Corn Islands, coconuts and corona crashes

Alliteration allegedly uplifts the isolated during these tumultuous times. It’s not scientifically proven to help an expat family living in Nicaragua in an unprecedented global pandemic. But playing with words on my computer screen makes for some cathartic and creative downtime while the kids are taking their siesta and we are in lockdown here in Iguanaland.

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Corn Islands, coconuts and corona crashes is also just how it happened chronologically. And I want to lead in with the good times, because when I gaze at my phone late at night and scroll a thorough mix of gloomy stats and bizarrely hilarious Instagram stories of friends projecting their insanity in self isolation, I feel we’re all on the online hunt for some good times.

Corn Islands is synonymous with good times. We made the epic car, plane and boat trek to Little Corn Island in the week leading up to my daughter Moon’s 1st birthday. My brother, sister-in-law and nephew had also flown over from Australia for my sister-in-law’s 40th, so we had a rather large crew and at least 2 birthday reasons to go to “de Caribbean, Mon”.

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With 4 adults, a baby, a toddler and a small child to manoeuvre, this far flung Caribbean island of Nicaragua couldn’t feel further from our home on the South Pacific Coast. And some might question why we’d leave one rather remote, idyllic beach and travel 10 hours in transit only to arrive at another one. We also questioned if what we were doing was crazy when we began the journey at 2 am with 7 souls, 6 bags, 50+ sun cream, 4 coffees, 3 hangovers, 2 headlights, in 1 Prado and no partridge nor a pear tree.

But questions of crazy were resolved once we arrived at the Managua Airport and we joined forces with our other entourage of 5 bleary eyed Iguanaland friends (including another kid!) for this week-long adventure. Now a party of 12 and enough gringo bulk to fill the light aircraft that would transport our human mass and bags chocked full of freediving equipment, it was confirmed: definitely crazy.

Adding ‘crazy’ to the Corn Islands Crew alliteration, our massive collective then descended on Big Corn Island. We piled out of the tiny aircraft and into 4 tinier Hyundai taxis which scooted us off along tropical tree-lined streets to a clear-water ferry bay. There, bobbing between moored fishing trawlers and kids jumping off the concrete quay was a Panga. This mode of transport between the two islands is basically an oversized fishing boat with about 10 rows of timber slats, all ergonomically designed to break the backs of middle-aged tourists as it bounces its overcrowded human cargo across a ripping, windy sea.

Finally, after an hour (or 10), we got there! Little Corn at last. As we moored up to the timber wharf, it was immediately evident we’d made the right choice to travel. We were met by Kennard, our accommodation contact and before we realised it, he quietly piled our belongings 5 foot high on one wheelbarrow. With no more than a smile and a glance in the direction inland, he began carting our things and leading us silently across this tropic paradise. We carried our tired kids, and within 15 minutes we had crossed to the East side of the island and found ourselves perched up and slowing down in a delightful beach house on the breezy side of heaven.

Sweet, salted air evenings, early sunrise shifts with the babies and playing in a shaded sand garden was how we subsequently divided our time. Almost no WiFi led to limitless hours of lazy bliss in hammocks, swimming at the by our bedroom and wandering through inland rainforests. We also embarked on a snorkelling and fishing day by boat (insanely, we tried to take the kids). I can’t recommend this to anyone with kids, let alone 9 people with 4 kids, but some of us reaped the rewards of my brother’s fishing fortune- coral trout in coconut oil with grated coconut dressing.

A small piece of trivia: In Iguanaland on the Pacific Coast, we are blessed with almost year-round offshore breezes. Because of this, the waves are perfect for surfing but with winds that push out to sea all year, floating coconuts can’t wash up on the shores. Hence, as my Kiwi mate pointed out, no coconut trees at home.

Corn Islands? Ironically not a lot of corn, but definitely enough coconuts to notice the onshore breeze blessing. In the mornings the kids and I would fill our pockets with tiny coconuts bulbs, and then hunt down a big ‘Shake’m Coco’- yellow husked and filled with juice when you “shake’m”. Quiet Kennard would smile, nod and thn crack these treasures open with a machete and we’d slurp down the goodness before digging out the flesh with a wedge of the husk.

I think you get the island drift. Quiet Little Corn Island and all of its sandy foot paths, coco palm shorelines and shaded hammocks definitely earned a remarkable place in my heart. Its microsystem that pulled in afternoon rain clouds set it vastly apart from the relentless dry season that whips over on the West Coast of Nicaragua this time of year. Instead of dust up our nose each day, it was light sea spray. Instead of spiky thorns hiding in the sand from the shade trees on the Pacific Beaches, in Little Corn, you guessed it, coconuts.

In this little paradise, we got to watch the moon wax full into a super moon, cook “Ron Don” seafood stew over an open fire and drink coco loco (cheap white rum poured into a cold coconut). Under those stars, under those warm rain showers and beside the fire at night, we’d chat with backpackers and travellers of all walks of life about ‘the news’.

Coronavirus had swiftly hijacked the typical “where are you from?” conversation starter that you get on the road. This new trending topic spread itself effortlessly across beach bars and between strangers as action and inaction ricocheted around the planet, wreaking havoc on humanity’s everyday life. Already, each of us knew someone close to us affected by travel “advice and warnings” that shot up through Government announcements. But on this little island, in early March 2020, we still felt separated from it.

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Naively yet naturally, with our collective and limited understanding of it at that point, it was there and we were here. The intensity that was booming internationally was penetrating our homelands, but on this far flung little atoll, and where zero official cases had been announced in Nicaragua, we just didn’t fear it. We all could see a degree of risk and agreed things would change in time. But I for one, had no bloody idea how short that time would be, and how radically we would change the way we live in the ensuing days.

When we left little Corn, the weather Gods blessed us with a windless day. We floated over a glassy sea like a dream back to Big Corn Island. We flew in the luxury of a large-ish plane, complete with air conditioning, and landed smoothly back on the Nicaraguan mainland, still in a world that we knew and understood.

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With family visiting from overseas, we naturally squeezed in two more days of touring as if the world we knew wasn’t ending.  Even when the house next door to our AirBnB set on fire and burned to the ground, we were still enjoying our misadventures! At least it was a danger we could see, understand and manage.

When we weren’t running away from fires or fighting them as the case was for my brother, we watched howler monkeys swing past the trees by our balcony. We stayed on the banks of an extinct volcano and jumped off a pier into the volcano’s core, now filled by a freshwater lake. By night we sought out an active volcano, and gazed down at the bright bubbling lava while the stars blinked down over us. We refrained from jumping in here.

We ate and drank at hotels, dined at roadside restaurants with locals, mingled with other travellers and continued to chat about ‘the news’. Every day, a new consciousness was growing with more concern and caution, but nothing had hit us yet.

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Now ‘yet’ has hit us. By the time we got back to the coast, international news and the cascading closures of countries’ borders was signalling a new world disorder. Governments locked down, the WHO declared a global pandemic, and quickly, rather than slowly, we got to where we are now: an understanding of how the virus works, an understanding of the maths and the science, an understanding of the need for self-isolation.

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Less lonely than some, we are lucky enough to be a multiple family household in self-isolation. As well as our nanny and her son who moved in with us 2 weeks ago, my brother’s family are now Nica refugees because their flights home were cancelled and the transiting countries literally locked them out. Their journey to this point was fraught with trials for them both. They spent painfully long hours in phone deadlocks with airlines and tried countless avenues to try to get home. But as it turned out, they got stuck with their family in paradise. And while the health system offers little confidence to those of us who remain here, there are certain positives that lead us to conclude this is the best place for us to be right through this time.

As long as we continue to take precautions and keep ourselves safe, our new 9-piece family will never be short of conversation or a swarm of cute kids to distract us with their innocent joy. We have a forest with families of monkeys in our backyard, the beach is across the road and we can still wave to our beautiful neighbours as they wander along the shoreline at sunset. As well as that, we are lucky enough to have a car and miles of uninhabited coastline. With careful preparation and a packed lunch, we can still pile our Brady Bunch into the Prado and take off to explore the world around us without fear.

We know we aren’t near the end of this. But we are at the beginning of something new as we look inside our home, and into our family’s souls and personalities with new attention. Despite the risks that we know exist in the face of this pandemic, I know one thing is true. I’m so lucky to be self-isolating where I am and how I am, surrounded by the safety and sanity net of my family.

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If you’re lucky enough to be isolated with someone, get that someone to teach you something you never had time to learn and they never had time to teach until now. If you’re isolated alone, get out in the garden and teach yourself. Get your hands in the soil, grow edibles, trench compost, maybe talk to the plants! If you don’t have a garden and you’re in full solo self-isolation, bless your soul! Try to stay sane. Take advantage of technology, and don’t let it take advantage of you. Try not to read too much doomsday stuff and please, keep posting your funny-arse, Instagram stories to the world! I love you and I’m watching!

Stay home if you can, my friends. Stay safe.

Thank you Michelle Rossetto and Sophie Pontone for some of the gorgeous photos that this brightened this blog post!

Immersing in Iguanaland

For the past couple of months our little family has been getting grounded in the Central American gem of Nicaragua. We can’t lay claim to a wholly spiritual grounding at this point (unless you count Flor De Cana, the national liquid spirit that comes to us regularly at sunset).  What we are doing is staying in just one country, and not leaving anywhere in a hurry. With a lot of relaxing and a little yoga thrown in, it is rather grounding.

The little exploring we have been doing has been Nicaragua-based and by road. While to date, we’ve avoided locking our kids in the car again, we have successfully ferried our tribe to the volcanic island of Ometepe. Here, monkeys swung from fertile mangroves and we swam in what seemed like a sea but in fact, was a massive fresh water lake full of turtles and fish. Another time we also explored the colonial gem that is Granada and we tasted a bit of  the Nica nightlife, but for the most part, we’ve been immersing ourselves in a small coastal enclave known as Hacienda Iguana, or as I fondly call it, Iguanaland.

I only actually saw my first iguana yesterday. For a place with an iguana as its identity tag, the population ain’t strong. I’m told there are more around but I think the country’s burgeoning feral cat population has something to do with it. Nonetheless, where there are few iguanas, there are plenty of other lounging lizards soaking up the hacienda vibes. Some of them drink Toña and play volleyball on the beach. After almost 3 months of immersing in Iguanaland, I’m officially part of this satisfied species.

Hacienda Iguana is a gated community about 3 hours south west of the capital Managua. Situated on a huge tract of land that hugs a precious chunk of the Emerald Coast of Nicaragua, this place is home to a mix of ex-pats, Nicaraguans, and a plethora of wildlife.

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Our solo Beach Club Iguana

When I say wildlife, I mean wild. Families of howler monkeys wake you with their roars in the early morning as they swing past in the treetops with their babies. Birds of every description nest, swoop and show off in the natural flora and along the coastline. Every afternoon hundreds of pelicans fly south along the wave break, gliding in formation or pummeling schools of fish like raiding dive bombers. It’s a perilous situation for the fish, but it’s impressive to see these glorious, silhouetted slayers swooping against a setting sun.

Then there are the turtles. Sharing the ocean and the beach with these beauties is a true blessing! And in Iguanaland, various businesses team together to help protect the endangered Paslama turtle through a nursery project. If the eggs aren’t first poached by hungry humans or certain men who sell the eggs with the promise of increasing virility, the nests are saved by Iguanaland locals and nurtured (safe from cats and poachers) until they hatch. Under the careful watch of this team, we local iguanalanders are able to help the baby turtles make their maiden voyage to the Pacific Ocean.

Of course not all wildlife is welcome in my heart and home. The rogue cats are my number one concern. Not only are they decimating the native animal population, one feline is so crafty that it knows how to slide open our screen door and prowl in to clean up the kitchen bench at midnight! This wouldn’t be soooo annoying, if we hadn’t recently removed a boa constrictor who was curled up at the front door one night. My heart does backflips when I think about that particular visitor, combo that with the cat’s open door policy and the fact that my baby is sleeping on a floor-level travel cot. I rectify it all with a slightly paranoid but thorough daily sweep of the room before sleeps, and I figure, maybe the scorpions will scare the snakes away. Symbiosis in Nicaragua! Minus the cat.

Culturally, Iguanaland is a bit of a bubble. Being a gated community means limited access unless you own or rent somewhere on the hacienda. This model of safe albeit somewhat elitist living means the culture here is vastly different to the Nicaraguan one that thrives in its own way, outside the gates. Iguanaland can feel more North American with splashes of Nicaragua and if you don’t leave, you might end up with a yankee accent. Just sayin’, ya’ll.

Beach Volley Ball daily goodness

Some expats we met living outside the bubble cheekily said “If we wanted to go to California, we’d come to Hacienda Iguana”. I corrected them- most people are actually from Florida! And what’s wrong with that?  They are some of the best on ground! Not to mention the Russians, Polish, Venezuelans, Spanish, Uruguayans, Canadians and wild women from the Basque country mixed in with a good helping of Nicaraguans! Representing the southern block of the planet, there is even a family of Kiwis and now as the token Aussies, we are adding to the mix and churning up a culture in this somewhat sheltered but delightful melting pot!

It’s hard not to feel we’ve found paradise when we start our day drinking coffee at the beach and playing in tidal pools with our kids. Once our hair is wet and our souls are salted, I dinky (double) my son on a bike to his  Montessori preschool where he thrives in a bilingual education system and makes friendships with Nicas and Expats alike. Afternoons are equally difficult to dislike. Converging down at the beach volleyball net, we generally see out the day with a surf or by toasting to life with good mates while our kids play in (or eat) the sand. It’s an lucid dream but when I wake up, I find I’m still in it.

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Finn Atlas and his Venezuelan buddy Carlitos

This little community is made up of good people giving it a good crack to settle in Nicaragua and make a livelihood and contribution both inside and outside of the bubble. Importantly, we don’t have to lock our doors at night and we fear nothing (except what the cat lets in). We also leave the bubble regularly as most people here do, lest we go crazy or become a permanent fixture at the happy-hour bar. We jump in the car and head down the dirt highway, dodging cattle crossing the street and counting pigs on the roadside. As we see our kids’ hearts open to the people and their eyes open to the wild and rugged land that is Nicaragua, we feel ourselves striking the perfect balance of safety and adventure.

Iguanaland has us hooked and happy. Nicaragua has us wanting more. As a result, we have decided to stay longer. Don’t ask how long… we don’t even know! One thing we do know, if you’re coming to visit (and you should), you just might find yourself immersed a little longer than expected as well. Consider yourself warned.

Lock it in: A gringo’s introduction to Nicaragua

It doesn’t take much to fall in love with Nicaragua. It’s not instant. Like at-the-airport-instant, when the customs guy drearily digs through my undies, showing a half-baked interest in what my life looks like under my t-shirt, and a curiosity in whether that toy helicopter is actually a drone. Nope. Not a drone. FYI, they don’t like drones here, or protestors.

But once we were cleared for being drone-free and compliant (and undies all passed the security check), we rebalanced our baggage awkwardly onto a trolley, hoiked our dreary kids high on our hips, and heaved toward the exit gates. As the doors opened, with a humid rush of air up the nostrils, we breathed in Nicaragua and started to feel the love.

The buzz built immediately when I saw an old college mate from years past waving to us through the exit doors. The familiar face of Jackson Roland was priceless for a tired family who knew little about Nicaragua except for its blemished international reputation and the rigid international government warnings. Still, we’d learned a lot ahead of time, and most of it had been through and Jackson, an Aussie resident of Nicaragua for almost a decade now.

Jackson has years of experiences that prove Nicaragua is not the volatile beast some nations of the world make it out to be. He’s seen the turmoil of the past few years and indeed been affected alongside his ex-pat and local friends by what is referred to as ‘the situation’. Nonetheless, life here seems beautiful despite the situation, and the people in this country appear resolute to prove its worth.

Through thick and thin, Jacko’s been running a beautiful surf and yoga retreat called Magnific Rock which beckons both gringos and locals for great eats, good surf and stunning sunsets. He was our drawcard for Nicaragua. For almost 10 years he’d been planting the seeds with alluring Facebook posts and promises of endless surf, yoga and affordable babysitters. A pretty easy hook for me! But he handed me the winning ticket to convince my husband when he told me he’d become the National Rugby Coach for Nicaragua and was hosting an international tournament in November 2019. Well, I just have to give Witty the sniff of a rugby boot, and I reckon I can get him anywhere. Nicaragua, where? Ruby? YES. Suffice to say my husband LOVES Nicaragua and is playing international rugby this weekend. 5 games. On my birthday. Another story again.

In that first night, Jackson and his girlfriend escorted us through the sprawling streets of Managua in their truck and parked us up safe and sound in a beautiful apartment next to theirs, overlooking the city lights of the capital. 12 hours later, we blinked ourselves out of our comas and convened at a delightful coffee shop which was, perhaps, Managua’s gentlest transition for gringos arriving from Montreal (home of snazzy bars and trendy cafes). The gorgeous courtyard in Molinos cafe was dressed from ceiling to floor in hanging vines, cutting out the glare of the day. It could have been the jet lag, but it seemed almost heavenly as water features trickled and mixed with acoustic tunes and morning chatter. Fresh faced waiters trotted back and forth with glasses of water or forks wrapped up in tiny bits of tissue paper and as I stumbled through my food, we sat back and Jackson filled us in on his experiences over the past few years. He briefed us with the real current political situation and how it pertains to us as gringo visitors, here and now. As I took in the stories of chaos, seductive beauty and cultural quirks, and knocked back a 3rd barista-pressed latte with soy milk (never since seen in Nicaragua) I felt that surge of curiosity creeping in for this place in which we’d found ourselves. The new, the unknown. Two tickets to love.

Once caffeinated and ready for action, it was time to crack on and tick off some tasks. We had to pick up a car for us to use during our stay in the country, and do the obligatory “moving in” shop before heading out to our new home on the remote Emerald Coast. By mid afternoon, the boys had sourced a sturdy old Prado from a friend of Jackson’s. They managed to procure it since the owner left the country after participating in ‘the situation’. But this was another (albeit fascinating) story. The 4WD itself came complete with new tires, secure weather trims on the windows (momentarily) and a great security system: so great, in fact, that as we parked up to do that final grocery shop, we effortlessly locked both of our kids inside the car with the engine running and the keys in the ignition. Not bad for a pair of gringos who hadn’t been in the country for a day!

Talk about commotion! Within 15 minutes our car was surrounded by 20 supermarket staff and a swag of curious Samaritans who began problem solving by banging on the windows and trying (unsuccessfully) to get young Atlas to take off his headphones or look up from his episode of PJ Masks! With our girl strapped to her car seat and our boy evidently strapped to his screen, things were looking grim. People started rocking the car and tearing the weather trims off in an honest effort to break in. But the show didn’t truly peak until the flashing lights of an ambulance, 4 officers, a fire engine and a complete team of firefighters in all their yellow glory descended on the crowd!

We didn’t have time to figure out how or indeed why the emergency services knew about our plight before the unsung hero, Jackson’s ‘friend’, arrived with a single metal rod and broke into the car with a swift hook, turn and pull! When Jackson casually explained this happens often enough to warrant him knowing “a guy to sort out break-ins”, I laughed. This pearl of information ushered in yet another ‘aha’ moment that would shape my love for Nicaragua. And while some of us were momentarily traumatised by the whole event, it made for great chat during the ensuing 3 hour drive to coast.

Importantly, it’s the little things that make a newcomer’s introduction to a country memorable. If you look at this situation, you see the drama but you also see the kindness in a swarm of strangers who sought out to help us save our kids from certain peril! We can’t help but love that one stranger we will never meet who actually called the emergency services on us! And who doesn’t love a country that rolls out the help carpet like that and doesn’t even bribe you while you’re down!

As the commotion came to an end, the babies were back in arms with their fairly embarrassed parents and the yellow suits handed out an obligatory 35 bottles of water, free of charge. The only thing they asked of us was a few details to fill out an incident form. Swiftly jotting down a few names and birthdates on a dodgy piece of paper, the ambo smiled knowingly at Witty’s Spanglish, and instead of fussing with the spelling of his surname, he simply scribed out in big bold letters – “GRINGO”. Nice one Nica. Love your style.

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Visitors in Le Village

While the neighbourly ‘drop in’ is tragically dying at a rate of knots, the Wittys have steadfastly maintained an ‘open door policy’ wherever we’ve lived. Admittedly we are pushing the proverbial uphill here in a small island of 2 million inhabitants. It’s news to noone that the bigger the city, the fewer the drop ins… so while we rarely lock our front door (mostly because we forget to), the spontaneous morning cuppas or arvo sundowners around the kitchen bench that we so relished in good old Darwin just don’t happen!

Despite this disastrous situation we faced given our incessant craving for spontaneous social nourishment, we have actually received a few International ‘drop ins’! Since we broadcast an open invite in our blog for friends and family to visit us in our foreign abodes, two fabo parties have taken us up on the offer and their company has set the bar high!

First and foremost, Team Ireland descended from the skies and taxi’d to our doorstep, seeking out sunshine, festival vibes, and above all, adventure! Beautiful Bex, Ambitious Ant and their toddler sized diamond, Delilah Mae Moon, arrived in the height of the Canadian summer and we took to the streets like the rockstars we all are!

It should be noted this trio of troopers not only met with us in Portugal during the initial Atlas Vagabonds 2017, they also took us into their home in Ireland (specifically the cow shed) and showed us a rollicking good time through the bonnie banks of Bantry. With International street cred like this we knew Atlas Vagabonds 2019 would be impossible without another reunion with this Irish family!

As a motley group of 7, we biked Montreal as Bixi Bandits en masse (see point 4) and celebrated the wild and unruly Pride Festival that soaked through our streets for a solid week. We did bars and cafes with kids, ticked the box with plates of sloppy poutine, kissed the skies at the Hot Air Balloon Festival and also managed a getaway into the countryside in Mount Orford National Park. This gorgeous sojourn was a short trip out of the city and the quaint chalet towns were connected by glassy lakes, hiking trails and perfect little picnic spots. Some of us walked the trails, some of us braved the refreshing waters, and the one of us even ran about 20km of mountainous mayhem throughout the park without any water, just for fun.

On reflection we agreed the visit from Team Ireland was as beautiful as it was challenging. Don’t get me wrong. Team Ireland were great craic. Team Toddler: not so much! As parents who were all on our “L” plates when it comes to understanding the mind of the toddler, we underestimated the challenges that lay unforseen when we opted to bring two confident, outspoken 2 year olds together for 10 intense days of activity. We may have pictured love bubbles and Instagramable cuddles. We may have envisioned joyous games of tip-chasey and building blocks together. We may have even thought a bedtime bath could be shared without a punch thrown. Look, we thought wrong, but who could blame us! They both looked sooo cute from the outside…

The toddlers were toddlers. And they had us en guarde at every other moment of each day. But between the rather aggressive conflict that was the Delilah-and-Finn-ship, they had their good okay moments, and the rest of us definitely had fun! Our mini Moon, miss Tallulah, was easy to please. And as for us ‘oldies’, we could sit back and laugh off the toddler tyranny with a cold drink at the end of a warring day!

Before Team Ireland left the Village, our second contingent of International visitors arrived- my parents! This overlap emulated a similar situation in 2017, when my folks flew to Ireland for Bex’s 40th birthday bash while we were also there! Talk about travelling troupes! Two years later, the 9 of us reunited in Montreal and we ripped up the splash pads, dance floors and streets of the Gay village throughout Montreal’s epic Pride Festival. It was a gay old time.

When that exhilarating culmination of visits eventually ended, we found ourselves back as a fam of four. And you know, after all the excitement and mayhem of visitors we thought, ‘This is good, we like it!’. Until of course we realised that having a toddler and a baby is the most stressful combination of responsibility we’ve ever encountered and, actually, while being alone and finding time to get into a routine COULD be the answer, we big kids are still trying to figure out what the questions even are!!

We’ve had to adjust. In the past few weeks Witty and I have been knuckling down, seeking routine, and finding the ‘normal’ in the new world of double kid parenting. Contrary to popular belief, even people who “bravely” whisk their kids off to international adventures also suffer all the parenting dramas. We rush around. We trip over a lot. We fumble with decisions. We laugh when we can and play practical jokes on each other. But we also lose sleep. We also lose battles to babies and unavoidably, we also lose each other from time to time.

Lost in the woods.jpgLucky for us, we still have Montreal and its people to help bring us around again. As Autumn comes on, chasing squirrels and picking apples between weekend trips to the countryside with colourful friends has boosted morale and given us the courage to carry on! 

As well as that, my cross-continental, binocular-wearing, bird seeking parents have just come back into the fold. And with them, we share that familiar family vibe. The one that can drive you bat-crazy, but can also bring you the best laughs and the loveliest moments  with no effort at all. 

With this grandy lot, we’ve shared lazy days in Le Village and little road trips afield. We’ve pushed the pram through Quebec’s Old City, wound through historic and charming villages like those on d’Orleans Island and some of us even skinny dipped in the glacial rivers that run wild with trout. On Friday we spontaneously took part in an historic 500 000 – strong climate strike that was led by one of our young wonders of the world: Greta Thurnberg.

On the weekend we skipped out of town to the luscious ski village of Mont Tremblant. We rode the gondola to the top and did all of the ‘hiking’ that groups spanning 3 generations can muster! Importantly, Mary and I took part in a divine escape to a Scandinavian Spa! Sadly, breastfeeding duties and other agendas allowed only 3 hours for the occasion but it was worth it. Luxuriating Mamas, we got this! And hats off to my husband for suggesting the indulgence. Love you Witty!

Leaving Tremblant was a feast for the eyes. We took the back roads to see the colours of the leaves bursting with brilliant warm hues and we topped off the trip with some wild interactions at Parc Omega. It was excellent fun for all involved as we got up close and personal with nature’s bigger and bolder creatures! My suggestion? Take carrots. 

As we plan our next steps to Nicaragua, I feel eternally grateful that my parents brought me up with the gift of travel. I am just plain lucky to have the option to pass this wanderlust to my kids too, but sharing the experience across three generations is truly the icing on the cake. I mean, whose parents chase you around the world just to play with their grandkids? Mine. We are glad these entrepid oldies continue to wear out their passports whenever and wherever they can.

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Long live the travellers and visitors from afar. And just in case you were wondering, you’re still invited to catch us in Nicaragua!

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10 loose ways to integrate your Aussie family into Quebeqcois Montreal

It wasn’t my intention to come to Quebec and NOT learn the language! I imagined myself soaking up the dulcet tones of the Frankophones, building big-time on my tiny repertoire of French words and stumbling comfortably through a conversation at the fruit shop after a month with the Quebecois… erm Quebek-what?

Qubec-Wah! 5 weeks have whipped by and I’m still reverting to English at every turn! Wah! The constant buzz of this festival city is all-consuming! Woahhhh…. we have a toddler to entertain, and suddenly after a month, Wahhhhhhhhhhhhhh! Our baby is no longer just not sleeping through the night…. she’s straight up not sleeping at all!

 

 

Witty and I both knew we had FOMO when we chose to marry one another. Two people with a Fear Of Missing Out. We knew the danger of two FOMOs procreating: doubly FOMO’d kids. But we went for it anyway. At first, we created Finn Atlas. Indeed this Titan loves to party, even in his pyjamas… but eventually he does go to sleep. Then descends Tallulah Moon on the clan… now she could make a lunatic of us all! She coos and giggles and naps through the day. She stops people in the street with her shining eyes. But shine like the moonlight on a dark sky, this one will have the wolves across Canada howling alongside her if we ask her to sleep alone. She’s a girl who know what she wants, and she has us up kissing, cradling, and trying all manner of things until we find ourselves co-sleeping and sacrificing worn out nipple skin for any winks we can get.* So yeah… not a lot of sleep happening….haven’t learned French yet.

Still, in a month in Montreal, we have picked up a few things. I list the following in order of importance.

1. Local knowledge of every splash pad within a 3 kilometre radius of our house. These fabulous arenas of water fountains, sprinklers, geysers and nozzles areMontreal’s answer to lifeguard-free water sports. We dig it. Finn digs it. So if you want to know about where to nail waterplay in the Gay Village (that’s where we live), we are your peeps.

 

 

 

2. Friends. This was a number one priority for us, but Finn trumps us with splash pads thanks to insatiable desires and toddler tyranny. Still, in a city where we arrived knowing  nobody, we’ve been lucky enough to find friends who are not only cool in their own right, one couple we’ve fallen in love with also come pre-packaged with a terrific toddler whose made a new great mate for Finn. Evidently our new friends also think my parents are totally hip, so they are both crazy and clever forevermore in my mind.

 

 

3. Finding coffee shops that love/accept toddlers. Living in the Gay Village, we naively thought this could be a little hard to find. It was refreshing to learn that within 50 meters of our house there are not one, but two cafes with specially designed kid-play areas, and one of them does great coffee. Cafe Sfouf is run by a bubbly and delightful Lebanese woman named Gabi, and her kisses for Tallulah and head rubs for Finn are almost as moorish as her Lebanese ‘sfouf’ cakes that she serves alongside my soy latte each morning.

our favourite coffee shop

4. Becoming Bixi Bandits. Bixi is a bikeshare system that has absolutely nailed it in terms of convenience and quality. We signed up to an annual membership the day after we arrived and we rarely travel from place to place any other way.  Witty rides with Finn, I ride with Tallulah. Yes. We get looks. But we are the Wittys and we are okay with that. We literally strap them to our beings via carriers, don them with helmets, and coast slowly through the bike friendly streets with relative ease. There are over 7000 bikes available and 600 bike stations to pick up and drop off bikes- conveniently there is one station outside our place, and stations near most splash pads… tick!

 

 

5. Playing in parks. Park me. There’s a lot of these! Parc La Fontaine that stole our hearts in 2017 is just up the hill on the Plateau and beckons us with toddler paddling pools, swing sets, lakes, ducks, festivals, families and even free marionette shows, in which we’ve all indulged! Besides that mega gem, there’s a plethora of friendly parks in every direction from any location with new slides, climbing equipment and fountains to be discovered. You’re starting to see how we fill our days?

 

 

6. Eating and buying like a local. Admittedly, this didn’t come naturally. I’ll confess that when we first arrived, we thought it would be financially sensible to take a fairly pricey taxi to and from a distant Walmart to do our initial ‘moving in to home’ shop. FAIL. Just so you know, Canadian Walmart is still just as gross as American Walmarts, but not nearly as cheap. What we’ve since found is the boutique markets, grocers, butchers and delicatessens on our street and in our neighbourhood offer far better goods at very competitive prices… and we can bixi to them!

finn found the good baguette

7. Becoming members of the community. This actually means getting membership at our local community centre, so it makes us sound more involved than we are! But through signing up at the local library and joining the community centre just around the corner, we feel loosely tied in to the social fabric of the ‘hood. It’s a comforting feeling as we smile and ‘bonjour’ the familiar faces we see. We can leave our place and be sat playing puzzles in the kids section of the library within the space of 5 minutes. In this impressive bibliothèque, there’s a special little bookshelf for Finn and Tallulah (ie English and Spanish kids books) and they are hot borrowed property next to Finn’s bed at night. The swimming pool is indoors and heated, and on certain times it allows rugrat toddlers in to play. During those times, the pool is chaos. Every parent-pod and summer camp group descend on the pool, and the screaming slippery slides, ricocheting diving boards and whipping pool noodles make up a wild sea of kid soup. We love it.

 

 

8. Finding the perfect Gardarie. These are day care centres, and Finn is going to his first day of Gardarie today! It took us a while to settle on one, but we got there in the end! Finn’s new Gardarie teacher is from Colombia and speaks only French and Spanish, so naturally I’m excited by this. As you can see from our list of important learnings above, almost everything focuses around entertainment for the toddler. And try as we might, we are no match for good old fashioned toddler mates. He gets sick of us (erm… and we NEVER get sick of him!) so we figured paying for Finn to have some friends to play with twice a week would be great for his social development, and good for Witty have some dedicated work days. Plus then of course, Baby Number 2 (I think her name is Tallulah Moon) gets some good old fashioned one-on-one attention #unheardof.

playtime in the square with Finn

9. Learning the language. Pretty far down the list! But with Google Translate, library books and downloaded audio lessons from the pretentious but clever Michel Thomas, I am getting there… slowly. Every day, I try to use one new word, or one new sentence when we are mixing with the locals. Finn is picking it up well too. Yesterday as he chased a squirrel up a tree, he roared like a lion and followed it with a terrifying “MERCI BEAUCOUP!” I’m sure that French squirrel appreciated the explosive gesture.

10. Finding amazing bars. I know… for a minute there you thought we’d changed. Alas, you can take the kids out of Australia…! Seriously though, Montreal has class. It has creativity. It has alcohol. and when the three come together, and they often do, you get very cool bars! Montreal is a place that celebrates pretty much anything and everything. Summer is one of those major things so when the sun comes out, so does every bar. Literally, onto the street. Move over Aussie cafes that creep out onto the sidewalks. These guys are building massive timber structures out over the roads, swallowing up car parks in front of pubs and bars, and all for the love of Summer. Booming fertile plant pots are hung and wedged all around these makeshift street balconies, beckoning passers by to stop, take in the sun and of course, an artisanal cider. Witty and I have found our favourite spot, Le Grenade, and this dynamite bar is dangerously close by. Now with my parents visiting (babysitting), we just might explode with excitement! Oh and did I mention the sexy Haitian Agrikol restaurant that Witty wandered by? Stop me now!

 

 

So that’s just a few of the things we’ve been finding to settle into our village. This beautiful, inclusive suburb is bursting with fabulous folk and a sense of freedom that I’ve never lived within before. It’s busy, grimy, bright and friendly and as far as melting pots go, the multiculturalism is rich. The guy who sells me fruit is from Algeria, the family across the street are Portuguese restaurateurs, my cafe queen is from Lebanon. We are from Australia, and we are sharing the streets with the young, old, straight, queer and just plain wobbly.

atlas vagabonds finds their drink

We love the ‘city change’ and now we are settling in for Autumn. When I get some more sleep and when I find some more time (whaaaaaat?) I will tell you about the lakeside lounging we did with friends in Ontario, and a wild and wonderful visit from Team Ireland that has just concluded. All of that and more to come in Atlas Vagabonds soon…  maybe… if I get sleep. Bon nuit!

*We’ve recently concluded if we just give Tallulah Moon the one thing she wants (cuddles all night) then she’ll be happily let us do everything Finn Atlas wants all through the day. Respect.

Vegas, babies!

We planned this little life in Montreal for the summer, but somewhere along our way across Le Planete, we ended up in Vegas for a week! It’s a long story, but doesn’t every Vegas story involve a twisted tale or two?

 

In a nutshell, it involves two great mates, a 40th birthday plan, and a bit of bad luck. You see, when we decided to head to the Americas for Atlas Vagabonds 2.0, we knew we wanted to squeeze the summer out of the north, then head south as it cooled. Well, summer couldn’t be hotter than in Vegas, and when one of Witty’s groomsmen said he was celebrating his 40th in Vegas in July 2019 and geed Witty up for a party… well he couldn’t resist the temptation. After all, it was sort of on the way from Darwin to Montreal, right!?

One plan led to another, and soon I had locked my parents and a few US based relatives to join me poolside for a week of Nevada madness: an invite to bask in the 50°C heat and reunite while Witty let loose with his mate in Sin City. BUT! At the last minute his 40th birthday groomsman had an unlikely run of bad luck, and had to cancel his trip! Well what could we do? We did Vegas anyway!

 

Never shy of an off-centre adventure, we packed the 50+, rashies and party attire, and boarded a flight across the planet with our two kids, and our own ace of spades, my mother! Yes, begrudgingly, we had convinced her to fly into her least favourite place in the USA, and to do it with us on a 18 hour journey with our kids. Bless her. My dad would have done the same, but he’d “accidentally” booked with another airline 😉 so he had to meet us there!

 

Once we got settled into our digs a little off the Vegas Strip, we took to the streets and either fumbled through our jetlag, or revelled in it. You see, being jetlagged in Vegas ain’t so bad: in this town, everyone is awake when they aren’t supposed to be. Admittedly, we copped a few stares and even a few disgusted comments from randoms as we waltzed the streets late night with a baby strapped to the chest. But like water off a duck’s back, there’s only so deep a scorn can cut when it’s coming from a drunk, stumbling gambler who’s probably just missing his wife and children. So come what may, we jumped in taxis, wandered through pokie halls and danced down the strip like the pram-scooting, baby-slinging rockstars we are.

 

Speaking of rockstars, within a day of our arrival, my Dad’s eldest brother, Uncle Rick, and my Aunt Karen drove across three states to join us from Colorado. Once our jetlag and our mojo caught up with them, we made Vegas work for us- by cooling our skin in the resort pools, sipping icy cold drinks and of course, going on mad missions off the Strip to the real Las Vegas to find splash pads for our toddler. Obvs.

 

They say what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. But I think I’ve already divulged the naughtiest things we did, and that was taking our infant underage strolling on the strip. Other major highlights were: taking my Dad to see my teenage idol Gwen Stefani on stage; also being 37 and 72- year old adults and getting busted by a 90 year old usher for sneaking too close to the stage; sitting on the Strip with my dad and watching families, nipple tassled ladies and mobility scooters go by; hanging in the hotel room with my Aunty, Uncle, folks and my fam and watching a toddler perform A-class entertainment; the Beatles LOVE concert at the Mirage; feeding finches in the resort gardens with my son; did I mention splash pads; family; and last but not least… leaving.

 

Look, it probably wasn’t the best way I could show my husband Vegas for the first time. I had wanted it to be a blast for him with his mate, but his mate ultimately couldn’t make his own 40th. It really would have sucked for him, so we did what we could, and we did Vegas for him. Craig, you owe me one. And maybe Witty too 😉

finnflyingpoolVegas, here’s cheers. You can keep your stinky smoking casinos, drunk lonely dads who belittle young families, and you can shine on with your bright shiny lights and drain out your overpriced drinks. You are what you are. Thanks for the fabulous entertainment, thanks for letting my son boogie in the streets, being there with fresh watermelon so my daughter could suck down her first “solid”, and thanks for bringing my family together in an altogether unexpected arrangement. It rocked, and it will never (hopefully) happen again.

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Vegas, baby babies.

Atlas Vagabonds 2.0: Moon Rising

After a literal hiatus of about a year and a half for the Atlas Vagabonds, we are back, stronger than ever with a new and vital addition to our tribe- Tallulah Moon. That’s right, for those who missed it in real life or on the socials that consume our scrolling, ahem, ‘down’ time, I made another human! We are now a fortunate family of four!

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‘Leaping Waters’ Whitrod: moon rising and building momentum in the calm before the storm! Image captured by photographer Kahdi Shah

Tallulah means “Leaping Waters” which is exactly how this girl entered the world. Born under a waxing moon and at home and in a calm pool of water, this little woman surprised us all by leaping from the womb “en caul” – with the amniotic sac still ballooning around her head like an astronaut in her own sea. As I brought her up out of the water and into my arms, her own water world still buoyantly danced around her sweet face and body. Our midwife gently pulled the caul up over her back and head. The pressure broke the waters. Her little ocean washed down over us, the there a sweet moon face was revealed!

It was a sublime birth and I feel incredibly lucky that it all went so well for both Tallulah and me. Rolling with that fortune, and the luck that surrounds her auspicious birth en caul, we have drawn up the draft for our next travel masterpiece- Atlas Vagabonds 2.0: Moon Rising!

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In July this year (yep, under a waxing moon), the Atlas Vagabonds will dust off the passports, don the backpacks once more, and jet set for a new style of adventure- lifestyle immersion in foreign lands! It will be less vagabondy– in fact, we will find a home!  But it will be a new home, for about 3 months, in a new country each time.

Last time with young Atlas, we jumped through country and continent with relative ease.  He was tiny, definitely not a toddler, and there was one of him. We ate steak in Argentina, bathed with babes in Brazil, bounced around the USA, Mexico, Canada and Alaska before basking in the European summer and chasing the sun to Asia before heading home. But that was with ONE kid. We get it.

With two kids, there’s no way we want to move that fast. We still want to create wild memories of mat leave through new cultural experiences, but this time we’ll include a little routine and consistency- for the sanity of each human involved.

Our first home will be in Montreal, Canada. We hit this city up in 2017, and in only one week, it took our breath away with its summer buzz and social prowess. We knew we needed more, so we’re going back, this time with a 2 bed apartment to live in and an open invite to our friends, family and more than anyone, the generous people who hosted us across the globe in our first vagabond adventure.

For us it meant so much- not only to get a good night’s sleep in the comfort of homes in which we felt safe, but to have our travels so obviously enriched by those people with whom we chinked glasses, sat with on the couch and waxed evenings away. Across the planet, people showed us their home, their town, their culture and lifestyle. We are forever grateful for that, and since we’ve noticed it’s hard for folk to make it all the way to little old Darwin, Australia, we have an open door policy for all the good people out there who wanna hit up Montreal… and beyond!

So where’s beyond? Well after the Autumn leaves have fallen in Quebec and the visa waiver system has squeezed us out, we plan to head off to warmer climes in Nicaragua. Finn Atlas will have a chance to hone in on his Spanish skills and we will be united with an old mate from college who has been living the dream for 9 years, running his own surf and yoga retreat. Again, we will have a home to house our friends and rellies, so seriously, think about it. Surf. Yoga. Tropical Christmas and New Year. You know you want it, so message me! I’ll book you in 😉

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While the rest of the design of this globetrot is indeed drafted out, we can’t give it all away in the first chapter! We really just wanted to give you a hook to come join us! The reality is, each step we take and the experiences we have in one place will influence the way we then move to the next. It will shape the direction we go in and the speed with which we get there. No doubt we will surprise and bewilder ourselves in equal measures. There is no denying that traveling with a child had it’s challenges in 2017. So let’s face it: traveling with two children will be crushing! But the in-between bits, the bits outside of airport security lines and the long haul flights…. well those are the gems that we seek and will find.

Stay with us. We’ll keep you posted.

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Our tribe. Captured by brilliant photographer Kahdi Shah- google her!