How to hang in Penang

Penang. Penang, Penang, Penang. Sometimes when you say a word too many times it loses all meaning, other times it just becomes a word that get stuck in your head. Penang is one of those words that does both. What is a Penang? How do you cure a case of penang? What the penang is happening? It’s really penanging hot in here! Penang you too! It is a noun, a verb, an adjective, it is everything – yet what is a Penang?

Ok, that was just filling the void by randomly pounding the keyboard – and no, no substances were involved in concocting that thought train. Just, where exactly does the word Penang come from? Even more curious is that if you are from Penang you are considered a Penangite. Like say what?

Apparently, the word Penang comes from the reference to Pulau Pinang, which means The Island of the Areca Nut Palm. Ok, so does that mean if you are from there you are essentially a person of the nut? Hmmm, so many inappropriate references here.

More seriously though is that Penang is a highly educated, business and technology centre, with an ethnically diverse population, making it a highly sought after place to work and live for people all over the world. Makes sense that is a desirable place to work, as it is warm year round, safe, easy to get to, and is a modern city wrapped in an ancient shroud, with history coming out of every corner.

Travellers, especially the worldschooler community, are constantly raving about Penang, and seemingly everyone has spent 1 – 6 months here exploring all it has to offer.

Our adventures in Penang were compressed to about 2 weeks as it was really an in-between place for us. We had just left Singapore, without a plan, and we needed to figure out where to go next, so Penang suited everything we wanted in a stopover, except it was not as inexpensive a place as we first thought. It was by no means on par with the high costs of Singapore, but not the same as Sri Lanka, where we had been used to relatively inexpensive, well, everything!

Our foray into the world of Penang began with our first low-cost airline of our trip! Somehow we had found flights using major airlines to get us this far – all for almost the same cost as using the cheap-o-air versions. Our short hop from Singapore to Penang was at the back of an mostly empty aircraft on an average weekday evening. Moving further forward in the skybus would cost something (even though it was empty forward of row 15 or so) so we remained seated in our cramped, straight backed, seats for the 1 hour flight – no big deal. In fact I think it took us longer to get from the airport in Penang to our Airbnb than it did to get to Penang from Singapore by plane.

Our Penanging began with a drive by tour of the night life of Penang. No crazy lights or party people wandering the streets, but certainly no lack of inhabitants out in the steamy night air, enveloped in their enjoyment of some local culinary concoction, available at every corner. Nothing in Penang was ever to far from food – no activity, historical sight, or residence was ever more than a few steps from some sort of traditional dish.

The smells of Penang were both curious and alluring as they languished on the breeze, of which there was little the first couple days – but the smells of spices and curries were flung far and wide throughout the city and beyond. We had tried our best to stick to home cooking, as our Airbnb came with the use of an outdoor, but functional kitchen; however, the smells and sights of the local and imported cuisine brought us out of our cave and into the belly of the city – in search for delicious and nutritious (to an extent) nourishment (Ok, so I just misspelled that word (nourishment) on the first try (forgot the U), and the spelling suggestions were: nourishment or Irishmen, like really? … nutritious Irishmen.. who programmed this thing, Hannibal Lecter?).

Despite our lack of nutritious Irishmen to tickle our palate, the trip through the cuisine of Penang was filled with the promise of spice and diversity – both of which lived up to the hype. Indian, Chinese, Szechuan, Malay, Japanese, Korean, Western were a few of the food types available – along with mixes of the above and other labels that we didn’t understand or recognize. Anyway, we didn’t lack for choice in Penang.

One choice we did make, that turned out to be both delicious and worth the journey, was a vegan buffet place in the heart of the city (Georgetown). A variety of fantastic vegan dishes awaited us, with an extremely reasonable price tag attached to it – it was flavourful, filling, and nutritious – what more do you need?

Ok, so we didn’t just eat in Penang – we Penanged it up! We got out and explored! We ventured out on to a couple of the clan jetties in Georgetown. The rickety wooden jetties, home to Chinese family that settled in Penang, have been around for more than 100 years and extend out into the ocean from the city and seem to be barely holding on in places. We also wandered around Georgetown sweating and taking in the famous integrated artworks on a couple of occasions as well as visiting a little batik spot/museum, where we learned about how they make batiks.

Stopping to enjoy some flavoured iceballs to help cool us down was one of our favourite snacks in Georgetown. Of course doing anything in Penang in the middle of the day was hard, as the heat in Penang was constant and oppressive at times, yet still not as intense as Singapore (a 3 shirt-a-day town). Most days I am sure the humidity was probably running at 75% or more – so no dry days to be had there!

While gluttony wasn’t goal for our tour of Penang, we did indulge a few times when the lure was too strong. Delicious Indian curries danced across our tongues along with a few of our favourites from home (waffles!). Four other activities in Penang that made the favourites list, beyond eating, were the 3D Trick Art museum, the Penang Hill railway, a hike though the national park, and the outdoor splash pools!

The 3D Trick Art Museum was one of those places were you could pose in front of a number of scenes, painted to look 3-dimensional when photographed. You could be chased by a dinosaur, hang form a ceiling, or even ride in a rickshaw. The ‘museum’ was a bit over-priced for what it was and much shorter than expected – but it was one of the highlights of Penang for our kids, so probably worth it – but the cheese factor was high when walking through the museum. You can even find exampled of the 3D art in the Penang airport.

Up on the north end of Penang was the National Park, Taman Negara Pulau Penang. The national park was a great hike but a sweaty one! We recommend heading out early in the day, bringing tons of water, and if possible, take the boat ride back around. Also if you kids are a bit on the ‘are we there yet?’ side, keep an eye out for the wildlife, as there are lots of monkeys to keep you busy (and busy keeping your lunch safe). If you take the boat back after the hike to the turtle centre, you can stop in at the swimming beach (Monkey Beach), as the beach (Kerachut Beach) near the turtles isn’t ideal for swimming. During your hike you can even grab a couple of geocaches – like we did!

Another one of our outings was to the the Penang Hill Railway. The railway is a bit expensive, but cool way to see the city. As with many things around these parts, if you are a tourist, expect to pay double the rate of the local. I understand why, but had to learn to always look at the higher price first and expect to pay that. The ride up and the view of the island and surrounding area is great. The area at the top is full of vendors and guides, as well as an impressive compliment of oversized arachnids inhabiting the areas near the start of the trails. Our eldest daughter, and her lack of enthusiasm for the 8-legged insect eaters, definitely had s difficult walk along some of the trails because of the spiders lurking in the trees. Luckily for all of us, they were a relatively harmless species that was more interested in 6 legged prey than us. We only ended up spending a couple of hours there, around sunset, but probably could have stayed longer and done a bit more hiking; so plan wisely and expect to need a few hours to see and do it all up there.

Now, the other thing that made Penang a great stop over for us, was our hosts in the Airbnb. Yan and his family were tremendously friendly and welcoming. We felt that it was more a temporary home than a guesthouse. Our girls met his kids (also girls) who were the same age and they had a blast for the time we were there. They danced, played, watched youtube (As kids do) and had a great time! Other things making the house a great place was the location. It was right next to the beach and easy to get rides into town (get the Grab app), was clean, well stocked with clean drinking water and other necessities, and perfectly set up for families. We booked 8 days and stayed 13 in the end – as we didn’t see the need to move! That and some visa issues! On our last night we joined our host at a private party with his family and his friends from China and Penang; one was even an international movie star! All of them were super nice people and it was great to hang out to eat and drink with them. We even tried some very good Chinese alcohol to go with the hot pot dinner! Partying in Penang with new friends was a great way to end our stay!

So despite our best efforts to make Vietnam our next port of adventure – their inefficient visa system wasn’t up to the task (too slow – and note to people doing the same as us, don’t trust their ‘times’ for approval, expect twice as long as they say, and expect no reply to any inquiries) – so our pre-planned route took a hard right and headed south, below the equator, to the nation of islands known as Indonesia; Bali to be more specific. This is where our Penanging stopped and our search for the best nasi goreng turned up a notch! A dish found throughout Malaysia, Indonesia, and even the Maldives!

Next up… Indonesia, but who knows which blog will actually be finished next!

M (Secondary director of information and geography of the M4 travels)

Sri Lanka: Part Deux! A return to Ceylon.

Our time in Sri Lanka during our first foray into the ancient island nation was interesting and eye opening. We had slow travelled for most of the first month and spent the majority of the time in the northwest part of the country. Our one room rental was not luxury but allowed us to slow down and meet local people and enjoy what the area had to offer.

Our second stop back in Sri Lanka was going to be a bit different. We knew that we wanted to see some of the well travelled tourist spots in the south of the country, as they are popular for a reason, and not just sit still. So, with the images of the impossibly blue and turquoise waters of the Maldives still fresh in our minds we flew the giant bird back to Sri Lanka – back into the chaos!

Headed south, we took the fastest road in Sri Lanka. It was a toll highway that stretched from near Colombo to the south coast. Finally a road without cows, dogs, bikes, tuk-tuks and all sorts of other interlopers interrupting the flow of movement. We arrived in record time, for Sri Lanka anyway, and found our guest house in the old fort area of Galle.

Galle is a town set in and around an old Dutch trading fort. It was a nice setting for the views and sunset, but definitely was no longer what it once was. It is now filled with restaurants, bars, guesthouses, and souvenir shops. Each one trying to attract tourists with their increasingly elaborate signs and offers. Galle was the first place in Sri Lanka where we saw the local population seeiming outnumbered by tourists. It was strange, as we had spent most of the past 2 months in areas with few tourists, but now we were back in the belly of the beast – the tourist trail! (Dun-dun-dunnnn).

Our guest house was smack in the middle of the touristy area of Galle Fort, but you wouldn’t have known it was a guest house. It looked like an old mansion, well past its prime, potentially abandoned, but with lots of character, sitting in between shops. It wasn’t clear that it was anything at first – but once inside you could see it was a family home, one that had been there for a long time!

The owners were very kind and the patriarch of the family enjoyed talking the ear off of anyone that would listen. He was also very inquisitive and knowledgeable about a multitude of topics. He happily listened to everything we had to say, seemingly increasing his already vast knowledge of the world. Also, luckily here the girls also met a couple other little girls and had playmates for a couple evenings. Our room upstairs was in the back of the structure, a room that was best described as spartan, but livable. The old tiled roof was on its last legs and each morning greeted us with a fresh pile of its mortar on the floor next to the door. A balcony that might have once looked out over the ocean and the sunrise to the east, now stared directly into the adjacent buildings, and the garden below, that is if you dared to venture out on it. A fan that had 2 functioning settings, take-off and couldn’t push over a butterfly, was our only source of cooling during the stifling nights. Luckily a mostly functional mosquito net kept us from the abundant night time intruders doing their best to separate us from our blood, one small bit at a time!

Despite the obvious state of the house, the owners had an extreme amount of pride in their home. It had been in the man’s family for generations, built by one of his relatives long ago, and continued to serve as the centre for the current family. Renovations are badly needed, as the sky is clearly visible through the roof in places, and half of the upstairs isn’t even usable anymore – but that might be the future for another generation of the family – one that has a pride running deep for the area, and their home. While many of the other stately homes in the area have been sold to outside investors, looking for a base to get a piece of the tourist dollar in Galle, this home has, and will continue to stay in the family; at least that is their current plan.

The rest of our time in Galle was mellow. We ate some good food, toured the Japanese Peace Pagoda high above the hills opposite Galle Fort and even stopped in a turtle rescue centre / hatchery. The centre was a big hit for the girls, as who doesn’t love turtles! The guide gave us his best rendition of a tour, one that certainly had been given before, and we were able to see living examples of each species found in Sri Lanka. The organization is one of a few that are important for the turtles of Sri Lanka, so we hoped that our meager contribution would go to continue the efforts to help them. Another nearby attraction worth mentioning is the famous stilt fishermen. We were pretty underwhelmed and disappointed to see that the fishermen really only seemed to be there to pose for the tourists and to push tourists’ butts up the stilts to get their photos taken with rods (no line!), for money of course. We get this is how they make money now and, really, it’s probably better for the state of the fisheries but we just couldn’t…

After Galle, we headed along the coast to Mirissa, another stop on the tourist trek along the south coast. Here we stayed at a quaint little guest house with an extremely friendly family. Yeshin Guest house was the perfect location for heading to any of the area’s beaches and just relaxing. Our girls were lucky to have a little friend to play with in the host family’s son and many a day was spent by the three of them chasing and playing in their yard.

Welligama Bay, near Mirissa, was also the location where both our little adventurers learned to surf. Maëlle started the drive for finding the perfect wave and her little sister wasn’t far behind. Two days of lessons and more waves were caught than missed by these two super girls! It was amazing watching them show off their prowess on the boards. A balance that was acquired through gymnastics and dance came into use as the waves were no match for these little surfers! We think they might be hooked, as I’m sure this won’t be the last time we see these two on surf boards.

Another popular attraction in Mirissa is blue whale watching. While all four of us are adamant ocean creature lovers and never want to pass up a trip to see the majestic creatures of the sea, we just couldn’t make ourselves go for it. It wasn’t the cost, nor the time commitment, nor the boats being used (although really that should have been taken into account), but the methods used by the companies to ‘whale watch’. More than one account of the trip found on any number of traveller or review sites indicated that the whale watch was more of a whale harassment hunt, and the majority of the trip was spent chasing or surrounding the whales (when they found them), often well within the recommended safety zones around the whales. Nothing about that appealed to us, so we let it slide – the chance to see the blue whales was worth passing up if we could be part of the group that showed the tour operators that their procedures were not acceptable by the only way they would notice, by not getting our money.

Our last adventure around Mirissa involved getting train tickets for Sri Lanka’s most famous train ride; the Ella-Kandy route. We knew about this train and had wanted to see it for ourselves since we had planned on coming through this part of the country. Getting tickets wasn’t easy however, as it involved finding a train station that sold advance tickets. Not everywhere did that – so luckily a station near by Mirissa did, and we headed off to get some tickets. We picked out the route and the date and even added another train route to our itinerary, Kandy to Colombo, thus avoiding another horrendous car ride through the twisty roads near Kandy. Four tickets on both train rides, both in first class (with A/C), came to less than one car ride on one of those routes, so it was an easy choice! Unfortunately, the total had to be paid in cash – and we were about 150 Rupees short (around $1.10 CDN). Seriously eh? We had come all this way, figured out how to book tickets and still had to get back, but were just that much short of getting our tickets, and of course to fit with the cliché, the ticket booth was closing in a few minutes! So… we either we had to give up the tickets or change classes on one of the routes. Luckily we were able to go down to 2nd class on the Kandy-Colombo route and save some money, while still getting where we needed to go! We had concerns that the second class trains in Sri Lanka would resemble those of the lower class trains in India we had ridden years before, and thinking ahead we definitely were apprehensive about having those tickets. Luckily, those fears were never requited and the trains turned out to be just fine, if not in need of a good deep cleaning.

Soon our time in Mirissa was over and we were off to Udawalawe and the national park for another safari. We had considered going to Yala National Park and visiting the most popular of Sri Lanka’s National Parks, but the distance, the pending car rides to and from, the cost, and the hoards of tourists that would certainly be waiting made us reconsider and turn north to Udawalawe.

Udawalawe is a small hamlet in the middle of south central Sri Lanka. It is well positioned for guest houses to serve as the starting point for the visit to the near by National Park of the same name. We found a basic and non-remarkable place to stay to base out of and arrived after our trip from Mirissa. In hind sight we should have booked the evening safari the day of our arrival, or booked it out of town immediately after our safari the next morning, but we hung on in the little town for 2 nights – a place with very little to do.

Our safari to Udawalawe started out slowly, after an early morning start, with more waiting than animal watching. We ended up entering the park well after sunrise, in a traffic jam/stampede of jeeps carrying scores of tourists. Immediately however we were pleased to spot elephants near the entrance gate. Sauntering along to their own beat they slowly moved off into the brush to forage for their breakfast. The rest of the tour however, save for the other encounter for elephants, was less remarkable than expected. Perhaps our previous experience with a safari in Wilpattu had set the bar high, but the Udawalawe experience just didn’t quite meet our expectations. A driver than spent more time on his facebook account that looking out for things for us to see was only part of it. His crocodile spotting was on point, but seeing other things was a bit hit or miss. He spotted at least 3 crocs from a distance and made us spend a much longer time than needed staring at them, while he checked to see what had happened in the social media world since his last check 4 minutes ago. His timing was also perfect for taking off just as I had lined up a nice shot of a bird or animal. My camera has an over abundance of half blurred images caused from a lurching jeep and an underwhelming number of actual animal photos.

Luckily, just before the end of our drive through the jungle, we found a herd of elephants in the brush. While most of the drive around the park was watching the jeep drivers act just like they do on the main roads (rushing to a pinch point in the road, neither letting up an inch, and then spending the next 10 minutes inching by each other to get through – where a 5 second delay at the start, by either driver, would have allowed the other to pass easily and then it would have been over… but nope, that never happened), occasionally we were alone on one of the paths around the park. It was here that I saw the slimmest glimpse of grey in a patch of green and brown; one that the driver missed, likely during one of his frequent checks into who liked his most recent selfie! I yelled out for the driver to stop and back up and just emerging from the brush was a herd of elephants – a mother and baby and a number of juveniles. We sat quietly and alone as they fed and wandered around us. We were alone with the herd for at least 10 minutes before another jeep arrived, allowing us to watch the magnificent pachyderms get within about 5 m or less from us. It was incredible and a memorable experience.

In Udawalawe we saw about 10 elephants total; not too shabby! However, on our trip from Udawalawe to Ella we probably saw 5-6 elephants along side of the road, just waiting to be fed. A much easier, and cheaper, way to see the symbol of pride of Sri Lanka; and you don’t have to be up at 5 am to do it!

Next stop Ella. Another twisty, tortuous ride through the roads of the highlands and we were in the coldest place we had been in Sri Lanka! In the hills you didn’t even need a/c to feel comfortable at night. It was great! We stayed in a nice little guest house and walked to some of the most famous sites in Sri Lanka. We visited Little Adams Peak – a high point in the area. The girls did amazing on that day, despite the heat (yes it was still hot in the day) and hiked up and down this peak. The going wasn’t too tough, but at one point we saw a woman just above us lose her footing and fall over the side of the path. A flash of an arm, and the woman beside her grabbed her just before she fell head first. I ran to get underneath her, to catch her if needed, and helped push her back up the hill. No one was hurt luckily, but you could see the woman was a little shaken, but happy to have been helped!

Little Adams Peak provided a marvelous view of the surrounding hills and tea plantations, and of course another chance for the ubiquitous instagrammers to get their shot of staring off into the distance while looking over a cliff. They actually line up to do the same pose over and over again – often with a similar wardrobe.

After the peak we hiked over to the Nine Arches Bridge; perhaps Ella’s most famous photo spot. The bridge is a brick/stone nine arched train bridge that spans a ravine. It was built about 100 years ago and has become famous for the amazing views over the bridge and jungle and nearby tea plantations. It is a beautiful area and we ended up visiting twice, including once while the train came through, and once we even walked all the way back into town by the tracks – a long, hot journey, not recommended in the middle of the day.

Ella was even more touristy than Galle and the backpacker crowd clearly decends into this former sleepy grove in the hills en masse at all times in the year. Despite the constant threat of rain while we were there, the restaurants and the trails and the area was filled with crowds of travellers.

We only ended up staying a few days, they hopped onto the highly anticipated train for our trip through the scenic hills to Kandy. The train ride was filled with twists and turns, bridges and vistas, jungle and tea plantations, and finally sunset and then darkness. We ended up being in first class, with an over powered a/c unit, not actually needed for this trip, as the air was cool and fresh in the hills. We watched as this one couple spent at least 80% of the 6 hour (or so) trip hanging out of the door of the train trying to recreate the famous photos from this trip. I am sure they took at least 1000 or more photos, as the entire time they were snapping away. Sure it was beautiful, but I hope they saw it with their eyes and not just through the view finder of their phone.

Our second time in Kandy was more pleasant than the first. No one was sick, and we stayed with a fantastically fabulous family (Dilly and Samantha) just outside the city. They had a very comfortable Airbnb and were superhosts to the max! Totally! They were on top of everything and were extremely thoughtful. It was probably the best Airbnb host experience we had on our trip so far (and we’ve had a few). We decided to go easy on our last couple of days in Sri Lanka and just hung around the Airbnb and visited the terrific botanical gardens. These are not to be missed if you are in Kandy. They are a bit pricey to visit (by Sri Lankan standards) but worth it!

Finally as our time was winding down in Sri Lanka, this time for the last time on this trip, we took the train back to Colombo and stayed one final night near the airport before heading off to our next adventure in Singapore – another pet sit!

Our last day in Sri Lanka also corresponded with our youngest daughter’s birthday. She was going to have a birthday in the air! So we surprised her by ordering a cake to be served on the flight. The flight attendants on Sri Lankan Airlines were awesome. They brought out the cake and even sung happy birthday to her. She was a bit embarrassed, but I am guessing she won’t forget that for a while! The cake was delicious btw!

So with Sri Lanka behind us and a new adventure in South East Asia on the way we looked back at the past couple of months and the thousands of new memories we made. Sri Lanka has a place for everyone. Veteran travellers, neophytes to the world of adventure, and those just looking for the perfect insta shot will have their buckets filled with gorgeous scenery and generous people. We may have left Sri Lanka, but it won’t be leaving us anytime soon, as our memories will have us thinking about the place for years to come.

Another installment of the M4 travels brought to you by M (Managing Director of air travel)

Sri Lanka – It’s a Go!

Welcome to the island nation known as the Pearl of the Orient. The tiny but fierce island will challenge you to explore its rich history, its modern side, its seemingly endless beaches, and even more endless twisty roads. You will be immersed into a culture that on the surface resembles that of India, but has its own indelible history that will separate it, in your mind and heart, from the rest of the world. Food will be a pervasive theme on your voyage to find your reason d’etre in Sri Lanka. You will find few of the island delicacies pass your pallet with a whimper as they either excite or surprise you, but rarely disappoint. Vegetarians and vegans can delight in the variety of fruits and vegetables available at even the humblest of stands in the remote corners of the country. Eating your way around Sri Lanka is certainly one way to explore this country of ten thousand temples.

Sri Lanka, a place that has been known by many names, Ceylon, Serendip, Eelan, does not do anything quietly. It may be a small player on the world stage, but the 20+ million inhabitants of this island all have their part to play in the chaos and symphony of this nation – and certainly their influence on us travellers allows them to reach much further than their own shores.

We aim only to give a high level view of our travels of Sri Lanka, as we spent 6 weeks (during 2 visits) exploring and living in the communities around the island, as we could not do justice to a full post on the entire nation without writing a novel few of you would read! The M’s had many adventures in Sri Lanka, from safaris (yes we did 2!), to beaches, to markets, to hikes to scenic vistas, to just sitting back and talking with people who were from there. We experienced a lot of what Sri Lanka had to offer, but there was so much more. Six weeks in Sri Lanka is probably only akin to listening to the first track on a box LP set – but it was a start for us and gave us a great taste of life in the Indian Ocean.

The First Week

Our arrival in Sri Lanka was as the sun was setting and the evening ritual for the animal and human inhabitants of the island began. The cacophony of birds echoed around the airport tarmack as airplane door opened and the jungle surrounding us made it seem like we landed back in time. A blast of heat after exiting the over chilled air plane left us with lungs gasping ever so slightly for breath, but eyes and minds already filled with wonder and anticipation. Naively we were descending into the heart of the empire, the centre of the island nation’s chaos – Colombo, with nary an idea of what to expect.

The exit from the airport was smooth, but not quick. The customs agents, as per the usual, seemed to relish in watching the masses languish in lines snaking along the smooth tiled corridor. They moved with the urgency of a snake digesting its latest dinner, knowing that the line was never ending; always replenished by plane load after plane load of wide eyed foreigners in search of their self or, at the least, a few dozen Instagram worthy photos to make their friends or mates back home jealous.

After being spit out into the arrivals hall after collecting our baggage, we did the usual dance of avoiding the taxi touts and money exchange booths, searching for the required ATM to dispense to us our saved up cash for the highly anticipated visit. An hour or so later, cash and new mobile sim card in hand, we negotiated our way into a taxi to our guesthouse. The guesthouse was on the south side of Colombo, near the other airport, while the airport we just arrived into was on the north side. A seasoned veteran of Sri Lankan travel would have probably avoided this situation, but alas, we were but a new born into the world of Ceylon, and knew not of what awaited. Our previous journeys in India had prepared us for the potentials – but we had been assured that this would not be the same. We hoped, and then jumped in and waited to see what would happen. The first hour of our voyage of approximately 45 km to the guesthouse was spent mostly staring at the dark and watching as pedestrians passed our barely moving van. Hour two was spent mostly doing the same – with the youngest of our daughters finally succumbing to her requirement for sleep, and passing out gently in the backseat of the overheated, slightly dilapidated (ok, who am I kidding – barely roadworthy) taxi van. The constant hum of the motor at idle and the harmonious and incessant sounding of the car horns were more than she could handle after a long day of flying. Luckily we only flew for 4.5 hours from Dubai to get to Sri Lanka, but it was too much for a 4 year old to handle without much sleep. Hour three – will we even get there? I think I saw the same man with a cane who was walking back near the airport pass us. Hour four – yes, seriously, we finally arrive. A 45 km ride taking almost 4 hours was not an anomaly, but a foreshadow of our road adventures to come.

Our first sampling of the local hospitality left us with high hopes that our family adventures here in the jewel of Asia were going to be epic. The first host was inviting and thoughtful, as he had prepared a light snack for us on arrival. Of course it was way too spicy for our daughters to even look at, but the thought was there. With a rejuvenated spirit we quickly checked out our accommodations for the first two nights of our stay in Sri Lanka and then headed off to find some additional sustenance to allow us to survive til morning. Luckily a great local place, just across the rail tracks, on the beach was still open and happily serving the hungry locals and tourists alike.

The first two days were calm – beach, food, relax, repeat. Oh, and more food in there somewhere. We tried new and exciting dishes, things we didn’t know existed like kottu roti. The smells and textures had us eager for more; but soon it was off to our next location, one that we booked the night before and that was to be our home for the next month – the eco-house on the northwest coast; a mere 150 km up the coast.

Arrival at the Eco-House

The Uber driver pulled over about 1 km down the dirt road leading to our next destination. The car, a slightly larger Honda Fit than available in North America, couldn’t make it any further. The ruts and pot holes (although that isn’t really a fitting description, as they were more like mini road lakes) were too much for the little Japanese import and its 5 cm of ground clearance when fully loaded with 4 travellers and their bags. The driver had gotten us the 150 km from our last place to here in a non-record setting 5.5 hours. It was a long, long ride. Luckily our last kilometer was a track well known by a local tuk-tuk driver, Ali, who had been coordinated by the home owner to meet us and guide us to the place, as it was not easy to find. Ali, who did his absolute best in trying to communicate with us, often resulting in both sides laughing a bit as we tried to figure out what each meant, did a couple trips to grab us and our bags, ferrying them and us to the house. Our Uber driver seemed slightly less than pleased about our location, but did the normal Sri Lankan thing and slightly nodded his head to the side, then was off, back to Colombo.

The first glimpse of the eco-house was through the open side of the tuk-tuk as it puttered its way into the gated yard. A small concrete structure dotted with what appeared to be plastic bottles embedded in the concrete stood off to one side of a decent sized yard, mostly filled with what seemed like crops, with not much else filling in the gaps around. A large beach dune imposed itself into the horizon 100 m or so to the west, a small line of dense jungle vegetation separating us from that dune. We came to love and hate that dune over the next few weeks, as it signified both a healthy beach environment but an obstacle to conquer each time we ventured forth to enjoy the coast. Our oldest daughter came to name it the ‘dune of doom’ as it was our routine to often voyage over the dune some time during the heat of day – a journey filled with sweat, sand, and mosquitos, and for her, the potential for the encounters with spiders made it that much worse!

The interior of the eco-house was not exactly completely spartan of amenities, I mean it had a bed (yes, one, big enough for 4), a bench, a bookshelf, a huge spider, a fridge, and a huge overhead fan, that did little but move the dust around – as we would, with great despair, find out on our first night, but it most certainly was not luxury. A basic life was to be had here and we were in for it. The sleeping situation became one of a large family style bed – we all shared and sweated equally, passing into the sleep each night after reaching a point of heat exhaustion.

Our family bed in the eco-house.

An outdoor kitchen and bathroom rounded out the experience, with a lanai/porch area available for both eating and entertaining. Our adventure began at the eco-house in early December, continued through Christmas and New Years, and included many a day spent traversing the dune of doom to the beach and writing a few of the precursors to this blog. A trip to town here and there, oh and a trip to the hospital were also part of the eco-house experience; as we learned soon after arriving that the no-see-ums certainly do like to bite – and infection sets in easy in the humidity! All is well now, so no worries there! So after this experience we learned that our daily routine required change, so each day we applied a liberal amount of sunscreen and insect repellent before venturing forth out of the house – it was a must! Spending time outside also included the use of a stand up fan and mosquito coils at all times.

We honestly only made it through the weeks in the house because of the help of Sureka. Sureka, a local woman hired to help cook, get food and run errands, and clean around the house was a savior. She helped us figure out how things worked in the area, told us not to expect too much to happen around Poya, and helped us to develop a taste for real Sri Lankan cooking and food. Every breakfast and dinner she made was painstakingly thought out and prepared with care. Curries, dahls, papadams, naan, fish, veggies, rice, chapatti, coconut pancakes, pastas, everything for us and our kids was fresh and ready when we asked. It was a veritable selection of Sri Lankan delicacies that adorned the table each day, with favourites on repeat on request. A favourite of one of us, not to be named, was a dahl that showed up day in and out on the breakfast menu. It was delicious the first few times, but wore its way off the must-have list for the rest of us after a few days; either way, the effort to accommodate us whenever we asked was there, and she was an absolute necessity for staying, and worth every penny we paid to her. She was also lovely and brought her youngest son with her several times. Though he did not speak any English, he really liked playing with the girls and it was fun to watch them run around.

Christmas and New Years (and a birthday!)

A tropical Christmas was a new experience for the girls. They knew little outside of rain and cold at Christmas, except a couple of years ago where the white stuff made a rare appearance at this time of year. We did our best to prepare our daughters for the Christmas away and in the remote location – as it wasn’t going to be the usual present filled experience they have seen so far. We have always emphasized the importance of family time over presents, but we certainly weren’t going to completely eliminate the experience for them this year. Santa made his requisite visit and left a few small toys to delight the kiddos; however, the bigger part of this was spending time making and decorating the few ornaments we hung on a small tropical bush growing in front of the house. Of course we may have now implemented a new Christmas time tradition. The house had a pole on the patio in front which caused many an impromptu pole dancing party. Pole dancing to Christmas music while wearing Christmas hats in the heat will certainly be something we won’t forget.

Christmas day was actually spent at a local resort, a 45 min walk down the beach. Here the girls enjoyed the pool while sampling some rarely found western cuisine. One of us was confined to pants in this heat because of the infected insect bites and was not able to partake in the aquatic Christmas festivities. Another part of our December was the birthday of our eldest daughter. She knew her present, but none-the-less squealed with joy upon receiving her most anticipated gift yet – a mermaid outfit and mermaid fin! She could now swim with the mermaids and other sea creatures, as she clearly was ready to do so! The weather held that day, despite the previous days of rain, and she frolicked away in the waves for much of the afternoon. Rare to see her happier than that day! Made it worth it for all of us.


New Years came and went with little celebration outside of a small tip of the cup with Mr. Gordons and his friend Ms. Tonic. Side note to everyone reading: finding tonic outside of a major grocery store is not easy in the northwest part of Sri Lanka. In fact, it was a difficult beverage to acquire in most areas, so if you have a need for Mr. Gordons, Mr. Bombay, or Ms. Tanqueray to have a companion to mix it up with, stock up when you find it!

Cleaning the Beach

Our oceans are in trouble. Those who doubt that can stop reading this blog right now and google any number of articles on the plastic problem in our ocean and all over the planet. Seriously, stop reading and get educated. Go… then come back!

Our first glimpse of the coast was one of utter shock and then awe. We couldn’t believe that this vast expanse of reddish-brown sand was practically deserted, save for a few fishers, but was absolutely covered in plastic waste. It was an unimaginable sight – to stand on a remote beach, in a relatively sparsely populated area of an island in the Indian Ocean and have to pick your way through plastic to get to the sand on the beach. We were honestly both saddened and motivated to not let this stay as it was.

Marianne organized a clean up, and just after new years, after spending weeks picking at the trash here and there by ourselves, a group of locals joined our cause to clean this section of the beach and adjacent dune. A brief bit of education about plastic along with the physical labour of the clean-up crew (mostly kids) resulted in a 200 m section of beach going mostly plastic free in just over an hour and a half. A great start for this beach, but unfortunately, likely to be one of many efforts required to keep it clean. Turning our back on the problem isn’t our way and Marianne has the drive to get these things going, and hopefully has started the spark in the locals to keep it that way. The owner, though away, helped us organize this initiative and hopes to continue doing regular clean-ups.

Wilpattu National Park

A to do list of Sri Lanka, or a bucket list for those so inclined to enjoy the cliche, must include a safari. The typical safaris are those in the south, Yala National Park or Udawalawe National Park, as they have been widely spread over social media, and rightly so for their bountiful and extraordinary wildlife. However, Wilpattu NP is a national park not to be missed! We will compare safaris on a later blog, as we were fortunate to have the chance to do two of the three NPs mentioned above. No spoilers here however, but we will let you know the details!

So our New Years Day started early, as there was little fan-fare or ball-dropping going on the night before, except a few minutes of fireworks around midnight in sleepy northwest Sri Lanka, and sleeping in with the heat was not really an option. So with a two-hour tuk-tuk ride with Ali planned, we weaved our way through the crowded streets of Puttalam and along the elephant frequented road that led to Wilpattu. This was our first real adventure tourism in Sri Lanka. A single stop for a cold ice cream to break up the tuk-tuk ride was our only respite for that arduous journey. Anyone who has ridden in the back of a tuk-tuk will attest that it is not the most comfortable, nor the coolest ride. This stop also provided us with a highlight from that trip. During the ice cream break, while the 4 Ms were thoroughly enjoying their frozen treat in the 30+ C heat, Ali proclaimed, quite loudly and seemingly out of nowhere, “Bathroom. It’s a go!!” and off he rushed. Sensing an urgency behind his words we assumed that he had proclaimed his intentions to keep us from wondering about his sudden lack of presence. Ten minutes or so later, looking sweaty and disheveled, he emerged from the back of the poorly lit store, wiping his brow furiously with a well used handkerchief, he quietly indicated he was ready to proceed with the journey. That bathroom break nearly did him in and none of us wanted to repeat his bathroom journey for fear of appearing as though we had barely survived that trip to the porcelain throne. The rest of the trip to the park was as the first part, hot, sweaty, and filled with the monotonous hum of the tuk-tuk’s severely under powered 4-stroke engine. We did actually love tuk-tuk rides!

Bright and early the next day, we piled into the modified pick-up truck (aka the jeep) and headed into the park in search of the elusive and majestic leopards, along with the hope of spotting an equally sight-worthy elephant. The guesthouse we stayed at had a reception and dining area lined with spectacularly close-up shots of the many leopards of the adjacent national park, wetting our appetite and filling our dreams with the chance meeting of an apex predator on its own turf. Our safari was a 5 hour ride through the bumpy dirt roads of the park searching for leopards, elephants, iguanas, peacocks and all sorts of other wild creatures. We saw our fair share thanks to our jeep driver / guide with his more than impressive sight, but the elusive leopard, the spotted ninja of the park, was just that, and never showed a hint, outside of a few footprints in the sand, that s/he even existed. No matter, as we knew that was the cherry on the icing to see a leopard, we left fulfilled with our current roster of Sri Lankan wildlife in the memory banks and on the memory cards.

The last week of our first visit

Our next week there was our last of our first visit, and we spent most of it in Kandy. Unfortunately, even the most careful of us can succumb to any number of the germs out to get us, and in Kandy the youngest of our brood spent the better part of 4 days battling a stomach bug that jumped up and got her, and only her, seemingly from out of nowhere. A calm, hotel bound final few days in Sri Lanka went by quickly, and except for our visit to the very entertaining traditional dance / cultural show the majority of Kandy’s culture and temples were left for another visit. Fortunately our little one healed up completely, just in time for another harrowing ride through the narrow, over crowded streets of this tear drop shaped nation – the last before heading to another type of paradise surrounded by turquoise.

So, Sri Lanka… there is so much we didn’t say about you. How could I accurately describe the feeling you give people when they arrive completely unaware of the full-on experience they are going to get. Your tuk-tuk and car rides could be a video game, but with many lives, as getting through unscathed is almost impossible! Your food both assaults and delights your senses, as the spices sneak up on you and overtake the other tastes and linger like a friend that just won’t leave after the party is over. Every bit of the country is alive at seemingly every minute of the day and night, except that one time we rode to the airport at 3 am, and we only saw about 5 people on bikes and 2 people standing randomly staring at the side of the road. All of your beauty and faults come front and center for every local, tourist, and traveller to see – and love them or hate them, they are what make your country unique and a can’t miss place to visit.

This was but our first of two visits, as we came back for more, which will be continued in another blog.

Written by M (sub-inspector of hand cleanliness and teeth brushing)


M4 en entrevue à Radio-Canada!

Nous avons eu le privilège récemment de parler un peu plus de notre voyage dans une entrevue avec Johanie Bilodeau de Radio-Canada Saguenay Lac-St-Jean. Voici le lien pour entendre l’entrevue, lire le texte et voir des photos:

From a humble grape comes a legacy.

Ramblings from the Alps

Allô mes amis, we are now almost into our third full month of travelling and it has been amazing so far! We have driven across Canada (a post that still needs to be written!), visited Iceland, did a quick stop by in Switzerland (which I will get to later!) and are now (still) in France. So, being in France I thought I would open up this post with the first things you need to do when in France … of course they are clichés, but they are so for a reason! Of course you need to eat cheese and bread, drink wine, ride your bike under the Eiffel Tower whilst wearing a white/blue striped shirt and a beret with a baguette in the front basket, and do generally what Parisians do – sit at one of the thousands of local cafés and enjoy the day; but not to be forgotten, as Paris has such a rich history in art and culture, is just wandering the confusing streets of Paris staring aimlessly at the almost infinite amount of statues and historic sites and soaking it in. Visiting the Louvre should also be on the list, if you can dedicate at least 3/4 of a day to wandering those hallowed halls, as even the most uncultured can’t possibly remain unmoved or uninspired by the remarkable selection of some of the most amazing art and artifacts in human history. Be warned however, that the place is huge, and somewhat confusing to navigate at first, so plan well!

Well, we have already mentioned the Parisian experience, but of course the last blog left out a few things. One thing that we have experienced a few times now in Europe, is being excluded from restaurants because of our kids. I thought that it was a bit strange the first time, as we approached a completely empty restaurant, save for 1-2 tables, but then the “maitre’d” saw us and our kids, and suddenly the restaurant was full. Ok, I guess that could be reservations that haven’t shown up yet – so we moved on. The next place was a bit less subtle. It was around 8:00 pm on a Wednesday or Thursday, so I understand that it is prime time, but when we got to the next place, the owner was pleasant and started chatting to us about a table, then she saw the kids come in right behind me, and all of sudden the restaurant was full (although it was almost empty). Nothing she could do. Oh, but if we wanted to sit all four of us at a tiny table outside on the 50 cm wide sidewalk next to the extremely narrow, yet active street, on two chairs, away from the rest of the customers (or lack there of) then maybe they could accommodate us. Yeah, nice try… no thanks. By this point the kids were pretty hungry, so sushi to go was the easiest solution to this issue. Yep, strange, but sushi is our kids go-to fast food! Definitely could be worse, so no complaints there – just not necessarily the most economical everywhere! This also happened to us in Switzerland for lunch… albeit in a busier restaurant, but the look from the owner was the same – sees the kids… oh, we are busy, too busy for you.

Anyway, we are over that… so back to our adventures in France! We have (with the exception for Marianne) been trying to be more open to speaking french; Marianne is holding out! She refuses to speak french… kidding, of course! Even Maëlle has been doing her best to make an effort to speak a bit more in french. It isn’t every time, but she is making more efforts than ever before. She is doing well… she has ‘Est-que je peux’ (Can I?) down pat …  and is expanding her dialogue everyday!

Ok, so we have learned the keys to speaking french in France (from a barely mono-lingual neanderthal as myself) are:

  1. On your first attempt at saying something hard, just say it low and mumbly….
  2. After that doesn’t work, on your second attempt to get someone to understand what you said, say it quickly with a more nasally sound and make sure you end your sentence with a rising inflection… so that you are almost asking them something.
  3. Now, while they look at you deciding if you have mental issues, the third attempt to get someone to understand your strange accent should be said higher pitched than the previous attempts and with more attitude. Make it seem like they have the issue with understanding, not that you have no idea what you are saying.
  4. When all of that fails, and it will, point at something random and run away quickly or… ask someone who speaks french to say it exactly how you said it and watch the other person miraculously understand what you wanted.

Actually, I have found that my very moderate french skills have helped tremendously in France. I haven’t had too many instances where I was completely lost. There are a few individuals that I have met that speak faster than others – but the majority speak clearly enough for me to understand what they are saying and or why I need to move le car out of the &%$@#$% way. But yes it has been okay… so thank you grade school french, because of you I can find out the time, determine if something is too expensive or not, and ask for the toilette! But really, my time in Quebec and with the extended family has helped the most!

So, what else have we been up to here? We have been in France for about three weeks now and have gone from Paris, to the wine producing regions of Bourgogne, to the foothills of the Alps in Chartreuse, in the eastern part of France, to the Alps near Switzerland.

All has been different, but not drastically so from Canada, in that I mean, all of the areas, with the obvious exception of the old towns and cities, are things that we have in Canada. Mountains, check! Farms, check! Highways with crazy drivers, check! Vineyards, check! But the scale of the vineyards and the amount of history from before 1800 here is incredible. I’m not sure anything in Paris was built since the 1800s – and some of the towns we have driven through were likely hundreds of years older than that! I don’t think I would want to live in a 500 or 800 year old building in Canada – winters might be a bit, well, chilly!

Two of the most interesting stops on our journey from Paris to where we are now, were the Château du Clos de Vougeot and the wine caves in the town of Beaune. Pronouced like Boney. Actually, I have no idea how it supposed to be pronounced, but that works. The Château du Clos de Vougeot was a fascinating look back into the history of wine making in France.

The fall colours descending rapidly around the chateau
Chateau du Clos de Vougeot

The traditions and history surrounding this estate and its wine are etched in France’s history and wine lore. We did the prerequisite visit, and even tried to snag a geocache there (to no avail!), leaning about the history of wine, the role of this estate in wine production for the wars, and its current role. All intricately detailed through the full estate museum. Too bad no wine samples were on hand! But fear not, we were able to right that wrong at the next stop. The next day, in the town of Beaune, we toured the wine caves under the town, and as part of that luxurious tour of the dank caves, were unlimited wine! I mean samples of wine! We were handed a small metallic saucer and told the caves would be found by following the informational path! So off we trudged, through the barrels and buildings until we met the narrow entrance to the wine caves. Apparently this place stores wine – aging it until it is perfect! We saw thousands of bottles! The oldest they are allowed to sell is a 1936 Pinot Noir, for a reasonable €450 (Euros), although they have older. It was quite interesting, and liquidacious! We tried at least 10 different wines (although I may have had thirds on some of them, and pulled a couple of open ones off the shelf and re-opened them… SHHHHH!!!). It was definitely an interesting visit, but of course, the girls were less impressed about wandering in dark, underground tunnels full of spiders and dust… that is until they met a woman with a dog, and then they were happy as clams. So, wine drinking done, we headed for the Alps!

And that brings us to now. Right now we are in a small town in northeast France, not too far from Switzerland, called Saint Jean d’Aulps. No idea how to pronounce that last bit correctly. Oh-pas? Oh-l-ps? Owl-ps? Oh-pehs? Oprah? No idea. It is near Morzine, which is easier to say. It is a small, hamlet in the Alps that becomes a hot bed of skiing activity in the winter. If you like to strap long planks of waxed wood to your feet and hurl yourself down a mountain at ludicrous speeds, then apparently this is a good place to be.

Normally, back in Canada, I would expect a place like this to be prohibitively expensive to enjoy, and maybe the accommodations and food in the winter is inflated to meet the demand, but the cost of the actual skiing appears to be incredibly inexpensive in comparison. I saw full winter passes going for around €300 (Euros) with daily rates starting around €20-25 / day. Crazy talk! Sure, there are fewer runs than Whistler’s 200-ish runs, but guess what, almost everywhere else in the world has fewer runs than that! Plus, can you actually ski 200 runs in a day? Unlikely, I mean I can only hit so many trees a day before I am done! So the 50 or so runs these hills appear to have are more than enough for many people. Plus, I have heard the snow here is pretty good! It’s too bad we won’t still be here during the ski season! Ok, if you are now asking why we are in a ski town in the off season, we have a good reason. After we left the Airbnb in St-Pierre d’Entremont, in the Chartreuse area, a chalet owned and run by Marianne’s old neighbour (a story I will leave for our head of small human creation to expand upon), we left for Morzine to pet sit! Yes, we are house/pet sitting! Yes, that is a thing, and no, we didn’t know these people before! We arranged it through a great online site that allows people to go on vacation and have someone come to their home, stay for free, and look after their pets. Win-win. Free place to stay, someone to look after the house, and no dead pets! (Maybe I should talk to their marketing department, see if they have an opening, I feel I could help them out with gems like that!)

We are pet sitting a grand old lady, a beautiful golden retriever that is getting up there in years. She is around 11 years old, but still has some energy when the kids are around. We are also looking after a 1 year old black cat. It’s a cat, but is actually friendly. Maxine keeps trying to pick her up and carry her around like a baby – and so far, no scratches! I know, wow! The owners are away for 2 weeks, so we get to chill out here, relax, take in the local scene and look after some furry creatures. The girls really want to get a pet after travelling, so this is a great way to determine if they have any ability to look after one! or two! So far, so good! Maëlle has been great at taking the dog for walks so the dog can do her business! We are proud with how she has taken responsibility for looking after the dog.

The girls taking the dog for a walk in the woods!

While we have tucked our weary bones away in this little village for the past couple of weeks we have had the chance to explore a bit and take advantage of the last great weather of the fall. It has been glorious here, up until the last few days (rain!), with the amazing colours of the changing leaves, and the mountain peaks encircling us like pillars in a magnificent open air theatre. We have reveled in hiking and biking in the sun, been contented to bask on the back deck reading and having a glass of tasty beverage, and even have bounced like kangaroos on crack on the trampoline (mainly the girls… mainly…), because, why not?! Also, while the sun was out we explored the area and went to a couple of interesting local markets, historic sites, and seasonal events where we blended and mingled as if we weren’t from here.

The first weekend we ended up at a wine/beer/food event, eating local, drinking local, and enjoying something that should probably be more prevalent in our life than it is. Connecting with friends and neighbours over food and drink harkening back to times when it was more important to make acquaintances and to share, than to get likes or views on your opinions or photos from anonymous strangers online. And just this past weekend we stumbled upon a little market with goods from monasteries from all over France. Handmade, hand crafted, hand brewed, all made by monks who apparently have a lot of time on their hands! But they do make good stuff! We learnt a bit about the local abbey and that monks make a lot of good things! No idle hands there!

So here we are, out in the wilds of the Alps, keeping some very friendly animals fed, learning a bit about our surroundings, including how to drive in the Alps on some crazy twisty roads, and taking in the relaxation that we have been sorely lacking over the past years.

But, we are getting itchy to keep moving, as has been our M.O. for the last 3 months or so. Oh, and while something have changed, somethings have remained the same. The youngest of our brood decided, yesterday, that shoving something up her nose would be fun! Yay! You know the little baby bel cheese? The wax covered ones? Yes, she told us that she rolled up the wax and put in her nose. Why? I HAVE NO IDEA! Anyway, it was stuck so far up we couldn’t see it and of course it was causing her discomfort. She whined and whined and we tried to get her to blow it out, sneeze it out after sniffing pepper, and even pick it out – but nope! It was stuck fast! We gave up, hoping she would just get it out naturally. But after a while, no chance – so Marianne went in. She grabbed the tweezers and gently dug through the mini gold mine to find the red ball of treasure! Success, she seized it with her expert grasp and pulled forth, with a triumphant sigh of relief, the offender stuck deep in the nostril… and guess what? It wasn’t actually the little wax wrapper, it was the WHOLE PLASTIC WRAPPER on the outside of the wax. Like, what, are you kidding me? How the?? Anyway, our smallest, and well, strange little one was free of her plastic plug, free to breathe again! Oh, the joys of children sometimes! I’m not sure this will be the last time we have to do this.

When the next week comes we will be off! Off to different pastures and different mountains, exploring Europe from our little 4-wheeled oil burner. We shall update more later!

M (Undersecretary to the head of lodging, germ removal, and child bearing)

Look at the pretty lights!

Wild West Iceland – Winter Winds, Whining, and a Wonderful Waterfall

When you are travelling between places in Iceland by car it has become obvious that you need to do a few things before you set off. First, make sure you car hasn’t been blown away over night. Winds seem to scream endlessly here, switching directions at will, and well, you might need to find a good parking spot to make sure it doesn’t go anywhere! Second, check the weather. Will the next day be windy, snowy, sunny, rainy, foggy, or… all of the above. Checking the weather is more important than the distance you are driving. You could circle the island in one long day, and essentially not leave route 1, so a map, in practice is not that necessary – but the weather dictates more where/when you can go. Third, always check your fuel. Yes, just like normal back home. You don’t get a free pass on buying fuel unless you somehow rented a magical car that doesn’t need fuel. Distances aren’t great here on an average day’s drive, but the hills and curves and inevitable stops for photos and sight seeing make it seem like you are driving the car with the world’s worst fuel mileage. After a few days of driving on the coast into a 20 m/s headwind, I was sure our rental car (the trusty Dacia Duster 4×4) was getting 10 l / km instead of the reverse. Also gas stations seem to pop sporadically, sometimes many at once, other times, none for 200+ km. And certainly not last, but fourth, make sure you pack at least 30 kg of snacks (per child under 18) for each hour of the trip. Driving in the back seat of a car, while on vacation, seemingly becomes more calorie intensive than a cross-fit workout in a hot yoga studio. Endless chants of ‘snacks’ or ‘I want to eat something’ seem to emanate from the second row of the four-wheeled transportation system the second the engine starts. It matters not if breakfast was but a few minutes prior, or lunch was still freshly on their lips, the ear-piercing, soul-crushing call for food is incessant and without remorse. I, naively at first, thought the offspring had been working on their rendition of a ‘punk’d’ skit – but I was soon to learn, to my dismay, and continuing dismay, that it wasn’t so. We have been trying to mitigate it, by reinforcing the use of the term, ‘Please’ before the begging, so we somehow justify it to ourselves that our kids are not in fact miniature versions of Neanderthals, but seriously who are we kidding, we just endlessly repeat ‘Say please’, and when they eventually do we give them snacks and they have learned nothing. Kids 1 – Us 0.

So, as I was saying, driving anywhere in Iceland is a bit about time management, massive quantities of rations, weather knowledge, and skill. As our last post mentioned, skill is a sorely lacking attribute of many drivers here in Iceland. I definitely worry more about the oncoming car than the narrow, no shouldered roads, or the hurricane force winds that seemingly come from all directions. A couple cars in the ditch on lightly snowy days tells me these people have no business driving here in October – but hey, who am I to take away their dream of seeing Iceland. I am just hoping the next few days here goes smoothly on the roads!

Ok, back to some real travel stuff. Where were we? Oh yes, we left Akureyri the other day and headed west. We booked an Airbnb somewhere near the ‘town’ of Húnavatnshreppur (Yep, that is how it is spelled and it wasn’t me just mashing a bunch of keys on the computer keyboard.) We found the place relatively easy after a calm drive through the mountains and valleys of the northwest – luckily too, as a storm was moving in the next day and would have made that drive a bit tougher. Beautiful area – lots of scenic lookouts and majestic vistas. Amazing contrasts in the area, from the green fields to the white snow covered peaks abounded along our route. Horses, sheep (or as Maxine calls them – sheepees!), and even a few bovines dot the fields of the landscape along our path. Anyway, as we arrive at our Airbnb we notice it is a farm – a totally real farm. Not a ‘ranch’ or a ‘we have a few chickens so we call it a farm’, but a real local farm. We can tell by the smell – oh and the fact it is a farm, with barns and horses and a butt-load of sheep. We are greeted and shown to the one room palace that we have inherited for the night. It is small, but stylish and functional, but the real show is outside. A small herd of border collies show up to introduce themselves. At final count there are 5 of them, but generally, the mother dog goes solo while the 4 males (father, brother, and pups) run amok around the property. The girls are instantly drawn to the dogs – and likewise for the dogs. Maxine is the perfect size for jumping up on and licking, so she soon becomes a carte blanche for the dogs’ artistic tribute to muddy paw prints and saliva. They are masters at their art.

With the cleanliness factor thrown out the window, and down a cliff, Marianne searches desperately for her Norwex cleaning products to make sure Maxine once again can be seen in public. In the meantime, Maëlle and I don’t look back and head for the open pasture, dogs in tow (then way ahead of us, then beside us again – oh boy do they have a lot of energy.) We go off in search of sheepees and horses, but they see us and the dogs coming and head for the back 40. The dogs chase the sheep around a bit, more to harass than out of working instinct, but the sheep are probably used to it by now. So, we get our photos of the sheep from far, and move on. We can feel the temperature dropping and the wind picking up as the clouds descend into the valley – but knowing we are going no where that night makes us feel better.

The next day we had a surprise for the girls, we had arranged with the organizer of the Airbnb to get the girls a tour of the horse stables and to ride a horse. Maëlle was pretty excited, and showed us in her usual way by throwing a temper tantrum. Seems logical?! Someone must have added urine to her corn flavoured traditional breakfast cereal to make her so ornery, but who knows sometimes. Anyhoo… because of the weather that moved in the girls weren’t going to be able to ride the horses outside. The winds were too strong, and with the driving rain at times, it wouldn’t have been fun. The girls could barely walk into the wind – so I’m sure they would have been blown away like kites should they have been on the horses. Still, the girls got an hour with the horses; brushing them, petting them, and sitting on them. Maëlle also rode her horse around in the stable for a bit. It was pretty hard to get her to let go – as she seems to like these huge beasts. Maxine didn’t actually want to ride the horse around the stable, and seemed more interested in the dogs – especially the older male, who was absolutely attached to her. His tail wagged so much every time she walked near him that I thought he was going to take off like a helicopter. So we didn’t force her, instead as she wandered around the barn the farm / horse owners told us lots about their horses and Icelandic horses in general. Once again, the Icelanders seemed cold at first, but were totally friendly when you started to talk to them. Marianne even managed to snap a pic of me touching the horse – which I think is about the 3 or 4 horse I have ever pet in my life. Horses don’t seem to like me – not sure why, I generally don’t even try to touch them.

After this great experience we had to head out. We packed up the Duster and headed off into the blowing gale;  but just before that, I actually let the girls try to walk head long into the wind, and it almost blew them away. I didn’t stop them, I kinda wanted to see how far down the field the wind would push them, but they made it to the car! What? … like you wouldn’t do the same… 🙂

Anyway, with our visit with the horses over, we set off in the car immediately after a quick lunch, only to hear the melodic bellows of ‘I want to eat something’, followed by our one millionth, ‘You just ate, and you need to say please’. Our drives start so well!

The rest of our drive was interesting. With only about 1.5 hours of driving to the next destination, our road appeared to be clear, despite the warnings from the weather service; however, the winds were stronger than anticipated. Yes, driving in the wind requires a bit more reaction than anticipation as you can’t see the wind, but still it all comes down to slowing down if necessary. As we approached our turn off to our Airbnb, the winds had been mild, only about 20 m/s at most, and mostly from the back, so we were just getting an extra push. Well, that changed quickly. A blue sign loomed ahead with an unknown place name on top and the temperature and wind speed (I think that is what they are – I am just guessing) displayed in digital numbers, so they can be updated in real time. These signs only tend to appear when there is some sort of mountain pass or long stretch of open to the ocean road; they serve as a notice and warning to those who dare attempt the crossing. Our sign read a balmy -2C and a blustery 30 m/s wind speed (108 km/h sustained winds). I guarantee the gusts were above that! Anyway, the next section through the mountain pass was interesting – as I was seemingly dealing with swirling 100 km/s winds that were blowing the truck back and forth. I’m sure Marianne can testify that my driving technique that day resembled the old arcade days when we used to grab the steering wheel of a racing game and wiggle it back and forth in a futile attempt at making the inactive car on screen do our bidding. It almost felt like that at times as I wasn’t sure if I was helping or making it worse – but with no room for error, I decided to slow down and keep us on track. I saw a few oncoming drivers with concerned or downright scared looks on their faces as we snaked through the pass – no reassurance at all that the conditions ahead were any better. But, as I am now writing this, you have guessed, we made it! Actually it turned out to be not so bad, as our 4 wheeled steed proving itself up to the task once again. The key you see, is to slow down and not crash! I have found that the most effective way of driving from place to place here in Iceland! Who knew it was that simple?

We are now hanging out in our little chalet in the valley near Búðardalur, west Iceland. Tonight there northern lights are visible in the sky. Not the most amazing ever, but still pretty cool. I got a few photos of them – and it shows them pretty well. It actually looked better with the camera than with the eye.

Look at the pretty lights!
Amazing Aurora Borealis over the night sky in Western Iceland.

Anyway, today was a chill day with a bit of hiking, some visiting of farm animals, and some ice cream. I mean, when is a better time to have ice cream than when it is freezing outside? The ice cream doesn’t melt on you and it tastes just as good! Despite the chilly temperatures we decided to get out and explore. Marianne wanted to do a hike, but as everywhere is Iceland seems to be someone’s backyard or farm, I wasn’t sure where we could actually hike. Well, I found a hidden and amazing waterfall near by that you could hike to. And it was only about 30 mins away. Well after a disappointing lunch at the local greasy spoon, whose menu consisted of 5 types of burgers, and fish and chips (what a selection!) we decided to find this secret gem of falling water. No map seemed to have it listed, which peaked my interest, but the online photo showing this amazing wild flow of water sold it. So off we went. The road headed west on the peninsula toward Snæfellsjökull National Park, and soon turned to gravel. The posted 80 km/h speed limit seemed a bit ambitious for most, but we rumbled on over the pot holes and bumps. A quick 30 minutes or so later we approached the area of the trail to the falls. Five minutes later we backtracked, searching for the route to the falls again. It should be right where we were, but the only think there seemed to be a driveway. We tried it anyway. Icelanders have proven friendly to our feeble attempts to pronounce their place names, so I was hoping us accidentally driving across their front lawn in search of a secret and almost unknown waterfall would be met with equal kindness. I mean, why not eh? Luckily, we didn’t have to try to use our best Canadian ‘Sorry, eh’ as the road actually bypassed the house by a few metres and climbed precariously through loose rocks into the rocky cliff beyond. As we climbed, the main road slipped away, and the allure of the majestic hidden falls beckoned. But suddenly a large warning sign appeared. Seriously, here? Did we enter into a forbidden ecosystem? Was this a military installation and armaments were scattered everywhere? Were there lava flows or rock slides? Nope. It was a sign warning us not to drive on the runway. Yes, runway. But.. but… where? A barren rocky/grassy strip of land with yellow painted rocks lining the perimeter must be it – but seriously, who would land a plane here? So, we avoided the runway – which would have been harder to drive on than our road, and continued, finally reaching a small parking area, not far from the bustling airport.

Now, we hike. The kids loved the idea and instantly jumped out of the car ready to go… not! It was cold (-2 or -3C), there was no iPad to comfort them for their arduous journey of 30 minutes, and well, we wanted to do it – so that alone was enough for a full on mutiny for the first few minutes. But we overcame the opposition and marched on. We found the first waterfall / cascade only a few metres from our prime parking spot. We scampered down the loose lava stone hill to admire the view, only to tell the kids, with much backlash, that this was not the hike, but only the start. So off we went in search of the true hidden gem. Maxine did her best fire truck impression for the first few hundred metres, while Maëlle, to her credit, was great all day with the hiking. We continued along a some-what used road up into a nearby pasture. Our movements observed on all sides by the judgemental sheepees. They stared at us, but ran when we said hi. How rude! Soon we came around the corner and there it was, through the rocks, in the upper portion of the ravine, the gem of the west, the majestic and unrivaled waterfall that was supposed to be named: Lambhagafoss. Of course, that is what I thought it was called, and honestly have no idea if it was called that, as it wasn’t on any map. But there it was. It seemed a bit smaller than I expected, a bit narrower, a bit less water, and maybe not quite so majestic, maybe a bit ordinary – but still a waterfall! I had found us a waterfall in the (somewhat) back country of Iceland, far from the touches of man – except the airport and the farms and the sheep and the fences everywhere and the roads… yes yes… in the wild! So we started towards it. We didn’t get right to it, as the ravine seemed to cut off that possibility – and it seemed so remote (or the kids were complaining… one of the two), so we headed back. Out mission was accomplished, with a slightly diminished return on the waterfall awesomeness, but a waterfall none the less. I guess a few days without dramatic, enormous waterfalls all around you make you seek out what you took for granted only days ago! So, with that done, ice cream was the reward at a near by local dairy farm / creamery, where the girls also got to see bunnies, cows, and other farm like animals.

Tomorrow we are off back to Reykjavik, for a couple of final days in the land of ice before heading off to Paris. We are going to explore a huge lava tube, and hopefully try a few of the local delicacies (Plokkfiskur!), as our food budget definitely was helped by us cooking for the majority of the times. We’ll update more then, and maybe I’ll get to my take on the pools here – other than just being awesome!

Ciao for now.

M – Manager of luggage handling for the M4 travelling corporation