The end of a chapter or “the beginning of a new one”

IMG_0907

It has taken me a long time to sit down and write this. Whenever Lynsey used to ‘remind’ me that I hadn’t written a blog post yet, my excuse would often be (without trying to sound too much like a spoilt author) that I wasn’t in the right frame of mind. And this is exactly what has stopped me writing this piece sooner.

Reverse culture shock,  re-acclimatisation, holiday blues, whatever you want to call it – it turned out that coming home was actually a bit harder than we expected. Which is surprising considering that only a week earlier, chatting over a steaming bowl of Rhode Island clam chowder, we had unanimously agreed that we were ready to come home,  we were looking forward to coming home and we were happy to call ‘time’ on our travels. But within minutes of arriving home, throwing our backpacks on the floor and putting the kettle on, it all seemed very strange. It instantly felt like we had never been away. Our house was exactly as we had left it (thankfully), the kids were playing with their old toys and we were sat back in the same kitchen where we had planned and plotted this amazing trip a year or so ago. Over the coming few days it became apparent that not just had nothing changed at home, but nothing had really changed at all. OK, we do live in a village in the New Forest, and from memory nothing exciting had really happened in the nine months before we left, so I’m not sure exactly what we were hoping for in the nine months we were away, but we certainly felt somewhat underwhelmed upon our return. Of course we had just had the time of our lives freewheeling from one incredible experience to the next, mostly in the glorious sunshine and always with another mind-blowing adventure just around the corner. Then, all of a sudden, we were waking up in the same place every day, in the dark, in the cold, with no jobs, no money and no mind-blowing adventure just round the corner. We had been on the metaphorical roller-coaster ride and, despite knowing exactly where the end was, it still arrived a bit quicker and with more of a bang than we expected.

01_14_16

Remarkably, the kids didn’t bat an eyelid. We arrived home at lunchtime, and by 3pm the same day they were outside the school waiting for their friends and playing football like they had never been away.

“Oh hey, Max is back! Did you have a good time Max?”

“Yeah, it was amazing”

“Do you want to play football?”

“Yeah”

“Cool”

And just like that they were back. Both boys have started at a new school and are absolutely flying, and the time away has only been a benefit to their education. Yes Ben’s handwriting needs a bit of work and Max’s timetables are a bit ropy round the edges but it’s nothing that they won’t soon pick up, and it pales into insignificance compared to the things they’ve learnt around the world. Our main concerns before embarking on this trip (apart from dysentery and kidnappers) were “will the kids fall too far behind at school” and “will it be difficult for them to get back in with their friends”. Both these fears (well, all four if you include the dysentery and the kidnappers) were, thankfully, totally unfounded. Kids are under a lot more pressure a lot younger nowadays – tests, homework, exams – and the more we can give them the opportunity to learn outside of the classroom, to visit new places and to experience new cultures, will surely give them a much more holistic education.

We were fortunate enough to meet some of the most incredible people on this trip. From Maju the barefooted Hindu to Soto the Galapagan environmentalist and – without exception – every tuk-tuk driver, boat captain, market vendor and chai wallah in between, we had a totally positive experience with everyone we met.  Of course travelling with young children changes the dynamics somewhat, and if Lynsey and I had been travelling alone I’m sure we would have been subject to a hefty wedge of ‘gringo tax’ and some more than dubious sales techniques. Above all though, it reinforced our belief that actually 99.9% of people in the world are good, friendly people; curious, fun and happy to help. Just like we all are. There is a lot of negative rhetoric in the press at the moment, often seeking to highlight to differences between cultures. Our experience was the total opposite. The majority of people in this world are nice, and we have a lot more in common than not.

But was it all sun-kissed beaches and fresh mango smoothies? No, of course it wasn’t – a lot of it was extremely hard. As I write this now I can already feel myself looking back through rose-tinted glasses. It’s easy to forget those times when we were all running on empty; tired, argumentative and with only enough money to eat pot noodles from a 7/11 for dinner every night. We were all in tears at various stages of the journey and both Lynsey and I would have pulled the plug and flown home at least once each. Fortunately we didn’t ever bottom out at the same time and there was always one of us to keep the ship afloat.

file(1)

Was it a blessing to spend that much time together as family? Yes undoubtedly, and we are only too aware of how lucky we were, but it certainly had its downsides as well (including Ben now playing Twisted Sister songs on repeat!). We were on top of each other 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for nine months – it was pretty intense. If you can imagine how you feel at the end of a long school holiday when you just can’t wait to get the kids back to school, then multiply that by about a thousand and you’re nearly there. There were some days when I would have sold both kids for a magic bean! It was a little easier with Max as he was old enough to read a book or look after himself for a while, but travelling with a four year-old is full on. They need entertaining. All day. Every day.  And while both boys became much more confident and outgoing, happy to talk to and play with anyone, there was a lot of the time when there just weren’t other kids to play with. And guess what, playing four year-old games every day for nine months really starts to grate after a while. Good job we all like cricket!

But all things considered, given the total lack of routine, minimal sleep, extreme heat and borderline appalling diet, everyone did unbelievably well. Apart from a brief visit to an Ecuadorian hospital to sort out Lynsey’s back, no-one got ill on the whole trip – a convincing illustration of the benefits of being outdoors, active and in the sunshine. We carried everything we needed in a bag on our backs and didn’t want for a thing (well, maybe a decent pillow and some curtains that actually kept the 4am sun out!). It was absolutely exhausting, but it wasn’t stressful in the slightest – once we had somewhere to sleep and something to eat what else was there to worry about?

The whole trip was wonderfully liberating. It gave us a new-found appreciation for everything we have at home, while at the same time refreshing our wanderlust and reinforcing our desire to really balance our lives, to work in a way that suits us and that we enjoy, allowing for plenty more adventures for the whole family.

Would we do it all again tomorrow? 

No. We need to seriously recharge the batteries and the bank balance first.

Would we have done anything differently?

Not a thing. It is what it is, the good and the bad. It all happens for a reason and that’s what makes the adventure.

=================================================

And if you haven’t seen it yet, there’s a nifty little video on YouTube – if you can handle 196 consecutive images of my face 🙃😊🤠😎

EB8AD648-7A95-47BC-A60F-55352B42050B

 

 

 

One month in the North Eastern States or “From New England to Old England”

IMG_2170

“It’ll be fine” I said to Lynsey “How bad can it be, I’ll just give it some welly and we’ll see how far we get”.

And this is how we came to be explaining to an extremely helpful snow plough driver, in a snow storm, at 20 below freezing, in the mountains of New England, just why he had nearly driven in to the back of our car that had slid to a precarious halt diagonally across the road. It turns out that an 18 year-old, front-wheel drive, Japanese rental car wasn’t the ideal choice for this trip! We were totally unprepared for the cold, in so many ways.

But plenty had happened before we got ourselves in this mess, don’t forget it was only a few weeks ago that I was complaining how hot it was in Florida! After 8 months of sunshine, our first taste of the winter came in New York, where Lynsey just busted out a marathon one Sunday morning – read all about that on Lynsey’s guest blog. New York is a fabulous city. Eclectic, energetic, diverse – almost the complete antithesis to Florida – this is the America that I had been looking forward to exploring. We spent our first few days just over the water in Hoboken, New Jersey with our old friends from Australia the Rogalsky’s – who were on a pretty epic 8-week trip across the USA themselves! As well as being significantly cheaper than Manhattan, Hoboken is also a great spot from which to explore New York (and to sing the Sopranos theme tune on loop in your head!) We hopped on and off the ferry boats that took us straight into Downtown Manhattan and out past the Statue of Liberty to Staten Island. And the views of the New York skyline, looking back across the water at sunset, are just breathtaking.

While most marathon runners were trying to spend as much time as possible resting, we were pounding the streets taking in the sights. Grand Central Station is just as grand and just as central as advertised, the Empire State Building seems to lurk around every corner in Midtown Manhattan and the 360º views from the top of the Rockefeller Building are well worth the exorbitant entrance fee. However, the place that made the strongest impression on us was the memorial at Ground Zero and the new Freedom Tower. It can be difficult to fittingly capture an event of such enormity, one that had such a profound impact on the city and its people, particularly with America’s propensity to do everything big and bold. But the memorial here has been superbly done and manages to provide a sanctuary for thought and reflection right in the heart of a metropolis.

Post-marathon we relocated to Red Hook, Brooklyn and were introduced to yet another side of this great city. It was grittier, working class, arty and individual. We didn’t see any of the ubiquitous chain stores of Manhattan, instead we were treated to a host of independent cafes, bars and restaurants with great food and drink. There was even a boutique whiskey distillery just round the corner!

But, despite everything we saw in New York, there is one thing that topped the kid’s list by a country mile – the Ninja Restaurant. We were lucky enough to meet up with Mary-Alice (who Lynsey first met in Australia nearly 20 years ago!) and her lovely family, and they took the inspired decision to book us a table at Ninja restaurant. It was a blast! From the moment the first ninja leapt out the lift, to the last one bursting through the window brandishing a light sabre the whole thing was awesome and, as you can imagine, the kids absolutely loved it! We even had our own table-side magic show and smoking ice-cream!

With hordes of pretend ninjas in hot pursuit, we collected the aforementioned ill-equipped Japanese rental car and headed off to Washington DC to see if this Donald Trump character was actually real. Well, that was the plan anyway. Until Max mentioned that he had “always wanted to go Niagara Falls”. I personally can’t remember him ever mentioning this fact before, but what’s the point travelling with backpacks if you can’t change your mind at the last minute? So, a quick about-turn and we headed off on the short seven and a half hour drive to Niagara. On balance watching 6,000,000 cubic feet of water crash past you every minute was probably a better option than peeking over a ferociously guarded fence to see a house Donald Trump probably wasn’t even in. Interestingly Niagara Falls are neither the world’s tallest (Angel Falls, Venezuela), widest (Khone Falls, Laos / Cambodia) nor the biggest falls by volume (Inga Falls, Congo). The American side of the falls are actually remarkably unimpressive, but once you cross to the Canadian side and get up close (and you can get close!) to Horseshoe Falls then you can really appreciate the power of nature, and it made the trip really worthwhile. And if that wasn’t good enough, we were only an hour and an a half from Waterloo, Ontario and our good friends Chris and Sally and their boys Harry and Tommy. It was lovely to spend time with them again, the boys all got along great and we even managed to scrape a few snowballs together!

After a quick beer and a lovely catch up with @mghabb we took a deep breath, stacked up a monster Spotify playlist and got stuck in to the, now nine-hour, return journey to Boston. The light at the end of this very long tunnel was the Rockett family, another set of old friends who, just like everyone else we have imposed ourselves upon on this trip, welcomed us with boundless enthusiasm and generosity. It was exactly what we needed at this stage of the trip – comfy beds, home-cooked food and great company.

Our lack of appropriate cold-weather clothing, and a bitter winter wind, meant that we didn’t spend as much time as we would have liked in Boston itself, but it is a city packed with history and Bostonians are sports-mad. And you can see why – the Red Sox are current World Series champions, the Patriots have been to three of the last four Superbowls (winning twice), the Bruins were the very first American team to join the NHL and the Celtics have won more NBA championships than any other team. Not bad for one city!

We managed to get out for some gorgeous walks along the seafront, sampled some traditional fish chowder and took in a local junior ice-hockey game – those kids are seriously tough! And when it all got just a bit too cold, Max and Ben were very happy hanging out with Matthew and Tyler (the big boys!), playing computer games, messing around with their pet snake and leopard gecko and rocking out to Don’t Stop Believin’!

From here we headed upcountry to the White Mountains and the most northerly spot on our entire trip. It was here in Graeme and Shenley’s amazing winter getaway that we celebrated our first Thanksgiving. And what a great holiday it is. No presents, no decorations, no stress – plenty of eating, drinking and spending time with family and friends, just how it should be. And yes, it was also here that we had to abandon the rental car by the side of the road after my aborted attempt to scale an icy hill! These few days in the mountains was the absolutely perfect way to end our travels. Despite it dropping to a bone-rattling -20° outside, there had been a recent unprecedented dump of snow, which meant snowball fights, loads of tobogganing and off-road rides on the ATV. Throw in an outdoor hot tub, a roaring fire, games of monopoly, table football, Indiana Jones on the big screen and time just hanging out with friends, we really couldn’t have asked for more from our last few days.

So all that remained now was to get ourselves to JFK airport on time and fly home.

Oh, and to somehow mentally prepare ourselves for coming home and to try and digest what we have actually just done. Those thoughts may have to come in a later blog post once we’ve had time to stop and think.

What a journey. What an experience. What a rollercoaster. We don’t regret a thing, but equally we wouldn’t do it again in a hurry! I hope you’ve enjoyed following our little trip and that we’ve managed to give you a peek in to our life on the road.

Dhanyawad. Nanni. Stutiyi. Xie Xie. Arigatōgozaimashita. Mahalo. Gracias.

Thanks for reading.

IMG_0518

3 weeks in Florida or “Welcome to the Truman Show”

IMG_1236

Well that escalated quickly! If we were struggling with the Americanisation (that’s right -sation not -zation) of Costa Rica, then we obviously weren’t ready for the real thing. Everything is so big. Everything is so clean. Everything is so organised. For us it has been like wandering straight on to the set of The Truman Show, and to be honest it was a bit overwhelming at first. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot to like about being in Florida – great weather, clean beaches, good roads, flushing toilets and drinkable tap water were among the highlights. But there was also a lot that didn’t sit quite so comfortably with us, I guess particularly given our recent experiences travelling in the developing world. America seems to have a compulsion to consume. It appears people are continually either eating, drinking or shopping and there is a strong need to be seen to be doing well. An inevitable consequence of this rampant consumerism is, sadly, huge amounts of waste. Our experience was of a throw-away society, producing tonnes of unnecessary plastic packaging. We were shocked at the compulsion to ‘double-bag’ everything at supermarket check outs, and Max soon got used to telling them to stop putting stuff in plastic bags, as we had our own 👍

However, to balance our fledgling feeling that perhaps Florida wasn’t the place for us, we were really lucky to spend a few days with the Norris’s who were so kind to host us so generously at a difficult time. Rob, Charlie, Eddie and Louie introduced us to everything that was good about the outdoors Floridian lifestyle – we went paddle boarding and fishing off the back deck, took the boat and the inflatable donut out for a spin in the ocean and put the world to rights over good food and a few bottles of wine.

We didn’t really get to see much of Miami, but we did cruise along South Beach in a huge SUV, playing Will Smith’s ‘Miami’ at full volume, which was a fine substitute! Max and I managed to get to an NFL game to see the Miami Dolphins play the Chicago Bears. Turns out that Dan Marino and The Refridgerator have retired since I last watched American Football (who knew?!) but it was still an incredible experience. One of the things that America really does well is entertainment, and considering neither of us had the faintest idea how American Football works we were thoroughly well entertained for four hours.

IMG_9670

From here we headed South to The Everglades in search of some alligators. And while we did find a couple, in fact one swam right under the wooden bridge we were standing on, it still all seemed a bit, well, tame. Everything was very strictly managed and well-ordered, you certainly weren’t allowed off the path and it didn’t seem like you were really allowed to do anything. I appreciate there has to be a balance between accessible tourism and protecting the environment, but here it seemed more prohibitive rather than balanced. Although given the proliferation of advertising hoardings for litigation lawyers (“Call 1-800-PAIN” was my personal favourite), an alligator attack would have probably bankrupted the entire National Parks Service!

But we soon forgot all about ‘balanced’ as we headed onwards and upwards to the bizarre but equally brilliant Disneyworld! Now I’ll be honest, I was more than a little terrified as we readied ourselves for two weeks at Disney. Nothing to do with the rollercoaters and drop-rides, I was much more apprehensive of spending that much time surrounded by thousands of kids (and parents) riding the highs and lows of the monumental sugar rush and sensory overload that is Disneyworld. But, as with most things on this trip, it was much better than I feared. Sure, there were plenty of screaming kids being dragged around and many a frazzled parent wearing wonky oversized mouse ears looking like they’ve never needed a drink more – but above all, it was loads and loads of fun.

What did we learn? Well firstly that Ben is absolutely fearless. There was no ride fast enough, high enough or scary enough for him, and it was only thanks to his ‘big shoes’ that he was just about tall enough to ride any of them. He happily shot round with both hands high in the air for every ride, and it was only when we got to the top of the Tower of Terror that he finally looked a little concerned! The other thing that will really stay with me is just how quickly technology is progressing. Some of the interactive rides nowadays are just mind-blowing and the new Avatar ride at Disney’s Animal Kingdom has to be experienced to be believed. Part simulator, part virtual reality, part 4D movie, it is just incredible. And to think, when we were 8 years old we were playing ‘Paperboy’ on a Spectrum 48K! It’s fascinating to think what these ‘rides’ will be like in 30 years time. Although with any luck we might actually have hoverboards by then…

IMG_9784

 

42.2km through the streets of New York or “Is this really that much fun?!”

IMG_0118

It all started two years ago when my friend Georgia told me she was hitting the big 5-0 in 2018 and was going to run the New York Marathon. I also needed something to do to celebrate, as this is the year I turn 40. With our family travel adventure plans just beginning to take shape, it was too good an opportunity not to fit in the challenge of running the New York City Marathon too. I had had a small thought in the back of my mind once I’d completed the London marathon in 2007, when I was 28, that it would be ‘fun’ to do a marathon every decade from my 20s to my 40s… which meant time was running out to fit one in during my 30s.

So, we booked our places and the ball was set in motion. As word got out, more and more people became interested and soon 15 New Forest Runners (NFR) had signed up.  I wasn’t even a NFR at that stage!

And so, in March 2018 my family and I set off on our round-the-world, once in a lifetime adventure and so the training began.

I had naively imagined the training to be fun, interesting and easy going. What could be more pleasant than running around in new places, seeing the local environment up close and personal? What I actually encountered was immense heat, exceptionally early starts (so we could still fit in travel days and days out entertaining the kids) and so many barking and stray dogs that I’ve now got used to having a few stones in my hand to warn them off! The surfaces I’ve encountered have been anything but flat or smooth, or quiet or cool for that matter. But one thing they have all been is a feast for my senses. Smells, sights, noises and rough under foot. Watching communities come alive in the early morning has been magical. Seeing the sun rise on so many occasions has been magical. Training in the heat and humidity has not been quite so magical – did I mention the heat already?!

 

IMG_3023

IMG_1125

Some of the places I’ve run around include:

Entire islands (Green Island, Taiwan)

Running tracks (Sapporo, Japan)

Ancient Forts (Galle, Sri Lanka)

Capital Cities (Tokyo, Japan; Taipei, Taiwan)

Beaches (Palolem, India)

Hills (San Agustinillo, Mexico)

At altitude (Quito, Ecuador; Mexico City, Mexico)

Around cruise ships (Hawaii, USA)

Along canals (Gamboa, Panama)

National Parks (Tortuguero, Cahuita, Costa Rica)

Volcanoes (La Fortuna, Costa Rica)

Rainforests (Manual Antonio, Costa Rica)

Taken a boat across islands to actually find some land to run on (Galapagos, Ecuador)

Motorways (Orlando, US; Quepos, Costa Rica)

Golf courses (Los Sueños, Costa Rica; Orlando, US)

Lava fields (Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos)

Pot holes (Mirissa & Trincomalee, Sri Lanka)

Disneyworld (Florida, US)

Aztec villages (Oaxaca, La Tule, Mexico)

Apart from the numerous dogs, I have also been lucky enough to run alongside a whole host of other species including four different types of monkeys, elephants, giant tortoises, sloths, iguanas and an array of beautiful birds.

One area in which I did struggle was finding the right nutrition and energy drinks and gels. My training in the heat, in places that didn’t have such luxuries as potable water or shops that sold specialist drinks, meant that it was often many kilometres in between being able to find water to hydrate. I got used to being dry-mouthed while running and it always made me grateful that we live in a society where basics such as clean water are so freely and readily available. It wasn’t until we arrived into America, three weeks before the marathon, that I was first able to try some of the energy gels and be able to cook some of the food that I needed to be eating. Thankfully my body adjusted quickly and was grateful to the additional carbohydrates. Although I did not use too many gels during the race itself, the energy drinks gave be a boost and I haven’t gone off pasta!

Marathon Day arrived in a bit of a blur. We’d had a week in New York already and had semi-acclimatised to the far cooler temperatures and the gloriously flat surfaces. There had been a distinct lack of sleep due to all four of us being in a single hotel room – we have tried to avoid hotels as much as we can on this trip – and the fact the clocks changed early on Sunday morning meant that all the runners were checking their watches throughout the night.

Still, when morning broke we were all equally as excited and apprehensive about what lay ahead. We journeyed to the start line on Staten Island, the first of the five New York boroughs we would encounter, over the infamous Verrazzano Narrows Bridge (formally the longest suspension bridge in the world until the Humber Bridge was built) on which we would soon be returning, but running.

The day was perfect for marathon running. Cool but sunny, a crispness to the air that made you want to get out there. The good weather brought out plenty of spectators and there was a fabulous atmosphere as we reached the second borough of the course, Brooklyn. By the time we had crossed the bridge into Queens, half the run had been completed and I was actually feeling and doing really well. If truth be told, I was flying and on track for a sub 5hr time. Chris had tried to see me in Brooklyn but I was too fast – me, too fast! Those words have never been used to describe my running! A brief run through Queens, the third borough, and we crossed the Queensboro Bridge with a bit of a climb. It lead us into Manhattan, the fourth borough, up 1st Avenue and to my demise… 1st Avenue is really long and it’s really straight and really quite boring. And at mile 18 I hit that wall. I spent the next 8 miles positively plodding, however still moving. I made it to the Bronx, the fifth and final borough and returned into Manhattan and Central Park reaching for the finish line.

In the end, I crossed the line in 5hrs 12mins, only 7 minutes slower than I had done in London and had made my target of between 5-5.30hrs. I was extremely chuffed and relieved.

Now having completed the 26.2 miles, I can look back on the last 8 months with a wry smile on my face and a proud heart. It was tough, it was extremely lonely at times, but I did it and I’ve got the medal to prove it! It was great to have shared the moment and memories with all my new New Forest Running buddies, and I look forward to sharing more fun times with them. There’s even talk of Berlin… But I’m not sure if I can do another one… can I?!?

IMG_1770

As ever, Chris has been my rock; the boys have been my biggest supporters. Thank you to everyone who has sent messages and cheered me along the way.

As a family, we can now head off on our last few weeks of travel and adventures before we return to England, without anymore training plans except to get ourselves ready for life after this amazing year. There are many stories to tell and memories to share, and some moments will be told again and again I’m sure!

I’m proud to be supporting MND and all their hard work and research. It’s a devastating disease that sadly is becoming ever present in life. Thank you to everyone who has already supported me. If you’re able to contribute, it really is all very much appreciated.

www.justgiving.com/fundraising/lynseyNYCrun

A month in Panama and Costa Rica or “Living the Pura Vida”

 

IMG_0817

We may have only been there a little over 72 hours, but Panama looks like a cracking little country. In our brief stay we managed to hike through jungles (during a biblical rainstorm!), stroke a baby sloth, search for poison dart frogs, wander the streets of the Old Town and of course take in the phenomenally impressive Panama Canal. The canal is only 48km long but the 8-10 hours it takes to traverse it saves ships a hull-crunching 20,000km trip round the Southern tip of the Americas. No wonder they can charge upwards of $800,000 per passage!

Whilst our time here was little more than an extended layover en route to Costa Rica, this isthmus nation has certainly piqued our interest, and we would love to return to explore more.

 

On our return to Costa Rica our first impressions were, bizarrely, how it felt very American Westernised. It was busier, it was cleaner, there was recycling, the roads had more tarmac than potholes, it was more expensive, more English was spoken and of course everyone expected to be tipped! Costa Rica is one of the few countries in the world without a standing army, and for that to work seamlessly you need to be very sure someone is watching your back. I wouldn’t quite say Costa Rica is an American holiday resort, but we certainly got the impression that keeping Americans (and America) happy was a high priority. But let’s be clear, Costa Rica is stunning. What it seems to lack in indigenous culture and history, it more than makes up for with its stunning beaches, abundant wildlife, towering volcanoes and steaming jungles.

IMG_1039

We were lucky enough to experience all of the above, and our first taste came in the isolated Caribbean coastal settlement of Tortuguero. Having welcomed Nanny and Grandad at San José airport, and barely given them enough time to work out which hemisphere they were in, we bundled them in a minivan before sunrise to make our way East.

Tortuguero is only accessible by boat, and at the moment it’s only just accessible, as the lack of recent rain has lowered the river level considerably. Fortunately for us our boat had just enough clearance, and the fact that our skipper had to take it slow to avoid grounding us on the sand banks just meant we had more time to enjoy the jungle drifting lazily by. It was the perfect introduction as on this journey, and over the next couple of days, we saw toucans, iguanas, monkeys, sea eagles, crocodiles and even dolphins playing in and around the river at our jungle lodge. No snakes yet, but that’s probably not a bad thing as Lynsey was forbidden from running on the local jungle trails as there had been a spate of fer-de-lance attacks recently – not a snake you want to mess with!

There were a couple of real highlights here in Tortuguero. For the kids it was ziplining through the jungle canopy. Both boys were allowed up on their own (please take note Go Ape!) and once Ben had checked the guide spoke English there was no stopping them. Ben was already halfway up the 50ft ladder before they called him back to clip on his harness! And for the grown ups we got a real treat as, by the light of the moon on a deserted beach, we witnessed an ancient green turtle digging her nest and laying her eggs right before our eyes. These turtles lay over a hundred eggs each time, but only one in five hundred survive to adulthood. The nest resembles a pile of huge, gleaming hard-boiled eggs – maybe if they want more to survive they should make them look a little less tasty?!

Whilst this was all an incredible experience, under the surface our travelling circus was starting to creak at the seams. Backpacking with kids is a lot fun, but it’s also a lot of hard work. We have pushed the kids (and ourselves) pretty hard and we probably won’t realise the enormity of what we’ve done until we are looking back on it over a beer in the pub in January. But right now we had all reached peak tiredness. The kids were at total saturation point of each other’s company and Lynsey and I were starting to feel very old and weary.

But, everything goes in cycles, and one of the great things about backpacking is that there is always something else around the corner. For us this was a complete traverse of the country to the stunning Manuel Antonio National Park. Manuel Antonio is Costa Rica’s postcard destination. If you can picture green jungles tumbling onto pure white sand beaches nestled against clear blue water then you’re not far off. Just throw in a miscellany of monkeys, coatis, pelicans and iguanas and one of the best Airbnb we have ever stayed in (it was quite the surprise when the maid turned up in the morning to cook us all breakfast!) and things were already starting to look a little sunnier.

We passed our days hanging out with Nanny and Grandad, splashing in the pool overlooking the ocean, kayaking, snorkelling and enjoying the local wildlife. Having spent three fruitless days in Tortuguero searching for the elusive sloth, incredibly there were two living in the trees right outside our house 🙄 Sloths don’t do much, but they are quite mesmerising, and surprisingly quick when they need to be. Our furtive sloths were beautifully complemented by a pair of stunning scarlet macaws who came to feed on a branch in front of the house at the same time every afternoon, and at night it was not unusual to be woken by a troop of white-faced capuchin monkeys crashing across our roof. This was the Costa Rica on the travel brochures, and it didn’t disappoint.

It was from here that we said goodbye to Nanny and Grandad and wound our way back North to San José to meet up with our old friends Rich and Jo and their boys Alex and Josh who had flown in from Australia. The four of us hadn’t all been together since Rich and Jo returned to Australia 10 years ago, and as always it was delightful how easily we all got along – drinking beers on the veranda, mocking Australian cricket and English rugby and generally putting the world to rights. It was also here that we collected our transportation for the next two weeks, an 8-seater minibus that the boys promptly christened ‘Veronica’. Despite an early error taking us along a rain-soaked mud track, and Rich keeping his driver’s swear jar well topped-up, Veronica didn’t let us down. She ably chugged her way to the captivating ‘hanging bridges’ at Arenal – a series of suspension bridges strung through the jungle canopy with peerless views of the Arenal Volcano. She ferried us to hikes across lava, to hot springs and to one of the most disappointing jungle night hikes ever. We started this hike in the middle of a huge rainstorm, and it only got worse. Our poor guide was so desperate to find something that by the end he was digging ants out of the ground to show us!

Veronica’s next mission was to transport us six hours on Costa Rica’s most dangerous road back to the Caribbean coast. This part of Costa Rica has a totally different vibe. Whilst still Latin America, it is quintessentially Caribbean. Sandy streets, colourful painted wooden shacks, swaying palm trees and a real laid back way of life. And of course, magnificent white beaches and warm clear seas. We swam and snorkelled, climbed trees and drank cold beers by the ocean and generally relaxed and embraced our last few days in Latin America. Max said it looked like Paradise and he wasn’t too far off. Until he fell out of a tree. It was actually a pretty high fall, but luckily he landed on the beach and whilst he didn’t break anything, boy did he love lording it up in the wheelchair at the airport!

It was here on this quiet, Caribbean coastline that for the first time we really started to feel a bit nostalgic. With the USA only a couple of days away we were nearing the end of our time backpacking in the developing world and there is plenty we are going to miss. The ocean that has been our companion for so long. The constant sunshine, warmth and waking up every morning knowing it’s yet another shorts, t-shirt and flip-flops day. Succulent, ripe avocados and bananas that taste like bananas. But most of all we’ll miss the colour, noise, smells, energy and vibrancy that is so evocative of this part of the world.

At breakfast on our last morning in Costa Rica the owner of our hostel said to us “You look like a family on the road, not a family on holiday”. What did she mean? That we all look so relaxed, happy and comfortable in each other’s company, or that we look so tired, grubby and dishevelled that we couldn’t possibly be on holiday! Like most things, it was probably a bit of both, but she was right – it has certainly been nothing like a holiday!

<<<<<<<EXTRA>>>>>>>>>

As most of you will know, Lynsey is running the New York marathon next weekend and in doing so is raising money for the Motor Nuerone Disease Association. So if you are able to donate a few pennies, that would be really appreciated – thanks.

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/LynseyNYCrun

IMG_9645

A month in Ecuador or “Welcome to the Jungle (and the mountains, and the beaches, and the islands)

IMG_0573

Diverse, friendly and continually suprising. Brimful of indigenous history, culture and pride. Golden beaches, steamy jungles and imposing mountains all laying side by side. Whichever way you look at it, this little Latin American republic is a real gem. It may not benefit from the high-profile tourism of it’s more established neighbours like Peru, Brazil and Argentina, but Ecuador punches well above its weight and lacks nothing.

Aside from the chance to visit the Galapagos, one of the main reasons I wanted to return to Ecuador was to see how much it had changed in the last two decades. Back in 2000 I spent nearly a year living here as an exchange student, and whilst it was enjoyable, and undoubtedly educational, I did feel like I had some unfinished business. Back then I was an impoverished student, living in a hostel for $1.50 a night and spending most of the days interviewing prostitutes in a South Quito health centre. As I said, educational but not exactly living the tourist dream. Safe to say I’ve enjoyed it a lot more this time round!

Following our incredible yet exhausting few days in the Galapagos, we headed to Quito for some down time. At 2,800m above sea level Quito is officially the highest capital city in the world and quite literally takes your breath away. I had forgotten how good the views were around Quito. Nestled in a thin valley high in the Andes you are surrounded by snow-capped volcanoes and towering mountains, it feels like summer in the Alps as you drive in from the airport.

 

We didn’t overdo things here, and tried to take it easy. We took a stroll around the quaint plazas and churches of the historical old town and a climb to the top of the tower at La Basilica del Voto Nacional (at 115m high with a distinctly Latin American approch to ‘health and safety’, it wasn’t for the faint-hearted!). We hit our highest altitude of the trip with a ride on the teleferico up Volcan Pichincha. The views down the Andean cordillera from over 4,000m up are spectacular, and Max discovered first-hand the effects of altitude sickness!

Before we left Quito, said goodbye to Lynsey’s Mum and Dad, and headed South, Lynsey and I managed to sneak in our first meal out together of the trip 😊 The food was excellent, the craft beers surprisingly tasty, and we were totally underdressed in shorts, flip-flops and fleeces – perfect!

 

Our next stop was the small spa town of Baños and I’ll be honest, we didn’t have a great time here. Lynsey had tweaked her back in Quito and following the three hour drive to Baños it had completely seized up. We called in an emergency masseuse who took one look at Lynsey and said “you don’t need me, you need a hospital!” Fortunately Baños’s answer to Holby City was just up the road, and with the help of a octogenarian sweet seller who magicked a taxi out of thin air, Lynsey was checked in and hooked up to a drip in no time. Sadly the next few days followed a similar pattern of painkillers, chiropractors, massage, reflexology and I’m sure I saw snake oil and fairy dust at some stage. But, it is just one of those things I suppose. Given that we’ve been on the road since March and this is the first serious illness or injury we have suffered, we can consider ourselves very lucky. The good news is that Lynsey’s back is well on the mend and she’ll be carrying her own backpack again soon 😉

 

Fleeing the damp and drizzle of Baños, we piled into the back of a pick up truck and bumped our way towards the heat and humidity of the jungle. This wasn’t originally on our itinerary, but Max has been going on for so long about wanting to go to the Amazon it didn’t seem fair not to. (OK, so technically where we were in Puerto Misahuallí is actually the Amazon basin rather than the Amazon proper, but it was close enough). We based ourselves in a little hostel right on the banks of the Rio Napo and settled into jungle life. Swimming in the river and diving off rocks in the day and sat out listening to the cacophony of insects, birds and monkeys at dusk. The majority of land around here has been colonised for decades, the sad result of which is that much of the primary jungle has been cleared for farms and houses, illegal logging remains a problem and much of the native wildlife has fled. Whilst far from ideal, I believe it is too simple for us to pass judgement from a privileged Western perspective. Show me a person who wouldn’t chop down a tree if it was the only way to feed their family?

 

Still, a short boat ride down the river and we were soon hacking our way through some ‘real jungle’. This stretch of primary jungle was unbelievably dense and the walking was hot, humid and hard going. We managed 2km in 2 hours! We nearly lost Ben a couple of times in the mud and we had to fling him over a couple of rivers, but all told he must hike better than any 4 year old I know 💪 Was it worth all the effort and thousands of insect bites? Of course it was! We saw vast colonies of spiders, ants the size of frogs, frogs the size of ants, tarantulas, caimans, monkeys and toucans. And Max was still disappointed that we didn’t see more animals! Our extremely knowledgeable guide also pointed out walking trees (that can move to find more light), seeds that can ‘sleep’ in the ground for up to 20 years until growing conditions are right and a sapling that can grow 15cm a day to avoid being eaten! To cool off we took a relaxing ride floating down the Rio Napo in a big rubber ring (well, relaxing if you didn’t have a hyperactive 4 year old on top of you who was determined to capsize the ring and get whisked off downstream!).

 

As if to highlight the ridiculous diversity and accessibility of Ecuador, one car journey took us from breakfast in the jungle to lunch in the mountains North of Quito. We settled in the indigenous market town of Otavalo, the trading hub of the Otavaleño people. We chose it not because there is loads to do, but quite the opposite – there’s almost nothing. We found a fabulous villa 5km up a mountain out of town, fired up the wood burner and hunkered down. The boys have loved playing with the farm dogs Rocky and Sara – not forgetting Ushi the friendly llama – and Lynsey and I have managed to catch up on some reading (and blog writing👍). We’ve broken it up with some walks in the mountains, a visit to a Condor sanctuary and propping up the local economy on market day – but it has mostly been books, DVDs, Monopoly and staring at the surrounding snow-capped volcanoes. Oh, and a 6.2 earthquake that gave us a little wobble.

 

Sadly this brings us to the end of our time in Ecuador and I think we are all going to miss it. We’ve seen so many different things, the people are unequivocally friendly, the travelling has been easy and the weather has been great. Ecuador has really surprised us, and entirely in a good way. If anyone is thinking about coming to South America and not sure where to start, you’d do well to find a better place than this. Ecuador is firmly on the ‘Yes, we would come back’ list.

IMG_9281

A week in the Galápagos Islands or “In search of Lonesome George”

I’m sure we’re not the only ones, but a trip to the Galápagos Islands has been on our dream destination list for as long as I can remember, our hankering regularly stoked by BBC clips of snakes chasing baby iguanas and David Attenborough waxing lyrical about blue-footed boobies.

And so, we finally found ourselves in Guayaquil with two kids and a Nanny and a Gramps in tow, about to make that dream come true. Now, when I last came to Ecuador 18 years ago, Guayaquil was a complete no-go area. And if you were to read too much into our 2002 edition Lonely Planet guide – as Nanny has been 😕 – you could be forgiven for still thinking we were heading straight into a den of villiany and a hotbed of pickpockets akin to Dickensian London. However, all told it wasn’t too bad. Not great, but not too bad. And there is the fabulous Parque Las Iguanas which, believe it or not, is full of huge land iguanas that you can stroke, feed lettuce and take selfies with. It’s like the warm up area before you get to the Galapagos!

IMG_0010

 

Our journey starts with an early morning flight to Baltra – fortunately by now the boys are used to being hauled out of bed at 5am, scoffing down a croissant and a handful of Fruit Loops and being bundled into a taxi before dawn. Transferring at Baltra airport you are immediately greeted by a swarm of finches, merrily pecking away at the crumbs outside the cafe. A fascinating microcosm of Darwin’s 180 year old theory of evolution and the impact of modern tourism playing out right in front of us. Will the finches evolve in the future to have beaks that can open tubes of Pringles?!

To get to our first destination of Isabela Island we all hopped aboard a 10-seater twin-prop aeroplane. Max was lucky enough to bag a seat up the front and co-piloted us through the 30min flight – the landing was a little bumpy, but he’ll learn 😊

 

img_00591740314023.jpg

The views were truly sensational and from this point we knew it was going to be special. There are not many places in the world that are truly unique, but this is certainly one. It is raw and barren. Angular, rocky outcrops burst out of the ocean and the whole spectacle is punctuated with electric blue bays and blindingly white beaches. The Galapagos are relatively young islands (a mere 2-3 million years old) and in some places it looks like the lava flowed and cooled only yesterday! Think of a mini-Iceland with cacti and you’re not too far away. We were even lucky enough to walk on a fresh lava island that only formed 100 years ago. It was truly mind-blowing as you follow the path of the lava flow into the ocean, especially when you see a penguin perched on the edge! A penguin……on lava?! 🤔

IMG_4671

IMG_4521

IMG_4693

This was just one example of the incredible living classroom that is the Galapagos. Tectonic plates, volcanoes, earthquakes, weather patterns, erosion; all there for you to see. And that doesn’t even mention the hundreds of species living there, most of which are endemic to the Galapagos.

The Galapagos has a stellar reputation for its wildlife, and we were not left disappointed. On our first full day on Isabela Island Max and Ben counted nearly 30 new animals on land and sea. We almost tripped over the marine iguanas on our way to the dock and a neighbouring boat had to turf out a sleeping sea lion before they could set sail! We were soon treated to sights of huge sting rays gliding past, tiny Galapagos penguins sunning themselves on the rocks and a procession of sea lions frolicking in the surf. We soon gave up telling the boys not to lean over the side of the boat, we figured they wouldn’t get this close to these animals again and we could always fish them out of the water later if we needed to!

As our boat ‘docked’ up against some rocks, we were soon tramping across a lava field and it took all our efforts not to step on the iguanas as swarms of them skipped their way down to the water after warming themselves in the sunshine all morning. Having successfully avoided ‘iguana-geddon’ we were treated to the rare sight of four white-tipped reef sharks basking in the crystal-clear water flowing through a fissure in the lava.

94% of the Galapagos National Park’s vast 140,000km2 is actually under the water, and that’s where we headed next. Having politely declined to hire wetsuits – a combination of travelling on a budget and thinking nowhere can be as cold as swimming in the sea in England – we donned our snorkels and leapt off the side of the boat. Once the cold water shock had passed and the feeling slowly returned to our limbs (!) we dipped under the surface and began exploring this living aquarium. It was sensational. We shared the water with penguins and marine iguanas, swam with huge flourescent parrot fish and floated through lava tunnels and over the most incredibly coloured starfish. But the real highlight were the turtles. So graceful, so calm, so carefree. Max and I were lucky enough to swim with one old fellow – all turtles are old aren’t they? – while he dived, fed, surfaced for air and went about his business totally unconcerned by our presence. Ben got a real treat, and quite a surprise, when one turtle crept up behind him and shot past his ear, almost winging him on the way past. Like Max said, it’s like actually being in Finding Nemo!

No trip to the Galapagos would be complete without seeking out the illustrious giant tortoises. At one point hunted almost to extinction (I use the word ‘hunted’ loosely as let’s be honest they wouldn’t take much catching!) the giant tortoise population is back on the rise thanks to a number of breeding programmes and sanctuaries around the islands. It was bizarre to wander the fields with these super-sized reptiles, they are so clumsy and cumbersome and even the smallest movement seems like it takes the most enormous amount of effort. When they are scared they retreat into their shell and in order to make room for them to get right inside they have to expel all their air, one final huge sigh of resignation, before they have to do it all again. No wonder they hibernate for so long!

IMG_4452

One of my enduring memories of the Galapagos is how completely ambivalent the animals are towards humans. Pelicans land right next to you, sea lions sleep on park benches, iguanas run between your legs; but they don’t come looking for food, they are just totally non-plussed. I consider this a real-life nod of approval for the way in which the islands are currently being managed and also the respect the tourists have for this incredible place. I’m no pessimist, but the realist in me says that it won’t stay this way for ever. The islands are obviously a massive tourist attraction, and consequently a huge income generator. It would be naive to think that it hasn’t already piqued the interests of large multinationals and the footfall will inevitably increase in years to come. However, reasuringly, the lodges we stayed in (Scalesia Lodge in Isabela and Finch Bay in Santa Cruz) and all the guides, boat captains and drivers we had the pleasure to meet were totally committed to a sustainable, eco-friendly, nature-first future for the Galapagos and this will stand the region in good stead for the coming years.

And did we find Lonesome George? Yes we did. He had been stuffed in New York and returned to stand guard over his home in Santa Cruz. Lonesome George died in 2012 at the grand old age of 102, the last of his species of Pinta Island tortoises. How did he die you ask? After decades of unsuccessful searches for suitable partners for George and various attempts to artificially preserve the species, the authorities finally found two females who seemed to float George’s boat. It must have been a bit much for his 100 year old ticker though, he had a heart attack as he amorously pursued them round the enclosure!