One night (OK so it was four) in Bangkok

With Pensiri at Lamphu House

This trip was proving to be lots of fun and I had , as usual, been able to pack in a fair bit.  Pong and Link had asked me to come back and stay with them for my last few days, but I had some serious ‘Bangkok cramming’ to do and I needed to be in the middle of the action to do it.

I had already booked my hotel, Siam 2 in Banglamphu. We had stayed there there on our last trip so I knew exactly what to expect and how to get there. It was comfy, clean and close enough to the action without actually being in it. The minibus from Kanchanaburi stopped very close by and I swaggered to my accommodation like a local … although I am sure that with my backpack, I hardly looked like one!  This part of Bangkok always feels like home to me!

Mango and sticky rice

I was on a mission … as Alex tells me, I usually am! I immediately went to my ‘local’ dentist and made an appointment to have my teeth cleaned and checked.  I only ever use dentists in Australia if I have to as they are exorbitant compared to other countries.  Appointment next morning!

I met some lovely people at Siam 2, including Aussie sisters Diane and Deb and Argentine-Brazilian couple Gabriele and Cybele. It’s always lovely to meet people who you click with. Siam has a pool so a few nighttime sessions reminiscing about both Brazil and Argentina were had. Cybele and Gabriele, don’t be surprised if I do knock on your door in Buenos Aires and say hello!

Thai coffee and green curry at the ‘local’

My next days were spent walking around various parts of Bangkok, eating (bring Thai Street food on!), having massages (stick those elbows in, none of that ‘soft’ stuff for me!), people-watching, shopping, jumping on and off buses, which of course included meeting and chatting to people, and … I was even able to fit in some sightseeing of the cultural sort. I must say, I was a bit disappointed with Mahboonkrong (better known as MBK) Centre. At eight stories high and with some 2000 shops, it’s a shopper’s mecca.  I must say, I think it has gone rapidly down hill in the last few years, and the shopping just ain’t what it used to be. It seems to be more expensive and more commercial. Oh well, I still had Chatachuk to go. This is the mother of all markets, and seriously, if you can’t find it here (15 000 plus booths!) you won’t find it anywhere! For someone who hates shopping, I love this place! I love the vibe, the frenetic energy, the mix of people, and the many, many different things on offer. As usual, I put in some serious hours, but my diligence paid off and I found and bought what I was looking for.

Raw silk, Jim Thompson’s House

On my way back from the market, I visited Jim Thompson’s House (the cultural, sightseeing bit), very close to Siam Square.  I have been meaning to do this for years but somehow have never gotten around to it. Jim Thompson was an American who moved to Thailand in the 1940’s and in 1959 pretty much single- handedly turned the Thai silk industry into a hugely successful export business. What’s remarkable about ‘this house’ is that it’s actually a collection of six traditional Thai wooden homes which he then reconstructed in a jungle like garden. Thompson was also an avid collector of both Thai and oriental art.  The guided tour was well and truly worth it.

Sunday night had arrived and I had fitted in everything I needed and wanted to do.  Always room for more though!  There’s always next time, and of course there will be a next time!  I would be flying back home the next day, on my birthday 14 October, but with the stopover in Brunei, would not get home until the 15th.

The changing face of Bangkok

Another trip down, and many, many more to go!


“Dont cry because it’s over, smile because it happened” – Dr Seuss

Next: Christmas and New Year in Myanmar (Burma) … with stopovers in Bangkok … of course!

The many faces of Khao San Road

A ‘nice journey’ for some …

Banglamphu street vendor

Street food … plastic table cloth and all

Ah Ronald … you can run but you cannot hide!

Pigs ears anyone?

Pretty clothes for the bigger woman?

Fake it till you make it!

Fried scorpion perhaps?

Watch out!

No (extra) words needed … Chatachuk Market
Deb and Di at Siam 2
Flowers, Jim Thompson’s House
Banglamphu, Bangkok

Roti Ti-Mahaba, one of my fave Bangkok restaurants
Toilet etiquette
Cybele and Gabriel

Thai Quit Line

Random sign close to Bangkok

Miss Tim in Ko Samet, why not Madame Joe in Bangkok?


Doin’ it Thai style … hanging out with the locals

Market place Thong Pha Phum

Packed and ready to go, the next part of my adventure was about to begin. Pong’s parents, Chai and Ta, have a holiday house in Kanchanaburi province, but since Chai retired a few years back they go there much more frequently. Pong made me out a handwritten map, with excellent directions in Thai. I had to first catch a bus to Kanchanaburi, and then an ongoing bus to Thong Pha Phum, from where her parents would pick me up. Their house is then some 10 kilometres away.  Pong’s map was a bonus!  As a backpacker I am accustomed to playing it by ear and winging it. Having said that, mobile technology has most certainly changed the way we do things. With all of us liaising on our mobiles, pinpointing my pick up was easy. Many would argue that this takes some of the fun and excitement out of travelling. Hmm, another discussion for another day.

Chai, my personal chauffeur

Meanwhile, I was picked up at the tiny bus station in Thong Pha Phum by Pong’s parents. I must say, I got a great vibe from this tiny town wedged between shaggy karst mountains. No tourists, and very traditional.  I knew I was going to love it!  As is often the case, the bus station was right next to a market, and you all know how much I love markets. Chai and Ta arrived soon after me and there were hugs all around.  I had met them both at Link and Pong’s wedding in 2007, but very briefly. Ta bought a few more bits and pieces in the market and I followed her around.  The word had gotten out … Ta is a fantastic cook!

Chai and Ta’s house

We drove the short distance to their house which was made of wood and was surrounded by lots of trees and foliage.  As soon as we walked through the front door, I immediately fell in love with it as the dining area was out in the open and the house backed right onto a stream. My ‘room’ would be downstairs; a tent set up in another open area with the sound of running water as my backdrop.  You can’t imagine how soundly I slept that night!

Ta and her many dishes!

Ta weaved her magic and made a number of amazing dishes that night. Names not known, tastes to die for! The pictures tell a thousand words. I just loved Chai and Ta! Chai’s English was really good, whilst Ta and I communicated using lots of sign language, which seemed to work no problem.  I am a firm believer that if you want to be understood you will be. When I went to bed that night I just felt pure bliss.

Hin Dat Hot Springs

The next day was lots of fun.  After a lovely breakfast, we went to Hin Dat Hot Springs. The naturally hot spring water is between 45 and 55 degrees celsius. Must say, after an hour there I felt like I had been hit with a shovel! Chai took us to a great place overlooking the jungle for lunch and then it was time to go home and chill … to be later followed by another round of Ta’s amazing food.

With Ta at Khao Laem Dam

Over the couple of days that I was there I also met a number of Chai and Ta’s friends who had also retired and come out to live in the countryside.  Some came over and others we went to visit; all within walking distance.

The next day was a busy one and we visited a number of places.  There are some spectacular national parks with some phenomenal views. Khao Laem Dam, officially known as Vachiralongkorn Dam, is only six kilometres from Thom Pha Phum. At just over a kilometre long and 92 metres high and with spectacular scenery around it, it’s quite breathtaking.  There were lots of monkeys around and there are signs everywhere telling you not to provoke them.  I got a bit too close to taking a photo of one and he was not a happy camper.  I had to scuttle back, as he inched towards me with a don’t mess with me look. Was not quite expecting that!

Three Pagoda Pass at the border with Myanmar

We also visited the famous Three Pagoda Pass near Sangkhlaburi, where Thailand borders with Myanmar (Burma).  The three pagodas for which the pass is named are quite small, but it’s the history and fact that it’s a border crossing (sometimes!) that makes it interesting. I had been here many years ago as a backpacker; yeh, still a backpacker and still young! It’s where you come if you want to see Myanmar without really seeing Myanmar, you know, like the Clayton’s drink. I will have to dig up my old photos; the place has most certainly changed in the some 20 years or so since I first visited, as all places do really. 

Selfie on the Wangka Bridge

Sangkhlaburi is a very interesting place too. It’s a brilliant example of a border town’s ethnic spectrum, with a mix of Burmese, Karen, Mon and Lao as well as Thais. The mix is evident as you look around. Even if you can speak Thai, it may not necessarily be all that helpful here as so many other languages are spoken. Ta and I made our way across the famous yet somewhat unfortunately named Wangka (thankfully also known as Monside!) Bridge. Its claim to fame is that it is a picturesque rickety wooden bridge, but perhaps it being rickety was also its downfall … quite literally! Very recently a flood or storm had swept half of it away! So, the picturesque bridge quite literally stops halfway, and drops into, well, the river below!

Beautiful temple architecture

We also visited some lovely temples in the area, including Wat Wang Wiwekaram. It’s always lovely to walk around temples and observe the beautiful architecture.  What I liked about the ones that we saw around Sangkhlaburi was that I was the only tourist and so I was able to observe the locals in their own habitat. 

What a day!  We had seen and done so much, yet once again Ta weaved her culinary magic and I was treated to yet another spectacular Thai meal.  I was most certainly going to miss Ta’s food.  I asked her if she was interested in coming to Australia and being my personal chef!

Burmese lady

The couple of days had gone far too quickly, but I had seen, done and eaten so much. It was easy to understand how Pong had turned out to be such a wonderful person; she has two wonderful parents, who I was most certainly going to miss. The morning that I was to make my way back to Bangkok, we went to visit some of Chai’s friends as well as a Burmese family, who  all lived within walking distance.  Being so close to the border, there are a number of Burmese refugees in the area. The war between Myanmar’s (Burma) army and the jungle-dwelling Karen ethnic group has been running for 63 years and is ongoing. The civil war is often labelled the world’s longest. Needless to say the Burmese are desperate to get out and will try anything in their power to do so.  Tragic!

Saying goodbye to Chai and Ta

With hugs all around, I was back on the minibus to Kanchanaburi, where I would have to change once again for Bangkok. I promised them both that I would be back with Alex. I waved to Chai and Ta until they were out of sight … and then I cried. It’s the part of travel that I least like … saying goodbye.

Bangkok awaited me.  My last few days would be spent shopping and just hangin’ out in one of my favourite cities.  Bangkok, you never, ever disappoint me!


“Philosophy begins in wonder”. – Plato

Chai and Ta see me off

Dedication: Chai and Ta, I would like to thank you for your amazing hospitality over the couple of days that I spent with you. You showed me your kindness and warmth in everything you did. It made my heart sing to see the smiles on both of your faces. You now have a place in my most special place, a place I only reserve for special people, in my heart. I look forward to seeing you both again very soon.

A room with a view!

On the back patio with Ta

Chai and Ta

Home-cooked tofu

Ta weaves her magic in the kitchen

Ta preparing the food to be cooked

Voila, mission accomlished!

Lost in translation? Hin Dat Hot Springs

Chillin’ at the Springs with Ta
At the Dam … this could be used for people too!

At the Dam … cute but don’t get too close

At the Dam
To market, to market

Veggies for me thanks!

Red hot (and green!) chilli peppers!

Pong and Link’s wedding 2007 … a photo of a photo

At Pong and Link’s wedding 2007

Driving around Kanchanaburi Province

Pom Pee National Park
At the border

Myanmar … thatta way

Tax free options at the border

Herbal remedies … at the border

Soccer at the border
Wangka Bridge … now you see it …

Wangka Bridge … now you don’t…
 At one of the temples

Try your luck, or fortune, at the temple

Shoes off! (at a temple)

Temple architecture
With the Burmese family

Burmese family

Thai condiments

The wonderful colours of Thailand
Chai cuts up some fresh pomelo

Ta’s kitchen

Sticky rice and banana … yuuuuuum!

Thai veggies and herbs

Yes, ir really is ALL about food!

View from Chai and Ta’s balcony

When the going gets tough … travel!

Off to Thailand … yay!

One door shuts and another door opens!  Oh, how I love the travelling door!  She is always kind to me; never creaks, never hard to open and always opens with the first push.  So, in between jobs, I decided to sneak away to Thailand for a couple of weeks … as you do!  Organising the gig?  Yeh, that would be five days prior, and booking the cheapest flight I could, which ended up being on Royal Brunei. October’s not a bad month to travel through Thailand.  OK so it’s the monsoon season, but seriously, worse things could happen in life!

I thus spent the nights of my last working week getting myself organised for Thailand.  Yep, finished work on the Friday, and was flying to Thailand on the Saturday. Whoo, hoo!

I had a vague idea of what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go and I had just over two weeks to do it.  Alex and Dad took me to the airport, and before I knew it I was off.  In usual Ombi style, I introduced myself to the guy sitting next to me, and Daryl and I had ourselves some pretty decent conversations over the course of the flight.  A brief stopover in Brunei and we were in Bangkok by 8pm. I would be spending my first couple of nights with my dear friends Link and Pong and their family. I met Pong in the early noughties when she was studying in Australia, and Alex and I attended her wedding to Link in 2007. They have since had two children, Grace (Nu Deang) who we met when we were in Thailand in early 2012 and Sean (Singh) who was only a couple of months old, and whom I would be meeting for the first time.

With Nu Deang at the local market

Luckily it did not take me long to get through passport control and Link was waving at me as I came through the doors and into the arms of my second home; a country I love, enjoy and feel so comfortable in. Ah, Bangkok!  You either love it or hate it.  I love it!  Yes, it’s crazy, frenetic and muggy, but perhaps it’s the sensory overload that I find so appealing.  Bangkok, you and I have the same personality, which is perhaps why I love you so!

It was quite late by the time we arrived at Pong and Link’s house, which is in the south of Bangkok, but at the glass door was Nu Deang waving, the adorable not quite yet one year old baby I had met last year, who was now two and a half. Bright as a button, she was not going to miss out on the action. She knew I was coming and was waiting up. It was so lovely to see Pong and Nu Deang again, and I was greeted with big hugs from both of them. Nu Deang introduced me to her baby brother Sean and took me up to my room and told me that that is where I would be sleeping. A bit of chit chat all round and then we went to bed.  At least tomorrow was Sunday and I would be able to spend some time with the family.

Yum, yum!

To market, to market … on Sunday morning Link, Nu Deang and I went to the local market to buy some food.  My love of markets, any market, is no secret. They are the pulse of a nation! They tell you so much about its people. And I just love that whole … when in Rome! This is the real Thailand. First up, some Thai coffee, complete with both evaporated and condensed milk!  Oh yes, if you don’t like sugar … in Thailand you will have to build a very big bridge and get over it! I don’t  have sugar in my coffee at home, but hey, I do in Thailand. We wandered around, had a look and bought some food.  Link and Pong were so totally hospitable.  I feel so honoured to have such special friends. Back at home we chatted and ate. In the afternoon Link’s parents and sister, Sung, came around. It was just really lovely to hang around and be ‘part of the family’. Nu Deang is a little doll, and her first language is actually English because that is what her parents speak to her in so that she can be bilingual. She is such a well-mannered and gorgeous little girl, and we really did have so much fun together.

15 minute haircut … love it!

On the Monday I went out to the local shopping centre and had my hair cut. Link and Pong recommended where to go and off I went. My kind of place … fifteen minutes, a funky haircut and $6.50 (200 baht) later, I was out! Edward Scissorhands had weaved her magic!  I am not one for pampering and three hour hair cuts. Cut my hair and let me get out! I also decided to have a massage. Massage places in Thailand are everywhere and the Thai use them regularly. Thailand is renowned for its massages, which cost from $5.00 upward an hour, depending on where you go. Oh, it was soooooo good. When I come to Thailand I pack in as many as I can.

Pong helped me map out what I would do over the next couple of weeks. A few days on the island of Ko Samet, back for a night with Pong and Link, some time with her parents north of Kanchanaburi near the Myanmar border and then back to Bangkok for a few days shopping before flying back to Melbourne .  Sorted!  Link has an IT background like Alex, so I was technologically wired, so to speak. In my lifetime I have travelled so extensively alone but the boys made sure that I was contactable 24/7!
Thanks Link and Alex.

See you soon Nu Deang

So, on the Tuesday morning I set off nice and early with Link, and he dropped me off close to where he works in the centre, from which I caught the skytrain to the Ekamai bus station. By mid-morning I was on a bus to Ko Samet. Only 220 kilometres southeast of Bangkok, I chose this island because it was relatively close.  To be honest I had never thought to do it before, as being so close to Bangkok, it has a bit of a reputation as not only being party-central but also totally overcrowded, especially on weekends.  Not really my deal! With fairly low expectations, however, I thought I’d give it a go. After some five hours we were at Ban Phe pier from where the ferry ride was about 40 minutes across to Ko Samet. It was a lovely sunny day and the short ride across was relaxing.

On the ferry to Ko Samet

Once across, I made my way to the area where I had picked some potential places to stay. The island is only eightkilometres long and so the initial walk was quite short, possibly less than two kilometres.  As I walked I noticed lots of muddy potholes and lots of water.  It had obviously been raining quite heavily. This is not what I had expected, and I say this in a good way.  Ko Samet seemed to be a pretty little island that had not been as damaged by tourism as I thought.  Having said that, it is a national park and thankfully along with that has come some rules with not being allowed to build upwards.  In this way the island has been saved from becoming the ugly monstrosity that places like Phuket have become! Sure, there were tourists, but it was also interspersed with locals, including fishermen. I could see where tourism had bobbed up its head, but I did not feel that it had taken over the island.  Relief! And I must say, a pretty little island it is.

My little bungalow, Tubtim Resort

After checking out a few places, I settled on Tubtim Resort.  Sounds pretty flash, but it was really just a set of comfy bungalows perched up on a hill with the jungle behind and a gorgeous view of the beach in front. This is where I would spend the next five nights … well to sleep anyway.  You know what I am like, always up and about and doing something.

It did indeed rain quite a bit and although I did not get much sunbaking in (one two hour session with sunshine and another two hour session with clouds, but at least no rain), I did go on a couple of hikes and did a lot of walking. I met a lovely Dutch couple called Monique and Davey who were staying in the bungalow next to me, but as it was low season there were very few people actually around.

My Ko Samet masseuse, Aida

I had  read a bit on Ko Samet, and I was not sure what to expect. I just don’t do doof-doof music these days (oops, I just inferred that I once did!), and Iwas hoping that my night times would be pleasant and relaxing.  Fortunately, I was able to do this, but was told that in the high season this was most certainly not the case. Sure, there was music at night and some outdoor performances, like fire shows, but it was all rather low key. I found a few local restaurants where I indulged in one of my favourite Thai dishes, green curry, and the coconut shakes are always good! I found a great massage place, Aloha Samed Massage, run by lady-boy Aida, and boy did s/he give a good massage.  Sunshine (well, a bit of it!), good food and good massage … what more could one ask for?

Ko Chan

One day I decided to explore the island, heading south, and made my way right down to the southern tip. I must say the views of the sea beneath the jungle were exhilarating, and I weaved in and out of jungle and beach to maximise my views. Gorgeous white sand views everywhere.  Thailand rarely disappoints! The many beaches and bays that I passed were spectacular such as Ao Vong Duan, Ao Wai and Ao Kiu Na Nok. The further south I walked, the more isolated it became, as the beaches are harder to get to.  I finally made it to the tip, Ao Karang from which you could see the tiny island of Ko Chan. I sat down, breathed in the beauty and chilled … I was the only one there … just the way I like it!

Monsoon season … baby!

And so, my few days on Ko Samet came to an end.  I would be catching the Sunday morning ferry at 8.00am, as I wanted to spend some time with Link and Pong before moving on once again. Of course the skies opened up and I had to trudge through the rain to get to the port, but hey, it’s all part of the fun!

Before I knew it, I was back with my Thai family who surprised me with an early birthday cake (I would be leaving Thailand on my actual birthday). What a lovely surprise indeed! I was only there for a night, as the next day I was going out to visit Pong’s parents two hours north-west of Kanchanaburi, near the border of Myanmar. I would leave the next morning. The next adventure awaited me.


Happy Birthday!

“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. ” – Helen Keller

Next:Hot springs, amazing homemade food and visiting the Myanmar border in and around Kanchanaburi province with Pong’s parents, Chai and Ta.

Dedication:To my wonderful friends Pong and Link. Thank you for your hospitality and warmth.  Thank you for making me feel like part of your family and for allowing me to ‘adopt’ Nu Deang and Sean as my niece and nephew. Thank you for caring and looking after me. You are very special to me and I have adopted all of you as MY Thai family! Kap Khun Ka.

With Pong, Nu Deang and baby Sean

Some birthday cake Papi?

Nu Deang wants to go with Ombi

Ko Samet

One of the many ‘sturdy’ piers on Ko Samet

Ko Samet

Ko Samet National Park

About to catch the ferry to Ko Samet

Nuan Thip Pier, leaving for Ko Samet

Welcome to Ko Samet
Link at the local market near his house

Pong and Nu Deang

Pong and Nu Deang

Baby Sean and Grandma (Link’s mum)

With Link’s family
Green Thai curry and Asian greens on Ko Samet

Hello Baby Sean (Singh)
Ko Samet ‘roadhouse’
The random things you find on islands, Ko Samet
Another gorgeous Ko Samet beach

Mummy and Nu Deang
L to R: Nu Deang, Pong and Link
Happy Birthday to Ombi!

Baby Sean sleeping peacefully

Pad Thai at the local, Ko Samet
Miss Tim … only in Thailand!
One of the many gorgeous beaches on Ko Samet
Ko Samet, when it rains it pours … quite literally
Fresh produce, Ko Samet
This is the way we dry our clothes, Ko Samet
Rubbish on Ko Samet

Happy Mother’s Day New York Style

Surprise … Happy Mother’s Day Mami!

Another trip, and so soon after Vanuatu … not for me, but for Alex! With the envious position of being in between jobs, Alex decided to surprise his mother in New York for Mother’s Day … as you do!

Singin’ in the rain … New York style
Alex with his mum and sister Angie

Booking his ticket with frequent flyer points at the last minute, and only letting his younger sister Angie (who was born in New York and lives there with his mum) in on the secret, he literally rocked up in New York on Mother’s Day.

His mum, Rocio, had absolutely no idea, and was dumbstruck when there was a knock on the door and she turned around to see Alex … absolutely and most definitely gob-smacked!

Smiles all ’round

Alex spent the next two and a half weeks hanging out with his mum and doing a bit of shopping.  Whilst Alex hates shopping as much as I do, New York isn’t a bad place to be when you need some new clothes for a new job!  I am glad that it was his mum and not me helping him out. Two people who hate shopping, shopping together…uuuuuugggggggh!

Relatives of his, Connye and la Negra were also visiting from Ecuador and staying with Rocio. Tag team … they left and then Alex organised for his Aunt Mariana and cousin Michelle to come visit from Chicago. Another surprise, which I was privy too via skype. There was a knock at the door and when Rocio opened the door, she almost had her second heart attack in only a few days! Rocio had not seen Mariana in some twenty years!

Lots of love, laughter and tears would fill Alex’s almost three week stay in New York.

Enjoy the story that Alex has ‘written’ with his pictures!


Ear to ear smile

Dedicatoria: A mi madre … tu que eres una amiga sin igual, tu que siempre brindas una sonrisa a quien sea sin importar su status, color de piel o actitud. Tu madre que no decaes y luchas por tu vida cada dia, tu madre que vives para tus hijos y familia y los cobijas con tu amor y carino pese que no estan a tu lado. Tu madre eres un ser humano sin igual… gracias por ser parte de mi vida y de mis dias, gracias por tu amor, buena energia, y excelente sentido del humor. Te amo;la pasamos genial.

Dedication: To my mother … you are an incomparable friend, you always offer a smile to everyone regardless of their status, colour of their skin or attitude. You always stand with your head up high and strive to get through each day; you live for your children and family and provide them with love and warmth even though they are not by your side. You, mum, are an incomparable human being … thanks for being part  of my life and my days, thanks for your love, good energy, and amazing sense of humour. I love you; we had such a good time together.

Times Square panorama

Tia Mariana and Rocio … grabbing the bull by the …

Home made ‘patacones’ (fried plantains)

Brotherly/ sisterly love

Angie showing her brother a good time in downtown NY

Tia Mariana and cousin Julian

Chelsea graffiti, oops ‘street art’

With Tia Mariana, Michelle and Julian (‘el huambrito’)

Manhattan Civic Centre

L to R: Cruz Elena, Connye, la Negra and Alex

Breathing fire … old Nabisco factory at the Chelsea Market

Chelsea Market

In a New York state of mind …

The NY High Line … ex train track now park

The High Line chicks, Rocio and Angie

Rocio and ‘la socia’ (Mariana), Staten Island

It had to be a done … google this!

Enjoying a Peruvian dinner

Say hi to the man … well, the sticker of the man anyway

Outside Freedom Tower (site of the Twin Towers)

God sure is too busy to help out in frenetic New York

Times Square panorama

Mother and daughter, Mariana and Michelle

Angie and prized family member Juicy


‘Las socias’ 
Bueno verte sonreir Rocio

Daily commute with a bit of song and dance:

“I do” she said, with the breeze billowing through her hair …

View from Tamanu on the Beach

We spent Easter Sunday mostly hanging out at A Room With a View, but also went for a walk around town. The next day we would make our way to White Sands Beach where Chloe and Trevor would be getting married on the Tuesday. On Monday we called Cheryl (the bride’s mum) who organised someone from the resort to pick us up. In no time at all, much less than we thought actually, we were at Tamanu on the Beach chatting to Chloe, Cheryl and Paige, Chloe’s sister. If I may say so myself, it was a pretty spectacular resort, and the outdoor dining area and accommodation were all right on the sea.  Needless to say, the views was spectacular, and the view like something directly out of a movie; iridescent white sand, waving palm trees and turquoise water. Tomorrow, the wedding would be held on the beach. Hugs all around and then we hung around and chatted for a while before Cheryl took Alex and I to our accommodation.

With Shelley, another guest

The guests were staying in a range of places from Tamanu on the Beach itself, to various places in town as well as close by.  Alex and I were staying in some beautiful apartments very close to in Tamanu with Cheryl and other friends and family.  What a gorgeous place; very open, yet very serene and tranquil. It was lovely to spend a day just relaxing and hanging out, as usually when Alex and I travel, it’s fifth gear all the way! I take responsibility for that too! In the afternoon, I went into town with Cheryl and her gorgeous friend Alicia, and bought some groceries as well as some fresh fruit by the roadside.  As we had a car, and we saw places that perhaps public transport would not normally take you, it was interesting to observe how the people really live here in Vanuatu.  They are not ‘poor’ as such, and are subsistence farmers as they live off the land. They are most certainly not rich by our standards, but they mostly have clothes on their bodies, a roof over their heads and food in their mouths.  As we zipped around, I observed … as I love to do.

Chloe with Paige and cousins Jess and Kate, gettin’ ready …

The night before the wedding was spent just hanging around and chilling, and getting to know the people who were staying in the same apartments that we were; all really lovely people. Early Tuesday morning we were woken by lightning, thunder and an alluvial downpour! I know that Vanuatu is in the tropics and that it was the wet and humid season, but … OMG, I thought the wedding may just end up being a live rendition of Singin’ in the Rain! Having said all of this, apparently an alluvial downpour followed by rays of sunshine were not an uncommon occurrence. Fingers crossed!

Cheryl gives Chloe away

Alex had volunteered to take some casual photos of the wedding throughout the day, so he was up bright and early and snapping the bride and her bridesmaids before they’d even began to get ready. If I may so myself, he did manage some pretty spectacular shots. Most of us started to get ready after lunch as it was to be a late afternoon wedding.  Putting on makeup in the humidity was no easy feat.  Thank goodness for air-con! As I am not really a drinker, I offered to be the taxi-driver between our accommodation and the venue. By 3.00pm, everybody was down by the sea and ready. The rain had disappeared, the sky cleared up and the sun was bathing us in its (hot and humid!) rays. Yes!


Everybody mingled, chatted, introduced themselves to persons unknown, had a drink, snacked on delicious hors d’oeuvres …and waited for the bride. It was a nice little gathering of some 25 people or so, and Alex and I felt honoured to have been invited. The time had come … Trevor and his groomsmen had waited patiently on the beach (decked out in their snazzy suits), and we all turned around to see the stunning Chloe walking towards him, being given away by her equally gorgeous mother. I had a lump in my throat; it was a very special moment. Cheryl, I am sure that I was not the only one who was proud of you on this day, you made everyone proud, and least of all your Chloe! The ceremony was picture-perfect and idyllic … “I do” she said, with the breeze billowing through her hair.

Lambada time!

The official photographer took a few more pictures on the beach, and then we were all treated to a lovely sit down dinner, in the open restaurant overlooking the sea, of course. Then … it was party time! What a night! Some of us danced all night, including the lambada. Getting too old for that?  Hey, I kept up with the best of them! The next day I felt like I’d been hit by a bus, which was much more likely to have been the result of hours of non-stop dancing than lambada-ing. I’ve still got what it takes!  That’s what I keep telling myself anyway. It was a really fun night, but like all good things, they must come to an end. And so, the taxi-driver began her ferrying the revellers back to their accommodation. A few short trips and everyone was ‘at home’. With memories of a great day and night, it was time to go to bed!

Island views

The next day Alex and I took the opportunity to go around the island with Cheryl and Alicia in their hire car.  The idea was that we would then be dropped off in Port Vila at the end of the day. We all had a leisurely breakfast and then took off some time after lunch.  We spent a relaxing afternoon going around the island. It only takes two hours if you don’t stop, so with a few stops here and there, it took us around four hours. Speaking of stops, in Vanuatu, mostly everything is owned by the people and not the government which means even looking at a beach costs you money. We were still able to get some fantastic views of both Efate (the island we were on) and the several outlying islands. It was just after 6.00pm on the Wednesday night that we were dropped off at our ‘home’ in Port Vila, A Room With a View. Justine took us to ‘our’ room and offered us a cup of Tanna coffee.  How we were going to miss this place! As we sipped our coffee, we chatted about how we would spend our last three days.

Local lady

We were thinking of going to visit the island of Tanna, one of the more southern islands, which is famous for Mt Yasur, said to be the world’s most accessible active volcano. Our enquiries were delayed for a day due to a nasty migraine and when we did finally enquire at the local Air Vanuatu office … it put a whole new spin on island time! Astoundingly slow is an understatement! We did finally get some answers in the way of when flights would be available, but unfortunately the next available one would not see us get back to Port Vila on time to fly back home. Pass!

Mele Cascades

And so our last days were spent visiting the famous Mele Cascades and the Tanna Coffee Factory.
The cascades were only a short local bus trip away, and as we arrived it was pouring.  In fact, it was raining so hard that we had to wait for half an hour before entering. After baulking at the $25.00 entrance fee (there’s just something about paying for nature and loos that does the head in of the average Aussie!), we made our way to several pools of stunningly clear aquamarine water that have formed beneath a 35 metre waterfall.  The walk to get there was beautiful, as was the ‘final destination’.  Alex went for a swim, but I passed, and contently observed. It was raining on and off and just as we made it back down , the alluvial downpour began once again, so we had no option but to wait a couple of hours before moving on. So we sat, observed and chatted. Time to move on!

Hideaway Island, near Tanna Coffee Factory

Once the rain stopped we started to walk towards the Tanna Coffee Factory, which we were told was only ‘down the road’.  The freaks were back!  As is often the case we were the only non-locals walking.  A great people-watching exercise, we chatted to and observed the locals in their natural habitat, as opposed to how they ‘needed to act’ for tourists.  I love this stuff! I always jokingly say that I was a social anthropologist in  a past life … maybe I will study it yet in this one! It was probably about a half an hour walk and at some point we turned into the aptly named Devil’s Point Road, a somewhat lonely road that snaked along the coastline and awarded us with some spectacular views of the outlying islands.

Nuvi makes a nice, strong coffee, Tanna Coffee Factory

I was beginning to think we were not ever going to make it, when we suddenly stumbled upon the sign to the entrance.  It most definitely had a plantation feel about it and walking up to the main building felt a bit like I was walking along the yellow brick road. The small roastery and cafe operate out of a 1903 Catholic Church.  It had a very cosy feel about it and Leitau showed us around and explained how ‘it was all done’.  A small enterprise indeed, the Arabica coffee comes from the island of Tanna, which has perfect coffee growing conditions. Leitau’s lovely wife Nuvi, made us a couple of espressos, the first was a medium roast and the second dark. We were totally impressed! Italians move over! We bought a big bag of coffee beans (medium or dark? medium or dark? dark!) and started to walk home. Again, the walk made for some pleasant sightseeing and some great observations. We noticed people coming out and hanging up lamps outside their properties. We were later told that this is a sign to say that the nakmal, or traditional meeting place, is open for kava drinking. What is kava? Is it a drug? The roots of the plant are used to produce a drink with sedative and anaesthetic properties and is supposed to relax without disrupting mental clarity.  Perhaps … but that muddy taste and numbness of the mouth that I had experienced in just one sip at the Melanesian feast was enough for me.

Lit lamp outside a Nakmal

As it began to grow darker, Alex and I jumped on a local bus and made the short ride back to Port Vila. It had been a big day and we were exhausted. Second last night in Port Vila so we decided to go for a meal at Chantilly’s. The food really was exquisite and Alex went all out with a ceviche dish followed by a lobster pasta. Our last day was spent hanging around and going into town (yet again). We ‘popped into’ a downtown hotel to escape the humidity; you know, just strolled in like we were staying there, and made ourselves comfortable on the guest couches.  Yep, I know, more front that Myers! As it works out, Cheryl and Paige were staying there too! “What are you doing here?”, Cheryl exclaimed as she walked towards us.  What can I say … escaping the humidity … as you do!

Last brekkie at A Room with a View

And so, this trip was coming to a close. We had an early morning flight and the lovely Justine said that she would drive us to the airport. She had really spoiled us. Packing has become second nature to Alex and I (as has waking up to get to and from places at ridiculous hours!) but we got ourselves organised the night before. We thanked Justine as she dropped us off; it’s people like her that always make our trips that extra bit special. Cheryl and Paige were already at the airport when we arrived, as they were on the same flight as us. It was all rather relaxed; Port Vila airport is no LAX! It seemed that as suddenly as we had arrived, it was time to depart!

Goodbye Vanuatu!  Thanks for some great experiences and adventures. I would like to say “till we meet again” but there are still so many places that I want to visit!


“Love is union with somebody, or something, outside oneself, under the condition of retaining the separateness and integrity of one’s own self”. – Erich Fromm

Love this shot of Chloe and mum Cheryl!

Dedication: This one’s for two people, and in no specific order. Cheryl, you are a remarkable mother and friend! I was so touched to watch you walk your gorgeous daughter down the (sandy) aisle. It was the most befitting act and you did it with love and integrity. Chloe, you were the most gorgeous bride. When I met you as an absolutely beautiful six month-year-old baby, I never thought I would be attending your wedding in Vanuatu! You looked stunning and you surrounded yourself by those who really love you. Well done! We were honoured to be part of your special day! You know you can always count on Alex and I.

Special mention to both Paige (Chloe’s sister) and Trevor (her husband) – we love you too!

Local kids
Island cemetery
Perspective … bamboo, Mele Cascades

Alex, Mele Cascades
Tanna Coffee factory
Entering the Tanna Coffee Factory
Tanna Coffee 
Tanna Coffee Roastery … one machine affair!

Touring Efate
Slow Down Vanuatu style!
Mele Cascades
Mele Cascades

Vanuatu plant life
Library, Port Vila
That’s what I call an avo!
Mele Cascades
Cheryl and Alicia
A brilliant day comes to a close

Time to party, Peter and Alex

Janine and her girls
Done and dusted … married!

With Paige

Some of the guests
L to R: Taryn, Kayne and Shanel
With the bride and groom

Chloe ready to go …
Almost there
Chloe … getting ready
Getting ready to say “I do”

About to say “I do” …
Wedding on Tamanu on the Beach

The spot where they would say “I do”
Ready to go … Trevor and the boys
Alex and Trev, day before the big day!
Just outside our accommodation near Tamanu

View from our accom. near Tamanu
Chloe and the girls about to get ready for the big day!
L to R: Groomsmen Peter and Aaron with Trevor, the groom

Island Livin’

Vanuatu, here we come

Last year, in October to be exact, we had been asked to ‘save the date’ for a wedding in Easter in April 2013 … in Vanuatu! Vanuatu was voted ‘happiest country in the world’ in 2006, by the way. A very special friend and a young lady I had known since she was only six months old (yep, that makes me feel old!) asked Alex and I to attend her wedding.  Usually quick to say yes, we had already booked over five weeks to the States and Ecuador (you may recall that we would take my Dad to meet Alex’s family), so I wasn’t sure how feasible or possible that was going to be. There were ‘things’ happening with my work (nothing bad), and as it worked out, we were going to be able to go.

Port Vila fruit and veggie market

In true Ombi and Alex style, the instant we realised that it was going to be possible (only days before the RSVP date of course) to attend, we were on the computer trying to book a ticket.  Thanks to Alex’s good nous we were able to pick up two tickets using our frequent flyer points.  Bonus! A phone call to Chloe, the bride-to-be … “Guess who’s coming to your wedding!” She was stoked, needless, to say.  And so the next journey was about to begin!

Cruisin’ the streets of Port Vila

We had booked the flight, so all we really needed to do was book the first couple of nights in Port Vila, the capital, where we would be arriving. No need to look beyond more than a couple of days, it would all pan out … as it usually did. We ended up booking a place called A Room With a View for our first few nights in Port Vila, and we figured that we would take it from there. There’s nothing that we like more than an adventure or wingin’ it! As we did our homework, we realised that Vanuatu was not going to be as cheap as we thought it would be.  Although still classed as third world country, it is an isolated group of 83 Pacific islands, and thus many things are neither cheap nor plentiful.

Vanuatu flag

The flight over was approximately four hours; short and comfortable, as opposed to our usually much longer flights to South America, which are long and sometimes arduous. We got off the plane in Port Vila, and we had to walk across the tarmac to the airport and customs.  What a tiny airport compared to Melbourne and a microbe compared to the likes of LA and Miami. As we descended the steps onto the tarmac, we were greeted by a wave of tropical heat! Ahhhhhh, how I love this! I looked around and half expected to seeTattoo calling out “Da plane, da plane” as he did on Fantasy Island.  I was certainly looking forward to my next adventure!

Brekkie at A Room with a View

We made our way to our hotel, which was actually very close by.  The taxis were charging their usual overpriced ‘airport to centre’ rates, but we caught a local bus.  Just need to ask the right people the right questions. In no time at all, we were sitting on the gorgeous balcony of A Room With a View, overlooking the Port Vila Bay. Our host was the most gorgeous Justine, originally from Korea. As we sat, relaxed and took in the breathtaking harbour, Justine offered us a cup of Tanna coffee. The coffee is grown on the volcanic island of Tanna, and is a really good drop. With Justine offering us this coffee on a regular basis, how could we not like where we staying?  Great weather, great views, great coffee and a great host.  We would come back to this place several times in our two week stay, and Justine would end up holding a special place in our hearts.

Cruise ship central, Port Vila

As the wedding was in the second half of our two week stay, we had a bit of time beforehand to explore.  Our first couple of days were spent walking around Port Vila and taking in the local sights.  One of our first stops was the local outdoor fruit and veggie market, a ten minute walk from the hotel. It was all hustle and bustle, with the locals selling everything from fried taro chips to avocados to laplap (their national dish, made from grated cassava). I have often said that the marketplace is the heart of a nation, a great place to people watch and an excellent place to get an idea of how people live.  Port Vila is not that big and is right on the bay, where some 200 cruise ships enter yearly.  Now, I am not a maths super-whiz, but that works out to a cruise ship at least every other day, and sometimes two days in a row. It’s amazing to watch the little town of Port Vila morph on ship days … prices go up and yes, the ni-Vans or ni-Vanuatu (this is what the people of Vanuatu are called) go for broke, attempting to extract the maximum from its visitors. It’s not the fault of the locals that their one-day-stop-at-a-port-visitors have not done their homework!  For the rest of us that have, these are not the days to shop!  Oh, and we saw some seriously and inappropriately dressed people.  Do your homework kids!  If the locals aren’t traipsing the streets in bikini tops and micro minis, then neither should you!

Port Vila fruit and veggie market

Efate is the island of which Port Vila is the capital. We spent our first few days just chilling out and taking it all in. Mornings were laid back and lazy.  Every morning we would wake up to the most amazing breakfast … bread, croissants, fresh tropical fruit, eggs, avocados, an array of jams and spreads (including vegemite!) and coffee, of course.  We would kick back and eat as we overlooked the bay.  By mid-morning we were usually ready for a stroll. As Port Vila is on the waterfront, most of the action is in a pretty small space; garden markets, souvenir stands selling bright and busy clothing, waterfront cafes and restaurants and supermarkets.  The supermarkets were interesting, to say the least. A mish-mash of products, many things were expensive because they were imported, and other things were just of very average quality. Certainly no comparison to the over-stocked, over-the-top number of product lines we have in the western world. Stores are scarce outside of Port Vila, as most people live off their own garden produce. Food for thought most certainly.

Hangin’ out with the locals, Port Vila

We also enjoyed a yummy meal whilst watching a movie on an open outdoor screen at Nambawan Cafe on a couple of occasions … overlooking the bay, of course. On another occasion we went for a walk, and ended up on some beach chatting to a couple of ‘locals’ (originally from the volcanic island of Tanna, but in Port Vila for work). We also attended a ‘traditional’ Melanesian Feast at Coconut Palms Resort. It was a fun night where we got to try the local food, drink kava, listen to custom stories, watch some locals dancing, see a live cooking display and listen to a local string band. Kava is called the peace drug. Its hallucinogenic properties are supposed to make
your mind happy and you are supposed to feel clever?! Many ni-Vans wouldn’t consider a day complete without a couple of ‘shells’ of the stuff.  I must say, one sip of the muddy tasting concoction (made from the roots of a plant) was all I needed. Yuk!

On Pele Island

Vanuatu has three official languages; English, French and Bislama, which is a creole language derived from English. In addition, however, there are over one hundred local languages spread out over the archipelago. This makes for some colourful listening. The ni-Vans are also generally a very happy people, and if not greeted with a hello, you will most certainly get at the least a (very!) white-toothed smile. It made for good times and generally feeling happy.

Just outside our bungalow, Pele Island

Chloe and Trevor’s wedding was on Easter Tuesday, so we still had a week or so to fill in.  What to do?  We decided that we would visit a couple of islands around Efate.  We decided that our first stop would be Pele. Pele is only seven kilometres off the northern coast of Efate.  Consider that it only take a couple of hours to drive around the island of Efate and it really isn’t that far. A small island fringed by reefs sounded very exciting. We liked the idea of going somewhere where most people didn’t!  We knew it was going to be an adventure as soon as we jumped into the small speedboat.  Breeze ripping through our hair, mainland getting smaller, island getting bigger, we were there in no time at all.  I felt like I was in a James Bond movie; out we stepped onto a palm-fringed beach with sparkling white sand and turquoise water. The hotels? The shops? The restaurants?  None of the above existed. There were a couple of huts owned by the locals, so we walked around until we found one that we liked.  We were helped by a lovely guy called Alex who had been on the speedboat across with us.  What was in it for him?  Nothing.  He just wanted to help. We ended up on the other side of the island, which had less reefs, more wind, and a bit more character as it was more isolated (if that’s possible on an already small and isolated island).  Having said that, it was a great place to chill out and observe how the locals live.

Our bungalow, Pele Island

Upon finally choosing our ‘hut of choice’ we were greeted by the owner and his wife. They explained that they would bring us our meals three times a day.  I explained that I was vegetarian and they seemed fine with that.  We were also told that there was no electricity and so were given lamps. No fridges, no freezers, no TVs, but yes the odd mobile phone, this is how these people live. Oh, and we had a somewhat modern western toilet, which had been built outside for guests.  Their toilets aren’t so modern! If you can’t live without your mod-cons, this is not the place for you. In fact if you can’t live without your mod-cons, the resorts of Port Vila and Espiritu Santu (another island, which we did not visit) are probably the only places in Vanuatu that you could cope with. Having said that, I cannot express the feeling of being in a place that you feel that you have totally to yourself! I watched the world and the people go by and I loved it! Cooking, washing, surfing, ploughing the land, children playing on the beach … they seemed to have so little by our standards, yet they exuded a happiness which was extraordinary. I had a chat to some kids about what food they liked … Do you like chicken? Yes!  Do you like fruit? Yes! Do you like cassava? Yes! Do you like vegetables? Yes!  What a far cry from our kids who won’t eat this, that or the other and are given special and separate meals by their parents! By who’s standards do we judge quality of life?

Our Pele Island family

We spent three nights and four days in Pele, and the only other foreigners we saw were Peter and Gabriela, who were staying in the hut next to us. A lovely Dutch/Costa Rican couple living and working in Australia, they too were here on holiday. We would often chat about the meaning of life over our meals together. Our days were spent swimming, snorkelling, walking around the island and playing with the kids on the beach. We also happened to be on the island for Easter. The ni-Vans are generally quite religious; they follow a number of Christian religions.  No Easter bunnies and chocolate eggs here; on the island it was all about the ministry and preaching the word of God. Two different churches close to where we were staying set up tents and children from ‘the mainland’ (aka Port Vila) came across for a few days. They were given prayers and sermons, but there were also games, plays and dancing. We attended some of the activities; I am the ultimate people-watcher!

Time to leave Pele Island

Time to move on.  Where to next?  We wanted to fit in another island before the wedding, but somewhere that would not be too far … just in case. It’s all a bit ad-hoc here, so a missed ferry could easily equate to a missed wedding! We decided on Moso …as you do! How to get there?  Well, Gabriela and Peter were making their way back to the mainland, so we decided to go part of the way back with them and then wing it … hmm, as ‘we’ do! We said goodbye to our hosts on Pele Island and then made our way to where we would have to catch a small speedboat to the other side; this included a several hundred metre walk in ankle-high water as it was super-low tide.  With backpacks on our backs, we must have looked rather odd, or at the very least, out of place. We were on the other side in no time at all, and I must say that trying to get information on ‘how to get to Moso’ really was not as easy as  I thought. Geez, we could see the small island from the mainland.

Leaving Pele Island

Gabriela and Peter had been picked up by a mini-bus on the other side and we went the short distance with them to Havannah Harbour, ‘assuming’ that from here we would most surely be able to get across to Moso! Well, you know what they say about assuming! The only real information we seemed to be able to get about Moso was that it was home to the more costly Tranquility Island Eco Lodge and whilst it looked great, it was a bit out of the price range we were looking at for for a couple of nights. Anyway the guy who had picked up our friends in the mini van then told us he could drop us off at a ‘jetty’ up the road, and from there we could catch a ferry across.  OK, so our accommodation wasn’t organised, but really … how hard could it be!? As he dropped us off, he pointed down a road through what appeared to be a jungle and said … the wharf is about 200 metres down there!  Alex and I, none the wiser, looked at each other and started to walk down.  Hmm, 200 metres?  Distance and time, we had found, don’t seem to be measured in the same way here in Vanuatu. Island distance and time eat your heart out!

Fishing on Moso Island

Walking, walking, walking … 200 metres … I do not think so!  It was drizzling and we were hot and sweaty … a young boy walked alongside us who kept telling us that it was ‘not long to go’.  We did finally make it to the ‘wharf’ but I can assure you that it was much farther away than the 200 metres we were told it would be.  A small group of people were waiting to go across … we were in a landing in the middle of nowhere, not a nice clean ‘pick me up for Tranquility Resort’ kind of place at all.  We negotiated a price and we were soon on the little boat going across.  Of course we still had no idea what we would be doing and where we would be staying.

Plain boiled sweet potato … yum!?

We did indeed arrive safely at Taseriki Village on Moso Island. Someone spoke to someone who spoke to someone and we were soon greeted by a gentleman who guided us the short distance to some village owned bungalows that we would be able to spend the night in. When the lady who looked after them came back from ‘town’ (aka Port Vila) we would be shown inside. No problem, we could wait.  We thanked him and waited outside, which I must say was lovely and right on the waterfront. Or so, we thought! It was the day before Easter and the village was abuzz with activity and ‘ministry’, and we … thought we could just rock up and find a place to stay. Breathe in, breathe out! The ‘lady’ didn’t seem to be coming back … surprise , surprise, visitors who hadn’t made a booking just weren’t her priority the day before Easter! What can I say, we mostly get it right, but on this occasion we got it very wrong! Waiting, waiting , waiting … the mozzies were swarming around with a vengeance and I was becoming increasingly more uneasy, as I had visions of nowhere to sleep and a million mozzie bites.

Our bed for the night, Philip’s house, Moso

What to do?  Alex went out and tried to get some information on ‘where to from here’? He came back with a lovely man called Philip, who just happened to be the village chief’s brother (every village in Vanuatu has a chief). Philip offered to let us stay in his place. By this stage I was so worried that I splurted out yes please before I could say my surname! What then followed was the antithesis of what you’d read in a text book. His house was not too far away and we offered to give him some money for the night. When we asked him how much, he didn’t appear too comfortable with giving us a price, but we told him that we felt that we should give him at least what we would normally spend in a bungalow. Philip lived with his wife and daughter; his wife worked in Port Vila during the week (coincidentally across the road from where we had been staying) and so was not around and his daughter would stay with an uncle (the Chief) for the night. We felt honoured as Philip and his daughter cleaned their humble little place for us to stay in; a very simple place with very few belongings. How many people in the west would do this?

With Philip, Moso Island

OK bedding organised, we were shown the outdoor ‘shower’ (water was fetched and we would have to pour it over ourselves in scoopfulls) and given two chairs to ‘relax in’ outside in the dark.  Electricity?  No, lamp! OK, most things organised, the last bastion was food!  No take away food shops on this small island! So, I asked if it was possible to have some food prepared for us, as had been done on Pele.  I explained that I was vegetarian. John didn’t seem to have a problem with that, and told us that he would bring us over something soon.  By this stage it was dark, and Alex and I were sitting outside on the chairs, observing the spectacular sky and its constellations. Despite all, these are the events that make up the ‘minties moments’ of our travels. We laughed about our situation, and remarked on how it could only happen to us.  Seriously, this is what sometimes happens when you let life lead you and not the other way around.

Alex and Philip

Our food soon arrived. Philip placed it on the tiny table in his house and told us to enjoy it. He would be back the next morning with breakfast. We thanked him profusely. Alex had fried fish on a bed of rice and I had four big pieces of boiled sweet potato.  Yes, four pieces of boiled sweet potato … no salt, no seasoning, and well … no flavour!  But hey, beggars can’t be choosers.  Thankfully, I had some water, because after about piece one and a half, it was having trouble sliding down the gullet. Alex kept asking me if I was OK … all good, it could have been worse! Well, at least I was no longer hungry! Not much else to do, we went to bed soon after.  There would be no extra night on this island; we figured that we’d had about as much adventure on it as we needed.

Breakfast on Moso; Scotch Finger biscuits

After a fairly good night’s sleep we got up and got ourselves organised.  Philip came over with our breakfast; a plate of Scotch Finger biscuits!  Time to hit the mainland. We met his brother, the Chief, who would be the one to take us back.  By late morning we were on a small boat going back. It was Easter Sunday and everything seemed unusually still and serene. Once across, the Chief and another couple of men who had come across on the boat, waited with us by the roadside until we found someone who could take us back to Port Vila. It was lovely of them to wait with us. We would most certainly be leaving Moso with a multitude of memories.

With Philip, waiting to go back to Port Vila

We went straight back to our home in Port Vila , A Room With a View. We were once again greeted by Justine, who made us feel welcome immediately. It ended up being a very lazy Easter Sunday, with lots of Tanna coffee and relaxing on the balcony. We would stay here one night and then make our way to White Sands Beach the next day, arriving  a day before Chloe and Trevor’s wedding, which ended up being a blast!


Next: Chloe and Trevor get married at Tamanu on the Beach.

“You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough”. – Mae West

Dedication: To my husband Alex, who is my eternal source of passion, compassion, friendship, humility and joy! You make my heart sing and you make me laugh! My world is a much better place for having you in it!

Kids playing in Port Vila Bay

With Justine at Room with a View
Saying hi to Philip’s wife in Port Vila
Alex enjoying a beer in Port Vila

Leaving Pele Island
Tusker, the beer of Vanuatu
Kids on Pele Island

Pele; stumbled across this fella on a walk
Local kids on Pele Island
Local children, Pele Island
Pele Island oven

Church on Pele Island

Pele Island
Brekkie at Room with a View

Alex, Port Vila Bay
Bananas in coconut milk

Street soccer, Port Vila

Island life … Port Vila
Port Vila Bay

Lady at Port Vila market
Iririki Island, off the coast of Port Vila

The final countdown …

With Papa Jacinto, Alex’s Grandpa.

In the first week of January we spent a bit of time catching up with various members of the family. Time was flying by and some we had not yet seen. We caught up with Alex’s Auntie Bebita, who played an instrumental part in Alex’s life when he was growing up. She obviously holds a very special place in his heart. And of course we saw Papa Jacinto, Alex’s Grandpa. Every time he sees me his eyes light up as he hugs me tightly and says, “Hola mi gringuita” (hello my little foreigner), which is a term of endearment. I grew very fond of Papa Jacinto when I lived in Ecuador in 1999/2000 and he too holds a very special place in my heart.

With Dad and Alex, Cafe Mosaico, Itchimbiya

One night we took Alex’s sister Karen and family to Café Mosaico in Itchimbiya, very close to the historical centre. The café really does have spectacular views over both the city and surrounding mountains. We had been there a little over a year prior with our friends Mel and Dan. The Greek food is reasonable, but then it’s not for the food that one goes. Dad was gob smacked. How many amazing views from one city can one have? When the city is in a valley cradled by the Andes mountains and volcanoes, an amazingly high number!

Jean Pierre, Axel and Johnny, El Panecillo

After a lovely meal, and lots of laughs, we went to El Panecillo, which literally means small loaf of bread.  Not far from the historical centre, and not unlike Itchimbiya, at 3016 metres above sea level, it offers another spectacular vantage point for viewing Quito. Atop sits the famous Virgen de Quito (Virgin of Quito); it’s possible to climb up and through her and get even more amazing views.  I must say, as far as spectacular views go, Quito would have to be up there in my top five.  It’s like constantly being at the top of the Eureka Tower on a good day!

Ready for the train ride to El Boliche

We also took a one day train ride to El Boliche Reserve, which sits at the base of the towering and Cotopaxi volcano. By some accounts the 5897 metre volcano is the highest active volcano in the world. The Ferrocarriles Del Ecuador or Federal Railway of Ecuador fell into disrepair in the last half of the 20th century and has recently been renovated. There are a number of different trips that one can take, several from Quito, and the line cuts across some of South America’s most scenic landscapes. For engineers, it is a marvel of innovation that starts at sea level in Guayaquil and rises to more than 9000 feet as it nears the Andean plateau. Thankfully, in the past few years, the government has invested time and money in refurbishing the railway, making for a relaxing journey with (yet more!) spectacular views.
perfectly symmetrical

A train with a view!

The Quito-El Boliche run covers about 110 miles there and back. On a clear day you can see Cotopaxi looming in the distance from the moment you leave Quito. Unfortunately, it was not our lucky day! The ride does, however, cover 33 000 hectares of craggy green countryside showcasing the spectacular Ecuadorian Andes. So, we sat back and enjoyed! We got off at El Boliche where the train stops for a couple of hours before turning around and going back to Quito. It was lovely to go for a short exploratory walk and breathe in the fresh air!

Jungle living

There was still one more thing that we needed to do but hadn’t gotten around to it yet due to one thing or another … a trip to El Oriente, which is the rainforest area that occupies the lowlands of the Ecuadorian Amazon basin. It is a land of many different indigenous tribes and where nature and wildlife abounds. We would do a three night/ four day trip with Alex’s Uncle Gustavo, his Auntie Marcia and cousin Valeria. Along with Dad, Alex, Jean Pierre and myself it would be a nice little group. We were all looking forward to it, and I think Dad was secretly excited, especially as it would be at a much lower altitude than Quito.

Indigenous lady from Misahualli

We set off early one morning and made our way to Tena, which is is the quintessential South American jungle town and is renowned as a jungle transport hub. Whilst it’s only 115 kilometres from Quito, the winding roads make it a five or six hour ride, descending from the Andes into jungle lowlands. Not only is it easier to breathe due to the lower altitude, but it’s also much warmer (bring it on!). It’s also very laid back compared to Quito and feels like the kind of place you would expect to run in to Indiana Jones stocking up on supplies before setting out in search of a lost city! Let the adventure begin! We stopped for a bite to eat and then made our way to Misahualli, which sits at the confluence of the Misahualli and Coca Rivers.

A tribe on the River Coco in Misahualli dance for us

No sooner had we dumped our bags in our quaint little hostel, than we were at the sandy riverbank, within walking distance, organising a boat ride along the river. It truly was an excellent ‘expedition’ and I must admit to feeling a little like I actually was in an Indiana Jones movie! We all threw on some life jackets and in no time we were zooming up the river with the wind blowing through our hair. The highlight was a stop at an indigenous community. We pulled up at the bank and walked up a muddy slope to firstly be taken through a museum of their ways and customs, and then we watched a traditional dance. We were even shown an area where herbal remedies were prepared.  It is here that we bought some sangre de drago, or dragon’s blood,  a medicinal blood-like latex/ sap, which comes from the rainforests of the Upper Amazon.  It has an amazing array of medicinal properties, including helping heal cuts and stings. Don’t let the secret out though, the pharmaceuticals will go broke!

Treehouse near Shell

Over the next couple of days we would eat well, sleep well (to the sounds of chirping birds and whispering trees) and see lots and lots of things. So many, in fact, that I struggle to recount them all We passed through Puyo, but our second night was spent in Shell, in a lovely hostel that had a lovely warm spa … and a cold pool!  Alex also spent a lot of his childhood here as his Auntie Paty spent many years here as a teacher. We visited a very artistic and funky place set in the jungle near Shell that was all done up in mosaics; caves, pools and murals. It had a very mystical feel and the property included some amazing tree houses, where upon climbing to the top, you could literally see over the top of the rainforest canopy. Some more wow moments!  And Ecuador certainly has many! Word of mouth also took us to a site where indigenous soldiers train (the turf out here is quite different to the highland Andes). On that site is an amazing outdoor museum which takes you on a walking tour of the jungle, which has intermittent descriptions of and examples of huts from the different Amazonian jungle tribes. At the end there is a large open space where you can see a range of animals, including monkeys, jaguars and a variety of tropical birds … all set amongst lush rainforest.

Cable car Ecuadorian style!

Our last night was spent in Banos, back in the Andean Highlands, which sits just under the Tunguraghua volcano  (which I’d seen spit out ash in 1999), between lush mountains and cascading waterfalls. Its name is derived from Quichua (Kichwa), the native language of Andean indigenous Ecuadorians, and means throat of fire. A pretty apt name considering that volcanic activity started again in 1999 after a very long lull.  Banos means baths and its name is derived from the famous hydrothermal springs in the area.  It is known as the adventure capital of Ecuador and as we entered the small town, I could see why. Its wide and steep gorges with raging waterfalls and running rivers (the Pastaza River cuts right through the town) below are spectacular, and cable cars run across from many points. It’s also the place to mountain-bike, hike, raft and party … not on this trip! We did have a couple of goes on the open-air cable cars (tarabitas) though.  Exhilarating as it was, it would NEVER have passed an OH&S check in Australia; the open cage barely came up to our waists! We also managed to visit the local fresh produce market as well as walk around the main square at night; two prime people-watching places.

The Devil’s Cauldron, Banos

On our last day we did a double-decker bus tour around Banos, which mainly took us to a number of exceptional waterfalls. The two most impressive ones were the Manto de la novia (the Bride’s veil) and the Pailon del Diablo (the Devil’s cauldron). Unlike the Bride’s veil, where you can simply stare in awe, or get a little closer on a cable car, in order to get up close and personal with the Cauldron, you have to go on a bit of a hike, including bobbing down and walking hunched over through low and cramped spaces … but the view from virtually inside the Cauldron is … impresionante! We also got to see some ‘puenting’ or bridging, a type of low-cost, low safety bridge jumping. I shook my head in horror!  I tried to convince myself that I’d bungee jumped over the Victoria Falls on the Zambia/ Zimbabwe border in 1995, so I didn’t need to ‘go there’ anymore. I have done some crazy things in my life.  Am I  getting too old for this stuff or has age has taught me something about the value of my life?!

Tunguraghua Volcano

We made our way back to Quito amidst continuous beautiful landscapes. We were all tired but it had been so worth it. We knew we were approaching Quito when the traffic started to get heavy and at points grinded to a halt. All we wanted was a bed and some sleep. By the time we got dropped off, we were exhausted.  It had certainly been a fun-filled and adventure-packed four days.

Desert … the final touch to Dad’s favourite meal

There were only days to go and we would be flying back to Melbourne. On reflection, we had done so much, and I think Dad had been able to see and experience enough of the culture and people to gain a decent understanding of the country that I call my second home. In the days prior to leaving we caught up with various members of the extended family. We also went to dinner at Alex’s Dad and step mother Nancy’s house.  Nancy, my dad thought your food was the best he’d had in his entire stay in Ecuador! (Nancy, mi papi dijo que tu comida era la mejor que habia provado entre todo el tiempo que paso en Ecuador).

Last night in Ecuador

It’s always sad when we leave Ecuador, because we are leaving behind the family and friends that we love and will miss so much. The night before we left many people came around to say goodbye; it’s bitter-sweet to have them all around, especially when you know your time’s up! Dad had seen and experienced so much, and we were so glad that he had been able to share this, our life, with us. I looked at little Thomas and Isabella and wondered how much of their lives and growing up I would miss because we lived so far. It transported me back to 1999 when Denisse  was only six years old (now 19 years old) and she bawled her eyes out when she found out that Alex got his visa to go to Australia. Her uncle was leaving her and going to live far away!

Sons ‘n’ daughters

What followed next was business as usual. We got up and ready, nice and early, and Karen and Boli (Christian’s father) took us to the airport, where we were also met by Alex’s Dad, brother and step-mum Nancy. It was time to say goodbye … hugs and tears all around.  I knew we would be back again!  It’s just the way my life ius now! Although Dad may not ever come back, this trip had been a real eye-opener for him. He would come home a changed person and we will be forever grateful that he had been able to have this experience.  It had also meant the world to Alex!

Tunguraghua volcano, near Banos

With no stop-overs (as we did on the way over), it was a looooooooong flight home.  Our first flight changeover was in Miami. OMG!!! What a nightmare! One hour and forty minutes JUST to get through passport control … eye scan, finger scan, thumb scan.  Just when we thought we were over the line, so to speak, and picking up our baggage, we saw the line to go through to customs … OMGGGGGG!  I looked at Alex and told him in Spanish that we were going to lose our flight to LA, as I did not want to stress Dad out. Problem was that if we lost that flight, we would also miss the connecting flight to Melbourne.  Had it been just Alex and I …whatever … but with Dad there, it just was not going to happen! Big breath … I hadn’t done drama at university for nothing!  I used my gift of the gab and spoke to someone about ‘our situation’. He helped us to skip the line very discreetly. But … yes … there’s more … we finally had to go through the scanners, but it was take off your shoes, socks, jocks etc etc etc and we just happened to get a person with some serious attitude!  I was tired, headachy and stressed. She had picked the wrong person on the wrong day!  So, I proceeded to tell her, quite frankly, that she had an attitude problem, and then I told her supervisor too. Dad came up and gently tried to pull me away as I was rather irate, to say the least.  I think he thought that they were going to lock me up!

Goodbye Ecuador, until next time …

The flight to LA was fine but I had, by this stage unfortunately, developed a migraine. I did sleep for most of the flight and by the time we reached LA I felt shocking.  I slept on the floor, on my sarong, as we waited for our next flight. We finally boarded for Melbourne and  I slept most of the way, albeit with a migraine.  Although it dissipated, somewhat, I felt totally washed out and drained upon our Sunday morning arrival in Melbourne.  We collected our bags and came home.  All I wanted to do was sleep! We had taken a taxi home as my brother was camping and not around to do the ‘usual pick up’, so Alex and I got dropped off first and then Dad. We dumped our bags on the floor and went straight to sleep. I set the alarm to wake up a few hours later at 3.00pm, but actually slept until 3.00am the next morning! Of course I couldn’t get back to sleep!

Another trip bites the dust … but there will be many, many more!


“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened” – Dr Seuss

Next: Our two weeks in Vanuatu over Easter.

Egg seller, Banos

Alex with some friends
Restaurant with a jungle view, near Shell
Faces … Banos market

Downtown Banos
The many faces of the marketplace, Banos
Alex with his two Dads, Dino (L) and Hugo
Eatint ar a restaurant near Shell

The kitchen at the restaurant near Shell
Crossing the gorge, Banos

Alex and his Dad, Hugo
With Uncle Paparazzi (Gustavo)
Vegetable market, Banos

Alex with his friends
Dad with Carola
Bride’s Veil waterfall, Banos

Breathtakingly beautiful Banos
Devil’s Cauldron, Banos
 Devil’s Cauldron, Banos

Fresh sugar cane juice, Banos

Ecuadorian bird life


With my family in the jungle near Shell

A (tree) house with a view, Ecuadorian jungle
Valeria and Jean Pierre inside the mosaic cave near Shell
Indiana Jones country
Coca River, Misahualli

Nature, Misahualli

Guinea pigs (‘cuy’) … pets here, but often dinner in Ecuador! 

Birds of the jungle
Alex with Uncle Paparazzi in the jungle
Flowers of the Ecuadorian jungle
Ecuador … loves life!

The train master
View from the train
Pit stop on the train to El Boliche
Train to El Boliche

Thomas, our nephew, El Panecillo
View of Quito from El Panecillo
Good times … Dad and I in Ecuador
The south part of Quito, just as we leave from railway station

Princess Isabella
Alex with Jean Pierre and Dad at the railway station, Quito.

Johnny, Jean Pierre and Axel, atop La Virgen
Cafe Mosaico, Itchimbiya, Quito

Fun times at Cafe Mosaico
The Virgin of Quito

L to R: Cousins Salome and Andrea, Ombi, Papa Jacinto

La Virgen de Quito, El Panecillo
Alex with his siblings and some of the Benavides cousins

Magical Quito by night, Cafe Mosaico, Itchimbiya, Quito
Dad with Papa Jacinto

Alex with Papa Jacinto

With father-in-law Hugo and Denisse in Quito

With Hugo

End of year festivities … Ecuadorian style

The children await the activities!

This year Alex and I decided that we would not give any Christmas presents, as apart from the fact that neither of us are believers, we find the commercialism and money spent around the event rather offensive. We have slowly been cutting back over the years, and this year we decided … no more!  We did decide to ‘give’, however, in another way. Our brother-in-law Christian’s auntie is involved with a poor community on the outskirts of Quito. For the last five or so years, she and her extended family (on Christian’s mother’s side), go out to the community close to Christmas and spend a day there. Each family donates food and goods (such as clothes and shoes) as well as organise a pantomime and activities for the children. Everybody gets involved, adults and children alike, and in the true spirit of Christmas it’s all about giving! This year, we got involved too.

Dad helping with the hampers.

In the weeks before the visit, each family donates something like tuna, corn flower or margarine (staples) and approximately 100 bags are made up. The families also collate clothes and shoes that they may have, that can also be passed on. These are also divided up into bags. The reality in Ecuador is that there is still a massive divide between the rich and the poor. Sad but true! The day started with the people from the community lining up to receive a bag of food and a bag of clothes/ shoes each. We all helped hand them out, from our youngest niece Isabella, to my Dad. The look of gratitude in the eyes of the people receiving the goods is beyond description. I can still see and feel those eyes boring into mine as I retell the story. It breaks my heart! I will never understand how, on a planet where there is enough for all, some still have so incredibly little and some have so much! I found it beyond difficult to compose myself at times and my eyes were constantly welling up with tears!

The actors.

After all the goods were distributed, we went into a hall and put on a pantomime for the children, where they were also handed out drinks and sandwiches. Later we had various games and prizes for them all, as well as dancing and games.  Again, we all got involved. The sparkle in their eyes impacted greatly on me. How often did they get ‘this much’? One little girl lost a game and bawled inconsolably, tears streaming down her face, for not having won the prize. She was not being a spoilt brat, she was simply devastated by her loss. When would she be able to ‘win’ something like this again? In a year? We gave her a prize! The injustice was doing my head in!

After the event, after all the children and adults had been and

Fun and games.

gone, we all sat down in the hall to a meal ourselves, which Chris’s aunties had prepared. It had been a good day, a fun day, a ‘successful’ day. Amidst our chatting I heard a lot of people reflecting upon the event and I wondered if ‘one day’ could really make a difference.  Now I think back to the laughter, the smiles and the hugs that so many children gave me that day. I can only hope that I did help to make a difference … however small … on that day!

With Carola and her family.

In the time around Christmas, we also caught up with Carola and her husband Jorge. Carola had stayed with us for a few weeks, a year and a half earlier, in Melbourne. We went to her place for dinner (and an excellent one at that!) and it was a really lovely night. Carola had been to Dad’s place for dinner and she commented on how great it was for her to be able to do the same, this time in her country.

Santa with our nephew Thomas.

A few days later we would be having our own family Christmas celebrations. In Latin America, they celebrate on the eve and not on the actual day. Karen and Chris invited various members of their families over and we celebrated at their place (where we were staying). People started trickling in at 7.30pm and the last of them rolled up at around 10.00pm. We hung around, chatted and reminisced. We even got a surprise visit from Santa (aka Alex’s cousin Ronald). One of the games played involved us all pulling a name out of a hat and then decorating (arts and craft style) a plastic cup for that person with whatever was available. We had ten minutes in which to make it and when finished we all had to go around describing the person we had decorated the cup for, and when the name was guessed, the cup was presented.

Christmas with our Ecuadorian family.

At midnight we all wished each other a Merry Christmas and had some dinner. But it was after dinner that the real festivities began. Tables, chairs and the likes were shoved to the side, and the dancing began. As the night went on and people tired, one by one they drifted off to beds, couches and chairs, but a group of us partied on until the wee hours of the morning. Needless to say, we were totally knackered the next day and did not do a lot apart from sleep in and take it easy… very easy!

With Iliana.

Over the next few days I also managed to catch up with Iliana, a great friend I had made when I worked in Ecuador in 1999. We had taught at the same school. Over the years we had kept in contact but she had moved to the USA. Although she often comes to Ecuador for short trips, it does not always tee up with when we go there. This time I got lucky and we managed to catch up. We caught up in the food court of a local shopping centre, and chatted, laughed, reminisced and laughed some more. It was just like the old days … nothing had changed. Well, perhaps some things had. Thirteen years ago you could not find a decent coffee to save your life! Sad but true, the best coffee gets exported. These days, however, it’s not such an arduous task. Colombian chain Juan Valdez provides an excellent drop of liquid gold. We also had lunch at a sushi place that left me pleasantly surprised, and in fact was better than a lot of places I have been to back at home.

Fact or fiction? Balancing egg in the centre of the world.

We also managed to do a few different things on the weekends with Karen, Chris and the kids, as they both work during the week. We went out to visit The Temple of the Sun, a recreation of an Incan temple, not too far from the Centre of the World monument we had visited when we first arrived. Set on a misty plain it really evoked the feeling of bygone times. We were greeted by two young ladies, dressed in traditional garb, who showed us around and explained some of the history and culture as well as explained Andean naturopathy and natural healing and

Ortega and his ‘flash’ painting.

medicine. We were also treated to a presentation of Cristobal Ortega Maila, who painted an Andean landscape for his audience in only minutes. He is renowned as the fastest painter in the world. He was truly incredible to watch. And the painting was amazing! He also took the time to explain the benefits of coca leaves in tea as an herbal remedy (great for altitude sickness) or in liquid form for muscular aches and pains. He had some very interesting facts and figures. And NO, unprocessed coca leaves are not a drug.

Isabella and Boli (her Grandpa) boogie on New Year’s Eve.

No sooner had Christmas passed than New Year was upon us. In the same way as Christmas, New Year is celebrated with a dinner the night before as well as a number of other festivities. We would be spending at it Chris’s parents and brother Johnny’s house, across the road. The turning of the calendar in Ecuador from the old to the new, however, is as much a purification ritual than anything else, and provides a New Year’s celebration like no other. The ‘Año Viejo’ (literally Old Year) is, quite literally, a fiery tradition that symbolically burns up the failures, regrets and anger of the old year in order to usher in the hopes and resolutions of the new one. On the last day of the year, people construct life-size dummies that might represent an irritating person, a disliked political figure, or even disappointment about past mistakes or unachieved goals. Then at midnight they are burned and ‘put to rest’. It’s quite quaint to see little ‘bonfires’ burning all over the place. Not sure how that would all go in fire-prone Victoria!

The ‘widows’ out on New Year.

We also all went for a drive to see the ‘viudas’ (the widows). Men dress up as women — the viudas alegres, or merry widows — and beg for money to pay for the funeral of the Old Year. It’s quite a spectacle; all dressed up to the nines, and strutting out to the middle of the road, they stop the traffic with the aim of relieving you of your small change. This often involves a lot of bantering including dancing in front of the car, leaning in to give you are kiss and thrusting their pillow-clad breasts into your face. We also saw three widows jump onto the back of a motorbike and one even rolled across our car bonnet. It’s rather hilarious and lots of fun to both see and be a part of. The traffic, as you can imagine, is banked up everywhere. But nobody seems to care … it’s New Year’s and the Ecuadorians want to party.

Burning our ‘Ano Viejo’!

 seemed to take us forever to get back home, not due to the distance, but because of all the viudas on the road. We counted in the New Year, gave each other kisses and hugs, went outside to watch the Old Years being burnt to smithereens and then went back inside and ate. I must say, Dad found the late night eating rather odd, custom or no custom. And then the party started … with lots of music and dancing. A few other Ecuadorian New Year customs include: Wearing yellow underwear for prosperity in the new year; Eating 12 grapes, one for each month of the year, starting the minute before midnight. With each grape, you are supposed to make a wish for the upcoming year; To hope for abundant travel in the upcoming year, Ecuadorians run to the end of the street they live on and loop back to their house.

New Year Part 2 with the Benavides Clan.

At around 1.00am Alex’s cousin Sandy and his brother Rodrigo came to pick us up and we went
to his Uncle Raul’s house with Alex’s other brother Jean Pierre, where the Benavides Clan (Alex’s Dad’s side) were celebrating the New Year. His Dad is part of a big family and it was lovely to be able to see them all again. Unfortunately, on this trip, it would be the only time we got to see the bulk of them. But we were warmly welcomed and immediately made to feel at home. They were eating just as we got there, and of course Alex went another round. Alex never says no to food! Very rarely, anyway. It really is the way to his heart! And then … the dancing began. We were having so much fun. I danced until I simply could not stand up any longer (and hey, I do not go down that easily!). I think it must have been about 4.00am when I crawled into someone’s empty bed. When the dancers had all ‘gone down’ the singing and karaoke started. I am sure that it went on until after 6.00am.

Alex’s cousin Oscar, the morning after New Year.

At around 7.00am, one of Alex’s uncles finally took us home. The streets were dead! Absolutely null and void of any life or activity! In fact I had never seen Quito so empty ever. With lots of little burnt mounds of Old Years from the night before, it looked like a scene out of Mad Max! Desolate, barren and bare!

When we got home, everyone (except for Dad) was still asleep. Alex and I were exhausted, so we went to bed, and did not get up until the early hours of the afternoon. Needless to say, the rest of the day was very, very, very laid back.

It was hard to believe that it was already the first day of the New Year. We only had a week and a half left. How much more could we possibly pack in?


Next: Visiting Ecuador’s jungle in the Amazonian Basin.

“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.”  – Robert Frost

Partying with the Benavides’ – New Year.

New Year with the Benavides’.
New Year’s dancin’ … me in the green!
With the Benavides mob.

With Papa Jacinto, Alex’s grandpa.

Master painter, Isabella, at the Temple of the Sun.
Shaman, Temple of the Sun.
Indigenous lady, Quito. 
What kind of chicken is that?
Thomas and Axel.
Me and my Superman!
New Year’s Eve dinner at Boli and Lili’s house.
Hello 2013!

Alex with his ‘other son’; Chrismas in Quito.
Sexy New Year’s widow.

L to R: Lili and Samy, with decorated glasses.
Dad and Aunty Paty.

Aunty Paty with Deni, Christmas.

Thomas, Christmas Eve.

L to R: Axel, Chris, Santa, Thomas, Karen and Deni.
Brother-in-law Jean Pierre.

Isabella too tired to wait up for Santa.
Dad with Aunty Gladys.

Enjoying yourselves?  Yes!
L to R: Axel and Jean Pierre with Santa.
Christian handing out food hampers.
Gratitude or sheer relief?!

L to R: Miguel, Deni and Axel.
Look at me in the photo!

A kiss of sheer gratitude.
Lining up for Christmas food hampers.
Johnny (Chris’s brother) and Boli, his Dad.
Dad giving out food and drinks.
Priceless look upon receiving foodstuffs!
The look of gratitude, as this lady receives her Christmas hamper.
Who’s a cheeky girl?  Sisa!

Catching up on the local goss’, Quito.

Nonno reading a book to Sisa in English.

Man in historical centre, Quito.

Showing Dad how it’s done in Ecuador

Viva Ecuador!

The first few days in Quito, Ecuador’s capital, were spent hanging out at home, acclimatising and reconnecting with our family. Normally, we jokingly call it ‘Full House’ for all the people that live there, but with us there as well it was more like ‘Packed to the Rafters’!  Add Alex, Dad and I to: Karen, Christian, Denisse, Axel, Thomas, Isabella and Jean Pierre (Alex’s brother). That’s a lot of people in a smallish apartment! But it was wonderful! Dad felt comfortable from day dot!

With Alex’s mum’s sisters at Karen amnd Chris’s house

Over the coming weeks, Dad would really bond with all of them. Language wasn’t a big problem, as most of Alex’s family speak English in varying degrees … he also had two personal translators/ interpreters with him! Little Isabella took a real shine to Dad and he soon became ‘Nonno’ (Grandpa in Italian). Actually, we all got side-swiped for Nonno, as when he was around it was Nonno this and Nonno that. It was lovely to see! Dad has always been great with kids; I remember my own childhood where he would read and play with us.  I loved my Dad then and nothing has changed now!

Isabella with Nonno

In the nights to come we had visits from several family members, including Alex’s four aunts and their families (Alex’s mum is one of five girls, and they and their families all live in Quito, except his mum who lives in New York). It was great to see them all again, as it was for Dad to see me in my other home environment. As our lungs slowly adapted to less oxygen, we started to go out and do a few more things. We would often go with Karen in her car as she drove to work and then do our own thing. Dad was blown away by the traffic, and I must say that it does seem to get worse and worse every time we come over. The reality is that as the economy grows, so does the number of people buying cars. The problem is that the streets and highways are in no condition (both physically and space wise) to accept this growing number of vehicles.  So being stuck bumper-to-bumper in traffic is the order of the day!  Add to that the unroadworthiness of many cars and a ‘simple’ drive into work can become a logistical nightmare.

Isabella helping mum put away the shopping

Having said that, it certainly gives one a lot of time to observe. Dad was bowled over by Quito’s spectacular position, high in the Andes, amid dramatic, mist-covered peaks, which were always visible in some form or another, from most parts of the city. Due to the such slow moving traffic, Dad was also able to observe daily life; unlike Australia, a lot of it happens on the streets. Kids selling lollies, adults selling fruit and whatever else they could, and amputees begging … all doing whatever they could in order to eke out a living. Dad found this very confrontational, and in the first few days, he was overcome with emotion! It threw me back to some 14 years ago, when I had first come to Ecuador, when the poverty and lack of equality overwhelmed me so much that I often felt sick to my core. How many times I had simply stopped and cried, as I did not know what else to do! Not that I didn’t care now, but I had seen it so many times (not just in Ecuador but in other third world/ developing countries) that it wasn’t new to me. Dad’s reactions brought back all of my own feelings of sadness and despair about our unjust world, and my own overwhelming feeling of wanting to make a ‘wrong world right!’ Dad and I would later chat about this often … he was getting an insight into the world beyond Australia; the different world that his daughter has long been an inhabitant of!

Near Otavalo, Quito

Karen works in the area of Quito called Amazonas, otherwise known as Gringolandia (gringo being the slang word for foreigner). With so many foreigners staying there (as I did some 14 years ago and it’s also where I met Alex) it is abundant with restaurants, cafes , internet cafes and all that pertain to being a tourist, as well as a craft market, which showcases a variety of beautiful things from all over the country. We took Dad for a browse through there. Over the years, however, I have noticed imports from other countries slowly filtering through, yet they still try to pass them off as their own.  That’s globalisation for you!

With Don Pedro in Otavalo

We had found out that our good friend and the person who used to supply us with the bulk of our jewellery when we had an import business in the early part of the noughties, Byron Ushina, would be displaying his jewellery at a local fair called Texturas y Colores (Textures and Colours). This fair showcases the work of Ecuadorian artists and artisans. Dad and I thought that we would pop in and surprise him, as he did not know exactly when we would be arriving in Quito. And what a surprise it was! We casually walked up to his stand, and when he saw us, his mouth dropped to the floor, and then he came over and hugged us both. Dad had heard so much about Byron and Byron so much about Dad. For me it was wonderful to be able to see my Dad join the dots of the fabric of my life; for so long he had heard about my world and now he was living it!

Fresh bizcochos, Cayambe

Our first weekend in Quito was spent at Humberto’s house in Ibarra, 70 kilometres northeast of Quito,Cayambe, famous for its bizcochos (savoury biscuits made up of buttery flaky pastry) and queso de hoja (cheese wrapped in ‘atzera’ leaf, which is typical to the region), which is Alex’s all time favourite cheese.  I love both! We took Dad in to a place and showed him how the biscuits were made. It’s like a ritual, whenever passing through this town, we go to the place that makes them (there are many) and then order both the cheese and the biscuits and dig in!
where he had a party for all of his cousins (Alex’s mum’s sisters and their families). He normally does this in the middle of the year, but this year he changed the date in honour of us and Dad being in Ecuador. The three of us went in Marcia (Alex’s auntie) and Gustavo’s van, along with other relatives in their cars.  It was like a convoy, and we all stopped in different places along the way. 

Indigenous lady, Otavalo

Next on the list was the famous Otavalo market. As we neared the town we stopped for some more spectacular views of the surrounding area. Ecuador is a visual feast where beauty and striking scenery don’t descend but, rather, impose themselves upon you! It’s the best type of imposition, however, as each time you go around one of the (many, many, many!) curves, you are treated to yet another visual spectacle!

Indegenous man, Otavalo

For hundreds of years Otavalo has hosted one of the most important markets in the Andes, originally celebrating the gods of commerce. The colourful open-air market place is abuzz with products from all over Ecuador, and as mentioned before, imports are cleverly disguised, but slowly creeping in.  Having said that, it’s still a great place to see the local indigenous people (as well as many from surrounding villages and areas) bartering with Ecuadorians and foreigners alike, selling their wares. Bartering is a totally acceptable practice, but one has to be careful about haggling over the last ten cents!  The deal should be a happy medium, a ‘good for you, good for me’, outcome.  I am generally pretty good at bargaining and speaking Spanish fluently is a huge bonus.  Alex has often said that I am able to get a better deal than the average Ecuadorian!

Indigenous child, Otavalo

I must admit that Otavalo holds a very special place in my heart as it brings back many wonderful memories of my backpacking days through South America in 1999. It encapsulates everything that backpacking is about … a totally different culture, indigenous people dressed in their garb, the buying and selling of different goods … the memories flooded back … and I do have a multitude of amazing memories from my travels of all over the world.  Yet, here I was today, not ‘really’ as a tourist, but with my Ecuadorian-born husband and ‘my’ family. Wow, life’s twists and turns are often unpredictable. If you had have asked me 13 years ago if my path would have included marrying an Ecuadorian, I would have said that it would have been about as likely as me learning ancient Arabic overnight!  But here I am today, happily married (almost 11 years) to my soul mate and the love of my life, Alex … the Ecuadorian!  Life!

At Humberto’s house with the family

After an early start to the day and a  full day of sightseeing, we arrived at Humberto’s house close to 6.00pm, where we were greeted by Humberto, his wife Karina, and her parents. What a night it proved to be. All of the relatives rocked up slowly, one by one, and by 8.00pm it was well and truly a full house.  They had prepared food for us, which we were eating in rounds, due to the fact that there were so many people. Food washed down, the music cranked up! Time to get the party started!  We sang and we danced, and danced and danced!

Humberto and I did a rendition of Gangnam Style and whilst we provided the group with a good laugh, the next day, I felt like I had been belted. I refuse to admit that I am not 20 anymore! Even our one and a half year old niece, Isabella, was bopping to the music. Bed?  No way, this little party animal was out to play!  It runs in the family! The next morning, we were treated to breakfast and then slowly, we all made our way back to Quito. Everyone was clearly tired. Not only did it end up being an early night, but the next day was a day of rest at home.

Isabella and Chris, party animals

In the weeks before Christmas we would do lots of day trips here and there as there is so much we wanted to show and share with Dad.  This was interspersed with a bit of resting and visits to the doctor.  Unfortunately Dad ended up with both bronchitis and gout. It appears that it was his body rebelling against the high altitude. Whilst the gout was able to be treated almost immediately, the bronchitis seemed to go on forever, and in fact, despite taking antibiotics, it didn’t go away properly until after we came back home.

Smack, bang in the Midde of the World!

There were a couple of things that were on Dad’s more immediate hit list.  The first was a visit to the Centro del Mundo or  ‘The Middle of the World’. Ecuador’s biggest claim to fame is is its location right on the equator, and is the place where measurements were made in 1736 showing that this was indeed the equatorial line. Touristy, yes, but some things just need to be ticked off the list! Whilst the site now has lots of restaurants, cafes and handicrafts stalls, there are still lots of interesting displays.  The 30 metre high stone trapezoidal monument topped by a brass globe not only has a viewing platform at the top (more spectacular views of the surrounding Andes!) but also houses an ethnographic museum. The displays  of the several indigenous groups of Ecuador through various models, clothing displays and photos, give a real insight into the variety housed within such a small country.

Cruz Loma, 4100 metres above sea level

The other ‘must do’ on Dad’s list was the TeleferiQo, or cable car; it is one of the highest aerial lifts in Cruz Loma. Although both Alex and I had done this before, it was still very exciting.  Dad was blown away, quite literally! As the cable car zooms up the slope, and leaves the city behind and below, one can only gape and gaze in wonder. The views at the top are mind blowing! Dad absolutely loved it. In fact, any view in Quito is spectacular, simply due to the altitude. We walked around a little, took in the fresh air (certainly cleaner and fresher than down below), had a coffee and empanada, and contemplated the meaning of life!  I was loving my Dad experiencing my world, and watching him love it as much
the world. The cable car is in central Quito and  reaches 4050 meters on the summit of
as I do!

Dad and I in Quito’s historical centre

Another day or two were spent in Quito’s old town, or historical centre. Its claim to fame is that it’s one of the largest, least-altered and best-preserved historic centers in the Americas. It has been listed as a world heritage site through UNESCO since 1978. Yet another of Ecuador’s many hidden gems.  In fact I have backpacked all over South America and have often wondered why so many people skip this tiny but fascinating country. In my opinion, it truly is the jewel of South America. I have now known about this secret for years! With its narrow streets, restored colonial architecture and large and lively plazas (brilliant for people watching), the historical centre, or El Centro as the locals call it, is a marvel to wander. We ate, we visited churches, we watched; always fascinating. Our ex-jewellery supplier (for our fair-trade jewellery import business that we had a few years back) and now friend, Byron Ushina, has a gallery in San Francisco Plaza, in the historical centre, so we popped in to see him and show Dad the gallery. Again, it was lovely to be able to show Dad the elements that had been part of my world for so long. It also worked in reverse; this gringa had been coming to Ecuador for years, from a place far away called Australia. My Ecuadorian family and friends were also learning a bit more about me, who I was and where I came from.

El Panecillo

I was actually quite enjoying being the tour guide for Dad.  It made me feel a bit less like a tourist myself. Dad and I decided to go on the Quito Tour Bus (whilst Alex hung out with his own Dad) which is a double-decker that takes you all around town and shows you Quito’s most important sights.  Dad and I agreed that you got a totally different perspective of the city from up high. You can also hop on and off as many times as you like, taking in the sights in at your own pace. One of the final stops is to El Panecillo (the Little Bread Loaf), the ever-present hill to the south of the Old Town. A major Quito landmark, it is topped by a huge statue of La Virgen de Quito (Virgin of Quito), with a crown of stars, angelic wings and a chained dragon atop the world. Quitenos (the people native to Quito) proudly claim that she is the only Madonna in the world depicted with wings. From the summit there are eye-catching (running out of synonyms to describe Quito’s aerial views!) views of the sprawling city and the surrounding volcanoes.  Dad was left gob-smacked yet again!

With Maria Antonieta

Quito is also home to a multitude of excellent museums. With so many to choose from we went with the Museo Nacional, or the National Museum, which houses one of the country’s largest collections of Ecuadorian art. The most impressive rooms, however, are the archaeological ones, which showcase more than 1000 ceramic pieces dating from 12 000 BC to AD 1534. Whilst here is only so much one can see and take in, we were giving it our best shot!

Belen with baby Elias

Christmas was only around the corner yet we felt like we’d packed in a lifetime since our arrival only a few weeks earlier. Amongst all of the sightseeing there were also the many catch ups, get togethers and meeting up with various members of Alex’s family, as well as our friends. With so much to do and relatively little time, we had to see some of our friends separately. I did manage to see my very dear friend Maria Antonieta a few times. She too holds a very special place in my heart as she was one of my best friends when I lived in Ecuador for a year between 1999 and 2000. I also managed to catch up with some other friends, through Maria Antonieta, that I hadn’t seen since in years. One, Geovany, has a new partner, Shirley, and we hit it off like a house on fire. We also took Dad to Edison and Belen’s house and met their new little baby boy, Elias. Unfortunately, Edison was at work and due to time constraints we would not end up seeing him on this trip. When I left Ecuador for the first time in 2000, Edison gave me a beautifully painted wooden mask, which holds prize of place on my wall … so I may not have seen you this time Eddy, but you and your family are never far from my thoughts.


Next: Christmas and New Year Ecuadorian style.

“Never go on trips with anyone you do not love” – Ernest Hemingway

My two best friends

Dedication: To my Dad, Dino, and husband, Alex. On this trip I travelled with the two people I love most. This trip was all about you Dad! I wanted to show you the other half of my life, the other half of my world. I know you got it! I know that you understand what draws me back to this tiny country called Ecuador, again and again. I know that now you  understand both parts of the world I live in. Alex – thanks for showing your other Dad your first world, the world that has helped shape the person you are today. I thank you both for loving me unconditionally, supporting the crazy gal that I am, and for helping me to become the person that I am today!

Alex with brothers Rodrigo (L) and Jean Pierre (R)

The two ‘fathers’ meet
Baby Elias, future backpacker
Not all are equal, historical centre, Quito

Historical centre, Quito
Deni and boyfriend Miguel (Fosfi)
Busker in historical centre, Quito
Cable car back down from Cruz Loma

Fresh air on Cruz Loma, 4100 metres above sea level
Indigenous lady, Otavalo

Friit vendor, Otavalo

In the historical centre of Quito

Dad and Alex, near Otavalo

Cemetery, Cayambe
Thomas and Karen trying on hats, Otavalo
Alex’s sister Karen and family
Woman from Otavalo
Thomas … unadulterated bliss!
How’s this for fashion?
Fresh bread anyone?

Thomas in his school’s Christmas concert
Artisan shop at Centre of the World

Thomy and his beloved dinosaurs
The many faces of Ecuador – Ethnographic Museum
Straddling both hemispheres
Me with Dad at ‘the Centre’
A ‘chiva’ (party bus) at the ‘Centre’

Ecuador via Fort Myers, Florida

Ready to go!

As usual, I find myself asking where time goes.  It’s the middle of March and we’ve been already been back from our last overseas sojourn for over two months yet, somehow, I simply haven’t been able to find the time to put ‘fingertips to keyboard’.  Well, here goes!

Leaving Melbourne Airport for the USA

We were ready to embark on a different type of trip this time; Dad was coming with us to meet the family in Ecuador. We would be going for almost six weeks, and would spend the first few days in Florida, USA. Bags packed and everything under control, he would have two ‘experienced guides’ to show him the way! It was exciting. Alex and I have been together since 1999 and Dad has never met anyone from his family as they mostly live in Ecuador, with the exception of his mum and sister in New York and cousin in Fort Myers, Florida. There is no short cut to get to Ecuador!  It’s long and it’s tiring, but we decided to break up the trip and stop over in Fort Myers before going on to Quito.

Almost gone … Melbourne Airport

There was NO WAY that we were going to be late to the airport on this trip. My super-organised Dad was going to make sure of that!  He slept over our place the night before, and ensured that we were all on time.  Fulvio, my brother, was here to pick us up by 7.30am and we left by 8.00am. We checked in and made our way through passport control and the security checks.  Dad was surprised at how much rigmarole we had to go through.  It had been about 17 years since he’d flown last, and things have certainly changed since then. I couldn’t help but think that this was nothing, wait until he got to the USA! All in order, we got through and had Dad participate in our ‘coffee before take off’ ritual. Dad was excited and so were we.  I was really excited at the thought that not only would Dad now get a ‘live’ insight into my world but that he would also get to meet the family and the country that was now part of my world and that I had grown to love so much!

Flying from Melbourne to LA

The first part of the flight, Melbourne to Los Angeles, took approximately 15 hours.  The flights were
Qantas/ American Airline code share with this first part being Qantas. As usual, I slept for most of the flight, whilst Alex and Dad watched a number of movies. We had a couple of hours stop over in LA and then we went straight through to Miami where we were picked up by Alex’s cousin Christian. It was then an approximately three hour ride to Fort Myers, where Christian lives with his partner Frankie. It was wonderful to see him again.  The last time we had seen Christian was when we went on our around-the-world trip in 2006. He and Alex grewup and lived together in Ecuador.  They are more like brothers than cousins!

Dinner at Chili’s

As we drove we laughed, chatted and reminisced.  Christian had heard so much about Dad and Dad so much about Christian. We had a lovely four days together, but as you can imagine it went all too quickly.  Dad was not overly impressed with the American cuisine but loved our meal at Chili’s, where we stopped for dinner soon after Christian picked us up.  The food was actually quite good, if I may say so myself, but talk about super-size-me portions! I know that in Australia we talk about our growing obesity problem, but we just don’t seem to be as big here. I am always shocked at the sheer size of so many people when I visit the USA.

Sunset at Fort Myers Beach, Florida

Christian is a qualified nurse and is now doing further studies.  So, between working in a hospital full time and studying, flat out mode is usul for him.  Luckily for us he was able to take a few days off and we were able to see several things together. Apparently it was winter in Florida!  Yeh right, 26 to 30 degrees; shorts and t-shirt weather…  that’s not winter! We went on some lovely walks through some national parks, saw the Everglades, and even went on a mini-train ride through a local park.  All very low key and relaxing. We also went to a variety of shops, including, Wal-Mart, and it just blew Dad away.  He was stunned at the amount of everything and anything.  All that you wanted, in whatever size, make and colour … and that included food! One day we visited Fort Myers Beach, and had a walk along the shore as well as the pier, where we were afforded some spectacular views at sunset.

Train ride through a local park, Fort Myers

And almost as soon as we had arrived, it was time to go!  Four days is hardly enough to do anything, but we had managed to do quite a bit, and Dad had finally met the Christian whom we had spoken so much about! Before we knew it, we were back in Christian’s car, returning to the airport. Hugs, kisses and some tears all around, and then we had to go through the whole rigmarole once again. Passport control isn’t thaaaat bad, but the security checks … OMG!  They do my head in! Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out!  Before we knew it, we were on a plane and flying to Ecuador, which was another three and a half hours (add: Melbourne to LA, 15 hours; LA to Miami, 5 hours; Miami to Quito 3.5 hours).

Time to leave!

As we were arriving in Quito at about 7.00pm, the views of the city as we descended were spectacular! The ‘old’ airport that we flew into has actually closed since our return (mid-February 2013) and the new one at Tabebela has opened. The old airport sits smack bang in the middle of the city, whereas the new one is some 20 kilometres north east of the city.  It has been a long time in the making, as whilst flying in to the old one may present some marvellous views, high altitude, a cramped runway and towering volcanoes nearby make it one of Latin America’s most challenging airports for pilots.

Christian with Thomas, Quito

 As Quito’sairport (old) is rather small, it hardly takes any time at all to get through passport control,  grab your bags and walk out.  As we were going through passport control, we could see some of Alex’s family waving through a glass panel above us!  How exciting this was going to be!  I still could not believe that after years and years of asking Dad to come and visit Alex’s family in Ecuador he had finally said yes! We grabbed our bags and in no time we were walking out of the doors, where we were greeted by Alex’s Dad, brother Rodrigo, sister Karen, brother-in-law Christan and Auntie Gladys. It was quite emotional really, and as Dad would comment later, he felt immediately at home.  He too had finally met his second family!

Take it easy! At almost three thousand metres above sea level, the second highest capital  on Earth is a bit thin on air!  As I explained to Dad, it takes at least a few days to acclimatise, and even walking can feel like exercise.  He would find that out soon enough! It was so good to be back … I am blessed with two families and two homes! I could see Dad just taking it all in. The Andes are spectacular!

Isabella with her new Aussie backpack

We all went back to Karen and Christian’s house, and Dad was first greeted by Denisse who ran out and gave him a big hug. In the six months that Denisse had spent in Australia, Dad had grown to love her like his own.  We all then slowly went upstairs (although they were only on the second floor, how Dad would learn to hate those steps by the end of the trip!) where we were greeted by Axel, Thomas and Isabella, our nieces and nephews. They had all grown so much; Axel at 15 was starting to look more like a young man than a boy, Thomas was now three and a half and Isabella, the almost newborn we had left behind a little over a year ago was now one and a half. More hugs all around! It really was nice to be home!

We were all a little tired (perhaps a bit more than a little) and eventually just had to make our way to bed. The next few weeks would provide us with lots of love, laughter, happy times and good memories!


“You only live once, but if you do it well, once is enough.” – Mae West

Something a bit different at the Fort Myers Flea Market
Brothers in arms
Fort Myers Beach
Boardwalk walk … Fort Myers
Fort Myers wildlife
The famous Florida alligator

Alex and his cousin Christian
Christian & Dad, Fort Myers Beach
Fort Myers, Florida
At the Fort Myers Flea Market … heart attack special, USA style!
Christian and Dad in Fort Myers, Florida
Pasta with Ombi’s homemade sauce, at Christian’s house
As the sun goes down, Fort Myers Beach
On the Fort Myers Beach Pier