San Ignacio

We arrived at our eco-resort the Maya Mountain Lodge and checked into our bungalow a slightly musty hut with two rooms and settled in for several days of exploring the Maya interior and ramping up school.  I went exploring the downtown area to get my bearings of the area and got scolded by several traffic officers apparently I tried to cross the one way bridges the wrong way.  In my defense they have zero traffic signs so how am I supposed to know???

We completed school the next day and took a swim in the very cold pool, burrrrr.  We explored the local Maya site in the afternoon called Xunantunich (pronounced shunantunch).   It was our first big Maya site at it was very impressive.  It was built on a hill adjacent to the Mopan River, there is one major temple that dominates the site and some huge plazas that allows you to gaze at the temples and feel very insignificant.  The Mayan constructed their temples so the tops of the temples would appear just above the top of the jungle canopy likely to allow them to worship the sun, one of their many gods.  We climbed the largest temple which was a bit scary running after the kids climbing up steep inclines.  There was also a nicely preserved ball court, shaped in map view like an “I” with parallel sloping sides.  This is the only ball court that has been discovered in Belize with vertical hoop goals perched at the top of the walls.

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Garifuna and other adventures

After spending a few days in Siene Bight we discovered we were living in a Garifuna community.  The Garinagu are a people who are a mixed African/Indigenous people defined by their Garifuna language a dialect of the Arawakan Language.  They were a population that originated on Yurumein, now called the Saint Vincent and the Grenadines in the in Windward islands of the British West Indies in the Lesser Antilles.  They are a mixture of Red Carib, Arawak Indians and African slaves who were ship wrecked near the island.  After an uprising on St Vincent island they were forced into exile taking 5 years to reach several locations in Belize, Hondouras and Guatamala including Siene Bight.

We were lucky enough to meet Joshua who arranged for a drumming and dancing demonstration.  We were treated to about an hour of history, drumming and dancing.  They got us involved in dancing and it was apparent that this community was very passionate about keeping their cultural identity intact.

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I tried some of the food at a local restaurant it was a mixture of Carribean food with African influence including cassava and spices as well as seafood.  I had fish with beans and rice, it was one of the best meals I had while in Siene Bight.

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The Garifuna have their own celebration day to commemorate their landing in Belize around the early 1800’s.  The celebration occurs in mid-November and includes lots of dancing and donning of costumes.  In 2008, UNESCO proclaimed the Garifuna language, music and dance as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”

We finished up our time in Placencia with packing up our stuff on Sunday, always an onerous chore.  We headed out toward San Ignacio a three hour drive west toward Guatamala.  On our way we stopped at the Marie Sharps hot sauce factory, this was the ubiquitous condiment on the table at every meal in Belize and we have developed a love for it; yes I’m including the kids.  We tried more than 20 different hot sauces but the habanero is still the best.

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Further along toward San Ignacio we stopped at the Blue Hole National Park (not the diving one) but a flowing spring that fills up a sink hole until it overflows and drains to a cave system.

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We explored for about an hour and enjoyed our time but knew we had to get to San Ignacio so we went on our way.  We stopped for lunch at an Indian restaurant at Maddy’s request and had a wonderful experience, got face paint and apparently ordered about 5 times too much food and then felt a bet ripped off when the bill came.  Oh well.

Placencia and the beach

We drove from Belize City south about 3 1/2 hours toward Placencia a long sandy peninsula that parallels the coast.  The kids did well to endure the car ride with ipad time and snacks.  We picked up some fresh fruit from a road side stand; lots of Mandarin Oranges, limes and Pinapples.  When ended up staying at the Nautical Inn in Siene Bight the town next door to Placencia.  We were right on the beach and it was a great start to our trip perfect for relaxing on the beach.  The Caribbean in this part of Belize is very shallow with very small waves perfect for the kids.  The coast is protected by a barrier reef off the coast.

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After we vegged for a day or so we visited a preserved area call the Cockscomb Wildlife Basin, known to have one of the densest Jaguar populations in all of Central America.  The area was a preserved tropical jungle with beautiful huge trees and dense forest.  We were going to do a hike to a waterfall but got a hearty “no” from the kids instead we settled for a tiny hike to a wrecked airplane

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and an inner tube float down the river.  It was quite fun and refreshing in the hot weather.

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No sightings of Jaguars, I think it is pretty much impossible to see them during the day,  but we learned that they get lots of pictures of them from camera traps.  There are estimated to be 60 adult Jaguars and various other large cats including Puma, Ocelot, Margay and the Jaguarundi in the 128,000 square acre tropical jungle.  Although we didn’t see any wild cat sightings we did find this life sized statue that was perfect for a ride.

img_3060  I think actually seeing a Jaguar in the wild would scare the hell out of all of us. 

 

Belize City

The frantic days of packing and tying up loose ends are over and we are off on travel!!!  We started our journey to Belize on New year’s eve leaving out of the Milwaukee airport.  We had one of the kids babysitters drive us to Milwaukee on that morning to avoid a large seven week parking bill.  Even though there was four inches of snow the night before we had little trouble navigating the roads to the airport.  Our flight with Southwest was on time and we were off to Houston and then onto Belize City.

Although not the capitol, Belize City is one of the larger cities in the country and where most tourists fly into.  We walked off our plane into the warm moist air and truly knew we were out of the Midwest, winter fading quickly away.  We rented a car for this first portion of the trip to see some of the far flung locations.  After a quick drive into town we checked into our hotel.  Unbeknownst to us the hotel we are staying at is throwing a huge New Years Eve party, with music until 4am in the morning, Ugghhhh our first major fail.  We ate dinner and took a quick walk around town; we took a picture with the big Belize sign then went to sleep.  We endured the music and the loud party using ear plugs and most everyone slept reasonably well.

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The next morning both Maddy and I went on separate runs around the town, mostly the downtown area of Belize City which is situated on the two sides of Haulover Creek.  It was interesting to see what appeared to be a mostly run down city, with a bit of investment could be a very charming downtown area although they are missing beaches so will likely miss out on the associated tourism.  We ate breakfast and then began a 3 1/2 hour drive to Placencia.

 

Belize and Guatemala here we come!

With the Christmas holidays over and winter looming in Wisconsin we are pulling our kids from school and heading south for warmer weather.  After negotiations with the kids we have decided to stay in Belize and Guatemala for 7 weeks, hopefully missing the worst of the winter and not missing too much school.  We will be splitting our time between the two countries while world schooling, snorkeling, climbing volcanoes and scaling Mayan ruins all the while immersing in these two Central American cultures.

Hope you will travel along with us on our new adventures.  Here are some pictures from Christmas.

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Asia Trip Summary

We have finish the second of two trips and have been traveling with the kids for 11 out of the last 18 months.  Our kids typically love to travel but by the end they were tired and craved the comforts of home.  Maddy and I unlike last year were happy to be at home as well.   Here is the final map and some statistics of our Asia trip.

Our trip began in Bangkok but we quickly traveled north because we heard that Chiang Mai was smoky later in the spring.  We followed the Mekong River down into Laos before heading onto Cambodia where we explored Siem Reap and then heading to the beach.  Vietnam was next, we spent nearly two weeks in Hoi An during the Tet holiday.  We then traveled onto Hanoi and Ha Long Bay before escaping to the Malay Peninsula as the spring rains arrived in Indochina.  We stopped in Krabi, Penang, Kuala Lampur and Singapore before jetting off to Bali where we spent a month exploring islands and dodging Komodo dragons.  Borneo was next then onto the Philippines and Hong Kong.  We ended with nearly a month in Japan before flying home near the end of June.  It was a lot of adventure packed into a short period.

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Here are some of the final stats for the trip:

10 countries (China, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines and Japan)

16,963 kilometers (10,540 miles) traveled not including two trans Pacific flights.

40 places, cities or locations

177 days – January 1st through June 26th (for an average of 4.2 days per stop; if you are double checking my calculations I added back in two duplicates locations).  That is some serious fast travel.

19 plane trips (I counted each segment)

30 boat trips with three major cruises: Mekong River, Bali to Komodo Island and Ha Long bay.

13 train trips (all but one was in Japan)

18 UNESCO sites

12 Gondola rides (includes wire lines, funiculars and cable cars)

10+ world schooling families that we became friends with.  In South America I think we met 2.

29 Islands

I am not even going to attempt to count the number of Temples, Shrines, Mosques or Churches.  We are just going to go with lots.

We only had one bad bout of sickness in Bali and essentially zero problems with diarrhea which is quite remarkable.  This is especially remarkable considering I like to try just about any food that comes along.  I chock it up to the extensive travel and the build up of good bacteria in our tummies.

I will be forever entranced by Asia in particular three countries stood out for me; Thailand, Indonesia and Japan.  The variety of sights, smells, activities and people were intoxicating.  The future of the Asia seems to be a very bright one.  Most of the fastest growing economies are located in southeast Asia; we saw construction everywhere.  The big cities were amazing, Bangkok, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo and Kuala Lumpur.  They all had amazing sights and attractions.  I was not expecting to have such an easy time communicating, so many people speak English, we had no need for translators in nearly all of Southeast Asia, Japan was another story.

Maddy’s favorites included Luang Prabang (Laos), Gili Aire (Indonesia) and Cabilao (Phillipines), I also loved Penag (Malaysia) and Kyoto (Japan).

We felt like we completed all the requisite tourist sites on this trip and maybe when we go back we can dig into certain areas and delve deeper into the culture of a particular place without worrying we are missing other places or attractions.

Our plans going forward are to stay in Middleton for the entire school year in 2018/2019 so this is really the end of our adventures for the time being.  Caroline has pushed hard on us to stay at home for her first year in junior high.  So signing off Travel Trotter for the time being.

Tokyo

We arrived in Tokyo on a Monday, with only a week left in our trip and feeling a bit worn down.  Our apartment was a bit smaller than we have had in the past, accommodations are a bit more expensive in Tokyo.  We did have a balcony that overlooked a small canal connected to the ocean.  We loved looking out and counting the number of jelly fish in the water every day.  We also needed to get some medicine for Julie to get her back to normal, so we relaxed almost the entire first day.  Except when the kids and I walked around our Kiba neighborhood and discovered several parks and shrines; always a shrine around every corner.

We had dinner out at a Japanese restaurant and had a type of hotpot, with a huge mound of bacon and cabbage that melted down.  I ordered vegetables and meat, but we only got cabbage and bacon.  It wasn’t exactly what I thought I was ordering but it was tasty.  A bit lost in translation though.

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In the afternoon with the kids resting and playing their ipads, I ventured out to explore the original Tokyo harbor.  I found some maps of the original shore line but was not very successful in finding any original shoreline or old neighborhoods.  I read later that between an earthquake in 1923 and bombing in WWII that the city has been pretty demolished so not much older construction exists.  This is also why the city is so expensive, but it makes it a very modern city.  I did find some nice views of the river and then got a pint and an Irish pub.

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That night we met up with Erik one of Maddy’s old friends from San Francisco in the Ebisu neighborhood and had dinner.  The kids were extra crazy but it was a fun dinner.  We had ice cream afterward and got some crazy flavors like tomato sorbet and sesame ice cream.

The next day we went to Disneyland Tokyo and then Disney Sea the next day, Caroline will be publishing the blog post for these two days.

After two days of Disney were exhausted, the kids especially didn’t want to do anything and everybody’s feet hurt.  Maddy and I continued to explore by ourselves one by one.  I went out and walked around the Imperial gardens, while talking to my brother John then tried my luck at Pacheco, and had sushi.  Pacheco is a game of chance where if balls go in the right hole you win.  I didn’t win and soon left not seeing a way to use any skill to win at the game.  The sushi on the other hand was amazing, melt in your mouth tuna.

 

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The next day was a bit rainy but we got out and did a boat tour of the city harbor starting at Asakusabashi and floating down the Sumida River into the harbor.  Tokyo is built in a natural harbor so we didn’t encounter any rough waters just strange spaceship looking tour boats.

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We passed the famous Tsukiji fish market and the Hamarikyu Garden where some of the original harbor shore line is still observable (lots of fill in other areas).  We ended at Odaiba and were greeted with the statue of liberty (a small version of it at least).  We ate lunch and then headed home via Uber because the rain was coming down steadily by then.

On Saturday we took a trip out to the Harijuku neighborhood on the west side of Tokyo a very trendy colorful wacky place.  We had lunch of grilled cheese (with rainbow colored cheese), then ate lot of funny colored candy and finished up with petting hedge hogs to our hearts content.  I believe it was about $15 and you could pet your very own cute little hedgehog.  I passed on the experience and ate some ramen noodles at a shop around the corner.  The girls had a blast.  It is quite a thing in Tokyo and Japan in general to pet Hedge hogs.

Our last full day in Tokyo we decided to take a picnic to the local park, and have an al fresco lunch cleaning out our refrigerator and enjoying a beautiful day in Tokyo.  The kids climbed trees and ran around until we headed back to pack for home.  I ventured out on my own in the afternoon to take a walking tour of the Tsukiji fish Market, there were quite a range of sea foods to be had but the thing that I came for was the tuna and it was amazing, some of the best sushi I have eaten.  I walked through the Ginza shopping district but it was mostly very high end merchandise so I didn’t buy anything although I did stop in a very interesting samari sword shop.

The next day we cleaned up our rental and finished packing and boarded the JR rail for the last time on the Narita express to the airport and began our long trek home.  Our flight left at 7pm on Tuesday and got into Newark at 7pm on Tuesday, bit of a mind bender, but we gained back the day we lost heading to Asia.  We were delayed two hours so we were not able to meet up with Priya in New Jersey, such a bummer.  Once we landed in Newark it became very evident that Americans are very pushy, people cut in lines and yelled at TSA agents, it was really in your face, very different from Asia.  It was good to be back home though and Nana picked us up from the airport in Madison.  Thanks Nana!

This is it for our Aisa trip I will be wrapping up with a trip summary in a few days but altogether it was an amazing successful trip.

 

Mt. Fuji

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The ride out of the Japanese Alps was most interesting; rolling green hills punctuated with flat rice fields flooded with water in the intervening valleys made for a picturesque tour of the foothills.  It took three trains but we got to the area around Mt. Fuji.

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I first noticed it on a relief map of the area… the total geographical dominance of the the volcano that is Mt. Fuji.  Once you get to a high point (a mountain or a tower) it is easy to see the extent of eruptions on the landscape that has caused miles upon miles to be leveled creating this perfect symmetrical slope to the summit.

Mt. Fuji is a spiritual place for all Japanese and has been a symbol of their country for generations.  The summit of the mountain has been designated a shrine and many people consider it the ultimate pilgrimage.  I would really like to come back and climb it some day; Mimi has announce she will climb it with me too.  We settled in Fujioshida on the north side of Mt. Fuji instead of Hakone because of some problem with licensing at our first Airbnb.  We had to scramble and rent a new place at the last minute but Airbnb made up for it by refunding our money and giving us an extra credit.

The area was geared toward vacationers, there was a huge amusement park with lots of roller coasters near the train station along with a Thomas the train park.  We didn’t got to the park despite the pleas of our children; we decided that Disney Tokyo was enough for the remainder of the trip.  We only stayed in the area for one full day and two partial days but we ran into the same transportation problems that we have elsewhere, no taxis or ride apps.  We did have a grocery store nearby and our place was really big, due to our late booking cancellation we got an upgrade.

On Father’s day I got treated to breakfast in bed and a pile of beautiful cards and presents that the girls had worked on the night before.  Sunday was our only full day around Mt. Fuji so we went out to the nearby lake and took a ride up the local rope line to the top of Mt. Tenjo to see the best views of Mt. Fuji.  The weather outlook didn’t look good up until leaving the house but once we got on the mountain the clouds began to part and even though we had to wait an hour before the clouds cleared it was a spectacular sight once they did.  We snapped pictures galore and then hiked back down the mountain, I am sure the girls were happy not to have had to hike up.

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We had lunch and then a boat ride on lake Kawaguchi on a speed boat, it was a quick ride but fun and reminded me of Lake Mendota.  The weather had worsened by the time we were home and we had no more Mt. Fuji views.  Julie was having a bit of a fit before heading out to dinner so Mimi, Caroline and I went for sushi, not a bad father’s day.

Once we were done with dinner and started to walk home we turned a corner and all of a sudden Mt. Fuji was just right there.  It was huge and beautiful and larger than life, I began to really understand the Japanese preoccupation and reverence for the volcano.  My girls and Maddy spoiled me and made me feel great on a truly special fathers day.

Next stop Tokyo!!!!

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The Japanese Alps (Matsumoto)

After our marathon day over Mt. Tateyama we had a relaxing day chilling out in our new Airbnb in Matsumoto.  The town is located in a valley running north and south between a range of mountains on each side, lots of beautiful view and a huge flat valley in between.  On our first day in town Maddy went out with Caroline on a run in the morning and explored a park nearby; they motivated me to take my own run and even though the park was straight up a huge hill.  After lunch we went to Matsumoto Castle, the oldest existing original castle in Japan.  It had a distinctly different feel to it including very steep steps and low ceilings, you could get a better understanding of conditions in the 15th and 16th centuries from the castle.

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Afterwards, Maddy and Caroline walked around town looking for flip flops (Caroline broke hers) while the twins and I went home.  One of the drawbacks of Matsumoto was that there were not many cars nor any car hire apps available, we wished that we had rented a car at this point instead of getting a JR pass.

Our place in Matsumoto had a patio over looking the valley which was unusual for us to have outdoor spaces at our lodging especially without anyone else sharing the space.  We enjoyed the space tremendously especially when the girls needed some air and some running around time outside.

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View from our house

The next day we hopped on a train and headed to Nagano a few miles north and where the Olympics were held in 1998.  We had lunch and wandered up to the Zenko-ji Temple.  The temple is where the Olympics were opened with the ringing of a very famous bell.  We were able to catch the daily chime, which was quite ear splitting when you are up close.

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A newly married couple walking up to the temple

The temple is also famous for the door to heaven, a purity ceremony that lets you touch your hand on the door to heaven.  Within the main Buddhist temple you walk down a flight of stairs into total darkness and are told to keep your hand on the wall as you walk through a corridor, eventually you come to a cold metal door handle which signifies the door to heaven.  It was an assault on the senses and makes you mentally push past fears and doubts.  The kids made it through and actually Mimi and Julie wanted to go around again, Caroline had no such interest.  On our way home we stopped in a store and tasted some wine, apparently the valley is one of the most productive wine producing areas in Japan.

The next day we visited the Alps park in Matsumoto which was only a mile away from our house but it was a mile hike up a steep trail, the kids whined so much we decided it was better to walk a mile down hill to the train station to get a taxi up to the park and then hike the mile back down to our house.  The lengths we go to avoid whining.  The park was fun, lots of play structures for the kids, they had a natural history museum with a tower and great views of the valley.  They even had a summer luge track for the kids, they loved it and even had a fun hike back to the house, the kids looking at every bug along the way.  The views were very nice too.

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Our last day in the Matsumoto we spent going to an Onsen one of the many hot springs bath houses.  This one called Sakae-no-yu Asama Onsen was a traditional bath house.  The men and women are separate and there are no clothes allowed, you must go totally naked, you must bathe before going in the tubs and be quiet and respectful.  I had a great time; I got a break from the kids and enjoyed a warm bath.  Actually the kids were well behaved and enjoyed their time with mom.  We had some snacks and headed home.  That night I watched some World Cup Football with the kids, it left me wishing Uncle Sam’s Army was in Russia for the Cup.  Alas we did get the hosting job in 2026.  On to Mt. Fuji and Father’s Day.

Shinkansen and the Alpine Route

Within the span of 36 hours we boarded our first bullet train, rode three local trains, two funiculars, two trolley buses, a ropeway (gondola) and two buses all to get to the top of Mt. Tateyama.  What an adventure.  We departed Kyoto on the Shinkansen the famous bullet train of Japan.  The blurred countryside whizzed past as we travelled to Nagoya on our Shinkansen, I was able to snap a picture as it came in the station.  This version was not the fastest train in the country but still was upwards of 200 km/h.

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After arriving in Nagoya we hopped on a train to Takeyama where we stayed for the night.  It was a quaint town with a river running down the middle.  After eating lunch we split up and explored; Mimi, Caroline and jumped around on the rocks in the river before grabbing some ice cream.  Julie and Maddy took a hike through a wooded area in search of a castle.

The next day we had to get up early and get tickets for the Alpine Route.  We had a minor snafu and thought we were supposed to start the route in Takeyama but actually it was Tateyama… oops.  These are the times when you wish you were on an organized tour but that’s not our style.  We were able to get to the start in Tateyama by 10:00am as it was only an hour train ride.  We then began the trek in earnest, no harm done.  They picked up brochures that you could stamp at all the stops along the way, a great activity for the kids.  We boarded our the first leg of the the journey a funicular and we were off.

Next was a bus which wound it way up the mountain making us all car sick, we passed the Shomyo waterfall, the highest in Japan as well as some very old cedar trees.   The bus ride took us to nearly the top of Mt. Tateyama where they have a huge snow wall, we were not expecting much because it is June but the famous snow wall was still at least 25-30 feet high.

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We then took a tram through the mountain before riding the ropeway (gondola/teleferico) which signaled the beginning of our decent.  After another funicular we walked across the Kurobe dam and boarded another tram.

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Then a bus to the JR train station in Omachi which took us to Matsumoto.  It was a good 12 hour day, the kids did awesome but we were very exhausted.  It was quite an adventure and we could have taken the Shinkansen and been there in 2 hours but then we would have missed all the adventure!!!