Friday 21 December 2007

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas 2007


Volunteering at Preychrouk School

We were lucky enough to spend a day volunteering at Prechrouk School while we were in Cambodia. Normally volunteers would spend at least two weeks teaching at the school but the Sage Foundation kindly let us volunteer for only a day as one of the Cambodian teachers, Vanak, was happy to have us help him teach English to the Year 8's and 9's.

Teaching at Preychrouk SchoolKids of Preychrouk School

The school is about an hours drive West of Siem Reap in a rural area not visited by tourists. The road isn't completely paved and the school has no water or electricity. There's no playing field or playground equipment. There's just two buildings: one for the primary school and one for the secondary school. They just have rooms, desks, chairs and blackboards and not much else for 700 students. They study subjects like math, english, khymer, geography, history and the sciences sharing the school between two shifts each day. Half the students study in the morning and half study in the afternoon. There's no fluffy subjects like art and music. There's no sports. There's no clubs.

We spent half a day getting an orientation of the school before the day volunteering. I was pleased to find that the Cambodian branch of Room to Read had provided the school with a library and a basic collection of school books. It's a charity we've donated to in the past. However, for the entire school, we discovered that they only had two dictionaries. That evening, we bought the school six more dictionaries but clearly they're desperately short of resources of every kind.

Vanak teaches 8 classes back to back. We missed the very first one since it started at 7am but we joined him for the other 7 working on the verb "to be" with his students. The class sizes weren't too bad and tended to range from twenty to forty students. The students were great. They're very well behaved, respectful and keen to learn. As in other countries, the really enthusiastic one's tend to sit in the front while some of the more reluctant students sit in the back. It seemed to me that the reluctant one's were just the students having a hard time keeping up with the pace of the class.

Vanak is an excellent teacher and clearly has a lot of fun with his classes. He's keen to be a better teacher but has no resources to help him learn. Cambodia needs a lot more teachers like Vanak but they're in very short supply. Many parts of Cambodia only have schools up to the primary level or none at all. Even if there is a school, it's a challenge to get the parents to consistently send their children to school as an education isn't valued. The children are needed to help with the farming work or sell souveniers to tourists. Ironically, the kids selling souveniers generally have very good language skills that will serve them well to get jobs in the tourism industry when they grow older.

Monday 10 December 2007

AboutAsia Travel

It's often a struggle to book a holiday. One option is to use a tour agent in your home country but I always feel you pay way too much for what you get. Essentially you're paying for a lot of marketing and sales overhead for a bulk travel product. You can also do it all yourself but it takes a lot of time and research and it's hard to get the itinerary all lined up nicely. You can easily end up paying rack rates and wasting a lot of time.

So an alternative is to find a local travel agency in the country you're visiting. The problem is finding one you can trust not to rip you off and that will customise an itinerary to fit your needs and interests rather that push you through bulk travel tours. The big drawback to these local agents is that you don't have much legal recourse if things go wrong so trust is a major concern.

We arranged our tour of Cambodia through AboutAsia Travel which is quite a unique tour operator run by Andy. Andy lives in Singapore and creates the custom itineraries while his head guide is based in Siem Reap and handles all the ground co-ordination. What is truly unique is that 50% off all the profits from a tour is donated to the Sage Foundation which helps children in Cambodia.

The cost of the tour was very reasonable but even if you think you're paying too much, it feels good to know that half of the profit is going to a good cause. What convinced me to go with AboutAsia Travel was a phone call I had with Andy where we discussed how to structure the itinerary and he clearly knew how to avoid the main tourist traps and offered ways to see Cambodia that many tourists missed. What really clinched it was that he could arrange with the Sage Foundation for a day of volunteer work for our family.

I arranged to pay on arrival rather than a bank transfer but in fact no one asked me for any payment when I got there. After a few days, I insisted it was time to pay and visited their office. Our guide told me it was considered a bit rude to ask for the money up front!

There were a couple of minor mess ups but nothing serious and nothing that they didn't bend over backwards to rectify. Overall, it felt like you were being looked after and that feels very relaxing after being so used to doing everything ourselves.

I managed to meet Andy before I left Siem Reap and had a interesting chat about the business and his work with the Sage Foundation. It's a great business model as it allows tourist dollars to have a direct impact helping local people. Today it's successful without any marketing and a lot of dedication from Andy. His challenge is to scale the business without him putting so many hours into it. Once the business model is proved and runs smoothly, then it can be replicated across Indochina and other developing countries.

So if you're thinking of visiting Angkor Wat, it's well worth your while contacting AboutAsia Travel and seeing what itinerary they can put together for you. Hopefully one day you can travel elsewhere with them.

Wednesday 5 December 2007


The modernity of Bangkok was a relief after Cambodia. We stayed at the Vengtai Hotel not far from the Khao San Road. Not very luxurious but clean and comfortable.

Unfortunately, my daughter came down with a high fever on arrival. I still had a bad cough and an on-again, off-again low grade fever. The two of us spent the whole of our time in Bangkok holed up in the hotel. Very boring.

Jenny and K* managed to cover lots of sights and get in some shopping. Luckily, they avoided catching what we had. R*'s fever finally broke before we were due to fly back to Kuala Lumpur.


Monday 3 December 2007

Phnom Penh

While Siem Reap is a small provincial town with rural sensibilities, Phnom Penh is very much a big city. It's crowded and the people aren't as friendly. The girls often dress with a sense of fashion and there's plenty of flash cars to prove that some Cambodians are wealthy.

Cambodia has a reputation as a very corrupt country. We we're never directly affected by corruption but we heard lots of stories. For example, the terrible road between Siem Reap and the Thai boarder never gets fixed because its alleged that Thai Airways pays a bribe to keep it that way. The guides we had technically work for the government but they give their salaries to their boss in exchange for not showing up at work. Instead, they all freelance and earn more however, they will still get a pension one day.

The roads in Phnom Penh are still dominiated by swarms of motoscooters. There's little sense of road safety and there's even less sense that there are any rules of the road. Many cars don't even have licenses and I heard many license are fake. Few helmets are used. Our tuk tuk didn't even use lights at night. At intersections, there's often no traffic lights or stop signs. Everyone just goes and weaves around each other! The main rule is that smaller vehicles make way for bigger vehicles and there's safety in numbers. Crazy.

Our first day, we visited the Tuol Sleng prison (S21) and the Choeung Ek Genocide Center at the Killing Fields. I've spent some time trying to understand Cambodian history since independence but its been a struggle to understand the Khmer Rouge and the purpose behind their brutal policies. The portraits of all the children they put to death at S21 was really upsetting. What I can't reconcile is this nice country and people with such a horrific past.

We also visited the Royal Palace which was fine but not overimpressive. It lacks the finish of fine artisans. We spent quite a bit of time at the Water Festival down by the riverfront watching the boat races. The tourist board had a special pavillion for any tourists which made it very easy to get a good view. The crowds in the city were phenomenal.

Unless, you are interested in the Khymer Rouge history, I don't think its worth visiting Phnom Penh. Rural Cambodia is more interesting than its cities.

My enjoyment of the trip was then cut short. I came down with a high fever and spent three days lying in my hotel bed while the family continued sightseeing. At least the Sunway Hotel was a very nice place. My fever broke just in time for us to fly to Bangkok. It seems it was a nasty flu.

Wednesday 21 November 2007

Siem Reap

We've had a really good week here in Siem Reap. First, its a bit of a luxury trip for us. We're in a decent four star hotel rather than our usual three star or less. It's called the Angkor Holiday Hotel. It's a rather soulless design catering to tour groups but it's very clean and comfortable with aircon, a pool, a good breakfast buffet and our own safe in the room. The place is only two years old. The service from the staff is outstanding - friendly, prompt and eager.

After a week here, one of my strongest impressions is just how nice the people of Cambodia are. They're very polite and courteous but friendly too. Always quick to smile and laugh. Vendors aren't pushy except for a few around the temples. They regularly go out of their way to help you. Out of all the places I've been, no country has a nicer people.

We've had our own private van with driver as well as an English speaking guide to take us everywhere and look after us every day. This has made it a dead easy trip. Of course, we've done dozens of temples but there's hundreds in the area. I have to admit I wasn't overly impressed with Angkor Wat. It's interesting with some fabulous base reliefs but not awe inspiring - even when we saw the sunrise over it. However, Angkor Thom (aka the Tomb Raider temple) definitely lived up to its reputation. Fantastic. We also saw the temple at Beng Mealea which is in a state of total ruin and covered by overgrowth. Very atmospheric with few tourists. Overall, the temples were well worth coming here too see.

We also managed a few excursions further afield. The floating villages of Tonle Sap were interesting. The one at Chong Kneas is too touristy but Kompong Phluk was worth seeing. We even got paddled about a flooded forest. The whole pace of life centered around the ebb and flow of the massive Tonle Sap lake is fascinating.

We also visited the reclining Buddha at Kulen National Park. It's the only place I've seen beggars so far. The Thousand Linga was interesting. Basically a thousand phallic symbols turn the river holy. Ok, there's a lot more explanation needed but I've learned Hinduism is very complicated and I certainly can't explain all this penis envy. We had lunch at a beautiful waterfall downstream where there were few tourists and plenty of Cambodians splash about.

The best part of traveling Cambodia is just watching people go about their daily life. Jenny describes it as being very much like rural Malaysia 30 years ago. There are still bullock carts but motorscooters provide the main form of transportation. They're used for everything from transporting pigs to stacks of mattresses to families of five. It's a very poor country with few modern conveniences and not even simple machinery. It's a simple life and a hard life but I'm sure they have much stronger communities than what we have in the West.

We spent a day teaching at a local primary school. It was a great experience that I'll write up in more detail later. The school didn't even have electricity or running water. It was fabulous meeting the children and our kids had a chance to help teach them English.

Today is our last day here. Jenny managed to take a cooking course at a local cooking school while the kids and I went to see the Land Mine Museum. Land mines are still an horrendous problem here. In fact, there seem to be hundreds of good causes and we've felt compelled to donate to quite a few. It feels wrong that such a nice people have so many troubles.

Tuesday 13 November 2007

Off to Cambodia

Tomorrow we're on the road again. We have a two week tour of Cambodia that I arranged with Sage Insights (update: Sage Insights is now called AboutAsia Travel). This is a complete change as usually we do everything ourselves but Sage put together a compelling itinerary for a reasonable price and the profits go to a good cause. One of the highlights of the trip will be volunteering as a family at a local primary school. It should be a great eye-opener for the kids (and us!). We're also spending four days in Bangkok since Jenny's never been there. It was a horrid city twenty years ago when I last went but maybe its got better.

Monday 12 November 2007

Diving Bali

Recently got back from ten days in Bali with Jenny and her brother John. It's the least I've ever been prepared for a trip. I didn't even have a guidebook or a map! But my focus was on diving rather than culture so my only preparation was reading about the various diving locations.

We arrived and immediately jumped into a taxi for a two hour drive up to Amed. Along the way, I realised to my horror that I had left my Samsung T9 MP3 player on the airplane. Doh! I'm pretty good at losing small things and now tend to avoid buying expensive mobile high tech gadgets. The T9 was an excellent little device but I ought to get something bigger so I'm less likely to lose it. On the return trip, I filed a lost report with AirAsia but I doubt I'll see it again.

I expected Bali to be a lot more "developed" than what I saw on that taxi ride. I was quite pleased that it wasn't. Amed is primarily a fishing village and most people go about their daily struggle to earn a living amid a few tourists. We checked in to the Three Brothers guest house. John had a small bungalow right on the beach front to himself while Jenny and I took a larger one just one row back. Clean and comfortable and we got them both for 200,000 rupiah. That's $23 US a night! No aircon but we had a fan and an occasional breeze. We also quickly arranged four days of diving with Ecodivers. Diving was $60 US per person per day with full equipment hire but John negotiated a 15% discount since it was low season.

The diving was absolutely superb; better than the Red Sea. The wreck of the USS Liberty in Tulamben was excellent but there are even better and much less crowded sites in the area. There's a huge variety of sea life and healthy soft and hard corals abound. Some of the highlights were bumhead fish, three octopusses and a pygmy sea horse. Saw my first shark. It was just a small white tip about 2m long. Plenty of anthias, jack, parrot, scorpion, lion, angel and a billion other fish I can't identify. Suffice it to say, there's lots of look at.

The best dive was a Gili Silang - greatest profusion of corals I've ever seen. They just carpet the sea floor. It was a very worrisome dive though as it can potentially become a toilet bowl with bubbles going down rather than up. That's freaky. You have to respect the currents. We also hit a thermocline where the temperature dropped from 29C to 21C.

Ecodivers was ok but they were a bit lacking on checks and some of their equipment is rather old. But their service was fine. We had a mix of shore drives and jukung dives. Jukungs are small outrigger fishing boats that can only hold three people. You have to put your kit on and take it off while in the water. I was a bit dubious about this at first but it works well and the trips were short. The diving is very easy with little swell and gentle drifts. Visibility was generally about 15m. Diving heaven!

After four days and eight dives, we decided to take a break. Ubud caught our interest as offering a bit of culture so we took a taxi there and settled into Gusti's Guesthouse. Two clean and simple rooms cost us 280,000 rupiah ($32 USD) each night but again, there's no aircon; just a fan. Gusti's is built on a ravine going down to a river and has a beautiful garden setting. Across from Gusti's is Roda's restaurant which has excellent food at great prices.

At first we were only going to stay two nights but we extended it to three nights. John and Jenny were keen to do some shopping so I relented. There's tons of art and handicrafts and none of it is very expensive. We also took in a couple of cultural dance performances. I'm a bit cynical about performances for tourists but actually they were very good and I quite enjoyed them. Best of all, I fulfilled a minor ambition to watch a live gamelan performance. I love the sound of a gamelan when it's played slow and meditatively.

We spent our last two nights on Nusa Lembongan which is a tiny island just north of Nusa Penida. We got there on the public ferry which turns out to be just an oversized jukung. There's no dock; you have to wade through the water to get onboard. We stayed at Tetuk's Lonsoms gettings two rooms for 300,000 rupiah a night. Ours was on the first floor with a veranda overlooking the beach. Fantastic!

We managed a day of diving with World Diving which is owned by some Australians and run very professionally. They have a large jukung fitted out as a dive boat. Altogether, there were 12 of us diving the day we went out and we soon made friends with a few of them.

The islands have a wicked reputation for strong currents and cold water so we donned 5mm full length wetsuits with hoods. However, it turned out that the water was a warm 28C and the drift was gentle. On the first dive, we saw two massive mola mola. Unbelievable! It's a rare sighting especially given the conditions and season. It was a great thrill to watch these gentle giants. The second dive wasn't eventful but the extensive corals and sea life was still very rewarding.

While onshore, we wandered around the broad sandy beach watching the locals farm seaweed and sat around some of the beachside restaurants. We also wached some cockfighting which is barbaric as you might imagine. We also rented some motorscooters and spent a couple of hours exploring the coast eventually finding a placed called Dream Beach to have a cold beer.

The last day, we got back to the mainland and hired a taxi for 400,000 rupiah for the entire day. He drove us all over the southern part of the island with us getting him to stop at a variety of shops and temples. We checked out Kuta Beach and the more developed parts of Bali which cater much more extensively to the western ideal of a beach holiday.

This has been one of the nicest trips I've ever done. You get fabulous diving, an interesting culture and beautiful scenerey with excellent value for money. On the downside, it's very hot and humid and you regularly get bitten. The food gets a bit monotonous too. I'd certainly consider going back.

Wednesday 31 October 2007

R* Turns 12

We're now in Kuala Lumpur living at my in-laws. This is going to be our home away from home for the next seven months.  Yep, SEVEN months. It's a long time eating just rice and noodles. As you would expect, it's hot and sunny and dreary England is a long way away. No winter for us this year!

Today is also my daughters' birthday. She's turned 12 and is more like a young adult every day. It's a bit hard celebrating birthdays when you're travelling. We gave her a Calvin Klein Swiss-made watch that she picked out for herself yesterday and later this afternoon, we're off to a theme park inside a mall. And there's bithday money burning a hole in her pocket.

Today, I also need to pack my bags. Tomorrow, Jenny and I are flying to Bali to get in ten days of scuba diving all along the east coast. Jenny's brother is coming with us. He's a divemaster and has dived the area before. But that's all of us. The kids are staying behind since we can't look after them while diving. I'm really looking forward to getting back into some serious diving. We haven't done much diving since 2004 when we went to Egypt.


Travel Lessons

So we learned a few things doing this last trip.

Our kids, at this age, do not do scenery. I doubt many kids care about scenery. We spent a bit too much time driving around beautiful places and would plan for less of it next time. Driving with bored kids is never fun . Audio books are the best way we know to pass the time in the car.

It's better to book accommodation in advance. While booking at the last minute offers a lot of flexibility, it also wastes a lot of time and finding room for a family of four is harder than if you're just a couple. Next time, we book it all.

We learned that we can't take our kids somewhere, show them something historic and then try to get them interested in it. It doesn't work that well. They need to know something about what they're going to see before we get there and then they're more likely to be interested. This means building in more time into the itinerary for learning about what we're going to see. See less and understand more.

If you travel Europe and you need Internet access, take a laptop. Internet cafes are few and far between but wifi is everywhere.

With kids it's all about "doing" and activities. We have to keep reminding ourselves that and not just rushing around and "seeing". The kids always seem to like climibing up to the tops of places.

On a long trip, we need to plan on more free days where you don't have any plans and can just take it easy and get the laundry done. We tended to have these days when someone ran out of underwear!


Saturday 20 October 2007

Rome Again

Our last day back in Rome was a wash out. We spent ages tracking down places to stay and being Monday, the places we wanted to go were closed. Doh! Bad timing. We had hoped to either go to Tivoli, Hadrian's Villa or Ostia Antica. Instead, we just did a little wandering around Frascati. Bit of a waste really.

If you're ever flying out of Ciampino airport (eg with Easyjet) and need to stay nearby, I can highly recommend a hotel called Hotel Dei Consoli.

There was ugly traffic getting the airport and the flight was delayed by almost an hour but we got back the UK just fine. I must confess I felt pretty excited to arrive home at last. It's great to be back. We took over 3400 pictures. I'll try and get some posted soon.

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Around Naples

For the last three days of our trip, we rented a car in Sorrento drove back to Rome.

Driving is a bit of a nightmare in Italy but you just learn to keep cool, expect the unexpected and make slow deliberate maneuvers. And you don't expect anyone to stick to any rules. You don't even get lines on motorways sometimes!

But I really wanted to drive the Amalfi coast myself. It's just one of those things. In fact, I'm starting to hatch an ambition to drive all the famous roads I can think of.

By the time I managed to drive from the rental car office back to our apartment, I was already a stressed out wreck. I got stuck blocking traffic because I couldn't figure out how to get the Renault Scenic into reverse and instead had to push the car out of the way while I had some Italian yelling at me. It was a bad start. And it took me ages to figure out how to get to the apartment to pick up the family. French cars and Italian roads; what a nightmare.

We got on our way and I drove around the Massa Lubrense, Sant'Agata sui Due Golfi and on to Positano and Amalfi. Yes, it's a beautiful part of the world and the driving can be crazy. At one point, I drove through a wedding congregation. It wasn't my fault; they were all over the road. I would have liked to explore Amalfi but we didn't have time. Minori looked like a good place to have a family holiday. It has a beach and isn't as famous as the other coastal towns.

We stopped in Vietri sul Mare for lunch, gelati and so Jenny could buy some pottery for which they're famous.

By sunset, we made it down to Paestum to see the famous Greek temple down there. Unfortuantely, the archeological park had closed by 3:30 so we could only look at it from the fence. It's the second largest next to the Parthenon.

We then drove all the way up to Pompei and found a place to stay so that we could get to Vesuvius the next morning.

The next day, we soon found our way to the Vesuvius parking lot and hiked up the last few hundred meters. It's one of the best things we did. It is quite inspiring to look into the throat of an active volcano. There's even a little bit a steam and the smell of sulphur to go with the fantastic views. No, I wouldn't want to live with fifty miles of it.

Next stop was the Palazzo Reale (Royal Palace) at Caserta - a "me too Versailles". The place was used in Star Wars Episode II as the Theed Palace on Naboo. We had to take a bus inside the grounds to get to the gardens its so big. It has a famous botanical garden that was nice to wander around. We didn't go inside.

Then it was back on the road to Rome.

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I'm back in the UK catching up on these blog posts.

The train from Rome to Naples went smoothly. We had bought the ticket the day before which was a bit tedious. Whenever possible, we learned to avoid any kind of Italian bureacracy and queuing. It's very slow with tellers not working particularly hard and its easy to get in the wrong line and get sent to the back of another one.

From the station, it was easy to catch the Circumvesuviana train over to Sorrento. Public infrastructure in Italy attracts a great deal of graffiti and it seems to intensify the further south you travel. The train and the many stations were all well covered.

Our apartment at the Coultur Suites was excellent. It had a view of the (grande) harbour and was fitted out to a high standard. It's only drawback was that it was a bit small and the kitchen was underequiped. The kids are always excited when we get to a new place and immediately loved it.

Sorrento is tremendously touristy and was packed with many elderly travellers. Many of them are day trippers from cruise ships that drop anchor in the bay. It didn't feel like shoulder season so it must be horrendous in high season. If I was to go again, I would stay up in the Massa Lubrense but then you would also need a car and its less convenient than being near all the public transport.

We did all the typical sights in the area. Luckily the weather stayed very good except for a couple of bouts of heavy rain.

We took the cable car from Castellammare di Stabia up to the top of Mount Montesanto. Unfortunately, the last car down was at 4:30 and we got there late so we only got about an hour up at the top. Fantastic views and a great place to go for a walk. Well worth it but you need to go early.

We took a fast catamaran out to Capri. It does live up to its reputation as a beautiful island but it swarms with tourists even at this time of year. Jenny took the kids to see the Blue Grotto while I hiked by myself to Villa Jovi. Ceasar Augustus acquired Capri and started the building of the villa. Tiberius lived there for the last 10 years of his reign. The views from the remains of the villa are absolutely fantastic - especially from the cliff that Tiberius supposedly threw his victims. If you're into sun and fashion shopping, Capri would be a good holiday.

The highlight of the area was visiting Pompeii and Herculaneum. They are very well worth it and the kids were really well engaged in discovering what was there. We spent six hours exploring Pompeii and didn't cover it all. We're sorry that we missed the Villa of Mysteries. It's a huge place. Herculaneum is much smaller but we spent about four hours there too. Both sites really allow you to image what the Roman world might have been like. It's particulary interesting seeing all the mosaics and wall fresco's in place. Herculaneum even has two story buildings and the remains of carbonised wood.

We also took a fast catamaran across the bay to Naples and visited the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. This is a "must do" since all the best finds from Pompei and Herculaneum are there on display.

Naples itself I found to be a very intimidating city and I've traveled through some pretty scummy places in my life. We had dinner in Naples and walked through the streets to the train station in the evening and I certainly didn't feel safe. It's a jumbled, noisy, decrepid, intense city. That said, the shopping and restaurants offer much better value for money. I'm sure there must be nice parts of Naples and there's plenty more to see. I'd like to explore it but without any valuables and without children in tow.

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Friday 12 October 2007


Finally got to an Internet cafe here in Sorrento and got some time to catch up.

The train from Milan to Rome was excellent - a fast Eurostar. We were worried about buying the tickets on the day we were travelling but it turned out that wasn't a problem. The ride was smooth with plenty of leg room. Much better than flying.

From the train station in Rome, it was't far to our apartment near the Spanish Steps. I was very pleasantly surprised when we got there. I usually brace myself for disappointment when we arrive at any apartment. Picture and descriptions don't often match reality. However, in this case, it was much better. It was large and nicely decorated. A cafe was right next door where I enjoyed my morning coffee over the week. The only drawback was that it was a very noisy location. Rome is an incredibly noisy city. I mean, ITS REALLY NOISY!!. Started to drive me nuts.

We covered all the main sites of the historic area of Rome. We didn't bother with the Vatican museum - 7 kilometers of displays is a bit overwhelming and I didn't think the Sistine Chapel was worth a long wait in a queue with the kids. We did climb to the top of St Peters and enjoy the spectacular view of Rome from up there. We visited several churches, Piazza's, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, the Pantheon, the Colleseum, the Forum, Circus Maximus, Boca Verita, etc. The museum on the Capitoline hill was excellent. We also visited the National Museum.

We took the Archeobus out to see the Appian Way and visit the catacombes. Unfortunately, we had picked the wrong day as one of the catacombes was closed but the catacombs of St Sebastian were open so we visited those. It was bit silly driving down the tiny Appian Way in a huge tourist bus. It would have been much nicer to rent bikes but didn't manage to organise it. 

The challenge of course is to make all these things interesting and relevant to the kids. We bought some more books and tried our best to explain some of the history. We spent quite a bit of time studying church architecture. The big lesson we learned was that we need to prepare the kids a lot more about what they're going to see before we get there rather than take them somewhere and then try to answer the question "what was that". To make up for that, we did try to take things quite slow. In the colleseum, we gave the kids time to just sit and draw what they were seeing.

The last day was a bit of disaster.

It started off well. We we went to Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini where they've used the bones of 4,000 monks to decorate the crypt. Quite something and well worth seeing.

Next we went took the metro out to the EUR to see the Civil Museum which has a large model of ancient Rome. We got there and discovered they had gone on strike so they wouldn't let us in. Overall, we've learned its very very important to check opening times here in Italy.

In the interest of escaping the constant traffic and noise we next decided to go find some green space and the most obvious green space in Rome is Villa Borghese. While there we rented some bikes. Unfortunately, R* had an accident and badly scratch her face. Lots of blood and she was in a bit of shock. After deciding her nose wasn't broken, Jenny got her cleaned up at the zoo while I hunted down a taxi. We got home and set about nursing her better. She has been healing just fine.

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Thursday 27 September 2007

Driving the Alps

So out of Munich we made our way to Neuschwanstein to see the famous fairytale castle of King Ludwig II. It was still pouring with rain when we got there so we voted not to visit and just take a couple of photo`s from the road. It is surrounded by autumn colours and would have be beautiful if there had been sunshine.

We stayed the night in Lindau. We arrived late and left early so we didn't see anything. I'm sure its a nice place in the summer.

Next day, the kids were curious about the tiny country of Leichenstein which was nearby so we visited there. It was a quick visit as there really isn't much too see. At least it wasn't raining.

We're now in Malters in a small family friendly hotel just outside of Lucerne. Today, we managed to drive in four countries: Germany, Austria, Leichenstein and Switzerland.

Overall, we've been driving too much and it hasn't been too fun for the kids. If the weather was better, we might have squeezed in more stops to enjoy some of beautiful scenery we've been passing through. We still have another day before we have to return the car back in Milan.


So we did make it back to Oktoberfest in the evening and saw the lights from the top of the ferris wheel. However, it was raining quite heavy.

And it was still raining the next morning. We left Munich and dropped by the Dachau memorial on the way out. Dachau was the first concentration camp created by the Nazi's and was used for the whole 12 years the Nazi's were in power. It wasn't an extermination camp but rather a camp for political prisoners but it was horrendous nonetheless.

The museum is excellent and most text is in German and English. It was a grey and miserable day which set the mood appropriately. I think its good to expose the kids to how barbaric man can be to each other even in the modern age.

Tuesday 25 September 2007


We've been in Munich two days now. The first day was warm and sunny so I couldn't resist going to the Oktoberfest right away. The kids loved the funfair and R* even tried a serious rollercoaster (Olympia Looping) and loved it. We managed to have lunch in a beer tent and soak in the atmosphere.

Late in the afternoon we wandered around the old centre of Munich and Jenny got in some shopping. It really is a pleasant city.

Today the weather has turned. It's our first day of rain and it's much colder. We spent the morning catching up with laundry and schoolwork and this afternoon we explored the massive Deutche Museum which claims to be one of the largest Science Museums there is. We only explored a fraction of it before it closed. I did manage to get my picture with a UNIVAC.

Hoping to get back to Oktoberfest tonight if the weather doesn't drown that ambition.


On the way up to Munich, we drove through Obersalzburg. Well, the satnav took me to the new Hotel Turkin which used to be next door to Hitler's Bergenhoff. We soon found our way to the car park and bus station from where you get tickets to visit Hitler's Eagles Nest.

This whole area is where members of the Third Reich had their homes. Their homes no longer exist but the network of bunkers are still there to be visited. We went into the Obersalzburg Museum but unfortunately, the displays were all in German. I tried explaining some of the imagery to the kids instead.

The mountain road up to the Eagles Nest is fantastic and the Eagles Nest itself doesn't disappoint in terms of the views. K* even found some snow to play with. We had lunch with cheeky black birds and a fantastic panorama. Its a good side trip from Salzberg but we made the mistake of going there on a Sunday near lunch time so it was very busy.

Saturday 22 September 2007


It took four hours to drive up to Salzburg from Venice yesterday. The trip went quickly listening to some stories, practising math and playing some games. The flat plains around Venice quickly erupt into the alps. It's a very pleasant drive on good motorways. My only complaint is that the tolls are not cheap.

As soon as we got into Austria, I bought a vignette (tax disc) so we could drive on the Austrian roads. It's only about 8 euros for a month.

Before reaching Salzburg, we made a detour to visit the salt mine at Bad Durrenburg. Salt has been mined here starting with the Celts a couple of thousand years ago. It was mined up until 1989 when it became uneconomical to compete against cheap imports.

It's a fun visit as you have to put on white overalls and ride a small train into the mine. Inside, you also use slides and a underground boat to get about the mine. At different points, you watch parts of a film which explains all about the salt mine. The tour guide gives the tour in both Deutsche and English. It's all very well done and I'm sure the kids will remember it.

We then checked into our guest haus a few miles up the road, the Hotel Sallerhof. Nice place! Excellent rooms and good service. The only drawback is that the breakfast is typically German - cold meats and bread.

Today we spent the day in Salzburg and celebrated Jenny's birthday.

First, we did the Sound of Music Tour (four hours) as Jenny is a big fan of the movie - saw various places the movie was filmed as well as places that played a role in the real lives of the Baron and Maria. Toured around the nearby scenery all to a backdrop of Sound of Music songs. And I wasn't cynical once!

We then got back to Salzburg and soon discovered the city was having a beer festival with tons and tons of stalls and a beer tent. Great timing for a visit! So we walked all over the places, visited the fortress on the hill and dined in a beer tent. Afterwards, we wandered about the fun fair too. Even the weather has been good - not as warm as Italy but blue skies and comfortable.

Tomorrow we head to Munich.

Friday 21 September 2007

Verona and Venice

On the way to Venice, we stopped by Verona to check out the Roman arena where those famous opera´s are held. Not as big as we expected but still, it looks great for a place that's a couple of thousand years old!

We had a difficult time finding a place to stay near Venice. Don't bother going down to Fusina even though you can catch a ferry from there. However, the area along the river Brenta around Dolo and Mira turned out to be quite nice and we eventually stumbed upon a gem of a place called Villa Ducale.

It the past, many wealthy Venetians built elaborate villa's along the Brenta. Villa Ducale is a modest villa that's been converted into a three star hotel. Our bedroom was very atmospheric and even had two chandeliers made from murano glass. Dinner was very good and the help we received from Elisa was exceptional. I would highly recommend the place. Our family room was only 120 euros.

From Villa Ducale, we caught the bus in to Plaza Roma at the top of the Grand Canal. Another option is to take a ferry from Fusina. Then we caught the No 1 waterbus down the Grand Canal to San Marco Square. The kids were more impressed with feeding the pigeons than the elegance of Venice! Arrghh. We did a guided tour walking around Venice which gave us a bunch of information but wasn't very engaging. We went through the basillica too quickly. The kids held up well and became much more animated when they had a chance to shop after the tour. Venice overflows with interesting things to buy. R* loved the masks and K* loved all the glass. So as far as I can tell, pigeons and shopping were the highlight of the day.

We're now in Salzburg and luckily, our hotel has a computer on the Internet we can use. We're also thankful for the change in cuisine as Italian food was getting rather repetitive. It's very hard to find other ethnic cuisines in Northern Italy.

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Tuesday 18 September 2007

Italian Lakes

I'm in a dreaded Eurocamp late at night in an Internet kiosk. It's not easy to find Internet access. Wish I had brought a laptop now as wifi access is everywhere.

The Italian lakes live up to my expectations. Very beautiful. We stayed in Benova which is north of Stresa on Lake Maggiore. We visited Isola Bella which is an island with a fabulous villa and garden on it. Next we wound our way over to Lake Como which is even better. Much more dramatic landscape with very steep hills all around it. The lakes are supremely picturesque but rather boring for kids. They're not really a great place for activities. It's best for cafes, promenades, grand villas and gardens. Perfect for the shuffling silver hair set.

In contrast, Lake Garda is much more activity and child oriented. It's still quite picturesque up at the north end. So we're spending a day at a camp ground so the kids can play and we can get our laundry done.

The trip is going well although we need to spend more time doing home schooling. Its tricky when you're on the move so much.

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Thursday 13 September 2007

Milan Day 2

No, I definitely wouldn't want to live in Milan. The Science and Technology Museum was very good. We went there to see models of Leonardo da Vinci's inventions. The man was brilliant and we've been talking about him quite a bit with the kids. That was the highlight of the day for me. Well, maybe it was the ice cream. Jenny and R* are at La Scala seeing Don Quixote so I'm sure that will be their highlight. Neither K* or I wanted to see it. We just spent some time in the park instead.

 Looking forward to getting our rental car tomorrow.

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It's the morning of our second day in Milan. I'm sitting at an ancient Windows 98 computer in the hotel lobby. I'm really not sure this post will work as I'm getting lots of errors popping up. A friend who lived in Milan for a couple of years described it as a sh*thole. I wouldn't condemn it that badly but I'm not that impressed after one day of wandering around.

The Duomo and glass covered gallery are amazing of course. We also went and saw Leonardo's "The Last Supper" at the Santa Maria del Grazie (or however you spell it). That was great and not as badly eroded as I expected. The streets are noisy and dirty. There's a mish mash of brutally ugly buildings and beautiful old ones. Walls are covered with graffiti. Our hotel is in a rather unpleasant neighbourhood. That's one of the risks of booking a cheap room on the Internet!

On the plus side, eating out seems a bit cheaper here. Coffee at a cafe is better and cheaper. And ice cream is better too. The metro is cheap. While sitting in restaurants, we're practising phrases from the Italian phrasebook we bought yesterday. Neither of us know Italian. We have another day of exploring before we rent a car and drive out to the lakes. I'm optimistic that there are more pleasant areas of Milan that we haven't discovered yet.

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Monday 10 September 2007


We've been in Paris for almost a week and I finally got access to the Internet. I'm sitting at a small Internet cafe is St Germain while K* plays on his Nintendo DS. The meter is ticking.

We have a great apartment. Small but clean, comfortable and well kitted out. It's only one block from the St. Germain metro so it's easy to get about. Even the shower is good! Definitely a luxury.

We've done most of the classic sights around Paris: Notre Dame, Sacre Couer, d'Orsay, Pompidou, Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower. The top of the Arc de Triomphe at night was spectacular and we made it to the top of the Eiffel Tower in the evening too. Held the attention of the kids long enough to show them many of the Impressionist paintings at the d'Orsay as well as the modern art at the Pompidou.

Paris is becoming very bicycle friendly. There's a new velo velib (sp?) system which has made 10,000 bicycles available around the city and there's many bike lanes. We rented bikes for a day and did a cycle about. K* was quite a worry but he's still alive.

We've done a couple of guided walks too which are almost always very interesting as you learn lots of little details and stories you otherwise would never know. We did one walk around Les Halles (the old market area) and another around the Isle de Citi.

We did all of Disneyland in one day. The queues were very short so it was easy to get about. The one disappointment was that Space Mountain was closed. No need to go back.

We haven't gone to Versaille. The train there was closed this last weekend and detour seemed too awkward. So we abandoned that visit. I was hoping to get there on the weekend to see the fountain displays. We probably won't visit the Louvre either as it's a bit dry and overwhelming for the kids.

Jenny and R* are now off enjoying some Paris shopping. And that's all from me until I find the next Internet cafe.

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Monday 27 August 2007

Facebook and Flickr

There sure are a lot of choices for creating an online presence nowadays. I often try new places when I hear of them; I've tried Second Life, MySpace and MSN Live Spaces but dumped them.

This blog still my remains my main online website. However, you can also find me on Facebook and Flickr.

I've found Facebook quite a fun place to hang out. It hits a sweet spot between blogging, email, chat and photo sharing by providing a context for interacting with friends online. Clever. And it provides an open platform for simple applications that encourage interactions. Very clever. And it's a great place for creating casual groups. There's even a group for graduates of my old elementary school! Amazing how well Facebook is taking off.

I'll be using Facebook for posting pictures of family and friends.

I also have a pro account on Flickr I'm using to share photo's. I'll be using Flickr to post our travel photo's and other photo's of us. That's where the photo stream on my blog comes from. You can easily watch for new photo's without me having to make a blog post.

You can also sometimes catch me on Windows Live Messenger but I don't use it much.

Notting Hill Carnival 2007

Notting Hill Carnival 2007Notting Hill Carnival 2007

Took the kids down to the Notting Hill Carnival yesterday. It was children's day not the full-on carnival day. Unfortunately, I got us there too early. We arrived at 10:30 (the website said it started at 10!) and the first float didn't get to us until 12:45. There were also some long gaps between floats so the kids got bored. They didn't like the whole vibe and soon wanted to go home. It's a case of you win some; you lose some. If you ever go, you should aim to get down there around 1pm. Next time, I'm leaving the kids at home. They'll like it more when they're teenagers.

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Summer in BC

As you can tell from the previous posts, we have just got back from three weeks in British Columbia. We were there to celebrate my parent's 50th wedding anniversary which went very well. We tried to get around to seeing as many friends as possible but unfortunately, we never can fit everyone in. We also tried to get out and do some summer activities with the kids as we usually visit in the winter in order to get some skiing in. Luckily we had some great weather. We rambled around Lynn Valley and some beaches, rode bikes around Stanley park and went sea kayaking a couple of times. Wish we had had more time to take the kids to all the the places we wanted to show them.

For a lark, we took the kids to Dairy Queen which was the first time they had ever been. Thought they should try a banana split. Disgusting! The memory is better than the reality. We never got around to trying a drive through takeaway; it's something else the kids have never tried either - so deprived.

The weird thing about going back is that I often felt like a foreigner even though that's where I grew up! Cars, houses, roads and almost everything else seems way oversized. Even all those Canadianisms seemed, like, strange, eh? Guess it shows how long I've been away.

Tuesday 21 August 2007

PADI Dry Suit Course

Ian in Dry SuitWhile we were staying in Sidney (British Columbia), Jenny and I did a PADI dry suit course.  I've often seen British Columbia listed as one of the best places to dive in the world. Given that I enjoy diving and frequently visit the region, I figured I had to give it at least once chance. Of course the water is a tad cold so there was no way I wanted to do it in a wet suit hence the dry suit course.

We did the course with Sidney Surf n Dive and while they're nice folks, I can't say I was overly impressed with their ability to run a course. We got there on Friday morning at 10 but it took 2 hours to collect all the gear we needed together. I then found out I needed my own transport and had to fetch my Dad's car. We got to the pool to find out someone had goofed and didn't book it in the first place! That killed the day and the instructor left to go back to his real job. Lots of apologies but we were pretty disappointed.

We were called back later that afternoon and the owner promised to look after us personally and take us out on his boat on Monday and we could do the pool session that evening. And he would throw in a discount. We gave him a second chance and proceeded with the pool session at another instructors own home pool and it went well enough (picture above). It's an easy session just to get familiar with the dry suit and learn what to do if you get upside down.

Come Monday, I was looking forward to a boat dive at a well known local wreck called the G.B. Church. However, we had bad news when we arrived at the shop. The owner had broken his finger the previous week and couldn't take us out. Jenny was taking all this bad news as an omen and seriously wanted to quit the whole thing. We settled on going with another instructor (our 3rd) for a couple of easy and shallow shore dives.

We did the dives. Both Jenny and I were underweighted which meant we couldn't put enough air in the dry suits. This resulted in minor leaks and runaway ascents. I should have just put rocks in my BCD but didn't think about it at the time. Jenny was maxed for the lift capacity of her BCD. The maxium depth was only 13m so bouyancy control was never going to be easy.

The water wasn't cold at 19 celsius but I did have two full layers of warm clothes. One layer was regular ski thermals. Then I had sweat pants and a fleece jacket on top of that. It's certainly more awkward than a wet suit.

The visibilty was poor and there wasn't a whole lot to see where we went. Some small fish, crabs, starfish, a nudibranch and one small curious shark. It was ok.

So my conclusion is that cold water diving is bearable in a dry suit although very cumbersome. Dry suits are not really dry but more like what one instructor said, "variable damp suits". You need a lot of extra weight; 33 lbs was not enough for me. All three instructors had different opinions on how you manage both the BCD and dry suit which is still a bit confusing.

Nevertheless, we're now both supposedly "qualified" to dive in a dry suit. The reality is that it would take several more dives in a dry suit to feel qualified. I would still like to dive a nice site in BC but I'd go with a different dive shop.

Sunday 19 August 2007

Sea Kayaking

Sea Kayaking Deep Cove, VancouverWe managed to do some sea kayaking while back in British Columbia. First we made a trip to Pender Island and did a three hour guided tour with Kayak Pender Island. It's a nice little outfit and easy to get to; there's a direct ferry from Swartz Bay. On the other side, you can just walk there from the ferry terminal. The highlight of the paddle was going past a small rocky outcrop that was home to several harbour seals and their pups.

About a week later, we went kayaking with a friend in Deep Cove, Vancouver (thanks Willy!). That's where we are in the picture. It's amazing that this beautiful peaceful area is only minutes from the city. I'm not sure the kids enjoyed the paddling that much but I did. K* was happy for me to do all the paddling. R* finally got her own kayak on the second trip but then found it was a lot of work.

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Friday 20 July 2007


1997 Porsche 993 TargaI'm very sad to say that I sold my Porsche. It was driven away last Wednesday leaving a big empty space in my driveway.

It was harder than I thought to let it go and teetered on calling off the sale. But I had to be practical about it. The problem is that with us travelling, I wouldn't be using it for a 10 months and would  have had to put it into storage for at least 7 of those months. Now, storage isn't good for a car anway but it costs £30 per week if you want them to start the engine and look after it properly. I've owned it for five and a half years and in that time, its depreciated £8800 which works out to £131/month. Put them together and the bottom line is that it costs about £250 every month to not use it.

On top of that, I have to say the kids had outgrown the back seats and didn't like riding in the car. And I admit I was driving it less often to avoid those £60 visits to the petrol station. It had become more of a weekend car.

But it was a great weekend car! Always a pleasure to drive it.

Wednesday 18 July 2007

Earning Pocket Money

Our kids don't get a weekly allowance. You might think this is mean but I believe money needs to be earned in some way rather than just handed out.

First, we don't pay for chores around the house. That leads to the question "How much will I get?" whenever you ask them to do something. If they ask me that, I tell them how much they owe me for renting their room. The kids live in the house so they have an obligation to share in the domestic chores they're capable of. No arguments.

I will sometimes offer to pay them for a job that they aren't normally involved with such as washing the car or picking weeds. Its usually something outside to get them out of the house. Or I might pay them to do something like making greeting cards. If they can save me money, they can keep the money that's saved.

They don't get paid to practice their musical instruments. That's a commitment they made when they decided to learn them.

The kids go to "work" five days a week learning at school. I pay for results at school. At the moment, I pay for every sticker they receive when they've done a good job on an assignment or test. The tricky part is to come up with some quantitative and fair system that encourages them to put in extra effort.

I don't pay cash. We have an account book and I act like a bank. It's a generous bank that pays 1% interest on their accounts every month. It encourages them to save and shows them how money grows. Some day I'll teach them that interest rates change! I'm also an ATM machine.

If they want to buy something that I think is a good idea, I might offer to split the cost 50/50 with them. We negotiate all kinds of bargains and often require the kids to "sell" to us why we should share costs. The core idea here is that they must contribute some of their hard earned money. Clothes and books are an exception. We buy those. If we go to a fair or amusement park, I'll give them a budget and after they've spent that, they have to use their own money.

Sometimes they want to buy something that I would rather they didn't. I'll tell them why its a waste of money but after that, I usually bite my tongue. At that point, it's their money and they've earned the right to spend it as they wish.

This system has worked very well for us. The kids don't nag us for stuff and are careful with how they spend their money.


Limiting Kids Computer Time

This year we came up with a point system to limit the amount of time the kids played games on the computer and get them to do more educational things. I've written up the details in an article called A Point System for Earning Computer Time.

Overall, it's worked very well. I would encourage parents to come up with their own system so that kids earn the privilege of playing on the computer rather than give them unfettered access. I'm not against playing games on the computer but rather believe kids should indulge in a wide variety of play with a strong preference for the real world.

This point system doesn't have to be just for computer time. I think of it as an alternative currency and you can invent other things they can spend the points on. My golden rule is that there is no exchange rate between points and real money. I also never deduct points as punishment as that would destroy trust in the system.


Sunday 15 July 2007

BrainNoodles goes On The Road

Welcome to my new weblog skin. It marks the start of our travels as next week we head off to Canada to visit family and friends in Victoria and Vancouver. Our itinerary is also more or less settled for the rest of year and is still a bit hazy for the first half of 2008. Not that we're completely ready. Far from it! There's just so much stuff to do when you decide to go travelling for a year.

I'm not going to give you a blow-by-blow listing of our plans but will try to blog more frequently and tell you what we get up to. Stay tuned.

Sunday 8 July 2007

How to skim for a world record

Ran across this interesting info (that all fathers should know) over on 10ticks:

At present the world record for skimming a stone is set at 38 bounces. French scientists from the Institute de Recherche sur les Phenomenes hors Equilibre have studied the art of skimming. A throw involves four factors- the translational and spin velocities, the angle at which the stone heads for the water and the angle at which it hits the water surface. To get near the world record, Christophe Clanet, the head of the team recommends the angle to approach the water is about 20 degrees, spinning at 14 times per second and with a starting speed of 25 mph. Jerdone Coleman-McGhee is the world record holder and passes on these tips: Triangular stones skip best, circular stones are less stable. The lower your hand at release the better. Strength is not the key, quickness is. The faster the stone is spinning the better it will skip. The surface of the stone should be parallel to the water when it hits to achieve maximum bounce. The very finest skipping stones are flat black slate.


Monday 18 June 2007

Father's Day First

It was Father's Day today and the kids took me out for dinner. Yep, that's a first! The kids decided to split the bill between themselves and pay using their own hard-earned money. Mom offered to pick up a share of the bill too. It's not the amount that counts but that they recognize that they have a role in contributing in the family. This is good.

Wednesday 6 June 2007

Guns, Germs and Steel (Jared Diamond, 1997)

It's been a while since I've read an entire book. That is, a proper thick book with over 400 pages. However, I recently finished reading "Guns, Germs and Steel" by Jared Diamond. It won the 1998 Rhone-Poulenc Science Book Prize. Its subtitle is "a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years".

Diamond sets out to explain why human history turned out the way it did. His thesis is that the big picture of history is completely a product of environmental factors and has nothing to do with racial capabilities.

He covers the early human disporas, the rise of food production and the invention and spread of technologies. It's a fascinating story.

The gist is that the Fertile Crescent had an overwhelming advantage in the number of domesticatible seeds and animals. China had the next best collection. These areas developed agriculture and the earliest civillisations giving them a head start. Because of the East-West primary orientation of the Eurasian continent, food production and technologies spread easily. Meanwhile, the Americas and Africa had a poor collection of domesticatible seeds and animals and a primary North-South orientation. Farming developed slowly and did not spread easily in these regions. With greater food production, Eurasia developed higher population densities which led to increases in disease and immunity, sophisticated government, technology development and warfare.

China was, for most of history, the most advanced nation on earth. The anomally of China's recent isolation and stagnation left the world to western domination in the last few hundred years. It's interesting to watch the explosive development of China as it takes back its historic position in the world.

Diamond does discuss in detail developments in North and South America, Africa, China, Polynesia and Australia. What I'm left not understanding is why India did not play a more powerful role. It had a head start in the Indus Valley, early food production and access to technology and trade with the other early civillisations. I need to read more about Indian history.

Saturday 2 June 2007

Home Alone

Last Sunday we had the almost bizarre experience of being home alone without any kids.

K* spent the weekend camping with the cub scouts. It was his first big trip away from home. Lots of pictures on the website. Unfortunately, the weather turned bad and some of their tents blew down Sunday night! Lots of rain but he enjoyed it and still likes camping.

R* was away for four days hiking the Brecon Beacons in Wales as part of a school trip. She didn't say much about it but she seemed to have enjoyed herself.

So we had Sunday free to ourselves! For a treat, we went and saw comedian Shazia Mirza at Norden Farm. Overall, she was very good. As a Pakistani Muslim woman, she can draw on a lot of cultural and ethnic material and she does it well (F*** Off, I'm a Hairy Woman). Amazingly, she also receives death threats which she reads out and makes fun of during her show. Respect.

Sunday 13 May 2007

First Family Bike Ride

That same weekend we did the bluebell walk, we had a major family first - a family bike ride!

During March and April, I finally taught K* how to ride a bicycle. The trick I found was to first get him riding a regular push scooter to get the idea of keeping one's balance. It didn't take too long from that for him to transfer the idea to balancing on a bike. The main struggle was getting K* to *want* to ride a bike. He's been very, very reluctant which has always baffled me. I finally bribed him with a brand new computer game or something of equivalent value.

I was really chuffed when he finally got it.

And now he's keen! On sunny days after school we've been going riding in the park. We need to build up to more challenging rides so I'm now workig on road safety and building confidence. I'm very pleased that we've got a new family activity to pursue.

Cliveden Bluebells

Bluebells at Cliveden

A couple of weeks ago we went up to Cliveden in Jenny's annual pursuit of bluebells. We were a little late but the woodlands were still well carpeted. The previous week, we had gone somewhere else but had had little luck.

Sunday 15 April 2007

Bletchley Park

With the kids on Easter break, we spent a day up at Bletchley Park. It's famous as the site of the Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS) during World War II. It's here that Alan Turning worked on the Bombe machine and Tommy Flowers brought the Colossus into production in their work to break German Enigma cyphers.


Ok, maybe not the most exciting place to take the kids but I've been wanting to visit for ages. Bletchley Park is hugely significant in both its role in winning the war and contributions made to Computer Science.

It's not a very big place and it looks like it struggles to finance itself. The most interesting display was the rebuilt working Colossus that's there and running. Those 1500 vacuum tubes put out a lot of heat! It's not the first true computer (that was the Manchester SSEM) but it was electronic, digital and semi-programmable and put to work in 1944.

Another great display at Bletchley is the hands-on computer museum with a great hodge-podge of old computers - Pet Commodore, Commodore 64, Vic 20, an orginal IBM PC, Classic Mac, etc. Fabulous! Wish I had collected some of them myself over the years. Of courses there's excellent displays on the whole Enigma story and some on life during WWII.

Classic Mac

So if you're a computer geek, Bletchley Park is well worth it. If you're dragging kids along, it's not going to be a long visit. There's a free tour, free audio guides and the ticket is valid for a whole year - adults £10, kids under 12 free.

Wednesday 14 March 2007

Ski Zauchensee

Just got back from a ski trip to Austria with a couple of friends. Went to the same place we went last year staying in Altenmarkt which is less than an hours drive south of Salzburg.

Last year we went in February. It was cold and there was lots of snow. This time it was much warmer and there was no snow in the valleys.

First day, we drove up to Zauchensee. We were all quite concerned about the snow conditions but things started looking much much better as we drove up to the resort and got above the snow line. That was quite a relief. It was snowing too so it couldn't be too bad!

Snow at the top of the mountains were great but it got quite heavy and slushy as we skiied down to the bottom. My balance and technique were pretty crap. Worse of all, my glasses and goggles kept fogging up and I could barely see. The falling snow was very wet. By early afternoon, my legs ached and I wasn't having a good time so I quit skiing early. Mike and David continued skiing but unfortunately David had a nasty fall and pulled his calf muscle. It turned out to the end of any more skiing for him.

On the second day, Mike and I headed out to Obertauern which was only about half-an-hour away. It's claim to fame is that it's where the Beatles filmed the snow scenes in the Help film. It is one of the higher resorts in the area and felt colder than Zauchensee. The snow was indeed really good up there. It wasn't snowing that day so I could avoid the foggy goggles too. I took it quite easy sticking to blue runs and concentrated on getting my technique back. For a Friday, it was very busy but waits for the lifts were very short.

It was snowing when we got up on the third day. Mike and I headed out to Schladming on the basis that the weather reports were better out there. We were both a bit disappointed when we got there - the ski run down was brown slush. However, we went up the cable car and found a blizzard at the top of the mountain! Excellent snow and wide pistes. However, the snow did get slushy as you skiied down to the half-way point of the cable car. I wiped out a few times getting caught by the change in snow conditions.

That last day was great. My balance and technique were much better and my glasses and goggles didn't fog up. Even my legs weren't so tired. Got in some great runs. Unfortunately, three days isn't enough. Next ski trip needs to be for at least a week and I figure February is the right month to go. I have liked all the resorts we've gone to in Austria. All are well organised, have excellent facilities and offer enough variety for me. The Salzburger Sportwelt is a huge ski area but as the mountains aren't very high, it best not to go too late in the season.

Thursday 1 March 2007

Dead Pixel

It's been a right horrible day.

Early this morning, just after midnight, our cat , Pixel, sauntered back from his usual night prowl. I went to wipe his paws since it was wet out and quickly realised his face and paws were covered in blood. That wasn't a saunter; it was a crawl. He was a mess and was wheezing out his breath. He was in shock. Oh my god.

Panic ensued. We tried to wipe him up and make him comfortable but his jaw, teeth and tongue were hanging out at different angles. I called the emergency vet but would have to wait until the morning to get him into an animal hospital. I was distressed but hopeful. I figured he had been in a bad fight with another animal - something smaller than him. I figure it couldn't have been a car or he really would be shattered. He couldn't of met a dog or fox or he would have more injuries. My worst thought was that someone had kicked him.

We got him into the hospital by 9:15 in the morning. The vet quickly assessed he had been hit by car. She thought his internal organs were alright and if it was just the jaw, he should recover and learn a lesson. One life down, 8 left I thought feeling a bit relieved. He needed have an x-ray to double-check the fractures before having the operation to wire the jaw back together. Turns out a broken lower jaw is a common injury. Many cats survive getting hit by a car.

We got a call around noon with devastating news. The upper jaw was broken too. It's a rare fracture. Fixing it was very difficult and prone to complications - the brain and soft palate being very nearby. He might not be able to eat properly ever again. Recovery would be painful and take a long time. It was going to be expensive. Furthermore, it was clear that he had been hit very hard and there was a good chance there might be futher injuries.

One of those really horrible phone calls. She suggested we call her back in 5 minutes to tell her how to proceed.

Five minutes?

Five minutes to breakdown while Pixel lay on an operating table under anasthetic. We chose - I chose - euthanasia. It seemed the right choice at the moment. I choked the words when I called her back. Put him to sleep. She thought it was a good decision. I felt like shit. I still feel like shit. Killing a pet you love dearly. I could write tons about why he was a wonderful cat. When do you let go? He was only 19 months old. Maybe we should have struggled to nurse him back? Is that being selfish or generous?

At first we were going to let the hospital cremate and dispose of the remains but Jenny decided to bring him home. His body was still warm to the touch. I broke all composure at that. It really hurt.

Breaking the news to the children was difficult but they took it better than us adults. After some hugging and crying, we all stroked him and said our good-byes. Together, we buried him in the garden wrapped in a pillow case and planted flowers on the grave and marked it with a headstone.

He's gone. But I still catch myself checking the glass door where he would usually appear, asking to come inside.

Thursday 22 February 2007

Year of the Golden Pig

Chinese LionKung Hei Fat Choi!

Chinese New Year again and this time it's the Year of the Golden Pig - R*'s year.

We celebrated by going down to London's Chinatown with some friends on new year's day and having dim sum. We arrived before the restaurant opened to make sure we could get in. Our friends were dim sum virgins so we had fun introducing them to all kinds of dishes. Afterward, we joined the thousands and thousands of people who had come to see the parade and festivities at Trafalgar Square. The picture is one of the many lion dances that took place in chinatown.

The event is huge. We couldn't get a good view of the stage at Trafalgar Square so we eventually gave up and went down the the Victoria & Albert museum. It was quieter there this year but the smaller scale allows the kids to see more.

As I said last year, it sure would be nice to see more contemporary Chinese art than the same old traditional stuff.

Tuesday 6 February 2007

Travel Shows

It's the beginning of the year so it must be travel show season! Last week we went to Destinations: The Holiday and Travel Show while a few weeks before that I also went to the Adventure Travel Show.

The Adventure Travel Show was the smaller of the two and held at Olympia. As you might expect from the title, it was aimed mainly at gap year students and people seeking adventure sports and uncomfortable trips to remote locations. Think "expeditions". It was interesting and would be fabulous if I was single but there wasn't a whole lot for families. It was good for finding  volunteer organisations. It wasn't very busy when I went at the end of the day which made it really easy to strike up convesations with the exhibitors.

The Destinations show was held at Earls Court and was much bigger and busier. Think "mainstream". Many of the exhibitors were tourist boards from numerous countries. However, there was considerable variety including some very small tour operators and more adventurous travel companies. For example, we had a chat with the company that was involved in making the "Tiger! Tiger!" BBC documentary. We also found a tiny company that did tours of Cambodia and Vietnam.

We came back from both shows with large stacks of brochures which we're slowly going through and helping us refine our itinerary. I've also been renting a few travel DVDs of India and China which have been useful. The kids have been watching them and thinking about what they would like to see. However, the DVDs have also made Jenny a bit worried about the health aspects of travelling India.

Thursday 1 February 2007

K*'s New Glasses

Sadly, the day came last Tuesday when K* was prescribed glasses. Last week, the teacher had to move him to the front of the class because he complained he couldn't read the whiteboard.

Both Jenny and I wear glasses so we knew it was very likely at least one or both of our kids would also need glasses. Luckily, R* seems to have escaped so far but I didn't get my first pair until I was about 14. There's still time.

Glasses are a hassle and I don't think you can ever say glasses improve your looks. It's a shame. He's taken it quite well and agrees it very nice to be able to see so much detail in the distance now. At least it should help him at school.

Ski Workout

Well I'm back into doing workouts and I've been managing to do it every other day for the last two weeks. No, it's not a New Years Resolution; it's fear. I've committed to going skiing with my mates in March. The less you exercise before skiing, the more it's gonna hurt! It's great motivation.

I'm not going to the gym. I really don't like the atmosphere of a gym and I hate the time overhead and expense of going there. I may go later on as I do really like the various weight machines that allow you to isolate specific muscle groups.

So I'm just doing a relatively adhoc routine at home and making use of my eliptical machine. The quads, abdomen and lower back are the critical areas I know that I need to tone up. And cardio of course. And lots of stretching. It would be good to lose some weight although that's not really my main goal. I'm up to 90kg when I'd rather be under 80kg.

My secret weapon this time is good loud thumping music. Rock on.

Thursday 11 January 2007

Family Travel Adventures 2007

Jenny and I have decided to pull the kids out of school and take them travelling for a year. We leave this summer.

We've toyed with this possibility for many years. The idea is that there's more to an education than classroom learning. Our hope is that travel will challenge them and provide new experiences which help them grow and learn about the world. That's the theory. It's also just plain fun and a way to enjoy having the kids before they grow up and don't want to hang about with Mom and Dad anymore.

This does mean that we have to "home school" the kids for a year. It's a scarey challenge considering how hard it is to get the kids just to do their regular homework! We're now officially "teachers in training". R* will miss Year Seven and K* will miss Year Four. Both will return to their current schools when we get back and hopefully won't have a hard time catching up.

Our first trip will be back to Canada for a family visit in the summer. Then we'll come back to the UK and spend September and October travelling around the Alps and down the length of Italy. After a quick stop back in the UK, we'll then fly to Malaysia which will become our base for six months. From Malaysia, we'll do several trips which will likely include India, Australia and China. Later in the spring, we'll return to the UK and do some more trips around Europe taking advantage of the fact that it won't be high season.

As I said, we're still formulating our plans so things will change. I decided go public on this blog now since any ideas, contacts or help with the planning are welcome and might change when and where we go.

Blog 2007

Welcome to another year on my blog. Looking back, I've obviously been slowing down with the number of posts I make. I've been sticking more and more to travels and family stuff. It's a momentum thing really. I also don't want to keep whinging on about all the stuff that's wrong in the world. Anyway, it's 2007 and I expect to have a lot to blog this year!

Meanwhile, I've recently upgraded to Subtext 1.9.3 which has given me more antispam tools so commenting on all my posts is open again.