On my return from a mother-daughter volunteer trip to Cusco, Peru, I was scrolling through the hundreds of pictures trying to find 'the one'. It's a challenge I set myself following a family trip to distract me from the fact I have taken far too many pictures, again! The only rule is that it has to capture the spirit of the adventure. This is it. It's my 10 year old daughter, Sadie lost on Machu Picchu, one of the world's best known archaeological sites which is also the home to a herd of llamas. We were visiting during our time-off from working in a conservation zoo. While I was taking the obligatory been-there-done-that picture with the stunning Machu Picchu background, Sadie asked if she could go up to the watchman's hut a few metres above us on the next level. I apparently mumbled "yes". A few minutes later she was out of sight. After a short but traumatic hunt around the area, that included a compact panic attack and random screeching at strangers, I found her near the hut, relaxed and smiling with camera in-hand. It wasn't until I was going through her memory card that I came across these photographs and realised what she was doing while she was "lost". Says it all really.
In July, I will be travelling with my daughter (aged 10) to Peru to assist with duties at the Cusco Conservation Zoo. All adult volunteers taking part in the GVN volunteer program are required to have a police check. We are British citizens living in Dubai so I was expecting this to be a difficult process. Thankfully, this was not the case. After waiting for my new passport to arrive from the UK, applying for a new visa and then finding time to drive to the other side of Dubai, I finally have my Certificate of good conduct aka Police Check. Here are the 5 steps to getting your Police Check in Dubai, UAE: 1. Check your passport (and visa) is up-to-date. 2. Arrange for x 2 passport photographs and photocopy your passport. 3. Take your ID, passport, photographs and passport copy to the CID building between 7.30 and 2.30 (map below). 4. Take a number and sit in the respective area (there is a female seating area to your left) and watch the digital board for your counter number. The cost is AED 110 for expats. You will be asked for the items above and to come back in 3-4 working days. 5. Return to the same building, look for the desk with a sign showing 'pick up certificates' - number 17 when I was there - where you will be given an A4 envelope with your certificate inside. Done. The process is very straightforward, especially if you already have an up-to-date passport! This of course is assuming you have a clean record (parking fines are not taken into account).
Dubai Police General Headquarters,
Near Al Mulla Plaza, Dubai.
Timings from 7.30 am to 2.30 pm
Cusco - birthplace of the world In less than eight weeks my ten year old daughter and I will be travelling to Cusco, Peru to volunteer in the local conservation zoo. As volunteers, we will be based in the ancient city of Cusco, near the Sacred Valley of the Andes mountain range and only a few hours from Peru's most famous landmark, Machu Picchu. We plan to visit the surrounding area, the captivating landscapes such as the Sacred Valley, markets and take a two day tour to Machu Picchu. Cusco sits at an altitude of around 3,500m with a semi-dry and cold climate and we can expect temperatures of 21°C down to 1°C. The capital and largest city of Peru, Lima, is a 1 hour flight or approximately 22 hour bus ride away from Cusco. Many people think of it as a small village, Cusco is actually a bustling city of 400,000 people. Seductive, striking and natural, Cusco's history lives in its streets, squares, valleys and towns. There is a plethora of museums, markets, cultural and historical sites within the city limits that are easily accessible and visited. I'm looking forward to scouring the markets for a few trinkets and gifts. Here's my must-go list of Cusco markets:
- Plaza San Blas - workshops and showrooms of local craftspeople
- Center for Traditional Textiles - traditional weavings and textiles
- The Centro Artesenal Cusco - souvenirs and alpaca wool handicrafts
- San Pedro Mercado Central - fruit and vegetables
- Central Plaza de Armas - street food and drinks
Located in Kandy, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic is a Buddhist temple in the royal palace complex of the former Kingdom of Kandy. Although you do not get to see it, the temple houses the relic of the tooth of Buddha. Upon entering the site I could feel the serene ambiance and smell the fresh of Jasmine and Lotus flowers being sold as offerings. Fortunately, there a number of story boards in English hanging around the main hall inside where the children can easily read the potted history of the tooth. We all left feeling a little bit more enlightened. Time to head back to the hotel for dinner and a pillow fight.
Back in the AC, we were on our way to the next stop in our roomy 12-seater minibus to Gamini Gem factory, Kandy. At this point, I think it’s a good time to point out that there were times when we simply felt like a purse being sent from one place to the next. When you decide to take tour with a driver, like we did you are – in part – agreeing to visit some, let’s say, mutually beneficial establishments where things always end with a sale. My husband and I were well aware that we were about to be ‘sold to’ at this particular venue but decided to put our cynicism aside and embrace the experience. Good job really, the kids loved it. The mini ‘tour’ started with a step by step explanation of how rough stones are selected, polished and made into beautiful jewelry. We were then escorted to the shop across the street, with assistance from two authoritative-looking policemen in brown suits, to the pride of place ready for the essential gem presentation. Yes, we bought something. Two Moonstone necklace gems for only $10 madam. Sri Lanka is touted as a great place to buy gems but without any prior experience or knowledge of gems, we stuck to the cheapest option to reduce the risk of unscrupulous dealers. According to some reports, there are some dealers ready to trick gullible tourists by passing off blue spinel, or other semi-precious stones as sapphire. Leaving with our treasure, we climbed into our carriage for a thoughtful and educational trip to the Kandy War Cemetery and then to the Temple of the tooth.
If like us, you want to take full advantage of your time in a new place and see as much of the island as you can in one trip, it"s likely that you'll be considering a driver. Sri Lanka is around 25k sq miles of mostly flat land, with mountains in the south-central region, so getting around and covering a fair bit of the country should not be too much of a challenge. We contemplated taking a train from the airport and using a driver on an ad hoc basis but the cost versus hassle-factor finally led to a decision to go with a driver for the complete trip. Plus, travelling with two children, having limited time and not being familiar with the roads cancelled out the rental car option for us but I came across a number of stories of people who enjoyed the freedom of exploring independently. When researching, Google produced a mix bag of results including recommendations from visitors on sites like Tripadvisor and Lonely Planet, as well as web pages of individual drivers put together by generous clients. After speaking to friends, reading a number of forum threads, it was obvious that there was no clear market leader or agency to fall back on so there was an element of risk and lots of research involved. I eventually opted for a one-man-band driver who had his own website, a bunch of recommendations and testimonials. Thankfully, after a few surprises, we had a fantastic holiday and a great driver but it wasn't straightforward. Below are a few tips when booking a Sri Lankan driver: 1. Do your research. Things may have changed since our trip so make sure you look at up-to-date and recent posts to get a general understanding of what is available. Consider social media for tracking down some of the people that left testimonials to qualify the recommendations. Make sure the driver can speak English at a level where he is able to respond to the barrage of questions coming from seats behind him! 2. Ask lots of questions. One way to get a feel for your driver, before you commit, is to ask him questions about the fine details of the trip. There are different types of services; 'A tour' is when you leave the majority of the planning to the driver, down to the hotels you stay in and the places you visit. If you fancy being the tour manager and arranging the itinerary yourself (like we did) you will need to make it clear at the start that you only require him to drive you to places. Most 5* hotels offer driver accommodation for around LKR 100 (45 pence) which should be covered by the driver as part of the package but it is worth checking. 3. Discuss the right-sized vehicle before you leave. I asked for a 'car with a driver' and was advised that we needed a 'van' for two adults and two children. I agreed to the upgrade for extra comfort. When we arrived we were greeted by a different driver, with a car. Subsequently we had to take a two hour detour to switch to the pre-agreed van that turned out to be a lovely new 12-seater mini-van. 4. Get what you paid for. As mentioned earlier, we picked a driver based on his personal website and references. However, the driver that greeted us at the airport happened to be a freelance driver who was contracted to take over our trip. Fortunately, he turned out to be a polite, professional and kind man, who was a relatively safe driver on the mad roads of Sri Lanka. 5. Don't be afraid to change. "If you are not happy with the driver, change him" - that was the advice from a mum we met during our travels. One of the dads told me worrying stories of how her driver would constantly take his hands off the wheel and appeared to be a struggling to drive in heavy traffic. Another woman changed her driver after day two as she felt there was no chemistry and found it difficult to communicate. Driving in Sri Lanka was an experience, a hair-raising one and a major part of our trip. Would we have a driver again? Yes and we would probably book the same guy. Is it safe? Not technically. I had mixed feelings that ranged from the exhilaration of the anything-goes, wacky races approach to times of shear terror when we were dodging head-on trucks, wandering pedestrians and wild dogs that seemed to disappear under the van and reappear the other side none the wiser. A holiday is not a good holiday without taking yourself out of your comfort zone in my opinion - a little fear does no harm! Our driver was K.A. Udayasiri aka Udaya. He doesn't have a website but can be contacted on email@example.com
Close enough to the heart of the city but tucked neatly away up a narrow winding road, Earls Regency hotel was the perfect place for a jaunt around the Kandy area. After a three hour drive from Colombo airport we were welcomed by the softly spoken and professional lobby staff with a glass of passion fruit juice while the check-in took place in a refined manner. After 15 minutes or so we were taken to our compact, double room where we were to stay for two nights. The room was well worn, which wasn't such a bad thing with excitable twin 10 year olds. The kids managed to create the standard family disaster area once we had unpacked whilst I scurried around trying to put things in order as if we had guests arriving any minute. The AC was definitely not Dubai standards i.e. Arctic but a teasing cool that just wasn't enough for the four of us in one room. This was to become a common moan throughout the trip. The hotel decor is heavy on woodwork and brown with a touch of cultural features. I was expecting more of an ethnic vibe and modern facilities but it was more of a middle of the road, safe design with no real character. The views however were fantastic. There are limited dining options in the hotel but the main buffet restaurant had enough choice for the whole family. My husband is a keen curry man so as you can expect with Sri Lankan food, he was in his element with the range of mains but alas the rest of us are still only just at the Korma level so it was slightly more challenging but enjoyable nonetheless. Every night the theme of the restaurant is changed to offer a twist on the previous spread (strangely similar dishes though) - in our time there we trawled the Mediterranean and the Seafood offerings - including BBQ's, specialty dishes and the traditional local dishes on offer like string hoppers (made from hot-water dough of rice meal), Lamprais (rice boiled in stock with a special curry) and Kothuthu Roti. The 'Mountbatten Lounge' is a great spot for the hands-free adults or a pre-drinks however the service staff was lacking the basic attentiveness you would expect from a top hotel in the region. Another option, close to the other restaurants, that seemed popular was Royal Spice, a Northern Indian restaurant with a menu offering dishes like Murgh Malai Tikka, Mutton Rara Ghosht, and Kashmiri offerings. Not sure what the Indian food connection is but it was a common theme in many of the hotels. Some of the website information suggests that you can walk into Kandy but unless you are planning a hour long hike into town, you will require wheels. As we were still on day one of our holiday in Sri Lanka, my hubby and I ventured into the slightly outdated but does-the-job gym for a bit of guilty exercise to work off the previous nights gorge of numerous dishes from the buffet. The children had the U-shaped pool and adjoining Jacuzzi all to themselves so big tick for all of us for keeping up with the calories so far. Overall, this was an enjoyable experience for all of us with no complaints. General tip: Kids menus were few and far between in hotels and restaurants we visited in Sri Lanka, so I would recommend bring along some familiar and healthy snacks with you, especially if you have picky eaters.
We are a well-travelled family with quite a bit of experience between us. So you'd think we would have everything planned and organised down to the last toothpick for our recent trip to Sri Lanka, oh no. For some strange reason, before this particular trip my husband and I were overcome with an unusual laid-back almost zen-like approach to catching our flight. I have to admit I'm generally the drill master in this situation but not this time. This was different. We (I mean 'he') agreed on the set time we would leave the house without allowing for the holiday mayhem that was about to unfold. We arrived at the airport with just over an hour to boarding to be told to join the crowd after giving our meager reasons for being 'a bit late'. After a few minutes a lady with a clipboard meekly called for any remaining Colombo passengers. We made our way, chest-first through the bulging queue, to the desk to be told boarding had closed. After a few heated arguments, we finally listened to the helpful chap behind the desk who explained that we must simply convert our big case into two newly-bought all cases (this seemed impossible at the time), if we want to get on the flight. We had gone from a relatively normal 2.2 family to a rampaged group of savages scurrying around on the airport floor flinging knickers around. The madness continued to the gate with my husband and I sprinting off through duty free like it was every man for themselves leaving the two kids to struggle with their luggage. We finally made it on board huffing and puffing, head down in shame, only to be sitting on the tarmac waiting for late passengers to arrive from shopping. Tut, tut. Coincidentally, I've decided to review our family travel rules and here are 5 of the more important ones: 1. Leave 2 hours earlier than usual especially when it is school holiday time - it may seem obvious but no one wants to start their trip with the slow painful shuffle in the misleading queue from hell. 2. Use hand-luggage sized suitcases only - when they're old enough, give each child a bit of responsibility by allocating them their own piece of luggage. 3. Check and double check the kids packing - my daughter felt that having two swimsuits and pj's were far more important than any underwear or clothes! 4. Discuss the travel plans more than once - and not on the day of the flight so you avoid pre-holiday airhead mode 5. Appoint a person in charge- this not only gives someone responsibility i.e. they think about the finer details, it also gives you the chance to blame the other person if that person isn't you! As expected, we arrived in Sri Lanka four or so hours later, $70 lighter (visa cost) where we were greeted by our smiley driver 'Udaya' with a perfectly incorrect sign 'Mr Z Looper'.
With only 6 days to go before we all set off for our trip to Sri Lanka, I thought I would share a few facts I have come across whilst booking and researching our hols. The plan is to fly into Colombo, make our way to Kandy where we are staying in a beautiful scenic location close the centre, a hike and a short stay at Hunas Falls followed by a drive down to Hikkaduwa for a few days then back up for one night in Colombo to see friends. Fast Facts 1. The population is close to 20 million 2. Colombo is the capital of Sri Lanka, previously known as Ceylon 3. When you pull out your wallet to buy some tea you will need work work out your 217 times table - 1 British pounds gets you around 217 Sri Lankan Rupees 4. You will hear a few different languages, they are Sinhala, Tamil and English 5. There are many religions including: Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Muslim 6. Literacy is 92% - which means that they boast the highest literacy rate in the whole of South Asian 7. Before Sri Lanka became famous for tea, it was famous for coffee – in 1870's the coffee fields of Sri Lanka were wiped out by leaf blight 8. Sri Lanka is known as both the ‘pearl of the Indian Ocean’ and the ‘teardrop of India’ due to its shape 9. In Sri Lanka, when someone shakes their head from side to side and with a slight wiggle, it means "yes" 10. Although cricket is the most popular sport, the national sport of the country is in fact volleyball 11. The country has lots of waterfalls, so most of Sri Lanka’s electricity is powered by hydro-powered energy 10. Sri Lanka’s national flag is said to be one of the oldest flags in the world Image: traveltodaylah.com
Ever wondered what it would be like to be a volunteer? In June, my daughter Sadie and I are heading off for two weeks of volunteer work in Cusco conservation zoo, Peru. Here's a short volunteer expectations video from people who have been there and done exactly that. Hear what they think about their experience, advice on how to make the most of your time and dealing with culture shocks as well as what you can expect to gain personally.