Melbourne with a Mission

Here’s to new experiences! We are headed for Melbourne this June; it will be the third visit for me and the kids, but the first for K. Today marks the fourth day of Ramadan, the fasting month for Muslims, and it will be the twenty-third day of Ramadan when we leave for Melbourne, which means we will be fasting for most of our week there.  The good news is it’s going to be winter in Melbourne, so the sun will set two hours earlier than it does in Singapore, and that means a shorter fast than we are used to. The challenge, though, is enduring hunger, thirst and attendant fatigue while sightseeing in cold weather. We have never traveled while fasting so this will be interesting. We will also be celebrating Eid al-Fitr, the feast that marks the end of Ramadan, with my sister and her family, a first for us. I am very much looking forward to seeing how Eid is celebrated outside of Singapore.

With only a week in Melbourne, I am not thinking of venturing out of the city. I hope there is plenty enough to see and do in the city center. We are staying at an apartment hotel close to Queen Victoria Market, so if we don’t have anything more exciting to do on Wednesday night we’ll probably check out the winter night market. My sister suggested that we take the boys to the zoo, and I suppose we could consider the SEA LIFE Melbourne Aquarium too. Neither K nor I drive, so we have to get around by tram or train, which we have never done.  It would be fantastic if working out routes to take turns out to be a lot less complicated than I imagine, because it certainly opens up the possibility of doing one or two day trips out of the city.

K and I have been talking a lot about where we want to live permanently. We will be married 12 years come Saturday, and Singapore has been our home in all that time. At 43, with a stable job and a mortgage on our apartment, I could be content living in the country I was born in for the rest of my life. Since the start of the year, though, I have come to see, through my younger son’s experience, that our world-class education system, much lauded and admired by the rest of the world (or so we are told), is not supportive and inclusive enough for children who fall short of the yardstick for normal, even by a little. This is a great place if you are normal and you lead a regular life. If you’re not, because you stumble a little, or you move at a different pace from the rest, or you take a tumble and have to stop to catch your breath and attend to the cuts and scrapes, you can suddenly feel like you’ve been left far behind, and it is so hard, and very expensive, to get the intervention you need to catch up. For the first time, I am seriously thinking about living somewhere else. Where, is the big question. America is the obvious answer because that’s where K is from, but Trump’s America gives me pause. And I also wonder if it’s too late to up and leave and put down roots elsewhere. I hope not. Suddenly, I have to shake off my complacency and do the research. This is why I suggested that we all take a trip to Melbourne, one of the world’s most livable cities. Maybe the answer isn’t my country or K’s, but a third.

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Of Raining, Cats, and Dogs in Langkawi, Malaysia (Nov 28 – Dec 1)

Of Raining, Cats, and Dogs in Langkawi, Malaysia (Nov 28 – Dec 1)

‘Tis the season to shun the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, with its famed white sand beaches and clear blue waters; the north-east monsoon has arrived, bringing with it relentless rain and choppy seas which will last till March. For sun, sand and sea, the west side is where it’s at, so goes conventional wisdom. We narrowed down our options to three popular beach holiday destinations: Langkawi Island, off the Malaysian state of Kedah, or, farther north, Phuket or Krabi in Thailand. In the end, we picked Langkawi, and despite the fact that we experienced unseasonal wet weather for much of our time there, we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

It has to be said that the resort where we stayed had a lot to do with our pleasant experience in Langkawi, and had it not been for the unique delights that it offered, we would have written this vacation off as a bit of a disappointment. I had never heard of Bon Ton Resort until it appeared on the list of hotel options on my go-to travel website. We wanted an easy holiday so I thought a five-star resort with all the usual bells and whistles would be the way to go. But Bon Ton was highly rated by guests so I was intrigued, and when I clicked on the link to find out more about it, I was sold within minutes. I really could do without a free form swimming pool, buffet breakfast, spa, tennis courts and whatnot, if it meant I got to stay in an authentic traditional kampong house, especially one that has been upgraded with essential modern comforts like hot water, air-conditioning and wifi. It would be a rare opportunity to enjoy the best of both worlds. And so we booked three nights at the Silk Villa, a 120-year-old house that can accommodate six guests.

Day 1

We landed at Langkawi International Airport at 1.40 pm and it took less than twenty minutes to get from the airport to the resort by taxi (RM 17). We were greeted by Amir, a friendly, English-speaking gentleman, who sat us down at a table in the open-air Nam Restaurant and patiently explained to us how things worked there. We were to lock the main door with a padlock and key before we went out. We ought to close all the windows in the evening to keep mosquitoes out because yes, there were mosquitoes, of course, but rest assured that mosquito repellents and mosquito nets would be provided. There were cats too, at least eight that I could see, sleeping or sitting languidly, watching the world go by. Amir assured us that they were very friendly and mild-mannered creatures who would not bother us, but who had attachments to certain houses and might ask to be allowed to sleep in the house with us. It was up to us if we wanted their company, but it was best that we let them out at night in case they needed to answer the call of nature. They were rescue cats from LASSie (Langkawi Animal Shelter and Sanctuary), located within the property and funded by the resort. There were dogs too, but they were not allowed to roam freely. However, guests could volunteer to walk them if they wished. Breakfast, which consisted of bread and cake (freshly made daily), yogurt, orange juice, jam and butter, would be placed in our fridge the night before. This meant that we were not obliged to get up by a particular time for breakfast service. We would simply help ourselves to the food in the fridge. There was a toaster in our villa for the bread, as well as a kettle and a French press for making coffee – from ground coffee beans, not instant coffee.

We certainly had not stayed in any place like Bon Ton before. I was quite charmed.

It was drizzling when we arrived but Bon Ton still looked beautiful. Our Silk Villa was everything we wanted: cosy, tastefully furnished and spacious. (To watch my video of the tour of the house, click here. )

We had lunch at Nam, then we retreated to our villa to wait out the rain. It wasn’t long before a cat made its appearance at our doorstep. Amir would later tell us that she was the lady of the house. We were a family of cat lovers so my sons were delighted to make a new friend. We took to calling her Boss.

The rain refused to stop, but it did not abate the boys’ desire to plunge into the pool, so I waited till almost 6 pm before allowing them to change into their swimming attire. They had the whole pool to themselves, and happily used the floats that the pool staff offered.

We didn’t feel up to venturing out of the resort for dinner, so we went to Nam again, but after a closer look at the prices on the menu, we decided that it would be unwise to continue having our meals there. The exchange rate was in our favor, but spending RM 40 on something like fried noodles felt criminal, even though the noodles were very tasty and packed with fresh seafood. The most expensive item that we ordered that evening was the Seafood Platter (RM 103). It was an indulgence not to be repeated.

I am pleased to report that no one among us suffered from mosquito bites. Housekeeping staff would come every evening at around 7 pm to prepare the rooms: closing the windows, turning on the electric mosquito coils and unfurling the mosquito nets. Nighttime entertainment, mainly for the kids, consisted of DVD-watching. There was a TV in our villa and a DVD player but no TV or cable channels. We borrowed a total of seven DVDs from the resort’s decently-stocked library (free of charge) in the course of our stay. The only thing I would complain about were the flat feather pillows. I could use firmer ones.

Day 2

The next day, we rented a car so that we could do a bit of sightseeing. The weather was still wet and dreary and the prospect of enjoying hours of frolicking in the sea was very dim. Still, it was good to be out and about. Our main destination was Tanjung Rhu, which supposedly has the best beach on the island. We stopped at what we thought was Tanjung Rhu but was in fact an unnamed beach. It didn’t matter to my sons. Even with the sea looking forbidding, they managed to have fun.

We did eventually find Tanjung Rhu Beach. We could only imagine how much better it would look on a clear, sunny day. Once again, my boys were undeterred, so I accompanied them as they played by the water’s edge, building and rebuilding sandcastles and collecting seashells.

K and my aunt didn’t feel the lure of the water, so they parked themselves at a table and enjoyed goreng pisang (fried bananas), keropok lekor (fried fish dough) and coconut juice from a roadside stall. The kids and I had some too once I managed to persuade them to call it a day and change into dry clothes. For dinner, we headed to Kuah, where we had RM 6 plates of fried noodles, fruit juices and a large grilled garoupa at an open-air restaurant, for a little more than the price of the Seafood Platter at Nam Restaurant. Lesson well learned.

Day 3

My aunt left us in the morning because she had another short trip lined up, to Jakarta with my mother. We decided to laze the day away. We took our time with breakfast while watching a couple of DVDs. We let the kids take a long, noisy and splashy bath in the outdoor tub. There were fallen leaves and stems in it that had to be removed before I filled it with water, but fortunately no bugs. Once they were clean and dressed, they got busy playing with Boss and looking for other cats around the resort.

I wanted to preserve the memory of Silk Villa and Bon Ton so I went around taking photos of all its interesting details, as well as the neighboring villas.

Almost imperceptibly, a little after lunch, the rain stopped and for the first time, the sun broke through the clouds. We could even see patches of blue sky. Bon Ton looked even more beautiful than before.

My sons quickly changed into their swimwear and had two glorious hours in the pool, under the sun. Other guests also emerged from their villas and sat on the deck chairs or did lazy laps. I chose to lie down with the cat, and K watched more DVDs. Sooner than we liked, it started pouring again and the kids came running into the house. We were determined not to have dinner at Nam again so in spite of the weather, we called for a taxi to take us to Cenang Beach. We had a good meal at a seafood restaurant, then shopped for souvenirs for friends and colleagues before taking a taxi back to Bon Ton.

Day 4

Our flight back to Singapore was scheduled to depart at 2.25 pm, which meant that we had to head for the airport right after checking out at noon. The boys were already talking about returning to the place. I was very pleased that they felt they had a wonderful time. I didn’t think that cats, water and DVDs would be enough to occupy them, but it seemed that those were all they needed.

Amir was at his usual post at the Reception counter, with a dog called Sweety by his side.  He warned us to stay away from her because she, a victim of terrible abuse by her former owner, had bitten every member of the staff except him, whom she was fiercely protective of. Amir said that we could leave as late as 1.15 pm, but we preferred to be two hours early, so he called for a taxi. While we waited for it to come, we chatted a little about the villas and the history of the resort. I learned that the houses were bought from various parts of Malaysia and transported to the resort, sold by families who wanted to upgrade to concrete houses. When the taxi arrived, we shook hands and I said that we would like to return at the next opportunity. Amir told us to book directly with them and mention that we were returning guests so that we could get a discount. He also said that it was best to avoid the Chinese New Year holidays, when the rates were likely to go up.

We certainly look forward to the next time.

Bandung, Indonesia (Sept 2-5, 2017) – Part 2

Day 3

We showed up punctually at 9 am at the lobby again after breakfast, ready for the day’s itinerary. After going south to see Kawah Putih the day before, we were now headed north to Tangkuban Perahu, a stratovolcano which last erupted in 2013. Definitely not a place to take your young children.

Tangkuban Perahu means “upturned boat”, and it is so called because its peak when seen from a distance is supposed to resemble that. What fascinated me about this volcano was the Sundanese legend of its creation. It is a tale as twisted and as fantastic as the Greek legend of Oedipus, and so hard to summarise but I will do my best, because it is worth telling. A beautiful maiden, Dayang Sumbi, marries a dog, who is actually a god in cursed form. I will skip the reason why. She gives birth to a son who is named Sangkuriang. (No bestiality involved; the dog turns into his god form during the full moon.) Sangkuriang doesn’t know that the family pet is actually his father. One day he and his dog/father go hunting and he spots a boar. His father recognises the animal as a cursed goddess and stops the boy from killing it. Angered, Sangkuriang attacks the dog/his father, who dies from the injuries. Not wanting to return empty-handed, he chops up the animal’s body and passes it off as deer meet for Dayang Sumbi, who cooks and eats it. Eventually he confesses to what he has done. Enraged, his mother hits him on the head with a rice serving spoon. He runs out of the house into the forest and doesn’t return home, having suffered amnesia from the blow. Dayang Sumbi is devastated, and for some reason the gods decide to give her the gift of eternal youth and beauty – to make her feel better, perhaps.

Fast forward years later, and Sangkuriang is now a handsome young man who has done well for himself. One day he sees a beautiful woman outside her cottage and falls in love with her. They decide to marry. He has no recollection of the cottage as his childhood home. Dayang Sumbi, the eternally young woman, does not recognise her grown-up son either, but realises who he is after finding a scar on his head. She tries to stop the wedding from happening but he refuses to call it off. So she sets him two impossible tasks, which he has to complete before dawn as a condition of her agreeing to the wedding. The first is to build her a great lake, which he achieves with the help of supernatural beings that he communes with. The second is to build a boat from a massive tree. Again, with supernatural help, Sangkuriang is close to completing the second task as dawn is about to break. Dayang Sumbi, determined to thwart the wedding plan, throws her magic scarf into the sky, turning it into the colours of dawn. Convinced that he has failed, Sangkuriang kicks the boat so hard it turns upside down, transforming it into Tangkuban Perahu. He then chases after Dayang Sumbi, who prays to the gods to save her. She is turned into a flower. Unable to find her, Sangkuriang goes insane. What a story, right?

If you don’t have much time in Bandung and have to choose between Kawah Putih and Tangkuban Perahu, I would say go for Tangkuban Perahu, and I think so would my travel companions, based on our experience. The entrance fee to Tangkuban Perahu is more expensive and the peddlers are more persistent – one followed us all the way up to the highest lookout point and down, trying to sell his obsidian bracelets – but the view of its biggest crater, Kawah Ratu, is stunning, and the smell of sulphur is not as overpowering. I know there are many people who will vehemently disagree with me, and it is probably because they were lucky enough to see Kawah Putih in its full, misty, surreal glory. We weren’t.

We also visited another crater, Kawah Domas, which is located below Kawah Ratu, 1500 meters above sea level, according to the guide that we had to hire to take us there. The hike to the crater – starting from the entrance, not from Kawah Ratu; we weren’t so  adventurous – is manageable for a person of below average fitness like me, but I wouldn’t be quick to call it easy. The terrain started out flat before sloping down gradually and becoming steeper, so you can imagine how fun the return trip was, having to go up a steep incline first before the path flattened. At any rate, I enjoyed walking through the rainforest without perspiring profusely, thanks to the cool weather. The guide was informative, drawing our attention to interesting flora along the way, like a tall ancient tree that was thousands of years old and wild pandan, whose leaves are used for making handicrafts.

The only reason to visit Kawah Domas is to experience the hot springs. It’s not a pretty place, and the steam coming out of the springs can make one nervous. No one wants to be scalded, after all. There are pools of varying temperatures to soak your feet in, and many locals waiting for you, eager to give your legs and arms (up to the elbows) a sulphuric mud mask before you rinse off and soak your feet. We decided to go for it. It wasn’t a bad experience. It took a while to get used to the 40-degree (C) water and I didn’t really feel revived by the mud mask and massage, but it was a good opportunity to rest before the trek back to the entrance.

Back in the car, the unanimous decision was to go for lunch. Ginanjar asked if we were interested in kopi luwak, the famous local coffee made from beans consumed and excreted by civets. He had a place in mind, and we agreed to check it out. Kopi Luwak Cikole prides itself in its ethical treatment of the civets that it breeds and raises in its premises. The animals – the ‘musang pandan’ species – are fed a varied diet of fruit, honey, even chicken, since they are omnivores, and are given coffee beans only twice a week. Coffee is processed in small batches too so as not to put a strain on the animals. Good news for coffee lovers who are animal lovers like me.

We had lunch at a lovely place called Gubug Makan Mang Engking in Lembang. I have no photos of our sumptuous meal because I burned my thumb and index finger in the stupidest way imaginable, by trying to pick up a serving spoon, the handle of which was hanging over a burning tealight. Who knew the gentle flame of a tealight could conduct heat so well? I tried to distract myself from the pain by making small talk with Ginanjar. Among other things I asked him if he had children. Four, was his reply. I was both surprised and impressed, because he looked so young, thirty at most. ‘The air in Lembang is cool,’ he said. Then with his trademark smile, he added, ‘Very conducive to sleeping.’

This was going to be our last night in Bandung, so we decided to go shopping before returning to our hotel. We’d heard of Rumah Mode as a great place for that so Ginanjar drove us there. I didn’t think it was that great. It is basically a factory outlet complex so it’s only good if you are looking for name brand clothes at discounted prices. I hadn’t bought anything for the kids and my nephews yet so I got them some nice t-shirts. We also went to Paris Van Java Mall, where I found a long dress for my mother, a sarong for K and batik shirts for my sons – to be hung in their wardrobe until I have to take them with me to Malay weddings, where traditional clothes are the preferred attire. It was a satisfying end to a very enjoyable, if long, day. I felt like I had seen and done everything that I wanted to do, but I still wished, as I let sleep overcome me in bed, that I had more time in Bandung. I hadn’t had enough of Sundanese cuisine and the beautiful weather.

Day 4

There is nothing much to say about our last day. We slept in a little and had a longer, more leisurely breakfast because we didn’t have anywhere to go except the airport after we checked out. When Ginanjar came to fetch us, he had boxes of kue lapis legit – traditional “thousand-layer” cake – that he’d ordered and collected on our behalf from a bakery that he’d recommended, Ny. Liem. What’s so special about this bakery? Apparently it uses high quality ingredients like French butter. The cake was pricey, but it did live up to the hype: moist, buttery and rich.

Our return flight was delayed by a half-hour but other than that the flight home was uneventful. I went home thrilled to see my children and K, and rejuvenated after my me-time. I would like to be able to do this again. I think every working parent who raises his or her children without a nanny deserves a child-free vacation at least once a year.

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Bandung, Indonesia (Sept 2-5, 2017) – Part 1

Bandung, Indonesia (Sept 2-5, 2017) – Part 1

I had heard so much about Bandung. Nice weather, great shopping, good food, beautiful places to see, all at very affordable prices. What joy to discover that everything that’s been said is true.

Day 1

My two friends and I touched down at Husein Sastranegara International at 12.45 pm after a short and smooth flight on Air Asia. The airport is very small but quite efficiently run. We were out in less than 45 minutes by my reckoning. There were plenty of taxis and cars waiting outside to pick up newly arrived visitors. As fate would have it, we went with Ginanjar, a soft-spoken, sweet-faced young man whom we then hired to be our personal driver, and who turned out to have a wicked sense of humor.

Home for the next three days was Sensa Hotel, which I would recommend to anyone who wants a good family-friendly hotel in a good location. It is a boutique hotel with clean, comfortable and well appointed rooms and the breakfast spread at the hotel restaurant is quite delightful, as we discovered every morning.

The hotel is also conveniently located next to Cihampelas Walk Shopping Mall, which offers a wide range of eateries. That was where we spent our first day in Bandung. We didn’t order in-flight meals so we arrived ready for lunch and eager to try the local cuisine. In fact, food was the topic that broke the ice when we were in the car with Ginanjar. We asked him what was good to eat in these parts and he rattled off a list of street foods, nasi (rice) and mie (noodle) dishes that we had never heard of and whose names sounded amusingly like obscenities to our unaccustomed ears. After checking out all the food options, we settled for bakmi for lunch, which is a noodle dish that comes with (your choice of) meat and green vegetables, clearly Chinese in origin but quite Indonesian in flavour – hot and spicy. I loved it. After a couple of hours’ rest in our rooms we were out again for dinner. This time we looked for a place that served rice dishes and found Warung Talaga. The portions were rather small but everything was delicious.

The rest of the evening was spent in the cosy confines of a darkened room in Studio Family Karaoke, which has an excellent sound system. It was past midnight when we stepped out of the building. We were greeted by refreshingly cool air, much to our surprise. I had not thought it possible to experience temperatures in the low and mid-20s (Celsius) in Indonesia without being on high elevation. I certainly could get used to the weather there.

Day 2

Ginanjar picked us up promptly at nine in the morning, impressed by our punctuality. He told us that it was typical for visitors from a particular country, which I will not mention here, to request for a morning pick-up only to show up a couple of hours later. And so our trip to the south of Bandung began on a cheerful note. We were off to see the famous crater lake, Kawah Putih, 2430 metres above sea level.

The journey took two hours, taking us through small towns and past rice fields before we reached the winding road up to Mount Patuha. The car radio was staticky, but from what we could hear the radio station was abuzz with well-wishes for the beautiful and amazing Indonesian singer Raisa, who was marrying her fiance, Hamish Daud that day. Can you tell I am a huge fan of hers? I was overjoyed for both of them.

Ginanjar revealed his sense of humour when he told us to look out for a bridge when we arrived at Kawah Putih. ‘The bridge is called Sirat Al-Mustaqim,’ he said with a smile. We laughed. Sirat Al-Mustaqim means “the straight path” or “the right path” in Arabic, and in Islam, it also refers to the bridge that every person must pass on the Day of Judgement in order to enter Paradise. Below it are the fires of Hell, and sinners will fall into it trying to cross the perilously narrow bridge, as narrow as a hair’s breadth. Sirat Al-Mustaqim would be a rather apt nickname for a bridge on Kawah Putih, which is highly acidic and, it goes without saying, not safe for swimming.

The air was cool up where Kawah Putih was, but the smell of sulphur was hard to ignore. I was glad none of us reacted badly to it, but we certainly didn’t want to hang around for long. Is the lake worth seeing? Yes, just once, to satisfy your curiosity. Prior to this trip, I had never gone up a volcano before, much less seen a crater or a crater lake, so I definitely wanted to see Kawah Putih, especially because the water is a pretty aquamarine due to the sulphur content, despite its name meaning “white crater”. It probably would have been a more impressive sight if Bandung wasn’t experiencing a dry spell; when we saw it, the water level was low and it didn’t look like much of a lake. Still, we were glad we went. Now we don’t have to go back there again.

It was a little past noon when we decided that we had had enough of jostling with other visitors, taking pictures and breathing in sulphur fumes. Ginanjar whisked us off to Situ Patenggang (Lake Patenggang), just twenty minutes away. There was a restaurant there with a lovely view of the lake where we could have lunch, he said. Indeed there was, but it was so crowded that we decided we didn’t want to wait for a table. Still, we took the opportunity to have a quick look-see of the place, since it was so picturesque.

Our lunch stop did come with a view, that of rice fields. It was a restaurant called Sindang Reret in Lembang. We ordered enough food to feed a village because we were famished, and we managed to eat everything except for four sticks of satay that Ginanjar decided was too good to waste – and we agreed – so he got them packed to go.

Our bellies filled, we were ready to call it a day, but not without a bit of shopping. We stopped by Rumah Batik Komar before returning to our hotel. I was very pleased with the boutique’s selection of batik, even though it took some earnest looking, because the fabrics were displayed folded and stacked on open shelves so that one had to take them out one by one and unfold them to examine the designs. I eventually fell in love with a piece of batik tulis (hand-drawn batik) that had a delicate pink floral motif against a lovely turquoise background, which I promptly paid for along with a scarf for my sister.

We were back at the hotel a little before 8 pm, satisfied with how the day had gone but  utterly spent. As I lay in bed in my large and quiet room enjoying music from my iPhone, it occurred to me that I could not have done what I had done that day if my children were with me. They would not have enjoyed the long drives and they would have whined about the smell at Kawah Putih. They would have made a nuisance of themselves at the batik shop out of sheer boredom. I was glad they weren’t with me. Of course I loved them, but this trip was all about me, for me.

The Travel Situation

The Travel Situation

It is September and our family has yet to go on a vacation together. We did travel twice; to New York last April to visit family, namely K’s mother, who has since left us after 16 years of valiantly battling cancer, and to Kuching in July to attend a wedding, but family vacations they were not. It doesn’t look like it’s going to happen, not as a foursome. We simply cannot afford two long-haul trips in a year, not with two children.

What I did do was take the kids out of the country with my close friends for short trips to Johor Bahru, Malaysia,  during school term breaks when K wasn’t able to take leave or didn’t want to use up his leave days. In March, we stayed a night at Pulai Springs Resort, which was a quiet and pleasant experience, just what we needed.

In July, we did a day trip to JB (that’s Johor Bahru for short), this time to eat, shop and sing our lungs out at a karaoke joint. 🙂 It was fun, and I was pleasantly surprised at how not a pain it was to take public transport to get there.

At the end of the day, a vacation is a luxury, not a necessity, so though I’m always itching to get my passport stamped and step into a foreign country, I’m not going to sweat it if I can’t. What I will do, though, is look out for interesting places to explore closer to home.

I’m also going to travel without the kids and the husband, for once. In fact, I’m leaving tomorrow for Bandung, Indonesia, with two old friends, both seasoned travelers whom I trust. My sons are 9 and 5 (going on 6) and have never been separated from me for more than two nights, and even then I was still in Singapore, on a school camp. I thought it was about time I get a real vacation, so I can just be traveler, not stressed-out child minder. Let me tell you, I feel a lot of guilt about this. I have friends who have gone on work trips, school trips and/or vacations for weeks without their children since they were babies so I know that there’s nothing wrong with doing the same but part of me still feels like I’m being selfish. And maybe I am, but so what? Ask any mother with no help what they really want on Mother’s Day and don’t be surprised if the answer is a day off from taking care of the kids. Oh what a singular pleasure it will be, an entire day far away from them so she can do whatever she wants, undisturbed. I do love traveling with my sons, but sometimes I just want to do things on my own while I still have the energy, things they won’t be interested in or things they are too young to do. Like see a sulphuric crater lake or go up an active volcano. I’m referring to Kawah Putih and Tangkuban Perahu, which are on my Bandung itinerary. I’m very grateful to K for graciously agreeing to take care of our sons while I’m away for four days.

So I’m almost all packed. Just need to throw the toiletries bag into the suitcase tomorrow morning. Here’s hoping for an awesome trip and a drama-free situation at home!

Our Bavarian Adventure – Zugspitze (Dec 3, 2016)

Our Bavarian Adventure – Zugspitze (Dec 3, 2016)

There are beautiful places in the world that I want to immerse myself in and explore, maybe more than once, and then there are places that I’m contented to admire from afar. Mountains belong to the latter category for me. They are majestic, awe-inspiring and humbling, so humbling that I have no aspirations of ‘conquering’ them. There is a part of me that feels that they are not meant to be scaled for personal glory or to demonstrate the triumph of the human spirit over Nature; they are there to put us in our place, so we learn to respect Nature and back off when she tells us she’s not in the mood for human company. That said, I still admire the courage, strength and determination of those who have climbed to the summits of mountains. I know I can never endure the hardship.

Nevertheless, one of the highlights of 2016 for me was being on a mountain for the first time. That mountain is Germany’s highest peak, Zugspitze, 2962 meters above sea level. The wonder of it was that I didn’t have to climb it. From Eibsee in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, we took the cog-wheel train up to the Glacier Station, just 362 meters shy of the summit. The train journey lasts 30 minutes, part of which takes one through a tunnel under mountain rock. There is the more scenic option of taking the cable car to the summit, a shorter trip of only 10 minutes, but I decided against it. None of us had ever been up a mountain, and I was concerned that everyone would get a serious case of altitude sickness. The more gradual ascent via train is recommended for those who are prone to it or those who have medical conditions so I decided to play it safe. I also do have a slight fear of heights, so I wasn’t sure if the panoramic views from the cable car would take my breath away or make me hyperventilate with terror. For the record, I have taken the cable car in Singapore from Sentosa Island to Mount Faber many times without getting a panic attack, feeling only a little weak in the knees. The husband and I even took the cable car at the Bronx Zoo without incident once, before it got grounded for good. Neither of them took us higher than 100 meters above the ground, though. 2962 meters is something else. If there is a next time, perhaps I will be more adventurous. Perhaps.

When we set off from Füssen, it was cold and foggy, -2 degrees Celsius. We were a little worried that the weather would worsen and hoped for the best.

We took the B179 highway to Eibsee, which winds around the mountains, taking us into Austria part of the way before leading us back to Germany and into Garmisch-Partenkirchen. It was a lovely drive; the skies had cleared, giving us generous mountain views.

The train ride from Eibsee to Zugspitze was smooth but there wasn’t much to see out the windows, just trees on either side, except for that moment where we could see Lake Eibsee below.

Besides the fact that it was the first mountain I had ever been on, the other thing that made my trip to Zugspitze so special was the snow experience. Up until then I had never been in a completely snowy environment, where everything was white. When we stepped out of the train station, we found ourselves right in the middle of the ski area, dazzled by the noonday sun, and momentarily bowled over by the fact that we were surrounded by snow.

My secondborn, A, was the first to realize what he could do, and started rolling in the snow and making snowballs. The pragmatic mom in me looked around for a proper place to park ourselves. I found a Rodelhütte (“toboggan hut”) that rented sleds for €6. Children below the age of 8 were not allowed to ride it on their own, so that was how I ended up sledding with A and O for two hours on the mountain.

I wish we had arrived earlier so we had time to go up to the summit, or check out the igloo village, but we were on top of the world (pun intended) as it were. What a fantastic experience. I’m glad I could handle the altitude, feeling only a little light-headed from the effort of lugging the sled up the slope and sliding down umpteen times. I was even happy to see for myself how having the right gear helped. My ski jacket and ski pants kept me comfortable and my snowproof boots kept my feet dry. For once, I considered taking up skiing or snowboarding.

We took the 3.15 pm train down the mountain and found that fog was setting in. My aunt was a little worried that it would affect her driving, but it didn’t. Throughout the drive back to Füssen, I sat back and quietly appreciated the views of mountains shrouded in fog and of picturesque towns.

This was our last evening in Füssen, and the Christmas market had opened the day before, so we decided to stop by the old town to see what it had to offer. It was a small Christmas market, set up inside the baroque courtyard of the St Mang monastery. There was a very entertaining performance by a fire-eater that delighted the crowd.

It was a lovely way to end the day and our stay in Bavaria.

Our Bavarian Adventure – Hohenschwangau (Dec 2, 2016)

Our Bavarian Adventure – Hohenschwangau (Dec 2, 2016)

The hostel where we were staying sold a full day group tour of eight places of interest around Füssen, including Neuschwanstein Castle and an Austrian border town, all for the reasonable price of €25. The tour bus would pick us up at 8 am and drop us off at 6 pm. The itinerary sounded like what we would like to do, but it felt like too much to do in one day, and I was sure the kids would be weary and whiny halfway through it. Anyhow, the top priority was to see Neuschwanstein, and I wanted to take my time there and not be hustled back on the bus after an hour or so. We chose to strike out on our own.

Neuschwanstein Castle is located in the tiny village of Hohenschwangau, perched high on a rugged hill. It can be seen from the visitors’ parking lot if you go by car or tour bus.

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We arrived at around 11 am, which on hindsight seems the right time to be there, because there weren’t hordes of tourists spilling out of buses trying to get to the same place. We were in line for only ten minutes at the Ticketcenter and got tickets on the 12.15 pm guided tour of Neuschwanstein Castle and the 2.50 pm tour of Hohenschwangau Castle (Ludwig II’s childhood summer residence), both conducted in English. The guided tours are the only way tourists can see the rooms inside the two castles. I wasn’t going to skip them, not after I had traveled so far and waited so many years to get there.

There are two ways to go up to Neuschwanstein Castle: one can either walk or ride a horse carriage. We decided to do the former. It took us 45 minutes; the more athletic types and those not accompanying young children, the disabled or the elderly would probably take 30 to 40. The winding path was steep, but wide enough to accommodate two horse carriages side by side so there was plenty of room to walk. I enjoyed the hike and my boys didn’t complain. Not only did the castle look more and more splendid as we got closer, the gorgeous view of Füssen from the top also made the climb worth it.

Photography is not allowed inside the castle, so I cannot show you how stunning and painstakingly detailed in design the rooms were, and also how mind-boggling in conception, being an eclectic mix of different styles from different eras. The king’s bedroom, for one, has a hidden door that leads to a man-made grotto with impressively realistic stalactites and stalagmites! Then there are the vibrant and beautiful paintings depicting vivid scenes from medieval legends, the same ones which the king’s special friend, Richard Wagner, based his operas on. You have to take the tour to appreciate the mind that imagined and ordered into existence this castle as his home and refuge, despite the crippling costs. No wonder he was called Mad King Ludwig.  (Whether he really suffered from mental illness is now considered questionable, and some have claimed that the (mis)diagnosis, his dethronement and subsequent confinement to Berg Castle was politically motivated and a way of silencing rumors that he was a homosexual.)

Once the guide concluded his tour, which took 30 minutes, we were left unescorted to take the staircase down to where the souvenir shop and the exit are. I whipped out my phone then and started taking photos of the views from the windows.

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The blue water of Forggensee, a man-made lake created by damming the River Lech, can be seen from the castle.
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Marienbrücke (Queen Mary’s Bridge) over Pollät Gorge, named after Ludwig II’s mother and built by his father, Ludwig I. This is where you stand if you want to take photos of the castle that look like the postcards and framed prints they sell at the shops. We gave it a miss because we had to see Hohenschwangau Castle, but I would love to come back and admire the castle from that vantage point.

My aunt the animal lover could not resist petting the horses that were waiting for their carriage to fill up with passengers below the castle. That was how the driver ended up striking a conversation with her and we ended up taking the carriage down to Hohenschwangau, at €3 per person, with the kids counting as one adult. The downhill ride took about 15 minutes.

We took a much-needed cake and coffee break at the cafe in Hotel Müller before walking up to Hohenschwangau Castle for the guided tour. This castle sits just a little above the village so the climb was easy. It’s not as dreamy as Neuschwanstein on the outside, but to me it looked more welcoming. The rooms were designed and furnished with more restraint, but the paintings and murals depicting the medieval legends, especially that of Parzifal, whom Ludwig II identified with, were vibrant and detailed works of art which clearly fed the imagination of Ludwig as a child.

By the time we were done with the tour, it was starting to get dark. We drove back to Füssen in slightly foggy conditions, but I found the scenery mesmerizing. I was over the moon. I might not have seen the castle of my dreams at its most spectacular, in the full light and foliage of summer or in the elegant white cloak of winter, but I saw it at last, with no drama; there was no hassle at all getting tickets sorted out and juggling two guided tours. I’m sure things would be different if I had been there in the summer. There would have been throngs of fellow tourists jostling for space at photo-worthy spots and long lines for tickets and horse carriages. Once again, I’m glad I did not take the full day tour that the hostel was selling. When you finally meet your one great love, you must have all the time in the world to appreciate it.