Travels with a Tapir: The Amazon Jungle

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Pitifully late, this. But you’ll notice that the blog leaves us in the Bolivian saltflats. There’s much more to tell, especially if you’ve found this page looking for how to take the kids to Bolivia.

So let me continue with our trip to the Amazon Rainforest – a trip that only those with strong stomachs for flying should attempt.

We flew from La Paz to Rurrenabaque on the type of plane that makes you hold your breath, with excitement or fear depending on your temperament. Flying over the Andes on a tiny plane feels momentous (particularly if you’ve ever read that book about the Andes plane crash where the survivors ate everyone else).

When you travel with children, you often find yourself having to pretend you’re not scared. Clover’s repeated ‘I don’t like it, I don’t like it’, forced me to grit my teeth cheerfully and get on with it. “Why don’t you just read your book darling?” I suggested, as another mountain peak sailed past within touching distance.

At Rurrenabaque, they have to clear the wild pigs off the runway so we can land. We’re deep into jungle town – one paved road, a few restaurants and deep humidity after the heights of La Paz. After one night in a local hotel, we take a boat into the Madidi National Park for our one Amazon Jungle experience of the trip.

Why the Bolivian Amazon? It’s cheaper and less slick than Brazil. Also, the Madidi lodges are run by indigenous families, who are committed to keeping their rainforest protected.

First surprise about the rainforest? It’s unseasonably cold. Which seems a little unfair. It’s also a bit wet. The camp is comfortable, but with no electricity in our hut, and certainly no mobile signal, we’re far from home.

At Madidi, you can go into the jungle, or you can wait for the jungle to come to you. This it does at regular intervals, particularly mealtimes. The wild pigs are regular, and smelly, visitors, turning up to forage at all times of the day. They communicate by clicking their jaws, and then run off into the forest after they’ve eaten their fill.

Then there is Tony, the tapir, who our guide keeps insisting is wild. Tony is not wild. He is a disgruntled teenage tapir who was abandoned by his mother and brought up at Madidi, Sometimes he goes walkabout for a night, but mostly he turns up regularly to snaffle bananas from the kitchen and follow the guests around. Clover and I will never forget our Madidi moment when we found Tony trying to get in the loo with us (remember, he’s now about the size of a small horse) and I nearly shut the door on his nose.

Guides from the Lodge take us into the jungle for day and night walks. We spot monkeys of various types in the trees, and hear more. It’s bizarrely thrilling to see stick insects in their natural habitat (turns out it’s not a plastic case in a primary school classroom) and see leaf cutter ants scurry away with their prizes.

The girls learned to make jewellery from rainforest seeds, and insisting on tubing in the piranha-infested river, even though the water was freezing.

On the river we spotted an injured capybara (probably from a jaguar bite) and her babies. The guide was bleak about the babies’ chances – but the girls were hopeful they’d make it. We also saw a really wild tapir (not Tony) wandering around at the side of the river.

The sheer vastness of the Amazon jungle is hard to comprehend, as is the speed of its shrinkage. But it was amazing to see how the ecosystem fitted together, and to spend time with people who live at its heart. We can only hope there will be something left of it when the girls want to come back with their own children.

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Bolivia II: Salt flats and stargazing

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IF you want to scare yourself before going on a family holiday, you can always rely on Google to help you out. Try ‘Bolivian Saltflats’ if you really want a fright – the internet can furnish you with plenty of lurid tales of drunk drivers veering off course, temperatures of minus 30 and discomfort all round.

Didn’t stop us, though it did ensure we did our research beforehand. Unfortunately, once you get out to the Salar de Uyuni – a saltflat so big you can see it from space – any thought of a comfortable time pretty much goes out of the window (you’ll be keeping that window shut by the way, its perishingly cold).

So, like everyone else, we flew on a tiny plane to a tiny airport heated only by one of those patio heaters so beloved of British smokers in the winter months (did I mention it was chilly?) and booked ourselves onto a three day excursion out into the Salar. I’d done my homework, so we picked an operator with an impeccable safety record, called Salty Desert Aventours. If I couldn’t do anything about the discomfort, we could at least ensure that we didn’t get a drunk driver.

It emerges, however, that pretty much every salt flat tour is the same. You are loaded into a Toyota Landcruiser (in our case with two very lovely Colombians, since there weren’t really enough Spanish speakers to go round, though I think the girls would have preferred an English-speaking group) and herded across the flats.

First stop is the train graveyard, home to locomotives shipped all the way from the UK- and left to rust. They are the world’s best playground, as long as you don’t mind a lack of health and safety. The girls will never see the school climbing wall the same way again.

Then it’s off to the flats themselves stopping in the middle to take awesome pictures of yourselves with giant dinosaurs and toys.

These pictures are achieved using a technique known as ‘forced perspective’ – but Father Ted fans amongst us just refer to it as the ‘these are small, those are far away’ technique (hint, the salt flats are very, very flat, wide and reflective). The driver will be much better at taking these pictures than you will be. He probably has his own plastic dinosaur, but the girls were particularly thrilled with the shots of them whispering into Sheepie’s ear and kissing Monkey.

Some stats for the salt flats. The Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat, and its nearly 4000 metres above sea level (that’s high). The hexagonal salt crusts stretch across 4000 square miles and cover over half of the world’s lithium reserves. You don’t need to know too much about mobile phone and battery production to worry that this area isn’t going to stay beautifully preserved for too much longer.

For now, though, it’s indescribable- though that’s not going to stop me trying. Day one, after the silly pictures, included some cold bubbling springs (hot ones come later), some glorious lakes and a night at a hotel made entirely of salt. This was about as cold and cheerless as you imagine it might be. Turns out salt beds are not that comfortable. Who knew?

So after the ‘luxurious’ salt hotel, I was dreading Day 2, described as the ‘cold and uncomfortable’ bit of the trip. This is where temperatures really began to drop as we drove past incredible lakes rich with flamingos on the Chilean border (see last week’s episode of Planet Earth II).Weird landscapes that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Dr Seuss book made me wonder whether this was where he got his ideas from. The girls loved watching the flamingos, and tolerated the weird-coloured lakes (appreciation of scenery appears to come quite late in the childhood development scale). I tried very hard to cope with the fact there was no mobile phone signal. Trying to read a proof for the Mail on Sunday on the Bolivian salt flats turned out to be a bit too tricky.

We spent that night in an approximation of a youth hostel, filled with a polyglot mix of nationalities, including the brother of the family we’d been hanging out with in La Paz, the former manager of one of the estate agents down the road from us in London, and a French/American family whose children instantly palled up with the girls. It didn’t quite get down to minus 32, but it was insanely cold, and we were super grateful when our driver turned out to be the only one who’d brought hot water bottles. The stars were incredible.

Day three started off with a visit to some very dangerous hot springs very early in the morning. Watching the ground bubble beneath you is disconcerting anywhere, but the Bolivian attitude to health and safety appears to stop short at telling people ‘just be careful not to fall in’. We left the girls in the car to observe the geography from afar.

We were so glad to arrive at some slightly less dangerous hot springs where we could bathe – such a nice feeling. We watched flamingos feeding while the girls played mermaids with their new friends, before driving back to the airport via a bizarrely good pizza restaurant.

How would I describe the Salar? Otherworldly, and I suspect as near to a trip into space as Paul and I will ever get. No wonder they train astronauts there. Should you go? Undoubtably, but take your thermals. And a plastic dinosaur or two.

Bolivia I: Land of ups and downs, but mostly ups

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Travelling to Bolivia felt like a bit of a gamble. The country is far further off the beaten path than neighbouring Peru, and there have been plenty of warnings about terrifying buses and the mean streets of La Paz to dissuade us from the decision

However, for a family reeling from the Brexit result (Daisy’s comment, when we explained the vote to her was ‘is it like the Dark Ages now’), it proved a soothing place to lick our wounds and deal with the depleted pound. So come now, come to La Paz – just make sure you bring some oxygen and a sense of humour.

Bolivia started really well. We hopped back on the Peru Hop bus (cunningly renamed Bolivia Hop for the trip), and crossed a border complete with sheep on our way to Copacabana on the other side of the lake. As veterans at border crossings, I’d say that was the simplest yet – unlike the crossing back, but more on that later. On the bus we met another travelling family – Baby Ivy reminded us so much of Daisy and Clover (who were also travelling babies), and the girls loved playing with her.

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Copacabana is backpacker central. Its main function is to serve as a jumping-off point for Bolivian islands on Lake Titicaca. The most famous are Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna, apparently the birthplace of the Incans. Couldn’t miss that, so we took a tiny ferry over to the larger of the two, followed by an exceptionally steep climb up to the village.

Isla del Sol is like picture perfect Greece from 50 years ago. No cars (no roads) and plenty of donkeys and glorious sea views. The accommodation, though, is basic to say the least, and we made the poor girls hike for hours before lunch (tip: the Bolivians like to tell you what you would like to hear, which might explain why they all enthusiastically agreed there would be a restaurant around the next corner). It’s also distinctly chilly at night, so take warm clothes. Fortunately Clover takes her position as my hot water bottle very seriously when I share a bed with her – though she does insist on sleeping like a starfish.

Following our stint in Lake Titicaca we crossed the lake (on the Bolivia Hop bus) to the rest of Bolivia. That is, the bus crossed the lake on a rather rickety raft. Yes, that’s right. Bus/Lake/raft…with all our belongings on it! And we crossed the lake on a tiny tiny boat, concentrating very hard on the Milky Way in an attempt to stave off our fear. The stars were, it has to be said, amazing – the less said about the actual crossing the better.

La Paz, at 10pm, is a slightly terrifying city to approach. You approach it through El Alto – which is the second city that is tacked on to the Bolivian business capital. El Alto has an even worse reputation than La Paz itself, and at 10pm it looks like the scene from an apocalyptic movie. No-one on the street except dogs and a couple of sinister hooded figures, and hardly a light in the unfinished buildings. It’s times like that that you begin to question your travelling decisions.

It doesn’t improve when the bus – which has our Air BnB address, drops us off at the entrance to a rather unpromising shopping centre. Shutters down. World of Warcraft type stores in the basement. And Bernardo, our landlord, waiting courteously in the cold for his slightly late guests.

It got better from there. Turns out that the top of a dodgy-looking apartment block is definitely the place to be. A three-bedroom penthouse (with baths! Heaven!) gives us the most perfect views over the city imaginable, and the girls settled in fast.

Air BnB has made the hugest difference to the trip. Living in an apartment is just so much better than huddling in a hotel room. I did quite a lot of work in La Paz, as it turns out, and while I did it the girls had room to spread out. We cooked dinner for new friends (OK only pasta and sauce, but it was nice to hang out) and there was much lego, drawing and playing of games, and a little homeschooling too.

We also, as it turned out, had a few other little visitors. We’ve managed to avoid nits up til now, but somehow they found us in Bolivia. Delousing in La Paz will definitely be the name of any travel book I ever write – it sums up the glamour of travelling with children.

So, what did we actually do in La Paz? Decompressed a little, went to some lovely restaurants (do try Chez Moustache for great French food, though oddly staff who can’t speak French, and therefore can’t read their own menu). Went on the Teleferico – which takes you high, high above the city in near silence. I want one in London, as it would be such a lovely way to commute. We went to the children’s museum – which was less a museum and more the best playgroup you’ve ever been to – clay, bubbles, art and space exhibitions made of cardboard.

What didn’t we do? The Witches Market (seen enough witchy markets everywhere else, and once you’ve seen one llama foetus you’ve seen em all) and er, central La Paz. I think our tolerance for sights decreases as we travel, and we were only really prepared to put ourselves out for the two big trips we’d come to Bolivia for. Of which more in a moment. But La Paz is lovely – breathtaking in more than one way – but definitely worth a look in.

Peru:Alpacaing it all in. Five backpackers, two weeks

Yes, you did read that right. Brave Auntie Ann arrived in Peru to accompany us for this part of the trip. Paul wasn’t looking forward to Peru at all (he’d been to Lima for work before and was unimpressed), but in fact it’s ended up as one of the most incredible places we’ve ever been. Easy to travel in, fun and with some amazing sites for adults and kids – we couldn’t recommend it more highly.

Two weeks isn’t very long though. If that’s all you’ve got, too (or even if you’ve longer) here are some top tips for wringing the very most out of Peru for adults and kids.

Skip most of Lima: I’m sure it’s lovely – and apparently a foodie capital – but Lima didn’t thrill us much. The weather is foggy and the sites spread out, and it’s just very ‘capital city ish’.

Things we did love

  • a trip to the shopping centre with Semillas school friends Bjorn and Emil (what it is to know other globetrotters) for Emil’s birthday, where we ordered all the cake in sight and poor Ann suffered her jetlag in an welter of Spanish and children’s magic tricks (Daisy and Emil need to work a little on their sleight of hand).
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  • The cat park – full of friendly cats and kittens that live there and are fed by charity – nice play equipment too.
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  • Seeing a very old friend- there’s only one famous literary stowaway from Lima after all – and his statue is just above the shopping centre. We even had a few marmalade sandwiches in his honour. Thanks to Paul’s guiding colleague Ana Maria for showing us the way.
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Get Peru Hopping

The Peru Hop backpacker bus might seem an odd choice with kids but it was perfect, dropping us off in all of the right places, showing kid-friendly films for the girls and introducing us to ever-glamorous backpackers. I think I may have mythologised these rare beasts too much – Daisy was clearly expecting ‘real backpackers’ to be much more exciting. Turns out millennial gap year students are very clean-cut. The only drugs we saw on the bus were our own Kwells Kids, and no-one was drinking either.

Peru Hop allowed us to do the following without skipping a beat

  • The Ballestas Islands – dubbed the poor man’s Galapagos, and allowing us to see sea lions fighting and lots of birds including penguins in an amazing two hour trip. We loved it (fighting sea lions always remind me of the girls having a bit of a barney over the back seats in the car) but Clover says it ‘smells of fish’. Sometimes you can’t please everyone.
  • Pisco tasting – An important lesson learned here. Do not allow Daisy to dip her finger in the pisco. She became, if you can imagine this possible, even more chatty. Sorry fellow Peru Hoppers. I can now imagine what she’s going to be like ‘sneaking’ back from the pub as a teenager.
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  • Dune boarding – without Peru Hop we’d never have spent a night at Huachachina, home of huge sand dunes. The girls loved trekking up and rolling down the dunes at the back of our hotel, and we even took a private dune buggy tour (yes, with seatbelts) and slid down the big dunes on our tummies using waxed boards. Hilarious. Clover managed two smallish dunes, and Daisy would have gone higher. An unexpected highlight.
  • The Nazca Lines – We never expected to have time to see these mysterious lines in the desert, but the Peru Hop bus goes straight past the ‘viewing tower’ – so we duly hopped off and hopped up. One of the most terrifying experiences of my life as we walked high above the Pan American Highway (which cuts right through the lines) using ancient metal steps with huge gaps. My fear meant I didn’t really see enough of the lines, but the flights sounded terrifying too – and we made out a foot or two of the mysterious glyphs, or in Clover’s case a parrot with a sock on its head. She was adamant. Nazca experts take note. Never been so glad to be back on the ground.
  • The Colca Canyon – Deeper than the Grand Canyon, and terrifyingly high, we took a two-day trip into Colca directly off the night bus, winding our way up to a breathtaking 5,000 metres. Yes, we felt the altitude, but were grateful for hot springs, and awed by showoff soaring condors riding the morning thermals. We bought crazy Peruvian hats and more alpaca products than we could shake a stick at, and all developed quite a coca habit (the traditional altitude sickness cure). Don’t worry, we’ve weaned ourselves off now.

At Arequipa (gateway to Colca) we left the Peru Hop itinerary and struck out alone. We would have liked more time in Arequipa, which is stunning and has a fantastic chocolate café called Cha Chiq (buy their lipbalm, it’s the best), and a hotel called Wayra with a small girl in it who watches endless Peppa Pig (Peppa is perfect for the girls’ Spanish – nice and slow and great vocab).

Also (Daisy’s choice this) we visited the frozen mummy museum. She now knows a lot about Inca sacrifice and was particularly struck by the fact that most of the children were about her age – it was ghoulishly fascinating and I am thankful it didn’t cause nightmares. We also very much enjoyed the convent, which is so big it is like a Spanish colonial city in itself.

We took the posh night bus to Cusco with Cruz del Sur (note, this was far too hot, and the serving of hottish meals on buses seems a bad idea, and made Daisy throw up). However, we arrived on time, with just enough sleep.

Cusco and around – family tips

  • Cusco is an amazing city. We were there just before the major winter solstice festival – Inti Raymi, so saw plenty of parades in the streets. Just hang out and enjoy these – but pick a hotel out of town if you’re there for the festival – it was lovely and quiet where we were but we met a family staying on the main square who looked distinctly ringed around the eyes. Plus our hotel had an amazingly groomed miniature schnauzer called Stitch – what’s not to like?
  • Do the chocolate and ceramic making course at Faces of Cusco. A highlight for the girls. We made chocolates full of quinoa and amaranth (supergrains used by Nasa, chaps), and painted pots and tiny Cusco bulls. Expensive, but worth it for the memories.
  • Don’t go too fast. Cusco is still high up, right? Lots of cafes for acclimatising – the chocolate course also forced us to sit down.
  • Take the Sacred Valley tour. We stayed one night in Ollantaytambo on the way to Macchu Picchu. Do try to do this – Ollanta is beautiful. Our cheapie hotel (cheapie in relation to Machu Picchu is relative) had a stream outside the door, and we had an amazing evening with a harpist playing at the restaurant on the station platform. Great food, and the girls tried to learn Quechua from their placemats. Southern Rail should take note.

Machu Picchu tips

Yes, we went to Machu Picchu. Yes, it was definitely worth it despite the fact we’ve seen many ancient cities. The setting is stunning and the ruins amazing. The girls will tell you it is great for hide and seek. But do take these things into account.

  • You pay for everything and it is an administrative nightmare. From children’s tickets that can’t be bought online (we bought an adult one for Daisy, and they didn’t query the fact that she’s apparently 116 years old, so that’s OK) to pricey and incompetent buses – the Machu Picchu process is frustrating. Probably more frustrating if you trek, but that’s not a fun idea with small kids.
  • Then you pay to store luggage. Can I just say now that the luggage storage INSIDE the ticket gate is cheaper and nobody tells you this. You’re welcome.
  • You also pay for loos (only outside the gates) and there are very few food options. The empanadas and fries outside the gates are delicious though and easily feed two.
  • The train is fun – though I think we’d have been fine with the backpacker version both ways – the accompanying fashion show on the Vistadome (one step up in price) was excruciatingly embarrassing. Just grit your teeth for the panpipe music.
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  • Don’t feed the llamas. You’ll get in trouble – they should not be drinking Gatorade – US tourists take note.
  • The one way system is a right pain – we walked for miles in the wrong direction and kept getting told off. Whoops.
  • Don’t forget to bring your passports and get them stamped at the entrance – we did the first part but forgot to do the second.

Our final big trip in Peru (have we covered enough yet?) was the ‘posh train’ running from Cusco to Lake Titicaca. This, it turns out, was worth the eyewatering pricetag. You’ll see the countryside in the most beautiful way, it’s really relaxing and the food is FANTASTIC. The girls made a friend, and we enjoyed watching the rest of Peru slip by, stopping at the highest point to take pics and buy even more alpaca tops. Yes, it’s touristy, but it took us where we wanted to go without the usual coach-related nausea. A total treat.

Finally we took a boat out on Titicaca with Ann to the floating reed islands. These are well worth seeing, despite the fact they’re touristy. The people here live on a big mattress of reeds that are constantly replenished from the top as they rot from the bottom. All very sustainable, and surprisingly comfortable. But you will be forced to go on a touristy boat ride and buy some stuff, so have your soles ready. We then left Peru for Bolivia, after saying goodbye to intrepid Auntie Ann – a fantastic travelling companion who we are looking forward to seeing VERY SOON!

Final Peru tips

  • Use oxygen if you need it (Daisy did). Most hotels and buses have it and it turned her from grey to pink and bouncy in a matter of minutes
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  • Do try the cuy (guinea pig). It doesn’t taste like chicken, it tastes like guinea pig, but you only live once.
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  • Llama and alpaca steaks are fantastic. Don’t tell the children that’s what they are eating though – it puts them off.
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  • The alpaca woollies seem cheapest in the Colca Canyon
  • Pay the alpaca tax. Every second step is a child with a baby alpaca. The children will want to cuddle every one, and sometimes bottle feed them. Just give in – even if you suspect some of the alpacas are really lambs!
  • Peru is lots and lots of fun, and well set up for tourists. Go and enjoy. We did!

Brazil: Christ, Capybara and Cheeseballs

Ah, Brazil. The first question anyone asked us when we said we were going was ‘are you going for the Olympics?’. The answer, however, was no – in fact we’d changed our trip planning entirely to avoid the crowds and extra expense, meaning that our trip to South America isn’t quite as geographically tidy as it otherwise might be.

No matter. We arrived in Rio, tired and frazzled, via Sao Paulo airport. In fact, we spent an awful lot of our time in Brazil in Sao Paulo airport. We now know it intimately, and it seems impossible to cross this huge country without spending some time there.

What our time in the constantly-under-construction airport taught us was that Brazil really isn’t ready for the Olympics. The current airport tagline ‘A new airport everyday’ could be translated as ‘no-one knows where the heck anything is’. Then there’s the hole in the runway – always a worry, despite the reassuring orange cones someone has placed around it. Then there’s the small matter of the only half-constructed beach volleyball court. But I digress.

We started our trip to Rio on the sunny side of the street – Leblon to be precise. Someone told me that Leblon is the most expensive place to live in South America and I can well believe it. Every other shop seemed to sell outfits for your beloved fluffy dog (pugs particularly popular, particularly in tiaras), while the supermarket was a bit like Waitrose – if your local Waitrose had a pianist and sushi bar.

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We had a nice flat, and when we managed to resist the lure of Waitrose-a-like, even managed to get out for dinner a bit. The flat was two blocks from the beach, and how the children have missed the sea! The waves were fierce but they didn’t deter them, and – if we hadn’t covered as many tourist destinations as we’d hoped by the end of our first three Brazilian nights – we had had a very good time.

We’ve not really got to grips with Portuguese, however. Paul has been practising on DuoLingo, which promises him that he is 18 per cent fluent. Since he can only say ‘I like a woman’ and ‘I can’t speak Portuguese’, I think he’s got a bit of a way to go before not just coming across as incompetent or creepy.

From Rio we flew to the Iguazu Falls (via Sao Paulo, naturally, even though we’d booked a direct flight, that was cancelled – always good to see my favourite airport again). The falls, which sit on the border of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, are immensely impressive. The width and power of them is unimaginable. We spent one day on the Argentinian side of the falls, where you can get up close to the water, and another day on the Brazilian side, where you can take in the wider view.

The Falls are also home to many, many coatimundis – raccoon-like creatures that are supposed to live in the forest on nuts and berries. But these coatimundis like to live in the cafeteria area and snaffle baguettes. And boy, are they sneaky!. Clover was somewhat terrified – even though the cafes employ ‘coatimundi shooers’ using a bottle of stones on a stick to try to drive them away. We watched many, many people lose their lunches. Daisy preferred the endless butterflies, which rested happily on her hands.

From Iguazu we flew to the Pantanal via (yes, you’ve guessed it) Sao Paolo. The Brazilian wetlands are home to an immense range of creatures, including the jaguar, capybara and many, many birds. The area is impressively remote – a flight into Campo Grande, followed by a long minibus trip, followed by a long trip on a jeep.

We stayed at a farm that was long on authenticity and short on tourist comfort, which would have been less of a problem if it hadn’t been freezing cold. Still, if flocks of macaws outside the window and capybaras wandering across your path at breakfast are what you are after, the Pantanal is the place.

From the electric shock you got if you touched the shower taps with wet hands, to the poisonous snakes in the strangler fig trees – the Pantanal took us out of our comfort zone with the children. We were fine with the horseriding, and mostly OK with the night walk where we were shown sleeping coral snakes and woke up sleepy macaws with our torches. When walking through the flooded fields in the morning and the guide suggested Paul picked up Clover ‘because of the Caiman’ we were a little more freaked. Clovy is a bit big to make a tasty snack for a caiman, but we didn’t want to take any chances.

We didn’t see a jaguar, alas, but we loved seeing the armadillo, macaws, flamingos and other stunning wildlife – and we did see a big cat in the distance on the way home. And the girls LOVED the horseriding they did with Paul (and not with their allergic mother). Clover’s horse even managed a canter…perhaps it doesn’t like caiman either.

And it was three nil to us versus the scary local wildlife, when Daisy, Clover and Paul caught three piranhas using raw meat on a bamboo rod. We had them for dinner, lightly battered.

We returned from the Pantanal on my birthday, allowing me to have a birthday trip to (yes!) Sao Paulo airport. Daisy was pleased – apparently the airport’s Montana Grill does ‘the best tomato pasta in the world’. Sadly we returned minus Clover’s carry-on bag, which had fallen off the jeep somewhere in the wilderness. In it were her tablet computer (almost new) and a variety of favourite dollies. Thankfully though, not ‘Special Monkey’ as losing him would mean immediate return to the UK. No monkey, no sleep.

We finished our trip back in Rio de Janeiro, in the far-too-hip-for-us’ Santa Teresa district. Finally we did some proper tourism, including Sugarloaf Mountain at sunset (under some serious construction at the top – guys, the Olympics is really soon), and the ‘Big Christ’ which both girls were desperate to see.

“He doesn’t look very happy” announced Clover. I guess having all of the sins of the world on your shoulders can do that to you. Unfortunately our final afternoon on Copacabana beach, whilst lots of fun (the girls found a little Chilean girl to play with, while Paul watched the surfers) led to the Great Flood -a huge wave from which our belongings barely escaped with their lives. Some didn’t – including Daisy’s Kindle and my iPhone.

Brazil, then, whilst not being kind to our technology, was kind to us. It was perhaps fitting that we said goodbye to it during a six-hour layover at Sao Paulo airport – at least this time in the posh lounge at the international terminal. Many cheeseballs and glasses of champagne later, we were bound for Lima – without so much as a marmalade sandwich to sustain us.

The last of Mexico: Todo Cambia

Cambia lo superficial

Cambia todo lo profundo

Cambia el modo de pensar

Cambia todo in este mundo

 

Cambia el clima con los anos

Cambia el pastor su rebanos

Y como todo cambia

Que mi cambie no es extrano

 

So sung my daughters and their school on the stage in San Cristobal a few weeks back, making even their hard-eyed mother weep just the tiniest bit. It’s Mercedes Sosa, for those who don’t know (I didn’t) and could be translated a bit like this. “The superficial changes/Likewise the profound/The way we think changes/Everything in this world changes. The climate changes with the years/the shepherd changes his flock/ And since everything changes/It’s not strange that I have changed too.

A fitting sign off from San Cristobal, where we’ve spent a predictably large amount of time saying goodbye. It’s always like this when you stay somewhere – you have ages stretching in front of you and then, suddenly, it’s all gone. This surprises everyone, not just us. Paul’s Mum, Madeleine, arrived for a very welcome visit in our last week – taking our mind off the bittersweet of goodbyes, but also reminding us that is really is time to go.

What to reflect on? Staying six months in San Cristobal was the right decision in so many ways. We’re so grateful for the break it gave us from on-the-road living. The girls feel so at home here. It’s changed them, I hope for the better. Some things I have noticed – and family at home may notice too.

  • Their tastebuds are more Mexican

Tamarind sweeties, lime and salt and tacos: these were not favoured snacks at home, but are now firm favourites. Daisy and Clover love a glass of Jamaica (hibiscus tea served cold) and a maize tortilla (extra points if it’s blue). I don’t think I’ll ever like maize that much – perhaps you need to get to it early. Hope they can remember how to use a knife and fork?

  • They speak Spanish to each other

I often listen to my girls talking together – it’s a polyglot mix at the moment. In a way it feels like we’re ripping them away at just the wrong moment when it comes to their language learning. We’re determined they won’t lose it though – expect to see a lot of Spanish in the Bigmore household going forward.
It’s been a joy to see them able to go off with a group of Mexican children at various parties and playdates, and to watch them being able to join in – even if what they are saying is less than perfect. As I say to the girls, the joy of speaking a foreign language is all about the communication, not the tenses and reflexives. I can see the delight in their eyes everytime they are understood. Priceless.

  • They’ve got more confident

Mexican children are expected to greet even unknown adults politely (as long as they are known to the parents of course!), with a kiss on the cheek and a firm handshake. The girls haven’t always managed this, but they are getting better about not hanging back when an adult speaks to them. It’s good practice I think. They’ll also go off to the loo together in a restaurant, ask for the soup of the day or any other questions they have.

Some of this is just growing up in general, but life on the road has allowed us to give them more opportunities.

They’ve also not been able to compare themselves directly with classmates – as their achievements have been so different because of the language. For two summerborn girls who are used to being some of the smallest, least confident and sometimes slowest to understand in their year groups, that can be a huge boost.

The Semillas de Luz school was not fond of ability-based tables – so the girls have only had to consider their personal improvement and achievements. I think that’s as it should be. Though I need to stop treating Clover like an eight year old – the tendency to just expect the same of both of my daughters is magnified when they’re taught together and spend so much time together. I probably baby Daisy too.

  • They’ve got taller

Can’t really blame that on the tacos, but they seem huge. We’ve replaced a lot of clothes. They’ve still got too many – but we’ve squashed them into the bags.

  • They are self-sufficient

Perhaps Daisy and Clover are now a little too close. It’s going to be hard for them to go into separate classes after all of that time together. Clover without Daisy (on a rare day that Daisy had off school sick) was a little sad, but soon got over it. Daisy was just suspicious that Clover might be doing something really fun. But they are really good at playing together and not getting bored, with really very few resources (though we are grateful for the tablets).

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  • They are somewhat too unsophisticated for their UK classmates

Probably my fault. I know nothing about Taylor Swift and all that, and Daisy has been with the younger children rather than the older ones, and still loves her dolls and teddies.

I hope their friends won’t find their lack of knowledge of sports teams and pop music too offputting. Perhaps someone could put me together a playlist? Or an acceptable clothing list – I’m taking it a Che Guevera t-shirt and a hippy scarf isn’t de rigeur amongst the children of South East London – perhaps I’ll be grateful for school uniform.

 

What happens next? Two weeks out of a Spanish-speaking environment as we tackle Brazil pre-Olympics, followed by a dip back in as we journey through Peru and Bolivia, finishing up with Ecuador and the Galapagos. Really exciting, but marks the ending of our adventure. Two months to go. Speeding up so fast.

 

 

 

Mexico: We don’t need no education

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Well, actually we do. Of course we do. And if you’re a British parent (particularly one with a child in a state school) you can hardly fail to have thought long and hard about your own child’s schooling in the last few weeks.

Whether it is the government’s complete inability to correctly administrate a pointless grammar test for ten and eleven year olds or its inexplicable desire (and entirely explicable U-turn) to hand over all schools to private businesses, education pays second fiddle only to Brexit and the junior doctors in the headlines.

The teachers here are a bit scarier- they’ve been on strike for the last week over plans to test their performance. All the state schools are shut and there have been some awesome marches -and some burning of state property. I’m not suggesting that’s the answer, but you know, it’s different.

Out here, of course, we’re far from the UK’s less flammable education concerns. But Daisy and Clover must re-enter the UK education system in September, so we’d be crazy not to keep up with developments. It would be easy for onlookers to write off what we’re doing as a bad experiment in letting children run wild, but actually our girls are learning and changing- and we are learning too.

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Back in the UK, with the girls in a great state primary, it has been easy just to let the teachers get on with it. They are the professionals after all. Despite being on the school governing body (I do finance, never curriculum!), we’d never really got to grips with the maths and English standard required of our children or the new methods they need to know to carry these out. As long as the teachers said the girls were doing OK, that was fine with us.

A year of homeschooling neatly shifted the responsibility for our children’s learning right back at us. It’s up to us to decide what’s important and what isn’t, and to give the girls the skills to thrive.

It’s an awesome (in both senses) responsibility, and quite a learning curve. As the girls prepare to leave the small collective school in Mexico for some more time on the road, here are a few thoughts for anyone else who’s thinking of doing this.

 A) My children have brains like sieves!
Amazing sieves, but sieves all the same. How can it be that one day they understand something but they next they don’t? I’m hoping it’s all filtering down in order to go in somehow – but we’ve learned that you can’t just teach something once and then expect it to stick. Probably obvious to those teachers out there, but little and often really works. On a good day, I try to think of their learning as like a spiral staircase – you have to keep going round and round it to get to the top – where the top is a final understanding of how fractions relate to decimals. On a bad day- ARRRGGGHHH!

 B) Children can get by in class without really understanding the basics
Again, perhaps unsurprising in a class of 30. Teaching the girls maths and English has made us realise where the holes are – I’m hoping their foundations are now a little stronger, even if they might not have advanced as far as their peers. The current UK curriculum expects some tricky concepts very early on – it’s easy to parrot something you don’t understand. But when it’s just you and your Dad or Mum there’s nowhere to hide. Mwahahahha!

C) Some of the curriculum is just silly
Yes, we can now all do a fronted adverbial of time, manner and place. In fact, we do them over breakfast, along with determiners and conjunctions. But who invented these things anyway – and is writing with a fronted adverbial really any better than writing without? At least Clover no longer thinks that grammar and Grandma are the same thing….We’d rather have Grandma than grammar at breakfast to be honest, but needs must.

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D) Other options are available
Step forward, Colectivo Semillas de Luz, a Mexican alternative school with an emphasis on yoga, gardening and singing. The girls have spent six months in a school of 20 (two classes), where parents are expected to be heavily involved, and ‘chalk and talk’ is virtually non-existent.

It’s been a great choice. Caring, family-like and accepting of two girls who spoke no Spanish at all on the first day. A school this small can be flexible – Paul went to for the first month or so as translator, and the girls have been allowed to be in the same class – as well as easy to navigate. Emotion is encouraged (they sit round a candle to discuss their feelings every morning) and the girls now love yoga. `Clover has, rather worryingly, forgotten how to sit on a chair. She’d rather squat. Of course, this is healthier, but I’m not sure how London primaries take that sort of thing.

The girls have no teachers, only ‘helpers’, which is a lovely philosophy and there are no surnames, no uniform, no heavy discipline.

I’m not sure we could stick collective schooling in the longterm, but it’s been great for a reevaluation of priorities for all of us. British primary education is a bit of a pressure cooker. It’s good to have taken the lid off for a bit.

E) So much of learning is about national culture, but the girls’ future is global
We’ve kind of slacked off the project work that the primary curriculum demands, so instead of the Industrial Revolution and the Great Fire of London, the girls have studied the cities we have been living in, and the cultures they find here. And while both the Industrial Revolution and the Fire of London are important bits of the UK’s history (and of course, often just vehicles for other learning), I’m not sure the girls’ world will be a purely British one when they grow up. They may study and live elsewhere in the world. Is learning about the Mayans less important than learning about the Romans? While that is decided by where you come from, who knows where our children will be going?

F) Egrets, we’ve had a few
Well actually, we’ve seen a few (lovely birds), but we’ve had some regrets as well. Perhaps we should have done a bit more to start with – getting back into writing longer pieces was painful for them both when we got to Mexico. We don’t have a beautiful holiday diary to take home – because they complained SO much about writing one, and I wish I’d been stricter on that.

On the other hand – I watched them have a playdate in Spanish yesterday. Their tenses are all over the place and they use some odd words but they speak a foreign language comfortably and confidently, with an accent any adult language learner would kill for. How cool is that?

So yes, there’s much more we could have done, and I’ve literally no idea whether they’ve done enough – the proof will be in how they cope (emotionally and academically) with years 5 and 3. Fingers very much crossed.

G) Teachers are amazing
How come you’re all so patient? Flowers all round- teaching is hard!

So in short, would we homeschool longterm? Probably not – but now I can see why people do. It’s lovely to be more flexible, and great for the children to get individual attention – and if we weren’t putting them back into the UK system we could avoid some of the daft grammar stuff as well.

The image I always see when I think about the girls’ development this year is of a tree cross section with the rings showing. Someone told me once that you can tell the good years for a tree (lots of water and sun) by thicker rings, while the leaner, meaner years have thin rings.

I’m hoping this year of learning together has produced an ultra-thick ring of learning and development for the girls. I know it has for me. Though I should add that I’m not actually thinking of cutting them in half to see – unless I have to go through their times tables with them again this week. If I do, all bets are off.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The H Word: when there’s no place like home

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My heart is warm with friends I make, 
And better friends I’ll not be knowing; 
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take, 
No matter where it’s going. 

Edna St Vincent Millay, Travel

NOSTALGIA, pining (for the fjords?) – call it what you want, I think that homesickness is something that nowadays everyone expects you to have grown out of at some point before the age of seven. Up to that point, it’s perfectly OK to demand to go home from a sleepover because you’re scared of the shadow in the corner and you are missing your Snoopy duvet cover. After that, suck it up.

That’s not always been the case, however. According to a book I haven’t read  (isn’t Google grand?), homesickness used to be seen as a legitimate killer. In 1865, the book notes, 40 soldiers in the American Civil War died of it. They called it ‘nostalgia’, but it seems to be the same thing.

Meanwhile, Dieu Donne Hack Polay, at the Centre for International Business Studies, states in his paper on Expatriates and Homesickness, that sufferers can experience “gastric and intestinal pains, lack of sleep, headache, feeling of tiredness and some eating disorders”.

So it’s science, folks, and nothing to do with my duvet cover (which doesn’t have Snoopy on it anyway, for the record). And now I’ve got academic backing, though thankfully none of the above symptoms, I don’t mind admitting that, at the moment, home feels very far away.

We’re nearly three quarters of the way through our trip and two weeks into our stay in our last casa in San Cristobal. Which is lovely, by the way – bags of space, loads of light, a great view and still only ten minutes from the girls’ school. The weather’s great (spring has sprung), and the girls are loving their days at Semillas; playdates, school trips and all.

So what have I got to whinge about? Absolutely nothing, except that I miss you all. This week I’ve been thinking of old-style missionaries, sent off with their coffins into the Congo and not expected to return, and of settlers in the US (because Daisy is reading Little House on the Prairie) making home as they go. Unlike them, I can keep in touch with my friends and family with the swipe of a touchscreen. What’s more, we chose this trip – and it’s a wonderful privilege. This kind of cogitation makes me feel guilty because I’d really quite like a night out with my UK friends right about now, when I should be making the most of the wonder that is San C.

The girls get homesick too, as does Paul – though he won’t admit it. He would like you to know that he’s mainly pining for Brockley’s Rock – which is our local chippy, and the London Beer Dispensary. I don’t mind telling you that there’s a little bit of bravado there though. He’s missing everyone at home as well.

With Daisy, homesickness takes the very specific form of ‘missing my cousin Izzy’, who she adores and who stands for England, bunk beds, baths, schoolfriends and everything she wants to have from home. When she’s tearful about Iz, I know she needs something familiar on Netflix and fishfingers for tea – or perhaps a special trip out with mummy or daddy for hot chocolate.

Clover gets clingy. She’s never far from my lap when she’s missing home. She’s really too big to curl up on me now – legs and elbows everywhere, but lots of cuddles and a story usually sort her out, thankfully.

Fortunately homesickness isn’t particularly contagious. We don’t all get it at the same time. The girls have it less at the moment because they’re loving their new school, while I think I’m more isolated working in our new house because it’s a little further out of town, which may explain why I’m feeling it now.

How do we beat homesickness? The one thing that doesn’t work for me is ‘counting my blessings’ as my Mum used to put it. I’m not Pollyanna. Telling myself how lucky I am and how I must make the most of each day is just a recipe for a guilt trip.

Instead, I’m trying getting out a bit more and (terrible phrase, this) reaching out a bit too. I’ve made more plans this week, and written more emails. I’ve been running three times, been to three Pilates classes and baked a lemon drizzle cake – so the house smells like home. Small things like that work, so that I think that I’m nearly back to my usual bouncy self.

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So why am I telling you this now? Partly I suppose, because I don’t want people to think that a year on the road doesn’t have its drawbacks. They are massively outweighed by the positives in our case, but anyone who tries this needs to be prepared. Also, this blog isn’t just a great big show off about what a wonderful time we’re having. This is real life on a family gap year – warts (well, verrucae anyway), dogbites, regrets and all.

But mainly, I wanted to thank so many, many people for keeping in touch. It’s fantastic when you Skype and FaceTime us, and brilliant when you send emails and contact us on Facebook. When you don’t, we know it’s because you’re busy, and we totally understand that too. But a million thanks for when you can and do. In the absence of any ruby slippers, every bit of contact really matters. Because there’s no place like home.

 

 

 

Feeding the children on the road: No-one actually starves

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I’ve just been observing the girls as they came in for their morning cuddle. How they are growing! Daisy, who was leggy as they come before we left home, is becoming taller and broader, and Clover, who still had some vestiges of her baby roundness when we left the UK, is now mainly legs and pointy elbows.

It’s not surprising then, that they are constantly hungry. Returned home from a night out last night to find our babysitter pointing out that the children had noshed their ways through apples, cheese and bananas since we’d put them to bed mere minutes after giving them a full meal.

But how do you feed children when you’re travelling? It’s one of the big questions we get asked, with many parents pointing out that their children are ‘fussy’- and therefore they couldn’t possibly leave the UK/France/Centerparcs.

So let’s get this straight. My children are fussy. I think, perhaps, all children are fussy – though some more than others. Actually, many adults are fussy too, but we have a lot more control over what we put in our mouths, most of the time.

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Where we are tremendously fortunate is in the fact that neither girl has any food allergies or intolerances, so we can at least give them whatever is offered with impunity, assuming we know that it’s clean and safe. We realise this would be a very different trip if we were grappling with a nut or dairy allergy, or coeliac disease (although ironically the latter would probably be much less of a problem here than it is in the UK, since the diet is maize based). But with that caveat over, I think you can travel with a fussy child and still get them fed. And here’s how.

Get a kitchen when you can

Thank you Airbnb. The house and apartment rental service makes it far easier for us to get a space with a kitchen – which makes it easier to control what we eat. With a kitchen in most parts of the world (even right in the middle of major cities) we’ve been able to save money and take the pressure off by cooking for ourselves.

That’s not to say that cooking is always a great or economic option when you’re somewhere for one or two nights- after all you don’t want to be travelling with half-opened ingredients, and it can be hard to find recognisable items in the local stores – central Bangkok was particularly bewildering, and Belize just not very set up for food stores.

But having a kitchen allows you to do the following:

Pancakes

Yes, the girls practically live on them, but why not? Better for you than sugary cereal and you can nearly always find eggs, flour and milk in relatively small quantities when you need them. Tempura flour works in a pinch (easier to find in Asian convenience stores than the normal stuff). Daisy likes her pancakes with lemon and sugar – easy (and you can swipe sugar sachets when you’re in restaurants if you don’t want to buy a whole bag). Clover likes Nutella – a surprisingly global foodstuff, but we often take a jar with us on short trips.

Funny tasting milk – even buffalo milk in India – goes unnoticed in pancakes. That’s breakfast sorted.

Pasta and sauce

A good stopgap when you’re tired of restaurants – you can nearly always score a bag of fusilli and some cheese or some tomato puree. Many times you can get fresher stuff too. Macaroni cheese goes down well when we have an oven. Feeding tired children is easier in an apartment than out on the street.

Noodles/stirfry/fried rice

Ditto – easy to find, quick to do. Put in fresh veg when you can find it. 

Yoghurt and fruit

You don’t actually need a kitchen for this one but a fridge is handy. Keeps the stomach healthy too – pretty vital when you’re travelling. Having a kitchen means you can wash fruit from the markets properly. Otherwise make sure you peel it. Mexican custom dictates that we currently soak all fruit and veg in a mixture including iodine for fifteen minutes if we’re going to eat the skins. Not sure whether it makes any difference really, but when everyone else does I guess it’s foolish not to. We’ll have no cholera here – we hope….

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Of course, in Mexico, we cook lots and lots of stuff – but for the times when you’re moving on every day or so, that’s a list that can keep you going.

Pack your ‘food heroes’

When we were children, even a trip to France involved packing whole boxes of British food (tinned new potatoes anybody?). You can’t do that when you’re travelling light, so you’ll be glad to know that we didn’t smuggle half of Sainsburys out of the country. What did we bring? Teabags – naturally – though we’ve now run out despite regular refills from visitors so we’re surviving on the Mexican stuff. We also bring what the girls call ‘drop squash’ – the tiny bottles of Robinson’s squash that take just a few drops to make a fruit-flavoured drink. I don’t love the aspartame content but they’re really useful when the only restaurant option is fizzy (currently banned because I am ‘so mean’) and the children want a treat because you’re ‘drinking wine again’.

 

As I mentioned we often take Nutella on short trips, and some sugar sachets. We also pick up longlasting snacks in various places. In South East Asia it was mainly nuts and a particularly chewy sweet that was a bit like a sesame snap. In India we ate a lot of crisps (oops) particularly on long distance train journeys. But we also bought bananas every day to take with us (no mess). Here it is often energy bars (you can even get the Nature Valley ones) as well as nuts again – though there’s also a nice line in pre-prepared fruit and dried fruit.

Let it slip sometimes

The children’s diets are 80 per cent good, I reckon. Their fresh fruit and veg consumption has been immense, simply because we’ve been to so many places where it is so cheap and good. Here they eat buckets of strawberries and mangos (quite literally, they sell them in buckets), as well as apples – surprisingly hard to get hold of and much missed, and the aforementioned bananas. In Mexico (and in fact in most of the world) bananas come in many more varieties than at home. We prefer the little tiny ones or the big red ones – those are probably not their horticultural names.

 

However, before I sound too smug, there have been days when their diets have been execrable. I’ve mentioned the whole ‘Indian train’ thing – at one point they only ate crisps and snacks for 24 hours when no food turned up and I didn’t really trust the vendors on the train (especially the one with the can of tomato soup who had got on 24 hours previously and was breaking up croutons with the same bare hands he was using to scratch his bum).

I was slightly stressed about my slipping standards already when Daisy, who had taken the heavily-promoted Healthy Eating Week very much on board at school, in the UK remarked that this wasn’t very impressive and I should be giving her breakfast cereal. Where she thought I was going to procure Shreddies on the Second Class Sleeper to Ernakulum Junction I don’t know. Some days the food choices have been less than ideal, I admit. And there is still a heavy ‘fishfinger component’ to their diets even here … but then (shhh) I love fishfingers too.

Don’t panic

I do. I panic often. Faced with a menu that I can’t find a thing they’ll eat on, or a lovingly cooked meal from local friends that I know they’ll reject, I flap. But then I repeat this mantra

  1. They won’t starve – they can always make up for it later – and there are always bananas, right?
  2. Most people will cut children a lot of slack with eating. We make them try – to be polite. We make them say thank you. And we explain that lots of eating is cultural – the children just aren’t used to the same tastes. It’s easier now they aren’t babies.

Sometimes even I can’t eat it (pigs stomach stuffed with its own intestines?) – then I need people to cut me some slack too. I try my best, for politeness’ sake.

 

Don’t expect nuggets

Children’s meals? Not really – and in Mexico the favoured meal for kids’ parties is chickens’ feet (suck those toes…) so even if there’s a kid’s menu on offer it may not be what you expect. Fortunately most restaurants allow children to share meals or will bring you an extra plate to share with them. And when it gets terrible there’s always (shh) McDonalds or Burger King – well, not always, but often anyhow.

So yes, it’s not always been organic alfafa sprouts and quinoa (in fact, it’s never been organic alfafa sprouts and quinoa – I think that might just about be the end of our marriage) but the children are eating just about fine. And in San C, they’re currently enjoying an amazing abundance of fruit and vegetables that we’d never be able to afford at home. Eleven mangoes for 50p means they can have them for every meal if they want, and I’m not even going to get started on the homemade guacamole…Maybe it will make up for the days of terrible nutrition on the Indian trains, or maybe not – but we’re grateful for good food and a good kitchen right now. Provecho – as they say here, and which I can only translate as ‘Bon Appetit’.