Claire and Ava in Gruyeres, Switzerland

Claire and Ava in Gruyeres, Switzerland

October, 2011

October, 2011
Chess in Lausanne, Switzerland

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Off to Kerala

In our quest to experience as much of India as we can during our stay here, the kids and I are off to south India tomorrow, returning early February. We're headed there now because soon the heat will hit, and it gets very intense down there, we're told!

I'll most likely be offline for a couple of weeks...

Ghandi and Restaurant Confusion


I believe Slumdog Millionaire is all the rage in the U.S. (or was) -- it's all over the news here, and our book group is reading said novel. Thus I found it last week at a market and after being chased down by the book seller (I told him I could find it cheaper elsewhere, which of course spurred him to try harder to make the sale) I paid my $2 and am on chapter 2. Has anyone read it and if so, thoughts?

In other news, kids and I went to the Gandhi Smriti museum Friday -- what a great experience.

It is housed in the Old Birla House, where Mahatma Gandhi's epic Life ended on 30 January 1948. (Did you know "Mahatma" means great soul?)

Mahatma Gandhi lived in this house from 9 September 1947 to 30 January 1948.

In addition to a wonderful interactive exhibit upstairs (a computerized timeline screen that actually moves along a wall, walking canes that when touched operate the television screen above, etc.), the museum includes the room where Mahatma Gandhi lived and the prayer ground where he held a mass congregation every evening. (This is where he was assassinated.)

Throughout the museum are pictures and a detailed account of Ghandi's life and his dedication to all persons. The grounds are beautiful with an eternal flame in tribute to this man who is revered here.

A bit about Ghandi per wikipedia:

Gandhi first employed non-violent civil disobedience as an expatriate lawyer in South Africa, in the resident Indian community's struggle for civil rights. After his return to India in 1915, he set about organising peasants, farmers, and urban labourers in protesting excessive land-tax and discrimination.

Assuming leadership of the Indian National Congress in 1921, Gandhi led nationwide campaigns for easing poverty, for expanding women's rights, for building religious and ethnic amity, for ending untouchability, for increasing economic self-reliance, but above all for achieving Swaraj—the independence of India from foreign domination.

Gandhi famously led Indians in the Non-cooperation movement in 1922 and in protesting the British-imposed salt tax with the 400 km (249 mi) Dandi Salt March in 1930, and later in calling for the British to Quit India in 1942. He was imprisoned for many years, on numerous occasions, in both South Africa and India.

Gandhi was a practitioner of non-violence and truth, and advocated that others do the same. He lived modestly in a self-sufficient residential community and wore the traditional Indian dhoti and shawl, woven with yarn he had hand spun on a charkha. He ate simple vegetarian food, and also undertook long fasts as means of both self-purification and social protest.

Dinner with Friends

On Saturday Joe and I met up with some friends at a restaurant recommended by a Delhi food critic -- Cafe de Paris. Upon being delivered to the restaurant by our driver, Ram, we questioned his judgment; there was no sign for Cafe de Paris.

But when we came inside the building (which had signs for at least 3 other restaurants) we were asked if we wanted Italian, Chinese, Indian -- oh and yes, go to 1st floor for Cafe de Paris.

Up we went on the postage stamp sized elevator to 1 (floors start with zero here) and the same guy who directed us up was waiting at the stairwell to escort us further.

The restaurant had an Italian name, then we were ushered into another room -- still no sign of cafe de Paris -- and told this was it.

Our friends went through the same confusing experience a few minutes later and we were given two menus, Italian and French.

We were later told by a waiter that Cafe de Paris is no more. Despite that I had duck in the French style.

So I'm still confused.

But we had a great time with our friends, good food and the best creme brulee I think I've ever had!

I do love the chaos that is India.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

January in India

It's been great to be back in the land of saris and curries, I must say -- I so enjoy the people here. Great sense of humor and very friendly, plus the weather (right now) is outstanding -- cool in the morning, warm and sunny mid day. No doubt in a few months it will be sweltering.


Upon our return our driver resigned to take a job with a touring company (well, we got three different stories about why he stepped away from chaffeuring us around the Delhi area, but that one seemed most palatable).

So we were provided a driver whose name started with an S and went on for a long time. He was young, quite officious, spoke no English but we managed just fine for a couple of days.

Then driver #3 entered the picture. His name is Ram and he now runs us around. He doesn't speak much English either but Joe generally just goes to the office and back to the hotel, and I bring an address whenever we go someplace so thus far it works.

He did get in an altercation w/ security at the mall last week. (Gurgaon is land of the malls, and each has a big security contingency w/ officials who check cars, parcels, etc. Everyone entering malls must also go through metal detectors, have purses/bags checked etc.)

Anyway, Ram hadn't formally parked, just pulled into the circular drive (I use that term loosely) to pick us up as we weren't there long (Subway run -- whole wheat, turkey and cheese for Claire, Ava gets same w/ pickles, cucumbers and tomatoes). They requested payment for parking so Ram started arguing w/ the security guy.

Five minutes later he was arguing with 6 security guys. You might ask who was securing the joint while everyone else came and went -- don't worry, like everywhere here, they have scads of people employed.

At the end of the day, mall security won the war; Ram forked over the rupees and cut someone off on the way out of the mall.

Otherwise all quiet on the driving front.

Garden Visit

Last week we visited Garden of the Five Senses, so named because it is designed to appeal to the five senses:

Visitors are encouraged to touch the rocks and displays, the fragrance of flower for the nose, the landscaping appeals to the eyes - the sight, the ceramic bells and the water falls create a soothing sound -pleasing to the ear and the food courts serve a variety of cuisines - to please the tongue.

Set on 20 acres, the Garden is a lovely park that features a wide array of art (sculptures, statues, murals, etc.). Paths, some brick, others dirt, wind through a maze, different parts of the garden featuring different plants -- herbs, cacti, varieties of flower beds, etc. -- an amphitheatre, and viewpoints overlooking the city.

A lovely facility, we picked a great day for visiting -- sunny and warm. We did some sketching and explored, and had lunch at Magique, a great little restaurant adjacent to the Garden. (Good food and ambience -- outdoor seating w/ fountains in the middle, bamboo hut-shaped bathrooms that Claire was particularly fond of.)


We also stopped at the National Handicrafts Museum last week (Claire's outing choice). It has a huge, varied collection of handicrafts from throughout India -- the collection of fabrics itself takes an entire floor in a lovely old building.

The museum includes an outdoor area with examples of homes from various parts of the country (grass huts, mud huts, stone architecture, traditional Himalayan homes, etc.).

Other exhbits featured paintings related to Hindu and Muslim beliefs, pottery, jewelry, carriages uses for weddings and other important events, dolls and figurines and so much more.

Outside were 15 or more craftspeople, many working and selling their wares. We watched someone make small pots using his potter's wheel, others were weaving, someone was sculpting oxen by hand with clay, another man and child were making bowls from stone.

Claire fell in love with a crocheted skirt at one of the stalls. I was short on rupees that day so we returned yesterday (after an hour of hell at Citibank -- by the time we get our banking in order we'll have moved!).

Our stop at the museum yesterday was purely to shop -- Claire now has a lovely white/pink/purple crocheted skirt. And I left with a lovely silk shawl. The buying process was great fun; the two salesmen at the stand of course unfolded scads of neatly packaged scarves of all sizes for me to peruse.

Then, because they didn't have a mirror (bit of a miss, right) they took photos of me modeling the two I liked best with their cell phone. What a riot. I made my choice after we all weighed in on what looked best on me.

I do love these kinds of buying experiences -- memorable and fun. Plus he gave me a discount. (I always wonder how low I could have gone w/ this bargaining stuff.)


Going back to last week, we also stopped in at INA Market, per recommendation of a friend. It's a huge busy market in a small space, so stalls are packed in and aisles are narrow, w/ sellers beckoning and doing their best to entice customers to see their wares (looked like everything from toothpaste to melons, hardware to dogfood).

One turn took us to the meat area; a stall of live chickens, varied in hue and size (some white, some multi-colored), were waiting to be chosen -- the butchering area was right next to the cage. Must be a happy experience for the birds.

We didn't last long in the meat department -- a bit smelly.

After winding through, I was enticed to try some delicious looking chicken dish (I know, it was probably purchased and slaughtered in the spot an hour ago from the guy down the aisle, right?). Somehow that didn't slow me down much; I ordered whatever the customer before me had at this little outdoor stall -- 3 men were working behind the "counter" -- one was kneading tennis ball sized rounds of dough, making them into small pizza shaped flatbread that ended up being puffier than pizza. Fabulous smell, incredibly tasty.

With it I got a chicken dish of some kind that was warm and so flavorful and simply out of this world. Ava tried some of the bread, Claire just wanted out of the entire experience. India's market scene is a bit too chaotic for her, I think (unless we're looking for something she wants to buy).


Joe was in Mumbai on business last week, so kids and I took the opportunity to join a friend at the Epicentre, a bit theatre/restaurant/art gallery/business meeting facility near us, to attend a dance recital.

First we hit a reception as the Epicentre is seeking to expand its visibility among businesses and the community as a trade show/meeting venue. We enjoyed appetizers (kids like the fish on a stick) and listened to jazz. One of the musicians was blind, we were told, so kids spent the rest of the time trying to figure out which one couldn't see.

The dance performance, held in the theatre, was lovely -- one woman performed for an hour. She'd danced in the U.S. and has danced all over India, is trained by someone from Chennai. Her dances were all to traditional Indian music and her movements and expressions relayed the story of each song. One could easily interpret the emotion she was conveying, and her dancing was extremely elegant and graceful.

Her costuming was lovely too, gorgeous brightly colored, flowy material with bells around her ankles that added to the music as she moved across the floor.

After the dance we enjoyed a bit more food at the multi-cuisine buffet. I tried a cardamom flavored Indian ice cream that was very good -- very unique taste.

Ava was thrilled with the vanilla ice cream.

Over the weekend we had the world's longest lunch at a new restaurant (Amici) in Khan market. Great space, one is quite removed from the busy-ness of the market, hanging out in an urban chic space with cool black and whites on the walls. The food was good but mistake after mistake on the order, even after our waiter wrote down, word for word, our order. We did get a discount and we did enjoy fabulous shakes; kids had freshly squeezed apple juice, which was delightful.

This week we enjoyed Delhi's National Museum, a huge collection with a wide array of exhibits -- excavations, sculpture from various eras, Egyptian artifacts, etc.

We went down specifically to see the Faberge exhibit before it moves on; it was a small exhibit, took maybe 30 minutes to view -- some jewelry and several of the famous eggs. Lovely but we ended up spending more time looking at the Harappan exhibit, which featured a large number of artifacts from the sites of Harappan Civilisation, including pottery, seals, tablets, weights and measures, jewellery, terracotta figurines, toys, etc. It also has copper tools from Harappan sites like axes, chisels and knives.

About the Harappan civilization:

The Indus Valley Civilization (Mature period 2600–1900 BCE), abbreviated IVC, was an ancient civilization that flourished in the Indus River basin. Primarily centred in India (Gujarat, Haryana and Rajasthan) and today's Pakistan (Sindh and Punjab provinces), it extended westward into the Balochistan province of Pakistan. Remains have been excavated from Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Iran, as well.

Historically part of Ancient India, it is one of the world's three earliest urban civilizations along with Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt. The mature phase of this civilization is technically known as the Harappan Civilization, after the first of its cities to be unearthed: Harappa in today's Pakistan.

Excavation of IVC sites have been ongoing since 1920, with important breakthroughs occurring as recently as 1999.

After the Harappan exhibit we made a brief stop at the Buddhist Art Collection:

- focused on the sacred relics of the Buddha (5th-4th century B.C.) unearthed from Piprehwa, Distt. Basti and outstanding specimens of Buddhist Art as a global movement, is illustrated through 84 exhibits in stone, bronze, terracotta, stucco, wooden sculptures and painted scrolls or Thankas from Nepal, Tibet, Central Asia, Myanmar, Java and Combodia, representing the three principal Buddhist forms - Hinayana, Mahayana, Vajrayana.

Of special importance are the images of Kapardin Buddha from Ahichchhatra, Buddha - pada (footprints) from Nagarjunakonda, Distt. Guntur in Andhra Pradesh and Buddha's life scenes from Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh as well as ritualistic objects from the trans-Himalayan reign. These objects stimulate a sense of devotion, dedication and love for humanity.

Near the exhibit several monks were doing art demonstrations, one painting a mask, others painting statues. Flags and black/white pictures of the Himalayas adorned the hall around them.

Imperial Hotel and Lohri Festival

From the National Museum we headed to the Imperial Hotel for a bathroom stop and to check out the property. It's absolutely lovely and should you ever get the chance to stay there, please let me know so I can join you.

One of the restaurants takes you back to the time of English rule, both in style of the rooms and through photos from that time period. It opens out into lovely grounds. Other restaurants -- Asian and Italian -- had wonderful ambience and decor as well.

The Imperial hotel building itself is spectacular, seems intimate even though it's a large hotel, and the fabulous smells of flowers overtake you when you enter the lobby.

From there Margie whisked us off to the club her dad belongs to for an Indian holiday celebration:

Lohri is celebrated every year on the 13th of January. It is a festival to worship fire. Lohri Festival is celebrated with great pomp in North India. At this time Earth starts moving towards the sun marking the auspicious period of Uttarayan. First Lohri is very important for the newly wed and the new born babies as it marks fertility. At night, people gather around the bonfire and throw til, puffed rice & popcorns into the flames of the bonfire. Prayers are offered to the bonfire seeking abundance & prosperity. People make merry by dancing & singing traditional folk songs.

We enjoyed fabulous Indian food and snacks (incredibly good dessert -- made like funnel cake but dipped in a yummy nutty syrup and eaten warm). Kids had fun throwing things into the huge bonfire and dancing on stage.

Monday, January 12, 2009

January 3 – last day of vacation!

Today we slept in, had a final buffet breakfast – frankly I like the breakfast buffet as it’s easy for the kids – who doesn’t like breakfast food? They can always find something that appeals – and I’m all for the made-to-order omelets and buttered toast. I’ve become addicted to pineapple juice, too.

From breakfast we took the MRT to Raffles Hotel, a famous property and Singapore landmark, infamous for the Singapore Sling. It’s a gorgeous, white, stately hotel with the famous Long Bar on the 2nd floor (cool automated fans in shape of big leaves that used to be operated manually). Shops and restaurants are interspersed throughout the hotel complex.

We then made our way to St. Andrew’s Cathedral, a national landmark. The site, a lovely green area with pristine white church, tall steeples stretching up – is in the midst of Singapore’s busy urban-ness.

We stopped in the welcome center and shortly thereafter were getting the grand tour from Clifford, volunteer and parishioner at the Anglican cathedral.

The first church was torn down in the 1850’s and rebuilt (too small), used as a hospital during the war, survived the bombings (they removed the stained glass to protect it, later replaced it and it is in the current structure today).

The windows are indeed gorgeous, as is the architectures, pews and wood inside. Lots of plaques adorn the walls commemorating military service and donations/leadership of the church.

Nearby we got to see the contemporary portion of the church – an underground sacristy that serves the less traditional religious crowd, with amphitheatre at the entrance for outdoor Christian concerns. The Cathedral offers more traditional services w/ hymns.

The underground curch met historical building restrictions (couldn’t obstruct views or interfere w/ green space around it.) The visitor’s center is glass for the same reasons. Inside the center is an exhibit of pottery and effects found during excavation – dating to the 1400’s.

In the early afternoon we headed to Sentosa, one of Singapore’s islands. We rode a gondola over the water to get there – so much construction below – great view though. We got to see our ship from above!

Our first stop in very busy Sentosa was for ice cream on the beach – quite the industrial view from the shore.

We caught the dolphin show in a very inauspicious seating area, but a great show with pink dolphins. Kids sat with an Indian family – a couple with a 5 year old daughter who we shared a shuttle with from the ship to the hotel then again to the Night Safari and Sentosa. (Go figure – we fly hours away from India to end up hanging out with Indians.)

After the dolphin show (they retrieved balls, did jumps, raced across the pond, waved, clapped, etc.) we went to Underwater World, Sentosa’s aquarium. The kids touched sea creatures and admired all kinds of sea creatures – huge octopuses, crabs, fish, stingrays, etc.

From there we went to a wax museum about Singapore’s history – it was fabulous and definitely my favorite attraction of the day. A short film set the stage – the 4 winds that blew to create Singapore, the melding of cultures/values that have made the country what it is.

The museum’s wax figures w/ plaquards shared information about leaders/influencers, ethnic groups, religions, festivals, day to day life, etc.

We dissed the last item on the agenda – a light show – for a last dinner at Newton’s Circle, which was truly the right way to end the trip. There we had a wonderful seafood noodle dish, a small peppered crab (also delicious but the chili crab will reign forever as my favorite) and satay (beef and chicken on sticks). It was all fabulous. We walked it off back to the hotel, took a nap and yanked ourselves out of bed for a 2 a.m. flight.

Day 2 of the New Year

After strolling the ship this morning I had coffee and worked out while everyone else slept. It’s a bit odd to ride a stationary bike and look out to see water rapidly moving by, but I'll take it.

We hit the splash park after breakfast, had a great relaxing morning, then disembarked and checked back into our hotel. Singapore’s Night Safari was our agenda for the evening – a zoo open in the evenings that focuses on nocturnal animals.

The venue is relatively new, in a lovely lush, green area of Singapore near a military base and the regular zoo. (Funny, I just read today in the Delhi paper that plans are in the works for a night safari somewhere in India, modeled after Singapore’s attraction.)

Anyway, the venue was very busy – upon arrival we were led into an area full of shops, restaurants (Ben & Jerry’s, what fun!), etc. We took the 45 minute tram ride around the zoo first, riding in an open sided tram (decorated like a zebra) with guide pointing out animals and sharing info. re: habitat, numbers in the wild, etc.

In the low light we saw all kinds of creatures: a single huge bull elephant with long tusks standing majestically was a highlight, as were the prowling hyenas, a pair of birds renowned in the Asian culture for mating for life, a solitary bear w/ white markings, the world’s largest rats (Ava says they’re cute – maybe I just couldn’t get past the word “rat”).

Lovely surroundings – appeared to be very clean, natural – mix of plains, rain forest, caves and rock dwellings, tons of trees and foliage, bamboo, elephant grass, etc. The rhinos, too, were impressive – immense and so close (most of the animals were very near to the tram line – one even walked within two feet of the tram – we were told it’s known for spraying urine. Nice).

After the tram ride we queued up for the animal show, held in an outdoor amphitheatre. The host welcomed us all in various languages and asked for no flash photography (despite repeated requests and signs we saw plenty of flash – hello?!?).
She was very engaging, full of quips. The first animal on stage was a hyena wandering near the water, then 2 furry sloths climbed down the vine over the audience to look for treats in nests attached to it.

An owl came out and was supposed to land on a trainer’s arm but apparently wasn’t interested – he jumped ship to a tree behind stage. Another act involved an audience participant hiding a grape twice to demonstrate the animal’s keen sense of smell.

And another volunteer found himself holding a giant snake curled up around his privates. (The snake was found in the audience – huge – glad it wsn’t near us.)

Three otter-looking creatures (mongooses) demonstrated the importance of recycling –two put bottles in a recycling container, another cans.

We caught part of a fire-breathing/dance performance before leaving, and also saw some people getting the skin on their feet exfoliated by fish – not my thing.

New Year’s Day 2009

I started 2009 out on a very good note – with a delicious cup of coffee on the deck watching the sun rise. Then I explore the ship – lots of restaurants, kids’ splash/play areas, pool, theatres, casino, etc. Very nice.

We had breakfast overlooking the aft of the ship – how odd to look out and see ourselves being propelled through the water, yet it didn’t feel like we were moving. No complaints! The breezes on the deck felt great, nice warm day.

We spent our day in the waterpark and pool area, though I did pop in for a 30 minute cocktail making demo. The ship serves a different cocktail and mocktail everyday so he made demos of both, talked about barware, glasses, liquors, liqueurs, etc.

The kids did crafts in the afternoon and at 7:00 we went to a children’s show – a bunch of characters dressed up and dancing to music. Claire went up on stage and danced the entire time, Ava was dancing in the seats. She got plenty of attention from the cast, though, so had lots of fun.

After the kids' show we stayed for a great Beijing Olympic sport show with some incredible talent – gymnasts, dancers, two very strong men who balanced, one atop the other, in a wide variety of poses, some without any handholds, acrobats, basketball players doing tricks, etc. It was great fun. We ended the day at a Mediterranean buffet, sitting out on the deck – very nice.

New Year’s Eve -- Singapore

We started the last day of the New Year out early as the Peranakan tour was on our agenda.

The Peranakan people are Straits Chinese -- a group of early inhabitants in Singapore who brought a wealth of customs, their own architectural style, cuisine and beadwork proficiency.

The tour -- just us and a German lady living in Madrid -- started at a garden to go over various spices used in Peranakan cooking. The spice garden sits on the original site of the first Botanic Gardens (Fort Canning Park) – lovely green space with a wide array of plants and trees on the hillside, stone walkways meandering through and signs along the way with information about plant uses (food, medical).

Among the many featured in the garden were nutmeg trees and its “fruit” and cinnamon trees (the sticks are made from stems). Even the leaves smelled like cinnamon, and apparently all parts of the tree can be used. We saw turmeric and ginger plants, red pepper plants, plants that produce black peppercorns, laksa (a plant used commonly in Peranakan cooking), basil, cumin, a vanilla tree, pineapple and banana trees, tiny lime plants, anise seed, fennel and more.

From the spice garden we went to the Peranakan Museum, housed in a 3 story blue/green building built in the Peranakan style. It had a wonderful in-depth exhibit on the lifestyle of the people – 12 day wedding ceremony, the emphasis the culture placed on beadwork abilities of women (an important way young women proved their worth to their mothers-in-law), food and dining (tea, elaborate dishware and table settings, etc.), religion (mix of Buddhism, Confucianism, some later becoming Christian through European influence). (Peranakan beadwork, too, was heavily influenced by the European culture.)

The exhibit included examples of clothing worn by the women (sarong-like skirts and lovely blouses pinned closed with ornate brooches).

Jewelry, particularly pieces worn by brides, was extremely ornate. It was so important to wedding ceremonies that it was often rented for the occasion.

Women’s sleeves were crafted a bit short so they could show off their bracelets. Attire for various stages of mourning was also exhibited – black to blue, green, etc (less auspicious jewelry was worn during this time).

One room of the museum even showed how a body was laid out for funeral services.

The main floor had photos of Peranican descendents and quotes regarding their heritage.

From the museum we headed to a Peranican home/shop. The lower level was a café where a woman was cutting green cakes into slices and packaging them. Upstairs was a shop with beaded items, clothing, jewelry, etc. for sale. We were introduced to a young Peranican man who explained how a wide array of spices were pounded with a VERY heavy mortar and pestle (I picked it up), then cooked for a long time to flavor meat – in this case pork. The guide’s sister was making pork and rice dumplings wrapped in leaves.

After the demo we were seated for tea and got to sample the dumplings. They were incredibly tasty, very rich and not meatlike in taste – a wonderful blend of spices (a bit reminiscent of Mom's mincement, which is fabulous). It was hard to pinpoint any spice one specifically – a trademark of the style of cooking, we were told.
We also sampled spices of fish, again wrapped in leaves and cooked with Peranakin spices to “defray” the fish taste. This, too, was delicious – not “hot” spicy but with a hint of citrus.

The dumplings and fish are commonly served for breakfast and tea, per our guide – appetizer portions that allowed people to eat many different things without getting too full.

Last, we sampled a cake made with laksa, the green plant we’d seen in the garden. It was a very good congealed dessert – a bit like a fruity flan, perhaps?

After tea we watched a beading demonstration; someone was decorating a pair of shoes with the tiniest beads imaginable. These are very expensive today, as the work is so laborious and detailed. Now larger beads from Poland are commonly used to speed processes up, we were told.

The kids each got a coin purse made in the Peranakan style (with the larger beads).
The last demo was of the clothing; I got to model the sarong-like skirt and shirt. Claire modeled the children’s size. And I left with a lovely souvenir – one of the dainty shirts.

What a fun morning!

As we left the Peranakan area of town we caught glimpses of rows of homes restored in the original architecture – a bit of a Victorian look, with fancy sculpted detail and a wide array of pastel colors. Lovely homes.

For lunch we had the tour bus driver drop us at Newton’s Circus, one of Joe’s old haunts and another hawker’s market. Full of stalls like the one in Chinatown, this one wasn’t quite so busy, no doubt due to the holiday. Still, plenty of shops were open and trying to sell their foodstuffs. We tracked down chicken and rice and noodles for Claire and Ava, a chili crab for the two of us to split. It was heavenly. The sauce was rich and tomato-y, with lots of cooked onions and garlic and a very nice chili kick. And of course the crab itself was succulent.

After a delicious, messy meal, which was great fun to eat (the kids were dying for us to wash our hands), we had our first MRT (subway) trip in Singapore. Very clean, quick and efficient, we took it to Circular Quay, an area along the river with lots of bars and restaurants. There we wandered the bends in the river, took a boat ride up and back, under bridges, checking out the sites from the boat.

We then wandered the Quay area on foot, stopped for gelato and meandered to Boat Quay for a drink. This one seemed a bit less trendy – lots of bars and restaurants with houses above, all with varying architectural styles. Great views along the river, too. We stopped at Harry’s, where I tried the infamous Singapore Sling:

- a cocktail invented by Ngiam Tong Boon for the Long Bar in Raffles Hotel between 1910 and 1915. It’s a type of sling, a traditional kind of cocktail. Recipes vary, but the original recipe used gin, cherry brandy, and Benedictine (most often in equal parts). The drink was shaken and strained into a glass, and then filled to individual taste with club soda).

Quite tasty in my opinion.

From Harry’s we took the MRT to our hotel, grabbed our luggage and headed off to the port to board our cruise ship!

After a lengthy boarding/baggage process and beer/pizza at another Harry’s (we like Harry – apparently he likes to drink, too) we boarded the ship, along with 1,996 other New Year’s Eve cruisers (mostly Asian and Indian).

The pints and long day caught up with us so we didn’t make it to watch the ball drop
or, in this case, the ship lift its anchor.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Chinatown -- Singapore

We got in in the middle of the night so first glimpse of Singapore was lights on buildings, buildings, buildings. It is indeed a concrete jungle. Kids traveled well and we started out Dec. 30 easy, hopping the Singapore Airlines tourist bus to Chinatown. En route we saw tons of Christmas decorations, making the city seem fun and lively.

Chinatown was bustling with lots of shopping areas. Many of the more traditional shops sold dried fish, snake skins, seahorse and all kinds of other fishy smelling objects. We saw plenty of trinkets and trash, too – touristy stuff.

Everywhere were food stalls. We wandered through a big bustling hawker center with tons of small stalls and people enticing us to order whatever they were selling: small or big intestine (sounds appealing, doesn’t it), ducks and geese, roasted with heads on, fish soup, incredible smelling noodle dishes, chili and pepper crab, a wide array of fish dishes. Many Chinese shops but also Thai, Indian (veg/non-veg), Korean, Japanese, Indonesian…on and on and on. Joe had a pineapple/banana shake (just the two fruits, ground fresh, with ice).

Since we’d eaten breakfast late we passed on food for the time being and meandered into the heart of Chinatown, with its big sign (for lack of better word) dictating where it started.
There all kinds of shops were packed into streets big and small. Little street stalls often led into deeper shops packed with all kinds of stuff. Lots of bright colors, fabrics, decorations, jewelry in every nook and cranny. All interspersed between larger, busy roads and more construction.

Eventually we stopped, succumbing to fabulous smells. Joe and I shared a brothy prawn/fishcake noodle soup – it came out still boiling and was fabulous. I later saw similar pots actually served with a flame under them. Nothing like not having to send your food back because it’s cold. I’d spied people drinking out of coconuts at the restaurant so ordered one myself – very tasty coconut milk (seemed more like juice to me). It was served with the lid partly off and a straw popped in. Quite refreshing in the heat/humidity.

Kids had subway for lunch; it’s become a staple as it’s easy to find here and in India (also saw a plethora of 7-11’s in Singapore, as well as Starbucks, Borders, McDonalds…). RE: the city – it’s very orderly and clean, with laws posted here there and everywhere, along w/ corresponding fines (i.e. 1,000 Sing – roughly $650 -- for riding a bike on a pedestrian ramp, for example). Fines for littering, jaywalking, spitting…quite the opposite of life in India.

As for infrastructure, Singapore certainly has it going on – MRT (subway) is easy and efficient, roads/traffic lights seem to be in good condition, parks have nice amenities, lovely bridges, pedestrian friendly areas, etc. Must be a function of all those fines.

In Chinatown we stumbled across a Hindu temple so I doffed my shoes and checked it out, kids passed. They’re templed out. This one is a lovely colorful structure that stands out gracefully along a busy street.

We also stumbled on the wet market, where meat and fish are sold (called wet because the floor is always wet) – saw a wide array of food: fruits and vegetables, big fish, small fish, all kinds of crustaceans, duck eggs, regular eggs, live birds, dead birds… A little overpowering in the smell department, as you can imagine.

I took a glimpse into a nearby Buddhist temple before we headed back to our SQ bus. Lovely and ornate (the temple, not the bus). We then grabbed a bottle of wine and went to friends’ for burgers and hot dogs. They’re Americans living in Singapore; we knew them from Dell days in Texas. Great fun to catch up and have a break from the hotel/restaurant scene.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

On to Singapore

After packing it up and a final buffet (BTW this hotel has the bar connected to the reception desk – check in, drink up) we headed out to take infamous tram 96 (written up by National Geographic as one of top tram rides in the world) to Luna Park (amusement park near the beach).

The kids and Joe rode a few rides (let’s face it; I’d done enough riding at Dreamworld and Seaworld to carry me for a bit).

After another food court lunch near the Crowne, we grabbed our bags and headed to Singapore! What a great adventure Australia was – warm, friendly, clean and green. Melbourne had a bit of a European feel, Cairns was decidedly outdoorsy/artsy/relaxed, Sydney new, hip, vibrant, businessy and fun, the Gold Coast had Florida written all over it without the swamp feel.

As for travel, the 7+ hour flight to Singapore went pretty quickly, thankfully!

Melbourne, continued

I enjoyed an early walk by the river and coffee at one of Melbourne’s many fabulous coffee shops.

Then we started our day slow, walked down to Federation Square, where Claire and Joe went through the Race Horse Museum and Ava and I checked out the National Art Gallery. The first fllor was all Aboriginal works, many with poems written by Australian students at all levels. Incredible talent, both in the art of painting, sculpture and weaving and in poetry.

The Aboriginal works relayed stories and lifestyle of the peoples. In the other levels of the museum the collections were a mix, with a wide array of European influenced art.

Federation Square itself is a delightfully sprawling silver sort of monolithic, ugly but grows on you to be cool building – cool stone walking area. Comfy lounge chairs were set up in front of a huge TV screen for free viewing of the cricket game that was on. (Free movies and other events are held in the square.)

Near Federation Square was a cool playground so kids played there for a while, then we wandered to the Southgate area, a food/dining spot along the river. The food courts rock here – a wide array of cuisines: smoothies, pancake bar, sandwich/Panini bar, coffee bars, gelato bars, wrap bars, sushi, Chinese, Thai, burgers, on and on – alcohol available too. Kids got their pancake fix.

From there we wandered the river, stopped at the Crowne Entertainment facility to watch the Christmas light show – a brightly colored display with animation. Bright red reindeer, carousel that Santa appeared in, a big tree that changed colors to different songs, dancers and children popping out of the tree. Lovely and fun.

We traversed back across one of the many cool bridges to the hotel – many are pedestrian-only, with cool designs and/or sculptures nearby. One bridge commemorates the number of immigrants to Australia and from where they hailed.

The city as a whole seems to have lots of art throughout – i.e. we saw a bench in the form of a coin purse in one spot.

For dinner we headed to the Riverside, another food/entertainment area along the river. Lots of street performers around. We stopped at Greco and tried the two top items (per the waiter) – a mix of 10 antipasto items (loved the feta-stuffed peppers and olives and huge mushrooms). For our entrée we shared baby red snapper – very tasty. (BTW here in Australia entrée means starter, main is of course main dish.)

After the slowest dinner on the planet (didn’t know food could take even longer than in India) we simply HAD to have gelato…somewhere else of course. Honeycomb is the best. Not sure what’s in it, but it is delicious.

Marvelous Melbourne

Melbourne rocks, I’ve decided. This morning we had a bus tour on our agenda – called “Marvelous Melbourne.” Cheesy name, great overview of the city.

It’s larger than I’d thought, though feels intimate with tons of cafes and little streets that you can disappear into and find all kinds of great shops and restaurants. Easy to get around, too.

We stopped at Fitzroy Garden, one of many green spaces in Melbourne (which is known as the garden city of Australia).

About Fitzroy:

Permanently reserved as a public gardes in 1848, the greenscape includes
• an ornamental lake
• Conservatory
• Cooks' Cottage - a house where James Cook reputedly spent some years of his childhood (the cottage was in England at that time).
• Sinclair’s Cottage
• Model Tudor village
• Fountains and sculptures
• Band Pavilion
• Rotunda
• fairy tree

and more. Fairy tree? I love Wikipedia – must have missed the fairy tree.

We checked out the botanical gardens – lovely flowers, strolled by the village, fountains, sculptures, etc., then carried on with our tour. Our second stop was for coffee and some time at the Royal Botanic Gardens. Lovely, too, but we headed to the nearby Shrine of Remembrance.

It was built between July 1928 and November 1934 in remembrance of the 114,000 men and women of Victoria who served and those who died in the Great War of 1914-1918. The Shrine was designed by two Melbourne returned-soldier architects, and was officially opened in November, 1934. Since then, it has been a growing monument, with other memorials added to the site to mark the service of successive generations. The Shrine of Remembrance is Victoria’s largest and most visited war memorial and is probably Melbourne’s most recognized landmark.

A lovely stone building, it has a balcony overlooking the city, an area for quiet remembrance in the center w/ skylight, lists of names of those whose lives were lost in combat in surrounding hallways and downstairs posters capturing the painful essence of war and death, as well as paintings, videos and other historical memorabilia.

Other highlights of our bus tour: gorgeous Victorian architecture throughout many of the neighborhoods, lovely old churches – gorgeous sandstone and brick, numerous bridges, Melbourne’s sporting facilities – a cricket game was taking place at the “G” later in the day, tennis courts being prepped for the Australian open, facilities used for past major sporting competitions, etc.

On the remainder of our bus tour we got great views of the river and other waterways, green spaces, the huge Victoria market and more. Lovely city.

At Victoria Market we parted company with the bus and wandered through the huge maze of stalls – hundreds of them – with general merchandise, food court, deli, meat market, fruit and vegetable market, organic market, etc. Ava scored a necklace (she’s the jewelry queen on this trip), Claire a hair clip, me a skirt and Joe – time with us.

We had lunch at the bustling food court – exposed brick area where we scored a counter with stools to eat pizza, a cup of corn (what a cool thing -- kernels of corn in a cup, you choose the seasoning) and fresh fish ‘n chips. In the market Ava was captivated by someone painting names in Asian figures.

We walked back to the hotel – busy streets with a wide array of businesses. Then we took the lift up 88 floors to see the view from the world’s tallest residential building (Dubai is builing one even taller as we speak).

Great views, obviously – mostly glass walls with telescopes trained on specific sites in the area.

From there we went to the Greek precinct for dinner. We were told it’s shrunk – more Asian influence in the area – but were pointed to a traditional Greek restaurant, which was fabulous. White and ocean blue inside, pictures of Greece decorating the walls and some of the best food we’ve had since leaving the U.S. We brought our own bottle of shiraz, tasted and purchased at the Victoria market earlier in the day.
We had the Greek sampler menu: fried cheese, sausage, lamb, squib, shrimp, pita and dips…it was all fabulous. Even Ava got past pasta to sample a wide array of Greek menu items.

For dessert we went a couple doors down to a dessert shop – superb baklava.
Too tired to walk we hailed a cab; wouldn't you know our driver was an Indian man (Punjabi) who owns his own cab company in Melbourne.

Claire’s 7th Birthday!

This morning we went to Sydney’s Powerhouse (science) Museum per Claire’s request. The place is huge – 3 levels of exhibits – we spent most of our time on level 1 – lots of child-friendly exhibits (musical, hands on experiments, planes/trains, even a science playground).

From there we hit the airport and flew to Melbourne (short 1 ½ hour trip) and were shuttled to our hotel, center city. Saw tons of sculptures, nice skyline and great views of the Yarra River.

Claire was thrilled to find balloons, a card and chocolates from the hotel staff in honor of her birthday. From Mom and Dad she received, among other things, a necklace with her birthstone from a trip to Udaipur, India (known for its silversmiths). And from Ava a t-shirt commemorating our time in Sydney.

After settling in we took the City Centre tram (free and geared to tourists) to Docklands’ Waterfront area ( a new living/dining/recreational center) for Claire’s birthday dinner. She opted for Medici, another Italian restaurant.

Her cake – two big slices of delicious chocolate – had a sparkler for her to blow out.

We caught our free tram on the return, only to be booted 10 minutes into the ride as apparently it was the last run. Not far from the hotel, though, and we crashed shortly thereafter.

Christmas Day

Merry Merry! We headed out early this morning via coach to the Blue Mountains, an area west of Sydney. En route we stopped at Featherdale Wildlife Park, a very animal-full park – wombats, crocodiles, penguins, snakes, kangaroos, domestic animals, tons of birds (among them owls, peacocks, emus, parrots), and naturally kangaroos & koalas.

We never did spot the Tasmanian devil (are they real or just part of Bugs Bunny’s imagination?). Kids had “passports” to stamp at various stations after viewing corresponding animals, which made it all the more fun for them.

They also got to feed and pet a host of kangaroos and we got to have our photos taken with some furry little koalas. Joe didn't get too close.

Most animals seemed to be their cute happy selves but we did encounter one wacked kangaroo. Or at least another tourist encountered it and Joe witnessed the moment of insanity (people overload?).

As the kids and I were checking out birds said kangaroo jumped on a woman sitting on a bench nearby. Joe had predetermined that the kangaroo was a bit off and wanted us to steer clear of it. I missed its leap at the poor unsuspecting tourist; by the time I turned around the kangaroo was removed from the situation and looking quite innocent.

We also saw two other tourists making a beeline away from what they termed “aggressive birds.” Not sure where animal control was…

The rest of the experience was tame – we were amused by a peacock on the loose. Apparently it has free reign of the place; at one point it was on the roof.

Eventually we were tracked down by the folks working the front desk; they’d been trying to get us to leave for a while as it was Christmas day and we were the last tourists in the place.

Up into the mountains we went, stopping near an old coal mining area (mining ceased in the area in the 1930’s). We took the world’s steepest train ride (a very short ride in open train cars) into the rain forest/mining area.

We then walked a boardwalk to look at caol-mining memorabilia and to learn about the work, the ponies used by the miners as well as the trees, plants and animals native to the area.

We came back up to the top via a cable car with tons of other tourists crammed in. That too was a very short ride (good thing as we were wall to wall in the cable car. Wonder how much weight it’s supposed to hold?).

The views, both below and above, were gorgeous – extremely steep canyon and cliffs with Three Sisters rock formation to our left.

After a lunch of freshly grilled sausages on the rooftop we took off again, the last stop at Echo Point to view the Three Sisters up close and have a look over the cliffs again – what a gorgeous place.

The trip home went fast as Jackie Chen helped pass the time (wonder how many movies he’s made and if any of them are good?).

After re-grouping a bit we walked forever, enjoying Sydney’s Christmas décor (and one particularly large tree in a shopping/hotel complex – you could just see the base in the entry way – had to walk way down the hall and look WAY up to see the top).

We stopped at Summit, a revolving restaurant overlooking the harbor with incredible 47th floor views. After a Christmas drink (the kids received Christmas stocking stuffers from the staff) we headed to Darling Harbor for a final Sydney dinner - -Italian and very good. (Seems like we’ve eaten a lot of Italian on this trip, hard to get tired of it, though.)

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Christmas Eve in Sydney

This a.m., after breakfast at the hotel, we took a morning bus tour of Sydney. Our guide, Chris, was quite funny and great with the kids. He gave them a kangaroo to watch over during the trip, then later surprised them with a stuffed koala and wombat.

He named his bus Eileen (I-Lean – get it?) and proceeded to give us an overview of Sydney – which is huge (as in spread out). (Also large in population: 4th largest city in world w/ 4.28 million per Wikipedia; isn’t the internet great? Especially when crowne plaza hotel TV wacks out regularly – only happens in our room. Maybe I’m really never meant to watch TV?)

Anyway, it’s a lovely city with tons of green space, rolling hills, gorgeous waterway views, lovely foliage and trees. Seems like people are very attune to the environment and protecting local businesses in many areas (at least so we were told).

We stopped to check out the Sydney Harbor and its bridge and the Opera House (both lovely views). People climb the bridge (up and over—what a cool thing). Our bus made other stops at areas overlooking the city as we wove through various neighborhoods and areas of the city. Ava liked a teacup shaped house along the water’s edge. We took a break in Manley, an area along the beach with surfers galore. Manly also had a nice pedestrian area with cool shops and restaurants.

As we drove through other areas of Sydney we got a sense of the outdoor/athletic lifestyle people who live her seem to seek out.

After our drop off at Darling Harbor Joe and Ava headed off to do some shopping, Claire and I hunted down historic Capitol Theatre for a performance of High School Musical. We had great seats – 6th row center -- in a lovely historic venue. We both thoroughly enjoyed it, even left with the CD for Claire to enjoy. (Now I guess we’ll have to see the movies – yes, a little late on the trends.)

After hooking back up with our other half we headed for St. Mary’s Cathedral for Mass via cab. St. Mary’s is the largest Gothic cathedral in the Southern Hemisphere. And it’s gorgeous. We checked out the nativity and Christmas tree outside, then went in to snag seats behind the boys choir (a group of mostly 10 year old boys).

To say Mass was a bit chaotic is an incredibly large understatement. I’ve never seen so many kids running around. At Communion our section was sternly told (by an overzealous usher) to sit tight until he came to get us so we didn’t wind our way through the choir. The man never did return to usher us anywhere. Talk about being left hanging…

After a look at the chapels, statues and indoor nativity we wandered through Hyde Park (gorgeous public gardens since 1856; previous to that time it was used for a wide array of sporting events) and back to Darling Harbor for dinner at Nick’s (Cockle Bay). I tried kangaroo (why not?!?). No need to repeat that experience (it was fine, glad I had prawns to back it up). Otherwise a great meal, especially Joe’s J.D. Dury fish (I think I just contrived that name.)

Note on food: At this point in our trip any place that had pasta w/ a little olive oil or butter, Parmesan and salt was great by Ava. Can 3 year olds get rickets from a steady diet of just pasta?!? Gummy vitamins: don’t let me down.

Also on the subject of Ava…she’s fascinated w/ tattoos and we’ve seen an awful lot of them here in Australia. She’s decided she’s getting a permanent star. That will no doubt make her father’s day.

On to Sydney

I started the day with a walk alone along the water…I do so enjoy my two sidekicks but it is nice to fly solo once in a while.

And lovely to see the sunrise over the water and watch the pelicans stuff copious amounts of fish in their beaks.

We flew to Sydney after making use of the hotel laundry machines (how very normal it feels to throw clothes in a Maytag – India, God love it, is such a country of serve or be served that I’d be shocked to find a coin operated machine in a hotel).

In Sydney we wandered down to Darling Harbor for the evening – enjoyed the lights and great skyline, the waterfront activity, fountains, playground equipment, vibrant blue/green Christmas tree. The area had a delightfully lighthearted feel to it.
We made our way to King’s Wharf for dinner just as rain was setting in & enjoyed the meal with lovely views of the harbor.

Great Barrier Reef!

HUGE day for us!!! We set off from the harbor at 9:00 for a 1 ¼ hour boat ride on the Big Cat Island Cruiser (who names these boats?) to Green Island, a national park located within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. (The island formed from sand that ended up on top of the reef.)

Upon disembarkation we headed to the beach, where Claire and I tried snorkeling for the first time. What fun! Amazing and relaxing to float along with fish swimming right by, some so close they nearly touched us. Big, small, all different colors, and such a wide array of coral and rocks it’s hard to describe. (How’s this: it really does look like all those photos in the magazines.)

Backing in with the flippers is a bit odd, but otherwise we caught the hang of snorkeling pretty quickly. About half of the snorkelers were decked out in wet suits (mostly Asians). Most of the Aussies and white newbies like us had our swim suits on in the face of jellyfish. (Actually our snorkel outfitter said jellyfish counts weren’t high in the area at the time and recommended we pass on the full gear.) And the water was so warm it felt like a bath. Right up my alley.

After a lunch break on our boat we went to a different beach for more snorkeling and playing, where coral and fish were even more prevalent.

Then it was on to a glass-bottomed boat, which took us out on the reef and we saw a wide range of fish swimming beneath, plus two BIG turtles. A few of the fish clung to the boat – they don’t have a dorsal fin and have a low red blood cell count (one guide told us lower white blood count, the other red – I’ll go w/ red) so they need to conserve their energy by “hitching.”

We also saw a wide array of coral and algae. (Lettuce and brain coral, to name two, per Claire, who learned more about oceans in 6 weeks at Davidson than I’ll absorb in the next 10 years.) Our driver fed the fish at one point, so we got to see dozens rise to the surface to fight for the food.

After the glass bottomed boat we took a ride on the semi-submarine; we went downstairs in the boat and sat on benches, looking left and right as fish, turtles and other marine creatures swam by.

Our last soiree on Green Island was a dip in the swimming pool (center island). We all feel asleep on our return trip on the top deck of the Big Cat. Each of us brought back a bit of sunburn (naturally the parents suffered the worst.)

After a dip in the hotel pool we headed to a lively indoor/outdoor restaurant with thin crust pizzas and a wide array of bar food. Best (and only) pizza I’ve had since October.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park & Kuranda

This morning found us at Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park, a wonderful cultural center that explores the beliefs, customs and history of the Tjapukai (people of the rain forest).

The facility is in Caravonica, 15 minutes north of Cairns.

A bit about the Tjapukai:

- Tjapukai means "Rainforest", Bama means People, thus the term "People of the Rainforest" is often used to describe Tjapukai.

- Tjapukai people were nomads within their own tribal boundaries.

- Firestick farming - The Tjapukai people would trade within the tribe or with their neighbouring tribes.

- The major beliefs are in the Elder's knowledge and reincarnation.

- The Tjapukai people are very adaptable. They cope with their own laws (lores) as well as today's laws.

While at the center we watched two video presentations, the first about the history of the tribe and the impact of white settlers on the people's life style. The second was about the religious beliefs of the tribe.

We explored the grounds a bit as the center's exhibits are in and outdoors -- outside was a pond filled with big turtles and fish, with canoes for visitors to use.
We crossed the bridge to get to the stage where the native dancing was held and watched men demonstrate their traditional dances to drums and Didgeridoo music. (A Didgeridoo is a wind instrument carved from a hollow log. Different sizes result in different pitches.)

The dancers had traditional costumes and paint and emulated various animals and animal calls in their movements and song.

From the dancing presentation we went to another stage area where we learned more about different musical instruments made and used by the Tjapukai, including how a Didgeridoo is created and played.

Next stop was a demonstration of plants used for food and medicinal purposes by a woman of the tribe. Some items had to be soaked for hours or heated to remove toxic properties. A couple of memorable points:

- termite mound can be mixed with water and administered to address diarrhea (too much results in constipation).
- termites themselves can be ingested -- good protein source. (so appetizing, don't you think?)

We got to try some of the jams and jellies served on bread -- both made traditionally by the Tjapukai people. Very tasty.

After the food demo we learned how to throw boomerangs. Or at least I learned I need much practice before I can get the thing to return to me. Great fun to hurl it out there though. Kids thought I was much better at spear-throwing; I hit the target (which had a picture of a kangaroo on it) on my first shot. Look out, people -- if I get irritated I'll grab my Tjapukai spear.

From the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park (which I highly recommend should you find yourself in Cairns), we took the Skyrail (gondola) over the Rain Forest. What an incredible experience: the views of the mountains, rivers and canyons, Cairns and its coastline, patches of sugarcane fields in the distance, and the upclose, overhead view of forest's amazing thick, lush layers of every shade of green imaginable. At some points we brushed the tops of trees!

We saw many birds and nests, harder to see the other creatures out there.

The Skyrail stopped twice en route to Kuranda, a little mountain village and our destination from the gondola. We were able to walk into the rain forest on walkways at both stops.

At the first stop -- Red Peak -- we had a a guide who pointed out various trees and plants and talked about some of the animals of the rainforest (i.e. kangaroos that live in the trees and really struggle to get around on the ground). He talked about how devastating the cyclone of a few years ago was to the animals and their habitat (food had to be dropped via helicopter to the animals).

One of the plants he pointed out contains so many toxins that people who encounter it have to have their skin waxed repeatedly to get the toxins out. Ouch. Another plant he pointed out has a "sticky" texture that allows it to cling to other plants so it can be raised up toward the sunlight. One of the trees we looked at is between 400 and 500 years old, with hundreds of years of life ahead of it. Reminded me of the Redwoods.

At our second stop -- Barron Falls station -- we got magnificent views of waterfalls and checked out an interactive nature center. It had lots of computers, which Claire loved, that had touch screens so you could learn more about plants and animals and the ecosystem of the rain forest.

Another 10 minutes on the Skyrail and we were in Kuranda!

About Kuranda:

This picturesque mountain retreat of Kuranda Village is 25km northwest of Cairns in Far North Queensland, Australia, and is surrounded by World Heritage Rainforest.

In the late 60's Kuranda was a centre for alternative lifestyle. Today historic buildings house markets featuring exotically handcrafted goods and Aboriginal artifacts, restaurants, cafes and bars.

Our first order of business in Kuranda was lunch; we found a place overlooking the rain forest and had a bite, then wandered through the infamous Kuranda markets and stopped at the Butterfly Sanctuary. It had the largest collection of butterflies I've ever seen, some of them HUGE! We were able to get very close to many of them, some even landed on us. The woman at the desk told us they release 2,000 at a time regularly to keep populations up, as their life span is short.

After wandering back through more markets, we caught our Kuranda Scenic Railway train back to Cairns. It was a great old train that wound its way through the canyons along a track that required much blood, sweat and tears to build in the 1800's, when mining was an important industry in the area. We went under something like 15 tunnels on the trip!

Our car was bright red, with comfy seats and open windows so we could enjoy the breeze and beauty of the forest, waterfalls, cliffs and canyons as we chugged down the mountain. We stopped for photos here and there and in true rain forest fashion, it rained a bit during the trip.

Upon return to the hotel we hit the pool, and Joe joined us after a marathon airplane/airport trip. We dined at Blue Sky Brewery and tried the sampler -- the Blue Sky Brewery was best, in our opinion. Couldn't get my taste buds wrapped around #5 -- warm English ale.

On to Cairns

After a pancake breakfast (made by a machine -- you push a button, wait 2 minutes, pancake drops out -- quite the novelty for everyone at the fine Legends Buffet). Even I sampled one; great concept, shaky on the output. Will stick w/ the line cook approach.

After a short flight (let's face it -- a couple hours is nothing compared to the trek from Delhi to Brisbane) we found ourselves in Cairns and stuck in a holiday parade. Somewhere ahead Santa was canvassing for EMS donations, much to the consternation of our hotel shuttle bus driver.

Our hotel was located on the Esplanade, next to the coast -- a gorgeous area with mountain surroundings. Packed with bike and walking paths, tennis courts, skate boarding park and cool playgrounds, we explored, steering clear of the water as Claire found a sign warning of snap-happy crocodiles. We didn't see any of said creatures, but spied plenty of pelicans and other birds.

After hitting the hotel pool with swim up bar (great concept for parent traveling w/ small children) we headed back to the Esplanade for good Italian al fresco.

Monday, January 5, 2009

12-19 – Wet n Wild & the Australian Outback Spectacular

Wet n’ Wild is exactly like it sounds: very wet. First we dissed everything that needed to stay dry in a locker that you can access repeatedly throughout the day w/ groovy wristband/password. And then onto the wave pool, which was WAY cool.

It’s a zero entry pool that mimics ocean waves (trade salt for chlorine).

Periodically the waving action is turned off, making it a very large, very cool swimming pool. Kids seemed to enjoy it most, no complaints by me. I found it quite relaxing and fun, and great people watching.

My observations:

- There is a market for Muslim women’s swimsuits. I was fascinated with the 20+ women I saw in full Muslim garb getting soaked in what seemed to me cumbersome garments. Obviously they’re used to it as it didn’t slow them down or deter them one bit from getting completely wet and dare we say wild?

Meanwhile kids and husbands had regular swimsuits. What’s wrong w/ this picture?

- Bad: Wet, overstretched t-shirts over swimsuits in pool. Better to wear swim suit that simply fits, then no one really bothers to look twice at you unless you’ve got tons of tattoos (then the Avas of Wet n Wild make a point of pointing them out).

- Good: swim shorts, provided they cover the crack. Enough said.

- Bad: tightie whities under said swim shorts. We saw an awful lot of underwear in the pool, particularly later in our trip – what is that all about?

- Bad: husband massaging pregnant wife’s lower lower (yes I meant to write it twice) back in wave pool. Get a room.

- Weird: scarf draped for decorative purposes around neck of woman attired in bikini as she launched into wave pool and got soaked.

- Bad: jeanskirt in wave pool, then removing it, soaked, while in pool.

Kids and I alternated between the wave pool and the water park (can’t wait until they're out of water park fever, I’m not a big fan of having cold buckets of water dumped over my head).

Claire loves these sprinkler fests so she had a blast going down the slides and all, Ava preferred the wave pool. (No parents on slides and A wouldn’t go down alone so the water park business was a bit less excited for her.)

From wet n’ wild we crashed at the hotel – nothing like sun and water to put you into a coma if you’re an adult (how is it the kids powered through without a nap?).

Then we went to the Australian Outback Spectacular for the evening show. It’s set in a huge indoor arena. Upon entry we were given cowboy hats w/ red hatbands (half of the audience had red, the other half yellow).

Once inside our photo was taken and we entered the hall/bar/stage area. Claire beelined it to the horses; four or five were in stalls at one end. The room was vast, with wood and very heavy western décor – old signs, horse, collars, saddles, western photos/paintings on the wall.

Someone was singing country music and eventually one of the cast welcomed us to the show w/ slapstick Australian commentary, then assigned us to our stations (red vs. yellow). We had a bit of a pep rally to get the crowd enthused before the doors to the arena opened and we found our seats – long tables w/ place settings for traditional Australian cowboy fare (salad, steaks, potatoes and gravy, veggies and some kind of light cake/pudding dessert).

The show opened with a rider on white horse circling the arena, then a series of dramatic images, set to music, depicting Australia’s history – gorgeous landscape scenes, drama of weather (sounds of storms, etc.), Aboriginal paintings in a tribute to native people co-existing with the land.

Highlights of the show:

- Original coach used for travel between Brisbane and Gold Coast in 1800’s, restored and pulled by 5 gorgeous black workhorses

- Women riders doing acrobatics on horseback (i.e. riding on one leg, hanging upside down, etc.)

- Women barrel racers (red team) beating yellow men’s team on their 4-wheelers

- Wagon races

- Bucking broncs

- Men riding two horses at once by standing on them, then jumping over a burning log

- Timed competition between riders to pull flags, open gates, back out of danger, circle 3 barrels

- Woman “horse whisperer” – calming horse down and mounting by having horse lay down, then riding it bareback, without bridle, around the arena

- Even a hoky helicopter appearance!

Great show and of course kids crashed on the way back to the hotel.

Seaworld – December 18

Who doesn’t love Seaworld? We got there before it officially opened so hit the carousel and checked out the penguins as they were getting ready for breakfast, then got great seats for the spectacular Dolphin show. The kids liked the guy skiing on the dolphins best.

From there we checked out the polar bear eathing breakfast and enjoyed the sea lion show, the standard Seaworld slapstick detective show. (Sea lions must all go to the same school for this comedy routine, right?) Claude, the really big one, was my favorite.

Other highlights of our day:

- We took the skyway station for an overview of the park and wipeout waterskiing

- The outdoor/indoor aquarium was very cool – sharks, tons of fish, a touch area w/ blue and green starfishes, sea cucumbers and all kinds of fun stuff, kids had fun identifying fish as a big poster showed who was who.

- Ava danced to the Elmo holiday show – great costuming – and of course we did all the Sesame Street rides.

- The polar bear exhibit was way cool, though polar was asleep this time around.

Again, we left happily tired and hit the hotel pool, then wandered into a fabulous little Vietnamese café for dinner. It happened to be written up in a travel magazine as a “not to miss gem.” I heartily agreed, kids were skeptical though Claire did have fun eating rice w/ chopsticks.

Day 2 in Australia – December 17

We lost a day in there with all that travel and time change!

After breakfast with the Asians (who knew we’d be the only white people in a sea of dark hair in Australia of all places…) we headed to Dreamworld and had a blast.

It’s Disney-esque but less overwhelming – not huge so easily walk-able, even for Ava, opens at 10 and closes at 5:00 so no need to feel like you must marathon it so you don't miss anything, lines were 5 minutes tops (might help to go mid-week in mid-December) and a great mix of shows, rides and exhibits. Plus clean, friendly, lots of ice cream options (the important thing, right?), superb costuming and green setting, the whole 9 yards.

- Kids loved the Wiggles red car that we rode through the Wiggles’ “world”
- The Outback section had great wildlife – floppy-eared kangaroos you could pet, lazy in the heat; the Koalas were darling, one hanging at the top of a tree, three others clustered together in a neighboring tree
- Crocodiles sunning themselves here and there and lots of pythons (right up your alley, Eric – these were nicely caged).
- The Aussie Outback show was a hoot – Ava petted her first snake (part of the show), Claire saw a sheep shorn firsthand after reading about it in My Friend Flicka, kids got to pet a tiger cub as we watched a white tiger and Bengal tiger prowl around their pen. (Not to worry, the baby tiger was briefly on our side of the fence and chaperoned by two trainers. Cute little fellow.)

Naturally we rode a bunch of rides – one finished me off – it looked deceptively tame. We got thrown around so much I felt green afterward.

Claire looked that way too but continued on with rides. For a child who struggles w/ carsickness she does quite well at amusement parks. And Ava just laughs out loud as she gets thrown in the air. I see vicious roller coasters in her future.

Best ride: the log ride that is a sheer drop at the end and of course soaks everyone.

Best fashion statement of the day: an Indian woman in sari with navy blue/orange baseball cap pulled over her big black braid and Nike tennis shoes.

5:00 was the perfect time to leave – we’d seen/done everything on our agenda and were happily tired. Dinner: our 19th floor balcony looking over the beach.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Happy New Year!

We are back from a wonderful holiday trip to Australia and Singapore, had a great Christmas and New Year and hope the same can be said for all of our family and friends!

We found Australia to be beautiful and friendly – it is now Claire’s favorite vacation spot (might have something to do with all the theme parks we hit).

Our trip began mid-December for the kids and me; we hit the Gold Coast (Brisbane area) first:

Day 1 – December 15 – was all travel as it took 5 hours flight time to reach Singapore, then another 7+ to Brisbane.

We had a few hours to relax at the Singapore airport, which, if you have to be airport trapped, I highly recommend (entertainment area for children, internet access at 15 min. intervals free, art projects, goldfish ponds, gaming areas for kids, tons of shopping etc.). And it was sparkly clean. The bathrooms even have sanitizer you can use to clean the seat (weird thing to make a point of mentioning, you’re thinking, but we’ve had a few less than satisfactory bathroom visits in India).

Anyway…Singapore Airlines treated us well on both of our long flights to Australia and at 7:00 a.m. we wandered out of the Brisbane airport to a gorgeous, sunny day!
I swear our driver to the hotel looked like Crocodile Dundee’s sidekick (what was his name anyway?) or I was so tired I was conjuring up images.

We ditched our things at the hotel and went to a pancake house, the first we’ve seen since leaving the U.S. Then we hit the beach right by our hotel, a section known as Surfer’s Paradise. We did see a whole lot of surfers – gorgeous aqua blue waves and soft sand. The water was colder than at Goa, but lovely and fun with strong waves for wave hopping.

Plenty of other tourists were enjoying the beach, mostly Asian. Many wore their socks and shoes on the beach and carried purses. Huge contrast to the Australians and us: swimsuits, towels and books. (No we aren’t into surfing just yet.)

We spent our day alternating between the beach and the hotel pool, not a bad way to rest after all that airplane time, then had dinner at the Hard Rock Café (I know – so touristy – but it was fun and I was craving a hamburger, which I thoroughly enjoyed). Plus we sat outside on the balcony and enjoyed the clean air and freedom of movement.

In Gurgaon it’s a bit of a process to do anything; you don’t just walk out the hotel door and wander the city – you call your driver, shlep out with carseats (yes we’re probably the only people in India with them – I take that back – us and the other ex-pats -- BTW the doorman tries to put them in the trunk of the car every time he helps us in), then you head to wherever you want to be, usually encounter some kind of security if you’re going into an apartment complex or house – they’re all gated. And if you’re going to a mall, the car is also checked by security. To return you go through security before entering the hotel again, etc.

So being able to walk out of the fine Mantra Legends Hotel and wander to a restaurant, walking on concrete sidewalks and waiting at crosswalks with other people who aren’t touching your children was quite liberating!

(Disclaimer: I more than appreciate the security in India, particularly given the recent Mumbai incident. But coming from a country where comings and goings are so easy, one no longer takes this for granted!)

Plus I do so enjoy a sidewalk. In India life happens in and around the street and cement sidewalks as we know them aren’t necessarily the norm. Oftentimes they're dirt and filled with activity. Or they're full of people, motorbikes, cows, you name it, so you find yourself dodging cars and autos in the street to get to where you're going.

Suffice it to say we thoroughly enjoyed our first day, jetlagged and happy in the sunshine, clean and green of Australia, reveling in the familiar: signs for Target, Starbucks, the typical fast food chains, etc.

Jama Masjid, Old Delhi

Jama Masjid, Old Delhi
Largest mosque in India