Morocco – Jewel of the North

Still thinking about where to go this autumn school holidays? How about stepping back in time and embarking on an adventure in Morocco? 
We traveled with our 2 boys, now 8 and 4 years old, to Marrakech in October last year. We thought the kids are ready for something a bit more exotic and rustic – basically, a place where finding the first-world staple of pommes frites and pasta for a meal would be a mean feat.

And what an amazing hidden jewel Marrakech proved to be.

What to see:

The Medina – which is the largest traditional market square in Morocco, was a real eye-opener for our kids who have never seen a donkey plying the same busy roads as cars and trucks. On weekends, locals would travel far and wide from their villages in the mountains or desert here to catch up with friends, treat themselves to a hearty meal, or simply soak in the thrilling energy of the big city.

Our senses were treated to the constant buzz of animal hooves click-clacking on narrow cobbled stone streets and the friendly banter between stall owners selling their wares and potential customers negotiating prices; the fragrant scent of spices, aromatic oils and soaps, the whiff of piping hot sesame buns and flatted breads sold by women with their young children in tow; the fine warm dust caressing our sandaled feet and the hypnotic pipe tunes of the snake charmers.

The main market square can be liken to the heart of the city, but the fun begins when we start meandering through the narrow veins to the many souks that sell unique artisan wares. One street is flanked by stalls selling leather goods like footwear that looked like elves’ shoes with their pointy tips; another souk sparkled and glowed with starburst streams of light coming from pendant lamps made of pewter and silver. One street sold only olives!

Adventures with kids:

You can’t leave Morocco without seeing it in all its golden glory in a hot air balloon. We woke up at 4.30am and a tour guide drove us from our hotel to the desert in a muscly four-wheel drive. We had a breakfast in a rustic tent before seeing a whole entourage of workers set up the balloon for our ride. 

Even seeing the set up was an adventure in itself. The kids were really happy that the balloon we were going up in is a bright red and yellow color. The desert soon glittered below us as the sun began to rise over the Atlas mountain range. There was nothing to do but enjoy nature’s beauty.

The minimum age for kids to be in the hot air balloon is 3 years old. After the ride, we had lunch in a small desert village and went for a camel ride as part of the tour too.

We made a day trip to the Ourika Valley in the Atlas mountain region, a 70 km drive from Marrakech. It is inhibited by the Berber people who still embrace a traditional way of life. We did a wonderful trek up the mountain to see a waterfall, climbing over slippery and sharp rock surfaces. Do bring your usual Swiss hiking attire and shoes. I hiked in a dress that wasn’t too convenient for climbing over rocks but at least I wore sensible shoes! This was apparently where they filmed the movie ‘The Mummy’ as well. 

Where to stay:

There are many family resorts and all-inclusive hotels but we chose to stay in a lovely riad run by a wonderful French couple called Riad Dar Alfarah. It is only 5 minutes walk from the Medina – the grand traditional market square. Our hosts gave us good tips on how to travel safely and arranged for a driver and tour guide to show us around. On our last night, we were treated to a lovely Moroccan meal with a merry band of musicians and a belly dancing performance.

The intoxicating combination of lamb stew, constant flow of wine and spiced teas, the heady scent of shisha smoke and the nimble belly dancer flitting from one table to another definitely left an indelible mark in my mind.

 

Advertisements

Wild Inspirations

I visited the Zurich Zoo last weekend and had a wonderful time with my mum and my youngest son. There were several food stands littered throughout the zoo, interesting and challenging playgrounds and the open enclosures allow visitors to get up close and personal to the myriad animals.

I couldn’t help but marvel at how fortunate animals are in Switzerland. Compared to the smelly, world-weary camels we saw in Morocco – with their constant groupie of gnats buzzing around them, their humps, or should I say, ‘stumps’ flattened to non-existence for tourists to sit on, the camels here boasted of thick, luscious golden brown fur, have access to a wide open field to roam around that is filled with food aplenty.

We were really excited standing in front of the glass divider of the tiger enclosure. A majestic looking tiger swaggered up to his lunch with strong, sure strides. We couldn’t see what his lunch comprised of, until he sank his teeth in, and starting parading his meal – a big, furry rabbit infront of everyone. There were loud gasps amongst the children, watching avidly at the exciting and at the same time morbid scene of the tiger mauling and gnawing his meal and seeing fluffy fur flying everywhere!

Well, this poor bunny sure didn’t survive past Easter!

I got inspired to do a new painting, this one of a few cows grazing on the  alps by the Furka Pass. I remembered more than 10 years ago, I painted a few t shirts to sell to friends, many of which were animal inspired. 

FullSizeRender (33)

FullSizeRender (34)

IMG_4565 (1)

FullSizeRender (35)

FullSizeRender (32) copy

What animal-inspired crafts have you made recently?

The Art of PlaY

We dedicated last weekend to making big messy art and learning all about the concept and engineering of PLAY at the Kunsthalle.

We joined Lemady at her weekend Storycraft session which was inspired by all forms of construction vehicles in ‘Dig, Dig, Digging’, written by Margaret Moyo. The kids plunged toy tractors, steam-rollers, cranes and trucks into trays of paint and ran these vehicles with multicolored wheels over a large paper canvas. It wasn’t long before hands, tiny feet and bums in nappies joined in the fun to create a beautiful abstract piece of art.

FullSizeRender (32)

 

IMG_4218The Kunsthalle in Zurich is currently showcasing an educational and interactive exhibition called The PlaYground Project (20 Feb – 15 May 2016). Art workshops for families, guided tours and even pop-up yoga sessions are available too.

We learnt how the concept of a public play space evolved from the post WW2 years to the present, and how the changes in the design of playgrounds reflect society’s changing ideas of adventure, education and childhood, creativity and control.

It is interesting to learn how the ‘new’ playgrounds after WW2 started as an initiative to help traumatised kids, with play used as a form of rehabilitative therapy. The Scandinavian urban landscapers and architects were the pioneers of independent creative play in the 1930s. They introduced the use of natural material, water and sand around abstract play sculptures.

After them came the concept of adventure playgrounds, where parents and children become more and more involved in the creation of play spaces as community projects. The premise of an adventure playground is … ‘it is never complete, never developed. It is a sort of ‘terrain vague’ that can be many things to many children’ (Jack Lambert, pioneer of adventure playgrounds).

I can imagine it to be like being on an episode of the reality show ‘Survival’, where children get to mess around with junk, build houses with timber and any material found on the ground and developing their own brand of play. Switzerland’s brand of adventure play comes in the form of ‘Robinson Crusoe-playgrounds’; and of course, kids here can sign up for playgroups in the forest or at a farm and learn to play independently in different natural settings.

I remember growing up in Singapore with sandpit playgrounds, with traditional fixed equipment like a swing, slide and see saw. The playgrounds in the 1980s were pretty iconic with shapes of lions and dragons. In land scarce Singapore, these limited open spaces are play4.jpgstill very much the pulse of the heartlands/community. It is where children, families and retired senior citizens congregate and have a short reprieve from the hustle and bustle of city life. The last few times I’ve visited Singapore, I’ve noticed that although public housing are becoming taller (think living on the 50th storey!) and rural land have given way to new shopping malls, the government still managed to make this little island city green for its 5 million dwellers. New high rise housing and office buildings often have ‘floating gardens, swimming pools and play areas’, water play areas are built on top of shopping malls and in places of interest like the Zoo or at the Gardens by the Bay.

In this modern day, it seems like norms and boredom have crept into the play space. People are more paranoid about safety of play equipment, sturdiness of trees for climbing, water and sand not cleaned or replaced often enough etc. It is becoming more and more challenging for urban planners to find a happy balance between adhering to strict safety standards and making daring play creations that are capable of challenging our discerning and easily bored children to ‘make the first leap, the first jump and the first climb’.

Of course, the greatest threat to public PlaYgrounds is other forms of play, notably computer and video games where kids can escape to a virtual playground. Nowadays (gosh, I sound like an old fart when I use this word), kids are happy to exercise their nifty fingers and hand-eye coordination on the video screen. They find contentment in building virtual forts and cities with bricks that do not take up physical storage space, use bitcoins and tokens to learn the concept of buy and sell, and of course, figure their way out of complex mazes all from the comforts of their air-conditioned bedroom, or from their baby car seat.

(We signed up for the art workshop and created our own playground with paper, sticks, straws and napkins)

Check out Lemady’s weekly storycraft sessions: http://www.storycraft.ch/ and find out more about the PlaYground project and dates for their family art workshops: http://kunsthallezurich.ch/de

 

 

 

 

Keeping up with 2016

Are we close to the end of February already?

For some reason, the Christmas festivities and craziness seem to extend well into 2016 and I am still trying to play catch up.

I think it has something to go with the fact that my husband’s been away a fair bit, the weather’s been dreary and we’ve got an influx of visitors from far and wide coming to stay with us almost every other weekend.

After staying in Switzerland and experiencing change in seasons for almost 8 years, I still haven’t really warmed up (pun intended) to the biting cold, flu bugs, dry flaky skin, body aches and skies turning dark at 5pm.

The ski/snowboard devil, together with his earthly minions disguised as cool, crazy friends, has abducted my husband and kids for the whole season, somewhat akin to Hades keeping Persephone in the underworld. Anyone who knows my husband knows I am not exaggerating here!

IMG_3088I’ve survived and conquered the Sports Ferien at our ski apartment in the mountains last week with 2 families and 7 young boys! My husband was travelling for the week, one of the mums was working 100% so she couldn’t join us but bizarrely it was the most relaxing week I’ve had since mid December. The boys and dads were skiing the whole day so the mayhem only came in the evening with everyone vying for showers and snacks, the womenfolk preparing dinner and winding the kids down for the night’s sleep.

The New Year really came with a blast for me personally. I am finally brave enough, or maybe it was the chaos and busyness of entering into a new year that propelled me to pursue my passion in painting. The last time I’ve painted was perhaps 6 years ago, and it was a fleeting hobby that I never really indulge in with 2 young kids taking up most of my time and draining most of my energy.

The kids are still a handful but a lot less dependent on me now. They are a source of inspiration to me and I find the peace and quiet within me through painting to survive the lack of sunshine and the mundane daily routine.

My boys love seeing me in my element when I am sitting on the cold floor with paint blotches all over my hands and I think they do feel proud that mommy is becoming an artist! Of course they still complain that my cooking sucks and I still mix up my husband and kids’ underwear every now and then…

FullSizeRender (18) 2FullSizeRender (18) copy 2FullSizeRender (20) copy 2IMG_3416

You can check out my complete art portfolio at amyangatelier.wordpress.com

 

Waxing lyrical about an all-inclusive

So, after surviving 4 out of 7 days in an all-inclusive hotel, my conscience got the better of me. Perhaps I’ve been too quick to pass judgment. There must be merit to such hotels if they keep getting fully booked, get raved about on trip advisor and have a minimum of 8.0 rating on major hotel booking sites. (I am trying to justify my lapse of sound decision-making to my husband here)

1.  Value-for-money

You get easy access to food and alcohol from 8am to 11.30pm everyday. The variety is great and the bartenders are generous with the liquor. For a place as touristy as Ibiza, eating out can be a pretty costly affair.

Quantity does not = quality though. I think the chefs at the restaurant tried their best, but when the majority of customers prefer white foods and unhealthy carbs, it’s not surprising to see french fries, pasta and pizza a staple at mealtimes. We hired a car and drove out most days so we ended up paying more for car hire and petrol. 

  2. Access to good (not great) facilities and entertainment

Most beaches in the popular towns are filled with sun lovers and deck beds and umbrellas might be difficult to get. You also pay at least €8 for a deck bed and another €8 for shade. Our hotel has a nice swimming pool, a separate water slide park and a nice private beach for hotel customers only.

There are also arcade games in our lobby but sadly, half of them are usually out of order. Have I already mentioned bingo night and kids’ disco? Day time activities include Aqua Zumba, football matches, darts and kids activities in a kids club for 4-10 year olds. For people who enjoy sharing their precious holiday time with hordes of strangers playing relay games, an all-inclusive will definitely satiate their dystopian appetite for ‘adventure’. You get a certificate at the end of the day for active participation too.  

  3. Family-friendly

I must admit that an all-inclusive must be kids’ paradise. They get to eat chicken nuggets, french fries n ice cream everyday, swim and play with other kids. Then again, I see many families get so comfortable sitting by the pool all day long, they do not venture beyond the wet bar to explore what this beautiful island has to offer. It might be abit of an inconvenience driving through heavy traffic and being out til late at night with kids. Our kids whined a bit but overall, I was glad we were able to spend some quality time, just the four of us, away from other screaming kids and from the free-flow wet bar. Kids this young actually do not need that much stimulation. Give them a small body of water to wade in, a beach ball to throw or buy a cheap local souvenir and they’ll happy as a lark.

Even after stating some positives of such hotels, I still don’t think it’s something we will do in the future. At least we’ve tried and know for sure we are never, ever going to be included in an all-inclusive hotel’s niche market.

No love lost there.

I don’t see us doing cruise ships in our old age either. (famous last words)

Our brand of family fun… 

    
    
   
  
  

Confessions of a Virgin ‘all-inclusive’ tourist

Welcome to Ibiza! We had pretty high expectations before flying here that Alan n I will be eating in gourmet restaurants, rubbing shoulders with celebrities and well-known DJs whilst pumping our fists in the air to catchy techno beats. Oh, with our 2 kids passed out somewhere of course. 

Imagine my culture shock when we stepped onto the huge terrace at our hotel after we checked in. Instead of heart-thumping bass beats, we walked into a Bingo fest! Apparently this is a nightly event!!! The m.c translated all the numbers in Spanish, English n German. That pretty much summed up the demographics of the people that usually do an all-inclusive hotel stay, at least at our hotel. I think the whole of Essex and Liverpool are here and quite a huge number of Germans. You can tell from the number of sun deck chairs reserved at 8.00am with towels when all swim facilities only open at… 11a.m. Did I mention all-you-can-eat buffet and free flow BOOZE? ‘Nuff said!  

    
   
   

 All-inclusive hotels generally refer to hotels that provide all meals and some form of entertainment and sporting activities for kids and adults. 

The hotel’s water theme park and arcade games were a hit with the kids, especially with arcade games that actually work. We enjoyed relaxing under the sun (yes we found 3 unreserved sun deck chairs!!!), going down challenging water slides and the lovely buffet spread at the restaurant. We also loved hanging out by the pool, though there’s not much eye candy to look at. 

One thing I’ve noticed is that the service staff seem like they really really enjoy their work! Be it making 8 complicated cocktails for 1 person, standing behind the big piping hot pan of paella, or clearing tables efficiently, the Spanish locals do so with a sincere smile that I felt deeply. 

It’s only day 1 of our stay in an all-inclusive and we are soooooo ready to strip off our bright colored hotel wristbands, hire a rental car and head to the other parts of the island and the town. Hopefully in the next few days the island of Ibiza and our hotel experience can win us over. Maybe, just maybe, I might even learn how to play Bingo.

   
   

Mummy do-over

Happy new year to one and all!

Okay, this is not another blog post on regrets for goals unfulfilled or hopeful ramblings about new ones for the brand new year. Instead, I just want to share how blessed I am for the privilege to be a mummy for a second time.

We are really thankful to have such an easy first child -a baby who doesn’t really need much of a routine and can sleep literally anytime, anywhere. Timothy (son no.1) has always been a great travel companion, seldom fell ill and, apart from being somewhat accident-prone, hardly gave us any cause for worry or heartache. (maybe the heartache comes when he becomes a teenager)

I can’t say we’ve discovered the magic formula for child-rearing, but i suspect the stars were nicely aligned at his point of conception. har har…

And with a bountiful measure of prayers and dependence on God, we’ve somehow manage to meander through the first toddler years with little stress and much joy and laughter.

After having an easy 4 years with Timmy, it took awhile to get used to sleepless nights, the stress of breastfeeding, relentless baby wailing and smelly nappies again. Little Nathan is now 14 months old and I can still vividly remember the worry and pain we went through with his serious bout of jaundice when he was born, and his eczema that covered his little body with dry scabs. It was only when he turned 1 that I decided to get a blood test done on him and discovered he has an allergy to cow’s milk and egg white. Yikes!

But there is still so much more to be thankful for.

Having no. 2 made me realise that our hearts do grow bigger to accommodate more people for you to love. Much more than you think you were capable of loving. Both kids are such a bundle of joy and it is so beautiful to see the 2 of them expressing their affection for each other in such a natural, intuitive manner. Whenever Timmy comes home from kindergarten, he would run to Nathan first and give him a shoulder scrunching hug and say Oh Nana, I love you so much cos you are sooooo cute! And Nathan follows his older brother around like a crazy Justin bieber fan. (most of the time, he just wants to play with whatever toy Timmy is currently obsessed with)

Here are some snapshots of the boys who taught me so much about life and love, and there is still so much I am learning from them….

Big brother holding Nathan for the very first time
Big brother holding Nathan for the very first time

IMG_1708

IMG_8520

IMG_7304

IMG_9546
Nathan’s first hike in Hassliberg

IMG_8572

IMG_6666

IMG_7002

IMG_9877

Lisbon – an oxymoron of sorts…

LIsbon city
Lisbon city

This is the first time I’ve visited Portugal, and I must say, I am pleasantly surprised by how interesting the capital is, although I still can’t decide if I like it or love it.

Like the coastal towns of their Spanish neighbors, Portuguese cuisine consists of mainly seafood – but simply boiled and served cold, so you really get to enjoy the pure sweetness of our crustacean friends. It is not unusual for tables at restaurants to be covered with wet tissues, plastic hammer and board, crab crackers and lobster forks. (for an amateur seafood eater, I would highly recommend having a few pieces of first-aid plasters close by, or a useful helpful husband who can peel prawns and crack open crab and lobster shells for you).

Is this a good time to confess that when we visited the Oceanarium on our last day, my stomach was growling so much when I saw all the lovely sea creatures swimming infront of us, all I could think of is yummy delicious seafood! (especially stingray grilled with sambal chilli and fish curry)

IMG_5423

IMG_4983

IMG_5428I absolutely love Portugese architecture. The pretty cracked blue and white tiles that cover the walls of several old buildings remind me of the Peranakan shophouses in some parts of Singapore and Malacca in Malaysia, where many Portugese traders came to build their colonial settlements in the 1800s. I would love to live in a  building that is painted fuschia pink or a happy egg yolk yellow.

Lisbon seems like a city of many contradictions. The historical district is a complex and compact maze of winding streets that goes up and down at every turn. It is definitely not a pram, wheelchair or high-heel-friendly city. We would have loved to take a ride on one of their iconic trams, which seem to be only about 5 metres long, but we know it’s impossible to squeeze a pram through the narrow entrance.

There are plenty of wide open spaces, especially along the marina area where you can enjoy long quiet walks, and the major tourist attractions are spread across the city. The many space-age looking museums and massive sculptures showcasing Portugal’s colorful history as a illustrious leader in sea trade are a sharp contrast to the skeletal frames of old clock towers, dilapidated warehouses and office buildings left in shambles, which must have been a bustling enclave of people coming in and out a long time ago.

For a global city which has 3 million residents (Lisbon is the 11th most populous city in the European Union),

it is also awfully quiet.

I’ve just returned from visiting Singapore and appreciate being able to walk around town without being jostled around. The streets are never packed with people or cars, even on a weekend. Our Portugese friend told us most residents hardly stay in the city on weekends, preferring to visit the many coastal towns nearby where they can lay on the sandy beaches all day long.

I was hoping that everywhere I go – left, right and centre, I would bump into the likes of Ronaldo Cristiano. He’s probably in the U.S shooting another Armani underwear ad. Portugese men tend to have a lot of facial hair and are generally quite short. It’s alot more likely to spot the likes of Hugo Almeidas. In general, the locals are a warm, easygoing and helpful bunch of people.

IMG_5429

Bairro Alto (Old town) and tram line
IMG_5426
Coastal town of Cascais

IMG_5067

IMG_5075

IMG_5088
Oceanarium

IMG_6920

IMG_4951
the most famous and popular cafe for egg tarts

IMG_5036IMG_5037

IMG_5425

Unsung heroes

20130222-213732.jpg
face to face with a life-size hero

There’s a new superhero in town and he is white and furry, has a cute button nose and he sure looks uber-cool in his aquamarine dive suit and matching sailor hat.

Armed with his trusty compass, you can always count on Captain Barnacles and his fellow Octonaut compatriots to rescue and protect all sea creatures in the deep blue.

This is one cartoon superhero I have no worries about my boys emulating. Not only does Timmy learn about appreciating nature and helping others in trouble from the show, he and I have also learnt alot about sea turtles, electric torpedo rays, anemones, sea cucumbers, sperm whales (this is the only time he’s allowed to say the word ‘sperm’) and colossal squids with giant ‘testicles’. My son has trouble pronouncing ‘tentacles’.

Did you know there is an actual fish with a hawaiian name – Humuhumunukunukuapua’a?

Timmy and I did an ocean scene for our art & craft project recently. He had fun painting a wooden shipwreck, sticking colorful pipe-cleaners into modelling clay so they look like psychedelic seaweed, spreading colorful pebbles and glitter glue to make our beautiful seabed, and crushing pink transparent wrapping paper into jellyfish form.

20130222-214038.jpg 20130222-214003.jpg

 I’ve been thinking about the myriad cartoons and TV personalities children nowadays are exposed to, especially since my son is at the age to start exploring concepts of good and evil, superheroes vs villians, what is considered cool or uncool, and what superpowers to have – typical issues adults consider on a daily basis.

It’s really sad that there is only a pitiful number of worthy superheroes that kids can look up to and aspire to be. I’m so sick of seeing every other 5 year old boy wear Batman or Superman T-shirts, don Spiderman masks for every costume/birthday party we’ve been to, consider it ‘creative play’ when they attempt to jump off chairs in restaurants, scale the narrow walls in elevators, growl at old people like they are evil monsters or try to throw wet rolls of toilet paper onto the ceiling to see if they’ll stick like ‘spider webs’.

For now, I think I can still live with Timmy saying ‘testicles’ instead of ‘tentacles’. It is by far a lesser evil than him asking me for a Justin Bieber haircut.

20130222-214732.jpg

Flashback 2012

Belated Happy New Year everyone!

I was looking through my blog archive to see if I’ve made any resolutions for 2012; pity I’ve only found a tongue-in-cheek post about generic resolutions people tend to make.

I do however recall making a secret to-do list last year consisting of one major ‘to-do’ item – have a baby.

Well, in a blink of an eye, a wiggle of my toes, a hard shove of placenta, amniotic fluids and a 2.9kg baby out from ‘down-under’, 2012 has finally come to a close with a big fat ‘Tick’ against my very, very short list.

I feel blest that the whole family has been in good health, we’ve done our fair share of travelling, and Timmy is enjoying more experiences like a typical Swiss kid – learning how to play soccer, going for his weekly ‘moms & kids’ gymnastics (Muki-turnen is what it is called in Switzerland), where mums spend the first half hour moving heavy equipment in the school gymnasium to set up military-like obstacle courses for the children; and learning to ski. We are truly planting firmer roots here and getting a greater sense of home after living in Switzerland for 4 years.

Highlights of 2012:

20130108-233325.jpg
First hike of the year in Engelberg and the snow hasn’t quite melted yet
IMG_7437
Easter in Stockholm
IMG_7481
Easter Sunday brunch in Stockholm
IMG_3188
May: Hiking in Cinque terra, Italy
IMG_3189
Gourmet seafood platter in Cinque Terra
20130108-233507.jpg
Timmy’s first soccer camp
IMG_2369
Timmy in gymnastics
IMG_3402
June: Copenhagen amusement park – Tivoli
IMG_3417
2 pregnant women in Copenhagen
IMG_8589
May: Coastal town of Dubrovnik in Croatia
IMG_8616
Dubrovnik, Croatia
IMG_3929
Europa Park in the Black Forest region in Germany
IMG_2870
Enjoying summer at Schaffhausen – Rheinfalls with friends
IMG_8903
Timmy turns 4

IMG_8915

IMG_3219
Oct: Nathan James is born
20130108-233059.jpg
Nov: Halloween
IMG_4784
Dec: Christmas Market in Munich, Germany
IMG_4695
Dec: Christmas Market in front of the monastery in Einseideln
Christmas in Andermatt
Christmas in Andermatt
Dec: Christmas and New Year in Andermatt
Dec: Christmas and New Year in Andermatt
Love, Joy & Peace on earth...
Love, Joy & Peace on earth…