Bali with children

children in baliWe just completed what I believe to be our first adventure with our kids; a trip to Bali, Indonesia.
Our children are 4 and 3 years old and we were contemplating whether they would be able to handle the 17+ hours long *day* flight and the culture shock.
I’m glad to report that it all went spectacularly well and our children have memories for a life time.
We started out in Ubud which is a wonderful place busting with culture, music and art craft.
While the Mrs enjoyed browsing the markets and shops the kids were much more keen on excursions. Luckily there are a lot of activities in and around Ubud that are just a short drive away.
monkey forestMonkey Forest is a little pathway in the local forest which is filled with curious and cheeky monkeys.
You can buy a bunch of bananas by the entrance to give to the monkeys but watch out, once they get a whiff of the fact that you are carrying their favourite dish, they will not leave you alone until they have robbed them all.
Out of 50+ friendly monkeys there was one that hissed at our daughter but we just moved on swiftly and didn’t have any further problems.
The elephant safari park is just an hour away and while outrageously expensive ($100 for the four of us) the kids loved the elephant ride and feeding the elephants.
To be honest you can give the 20 minute elephant ride a miss and just enjoy the elephant park.
Favourite restaurant: Cafe Lotus and Wayan Cafe
Favourite stay: Kori Ubud
After a few hectic days in Ubud we decided to relax at the beach for the rest of the holiday.
Out of all the various beach locations in Bali like Kuta, Seminyak, Legian, Nusa Dua and Sanur we opted for Sanur. Crowded with retired ex-pats and families with young children, Sanur seemed like the perfect spot.
bali bird parkHalf-way between Ubud and Sanur is the lovely bird park. Walk around the aviary and see that many, many colorful birds up and close.
The kids loved discovering all the different bird species (from tiny to large) but the highlight was when 3 birds were placed on each of them. Great photos in the park btw!
Sanur is a very laid back town with the usual tourist shops, bars and restaurants but no chaos (like in Kuta). You get the occasional guy on the street calling “taxi?” at you but nothing intense.
We had such a great time in Ubud doing daily excursion we decided to continue with the theme.
First day out was a busy day with Uluwatu temple, white beach and water sports at Nusa Dua, Dreamland Beach and food at Jimbaran (no sunset).
Just a sad word about Dreamland Beach; it is totally wrecked. Car parks, sewage like water, hordes of “local” tourists and an abandoned concrete construction. Give it a miss!
tanah lotGoing north turned out to be a much better direction. More rice fields, temples like Tanah Lot and Batukaru, lake Bedugul and hot springs. All in all some of the best sights Bali has to offer.
Waterbom is a water park in Kuta. Again it is a very expensive experience compared to other less touristy activities in Bali but it is a wonderful break in pace for the kids.
We spent a whole day swimming, running around and sliding down various slides. The kids loved it and it’s needless to say they fell asleep early and hard.
Favourite place: Tanah Lot
Favourite stay: Tandjung Sari
Favourite restaurant: Tandjung Sari
temple at lake bedugulIn summary Bali turned out to be a great beach and sightseeing holiday with the children. The combination of Balinese culture, nature, people and great value was just unbeatable.
PS Wayan, Made, Nyoman and Ketut are Balinese names where Wayan is the first born, Made the second and so on. If you want to get some laughs and instant acceptance from local people call your kids Wayan and Made and watch their sweet reactions.

Canoa Quebrada, Brazil

Canoa QuebradaA friend and his wife are travelling in the North East of Brazil and it was a too good of an opportunity to miss out on… especially since we barely see each other while both living in London.
A rough itinerary had been decided on as meeting up in Fortaleza, taking a bus to Canoa Quebrada, stay there for a few days, continue with overnight bus to Natal and finally by local bus to Praia da Pipa.
Stay there a few days and then sadly part; me heading back to Natal to catch a flight back to Sao Paulo and my friends continuing for another 2 weeks and a packed schedule.
It was an early start (5 am) and as the plane was taking off from Sao Paulo I realised that I had left the camera battery charging back home. That was quite devastating as I was expecting the beaches, architecture and people in North East Brazil to make for some stunning photography.
Instead I would be lugging on a very expensive paper weight for the entire trip. Oh well, the old trusty 3.2 MP SonyEricsson K800i would have to do.
At the airport in Fortaleza I headed for the tourist information with faint hopes of being able to locate a Nikon D200 battery (and charger). After all, Fortaleza is a 3 million city.
I was met by a drunk person sporting a massive cowboy hat with silver stars all around and pushed down into his face.
He was calling himself the ambassador of North East Brazil and was very keen on helping me out.
The man started calling a few shops and not giving them a rest until they at least gave him another number to try. His reasoning was that I had travelled all the way from Switzerland (confusing Sweden and Switzerland is quite common here in Brazil) to take photos of beautiful Brazil and the shop staff was preventing me from this by not summoning a replacement battery.
After 2 hours somebody knew somebody who knew a guy who imported electronics on the side (unofficially?). Unfortunately the price for the battery and charger were close to what I had paid for the return flight so I had to politely decline… and bid farewell to my drunk and cowboy hat wearing ambassador.
My friends had arrived and we opted for a swift taxi to the bus station where we were able to locate the next bus to Canoa Quebrada. We even had time to get some Brazilian refreshments and catch up on old times.
The bus to Aracati took around 3 hours and costed R$13. Then it was a further 30 minutes to Canoa Quebrada for a cost of R$2.
It was late afternoon when we arrived and we decided to visit a few pousadas (guest houses) to check prices and the level of “comfiness”.
In hindsight it would have been smarter to leave one person behind with the luggage but instead we were walking up and down the streets with all of our possessions to the amusement of the locals.
In the end we decide on Oasis do Rei where they were charging R$45 for a simple room with a ventilator and R$95 for a spacious double with aircon and balcony. Lovely breakfast included as always in Brazilian pousadas.
Most of the beaches in Canoa Quebrada are backed by pink steep cliffs and you will find very little vegetation. This makes for a unique beach experience that Canoa is famous for.
Everything in the village revolves around a single street (the broadway) and you can count all the restaurants and bars on three hands.
The Cavern quickly became our favourite evening caipirinha spot and the newly opened (15 days old) churrascaria Canoa Mix was great value at R$18.50 and free grappa after dinner.
The plan was to continue to Natal and Praia da Pipa by a 6 hour overnight bus leaving at 1 am.
We mentioned this to the staff at our pousada the night before the trip and they immediately asked whether we had booked and purchased the tickets as the process is quite formal.
Of course we hadn’t but it was shortly after 6 pm and the local office of the bus company was supposed to close at 7 pm. We made a dash for it only to find out the office had already closed and the only way to purchase a ticket was to grab a taxi to the nearby town Aracati as the office there might be open until 8:30.
A taxi was arranged and it took us quickly to Aracati. The price of the bus ticket was a steep R$60 and none of us had the cash on us so we tried to pay with a card… but apparently with the wrong card.
This office had chosen Visa as the sole credit card provider and we had all but Visa in our wallets.
There were one or two ATM machines in Aracati that we were told might accept foreign cards so the taxi driver took us there. We thought our luck had changed because another traveller managed to get money out of the ATM but we were once again denied success as the money in the ATM ran out when next person tried to take out money.
Another dash to the second ATM in town and there finally we were able to get our hands on some dosh to pay for the tickets to Natal.
After this roller coaster of emotions I was very pleased to cool down with a few capetas once back in Canoa.
Had I known what the bus trip ahead of us would be like I wouldn’t have celebrated quite yet but let’s leave that story for next time!

Double Trouble travels

double troubleWe had travelled many a times with one child but this was the first time travelling with two little ones and I was a bit apprehensive.
On our departure London was as rainy as ever and we were in heavy Friday evening traffic on route to the airport. Oh boy was I looking forward to the Summer in Brazil.
It took all of 6 large suitcases, 4 carry-ons, one car seat and one foldable buggy to fit all the necessities. Needless to say the manoeuvring of it all was worthy a circus stunt.
The suitcases were mostly filled with Christmas presents and baby clothes and the carry-ons were mostly filled with baby food, nappies, creams, toys, bits and bops.
Me and my wife had to do with a few t-shirts and some swimming wear.
To my huge surprise and relief the little ones are both at the right age of sleeping most of the night so once they settled in (the little one in a cot, the bigger one in his own chair) they were fine.
Well, besides the occasional sliding down the chair and sleeping like a bum on the cabin floor.
This was a huge change compared to 12 months ago when every 1.5 hours of sleep were followed by 1 hour of walking around the plane and saying hello to everybody.
The trip would have been fairly painless but for me accidentally grabbing the wrong bag from the baggage belt. To my defence the bag was a black Nike sports bag with an orange ribbon… just like ours.
I went back to the airport shortly after discovering the mistake. The bag was located fairly quickly and a friend went to the lost baggage office to pick it up (I was having lunch).
There were a few people picking up lost luggage and one person with 7 bags (!) being interrogated by the customs.
The person was told to pay an import duty of US$ 6,000 and since the import duty is 100% in Brazil he must have been trying to get in US$ 6,000 worth of iPhones and PS3s. The man broke down in tears (did somebody tell him that the iPhone is not 3G?).
I failed to mentioned to my friend the combination of the lock and what was inside the bag so he had to be creative when quizzed about the contents.
He guessed correctly that there were wrapped Christmas presents inside the bag and prayed open the zipper without the staff noticing and thus was allowed to take the bag with him.
The airline staff always have to inquire about the bag contents because all lost or forgotten bags are carried by the airline staff through customs without any inspection. I guess it would be too easy to “forget” a bag full of illegal stuff and pick it up rick free on the other side.
This was the easy part of our trip; the real adventure started when I went to North East Brazil to meet up with friends on their honeymoon but more about that next time.

Wedding, Bahamian style

Bahamian weddingOur friends tend to live all across the globe and we do our best to travel long and far to join them on their special day.
This time the destination was even more exotic than usual because the wedding was to be in the Bahamas.
We did a short stop over in Miami and I was amazed just how close Florida and especially Miami are from the Bahamas: just a one hour flight away.
The wedding ceremony was conducted in open-air and drenched in a wonderfully yellow afternoon sunshine. There was even a saving fresh sea breeze to cool down the lucky couple.
Just when things were slowing down a bit, after the meal and before the dancing, a surprise was in store.
In entered a Junkanoo precession exploding with colours, carnival music and fitting dancers.
The locals quickly joined in on the fun and mixed in with the Junkanoo on the dance floor; hips shaking and hands waving.
Once the the Junkanoo had left the premises the DJ quickly took over with mainly “blasts from the past” which had mixed response from the crowd.
As the night progressed and more refreshments had been had from the large open bar, the dance floor was getting more and more crowded.
My favourite was the request for The Electric Slide. Not that I could match the synchronised dancing of the 30 or so locals but it was fun to watch.
During our visit to the Bahamas we stayed at Atlantis, “the paradise island”. It was a bitter sweet experience but we would consider coming back another time when our son is a bit older. Let’s leave the telling of the stay at Atlantis for another day.
Many, many congratulations and best wishes to the newly wed couple and we are looking forward to hearing all about the honeymoon when you are back in London!
[Photos, Video]

Bienvenido a Miami

miami by nightA short stay in Miami to visit some friends, do a few work engagements but mainly to suck up the atmosphere in the “sexiest city on Earth”.
Shortly after our landing, we were again pleasantly surprised by how friendly the staff and local people are in the US.
While living in London you get used to having to beg to spend money on a service but in the US everyone greets you with a smile, inquires on how you are doing and maybe even adds a bit of gossip.
It is easy to get used to this politeness and friendliness.
This is also our son’s first long haul flight. The flight went well because it was during his sleeping hours so he slept most of it.
What I was worried about was any symptoms baby jet-lag.
For a while we thought that our baby boy would manage the time adjustment just by sleeping longer.
This was not to be because he woke up at 2:30 am and was certain that it was 7:30. Eyes wide open and ready for another day full of achievements: play, feed; poop and sleep (in that order).
The dawn at the Brickell Key was followed by a sunrise that exploded with colours and hues. It made it almost worth it having to get up at 2:30 am.
Location: 25°45’56.55″N, 80°11’5.97″W

Prague and Residence Nosticova

Tossed Old SquareSo the word on the street was that Louis Vuitton is to celebrate his birthday on the Charles Bridge and have it closed for two days for a measly €40k.
The word was also that Madonna is to perform for him.
Whether this is true or just an urban myth we did not find out but we managed to have a great long weekend away in Prague nevertheless.
The reason for our trip was twofold. We wanted to introduce our son to my Czech family and my wife was craving her yearly Prague fix.
The introduction went very well, everyone got a squeeze or two and Dominick enjoyed his stay at Residence Nosticova very much.
The experience was unfortunately a tad bittersweet because of my auntie being very ill at the moment. We are hoping for a speedy recovery.
My wife has been yearly to Prague since 1996. She knows central Prague very well from her many walks and Mala Strana (Lesser Quarter) is the focal point of her Prague obsession.
residence nosticovaFor her a trip to Prague would not be the same without a stay at the tiny boutique hotel Residence Nosticova.
Positioned in the heart of Mala Strana, on the right side of the river Vltava to avoid drunk party goers, it is a little gem of comfort.
We have viewed all the rooms at Residence Nosticova and the Arcimboldo room is by far the prettiest standard suite for 2 people. If you book it next time we were planning to go, we will
Prices vary somewhat during the year but at the special price of €150/night, Residence Nosticova is good value for the luxury and service you get.
That is if you manage to avoid raiding the mini-bar like *somebody* did several nights in a row.
[As always there are photos from Prague 2006]

Driving a rental car in Northern Italy

car_it.jpgMy following observations are only based on a 5 day period during which I was driving around in Torino and Milano in Italy. It may not reflect the average Italian driving conditions but I have been scarred for life nevertheless.
Italian drivers have no mercy. If you are a tourist driving around an unfamiliar city you are bound to make a few mistakes. You will then be in need of switching lanes late or going a bit slower in certain parts.
Trying to change lanes is difficult as you are like a sitting duck and the other drivers can smell the fear in the air. They will speed up to minimize your chances of correcting your mistake.
You may be used to leaving a “safe distance” between your car and the car in front. If this distance is any bigger than a small Fiat, then there will be small Fiats cutting in in front of you to advance in the traffic.
A red traffic light only seems to mean “there may be traffic from other direction, be careful”.
Having been driving in Brazil a few times, I am used to cars ignoring a red light but only on lonely streets and during night… but never during the day and in heavy traffic like in Torino.
Pedestrians in Italy have a raw deal. While waiting at a zebra crossing many cars pass before some actually stop to let pedestrians cross.
Combined with the above delights of cars going against red lights it can be tricky to safely cross a street.
One positive sign was that all cars slowed down considerably during a snow storm. This may have been due to common sense or just pure self preservation.
All this may persuade you into paying extra for an excess fee waiver; just like it persuaded me. It turned out to be the most expensive one I have ever come across at €19 per day.
No wonder considering the large amount of cars driving around with dents and scratches. Minor accidents must be quite common.
Hertz was well stocked with a portable SatNav unit and it helped us immensely. We were able to drive around Torino like a local and to navigate to Milan without any hassle. Highly recommended!

Midnight sun in Luel&aring, Sweden

DSC_0993.jpgLuleå is a small city in the North of Sweden. While it isnt most northern city, it is very beautiful do being by the ocean and due to its breathtaking archipelago. In the summer you have nearly never setting sun. In the winter on the other hand, you are faced with many months of darkness.
This is a trip that we had been looking forward to for a good while. My father in law, coming from Brazil, was especially mesmerised by the prospect of constant daylight (23 hours of sunshine). So he and his wife travelled nearly 16 hours to get to Lule&aring.
I had once previously celebrated Swedish Midsummer in the North of Sweden and it was a lingering experience. A lot of eating and drinking, a lot of dancing around the Midsummer pole and a lot of wearing silly garlands of flowers.
Lule&aring on Midsummer night however turned out to be a very deserted, windy and cold place. Only due to the caretaking of our good friends did we manage to get to a proper Midsummer banquet. This was no easy feet because the location was on a remote island, 25 minutes away from shore by a supreme speedboat.
On the way back we all stopped over for a couple of days in the capital city of Sweden, Stockholm. It turned out to save the trip with its sunny atmosphere, crowded streets and open colourful shops. I guess that once you have gotten used to sharing living space with many, many other people the total lack of human presence is uncomfortable.
Check out some of the photos from Luleå and Stockholm, those places are quite scenic.

Roland Garros in the spring

Roland Garros welcomed us with thunder and rain but the weather cleared up quickly and the men’s semi finals were on, just 60 minutes delayed.
The match between Swiss Roger Federer and Spanish Raphael Nadal was touted as the “battle of the giants” and it really was. A truly spectacular game with the French audience adding extra spice by cheering on the players both in well and awkwardly chosen moments.
Nadal won 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 which took him to the finals against the Argentine Puerta. A nice touch was the fact that it was Raphael’s 19th birthday. He could not have wished for a better birthday present.
Nadal went on to win the French Open last Sunday by beating Puerta 6-7, 6-3, 6-1, 7-5.

Electronics shopping in Tokyo

psp_tokyo.jpgI have always thought of Japan as being the world capital for consumer electronics shopping; that there would be an amazing selection of gadgets at bargain prices to be found.
Some it was true, some was not.
Several very well stocked camera shops are located in the vicinity of the Shinjyuku station, more precisely on the west side of the station. Yodobashi Camera and Sakuraya are two good shops where you can even ask for a “best price” to try to lower the asking price.
It is said that if Yodobashi Camera does not stock the photographic item you are looking for, it is not available in Japan.
A great tip if you purchase a camera is to take it to the manufacturer’s local service shop where you can exchange the Japanese manual for other languages. Nikon has convenient service shops in Ginza and Shinjuku and the exchange took 5 minutes (great tip from Jeremy at Antipixel).
Mobile phones are well ahead of those in Europe and USA. Common phone features in Japan are 3-4 mega pixel cameras, TV receivers, high definition screens and broad band speeds.
No wonder there are always a couple of open phones around you; people watching the latest baseball game, showing each other high resolution photos or surfing some net for information.
Unfortunately there are almost no GSM phones for sale. I did find some but they were at rip off prices, bit outdated and most likely to lure clueless tourists.
Some shops announce with large signs that you can shop Duty Free. This means that the shop has the required license to sell items duty free. This also seems to mean that the shop can jack up the prices with 5-10%, sometimes negating any gains to the purchaser (you).
Check prices for the item you want both in a duty free shop and a regular back street shop and bring your passport as it is needed for duty free discounts.
Akihabara is the electronics district of Tokyo. If you are familiar with London, you can imagine it as Tottenham Court Rd on drugs.
It is easy to get distracted by the sheer amount of gadgets on offer. Very few of the staff speaks any English so it is best to be prepared by knowing exactly what items and model numbers you are looking for; also of their home prices.
Have a look around in a few shops to get an idea of the prices. Any shop will most likely match a (realistic) price you found in a different shop in order not to loose your business. This means you can do all your shopping in a single shop once you know the lowest prices.
With the current weak US dollar and Japanese language problems, I did not find any real bargains. Prices were always comparable with UK and never as low as US, Singapore or Hong Kong.
The highlight of electronics shopping in Tokyo is the sheer amount of items that the European market will never see. If you are on a tight budget, window shopping is an alternative.
If you happen to purchase too much and cannot fit it all in you bags, don’t fret. This is an opportunity to buy a state of the art suitcase that can be rolled around (not pulled) with one hand only.