to miss was spending a night on the slopes of the volcano. So we arranged for our trusted driver (who took his girl friend with him) and headed up to Munduk. After a few stops at temples, the kids started getting a bit restless … but were immediately revitalized when we pulled up at some strawberry fields … “Look Mommy, just like in America! Can we pick them ourselves?”.

After a bit of research on the web, we had decided to stay at the Puri Lumbung cottages and made it there just in time for the absolutely spectacular sunset. The mountains you see in the very background are actually already on the neighboring island of Java and not in Bali anymore.

Munduk, which is quite cool due to its high elevation, is known for its hikes and the hotel offered us a variety of different guides … graded on their ability to speak English. We splurged ($2 extra) and booked an “expertly speaking” guide, who took us on a three hour hike through villages, forests and to a waterfall. The scenery was beautiful, but what made the hike really interesting was discussing Balinese politics and real estate prices with our guide … who was actually the assistant to the village “mayor”, but seemed to be involved in an endless variety of interesting “side businesses”.

Here are my pictures from the two days._DSC4350

Logistics

shapeimage_1-1 I know I know, I’ve gotten a bit lazy updating the blog. But, to be honest, not much noteworthy has happened in the last week … except of course that Ute is with us again. Those of you that have been following along for a few months might recall that she travelled with us through Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica and had left us in Peru in February. Now she’s back and we’re all very happy to have her here … one more person to keep the kids in check.

Lara and Finn still go to school every morning, Anna and Ute spend time shopping and in the spas … and I sit in internet cafes and deal with logistics for our return. I’ll spare you the details, but it’s very frustrating. German companies seem not to react to e-mails at all. Isn’t there supposed to be a recession under way? Why then don’t I get a single reply to e-mails that I sent off to (several) car dealers “Hi, I’d like to buy a car from you. Could you tell me what you have available?”. How about a three-liner along the lines of “Sure, we have these three on the lot, come by and have a look” or “Sorry, none of that model right now, but we’ll send you a mail when we do”.

Getting a health insurance arranged bordered on the surreal. Of course there was never a single reply to my e-mails (send via the cheery “contact us” form on their web site), and the person I finally reached on the phone buried me in insurance terminology I just didn’t understand.

“OK, please try to explain this to me as if I’m your 10 year old son. We’re arriving in Germany on this date and need a policy for one week (until I’m covered through work)”

After a few conversations, and a few overseas faxes back and forth, we were down to the question whether we fit into category x or y. Determining if we are eligible for the cheaper of the two would require another 10 page questionnaire.

“Excuse me, could you give me a rough idea what the cost difference would be”

“Oh, I would have to run both through our pricing models. That would take an hour. Could you call me back”

An hour later I called back and after a while I actually got connected to the same person again.

“I did the math and we are looking at a price differential of about three Euros”

“You mean that:

– we had three expensive calls (I stayed awake into the early morning in New Zealand to reach you during business hours)

– I wrote a few faxes that cost me 5 Euros a page to send from Samoa (of course you don’t work via scans or e-mail)

– we wasted a few hours each

to determine whether I pay 3 Euros more?”

“Yes. Should I fax you that new questionnaire now?”

Unbelievably, this very health insurer got the highest rating for customer service from the German version of Consumer Reports last year.

Real estate agents seem a bit better … but not by much. Why does someone publish an e-mail address if they won’t even respond to a direct query about a house they are renting (and will be collecting a EUR 3000 commission on)?

On a completely unrelated note, I just can’t stop myself from taking pictures of the fields outside our house … here are two dozen more. Don’t click on the link if you can’t stand looking at more rice fields 😉_DSC3837

Day Trips

shapeimage_1-2With everyone here last week we settled into a pretty slow routine of day trips and just plain lazing around the town. Tours to the Monkey Forest, the butterfly farm, botanical gardens or water park … mixed with shopping and afternoons at the pool.

By now it feels like we know every restaurant in Ubud (eating out is just so inexpensive that cooking at home doesn’t make much sense) and have been to many of them so often that they know our names already … “Hi Lara, hi Finn! Chicken Saté again?”

The town has gotten bigger and busier since we’ve last been here twelve years ago, but it hasn’t lost its charme. The town still feels friendly and has none of the aggressiveness and hassle that plagues Kuta (where most tourists spend their time in Bali). Rice farming is still an everyday part of life here and one of the aspects that we enjoy most about our house is that we can watch the tending of the fields from our porch. Right now the paddies are all flooded and, judging from the size of the seedlings, planting should begin in a few days.

Andrea and Frank will be leaving tomorrow morning and we’re sad to see them go. We spent all of Monday with them at their hotel, just lounging around their beautiful pool with the kids … the time with them felt a bit like being in California again.

Markus and Katrin will be leaving on the weekend as well, but I’m sure we’ll see them quite often when we get back home. After having gotten used to the distances in the U.S., driving to Switzerland doesn’t seem like that big a deal anymore.

I put (quite a few) pictures from the last week here. Plenty of monkeys, butterflies, temples, volcanoes …. and of course rice fields._DSC3166

Happy Birthday Anna!

shapeimage_1-2It got busy here last week. First Andrea and Frank, our good friends from California flew in. Then, only a day later, Anna’s sister Katrin arrived with her friend Markus. It’s great to see so many familiar faces and we really appreciate being re-supplied with all that is expensive or unobtainable here … camera accessories, a stove-top espresso maker, salami sausages, German black bread and plenty of duty-free booze.

On Thursday we woke up to Anna’s 40th birthday and the girls went off to a spa, while us guys watched the kids, ran errants and organized a birthday cake. For lunch, we ordered a stack of pizzas and then kept things going with cocktails until the babysitter for the evening showed up.

After having tried quite a few restaurants in (and around) Ubud during the last weeks, Anna had settled on Mozaic for her birthday dinner. Not cheap, but supposedly the best in Bali and ranking amont the top 100 world-wide … you only turn 40 once. We all had the seven course dinner and, especially with the wine pairings, thought it was delicious. Not the best I ever had, but up there on the list.

Happy birthday again Anna!

I put a few snapshots from the day here._DSC2781

Shark Dance

shapeimage_1Unfortunately, school’s out for vacation now 😦

Fortunately, they have a summer school that starts next week 🙂

Last Friday was the “end of school” performance and Lara played the part of a shark, who seemed to bite mermaids (truth be told, I didn’t exactly get what the story was all about). These school plays are ridiculously boring … that is until your own child is on stage. Lara did great. She was the first one out, snapped at mermaids, made wiggly swimming motions and was generally very shark-like. Even Finn, after a lot of encouraging, went on stage for a few moments, stood around looking lost … then did a bit of background sharking. To say the least, he’s not exactly as lime-light addicted as his sister.

To celebrate, we picked up Finn with his favorite car (a 1948 VW convertible) and then went to eat Lara’s favorite lunch (baby back ribs).

Not a lot of pictures, here are a few snapshots._DSC2064

The Kids are in School

shapeimage_1-1Since we’re here in Ubud for at least four weeks, one of the first things we did was to look around for a school. Lara is starved for some time around other kids, while Anna and me can’t wait to spend time without the kids. That leaves Finn. He’s gone to day care for a few months when we were in California, but was never particularly excited about it. Unlike his sister (and much like his dad), he has a “wait and see” attitude around new people and likes to keep his distance at first. We weren’t sure how he’d like to be “thrown” into the local school, but decided to give it a try.

After a bit of asking around we found the Pelangi School, visited, and liked it right away. Most of the day is taught in english, the kids are a good mixture of Balinese and ex-pats, the teachers seem very competent and the price was right as well.

While we visited the school, Finn seemed OK with the idea of going there, even if “mommy and daddy go away” … and that carried over to Monday morning and his first day. Lara, of course, was chomping at the bit to finally be a school girl and couldn’t wait for us to leave. It was a bit strange to drive away from the school without them, and we had that “wow, they’re gone for a few hours. We’re alone … what do we do now?” moment. But that passed quickly, Anna went to a yoga class, while I settled into an internet cafe to start researching what cars to buy in Germany.

After a peaceful lunch, with a beautiful view over rice terraces, we headed back to pick up the kids. According to the teachers, Finn “had cried a little” but apparently Lara had come over to his classroom to comfort him … which got her a “Lara is my best friend”. Honestly, I don’t think he was very happy at school, but it wasn’t a catastrophe either. We’ll see how the next days go.

I don’t think I need to mention that Lara “had a blast”, can’t wait to go again, made new friends and had already secured a role in the school play.

Here are a few shots from their first day. In case you’re wondering about that strange car in the photos … it belongs to the T-House manager, is a converted VW from the early 50’s, and might just be the coolest “school bus” our kids will ever use._DSC1524

Arrival in Bali

shapeimage_1Packing a plane full of Australian families (on their way to the annual holidays), leaving at 6:00 pm (just when small kids are the crankiest) and not serving any food or entertainment for 6 1/2 hours practically guarantees a hellish flight. The Sydney to Bali flight was probably the worst one we had so far. And just when the adults on the plane had thought of a way out, and were about to open those duty free bags … they were reminded (twice) by announcements that it was strictly prohibited to “consume any personal alcoholic beverages” on the flight.

Surprisingly, our kids did well. Lara kept busy with the iPod and Finn gave up and slept (after about an hour of resistance). The kids around us were so loud (many screaming at the top of their lungs) that I was a bit worried they’d wake up ours, which isn’t easy to do. I did feel sorry for some of the other parents … when I told Finn that I would take away his toy unless he sits back down, the father across the isle (who was frantically trying to calm down his newborn) looked at me with a longing look and said “at least yours is old enough to threaten”.

It was almost midnight by the time we got through immigration and were picked up by a driver for the hour long drive up into the hills. After a lot of research on the web we had decided to rent one of the “T-Houses”, set in a village about 5 minutes drive away from Ubud. When we arrived in the dark it was hard to get a feeling for the house or surroundings, we just dropped our bags, tucked the kids under a mosquito net and fell asleep to the sounds of frogs in the rice paddies.

As always, the kids woke us at around 6:00 am … “Mommy, daddy, wake up! I like this place!” And, after having a good look around, so did we. The house is built in the beautiful traditional Balinese style, made entirely of wood and very very open to the outside. We have a little terrace that looks right over the palm fringed rice fields, the kitchen is large enough to really cook in, there is a pool, and we have a separate bedroom for the kids (a luxury on our trip so far). What really makes it perfect, is that the house is set on the edge of a small village and we get to watch the daily routine of the rice farmers directly from the porch. A fantastic deal, considering the house costs us $25 per night.

As we were still admiring the house and surroundings that first morning, three ladies from the village showed up and asked what we would like for breakfast. We had totally forgotten that the rate included a daily breakfast, cooked in our kitchen to order 🙂 It almost feels a bit colonial to ask for a large fruit plate and those delicious banana pancakes … and to then just sit down at the table outside to enjoy the first light on the rice fields.

Here are my pictures from the first days._DSC1095

Sydney

shapeimage_1-1We spent the last week in Bondi Beach, a suburb of Sydney … about half an hour away from the harbour and the opera house. The apartment we rented was perfect. Bright, spacious, only a block away from the beach and in a great neighborhood with groceries, cafes, restaurants, all only a few feet from the front door. While we heard about Bondi Beach being hopelessly crowded in the summer, it was pretty empty this time of year. Of course Bondi is famous for surfing and, even though we don’t surf, it’s easy to see why. The waves here are incredibly regular … just one rolling in after the next. We spent a while watching some local kids go to “surf school” and, if we’d live here, we would sign Lara up for lessons right away 😉

The weather reminded us of a beautiful fall day in California … while the sun shone almost every day, it was cool enough to wear sweaters in the afternoon and evenings. It might sound strange, but it was so nice to get out of the heat for a week!

After a day of not doing much at all, we took the bus downtown and caught the ferry to the Sydney zoo (before kids, the zoo was never high on our list of things to see … but that sure changed). As the ferry left the dock, we got our first glimpse of the famous opera house … and both of us were surprised how small it is. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful building and looks different from every angle, but it’s nowhere as enormous as it appears in the pictures that we saw before coming here.

The zoo was very very nice (we’d rate it just below the one in San Diego) and you can easily spend a full day without getting bored. The bird and seal shows were pretty impressive, but (as always) the kids liked the lions best. It was a very relaxing day, just wandering between the animals and admiring the Sydney skyline in the distance.

On Friday we went to the mall shopping to replenish our clothing supply (we had given away quite a bit away in Samoa and Fiji). As always when we go shopping together, it was a pretty unpleasant experience … to say the least. The kids (and I) get bored after a few minutes and poor Anna has to drag us from one store to the next. I hate faceless malls and much prefer to buy all my cloths online … but that wasn’t an option here. Needless to say, we were all happy when we got back to our apartment for Finn’s afternoon nap.

The next day we walked to one of the neighboring beaches, watched the surfers and enjoyed a long lunch at a cafe while the kids played in the sand. So much more fun than visiting an endless stream of stores that seem exactly the same wherever you go in the world!

The weekend was a long one (Monday was Queen’s birthday) and we went downtown to see the botanic garden. It’s famous for the thousands of bats (actually flying foxes) and the endless stream flying out of the park at dusk is indeed pretty impressive. The point across Farm Cove is the classic viewpoint and we spent an hour there watching the sun set behind the opera house and harbour bridge. After dark the opera was lit in different color patterns (part of the “Vivid Sydney” festival) and it was pretty cool to see them change every few minutes.

On our last day we went downtown to the fish market and enjoyed it a lot. Oysters, sashimi, crabs … all with a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc at lunch … what more can you ask for 😉

Overall it was a great week, and just fun to be in a city again after so many islands and beaches. Having said that, it’s off to Bali in a few hours.

Here are my pictures from the week._DSC0498

Fiji

shapeimage_1-2We flew from Samoa to Nadi (the main tourism hub in Fiji), spent a night at a guesthouse there and then caught the regularly running ferry out to the Yasawa Islands. Those of you that remember the “The Blue Lagoon” (I’m sure all 40+ year olds do) … and actually paid attention to the setting instead of Brooke Shields … have seen the northernmost part of the Yasawa group.

Our first surprise was when we boarded the ferry (actually a high-speed catamaran) and realized that we were the only ones over the age of 30 on board. The “Yasawa Flyer” goes up and down the island chain every day and delivers a never ending stream of twenty-something year old backpackers to the roughly dozen resorts that are scattered across the islands. The “Bula Pass” seems to the most popular option and allows you to spend a night or two at each place. Think of it as a “hop on, hop off” sightseeing bus on water.

After quite a bit of research (before our trip) we had decided to, instead of constantly moving, spend our week at the Waya Lailai resort, Overall, it was a good choice … especially travelling with the kids. The beach and snorkelling were very much sub-par but, after having spent so much time on beautiful beaches already, we didn’t really mind too much. Waya Lailai is one of the very few resorts that are wholly owned and run by the local village and we think that showed in the attitude of the staff. While not up to western service standards, they seemed genuinely friendly, eager to help and were very good with the kids. After disappearing for an hour, Lara would come back to our hut and tell us that she “talked a bit with the local ladies from the village” or “helped in the kitchen”.

The food (all meals were included and there was only one set dish) was very very basic, but our nice cabin compensated for it. Unfortunately none of the other guests (in nine days we only met one other couple over 30) had children for ours to play with but, just as in Upolu, we met interesting people from all over the world during meal times. As always, Lara would make her rounds between the tables and introduce herself “Hi, I’m Lara from California. What’s your name?” … and what really amazed us was how willing many twenty-something year olds were to spend time with our kids. I remember one afternoon when we found her weaving bracelets with an Italian guy that looked like he had just stepped off the stage during a rap concert, complete with gold chains, trucker cap and D&C sunglasses. “Look mommy, we’re doing handicraft together”. Another time we found her with someone in front of a laptop … “Daddy, what does ‘updating facebook’ mean?”.

Even though we preferred the place we stayed in while on Savaii, we somehow found our week in Fiji more relaxing … probably due to the days being more structured. Breakfast at 7:00, lunch at 12:00, a nap afterwards, tea time at 3:00 and dinner at 7:00. Most evenings offered a “show”, with some variation of Fijian dances. While Finn was always a bit scared of the “warriors”, he particularly enjoyed the hula dancing female staff … “I like those ladies!”.

We went on a few day trips to surrounding beaches but, to be honest, didn’t find any of them very good. The one activity we really enjoyed was snorkelling out on the reef (a 10 minute boat ride away) with the sharks. When we first heard about it, we were a bit sceptical and couldn’t believe that we’d actually see any …. but once we were in the water and the locals tore apart a few fish, we were surrounded by reef sharks. Nothing really scary, but most of them were well over a meter long and we had enough respect to not try feeding them by hand.

Unlike the Easter Island, Samoa or the Cook Islands we didn’t get a good feeling for Fiji. Making any kind of generalized statement about the country, after only a week in the Yasawas, is like talking about the U.S. after having been to Florida during spring break. But the general impression we have is that Fiji caters to a much larger number and variety of tourists than the other Pacific island nations we visited. While the Cook Islands seem to target the middle-class families from New Zealand and Samoa is the destination for individualistic budget travellers … Fiji seems to offer the whole spectrum, from luxury resorts (with helicopter transfer) to basic home-stays with families.

Due to the weather (we had a lot of cloudy days) and the lack of sights, I didn’t take too many pictures last week. Here are a few shots anyway._DSC8560