Tuesday 18 November 2008

Settling into our new home

We have had a busy first few days in New Zealand. On Monday we picked up our motorhome which we will live in for the next six months. I was very nervous about seeing our new home for the first time, we bought it several months ago after finding it online and seeing a few photos. We had a bit of guidance from our friend Dean as we have zero knowledge about motorhomes and it looked like a great deal, but I knew that whatever it was like we had to live in it for the next six months and I was apprehensive!

When David arrived back from picking it up, he was smiling and I was too once I had looked around. Inside it was spacious (a big concern we had was how cramped it might feel), in reasonable condition and felt really quite homely. The boys loved it and were keen to try everything out...including the toilet and shower!

The next thing we did was rush out to the nearest mall to kit ourselves out. After almost three months sharing five sets of cutlery, three plates and five bowls it was nice to go and get stocked up on some essentials.

While we were at the mall we spotted a Cash-Converters and so we headed in with our now-redundant camping gear and came out with $100, which took up much less space in the van! We were sad to part with our tent but we think we are going to love the motorhome even more...which could cause problems when it comes to time to leave!

Once we had sorted out essentials it was time to get the boys the bikes we had promised them. We headed to the nearest bike shop and within five minutes the boys had all picked bikes out and were happily cycling around the shop and car park (causing some degree of chaos, but luckily the shop was not too busy).

After getting the bikes the van was getting a bit full so we got parked up for the night at a site near Christchurch airport. We discovered that the fridge was not working, which took a while as it can run off mains, battery or gas, so we had to double check each to be sure. We also found that the CD player was not working (David almost got his favourite Norah Jones CD stuck inside it, so we continued to try to get it to play a free Mail on Sunday Christmas CD...which to be honest I have no idea why we brought with us...but with no luck).

Snagging aside we got unpacked and found we have plenty of room for all our belongings, although one of our holdalls is too long to be stored in any of the underseat stores, so it now lives in the bathroom. We all slept well on the first night and Luke slept until 7am, which is very unusual, so we even got a lie in.

This morning we headed back to the Motorhome dealer who tried to get the fridge working, before conceding defeat and arranging for a new one to be fitted tomorrow. He also changed the CD player while we were there...and we got a very strange look when the Christmas CD eventually popped out of the machine and I am not sure that he believed our hasty explanation that we didn't want to lose a good CD in the stereo.

Tomorrow we will hopefully get the fridge changed and will then be fully mobile. Our first stop is Central Otago, where we are going to visit Dean, Diana and Jack, our old friends from the early days on Guernsey who we cannot wait to see again!

Photos of our new home here.


Sunday 16 November 2008

Biohazard in Christchurch

Our last two days in Hawaii broke the beach-lunch-beach format a little bit. On Thursday we headed up to the North Shore to watch some top Surfing on huge waves (part of the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing - apparently).

Friday was our last day and it took most of the morning to break camp and get everything packed into the car. There was still some time for the boys to play on the beach where they had fun building a collection of sticks, coconuts and "eyeball-beards" (large round nuts which in pairs you can pretend are eyeballs, but if you get lots and hold them on your chin you can pretend to have a beard). The boys were keen to make sure that lots of the sticks, nuts and flotsam they had collected were packed with our belongings. We explained that taking these things into New Zealand would not be allowed because of their strict border controls (more of which later) but mainly because we just didn't have the space!

We headed back down the coastal drive which on the way up had been stressful, but with 12 hours 'till our flight we had more time to enjoy the scenery (it was also less cloudy than on our first day).

We made our one and only visit to Waikiki (in Honolulu) and the boys played for a while on a slightly busier beach. Later on in the day we met up with Alan (a Scotsman I worked with at BWCI who, like us, is a Heriot Watt Alumnus) and Nat who are on their own slightly quicker round the world trip (3 months) for a wander around the main streets and a meal at the International House of Pancakes.

Our Friday night flights took us first to Fiji, by which time we had crossed the International Date Line meant we landed Sunday Morning in Fiji having experienced only an hour or two of Saturday 15th November. Nicola has suffered significant confusion as a result of losing a day (especially a weekend day) and we discussed how fortunate it was that the IDL fell in a sparsely populated part of the world rather than in the middle of Europe, for example, and the interesting situations which might arise. In fact reading further about the history if the IDL (see wikipedia) it seems that there have been a few interesting situations when countries have moved from one side of the line to the other and in the case of Kiribati which at one time straddled the IDL.

We finally made it to New Zealand after a further flight out of Nadi and with just customs and baggage collection we were almost home and dry. We knew that because of strict controls on what can be brought into the country we would have to 'declare' our tent at customs. In fact although we had swept it out as well as we could and cleaned the tent pegs, we suspected that it would probably be confiscated, so we were prepared for that fate. However, after a thorough search of the tent bag I was led away with the tent to a "biohazard" facility where with the help of a customs official we attempted to hoover the bag and contents clean! The customs officer, however, thought when I said "tent" that we were talking about some small piece of kit (our rather large family tent is, it turns out, longer than the biohazard cleaning room in Christchurch airport). After calling for reinforcements the tent was moved back out to the customs hall and with the help of all of the on-duty customs officers it was soon cleared for entry. Nicola prudently decided it was best not to capture the moment on camera!

Having arrived in Christchurch on a Sunday we have to endure a wait until Monday morning before we can pick up the motorhome and find our just how little space we have. It is possible that the tent might not make it much further anyway!


Leaving the US and reflecting on the trip so far

After almost two months during which we traveled from East Coast to West Coast then on to Hawaii, we have left the USA. During our two months we have visited five states, four major cities, numerous playparks and experienced an historic US election.

I feel a bit sad to be leaving the USA as we have grown fond of it as over the last two months as we experienced a bit more of what it means to be American. We found the US people to be very friendly and helpful.

We followed the US election quite closely while we were in California and were delighted to watch live on TV as CNN announced an Obama win. It really felt like we were experiencing an important part of history and hopefully Obama will be able to bring his promised change to America.

For Peter, Joe and Luke America has hopefully meant more than theme parks and fast food. They have experienced driving through the desert, visiting the Grand Canyon and seeing the Golden Gate Bridge. Joe and Luke now have an avid interest in maps and pore over them together discussing where we are and where we are going. All the boys will leave the US with a slight American twang to their accents and a new love of Sponge Bob Squarepants.

As we have been on the road for two and a half months as well as reflecting on our time in the US, we have been thinking about our experiences on the whole of our trip.

For Luke it was hard to get him to articulate his feelings about the trip. He told me he liked the Horses (on the merry-go-round) in Disney, the sea lions and airports. When asked what he didn't like he said "Canada"...I am sure he didn't mean it!

Joe is also still a bit small to think back over everything we have done on the trip, but he names his high points as the sea-lions and the Santa Monica Ferris wheel. Joe doesn't like sleeping in the tent (too dark) and he didn't like the Tower of Terror at Disney (but he wanted to try it to see...which was very brave of him!).

For Peter the best bits so far have been Disney World, Muscle Beach and reading new books. His low point was watching us all be sick in San Diego and he was disappointed by the fog as we drove up the West Coast.

David enjoyed our chilled out week camping in Hawaii and another highlight for David was seeing his old university friend, Chris, in Ottawa. He shared Peter's low point of being ill and was also disapointed that we did not manage more camping in Canada and the US.

Lastly, my highlights have been the Grand Canyon, the Getty Museum and watching sunset at La Jolla. My birthday was the worst day of the trip so far and I also found being on the road and changing hotel every few nights really tiring.

Being together as a family was one of the main reasons for taking our year out. The time with the boys has been fantastic as we watch them grow (especially Luke) and enjoy the funny little things they say and do.

The things we have found harder through being with them every day for 24-7 are:

1) Listening to them chatter incessantly (there are some days they just talk, talk, talk ...mostly to us about things we don't have a clue about like a game they one played or a new toy they have seen advertised on TV).

2) Toilet stops, checking no-one needs the toilet, looking for toilets...there have been days where we have nearly torn our hair out in frustration as we seem to be on a world tour of public conveniences.

3) Lastly shoes...pairs of shoes...or not, as inevitably 50% of children's shoes vanish upon entering a hotel room, resulting in David and I spending too much time crawling under beds and looking in cupboards!

Joking aside, we are really enjoying the trip, there have been highs and lows but so far it has been a fantastic journey for all of us!


Wednesday 12 November 2008

Camp Hawaii

We are in the middle of the most relaxing week of the trip so far. We are camping at Malaekahana on the north-east of Ohau, Hawaii. We had intended to do some sightseeing around the island, but after the 30 mile trip from the airport taking an hour (due to traffic and low speed limits), we have decided instead to base ourselves at the campsite and have more of a beach holiday.

We are staying at a rather unique campground, where chickens roam freely, cats run around, the toilets have no lights and the showers are outdoors. The campsite feels like a run-down hippy commune, so we feel quite at home! We even had some professional runners camping next to us, but unfortunately we didn't discover this until the day they were leaving...much to David's disappointment!

We are on the windward side of the island which can make the tent a bit noisy at night, with the noise of the wind and the sea keeping us awake some nights (the kids sleep fine!). During the days we have mainly had lovely sunny weather, with a few rain showers, but these tend to pass quickly and the temperature has stayed high.

Our tent is pitched about 40 meters from the beach and we have spent most of each day on the beach, coming back up to our tent for lunch and dinner. The boys are having a great time, splashing in the sea, getting buried in sand, building paddling pools, watching crabs and collecting driftwood and coconuts. Last night we had a campfire and roasted marshmallows, which was great fun. It gets dark here around 6pm and stays dark until 7am so the campfire also provides some light in the evening.

We have visited one of Hawaii's tourist attractions, The Dole Plantation where you can see pineapples growing and more importantly we visited the World's Largest Maze...a big hit with Maze mad Joseph! It took us about 75 minutes to do the maze...so we did not make the Top Five Times, which were all under ten minutes!

We have two more days of relaxing on the beach and recharging our batteries in Hawaii and then we are off to New Zealand.

Link to photos


Thursday 6 November 2008

San Fran

Despite gloomy predictions the fog lifted on day two in San Francisco. We were finally rewarded with the eagerly awaited views of the Golden Gate Bridge. For some reason the boys had been talking about seeing the bridge for weeks, Luke and Joseph regularly asking on our long road trip "is that the Golden Gate Bridge". We took a drive over the bridge and enjoyed an amazing drive into the hills just over on the other side, it is amazing how quickly you feel like you are in the middle of nowhere once you exit the highway on the far side.

We have been staying very central and close to the harbour in San Francisco. Pier 39 is nearby and is filled with shops and restaurants and home to the famous pier 39 Sea Lions. As soon as you get anywhere near the pier you can hear the barking of the Sea Lions as the jostle for position on the old wooden jetties which are reserved for them to sunbathe on. The food here has been some of the most enjoyable, much less fast food chains. The local specialty is Clam Bake served in a bread bowl which was delicious.

We have also taken a walk up the very steep Telegraph Hill to see the Coit Tower which stands at the top, taken a drive down the "most crooked street in the world" and ridden San Francisco's other icon, the cable car.

This city has been a real highlight of this part of the trip. In general we have not found the cities on our trip to be great places (Ottawa, a small city, excepted) but San Francisco has been really enjoyable. Even the busier parts (downtown, Chinatown and the business district) are very pleasant places to take a walk.

On our last day on mainland USA we visited one of the prime views of the city from Alamo square and had a good long play at the children's playground in the Golden Gate Park (the first public playpark in the USA). Our last night is in a hotel close to the airport where we will once again try to shoehorn our vast pile of booty into the available luggage.

On the drive out to the airport I noticed that there were a lot of road signs directing San Jose. This wasn't the first time I'd noticed it, it was very clearly signed on the way into the city on Monday too. It makes me wonder what the whole problem with finding San Jose was.

Full San-Fran photos here.


Wednesday 5 November 2008

US Election

It's an amazing time to be in the USA, watching events unfold live as election results were announced and at just after 8pm, much earlier than expected, McCain conceded defeat to Barack Obama. It feels a bit like May 1997 did in the UK (but with less D:Ream, and more Bob the Builder..."Yes We Can") - real hope here for the US, but probably even more hope from the rest of the world that things will improve after 8 disastrous years.

Watching Obama speak Nicola and I agreed that he looks younger than his 47 years. Nicola commented "If I look like that when I'm 47 I'll be pleased" - now I do like Obama, but I'm not sure I entirely agree with that.


Tuesday 4 November 2008

Our (foggy) road trip

Driving route 1, from LA to San Francisco, where the mountains rise majestically from the Pacific Ocean and the views are spectacular. Unless there is fog. Then it is surprisingly reminiscent of the A-701 road from Dumfries to Edinburgh.

We stopped on Saturday night in San Luis Obispo where we had an enjoyable belated celebratory meal for my birthday. Sunday was the scenic drive up through Big Sur, but the visibility was appalling, we saw neither the mountains or the ocean for most of the drive! We enjoyed the drive despite the weather and stopped off to see some elephant seals along the coast.

Sunday night was spent in Santa Cruz, famous for being "weird". However, we did not see much evidence of the thriving alternative community promised by the guidebook, it was more of a sad run-down seaside resort with a few homeless people begging on the pier. What we did find in Santa Cruz (that was not mentioned in the guidebook) was that the local sea lion colony like to sit on the wooden supports under the pier for an afternoon snooze...and a bit of a chat to each other. We all loved watching and listening to them!

Today we arrived in San Francisco and so did the fog! We managed a quick walk round and some lunch before the rain started and the fog rolled in, I think it is following us! We took a drive round some of the very scary steep streets and went to have a look at the Golden Gate bridge (which we could just see through the fog).

We are here for four nights (leaving on Friday morning) so hopefully we will get at least one day of sunshine and I just hope the fog does not follow us to Hawaii!

Link to photos


Sunday 2 November 2008

Santa Monica

The drive north from Newport to Santa Monica wasn't quite as planned. Because of the fairly short distance we planned to cover we attempted to stick to the coastal "Route 1" rather than going straight for the highway. Sadly this particular part of Route 1 is pretty much 100% industrial, passing directly through oil fields (where we saw oil pumps bobbing up and down like I'd expect to find in Texas) and refineries - there were few trucks on the road and it was a battle to avoid being squished by the huge trucks. Realizing our mistake we soon re-routed up to the main highway.

We rejoined the coast at a place called Redondo Beach and found a nice picnic spot for lunch (with the obligatory playpark). It seemed to be Kindergarten home-time and the park was busy with moms and kids playing and having lunch. It was refreshing to find ourselves amongst "local" people rather than groups of tourists for a change, this was the real suburban USA.

From Redondo beach the drive up to Santa Monica was fairly short, but our planned campground was a little further up, past Malibu. Having read about the campsite on the internet it sounded like an easy drive back into Santa Monica, but in reality the road was slow and the drive was a further 40 minutes (and the advertised 10 minute drive to the coast was more like 20 minutes). Having caught a glimpse of Santa Monica on the way past we decided we would prefer to stay down there so headed back and found a nice motel on Santa Monica Boulevard (the western end of the old Route 66).

For the first time since we were in Disneyworld we were less tied to the car, Santa Monica having a comprehensive and frequent bus service. Santa Monica Pier and the beach to the North provided plenty of entertainment for the kids (including a ride on the Pier's solar powered big-wheel). On one afternoon we headed to the beach on the South side of the Pier and strutted our stuff at the orginal Muscle Beach. Another day we took the bus down to Venice and took a stroll along the seafront to see the strange population which continues to promote CND, peace and love(man). It was a bit like being in the wrong decade.

On Thursday we headed in to Hollywood which was only a 10 mile drive from our hotel. The first glimpse of the Hollywood sign on the hill was fairly cool, but otherwise the first impression of Hollywood is that it is just another US city made up of a huge grid of streets. Hollywood Boulevard was similarly unimpressive as we joined it from the Eastern end. It was a bit like driving down any un-famous London street, but with stars on the pavement. Towards the Western end of the Hollywood Walk of Fame the street became a bit more impressive and we stopped to join the hordes of tourists staring at and photographing the pavement.

A quick drive out to Beverly Hills to see the homes of the rich and famous was fun - the homes were clearly pretty special, but the truth is you can't see much other than imposing walls, gates and hedges. Elvis Pressley's old place was getting a bit of a refit, seems the new owners obviously didn't like his taste in soft furnishings. Just along the street we saw the houses or former houses of Walt Disney, Barbra Streisand and George Harrison. We finished our tour at Rod Stewart's place, the only one star's house we saw sporting a presidential election poster (Obama/Biden). We needed to do a quick U-turn and were sure Rod wouldn't mind us turning in his drive, if he ran out to stop us we were going to shout "it's ok, we're Scottish".

On the afternoon of the Hollywood visit we stopped off at the Getty Centre. The Getty Centre is an enormous museum of art which was built in the 90s at a cost of $1bn for the buildings alone. The artwork collection is likely worth considerably more including original paintings, photos and sculptures including Van Gogh, Monet, Picasso and loads of artists that cultured types might have heard of. To be honest there were a couple of pretty poor efforts that had sneaked in and I know I could have done better, but it's fair to say the overall standard was pretty high. It was amazing how close you could get to the famous paintings hanging on the walls, there was not barrier or screen to separate visitors from the art, all I could think of as I stood inches from Monet's "The Bridge over the Water Lilly Pond" was how easily I could have put my fist through it. You'll be glad to know I didn't.

Link to photos