A Weekend in the South West

We were in Busselton again over the weekend.

We have established a bit of a family tradition this time every year where the extended family would all pack up and get out of Perth for a weekend away to celebrate my mother’s birthday. It is always somewhere in Western Australia, and more often than not, in the South-West region.

But birthday or not, the South-West has grown on me and whenever I am seeking for a quick easy get away I would always head south. It is close enough to be convenient and far enough to get my mind off things. On the drive down, you get vast open areas of beautiful, rugged country side, dotted with livestock and the occasional farmhouse and cute cottage. Once you are there, depending on your destination, you either get long stretches of pristine white beaches and an ocean that spreads out like a shimmering golden and blue blanket; or you get nestled between rolling hills and tall, majestic trees and the odd clearing where kangaroos lay down to rest. There is also an abundance of local fresh produce around the region like fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and seafood, and everything else ranging from bread, olive oil, pate to jams and preserves – which you can choose to bring home and cook for yourself or sit down in one of the fancy winery- restaurants and get a well-qualified chef to cook for you. What is not to like about this region?

In more recent times, with the boom of the resources industries, the increased prominence of WA as a tourism destination and the attraction of more people (and money) into the state, the region has seen a bit of a shift from being just a holiday location into a more sophisticated, upper-class getaway location. This can be observed from the upscale of some of the long-term establishments (note the iconic Miami Bakehouse which now forms part of a bigger food-court establishment) and the increasing number high-end wining and dining locations and luxury accommodation for travellers (not to mention the number of imported cars and well-dressed people who frequent these establishments). From the balcony of the rental house where we were staying we could see a dock full of recreational boats. Although at times it can feel a little over-commercialised, I believe this has overall served to improve the quality of experiences available around the area.

However, on top of all of that, there is another reason why I have become even more enamoured with the South-West (which is the same reason why we have been frequenting the region for at least twice a year for the last few years), and that is because I find out just how easy it is to travel there with kids. If you have not discovered that for yourself, here are my top reasons why:

  1. It is ten times more convenient than flying – we can pack and chuck everything into the boot of our SUV and drive, unrestricted by check-in time and luggage space (for example, if I forget a pair of boots right before we leave our garage, I would grab them and throw them on top of everything else as opposed to having to repack). We also do not have to worry about the logistics of towing around two kids and big pieces of luggage for miles in an airport or waiting around for long periods in an airport lounge or being buckled up with young kids in an airplane for hours (i.e. think many opportunities for toddler melt-downs). And even if they do have melt-downs, they would be buckled up in the backseats of our car away from the wary eyes of other airline passengers.
  2. It is also much more affordable than taking a flight to like say, anywhere. The amount of money we save on flights will allow us to splurge on very nice accommodation down south.
  3. There are many things for both adults and kids to do down south. Wineries, pubs, Margaret River chocolate factory, gourmet food shops, animal farms, ice-cream factories, Busselton jetty with train ride and underwater observatory, tree top walks, forest hikes, walks by the beaches, and the list goes on.
  4. Most places are designed with families in mind – majority of accommodation will provide portacots, high chairs and children’s plates, cups and cutleries. Some of the hotels will have swimming pools and playrooms for children (we have even rented a house once that provided a game machine). Family-friendly accommodation can easily be found on websites like Airbnb and Stayz.com.au. Even when you dine out you will also notice that a lot of places will provide kids meals and have colouring pencils and play areas to keep your children happy.
  5. We are still within Western Australia, so we are familiar with the surroundings, the shops, the facilities and where we can go to pick up baby food or more nappies or Panadol / Neurofen if by tough luck one of your little ones come down with a bug (which has happened to us on more than one occasion).

The Life that Might Have Been

Hey lady, you, lady, cursin’ at your life
You’re a discontented mother and a regimented wife
I’ve no doubt you dream about the things you’ll never do
But I wish someone had a talked to me like I wanna talk to you

Over the last weekend for what was supposedly a quick family trip away, I found myself stuck for an hour in a cramped and dirty McDonald’s toilet cubicle somewhere between Busselton and Dunsborough, with a screaming constipated child and this song in my head. (If you have not heard of the song before it was a 1980’s ballad titled “I’ve Never Been to Me” by Charlene.)

At that point I closed my eyes and imagined what that moment would have been like for me in another lifetime long long ago – when a vacation would have been like a real vacation, and time away would actually be relaxing. Instead of a toilet door that seemed to be closing in on me by the minute, I would have been staring at the ocean which had no end. Instead of the flushing sounds of the next door toilet, I would be listening to the gentle lapping of waves and gawking seagulls. And instead of alternating between standing in a small room and squatting and comforting my child who was on the toilet until my legs and back hurt, I would be lying down with a book in one hand and a cocktail in the other.

So Charlene, you were right.

On some days I dream of a life that would never be. When the demands and responsibilities of everyday life take its toll I wonder what it would have been like to just be free. To not have to be stuck in a routine of waking up early, going to work, picking up kids then making dinner, to not have to clean up toys, poo and vomit, to not have to be confined to office space for eight hours a day so that the mortgage and private school fees can be paid off, and to not have to be always concerned about whether your actions and decisions might start a fight with your spouse or someone else in your household of ten.

To travel whenever and wherever I want to and see the world, to meet new people and talk to interesting strangers, to pursue a career and a life that is plagued with uncertainty but full of excitement. To be responsible only for me.

What would my life have been like then? Where would that take me? What kind of person would I have been?

But.

I do not let those thoughts linger for long or otherwise consume me, because I know they are not real and the trade-offs have would been unimaginable. When the mind fog clears and I look into the face of a smiling child (my smiling child), I know that these moments, these so-called hardships, are short-lived and in return for something better. Like good investments. You give up a life free of responsibilities and put in the effort in return for things that you now realise you cannot live without once you have experienced them; for those moments when you pick your children up after work and your heart melts when you see their grubby, smiley faces; for the nights when you lie in your husband’s arms, watch Gogglebox and talk about your day; for the family dinners when you sit around, enjoy good food and exchange life stories; for love; for the genuine laughters.

You do it, usually without question, for the certainty in your own mind and your heart that you have given all you can to the people you love most and that you would have them by your side when you need them and when you get old and lonely and you can no longer run freely.

After all what else could life be about?

So listen to the rest of the song. Charlene would tell you the same.

And Then There was Us..

[written at 8:32 am local time on Wednesday]

It was -3 degrees last night when the two of us walked along the streets of Yeouido looking for a place where we could sit down and have a drink. We were looking for somewhere that was not a fried chicken and beer place which seemed to ninety percent of places selling alcohol. Nothing wrong with Korean fried chicken (in fact they do them well – always crunchy on the outside and moist inside) but at that stage we could no longer stomach fried chicken after a big meal of fresh raw fish, barbequed salmon head and hot steaming seafood soup at the biggest fish market in Seoul. We were just after a drink and a bit of a night-life experience in Seoul.

Where were the kids, you wonder?

Ah-ha. My parents took them so it was our night off. We all happened to be conveniently travelling in the same place at the same time.

The financial district of Seoul was still bustling at 9pm last night; many people had only just got off work and were having dinner and drinks with their friends or colleagues. The area was brimming with a variety of colours, a combination of busy neon shop lights and also still star-like lights which lined the street hedges in anticipation of Christmas.

After 15 minutes of walking we finally found a place where we could have a stout and a cocktail – and good timing because my legs were starting to feel like frozen matchsticks. We scurried quickly into the well-heated pub like mice to cheese.

Last night reminded me of our trip to Seoul seven years ago, not married and with no kids. Just carefree individuals then, taking a trip together and doing whatever we wanted to do.

What was the one thing that changed the most for me after children? Not my body although it will never the same again. Nor is it my sleep pattern although that does come close. It is my relationship with my husband.

Having kids changed us in ways that we could not have anticipated; as individuals but more so as a married couple. The hormonal changes from the time of pregnancy, the changes in your body as your baby grew within you, your perception of your new role as a mother, the development of an instinctive protection towards your child – it changes you and therefore also alters your expectations of your husband’s role. Whilst you were able to be a good wife to your husband before by doing things like making all his meals, this was no longer the case once the baby was born. In between breastfeeding, night soothing, nappy changing and bathing the baby, you would be lucky if you even get time to feed and clean yourself. You expected him to be able to help out more. Naturally you expected him also to be around more.

At times you did not get why he did not understand what you needed and what you considered important. You also felt like there was a gap that was widening between the two of you. If initially it felt like men was from Mars and women from Venus, after kids it felt almost like we were from completely different universes. (E.g. the year in which our daughter was born, Will said that he was going over to his parents’ house by himself on Christmas day to spend the day watching old movies because that was his personal tradition. BY HIMSELF. I blew my lid.)

The other thing with the kids is that you spend all your time doing stuff for and with them and more often than not you forget to spend time together as husband and wife. It is easy to “accidentally” de-prioritise your relationship with your husband for the benefit of your kids as everything is now about them, and less about you.

So it was tough, initially. With a lot of potential misunderstandings and not a lot of time to understand each other it is easy to see how things could have gone pretty bad. Eventually with time and some frank discussions we decided that we needed to spend more quality time with each other again. (I have my husband to thank for that, he is the one with the good ideas and the cornerstone of our relationship).

So with some conscious effort, we started doing things together again. Then we started talking and communicating again. After a while, we started to work more closely together as a team. While we were previously just two people who enjoyed each other’s company, we were now becoming true life partners – who would pick up the kids; who would grab the milk on the way home; where would the kids go to school; what values do we want to teach them; what are the career moves that would best progress individual opportunities but at the same time accommodate the family unit. It did not just happen by itself, we made it happen. At the same time we progressed from merely tolerating each other’s odd habits to truly embracing each other for their strengths and also help strengthen their weaknesses.

We reminded ourselves that in the beginning, there were the two of us. Your love and trust in each other is what brought to life the kids and then one day when the kids are older and they leave the nest, there will still be the two of you. So we do need to try and make time for each other even though that may very well require a lot of extra effort – complacency is what stops a relationship from growing.

So last night as we talked and laughed about everything kids and non-kids related and sipped on our drinks in a warm pub in a city far from home, we were enjoying each other’s company again. It felt good, it reminded us why we are a good match for each other and it would serve as another memory for us to relive on many occasions to come in the future.

We Survived the Flight

[written at 3:45pm local time Saturday afternoon]

I am in a foreign city, looking out at a skyline of white and grey buildings, animated signboards and moving cars as I type this. The cosy apartment is quiet, adorned only with the muted sounds of traffic, the light snoring of the husband and the heavy breathing of the kids as they nap. It is the most peaceful 15 minutes I have had over the last two days as we took two semi long-haul flights and a night stayover in an airport hotel in making our way here.

We are in Seoul.

As the plane was landing yesterday we were greeted (very luckily) by a heavy snowfall. The kids’ very first snow sighting! My daughter’s eyes lit up and she started humming to the tune of “Let it Go” (because of the snow, get it? :)) The air was cold and crisp and as the cab drove us to our destination I observed how the place seemed strangely familiar with glimpses of landmarks seen only from dramas and people spoke the language which I so frequently heard spoken at the lunch table with my husband and his family every Sunday afternoon.

The flight here was interesting to say the least, now that we are travelling with a toddler who has just turned (“terrible”) two. We did not expect an easy journey and we did not get one either; not with a child who would not stay buckled in his seat, whinged for juice and chocolates every 15 minutes and demanded to sit with Daddy one minute and Mommy the next. We survived though and at least for now I can still say that it has not put me off travelling for the next 5 years.

For moms and dads who will be flying with a restless child in the near future here are some lessons which we learnt on our way here and things that worked for us:

1)     Call up the airline and pre-book your seats early especially if you are flying in a larger group. There were four of us and for the longer leg flight from Singapore-Incheon we were able to get the four seats in the middle which made the trip easier than the 3+1 seating arrangement we had on the Perth-Singapore flight.

2)     Airplane toilets are small, and the space would seem even smaller when you have to change the soiled nappy of your squirming two-year-old in there. Be prepared with all that you need before you go in, together with a toy that would distract your kid while you go about cleaning him in a cramped uncomfortable space. And go right before the long queue that takes place each time after the stewardesses clear all the meal trays – they are always kind enough to make way for you when you walk down the aisle with a kid in tow.

3)     Lollipops saved our sanity, more than once. Initially I brought them to get the kids sucking on something on the way up and down so that it would help relieve the ear pressure; however every time my son became a little crazy and screamed to be let out of his seat (when the seatbelt sign was on) we would offer him one and he would relent. And as one lollipop would leave him contented for about 10 minutes, that gave us the break we needed to recharge for the next challenge.

4)     The in-flight entertainment system did nothing for our restless two-year-old (worked wonders for the four-year-old). What worked better for him was a tablet with pre-recorded favourite shows and age-appropriate games which kept him occupied for a while.

5)     If you are doing a long haul flight consider booking in flight times that would allow you to spend a night in a transit hotel and recharge (for you and your kids). Despite my pre-conceived idea of what a transit hotel would be like the Ambassador Transit Hotel at Terminal 3 of the Changi Airport actually turned out pretty good. The room was clean and spacious and the hotel was right next to the food court. The best thing is that you do not have to clear customs and pick up your luggage which gave us another hour to sleep in the next morning before catching the final leg to Seoul.

6)     Go on the flight prepared, with the mindset that you probably will not get to watch a whole movie nor eat your meal in peace – if the kids happen to fall asleep for a couple of hours (which they might) then consider it an extra. Just try your best to be conscientious of people around you but also realise that you might come across unsupportive aircrew or difficult passengers who would balk at being sat next to children on a plane ; if that happens just ignore them and remind yourself that there is nothing wrong about travelling with your loved ones and that you are there on a holiday to have fun.

7)     And finally, parents, if you are travelling on Singapore Airlines, have a Singapore Sling. They do them unbelievably well and it makes the whole situation more bearable.

Final note, I have not travelled on anything other than MAS and SIA for international flights with my children because from all that I read online SIA seems to be the preferred choice for parents. I have to say that they have not let me down to-date and what makes it better is that you get a lot of other families travelling on the same airline which means that you do not end up feeling like your child is the only one causing a ruckus and that there are at least 10 other families who are in the same boat, ahem, I mean plane.