Sunday, January 8, 2012

Coming Home

At the Sydney Airport with our 11 pieces of Checked Baggage!

We woke early on Boxing Day and prepared our MANY pieces of luggage for the trip to the airport. We bought 3 new suitcases/travel bags bringing our total checked luggage pieces to 10 plus a didgeridoo! Luckily our original tickets included 2 pieces of checked luggage per passenger - PHEW! On top of our checked luggage, we each had a bulky stuffed backpack as a carry on. We arranged for an airport transfer vehicle to come to our cottage so that Sam and I would travel with the majority of the large luggage and then Dan, Jack and Jake would take the car and the rest. At the airport, Dan rendezvoused with O'Mahoney's friend who would be taking their car while the boys and I sat with ALL our luggage! It was a good thing we left PLENTY of time as we had a few glitches getting everything checked. Finally, we were able to relax a little and
get ready for the long ride home.
The flights were all better than I expected ... no one was ill, no one was claustrophobic, no one complained aloud that they were bored. Maybe it was because we all knew what to expect that things seemed to go smoothly - I don't know - I'm just happy we all made it in one piece - no kids abandoned at any connection points. When we were changing planes in L.A., we sent silent holiday wishes to the O'Mahoney's who we knew were in L.A. enjoying a little time before returning home.
We left Sydney on December 26 and after about 24 hours of straight travel, we arrived on Winnipeg on December 26 - magic! We made it through the "wormhole" once again! We were EXHAUSTED and arranged to spend the night in Winnipeg before returning to Kenora on the 27th.
On the way out of Winnipeg, we stopped at Tim Horton's (of course). I was so excited for my first in house Tim Horton's coffee in a year - we ordered 2 coffees, 3 hot chocolates, 3 juices and 6 jumbo muffins. I had my crisp hundred dollar bill ready to pay and when the clerk said it was $15 and some change I became very giddy! You see, that same breakfast order in Australia would cost about $30 - 40! We fed 5 people breakfast for $15! Ah, it was great to be home! Dan recalled that he had the same feeling when he had returned in July, but he had his giddy moment at Wal Mart.
After a car ride filled with anticipation, we arrived home to find that not only had Santa visited, but that some Christmas elves had come in, put up a tree, decorated, stocked our fridge and pantry and even left us dinner in the crock pot! Thank you Christmas Elves - we are so thankful!
It felt so great to be in our own home. The kids ran up the stairs and down the stairs and all over everywhere. They were excited for Christmas, for being home, for the snow, to see family, to see friends, just to be in our own space once again. It is like they say, there really is nothing like coming home. It's your own space and it just feels right.
The next couple of days were a flurry of activity. We were trying to unpack our luggage AND all the boxes we had packed away last December. We read through a year's worth of mail and dealt with all the things you have to deal with. We were jet lagged and being bright eyed and bushy tailed until 3 or 4 in the morning and then wanting to sleep the day away. Most importantly, we were excited to see family and friends.
We kicked off the visiting with Christmas dinner on Dec. 28. My parents, my brother and his family and Dan's parents all came together to celebrate a traditional Christmas dinner with all of our fav's - green bean casserole, sweet potato and pecan bake, wild rice, bread stuffing, meat pie, ham, turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy AND to top it all off, a tiramisu birthday cake for me! My winter insulation layer would come back on quickly if I kept this up! We had a great time and really enjoyed spending the day with our family.
We also fostered Lili back into our lives - once Lili came back home and accepted that we were in fact, real, we feel like a complete family again. A big special Thank you to my Mom for giving Lili the BEST care possible over the past year. She looks so pretty and healthy and happy. We know it was hard for you to send her home but our door is always open if you need a fix!

Traditional Christmas Dinner with family and look at THAT giant cake for dessert!

A Jedi Christmas

We followed that big meal up with days of leftovers and then New Years Eve with Dan's sister and her family and MORE food! It was comfort food heaven - all the foods we hadn't had in a year were before us and we dug right in like those half starved contestants on Survivor - although we certainly were not wasting away! After that was Jake's birthday and this time meatloaf, mashed potatoes and MORE cake! I may need to "call Jenny" soon and make her my new BFF :)

Jake is 11! Happy Birthday to you!

Anyone who knows me, knows that the one thing I completed RELISHED in Australia was the favourable climate. When asked if we would go to see "the snow" down under, I would just scoff and say that this was a "snow free year". I had no desire to experience snow in Australia and I thoroughly enjoyed a year with no boots, snow pants, toques, and all the trappings and duties that come with the white stuff. Now that we are home, I must readjust and come to once again accept that I am "back to reality". I must admit that it hasn't been seasonably cold yet so I have made some forays out of the climate controlled comfort of the house. I have bundled up and gone out to the ice fishing holes, and for a walk in the bush to have a fire and hot chocolate. Here are some photos of those excursions. The boys LOVE it - so I must make an effort to at least tolerate it from time to time. It was fun to see how much fun the boys have out there. :)

(Above)Walking out to the bush to have a fire. (Below) Lili gets comfortable in the snow.

Jacob watches the hot chocolate as it warms over the fire

Out on the ice fishing - see the island in the background.

Jacob driving the snow machine.

Now, it seems that life is returning to normal ... school starts tomorrow and with it a new chapter in our lives. Jack will be starting school for the first time, Jake and Sam will be joining their classmates midway through the year, Dan has a new "To Do" list to tackle before getting called back to work, and I am starting a new position. Already our time in Australia is starting to seem like a beautiful dream. I'm sure we will continue to reflect on how this experience has changed us and new revelations will come about. Are we changed for the better? Most definitely! I think that the gifts that we have been given by the people we met, the places we visited and the new experiences we had, will continue to change us as we continue on life's journey. I am thankful to the O'Mahoney family for exchanging homes with us and I am especially thankful to Dan, Sam, Jacob and Jack for their spirits of adventure and for leaping with me off of the continent and into the unknown! What a precious collection of memories we have from this exciting adventure!

Love T. XXOO

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Merry Christmas!

We awoke Christmas morning to presents under our inflatable tree and the excitement was surely in the air as Jack tiptoed out of the bedroom. He was vibrating with excitement and finally woke up his brothers because he just couldn't wait any longer. Santa was going to Kenora so Dan and I got the boys some little gifts to open and to give them pleasure on the long trip home. There were travel games and reading materials and a cuddly blue Hoot owl to be unwrapped. There was even some Pandora for mom and a rugby jersey for dad!

After gift opening was finished, we had a big pancake breakfast and talked about our plans for the day: visit Bondi Beach and have Christmas dinner out later. Sounded like fun so we got our things together and headed out to Bondi!

Bondi Beach is about one kilometre long and receives many visitors throughout the year. There is an underwater shark net that is shared with other beaches along the southern part of the coast. Pods of whales and dolphins have been seen in the bay during the months of migration - not when we were there. Fairy penguins are sometimes also seen swimming close to shore or amongst surfers on the south and more dangerous side of the beach. We kept to the North end of the beach and we always swim between the flags where the lifeguards can keep an eye - although, with the hundreds of people at the beach in Christmas Day, I don't know how they can possibly see if you are in trouble!

It was overwhelming when we arrived to see literally thousands of people on the beach. We found a spot and then looked around so that we would remember where we trying to find "landmarks" like that colourful umbrella or that big garbage bin. We gave the kids (Sam and Jake) the ground rules about checking in, doubled up on sunscreen and then "assumed our positions".
Bondi Beach has been used as a location for a few Australian and International movies, various television series (Bondi Rescue, Bondi vet, Breakers and the Block) as well as music videos and a video game (Tony Hawk). I must say that there were so many kinds of bikinis, I felt like I was in an Elvis movie (only at times, XRated). Luckily, the boys were so concerned with the sand and the waves, I don't THINK they noticed too much. Bondi is alcohol free and they had bag check stations set up at all the beach entrance points. There were many vendors selling food and water and soft drinks though that you could get. Just like at a hockey game, there were girls and guys roaming the beach advertising ice cream and water right at your beach blanket. We didn't snack too much in the afternoon as we were looking forward to a nice family dinner later on.
We had a lovely time bobbing up and down in the big waves and burying each other in the sand. The heat was intense and after about 3 and a half hours, we were getting hungry and ready to head back.

Jack in his lifesaving gear at his "work". Even though it was 35 degrees, he insisted on wearing his lifeguard sweater as he was "on duty". Eventually, we got him to take it off.

We arrived back at our cottage and quickly freshened up for dinner. We had eagerly anticipated an Aussie Christmas dinner all day and by this time, we were starving! As we drove around, we stated to notice that most restaurants were closed - even McDonald's. Uh oh - not good! We found a hotel - surely they would have to be open for their guests! After speaking to one of the hostesses, we learned that Christmas LUNCH is the meal of the day here - not dinner!

The only thing left to do was head back to the cottage and heat up some toast and whatever leftovers we had in our fridge. We all managed to stave off hunger for one more night and the important thing was that we were together.

After dinner we had to get serious about our packing issues as we were leaving the next morning for the airport to take us home.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Christmas Eve at Manly Beach

After touring the Harbour on our boat cruises, we decided to catch the ferry to Manly Beach. Manly Beach is about a 30 minute ferry ride from Circular Quay to the Northern side. Manly is famous for its amazing beaches. The beaches in this place attracts so many tourists to the beach but also to surf. We heard that if the waves are poor in Bondi, they are sure to be great at Manly and vice versa. Click this link to check out the live surf cam for Manly Beach or you can navigate the sidebar to check out other surf beaches like Bondi or the many others! It's very cool!

The boys at the beach's entry point.

After we arrived at Manly Wharf, we had to walk a block to reach the beachfront. The block is "chock a block" full of shops and eateries. We were feeling hungry so we decided to eat first and swim later (always a good idea :). We stopped at an outdoor cafe and had a beautiful lunch! I had salt and pepper squid with salad which I enjoyed thoroughly. The atmosphere was fantastic - we saw a young boy of about 10 singing and playing guitar and he was awesome. There were scores of people in their swimmers and Santa hats on walking to and from the beach, kids playing in the outdoor fountains (including ours!), and people greeting one another.

There was also a church along the way that was having a Christmas pageant at various times throughout the afternoon. The interesting thing about this pageant was that it told the nativity story but it incorporated Star Wars. There were Luke, Leia, Han Solo and Chewie who wee on a quest to find the newborn king. We watched for a bit on the big screen TV outside the church because it was so cool and captivating but eventually the lure of the beach won over and we moved on.

Sam at lunch

We Three Kings ....
Angels We Have Heard on High ...

We got to the beach and wasted no time getting into our swimmers and finding a great spot on the beach. It was busy and the lifeguards were out in full force. It seems that it is customary here to spend Christmas at the beach. People are all decked out and ready for some sand and surf on their holidays - SO opposite to what we are accustomed to. Even the lifeguards wore reindeer antlers or elf hats!

The lifeguards and our 2 Baywatch Babes jogging up the beach

Jack and Dan taking a stroll on the beach

As it was Christmas Eve, we had been discussing with the boys how Santa would be visiting our Kenora residence - not our cottage in Australia. We were still reminding them that Santa could see what they were up to and that in the hours that lead to Christmas he watches extra closely. Well, you could just imagine our surprise when we saw one of his helpers come strolling up the beach! Jack and I kept a close watch as he approached and breathed a sigh of relief when he passed by.

Our jaws dropped open though when he turned into the sea - there must have been someone pretty naughty out in those waves that he had to see!

Santa's helper went way way out there - all the way up to his beard! We watched him frolicking and then we he came back to shore, we noticed that he had split his pants!

Jack was sure to watch in wonder as Santa's helper disappeared from the beach. He'd have to hurry to see a tailor before heading back to the North Pole in order to finalize all the preparations for Christmas! As for us, we were able to kick back and enjoy a gorgeous afternoon at the beach, playing in the sand and surf and daydreaming of sugar plums and all the other wonderful visions that Christmas brings!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Jet Boating on Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve day was a beautiful sunny and warm day in Sydney. Today was the day we had set aside to tour Sydney and to visit Manly beach. We got up early and took the train downtown from a nearby station. The ride was a relaxing 45 minutes with no traffic and no parking - ahhh, bliss!

The boys on the steps of the Opera House and the Opera House from the sea.

Here we are standing in front of the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge at Circular Quay

We arrived at Circular Quay where the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge are the main attraction. The weather was fine and the view was even more fine. We walked around and watched street performers and took in the sites. The boys didn't know it but we had booked a jet boat ride for them on the harbour with Oz Jet Boating (click the link to check out their site)
A friendly didgeridoo street performer

At 12:45 we made our way over to the docking area and announced to the boys that part of our gift to them was this fast paced, wet boat ride. Sam, Jake and Dan had to get into rain jackets for their ride while Jack and I boarded the cruise boat for our one and a half hour guided tour. Jack would have loved the jet boat ride but he was about 15 cm's to short to take the trip. Sam said his favourite part of the ride was the 360's and Jake liked the speed best. Dan and I are glad they enjoyed it!

The jet boat ride includes 360's, breakneck turns and fast stops! They guarantee you'll get wet right down to your toes!

Jack and I enjoyed our cruise and learned a lot about the history of the Harbour and it's development along with key Australian's and where they live (Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman ...). The highlight of the trip though was when Jack got to drive the ship into Sydney harbour - he was so proud and excited!

Jack and I enjoying our cruise and "Captain Jack" steering into the Harbour - notice the Harbour Bridge in our sights!

We had a ball but we weren't finished yet - next we would take the ferry to Manly Beach! Yay!

Monday, January 2, 2012

Surfing A.U.S.!

We woke to cloudy and rainy skies for our surf lesson but that didn't dampen our spirits. Learning to surf was one of the original items on our Australia "bucket list" and we couldn't wait to finally "give it a go!" Our lesson was scheduled from 10 until 11:30am at the Cronulla Surf School. I researched surfing in Sydney and we could have gone to Bondi or Manly but Cronulla was a highly recommended surf school by several people and it would not be as crazy for our family as some of the other beaches. I had been in contact with Mark from the surf school for a couple of weeks and was excited to finally get there.

We drove through downpours and with cloudy skies for the entire hour on our way. We tried to be positive talking about how we would be wet anyway and that at least it was warm - all the while hopeful that our lesson wouldn't be cancelled as it was the only day we could do it. Just as we came into the Cronulla beach area, the rain stopped and the sky cleared - it was perfect!

We gathered our towels and beach stuff and headed over to the surf school entrance. We met Mark, the owner, who was just as lovely as I thought and he introduced us to our instructor, Ian or "Muzz" as they called him.

Muzz was once a competitive surfer who now enjoys giving lessons and has a teenage son who lives at the beach on his board. He was a perfect fit for our family! He was encouraging and kind and even got Jack involved with the lesson. It was a great experience for us all!

First, we got suited up in our wetsuits and rashers (swim shirts) - even Jack! We also got our boards and then, Muzz took us over to the "pool" to give us some board basics. The pool is actually a sheltered area of the ocean whereby concrete stairs and a rail as well as a partial wall make it a great place to learn. We bellied up on our boards and learned to paddle out and how to "push up" when a small wave is coming. We also learned how to flip our boards in the case of a big wave (sort of like a kayak flip). Muzz put Jack on his board so that Jack could practice pushing and paddling with us. Once he felt we were ready, it was off to the surf.

We went off to the beach and learned in the sand how to get up on the board. We did some dry land practice of paddling, pushing up and then standing and balancing. I felt suddenly nervous about trying it in actual water! So, while Muzz took Sam, Jake and Dan out to the surf, I volunteered to stay back with Jack. Muzz waded with the boys out through the waves and then they would get on their boards and he would tell them to "paddle paddle paddle". He would push them into the wave and then they would try to get up. Jack and I watched them get up - and then down, up and then down ... each time they would turn back and head with their board back out to the waves.

Dan came in and sent me out. Muzz told me to hop up and "paddle paddle paddle", which I did. I caught the wave and just rode it on my belly, enjoying the speed and getting a feel for how easy it was to steer and turn the board. Now, to stand. I got off and headed back out to the waves. Each time, I did as Muzz said and paddled and tried to stand but each time, I ended up in the water. Finally, I found myself standing and SURFING - screaming, "Woo hoo!" all the way to shore. It was the best feeling - the combination of the power of the ocean and the delicate balance of standing, arms out like you're flying over the waves. I can see how addicting it can be! Muzz gave me a high five and I took a couple more turns and then went to shore to give Dan another go.

It was a successful lesson as Sam and Jake also caught some waves. What a fun family activity! even Jack got in on the action as Muzz took him out on the board and they rode several waves in on their bellies. Jack had the time of his life in the waves and in Muzz's expert hands he had fun and wasn't scared. (Kudos have to be given to Gillian Lee here for her hard work in helping Jack overcome his fear of the water. This fun day would not have been possible if not for her - thanks Gill! XXOO)

The hour and a half flew by and before we knew it, we were done - but not before hooking us on this awesome sport! We will have to find some surf as a family once again one day as this was a totally gnarly experience! Dan and I were already starting to feel the sore and stiffness of the all over body workout that surfing provides. The boys were, of course, just warming up!

Our thanks go to Mark, Muzz and the Cronulla Surf Club. We had a perfect experience and we thank you for introducing us to this awesome sport!

You can see more of our surf lesson by clicking the video link below:

Load em' up!

It's like one of those world record breakers for how many people and things you can fit in a sedan. Picture it - 5 people, 7 suitcases, 5 backpacks and all the stuff that wouldn't fit in the suitcases, a cooler AND a didgeridoo all crammed in. So crammed in that we had to have others close the doors. I sat in the passenger seat, in the "birthing position" with stuff under my legs and feet, a backpack between my legs and on my lap, and all kinds of loose odds and ends all around me. The kids had bags under their feet, in the rear window area and the didgeridoo across their laps for the 6 hour ride to Sydney. Surprisingly, the trip seemed to go fairly quickly. We took one last look at the country scenery - the rolling hills, the long dry grass, the gums and the creeks - trying to etch it into our memories.
Around 4:30pm, we reached our home away from home: a cottage in a caravan park about an hour out of downtown Sydney. It was a good thing we rented a cottage as our luggage needed a lot of space! :) We settled in and had dinner and it was early to bed. The next day, we explored the pool and our immediate surroundings. We picked up some last minute Christmas presents and some extra suitcases for our ongoing battle to fit everything in!

Poor Dan was so jet lagged, he couldn't manage more than a few hours of consciousness before needing a rest. We knew that the next day would be a big one - our surf lesson!

Dan's Triumphant Return

I prayed and wished and hoped and it happened! Dan made his return to Narrandera - ALLELUIA! He had been working in Canada since his departure in July and it was pretty touch and go as to whether he would make it back in time - or at all. I was feeling a lot of stress about cleaning, packing and moving all by myself and hurting my back in the last week compounded my stress. Dan was working like crazy, trying to finish up the job in time but it seemed fate was against us. They would run into glitches with the pipe and that would put them back days.
It was tense but thankfully our friends in Narrandera assured me that with their help, I would at least make it out of town sane and in one piece. My worry was getting to Sydney, finding our cottage, unloading the car, reloading the car, getting to the airport, unloading the car, getting the car to O'Mahoney's friend, getting the luggage and us onto the plane and then surviving the trip home. It would keep me up at night as I would try to puzzle it all out.
At last, on December 13, Dan informed me that he was booked on flights that would take him directly to Narrandera on December 20. It was like angels were singing when I got that news! The weight of the world was lifted off my shoulders and I could relax a little and enjoy the last few days with our friends. Dan finished work on the 17th in Thunder Bay, drove to Winnipeg with a quick stopover in Kenora and got on the plane on Dec. 18th. We picked him in Narrandera on the 20th and the kids and I were overjoyed to see him at the airport. We had a full house of visitors dropping by as we continued to pack and organize and then we headed out of town on the 21st.
A special thank you to Brigitte, Marie, Jo, Katie, Rod, Ingrid and anyone who helped to make our exit from Narrandera easier. We thank you for taking the time to help us organise, clean and pack - I couldn't have made it without you! XXOO