You’d better Belize it, baby

 It’s the Pope’s first visit to Mexico, and (lucky old us) he’s chosen San Cristobal as one of the four privileged places to get a visit. And who can blame him? Probably he last came here on his Gap Year. As a result though, San C has gone a bit ‘Pope mad’.

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As the local Argentinian restaurant, where a papier mache Pope Francisco has replaced the customary statue of Maradona, charmingly puts it; ‘todos vienen con papa’. The words for Pope and potato are the same (though the Pope gets a capital). It’s either fries, or popes, with everything.

They’ve cleaned up the cathedral – only seriously injuring one worker in the process (health and safety on scaffolding not really being a big deal here) and there are dire warnings of thousands of pilgrims on their way from Guatemala, Honduras and elsewhere, as well as threatened water shortages and closed streets. And the Swiss Guard are apparently everywhere; with guns.

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There’s only one thing for a sensible travelling family to do, and that’s to take some serious anti-papal measures. Fortunately we’ve a cast-iron excuse since our friends the Ashcrofts are travelling to Belize to meet us. It’s only the next country after all, how hard can it be?

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Turns out getting to Belize involves an epic journey, made even longer by the fact that the locals in Oxchuc – an indigenous village on the way to the Mexican border – have been burning the first-class buses in an attempt to register their dissatisfaction over a political dispute. So the buses are going a (very) long way round –adding three hours and an awful lot of windy bends to our overnight journey.

Snuggly blankets (two metres of fleece each from the local fabric shop) and some seriously strong travel sickness pills ensure we slumber most of the way, although there’s some alarm when the bus hits either a hole (olla) or chicken (pollo) at some speed at about 4am. Still not sure which it was, as the old ladies at the front providing a running commentary had very thick accents. Wasn’t fun, anyway. At about 5am, an entrepreneurial ‘egg exporter’ got a telling off from the authorities, as you’re not supposed to carry eggs across Mexican states apparently – the constant checking for food and fowl from the military rather disturbed our sleep.

First-class buses (when they aren’t being burned) are not a bad way to get around Mexico, and used to be the only way before lower cost flights were introduced. Though (look away now, NCT group) they always include some unsuitable violent films and a fizzy drink for free. The girls were delighted by this. Fortunately the very posh buses come with headphones nowadays, which means the violence can be seen but not heard and the travel pills we picked up in Bangkok were, as I mentioned, very good at inducing sleep – probably illegal in the UK, but they came from Boots Bangkok, so I’m reassured.

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It’s a 16 hour journey – thanks to the Oxchucians – from San C to Chetumal, which borders Belize. Then there’s a quick taxi ride to the border itself – an informal place where they want to know if we’re trafficking fruit. “You have apples? How many apples?” “One” – “Oh, that’s alright then.”

Belize, if you’ve never heard of it (which wouldn’t be a surprise) is a a little bit of England in Central America. A former colony, once known as British Honduras, it’s been independent since 1981 but still has the Queen as a head of state. She looks very young on the coins – don’t think they’ve been replaced in a while.

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With a diverse, not to mention tiny, population of mestizos, Mayans, Garifuna (mixed race but of African descent) and vegetable-growing Mennonites in dungarees, it’s a curious place. English is the main language, but many speak Creol (sounds like English, but isn’t) or Spanish.

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Belize feels like pirate country, and that’s really because it is. For most of history nobody wanted the place, and it was run by Baymen – buccaneers and then loggers. What it now has in abundance is space (the lowest population density in Central America) and nature (and apparently some great Mayan ruins, but we didn’t see them).

We started our Belize adventure in Hopkins, a Garifuna village that the guidebooks describe as ‘laid back’. So delighted to see Peter and Rachel (who are Clover’s godparents) along with two year old Miriam and baby Clem. The children are the same age as ours were last time we did a big trip, so we were quite nostalgic. Also quite impressed – they aren’t easy travelling ages, but Peter and Rachel made it look easy.

 

What to say about Hopkins? Great beach, if not great weather, and beautiful sunsets. We did very little – walked along the beach, ate pizza, went in the sea.

 

It emerged very quickly that Hopkins may have been laid back once, but is rapidly being colonised by retired Americans – who can live in Belize for free, so frequently do. They’ve paid a lot for their beach access villas, and they don’t want you to pass over their area of beach – even if you’re not doing any harm. That kind of land management leaves an unpleasant taste – even if the large American who asked us not to walk past his house backed down pretty rapidly when he realised we really weren’t any trouble. If Belize allows much more of this, it could quickly lose the laid-back vibe that brings the tourists in. Privatising beach access is a sad state of affairs.

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Belize is expensive, too – a shock after Mexico. We cooked for ourselves a lot – enjoying the fact that you can buy sausages that actually taste like sausages, but also enjoyed fantastic seafood at local restaurants, and lots of lobster. The girls loved a bar where you could play giant Jenga in particular.

After a few days in Hopkins, we got a car and water taxi to Caye Caulker, an island so relaxed that it makes Hopkins look uptight. Here, despite continuing windy weather, we did some amazing snorkelling. The girls were brave (the sea was pretty rough) venturing out on the reef, where we saw huge turtles close up, as well as sting rays, nurse sharks, coral and eels. Paul, it emerges, is not a good sailor in rough seas, and felt much better when we returned. However, these are his pictures from the waterproof camera we were loaned. Impressive stuff. Clover still refuses to breathe through a snorkel pipe, but enjoyed using the mask, and Daisy is becoming a champion snorkeller.

Daisy and Clover enjoyed hanging out with Miriam – there’s nothing like being adored for being a big girl to lift the spirits, and we enjoyed hanging out with Clem, Peter and Rachel, drinking inappropriately named cocktails on the rooftop at sundown. The rum was cheap, even if the vegetables weren’t, and the drink of choice appears to be a Panty Ripper (pineapple juice and rum, to the uninitiated).. We also managed a night out – thanks for the babysitting!

Daisy and Clover made a friend or two and spent a happy afternoon with them shaking tourists down for cash by trying to sell them seeds they picked off the floor. They spent the cash on sweets from the local store. Not sure whether to be proud or horrified by their ‘Young Enterprise’ tendencies.

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Hair-braiding, Bob Marley in every bar and a Caribbean vibe that’s distinctly lacking in Mexico means that Belize felt like a really different experience, even to the Mexican seaside. It was so nice to share it with friends too. Didn’t really want to leave. Caye Caulker’s motto appears to be ‘go slow’ – and we’d just about slowed down enough by the time we came to leave. Pretty sure we’ll be back, despite the horrifically long bus journey.

In other recent news, we’ve had our five minutes of fame in the last few weeks. One article in the Telegraph (here) and one in the Mail (here) about our trip. Some extraordinary comments on the bottom of both – particularly love the criticisms of my trousers, the girls’ haircuts (which I admit were terrible, but there wasn’t much else available in Cambodia), and the fact that they’re not learning any physics (yes, obviously that’s my main worry, too). Oh, and one Daily Mail reader thinks I should be in jail. Interesting times –  though I’m grateful for all the reader support I received too. Quite glad to be back on more mundane subjects this week.

 

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Tech for travelling families- what should you pack, prep and download?

The advance of technology has transformed our ability to pack for a long term trip, compared to our last big adventure, six years ago, when Daisy was two and a half and Clover a baby.

Where once we had bag fulls of books, computers so heavy and fragile that we packed them in our children’s Grobags and acres of paper, we can now travel lighter and access more thanks to more reliable wifi and better ways of making use of it. The downside is the yards of cableage we have to pack with us, falling out of our bags like snakes every time we pass Security. But if you’re wondering what to take for the kids for a long (or even a short) trip – here’s what we’d recommend (or not, in some cases).

And yes, you could be sanctimonious and say that travelling should be about leaving the screens behind – but we’re also realists. The world is big, and sometimes hard work whether you are little or big. Technology can make it seem both easier and smaller, which can be a very good thing.

Hardware

 Kindles – the plain vanilla type

Lots of people suggested we just took the girls a tablet (such as the Kindle Fire) which also works as an e-reader – but we resisted the temptation. Why? Because, Puritan that I am, I wanted some distinction between the books that they read and the tablets that they watch and play on. I also wanted to be able to police the time they spent playing games but not limit reading.

Cheap Kindles for the girls have been the answer – we considered the backlit ones which Paul and I have, but I’m afraid they got the cheap ones. I caught them using them to weight down a den wall yesterday, so I feel this decision was justified on purely economic grounds. Also, our backlit Paperwhites are great for Indian trains in the dark, but not so great when you are trying to stop the children reading til 10pm when they get to a particularly exciting bit.

The Kindle Family system allows us to download the same books onto both girls’ Kindles, and on to ours, and I can see what they’re reading. Since both of them devour books at speed, we’d never have been able to carry enough for them otherwise. And they tend to like to read the same books at the same time – so Kindles save arguments.

Guidebooks on Kindle are still a work in progress, I think (maps are too small) but I’d still rather have them than carry heavy paper versions around the world, useful as they have been in the past when we’ve run out of toilet paper in an emergency. Yes, I know…scratchy.

Tablets

The girls received a Hudl 2 each for their birthdays before we left home. They are neat little tablets, with excellent child safety settings and rubbish battery life. We can set the number of hours they are allowed a day (and change it on travelling days so they get more). The tablets allow their favourite apps (Android) as well as very limited internet access – they use them to play and to learn. Shame Hudls are being discontinued – they’ve done exactly what we need them to do, though they have odd glitches – the volume sometimes goes unacceptably high for no reason, leading to huge rows, and software updates lead to things not working until they are painstakingly reset.

Headphones

If everyone is not to be driven mad – headphones are a must. Small children can’t keep the ‘in the ear’ ones in – so the girls have over ear ones like this. They’ve worked in many buses and planes as well (though not all, as some still have those funny earphone sockets which require two prongs – that’s probably not the technical term). We also have a headphone splitter – like this, so both girls can listen to the same film at the same time.

iPad

Actually belongs to Paul and me – but excellent for Skype and Facetime playdates – girls frequently wander off into their room with cousins or friends online to play dollies for an hour. It’s a welcome link with home, when the wifi’s good. Frustrating when its not – everyone looks like they are part of a Minecraft game.

Macbook Air

Mine, actually, and technically for work. Somehow still popular with everyone, judging by the sticky stains on the keyboard. Standing up well to the travelling life, despite a dodgy trackpad supplemented by a £2 Guatemalan plastic mouse.

Acer laptop

Paul’s. Distinctly dodgy – we bought it in a Malaysian IT mall because I kept hogging the other laptop. It frequently crashes, and the Microsoft package, which we were assured was legit, is pretty obviously not. Oops.

USB charger

Chargers are a big deal when you’re travelling – so this neat little block, which I can’t find online but this gives you the general idea, takes four cords and little space and allows us to charge on the go. Many buses and trains now also have charging points, which helps.

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Mobile phones

Three of them. Two on our UK numbers, and an unlocked iPhone that’s had more Sims in it than a few – giving us 3g coverage everywhere from Myanmar to Mexico. Much cheaper than any roaming plan, and peace of mind when I’m working on the road.

The airport is usually a good place to pick up an unlocked Sim – this site is a great resource for most countries. It’s usually correct, but mobile phone coverage is a fast -moving game in most developing countries so also check on the ground.

Apps, sites and ‘software’

Communication

What’s App: free texts to friends and colleagues wherever you’ve got wifi. What’s not to like?

Skype: Despite sometimes dodgy connections, Skype is great for almost free work calls (though I don’t route them through a UK number so people sometimes think they’re being spammed when a ‘000’ number comes up). Paul’s Gran doesn’t use the internet so we can also call her for cheap – she can’t quite believe it only costs us pennies. Also great for video-calling non-Mac friends.

FacetTime: Free video (or audio) calling from iPhones/iPads/Macs. Usually seems to be clearer than Skype for some reason.

Touchnote: Because sometimes sending a physical card is important. We buy credits in bulk and use them to send the children’s drawings for birthday or Christmas cards, or picture postcards of us on our travels to friends and family. Because no-one prints an email out and puts it on the fridge. They usually arrive in the UK in two days.

Education

Duolingo: Free language learning app with some bizarre sentences (‘the penguin sleeps next to the cat’ anyone?) but great gamification that keeps the girls interested. They do 15 minutes a day to supplement the Spanish at school. It really helps. Wish we’d started it sooner.

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The School Run

They’ve done the homeschool work so we don’t have to. Probably unnecessary for anyone whose child is in a UK school – though pitched as a homework aid and adjunct to schooling, it provides worksheets for the entire curriculum as well as progress tests. Since the girls need to go back to UK school life next year, we use it to ensure we’re covering the right stuff – and use a USB stick to get worksheets printed out as we go. Not a replacement for teaching, but very handy. Paid for.

Squeebles (various)

Good games for times tables and fractions. Not tried the rest but the girls don’t resist these. Paid for.

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Getting around

Tripadvisor             

Of course. Not always perfect but useful when you’ve just arrived anywhere for restaurants, cafes, and opening hours – and saves you just going to the five places mentioned in the Lonely Planet.

TravelKhana

Specialist but brilliant – get curry delivered to any seat on an Indian train – like some kind of magic – preventing both starvation and food poisoning. Works about 50 per cent of the time- so also bring crisps…

Google Maps

Goes without saying. Geographer Paul’s favourite way of ensuring we don’t get cheated by a taxi driver going the long way round, and are ready to get off at our destination on a long-distance bus. Also more prosaically, for walking along the street.

Girls’ favourites

Monster High, Ever After High, Lego ArtMaker

Noisy, free, and with in-app purchases disabled. I am a financial journalist after all.

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Netflix

Everyone’s favourite. A great improvement from the grainy YouTube children’s cartoon videos Daisy used to get six years ago. And there’s nothing like rewatching Gavin & Stacey to make you feel closer to home when the kids have gone to bed.

What have we missed? All suggestions gratefully received!