Time to check some bucket list boxes – Sydney – Days 130-136

First time in Australia for Mike and the kids….check…..New continent….check…..Opera house…..check…..Bondi beach….check.

Australia was for the kids. There’s a Netflix show called “Izzy Koala” and our daughter, Isabella, dreams of being a koala rescuer too. When we started talking about the trip, her little brain came up with the idea that we could visit Izzy’s koala sanctuary. Unfortunately, Izzy Koala does not take visitors but the idea of a stop in Oz was stuck in my head. Since I’d been to Australia already, Michael was going to be hard-pressed to convince me to come on a separate trip just to Australia so adding it to this world trip itinerary seemed like a good idea. We were off to the land of koalas, kangaroo and shrimp on the barbie; the first stop was Sydney.

It was my turn to get the family virus (the one Izzie caught in Colombia) and, for me, it manifested as an infected eye. We had to go to an optometrist for a proper diagnosis and medicine. It took several days to go away and I had to wear my glasses the whole time we were in Sydney – no contact lenses and very few photos of me from this leg. It drove me crazy! So day 1 in Sydney involved an optometrist, school at the library, a walk through the Botanical Gardens and the obligatory visit to the Opera House. It’s one of those world landmarks that does not disappoint (FYI, in person, it isn’t really white).

On day 2, we decided to head to the beach. Mike was feeling better and he felt sad that he’d missed so much Hawaii beach time. We chose Manly beach which seemed to have all the magical ingredients: harbour ferry ride, expansive surf beach, walk to a more secluded snorkel beach and an ocean pool to explore. And we did it all! As we rode the ferry to Manly, we wondered why we don’t live in Sydney. Public transit in the form of a ferry boat always seems so civilized and relaxing. We arrived in the beach suburb of Manly and did school in the library where Isabella did a writing assignment about sea turtles. We opted not to swim with the surfers at Manly (they have big signs warning about rips) and instead walked to nearby Shelly Beach which is part of Cabbage Tree Bay, a protected marine reserve. It took a while to convince the kids to snorkel (in the colder than Hawaii water) but it was fun to putter around and see neat creatures right from the beach.

Sydney has a pretty wild coastline so they’ve built these “ocean pools” at most of the beaches which are publically accessible and often free. They are ocean-fed unheated pools that allow Sydneysiders to swim without the full force of the surf, the sharks or the jellyfish. They are also very photogenic. Mike and the kids tried a few of them and I snapped the pictures.

Michael’s little sister Katie has come to Australia while we’re here. Our itinerary might have initially inspired her visit but she went ahead and convinced two friends to meet her here for an Australian adventure. She was in Sydney at the same time as us and, we met up to go to the Taronga Zoo (we’ll get to spend more time with her when we head to Tasmania together). The animals of the Taronga Zoo have an amazing view of the Sydney Harbour and the setting is probably the most memorable part of the place for me. I also loved seeing the chimpanzees who had a huge enclosure and were very animated when we visited.

Isabella will tell you that the Koala Encounter was the best part. It is illegal to pay to hold and cuddle Koalas in the state of NSW but the zoo does offer what they call “close encounters” with them. You are allowed to go in the cage and see them up close. Isabella learned of this optional zoo add-on and there was no convincing her not to spend her allowance on it. The ticket was for up to 4 people and she asked Aunt Katie, friend Yukari and luckily her sister to join her (this time not asking Julie to pay). Do others find their older child constantly trying to save her money by convincing her younger sister to spend her money? Isabella told me that this was the best day of her life so I guess she has no regrets about cleaning out her wallet. We were also amused by the news in Sydney from a few days before our visit, the lions had actually escaped. Don’t worry, they were recaptured without incident.

The Potts Point neighbourhood where we stayed in Sydney was also interesting. I chose it because it was close to the CBD and I read that foodies gravitate there for new, interesting dining. And the dining was great with lots of yummy restaurants that didn’t break the bank. Apparently, this was a “sketchier” area of Sydney but the pandemic wiped out a bunch of the dodgy bars. It still seemed a bit rough around the edge but the proximity to the city and great food worked well for us.

We chose to save Bondi Beach for our last full day in Sydney. We took a bus to Bronte Beach and did a 2 km walk to Bondi which made for an impressive arrival at the iconic place. We watched the surfers and Mike took the kids for a swim. The kids tried out their new bathing suits and got new sunburn lines.

Now we’re off to Tasmania.

Where we stayed (5 words or less):

  • Holiday Inn Sydney Potts Point: Great transit access and breakfast

By the numbers:

  • Types of eye drops currently in our first aid kit: 3 – don’t ask, so tired of eye-related infections
  • Cost for the koala encounter at the zoo: $30 – Isabella used her own money
  • Ice Creams: 9 – in addition to our normal gelatos, the hotel had free all-you-could-eat-ice cream for the kids 24/7
  • Cost of taxi from the airport: $70 – we must have got ripped off
  • Cost of Paige’s hack bus route to the airport: <$10 – I still have no idea how she pulled it off

Illness part 2 and a lost wedding ring – Hawaii – Days 126-129

Hawaii holds a special place for us as we honeymooned there 9 years ago. Our first trip was mostly spent on the Big Island and Kauai Island, but we did have a layover in Honolulu where we drove and visited Pearl Harbour.

This trip to Honolulu was not always on our itinerary. We knew that we wanted to spend the month of November in Australia but we find ourselves in Bogota, Colombia (those locations are not close to each other). The flight path also wasn’t logical with all trips sending us north and involving at least one stop in the continental USA. The cheaper flight options involved two stops which would mean a 36+ hour journey.

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Halloween in Bogota – Days 121-125

Children sitting in the Bogota sign

We arrived in Bogota recognizing that the Colombian leg of our trip was ending.  Our last 5 days consisted of doing some slow living (i.e. laundry), watching the Raptors and getting schoolwork done.  We did no research on Bogota ahead of time and felt like we had no real objectives to cross off. When it was all said and done, we watched some Raptors, we had our first doctor’s visit and the kids got to experience Halloween, “Bogota-style“.

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Zona Cafetera – Here we come Juan Valdez! – Days 119-120

It did not seem right to visit Colombia without visiting the Zona Cafetera (the Coffee Axis), so we added a quick 2-day trip to the itinerary. Although the distance did not seem far, I knew that this might be a long drive so we splurged for a private driver from Medellin to the Hacienda Venecia near Manizales. We were picked up in Medellin at 9:30 and we were glad that we’d had a good breakfast because, once we cleared the outskirts of the city, there were not a lot of places to stop. The drive was very scenic as we drove through green mountains and fields of Avocado trees (a crop that is an expanding Colombian export). I kept waiting to see coffee and kept asking the driver “cafe?” as I pointed in distance. But he kept responding “aguacate”. It was not until we were very close to our destination that he smiled and pointed to a hill saying “cafe!”.

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Medellin – Bring on the Tours – Days 113-118

Two children riding the cable cars in Medellin

We arrived in Medellin (pronounced Medejin as Julie keeps correcting us) with our sunburnt bodies. We settled in the area of Laureles, as Paigey decided that was the place to stay. She found a “hipster-ish” Airbnb that worked for us perfectly (it had laundry which we desperately needed). Our goal was to spend a full week settled in one place doing some slow living and some schoolwork. We filled all the drawers with our freshly laundered clothes. We filled the fridge with actual groceries (yep, we bought butter) and not just snacks. We even signed up for an NBA league pass to watch Raptors’ basketball in Colombia. We made ourselves a comfortable home base.

Laureles was a great place for us to stay as they had restaurants aplenty, wide sidewalks, old people walking dogs and dangerous ledges for children to walk on and fall off. Our accommodation was adjacent to a primary school which reminded us how much less we taught our kids during a school day. The only real drawback to the area was its distance to the metro. We ended up splitting our time between taxis, walking and the occasional metro. The metro is fantastic and we highly recommend it. First, it is extremely inexpensive with decent routes running north and south allowing you to cover decent distances without sitting in gridlock (and they have it in Medellin). For us, the highlight was that the metro also includes access to the cable car routes that are spread across the city. It allowed the family to experience areas of the city outside of the affluent centre. It grounded us a little bit and prompted us to learn more about these more remote comunas.

Based on our learning from Cartagena, we started with a tour to get our bearings and teach the children about the city’s history. We lucked out as our free walking tour was one of the slickest productions we have been a part of. First, the company made sure that groups were manageable for the guide (i.e. under 20 people). Second, we had a passionate guide. He was a professional and his storytelling was next-level. He would address everyone by their name (no we didn’t have name tags, and he remembered both our children’s names). Since we knew nothing really about Medellin, the guide ensured the tour wasn’t focused on narcos but rather on the history of his city. Before the tour, we were warned that the children might see some things they might find disturbing as the tour would not gloss over the challenges facing the city. They didn’t know we had seen Hastings Street, so the homelessness and substance abuse was not foreign to us. Pablo, our guide, expressed frustration that some of the areas we visited were actually on an upswing before the Pandemic. Using Plaza Botero as an example he explained how shelter closures during the pandemic seem to have led to a massive increase in street vendors and homelessness in what was before a completely public space.

We then went on a mini binge with tours over the next few days. During our tour to the neighbouring area of Guatape, we realized that large, organized tours are NOT for us. People missing meeting times by half an hour cripples you with kids. But we did acknowledge the pros as we could have not done it cheaper than what we were charged. And some of the tourist trap activities (like a 30-minute boat ride on a lake we would never have done on our own) can turn out to be a blast. But the part that killed us was a group of 5 college frat guys being….college frat guys! I know I sound old, but really how were they gassed climbing up the 695 steps while the kids didn’t stop or break a sweat? It was a long day, we made no friends but the climb and the greenery around Guatape made it a worthwhile day trip.

Paige paragraph below – another one of our blog content compromises!

Comuna 13 is the most popular tourist stop in Medellin. We did not even really know what we were going to see when we met our guide at the Metro Station and boarded a “local bus” (that was full of tourists) and headed up the side of the mountain. Medellin is built in a valley and the metro and main roads run through the bottom of the valley. Neighbourhoods or “comunas” are often built on the sides of the mountain and so people take cable cars, buses or walk to reach the heights where they live. In the 1990s, comuna 13 was likely the most dangerous place in Medellin and very poor. It was built on a very steep part of the mountain and was hard to reach. More recently, the city built a series of outdoor covered escalators – a project designed to integrate the remote neighbourhood with the city and make it easier for people to get around. But they never expected that this would become a tourist attraction! About 20 years ago, the first guides started bringing people to this area showing them the escalators and the spray-painted murals that surround it. Break dancers also perform in the area displaying the community’s link to hip-hop culture. After visiting comuna 13, you realize that the guides are as surprised as the tourists that people are coming to see where they live which is still dangerous (our guide admits businesses continue to pay protection money to gangs). But we realized that the reason to go to comuna 13 is the guides themselves. We met someone who grew up in a very dangerous place yet managed to not only survive but to go to university, learn English and improve his life. Our guide told us of his father being shot for refusing to pay a 5th group demanding protection money but he also told us that he is a guide today because he makes more money taking tourists around than being a teacher (which is his passion). All in all, it was a sobering look into what Medellin was like in the 1990s and 2000s and what it is like today.

The family really had a blast in Medellin as there was more than enough to keep us entertained. Hopefully, we embrace this idea of staying put for longer periods of time! But then again we’re off on another 2-day jaunt. Bring on the coffee plantations.

Where we stayed (5 words or less);

By the numbers:

  • Ice Cream Consumed: 4 – 1 Paleta, 1 ice cream in the shape of a pig, 1 frozen yogurt with excessive toppings, 1 popsicle (mike dropped his and got another)
  • Visits to the grocery store: 4
  • Rappi ordered: 2 – Yep, I have never used Uber Eats at home, but I’ve used the Colombian version twice
  • Number of steps climbed at Guatape: 695
  • Number of songs requested on the boat cruise: 1 – La Bicicleta by Shakira and Carlos Vives of course!

What we ate (this is Paigey’s section and I’m mad it is being pushed as a go forward section)

  • Crepes y Waffles – We’ve decided it is like a Jack Astors but with tasty food
  • Different kinds of street food tried: 6 (empanadas, doughnuts, chicken empanada, bunuelos, potatoes, potato chips)
  • Bandeja Paisa – I was worried about my gut, but this plate of protein and calories was surprisingly tasty

Ciao for now,

Mike

Tayrona National Park (but not really) – Days 110-112

Family buying bananas on side of the road in jungle area

If you’ve had 4 days of warm, wet weather, why not go someplace with warmer and wetter weather?! We had a great intro to Colombia with our stay in Cartagena but since we had booked things ahead of time, we were on the move! Our destination was a mini-resort hotel just outside of Tayrona National Park at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountains. It was our first internal transit day and we were anxious to see if we still had those backpacker skills from years ago.

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Cartagena – Finally an Airplane – Days 105-109

Flight #1

We have finally reached the part of our trip where we go somewhere international! We wanted to explore parts of our own country before exploring other destinations. But… oh how excited I am to finally get on a plane again after 3 years of the pandemic. When we decided to come to Colombia, we really knew very little about the country.  We’d heard that Cartagena was cool and we’d watched Narcos – that was about it.  

With Colombia, we did not follow my own rule and booked a whirlwind 21 days where we’ll stay in 5 different places.  Oops….  But the guidebooks suggested way too many cool places to visit.  We decided to start our adventure in Cartegena which we knew was a little more touristy and hopefully a little bit less culture shock for the girls.

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I’m Coming Home – Day 87-104

As we left Ohio, the kids started playing the Diddy song “I’m coming home” on repeat over and over again. We were truly excited to be returning to Toronto after almost 12 weeks on the road. We’d covered just under 23,000 km and almost 300 hours of driving. Leg #1 was coming to an end.

Julie and baby cousin Zoe

So why were we coming home? Well, a few things. We have rented out our house to a Norwegian family and we needed to meet them and get a few things sorted before leaving for 9 months abroad. It was also Isabella’s birthday and we wanted to let her have a birthday party with her friends. Thirdly, we wanted to spend some time with our families and have Thanksgiving together before we left again.

As we drove into Toronto, everything felt strange. We were home but not in our home. We settled into my mom’s basement. Well actually, Mike and I settled into the basement while Izzie and Julie made themselves comfortable in their nan’s bedroom with her. We did many loads of laundry and washed the kids thoroughly in a bathtub. We watched the Blue Jays fail in the playoffs and ate home-cooked food (thanks mom). Isabella even got to go to a real play with nan and see “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” (sat on the edge of her seat for three hours). It was a really nice break.

Somehow the kids got to go to school for the full two weeks we were home. I had not put their attendance on hold yet so they were still registered in their classes and were welcomed with open arms. Isabella got to spend a full 6.5 hours a day with her friends each day and I did not have to arrange playdates (which would have been complicated given that we do not have our own house right now).

Here are some random thoughts as this first leg of the trip comes to a close.

We will miss you Canola

We’ll miss you Canola

For those of you who do not know, we normally drive a small electric car which would not have been the right vehicle for this adventure. Instead of renting something, my father-in-law gave us his Jeep Grand Cherokee for the journey. This was a hugely generous gift that I appreciated every day. The girls came up with the name Canola somewhere near Yorkton, Saskatchewan. Canola truly became our home away from home. Especially when we were camping, we felt a sense of security every time we were finally fully loaded in our seats and on the way. We are somewhat scared about what will replace her in leg two. We’ll have no air-conditioned, comfortable home base and we’ll have a lot less room for stuff. Thanks, Grandpa for lending us Canola (and we hope you’ll keep her name!)

School so far

How did we do? Leg 1 taught us a lot about how to teach. We learned what motivates our two kids is very different. Virtual School memories (although painful) also helped us. We adopted the “Mr. Stoch Morning Work” which is independent work to begin the day to get in the school frame of mind. We also used workbooks and some of the hundreds of worksheet pages I had downloaded and printed. Overall we realized we loved teaching geography and math but hated language and writing which is completely related to what our kids like and therefore how they behave when learning.

Packing

That’s the full extent of the luggage

My mother was truly horrified when she saw how little stuff we were taking on the next part of the trip. Two backpacks, day packs and one mini suitcase – that’s it. Mike and I are carrying less for ourselves than when we backpacked in our twenties because we now have 2 kids’ stuff to carry as well (plus way too many electronics and school materials). We decided to bring less and buy what we need which meant our clothes and toiletries were halved. We’ll see how it goes

Where we stayed (five words or less)

Nan’s basement: Quality time, Jet Tub, Our Cat

By the Numbers

  • Friends at Isabella’s Bowling 8th Birthday: 9 plus her
  • Thanksgiving Dinners: 2
  • Rides Paige went on at Canada’s Wonderland Halloween Haunt with Sister-in-Laws Katie and Steph: 6
  • Rides Mike went on taking kids to Camp Spooky at Wonderland: 2 (but kids went on many more)
  • Relatives who gave Isabella a Harry Potter Themed Birthday gift: 5 (Grandma, Auntie Donna, Katie, Steph/Andy/Luke/Zoe and Nan)

Isabella’s Harry Potter Lego say goodbye

Columbus – Isabella’s Birthday Present – Day 85-86 (A post by Isabella)

My favourite tv show is called “Secrets of the Zoo” and it takes place in the Colombus Zoo and the Wilds (two different zoos). The show is about zookeepers and vets who take care of the animals. I said to mom and dad “because we are going to the USA, can we go to the Columbus Zoo?”. They said “No” and I actually believed them. Secretly, mom, dad and Julie were planning a secret birthday present for me. After we left Indianapolis, I thought that we were driving to Cleveland but really dad was driving to my zoos. Mom and dad thought both of the zoos were in Columbus when they booked a hotel there for two nights but when they looked at google maps, they realized the Wilds was 1 1/2 hours further (and out of the way). That meant we had to drive through Columbus to get there and mom thought I would notice from the backseat that we were not driving through Cleveland! Dad thought I would not. Guess who was right? Dad…. I missed all the signs and was doing my homework in the backseat instead.

When we approached the Wilds, mom started to film me.

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The big tourist destinations of Madison & Indianapolis – Day 82-84

Family at a mock sports broadcasting studio

We got two more pictures of state capitol buildings by stopping in Madison and Indianapolis. One might ask, why go to Madison at all? The answer for us was logistics. We simply wanted to break a ten-hour drive into two five-hour legs. And on the map, Madison is about the midway point between Minneapolis and Indianapolis. Our real goal was getting to Indianapolis because Paigey had read about a children’s museum there and thought it could be a good place for homeschooling. If you have kids and they aren’t in school, this is the spot for you and is completely worthy of a road trip. We went during a weekday in September and essentially had the museum to ourselves (it was too early in the school year for field trips). I’m not exaggerating, at some of the live demonstrations, our kids were the only 2 people to show up so they got to learn from the scientists one on one. This day, we didn’t even have to pretend to be good teachers.

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