“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Seasons Greetings 2015-16

Seasons Greetings to all friends and family for 2016 and best wishes for 2017!

Georgetown, Guyana
It's mid December in Oberursel, Germany, and we finished school on Friday. I've managed to catch up with several German friends I haven't seen in months for brunch, visit the tiny Sachsenhausen forest Christmas market, see the latest Star Wars film, and generally relax in a way I never seem able to do during the school year. This time last year was manic and thus, no 2015 letter was written. I tried to return to it in February, but of course, here I am, so we know that didn't happen. Therefore this letter will attempt to cover both years -- no small feat!

2015 was wow and amazing and transformatory as I moved continents, and 2016, while feeling more chill in my books (but probably not compared to most people), still had some pizzazz. This really should be two separate blogs its that long, but it's not so if you only care about 2016, scroll down!

So let's start with 2015...

1. The Caribbean:
Paramaribo, Suriname
I started the year in Georgetown, Guyana, playing pool in a very busy pool hall, as one does. I then flew to Suriname to be wowed by their majestic landscape, hear the strangeness of Dutch spoken in the tropics, and discuss the amazing wildlife there with other travellers (i.e. stories of a jaguar swimming past their canoe while stalking prey). Oh, how I would love to see a jaguar! After lamenting the shortness of my visit and vowing to return and also to visit French Guiana, from Paramaribo, I flew to Trinidad, and then onwards immediately to Tobago. It may have an international airport, but it's a tiny little one! A lovely island -- a fitting end to my months in the Caribbean before flying home. I rented a car and drove around the island past wild beaches, charming fishing hamlets, and chic villages. The lighthouse at the top of the island on the top of a hill looking back into a sun-streaked rainstorm had to be the favourite site!
A short video of flying from Guyana to Suriname.

2. Home:
Heading back to Colombia briefly, I wrapped up my 3 years in South America. I caught up with friends there and heard all their travel stories. I packed my many bags and took off for home. I flew, a roundabout way, via Miami and Los Angeles, to take up a Business Class ticket bought on miles on Fijian airways. How does one go back to economy after that!? I arrived home into Auckland and picked up my rental car to drive around and visit some family. So lovely to see everyone up north. Then back to Queenstown and immediately off to see Three Dog Night and hangout in town. Loved being home so much. I love my hometown! I often wonder why I'm not living there still. After discovering that every job in town goes to backpackers, I eventually started relief teaching at Wakatipu High School. What a bizzare feeling to wander those halls of pre-teen years again. Relief teaching being what it is means that no one really treats you well, but it was interesting nevertheless. While at home I was thrilled to catch a lunar eclipse, and really enjoyed working on cloud timelapses and star photography.
A timelapse of the Remarkables from our balcony!

Hong Kong skyline from Victoria Peak
3. Asia:
Of course, I was not to stay hanging around! I was off to Asia for 3 weeks! Hadn't been to Asia since I left Myanmar in 2008, and I missed it so much! First to Singapore to catch up with several friends there and bask in the warmth and modernity. Then to Bangkok, where I revisited all my old haunts. David and Sandra obligingly came with me up to Kanchanaburi to the River Kwai ANZAC Day ceremony -- which was far too big and over extended! Still, what a lovely little riverside hotel we had. Third city on the list was Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to see various friends and reaquaint myself with that cute little city. Then it was to Hong Kong where I visited several friends' schools, and finally climbed Victoria Peak which I wish I'd done decades before! The trip wouldn't have been possible if it were not for the generous hospitality of friends in all four cities -- how lucky I am to know so many people in such great places!

Back to New Zealand to hunker down and do some more IB marking. Why do I set myself up for it?

4. Eastern and Southern Africa:
A lioness in the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania.
By the end of May it was time to set off on my biggest adventure of the year -- a zig zag across Southern Africa. Some statistics that I can actually count: 2 months. 10 countries. 20 national parks. I lost track of the number of animals and cities and towns. It was incredible! Starting in Kenya, we headed up to Nakuru and I finally got to see the salt lake, except there were no flamingoes this year due to the high water level. Then it was across into Uganda and to Queen Elizabeth II National Park to see the Chimpanzees, and the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to see the gorillas (amazing!). Both fountains for corruption but amazing ventures into the forest to see these amazing animals up close.We slipped into Rwanda for the day, before going back to the Source of the Nile and to Kenya's Maasai Mara -- and wow the lions and elephants we saw there despite the tall grasses obscuring almost everything! Across the border to almost the exact opposite side (a week later), we went into the Ngorongoro Crater Reserve and the Serengeti National Park. A lion kill!! Amazing!!
Elephants in the Orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya

Giraffes near the Serengeti plains
Lion jumping out of tree
Lion feast in the Serengeti

Victoria Falls


Elephant Sands
A few days in Zanzibar were a highlight, and then heading inland to Mikumi National Park and into Malawi. The poverty in Malawi was a lot more apparent than we'd seen up to that point, but Lake Malawi was lovely. The further south we went, the roads and general infrastructure noticeably improved. Would have loved to see the Luangwa National Parks, but alas, I'll just have to come back. In Livingstone, Zambia, I think I spent more money than the entire few weeks beforehand, but did some amazing things. I managed to be trapped under a raft for a harrowing 30 seconds, swimming where crocodiles roam. The helicopter over the Victoria Falls was spectacular, as was hearing how different it was for mum visiting in the early 70s. We crossed briefly into Zimbabwe before heading to Botswana. Chobe National Park's elephants were amazing, but the 'Elephant Sands' campsite where the watering hole is right next to the tents was also pretty incredible. Taking small mokolo canoes into the Okavango Delta fulfilled a lifelong dream after hearing about it in the 80s. Our last night in Botswana was spent in a Bushmen camp before crossing into Namibia.

I have wanted to visit Namibia for years, and I must say this visit only tempted me to come back and visit again. It was without question, my favourite country on the trip. We spent a few nights in the north where we stayed at Etosha National Park. The game drive was the single worst game drive of the trip where we did not really see a single animal of note, but the watering hole that we could watch through the night was spectacular, with several rhinos, lions, giraffes, elephants and other animals coming to drink as we sat snuggled in heavy blankets sipping hot chocolate. The rock formations near Spitzkoppe were super, as were the Sossouvlei and Dead Vlei sand dunes. I saw whales off the coast at Swakopmund/Walvis Bay, and even went sand boarding. We stayed at Fish River Canyon before crossing over into South Africa at the Orange River. South Africa was really quite a short part of the trip (only the Cedarburg Wine Region and Cape Town), but it was great to come back again as I do enjoy my time time there.

The 'Green Man' of
reunification Germany
The Romer Square in Frankfurt
5. Germany:
After the epic long journey back to New Zealand via Dubai, I had five days home in Queenstown (where I even managed a day skiing!) before flying to Frankfurt, Germany, before starting at FIS. New jobs are always time consuming and there is a settling process. The group of new teachers and I explored the charming old city of our home in Oberursel, catching the church bells in action up close, and wandered the reconstructed old city of Frankfurt. I love the Romer square, and have adopted the pride of my host city in his democratic importance in Germany. So important was its democracy that the 25th anniversary reunification celebration in October was held in Frankfurt rather than Berlin. I am horrified by the quantity of bombing that occurred during World War II, and wish the allies had faced consequences for their role in that. There were also castles, wine festivals, riverside concerts like Museumsuferfest, and buying a car!

Canyoning with Grade 8 in Austria
The Taunus Mountains in August
Frankfurt International School is a large school with two campuses that was founded in the 60s with only a few families. I love the fact that we were one of the founding IB schools, and that our campus is located at the foothills of the Taunus Mountains where the many tree-lined walking and cycling trails criss cross up to the Feldberg (highest point) as well as hidden little pedestrian only cafes like the Fuchstanz (which means 'fox dance). I coached girls middle school soccer, which takes me all over Europe to other schools for competition, and I also love helping out with Model United Nations! Within the first week of school, we were off to Bregenz, Austria for Trip Week, and the action and busy-ness never ceased! Also loved catching up with my brother's family in the Netherlands.

October break saw a friend and I exploring Bavaria and southern Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, returning via Switzerland. We saw the famed Oktoberfest, revisited Neuswanstein Castle and Dachau Concentration Camp, and spent a night in a charming little Austrian mountain village.

The view from the Heidelburg Christmas Market
Mum arrived in December and we enjoyed the Christmas Markets together, and I had a brief ski trip in Austria, but there wasn't really enough snow, then I joined my brother's family in the Netherlands for Christmas. Mum and I headed off to France on New Year's Eve, with a fabulous hotel castle room to start our brief sojourn into Brittany. Thus wrapped up, as I said, a spectacular 2015!

Onwards to 2016...

It was mum's idea to go to Carnac, and what a good idea it was! Lots of prehistoric standing stones, megaliths, and stone mysteries! Predating Stonehenge by 100 years or so, there are more than 3000 upright stones in the biggest concentration of megalithic sites in the world. As you can imagine -- heaven for us! It was the first big sojourn for my little car, bought a few weeks earlier, and must say I'm very proud of Bertie! We came back via Mont St. Michel, which really is so beautiful and impressive. It was vastly different in terms of tourist infrastructure than it was in 1993 when we were there. You used to drive out across the causeway and park at the base, but now you have kilometres of car park on the mainland and you have to be shuttled out!

Tyne Cot Cemetary, Belgium

Ypres, Belgium

We stopped in Ypres on our way back east. Impressively (or perhaps more like propaganda to some), there has been a sunset remembrance ceremony every night in Ypres since the war (except for brief periods in WW2). We went down to listen to the Last Post (Reveille) and the brief ceremony, and we were to come back in June to very different sized crowds at the summer ceremony. In a way, this year had quite a few instances of 'going back' to places I'd been before. Theme of 'revisiting', perhaps? We spent a day going to several wet and miserable cemeteries to find mum's World War I relatives. Being the 100 year anniversary of the Somme battles, it was very fitting to visit the Western Front. We found Harold Wilson Bolton's plaque at Tyne Cot Memorial, and Aylmer Henry Windsor in Lijssenthoek Military Cemetary, which was next to a hospital so had very good records. The third was Henry Marston Windsor who was at Caterpillar Valley cemetery, which we would find in June.

Obertauern, Austria
Before January was over, I'd spent a week in the Hague for THIMUN and also visited Hannover for a conference! Ski Break in February took me off on a school trip to Obertauern in Austria -- loved the skiing and snowboarding there, as well as our quaint little hostel and sledding down the mountain squeals and all.

Meroe, Sudan
Carthage, Tunisia
Meroe, Sudan

I think my colleagues here all think I'm a bit crazy, because for Easter, I planned a trip to Sudan and Tunisia to catch up with friends in both places. It's started a trend so that before each holiday, they ask me what place on the 'don't go' list I'm going to now. Khartoum was the dusty desert city you may imagine, but I really loved getting out of the city and visiting the ancient city of Karima where the sphinx-shaped rock shadows the Nile near several small pyramid tombs. Merowe, where several pyramids atmospherically disappear into sand dunes, was also great. Despite less than a week in Tunisia, I managed to cover some ground in my little rental car, seeing the Roman ruins of Dougga, the Islamic pilgrimmage center of Kairouan, and the ampitheatre at El-Jem. I loved Tunis and Carthage, and Sidi Bou Said was so evocative of Morocco that I felt homesick for it!

I think I need to plan more long weekends away, as the next time I travelled was over the summer. Perhaps the IB marking (which I've sworn not to do this year) didn't really help!

Mum and Dad arrived in early June and came for a visit. I joined the whole family in the UK for a brief trip to Manchester and then to Whitstable before driving back to Europe. We visited Ypres again before heading down to Luxembourg - a lovely little country only 3 hours from Frankfurt! Dad headed home while Mum and I flew down to delightful Albania.

The 'Accursed Mountains' near Theth, Albania

Shkodar, Albania

After exploring Tirana, we headed north to the 'Accursed Mountains' and had quite an adventure after visiting the Shkodra castle and trying to get to Theth, where there was a delightful new road to the pass, but an awful rough track down the other side that we were perhaps a bit overambitious and overzealous going down! But what a spectacular valley on the other side! We had a romantic night in a little farmhouse with traditional Balkan food. From there we drove south to Berat, and it's beautiful white windows and tiled roofs. Gjirokastra was the stone city that was superbly described by the Man Booker prize winner Ismail Kadare's winning novel, 'Chronicle in Stone'. It's an Ottoman-era mansion filled town, with an impressive hilltop fortress, complete with a downed American plane to ensure you don't forget that you're in a former-communist forbidden land. It was also the dictator Enver Hoxha's hometown. We headed even further south to the Roman city of Butrint and laughed at how Google maps sent us the very long way around to end up on the wrong side of the canal and no bridge! Enterprising local ferry owners saved the day by getting us across. We swam in the beautiful Ionian Sea/Adriatic near Saranda and I convinced Mum that we should drive back via the spectacular Llogaraja Pass above the sea. A marvellous little Roman site took us inside a military base, past thousands of the infamous bunkers, discarded on the beach. We stopped at Apollonia near Fier on our way back to Tirana, and wished we had much more time in Albania as a whole!

Maputo, Mozambique
Frankfurt skyline
I joined a school Kalahari Experience trip to South Africa in July, where we spent two weeks in several tiny villages just outside of Kuruman, working in local schools and community centres. I went from there to Maputo, Mozambique, where I learned a little about that amazing city and country before coming back for another year in Germany.

Toulouse, France
Year 2 has been just as busy as last year and I've continued coaching and working with the MUN program. I went to Waterloo, Belgium; Toulouse, France; Zurich, Switzerland; London, UK and the Netherlands, too, but that wasn't for work!

October break this year saw me revisiting two places I love - Istanbul, Turkey and Baku, Azerbaijan. Both were places with lots of memories and spent with good friends catching up. Baku has changed incredibly since I lived there, with many new buildings and complexes mushrooming up across the city, but many of my favourite haunts were still there. I also felt quite proud and nostalgic when I went to the TISA International Day/25th birthday celebration.

This brings me almost to the end of 2016. Congratulations (and thank you) if you made it this far! I am so lucky to have such an amazing life and I hope this doesn't make me sound like a spoiled rich woman! This week I will keep true to form and visit a place on the 'watched' list with travel warnings. I am revisiting Turkey, and this time going inland to explore the many places I've wanted to go for a long while. Will have to report on that next time! Speaking of reporting, I've been quite slack on my 1000 Amazing Places blog of late, but vow to do more in 2017!

Life rolls onward with all sorts of surprises, challenges, delights and expected/unexpected turns. I hope that your holidays are joyous and that the new year arrives positively and that you are surrounded by happy reflections, good memories and that my good-wishes to you join the many others from your family and friends to buoy you into 2017 with anticipation and great plans.