22 May 2009

Murray, the Red Wiggle, and Choice

At the time of writing I just saw Murray, the Red Wiggle, out the front of our neighbour's house. In normal suburban Sydney. Well, I guess he has to live a normal life too... What does this have to do with travelling with kids? Nothing actually, but I was so surprised to see him there that I thought I'd tack it on the front of this post!

My topic for this post actually about the latest issue of Choice magazine - May 2009.

There's an article about international airlines, rating them for criteria like value for money, seat comfort, in flight service, ability to get a convenient flight etc. According to their survey, Singapore Airlines provided the highest overall levels of satisfaction for their survey respondents.

Then there's also an article on travel money, exploring the good and bad points of different ways to pay for things in foreign countries. They look at the pros and cons of credit cards, cash, travellers cheques, ATM and debit cards, prepaid travel money cards, and dynamic currency conversion. They even list one credit card that has NO foreign currency conversion fee!

So, if you enjoy Choice articles, grab a copy of the latest issue of the magazine.

20 May 2009

Topping and tailing

One of the things that we have found helpful when travelling with our kids is to top and tail our kids in their bed: one with their head up one end, the other with their head up the other. It does require a little bit of rearrangement of the bedclothes, but it does mean that they sleep better.

Of course, we'd prefer for them to have their own separate single beds, because sleep comes much more easily that way, but sometimes there's only a double bed for them.

We find that separating their heads and legs means that they are less likely to bump into each other in the night. Because neither of them is particularly tall, it means that much less of them "overlap" in the same section of bed.

And of course if they sleep better, they're much less grumpy the next day. Great when you're wanting to enjoy travelling with kids, rather than just tolerating it!

13 May 2009

Farmstay fun!

Late last week we went on our farmstay trip out to Bathurst, NSW. We stayed at Barcoo's Barn, just south of Bathurst, and it was great!

Our host was Ken and he was only too happy to have us there and show us around. His wife, Elaine, was away horseriding, so normally she would be there to be hospitable (and by all accounts in their guest book, she certainly is!) too.

We came in late in the afternoon, and didn't get the chance to look around. But there was a good spot right outside our room for John to set up the telescope and have a good look up into the sky. It was a lovely clear night, and was certainly darker than Sydney, as we could get a good view of the Milky Way. After he got rather freezing, John eventually came in.

The accommodation was warm, and the beds were good. (There was space for 11 people, plus two futons... Got a LARGE family?) There was heaps available self serve for breakfast - all we had to do was open the cupboards and find it!

After breakfast and packing up our stuff, we went out and met one of the other guests up in a paddock, who introduced us to the Clydesdale horses, Clancy and Barcoo. They're both about 15 years old, and each weigh a tonne. Wouldn't like to have one of them step on our toes.

Ken had gone off over the hill in the truck, and when he came back, he let us into the chook pen to feed the chooks. The Bookworm got right into it immediately, though Bendy was a bit scared of the chickens. Eventually she thawed out and was happily feeding them also.

After that, Ken took us around to the sheep paddock (where we had met Clancy and Barcoo earlier), and The Bookworm helped him feed the sheep, the Clydesdales, two very unfriendly alpacas, and another horse called Prince. She wasn't real sure about patting the horses, but she did it anyway. I used it as a teaching moment (!) and said that if she didn't brush her hair each day, it would end up feeling that rough too! :-)

Bendy was absolutely terrified of the sheep. She was screaming, and Ken was rolling his eyes... She insisted on being picked up and carried around, in the hope that that would keep her out of their reach. She really only relaxed when we closed the gate behind us.

Ken showed us all the bits of equipment lying around the paddock, each with their specific purpose for farm work. Some were for making bales of hay, others for wrapping them in plastic, others for moving them about the place etc.

Then Ken showed us the shearing shed. He weighed the girls on the big old scales where they weigh the bales of wool. It was a bit meaningless for them because it was only in imperial weight, which they don't understand (well, actually, neither do I!), but they enjoyed it all the same.

Then we had a bit more of a chat with Ken outside, before he went off for his morning tea, and we went off on our way home. If we'd had longer, I've no doubt he would have been happy to take The Bookworm off in the tractor with him on his rounds.

Ken was in no hurry to get rid of us, and you can see that he loves having people to show over the farm. If Elaine had been there, Ken said she would have been pleased to hook up the sled behind Barcoo so that the girls could have a ride.

So we highly recommend staying at Barcoo's Barn if you're looking for a farmstay, or even if you're just in the Bathurst area.

Pictures coming soon...

11 May 2009

Worst travel experiences: Dining out in London

It's about time we owned up to some of the really bad travel experiences as well as waxing lyrical over the really good ones. Once you start travelling, it is amazing just how many of both extremes of experience come your way. The bad experiences stick in your memory, and are just as much a part of the retelling long after the holiday - often to be laughed off, even if it wasn't at all funny at the time.

One of the most prominent bad experiences in my mind relates to dining out at a certain Chinese restaurant along Brompton Road, Kensington (London) between the V&A and Harrods. I googled it prior to writing this post and was amazed to find it still operating (we visited in 2002). It got excellent reviews, and by any standards has an outstanding menu. 

We visited at lunchtime, and not for dinner, so the restaurant was quite empty apart from a table occupied by staff from the diplomatic missions nearby. 

Well, I believe that the food we ate that day was excellent. I can't remember, of course, because such a highlight of this dining experience was completely overshadowed by the service - and in particular the attitude - of the staff. I cannot begin to relate how appalling the service was. It appears that the source of this poor service was none other than the fact that brought with us one of those nasty, filthy objects known as "children".

We only had one child at this stage, and she is a well-seasoned diner in fine restaurants. The Bookworm has good table manners, is polite, eats practically anything put in front of her and I don't think she'd ever had a tantrum in a restaurant. She's not perfect by any stretch, but you could take her anywhere - even when she was a tiny baby. You still can.

Well, didn't we suffer because of her presence! The disdain was palpable. The staff couldn't get rid of us quickly enough. We were made to feel as if we were most unwelcome, and we'd better leave ASAP. I'm just sorry that I put up with the attitude and paid the bill. Next time - if there is a next time - I won't be doing either.

10 May 2009

travelling light: travel gadget secret

For travelling light, its really important to plan well and shop well. However, that doesn't mean walking into every travel store or every travel department of each store and buying all the latest travel gadgets.

I'm going to let you in on a big secret.

Listen very carefully...

You don't need most of that stuff.

I have my favourite little travel gadgets to take with me. I have slowly accumulated them over time, and they have become part my tried and tested travel kit. But, I can walk into most travel goods places these days and walk out again without purchasing anything.

Sure, the camera attachments that let you use a bottle as your camera stand for taking a photo are pretty nifty. But you know what? I don't actually need one.

Those chemical handwarmers which are like little plastic pillows filled with gel look rather clever, but I don't need them for travelling either.

I love looking at outdoor and adventure store catalogues. They're quite fun. I enjoy looking at the weights of all the products and seeing how heavy they are. I enjoy looking at all the latest must-have gadgets and then... turning the page.

Once in a while I'll come across a new product that actually looks like it might work for me. Then I'll weigh it up against what I've already got, I'll consider its multi-functionality, I'll consider its weight and size. If its an item of clothing I'd want to see how easily crushable it is, whether its quick dry, and whether it goes with my existing travel wardrobe. If it is no better, or not appreciably better than what I already have, then I won't buy it.

Life isn't about how much stuff we can accumulate. I think one of the most paradoxical things about travelling light is that it takes most people a lot of effort, and a lot of products (to work your way through and then discard as not being good enough or light enough or whatever enough) to get to the point where you can travel really light. It also usually costs a lot of money.

For some, the act of travelling light becomes just another exercise in consumerism. You CAN go lighter! You DO NEED to spend another huge wad of cash on the LATEST thing. You DO NEED the smallest/lightest/coolest/niftiest doodad, because if you DON'T your trip won't be any good!


That said, I do espouse the principles of travelling light. But I need to remind myself that I do not constantly need more stuff.

09 May 2009

travelling with minor celebrities

John was talking to an acquaintance (Brad) the other night about Brad's family's experiences of living in Ethiopia. When they were last there, their young son was rather pale in complexion (as he's grown older his hair has darkened). Apparently they would have strangers come up to them on the streets and kiss their son, just because he looked so intriguingly different.

We know what this is like.

Bendy has VERY blonde hair, and a very pale complexion. The Bookworm has hair that in some lights looks a little reddish, and again has quite pale skin. We have taken them to quite a number of countries around the world, some of which they blend in like the natives and others where they definitely do not.

In Asia, our children were treated as minor celebrities - which we were completely unprepared for. Australia is a very multicultural place, and we're used to seeing people that look very different to us. In fact, when we were in Asia, I felt much more at home than when in Europe, because I am so used to seeing Asian faces around me in my home environment. However, some of them obviously didn't see us in quite the same familiar way.

We'd have people picking them up and cuddling them, calling their friends over to jointly marvel at them, having their photos taken with them etc. It can feel rather creepy some times, and also by the end of a whole day's worth of it, it can be rather tiresome. And it can make the kids themselves feel extremely uncomfortable, and uncertain. While once or twice can be funny, all day isn't.

Usually its the adults that are the main culprits for this in-your-face-ness, probably because kids are usually a lot more accepting of the way others look. Many of our children's school friends are from Chinese, Korean, and Indian families, so they're very used to kids who look different and have other cultural practices. One of Bendy's best friends at school has very dark African skin, so she just takes such differences in her stride.

So, what can you do to prepare for it? While you can dye hair (which seems a little drastic for taking a 5 year old to another country), there's not much you can do about their skin colour. Probably one of the most helpful things is to make sure the children wear hats, to cover up as much of their hair as possible.

In future, I think that we will warn our children that they might need to expect that others will find their hair and skin colour (and in some places, even their eye colour) interesting. We will need to teach our children to politely say NO when they feel too uncomfortable, and we will need to be careful to read their body language to know when they have had enough, and that it is time step in as their protectors. At other times, I think we'll all just have to put up with it to some degree.

Its made thinking about long term travel a bit interesting for us. We'd very much like to do some volunteering or mission work in another country at some stage in the future. And it is likely that at our destination Bendy in particular could be quite an object of curiosity, simply because of the way she looks. Really, there isn't much we can do about it, but at least we can all expect it to happen, and be pleasantly surprised when it does not.

Do any of you have ways that you have handled such things on your travels?

07 May 2009

how to get good airfare deals

There are some really good deals on airfares out there at the moment, as airlines try to stimulate business due to the economic downturn. With a little homework, you might be able to get a pretty good deal.

A few years ago when we were thinking of travelling to the US the following year, we went into our local travel agent to get an idea of the airfares. We found out that because Air Tahiti Nui had opened a new route from Sydney to New York, they had a special promotional deal on. We managed to get airfares for our kids of just $AU99 return to NY, plus taxes! Because the prices were so low, we brought the trip forward to that year, as we figured that we'd never get a deal so good again.

And Air Tahiti Nui turned out to be a great airline. I still think that their pilots do the best landings ever. They are so smooth and gentle. I guess it comes from all the practice of taking off and landing all the time when flying between the islands in French Polynesia.

From The Sydney Morning Herald, comes a list of ways to secure good prices for your airfares. These are somewhat Australian-centric tips, but you can adapt them to your own locale.

By following some simple guidelines, anyone can travel cheap.

Get in almost immediately when promotions are announced as the cheapest flights will sell quickly.

Fly midweek as the lowest fares are often on off-peak days.

Sign up for airline newsletters and travel alerts

Watch out for new routes: airlines frequently offer special deals to attract publicity.

Check regular sales, such as Jetstar's Fare Frenzy, 4pm-8pm every Friday, and Virgin Blue's daily Happy Hour, noon-1pm

Consider package deals that include accommodation.

06 May 2009

travel catering - plastic knife

Before our last trip, we bought a Zyliss plastic lettuce knife to possibly take with us. As commited one-baggers, we were only taking cabin luggage. We wondered whether one of these knives would be ok to take with us. We figured that it wouldn't show up really obviously on an xray scanner, but if our bags were manually searched then it would easily be noticed. It was cheap enough that if it was confiscated, we wouldn't be too upset. However, in the end we decided it was best to leave it at home. Didn't want our holiday spoiled just for wanting to take a plastic knife.

I still do wonder though, whether it would be acceptable. We did take plastic picnic cutlery with us. In that, there were of course, knives. What's the difference between a plastic picnic cutlery knife, and one of these? I don't know.

The points for it were that it was reasonably light, and definitely not metal. Despite being plastic, its serrated blade was really quite good at cutting. Before we decided not to take it, I actually prepared a whole meal using it once. (I think it was a mince meal though, and didn't need any raw meat cut in preparation!) The vegies were much more roughly cut than I would normally have, but it did work well enough for vacation cuisine!

I'm still not sure about it, but present it here in case the idea is of use to you.

05 May 2009

Going to New Zealand

I was just reading on Gadling about their suggestion for people to visit New Zealand. When I was young my family went on only one overseas holiday, and it was to New Zealand. Dad doesn't like staying anywhere other than in their caravan (because its cheap), so in NZ we hired a campervan. That meant that we could travel overseas without him feeling like he was being ripped off by staying in motels...

Anyway, seeing the post on Gadling reminded me of the wonderful spoof advertisement that they came up with on The Gruen Transfer, which is a fascinating and very funny Australian show about the advertising industry. Each week on the Gruen Transfer, they have a segment called The Pitch, where they get two ad agencies to come up with a TV advertisement to sell the unsellable. The week that I am particularly remembering was when they had to sell the idea of Australia invading New Zealand. It was hilarious.

Now, for something completely new to me, I'm going to try to embed a video here. (Never done this before, and it seemed like a really good excuse to try.) Its the video of the ad that I preferred of the two. You can find the other one pretty easily on YouTube.


If this doesn't work, you can find the video at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8AIppqNePdM

For the record, I thought New Zealand was a beautiful place. I don't have any overwhelming need to invade it, either, even though I am an Australian. But a visit might be nice!

04 May 2009

Ladies travelling light article in Polish

Well, for all of our Polish readers (and there must just be oh so many of you...) the article that I contributed heavily to on ladies travelling with one bag has been translated into Polish. That's the first one of my articles that's been in Polish. I've had my stuff in Spanish before, and I think French, but never Polish!

So hop on over to the Polish Skyscanner website to have a read!

And on a completely different subject, we are now the proud owners of a pretty good, not quite entry level, telescope. It cost us the princely sum of $30. John's been out in the front yard looking at Saturn (he's so excited, he's like a little kid!). I had a quick look too, and you can even see the rings! Its only tiny, but absolutely amazing to think that with such a small piece of equipment, we can see SO far! It will be going with us to Bathurst. (The telescope that is, not Saturn...)

03 May 2009

Excuses for not travelling

I recently happened upon the blog Technomadia where the writers are creating a series of posts about excuses for not travelling, and how to counteract each of those excuses.

So far they have covered:
  • jobs and career
  • affording it
  • stuff
  • family
and they'll be adding more over the coming weeks.

Thought-provoking ideas, and well worth thinking through.

The idea of just upping stumps and going off into the wide blue yonder is appealing, and I think it would be a wonderfully educational experience for our kids (and us!). However I'd suggest another excuse, that for John and I is a big one. It is that we want to have our roots somewhere. For us, that is here in Sydney. That's where our friends and family are. That's where we come back to when we want to come home. And coming home is something that I do love to do.

02 May 2009

Favourite places we’ve visited: The World’s Largest Virtual Solar System Drive

As mentioned previously, we did at least two of the drives which incorporate the World's Largest Virtual Solar System Drive. We joined one of the drives on the Mitchell Highway at Narrabri. Just south of the town, there is a truck-stop/picnic area with a 3D model of Neptune to which it was attached. We were on the outskirts of the giant Solar System – but Pluto was hundreds of kilometres back up the highway towards Moree. Driving towards Coonabarabran, we were nearing the centre: the Sun.

The drive works something like this. Imagine that the dome of the Anglo-Australian Observatory at Siding Spring, Coonabarabran is a scale model of the sun. Someone, in their impressive imagination, created scale models of all of the planets (even Pluto) at the scale distances along the roads leading away from Siding Spring. A three-dimensional scale model of each planet is mounted on a gigantic billboard containing information about that planet on it. So, Mercury was just down the driveway road from the observatory, and Venus further along than that. Earth was almost at the main road and Mars just beyond the intersection. The model of Jupiter was simply enormous, and located just before the road entered Coonabarabran.

At this point, there are five versions of the model – each spread out along one of the five main roads leading away from Coonabarabran so that, for example, Pluto is located to the north between Narrabri and Moree, to the east near Merriwa, and to the south in Dubbo. There are several Saturns – hugely spectacular with the rings, of course – located a few kilometres away from town along each of the main roads. Neptune and Uranus much further away down the highway. Pluto, hundreds of kilometres away in Dubbo, was a tiny hemisphere of grey attached to a gigantic board in the carpark of the Tourist Information Centre. The Bookworm, who loves space, loved the drive. So did the rest of us. Tracking down each planet and trying to guess how long it would take to reach the next one was a fun way to pass the time with the kids in the car.

The Solar System Drive has to be one of the more unusual sights we have seen on holidays, but it was terrific fun! The kids loved it as we stopped at each planet to read the brief information and marvel over the relative sizes and distances represented. And it was an interesting way to pass the time on some very long driving. I’m glad that they stopped with Pluto. It was hard enough trying to comprehend the enormity and emptiness of the Solar System without having to stretch my brain around distances across the Universe! It wouldn’t have fit, anyway.

01 May 2009

Space: the final frontier

No, not those ultra-expensive trips being offered by the Russian Space Agency to the super-rich, but a two-day (one night) trip to the central western NSW town of Bathurst next week. It would have been a longer stay, but we have another commitment on the weekend that can’t be missed. We’re staying the night on a farmstay, so there will probably be a later blog post about that – especially the reaction of the kids when they actually get there. At the moment they’re really looking forward to it. But, given their usual response to live animals the farm experience might well be a disaster…!

Anyway, we got a call today from Yvette’s dad. He’s seen a telescope for sale at a garage sale, and he’s going to make an offer on it for us (it is unpriced at the moment). I love space, and the idea of owning a telescope is one that I’ve had since I was quite young, though I’ve always put it of as a bit of an indulgence. To be honest, I think many of them simply become unloved white elephants. However, if we successfully acquire this telescope we shall use it with gusto.

Yvette suggested taking it with us to Bathurst. I can’t think why that sounded so remarkable – what a great suggestion! A telescope is an ideal holiday instrument to have with kids around. Despite the fact that we know so much, the mystique of space has still a powerful hold over human imaginations. On a clear night, with very dark country night skies, it is an interesting way to pass the time with your kids – thoughtful as well as relaxing (if a teensy bit cold…). So if we get it, it will make the trip with us to Bathurst because the sky will be much clearer (weather permitting) than the light-polluted skies of Sydney. I shall have to see if we can find something really special like Jupiter or Saturn: but even the moon is fascinating with a closer view.

One of The Bookworm’s abiding interests is planets and space. When she was in kindergarten she (with some help) constructed a model of the solar system out of painted polystyrene balls and we suspended it from an old curtain rod slung across her room. So, as part of an earlier holiday to western NSW, we did a number of “space” themed activities. We visited the Anglo-Australian Observatory at Siding Spring, Coonabarabran, and the Radio Telescope dishes at Narrabri. And we did the drives out of Coonabarabran following the World’s Largest Virtual Solar System Drive(see tomorrow's post for details).

So I’m hoping we’ve acquired a telescope rather cheaply, and am looking forward to spending part of one night next week gazing up at the splendour of the Milky Way – weather permitting, of course. And I know the kids will be fighting each other for a turn at looking through it. We miss out on so much of the night sky in the city that it is a real treat to see it in full darkness.