Category Archives: Colombia

3 Amazing Families On The Go

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Travelling is all about the experience. As much as it’s about different landscape, it’s about the smell, the colour, the look, and the taste. Above all it’s the people we met that makes the most lasting memories. As we were travelling as a family – which was certainly the minority in the long-term-travel department – we naturally paid closer attention to other families we met. So I decided to dedicate an entry entirely just to some of the amazing families we met.

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Family 1 – Cusco/Peru – one big family ready for action

In Cusco, we stayed in an Airbnb house with a very special family for about 10 days. Parents (Bill & Nicole) and 4 kids ranging from 1 to 8 (Liam, Tim, Jeanne, Sam) shared a cosy 2-story colonial house with their guests (they could house as many as 10 guest I believe with 4 guest rooms). Bill & Nicole had to be the most active parents with this amount of little ones under 10 – I simply didn’t know how they managed it, and they managed it so unbelievably well.

Bill and Nicole were both originally from Buffalo/USA. Coming to Cusco when their oldest son was only 1 with no Spanish, they now had 4 kids – active, social, capable and polite – and everyone (except Sam who was just turning 1 so not verbal yet) spoke perfect Spanish as well as English. Bill impressed us one day with his fluent Quechua conversation with a cab driver. All kids were being home-schooled (they had a ‘classroom’ at home)! We were one of their first guests as, back in April, they just started their new adventure as a family: build a business with Airbnb room rental + local experience guide. Their business had been going wild since then as I followed their facebook update. They managed everything by themselves with just help of a cleaning lady coming to their place every day (I believe) – starting the business, receiving and looking after the guests, schooling, guests, outdoor, house chores, getting two outdoor showers built, and everything else with 4 kids. Yet they managed to be constantly on the move. They did walks or rode bicycles almost everyday after schooling.

Right before we left Cusco, they were getting ready for a 4-day trekking with all four kids. This was the real hard core type of trekking that we were talking about here: they had to carry all the gears and supplies for 4 days as there were no shops nor established campsites along the way, they had to set up tents every afternoon and take down every morning, they had to cook using only what you carried (including utensils), and they would be walking constantly well above 4000 metres above sea level- so snow would be present. This was the type of trip that even just with one toddler that I would try to avoid, and they were setting out with 4 kids, including one still being breastfed. Talking about madness!

For a week, they got Liam and Tim to practice setting up and taking down the tent in their backyard, and boys would sleep in the tent at night. A few days later, the boys were perfectly capable of taking care of their own tent, entirely on their own. On the day they hired three horses  – one for Liam, one for Tim, and the other one for carrying supplies. Bill and Nicole would carry one young child each. As the departure date approached, it started to rain heavily and the weather forecast didn’t give any better news. They hesitated – as any rain in the city of Cusco could mean horrendous snow up in the mountain where they were going. But they decided to go anyway. I was eager to hear from them as we arrived in Colombia – and then I saw them posting some awesome photos after they returned from that epic camping trekking trip. They made it!

Family 2 – Copacabana/Bolivia & Bogota/Colombia – It cannot be more international than this

South America is the type of place where you don’t see or hear Chinese often. In Bolivia, it became even less so.  So I was naturally surprised – and delighted – that in the garden of a small boutique hotel in Copacabana/Bolivia I heard a mother speaking to a young child in Mandarin!

Meet one of the most travelled international families I’ve ever known.

Yvonne (Chinese by birth) and Fernando (Venezuelan by birth) lived in Bogota/Colombia with their 3-year-old Luca (born in, guess where, Czech Republic). They were travelling for a month through Bolivia and Chile. Just before coming to Copacabana they did the 3-day jeep trip of the Uyuni circuit which I didn’t attempt to try (we only did the day trip).

We spent quite a few occasions together in the following days before they went back home, including a dinner in a restaurant, an outdoor Jacuzzi feast overlooking Lake Titicaca (the highest navigable lake in the world) where two kids had enormous fun together, feeding llamas, and a dinner cooked by Yvonne (in this most lovely hotel, each room/bungalow came with a kitchen and wood log fire place) and shared over a bottle of Chilean wine, a few beers, and many stories. We felt we had made 2 good friends in an entirely unexpected way.

Who would have thought that after bidding farewell there, we then would meet again in Bogota/Colombia, a destination that even at that point was not part of our plan?! Even more so, knowing we were going there, they insisted to have us stay over at their apartment in Bogota. Yvonne and Luca would be away in Prague (talking about international travel!), Fernando would reside in their sofa while we occupied their master bedroom! Have I mentioned that Colombians were among the most generous and welcoming populations on the planet? Fernando showed us around in the city of Bogota and led us inside a few doors that we would have otherwise never been able to.

Upon our second (brief) stay in Bogota after travelling around Colombia (and loved it), Yvonne and Luca were back, so we were able to spend yet again one day together, visiting the most beautiful school of arts (where Yvonne was studying leather arts), dined and danced in a Japanese themed restaurant with a few chica drinks.

This was a family that played an unmistakably big role in making Bogota such a special place in our trip. This family is still on the move – since then they had relocated to, guess where, Cairo/Egypt! Who knows where we’ll see each other again next.

Family 3 – Isla de Ometepe/Nicaragua – Serene family

A young family with a 6-month-old lived in a remote slice of paradise – on the volcanic island of Ometepe inside the biggest lake in Central America in Nicaragua. They were building their family, as well as their guest-house business, on the farm land that they bought (while still living in USA) and developed over the last 7 years or so from scratch. It was definitely an experience in itself just to get there, but it could easily be one of the most serene/peaceful/natural existences on the planet. With about 100 different fruit trees and many monkeys in the company, days could just be idled away, with plenty of time to reflect or to meditate, or to sip the house-made hibiscus tea. The question is: if some could build such a flourishing farm in such a remote location coming from so far away, what could not be done with some genuine love and persistence?

I have written a separate blog about our 3-day experience there – Finca Mystica, A Destination In Itself.

Where and how to live as a family is certainly a personal choice. By meeting some truly incredible families like the ones above who have chosen to live a different life, in unexpected corner of the world, or in some unconventional fashion, my eyes were certainly opened. Bringing a toddler to travel around the world for 9+ months was not a small deal, but sometimes comparing to these families I felt that was really just breeze.

So Where Did You Go?

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RTW map latestFinally I was able to create a map version of where we disappeared into during that 9 months or so.

Comparing to our rough initial plan (to use the world ‘rough’ would be an overstatement), this map had a lot more dots on it. Although the basic itinerary (which continents for example) remained the same roughly, the exact countries – and places in each country – had changed and evolved so much throughout the trip.

A few notable changes: we added Patagonia in Argentina/ Bolivia (loved it)/Colombia (thank goodness)/Nicaragua; we didn’t go to Chile/Brazil, and we shortened the time in Costa Rica significantly. At times these changes seemed daunting, and other times they were obvious decision. Initially we thought we would stay in each place for a few weeks, and very quickly we realized it was not realistic nor necessary. I will come to some of these changes with more detail in relevant posts.

It’s once again a powerful proof to that good old saying: change is the only constant.

The tool that I used to created this map was an online tool called ‘travellerspoint’. Although it wasted me a few precious late night hours when I tried to create the map for the first time (it just didn’t want to save. Totally No stress!), I did find some interesting merits. For example, it told me that:

  • We travelled 77,279 kilometres
  • Days travelling: 282 days
  • The total distance travelled is roughly equivalent to circling the earth 1.9 times! (so we’ve got a lot of carbon footprint to be accountable for …).
  • Distance travelled by mode of transport:
    • Boat: 593km
    • Train: 1,117km
    • Bus: 3,064km
    • Car: 4,520km
    • Airplane: 67,731km
  • we have visited in total 17 countries (although 2 should be deducted as they were just transits)
  • It even allowed me to export my trip to an excel format, which was quite handy.

Now I will stop sounding like their sales rep, and return at once to the most burning question.

So where exactly did we go??

Here is a map for visual person like myself.

countries travelled

Here is a list for the more brave-hearted (of the places we either spent at least one night or as major transit stops):

Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Tokyo, Japan
Paris, Ile-de-France, France
La Capelle-les-Boulogne, Nord-Pas-de-Calais, France
Lyon, Rhone-Alpes, France
Annecy, Rhone-Alpes, France
Hauteluce, Rhone-Alpes, France
Grenoble, Rhone-Alpes, France
Antibes, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, France
London, United Kingdom
Paris, Ile-de-France, France
Madrid, Community of Madrid, Spain
Buenos Aires, Argentina (here, bookstore)
Montevideo, Montevideo Department, Uruguay
La Barra, Maldonado, Uruguay
Cabo Polonio, Rocha, Uruguay
La Tuna, Canelones, Uruguay
Buenos Aires, Argentina
El Calafate, Santa Cruz Province, Argentina
El Chalten, Santa Cruz Province, Argentina
Salta, Salta Province, Argentina
Tilcara, Jujuy Province, Argentina
Tupiza, Potosi Department, Bolivia
Uyuni, Potosi Department, Bolivia
Nuestra Señora de La Paz, La Paz Department, Bolivia
Copacabana, Copacabana, La Paz Department, Bolivia
Puno, Puno, Peru
Cusco, Peru
Ollantaytambo, Cusco, Peru
Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes, Cusco, Peru
Cusco, Peru
Lima, Peru
Bogota, Colombia
Cartagena, Bolivar, Colombia
Taganga, Magdalena, Colombia
Barichara, Santander department, Colombia
Villa de Leyva, Boyaca, Colombia
Bogota, Colombia
Quito, Pichincha, Ecuador
Lima, Peru
Miami, Florida, United States
Oviedo, Florida, United States
Miami, Florida, United States
San Jose, Costa Rica
La Fortuna, San Jose, Costa Rica
San Carlos, Rio San Juan, Nicaragua
Granada, Nicaragua
Apoyo Lagoon, Nicaragua
Granada, Nicaragua
Ometepe, Rivas, Nicaragua
San Juan del Sur, Rivas, Nicaragua
San Jose, Costa Rica
Miami, Florida, United States
New York, United States
Newport, Rhode Island, United States
Boston, Massachusetts, United States
New York, United States
Vienna, Virginia, United States
Mississauga, Ontario, Canada
Fort Collins, Colorado, United States
San Diego, California, United States
Pismo Beach, California, United States
Palo Alto, California, United States
San Francisco, California, United States
Yosemite National Park, Yosemite Village, California, United States
Mammoth, California, United States
Lone Pine, California, United States
Los Angeles, California, United States
Pape’ete, Windward Islands, French Polynesia
Moorea, French Polynesia
Atoll Rangiroa, French Polynesia
Auckland, New Zealand
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

What I Have Learnt From the RTW With a Toddler

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Ten sleeps in our own beds after we finished our round-the-world trip, I attempted to list some of the most valuable lessons I’ve learnt over the trip and that are equally important back in ‘real life’.

1) It’s possible … unless you’ve decided it’s not.

When we just started to think about the idea of travelling with our two-year-old daughter around the world, including to some of the least developed lands on the planet, we were scared by our thoughts too. Not to mention the effects to the grandparents. Now we’ve completed the trip and are back home sound and safe, I can assure everyone that it’s entirely possible.

280 days. 12 countries. 3 continents. 64 beds. 18 flights, countless buses and boat rides. These are statistics that could look terrifying, especially counting a terrible-two in the picture. But forgetting statistics, it’s as simple as 3 meals a day, a bed (or two) to sleep at night, and a lot of discovery in the between. The world is so much smaller than how it could feel like, although in another way much more grandeur than how it could feel like.

Dream is the most dangerous thing, and also the most magic thing. A few times we met young couples on the road travelling around the world because ‘everyone is telling us to get this done before we settle and have kids’, who then said ‘ok, it’s inspiring to see people are travelling with young children’. I consider this as the best compliment we could get.

2) Limits are there … to be pushed.

Before we started, we had no idea how long a bus ride was too long a bus ride for Nina and for us. The first bus we took lasted two hours and that was some of the longest two hours in my life, with a toddler jumping up and down and all over the place. Then circumstances came when we had to take a 3-hour bus a week later. Surprisingly it got better. Then 4 hours went ok. I thought we hit our limit when we survived a 6-hour journey in a crowded, old, non-air-conditioned school-style bus along one of the most bumpy and the least travelled roads in Bolivian mountains. Surprisingly Nina claimed she wanted more! And she got it. Some time later, we boarded an overnight bus in Colombia. 16 hours. Who would have thought we could go that far, and still be here to write about it!

The reward was some of the most stunning landscape I’ve ever seen in my life, in places I would never have thought to bring a toddler with me to. And also the confidence that the further we push the limit, the bigger the comfort zone becomes.

3) Less is more.

We left home with 2 check-in luggage (one suitcase, one 60L backpack), 2 hand luggage (two day bags), and 1 pram. It was hard to decide what to pack, trust me. At the end I packed 3 t-shirts, 3 long-sleep shirts, 1 jacket, 3 pairs of pants, 1 skirt, 2 pairs of shoes, 1 pair of thong (flip flop for my non-Aussie friends), some underwear and socks. I packed the most versatile, lightest, easiest-to-dry type of clothing that I had.

I survived. Yes of course I could do with a fancier dress for that dinner in the New York restaurant. Yes of course we had some difficulties. But never once the difficulty was related to the lack of possessions we had.

We once took a mini bus in a small border town between Argentina and Bolivia. All our luggage had to go onto the bus roof except the day bags because there was not enough room up there. Inside the bus it was so small and so crowded that my legs didn’t move during the 2 hours trip and I still had to find room for the day bags. Another time, we had to drag all our luggage along a dirt road to catch a border-crossing boat between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, while Nina didn’t want to walk and refused to go into the pram. That road seemed going on infinitely. At times like that, I wished we could bring even less things with us.

It’s hard, I admit, not to be able to possess some of the most insanely beautiful crafts and souvenirs we saw during the trip, esp in South America. Just thinking about their markets made me drool. But we had strict rules of not buying anything unless if one existing thing went. We sticked to it. Come to think of it, we bought perhaps 5 local craft items, and only 1 of them is purely decorative (I negotiated HARD with Nicolas on that one) and all others were useful in daily life.

Now that we came back to the comfort of home in Sydney, we started to unpack all our worldly possessions. I realized that half of my wardrobe could be gone, without me even realizing they were not there anymore. Books that I won’t read again could go too. Before we left we always complained we didn’t have enough storage space, but now we got rid of a cabinet altogether, and there were still empty space inside some cabinets. Dare I say that at least half of the possession in an average household was untouched in the last year, or more. Look around, I know most of you will nod.

The less we had, the less we needed to worry about maintaining them, finding space to display them, and storing them. And the more time and energy we could put into things that really matters. Quality of life is not, and should never be, proportional to the amount of possession we have. That’s an important lesson I learnt.

4) Seeing is believing.

The normal reaction to ‘we went to Colombia’ was that ‘are you crazy’ look. I would have had the same look before I knew better. Isn’t it all about drug dealing, gun shots, and kidnapping? I can now say confidently that Colombia was as safe as, if not safer than, any other South America countries. We met some of the most generous people there. I felt in love with a small colonial town called Barichara. It’s a country of rich cultures and wonderful landscapes. Happily for the country – sadly for our bank account – it’s one of the most economically developed and expensive countries to travel in the region. I was grateful that we met people who introduced the country to us, and I was glad that we decided it’s worthwhile to do some research and made the move (we changed our tickets). It turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip.

Sometimes we allowed the little (and often biased) information from the news and lack of knowing take over our imagination. Sometimes, we allowed other’s opinion become our decision. Fortunately, the reality is often different. Do the research, and go find out by yourself.

5) Things always work out in the end.

One of our biggest concerns before we left was whether our house could be rented out while we were away. We were told once and again that 9 months was a weird period to rent, and the market didn’t respond well to a furnished house in our neighbourhood. When we had our farewell party just two days before we left, the house remained on the market. Christmas was approaching and no one was renting during holiday, according to our agent. We prepared ourselves for the worst, even though we felt we did all that we could. Then it all just happened. We were able to hand the keys over to the first group of tenants before we drove off to the airport 2 days later. The house was rented out during the whole duration of our trip and vacated just 10 days before we returned. It worked out in the end.

Travel burn-out hit me, hard, at an unexpected time in an unexpected place. 5 months into our travel, while staying in a lovely hostel with a lush tropical garden and a swimming pool with a pool bar in a resort town of Costa Rica, I felt tired and restless. In a place where most people considered heaven on earth, I dreaded the idea of having to decide, yet one more time, where to go next, which place to stay, which restaurant to go, and which site to visit. The only thing I desired at that particular moment was to getting on with my day without having to make decisions. So we just stayed put for a few extra days. I rested, and my brain too. Then I was ready to go again, with the reignited curiosity and enthusiasm, but a more peaceful mind.

Things always work out in the end, with due efforts. Have faith in it. It’s something that I learnt over and over again, and learnt to remind myself over and over again, especially when going got tough.

[D156 – 160] Barichara – A Dream in Colombia

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[this is a backlog post written on D235]

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The last time I felt I could live in a new place was when I visited Sydney back in 2008. Within 6 months we packed our stuff and were ready to leave Shanghai.

I had the same feeling when we chanced upon Barichara, a fairy-tale like town perched high in the mountains above valley surrounded by rivers in the middle high land of Colombia. I dare to say that I am ready to move there to live for some time. That is if and when Nicolas is ready to deal with the mosquitos there!

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It’s a Spanish colonial town built a few hundreds of years ago. And time has stood still there as the clique goes.

It is the most serene place I have come across in this trip. The white washed walls, red tiled roofs, elegantly colored doors and clean streets blend almost perfectly well with the blue sky and occasional clouds.

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There aren’t many tourists, as it’s relatively difficult to get to – it’s 5-7 hours of bus ride from Bogota, or 3 hours bus ride from the nearest airport. But it’s worth every bit of bus ride, which is the top notch comfort by any South America standard.

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We stayed in a small hotel called Hostel Tinto, which for me is a boutique hotel with just a handful rooms tastefully decorated, with a beautifully maintained garden and large common area, and TWO kitchens. All of these for a price of a decent hostel. Couldn’t be happier.

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We planned to stay just 2 nights initially, but we ended up lingering around 5 nights. And this is one of the places that I had hard time leaving. And ever since, I dream about going back.

One day, perhaps.

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[D139 – Dx] Unplanned Colombia

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Colombia came as a surprise. Even for ourselves. We didn’t have Colombia in our initial plan, because, well, all that I knew about Colombia was drug trafficking. Seriously, how ignorant I was!

We kept hearing about nice things about Colombia in the first part of our trip. And after a tiny bit of reading, I learnt that Colombia is one of the most developed countries in South America, with 10 straight years of economic growth. And drugs still exist but mostly only in the deep jungle where a tourist will have to be very determined to find its trace.

And it has a Caribbean coast, and we heard scuba diving was good there.

So we changed our plan (in which case, a pre-determined Round-the-World plane ticket is a real pain in the ass, and expensive to change), and found ourselves in Colombia for more than two weeks now, and with two more weeks to go.

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We started with the capital city of  Bogota – a real charm mixed the old and the new. It has the normal drill of a South American city of colonial charms, but it has also a modern part full of high rise buildings, top notch restaurants and bars. (Mind you, Colombia is not the cheapest country in South America.) We have in particular the luck to be invited to stay in the centrally-located apartment of Hu/Fernando – a Chinese/Colombian/Venezuela family that we met and  made friends with in Bolivia. Life is a miracle on the road you see! Its gold museum is mind blowing, and glittering with imaginati0n, tradition, and charms.

While Bogota is located in the Andes mountain (reading, hot under sun shine, but chilly in the evening), Caribbean was what we were particularly after.

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Cartagena is totally different from all that we’ve experienced so far in this trip in South America in the last 4ish months. It is hot (typical tropical, steaming with humidity), day and night. It has a clear African influence in its ethnicity and colour pattern. There is no more Andeans to be seen (so no Aymara nor Quechua). It reminds me more of Dominican Republican, than, let’s say Bogota.

Yet, Cartagena is claimed to have the oldest and the best preserved colonial walled city in the  country. it was the entry point for Spaniards to conquer the continent. Today it’s beamed with high end boutique hotels, restaurants, bars, boutique design shops. A mix of Colombian holiday makers and international backpackers flocked to its charming walled city and proximity of beaches, and contributed to the skyrocking price. It’s a place with set menu lunch for 20 USD (less than 5 in a local restaurants in many other parts of the country/continent)

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While it’s a pleasure to the eyes to walk about the old walled city, we prefer the much smaller and simpler (rustic perhaps is a more rightful word) of Taganga – a fishing village-turned hippie beach/scuba diving village of 4 hours bus ride away from Cartagena, still on Caribbean coast). We love the more laid-back vibe of the village, much preferred the small/white-sand beach with much much less hassle of vendors trying to sell you everything as in Cartagena beaches. I bought two freshly caught fish for about 10USD last night on sunset (and I was told I was being ripped off already).

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Better still, for the first time in this trip, we left Nina with a babysitter during day time (8am-2pm) on her own while we went out to do a much-desired boat dive trip (2 dives). It wasn’t an easy thing, for all of us. For one, we had to really feel comfortable with the babysitter to leave Nina with. For two, Nina seems to get used to new things (esp new people) fairly slowly, so would she be ok??

The answer was, yes. When our boat approached the shore, I saw Nina happily playing on the beach with her new ‘ayi’ friend, the babysitter. THey apparently had a lovely morning, playing, watching cartoon, walking to the beach. Everyone was happy (the babysitter as well – we tipped her nicely and happily).

As how it works out in such an extended trip, things change so often and we are constantly modifying our plan. Among many other changes, we initially thought we would stay in each place for a month but we learnt that it’s not possible nor  necessary (for the sake of Nina mostly). We initially planned to go to Chile but not Bolivia nor Colombia, but we did the other way around. The changes is at times frustrating, but mostly rewarding because it’s allowing us to discover the unexpected, follow our instincts, and learn the new and the surprising along the way.

 

P.S: to follow our RTW experience: Trilingual Family blog, or join Trilingual Family facebook group