Verstraete Family Adventures

A blog to document our adventures in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia


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One Last Blog

It has been almost three years since we packed up our lives in the US and moved to the other side of the world here in Malaysia. I had promised my grandma I would journal so this blog was created for the sole purpose of keeping her and my grandpa up to date with our travels and life here. No, she didn’t have a computer, but my mom would read them my blogs just as soon as I would post. The blog later became a way for me to detail not only our adventures, but also my struggles. The way you responded enabled me to push through all the sadness and be reminded of all the good. This blog became a huge support system and I could not have made it through those first 6 months (perhaps the first entire year) if it hadn’t been for the kindness I was shown in my most vulnerable moments. And I know without a doubt I never would have made it without the kindness of support of my friends here – my chosen family.

No one can prepare you for being an expat or living in another country. Until you experience it yourself it’s all just a fantasy, or nightmare depending on how you accept change. I had a friend tell me before I left, “your life is going to change in ways you can’t even imagine”. And I couldn’t. I was almost offended at the statement. I loved my life in the states. I had no desire to move and no reason to believe my life could have been made any better by moving away from those I love those I loved the most. But now I get it.

I agreed to move to Malaysia in order to get three more years with my kids. I did get that, which would have been enough for me, but I also got so much more. I know for a fact that there is more good in the world than bad. I know that life is what you make of it and sometimes making a choice to be happy is as easy as loving Kevin Bacon. I feel so extraordinarily blessed that I have met such amazing women who have been my everything. Never again will I surround myself with anything but positive, supportive, loving people who encourage me to be better, motivate me to want to be better, and show me strength and kindness. I have changed in ways I never could have imagined, and it will be what drives me towards how I live the rest of my life as a mother, wife, friend, and person.

To our girls, Olivia and Eleanor – we ultimately did this all for the two of them. My only hope is that they have opened their hearts to a greater understanding of the world, its people, its diversity, and the need for kind open hearts to continue to make the world a better place. Maybe cliche, but ever so true. At such young ages they know what a refugee is. They have seen the homeless in the States, but they have also seen villages in Vietnam that have no running water but yet the kids are still outside running around with huge smiles on their faces because they have the only thing that matters – their family. They’ve been to China to witness the world’s worst pollution and appreciate fresh air and blue skies. They have asked questions about other cultures as they have learned beside each other. Over 60 countries are represented in their school and that is the most awesome part about this whole experience. To them it’s normal, to much of America it is terrifying. My wish for them is that they will always be brave enough to meet hate with love, fear with sensitivity, and differences with curiosity.

Where do we go from here? You can’t leave a place like Malaysia and all the experiences it offered us and go back and pick up where you left off, can you? I’ll be trying to find my place, but I won’t be blogging about it. All I can tell you is that our doors in Chicago will always be open to all our friends, whether you’re from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, London, Denmark, or Houston Texas. I will never stop supporting refugees and I will passionately speak in support of my Muslim friends. I will go back changed forever, with a bigger purpose, a softer heart, and a much more open mind. I will continue to listen without judgement and accepting of others, always.

Here is a montage of our last three years. It’s about 20 minutes long so if you’re interested in watching it grab your wine or coffee and let it take you back through to some of our biggest adventures here in Malaysia and around the world. We will be forever grateful and appreciative of this amazing experience.

Thank you, Malaysia, for welcoming us, teaching us, accepting us, and learning with us. Thank you to our friends here for being our family abroad – for the laughs, adventures, support, and for all the memories we’ll carry with us forever. And thank you to our families and friends back home, for checking in daily or when you could and for being so excited about our return home.

xoxo

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Next Steps

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It’s official…when April approaches, we will be making our way back to the USA!  Jeremy has accepted a job offer in Chicago.

I’ll keep this post simple – I will not fill it with the many thoughts and emotions of what the reality feels like and what it means. Right now no one cares, they just want us to get home. And we are coming home. In 59 days to be exact.  Let’s just leave it at that for now.

We are so excited for this next adventure. The kids are excited to see their grandparents and cousins (and yes, aunts and uncles too). And until we reach US soil we will soak up every last moment in this beautiful country and with our friends here, because the thought of having to leave them all is too much to bare right now.

But…we’re coming home, sweet home, Chicago!


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Maldives and Sri Lanka

We just got back from family holiday to the Maldives and Sri Lanka. With faces kissed by the sun and stories retold all the way home, we had an amazing time. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Resort in Kandooma, Maldives, and couldn’t have chosen a better accommodation for our family. If you were going for a honeymoon or kid-free this might not be the place you choose, but for us it was perfect. The island was about 2km around and each family stayed in a private villa. The pool, the beach, the Kids Club, and all the other activities you could choose from made for an active, but relaxed vacation. We spent four days here and loved every single thing about it!

We arrived on New Year’s Eve, so we knew what that evening would entail – raining in the new year! We rang in 8:00PM – it was a long travel day:

Each day after was spent similar to this:

I was amazed at the color of the water – that’s why people go – to see the water (right?)! The Maldivian waters are so clear and vibrant you can see the sea floor and everything that floats in and around it. We saw jelly fish, manta rays, turquoise, fish, fish like Dori, clear fish, and such – all from just standing and looking down. Try to snorkel and include many more to that list. The best month to find the clearest waters is January because it is more dry – we were lucky. Maldives is in fact the lowest country in the world. The waters here are just knee deep shallow. That is one of the reasons why you can see the seabed through the waters. It was breathtaking, just like the picturesque postcards!

It is said that Maldives will be vanished from the map in the next 100 years or so due the climate change and rising sea levels. The rise of sea water levels, pollution and global warming are making these beautiful pieces of land disappear in a short period of time. It’s a shame that even though science has so advanced and it has been shouting loudly that global warming is a real thing, some people are still blind to their surroundings. Some say it’s too late to save the Maldives. I sure hope that isn’t the case.

We usually bring home a little souvenir from our travels – shells, a bit of sand, a piece of art – but since the large piece of coral I wanted to bring home was the size of my head and wouldn’t fit, I settled on family pictures of us in something other than our swimsuits. I’m so glad I did. It was a magical holiday!

Sri Lanka:

It was hard to leave such a beautiful place, but the beauty of Sri Lanka was just as magical. Ideally, when planning a trip to Sri Lanka, one would drive to various stopping points throughout the country (Elephant sanctuary, safari, etc), but when you have kids who get as sick as ours in the car, we opted for one destination – Galle.

Galle is located on the southwestern tip, 119 long km from Columbo, which is about a 2 hour drive. The population is 91,000. The girls slept (thank you Dramamine) so they missed the drive along the coast as we passed by cinnamon plantations, rice fields, rubber tree fields, and several temples.

We arrived in the afternoon and checked into the Why House, which was a recommendation, and a brilliant one at that! While Ellie determined she needed to rest at the hotel, Olivia and I went out and did a little exploring.

The next morning we made our way to the beach where we spent the day jumping waves, looking for shells, and taking walks along the beach. I refused to compare the two beaches (of Maldives and Galle). They were both beautiful for different reasons. This beach was perfect for kids because it has a protective reef creating a lagoon which ensures safe swimming, and also has a small surf break in front of their restaurant. We had both the waves and the calm. The ambiance was relaxed, fun, beach, eclectic, and just awesome. It became our favorite little hangout (besides the hotel grounds itself) and we came two different nights for dinner and to watch the sunset.

After the beach, we spent the afternoon down by Galle fort, walking the charming side streets, shopping, and stopping for that afternoon gelato. The Galle fort is a world heritage site and is the largest remaining fortress in Asia built by European (Dutch) occupiers.

The next day we got up at 5am to go whale watching. We had heard some groups spend 7 hours or more looking for these amazing creatures, but we were lucky our experience lasted 3 hours (you know, the whole motion sickness thing). We left the dock and within seconds of reaching our look-out point (which took an hour to get to), the whales were putting on their show – a magnificent sight that not one of my pictures captured well enough.

Like I said, my pictures are duds, but Jeremy posted a couple of videos on Facebook, so check those out if you are interested – you’ll actually see something! The girls were thrilled to see a whale and were not disappointed! We attempted dolphin watching in the Maldives with no luck so when a whole group of more than 50 dolphins came up right beside the boat and traveled with us for a few minutes they were pretty excited! Ellie kept saying, “Mom, we’re not even dreaming right now, this is really happening!!!” Pretty cool!  The trip was a huge success and we were back to the hotel by lunch, and spent the rest of the afternoon lounging by the pool!

On the following day, our last, the girls requested to visit the turtle hatchery. This was quite educational. There are 7 species of turtles found in the world, 5 of which are found in Sri Lanka. Their main objective is saving Sea Turtles for the next generation. The main part of their project is collecting eggs (to keep them safe from poachers) once the mother buries them on the beach, re-bury them in a fenced beach hatchery and release them safely to the ocean upon hatching. They also house a large number of turtles which were sick or injured by fishing nets, which they treat and/or cure and release back to the ocean. Needless to say, we learned a lot about turtles in a little amount of time.

Other Sri Lankan pics:

It was an amazing 7 days of travel to two amazing destinations and we are so grateful for the opportunity to go. There is so much beauty, culture, and diversity in the world and I learn something new in each place we travel. If there is one thing I’d wish for my kids to take away from all of these adventures it’s that I hope it has opened their eyes, hearts, and their minds a little more than they were before and as they continue to grow.

Happy New Year!

xoxo


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Christmas in KL 2016

It’s now our third Christmas since we’ve been living in Malaysia. The first year we went back home, the second year we stayed here while anticipating my parents’ arrival, and this year we were again in KL, this time with no visitors to look forward to. Perhaps that is why I felt really homesick this year. Or maybe it was because we had to say goodbye to my Jennifer and her family (brutal). It is really hard to be away from family, especially during the holidays, and I felt that this year. I was thankful for a busy month that had me buried in planning Christmas parties for each of the girls’ classrooms as well as girl scouts, doing the holiday shopping and baking, and trying to make things as fun and special as I could for the girls. I do have to say that Kuala Lumpur does a pretty amazing job at doing Christmas – the music, decorations, events, and Santa photo-ops do not disappoint!! Well, maybe the Santas were a little disappointing, but you cannot fault them for trying!

I kicked off the month by wrapping a book for each day before Christmas. I’ve seen many do this tradition and could never get myself organized enough to do it myself, but finally got my act together this year. I had many of the books but checked out what I was missing from the school library. I purchased one book a few months ago called, “The Christmas Wish” by Lori Evert, which I highly recommend. I added an activity to go along with each book (an idea I took from a blog). It was fun for the girls, but I was short two books, and I didn’t care enough to go out and get two more, so I just told the girls I would tell them Christmas stories for two nights (all part of the plan, eh?).

School festivities: I love this time of year at school! The holiday performances are always so adorable and the kids are excited about every little opportunity to have some fun! It doesn’t matter if a child celebrates Christmas or not, magic is in the air for every little one. Olivia’s class had a few students from Sweden so they also had a St. Lucia party – beautiful.

School was out on the 16th so then we just played! We do what every other house does during this time of year – gingerbread houses, baked cookies for days, went out for hot chocolate, walked the malls to see all the festive displays, and just enjoyed the time we had together. We threw in the dentist and had some playdates and sleepovers in there somewhere too!

We took some time to show appreciation to others:

And then we celebrated Christmas! The girls got to FaceTime with both sets of grandparents and cousins while they opened their gifts from them. Thank goodness for technology.

And later on Christmas day we couldn’t go visit family for a Christmas dinner but we could sure meet up with friends for a champagne brunch – because our friends are our family here and we are truly blessed to have such great ones.

That’s pretty much Christmas in Malaysia! I hope you all had a wonderful day celebrating with the ones you love. Have the safest and happiest of New Year’s celebrations and we will as well! We are off for a bit of holiday travel bright and early tomorrow!

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Happy New Year!

xoxo


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October in Review

I’ve had a few friends ask me where my blog posts were. I responded by saying that I didn’t feel like I had anything to write about lately of any interest to anyone other than myself. But isn’t that what this blog is for – to document our time here, the good and bad, happy and sad? After my post about my grandpa I had to come back and go through the grieving and process the loss. I did that through making photo albums about my grandparents, throwing myself into projects, and just being with friends and family. We have still had a lovely month, I just didn’t write about it, until now…

Last year our travels took us to 7 different countries. We had a trip every month and had an amazing year of travel and seeing new places, exploring new cultures. This year we don’t have as many trips planned but we have created a “bucket list” of things we have left to do here just in case it is our last year abroad. Early September took me back to Phnom Phen, Cambodia, on a girls trip. It was a chance to show some friends why this country had a huge impact on us (the ones who had been before), as well as a chance to reunite with a couple of friends who have moved on to other countries. We had an amazing time catching up, shopping, eating, and seeing the city in a different light this time. For those of us who visited the difficult tourist sites for the first time, it was somber and humbling. There is always something to be learned.

I get emotional looking at these pictures, as it marks the day in which I had my last conversation with my grandpa. That sky though…

Fast forward a few weeks later to October. MKIS kicks off the month with their UN Day celebration – my favorite event at the school. It’s a chance to showcase over 60 countries that are represented at this school, and how proud we all are of this rare opportunity we get to have such a gift under one roof – one that fosters growth, compassion, acceptance, difference, and an abundance of knowledge! Here, no country is better than the other, we just all want the same thing for each other – well educated, well adjusted, happy children who will hopefully make a difference one day.  Today we celebrated unity and diversity – and it was quite a celebration!

Following UN Day is MCF week, which is Madeleine Children’s Fund/Cancer Awareness week.  Madeleine was a Kindergarten student when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor, a fight she lost. One week a year at MKIS is dedicated to raising awareness and raising money towards her foundation, in her memory. The students participated in a dance-a-thon and skip-a-thon. It is events such as these I’m so grateful I am able to attend.

Jeremy was in the states for a couple of weeks so we girls tried to keep busy on the weekends the best way we know how – exploring new things! We heard Rumah Hope – which is a shelter that provides food, care and security for children neglected, abandoned or abused – was having a carnival to raise funds for their home. I thought that would be a great way to spend a Saturday, so that is what we did. We had a great day and an even greater lesson.

The girls had their mid-term break and since Jeremy is pretty much out of vacation days, we girls planned a trip to Vietnam to see our dear friends who recently moved to Ho Chi Minh City. We spent four days there and had such a wonderful time. We’d frequent a cafe, play space, or take the kids on a fun adventure during the mid-morning hours and the afternoons would be spent on the trampoline and pool. The kids had a great time being reunited and they quickly picked up right where they left off! We sure miss these beautiful people in our daily lives.

Still on mid-term break we surprised the kids with a trip to Legoland. Olivia has been asking to go since we moved here and I’ve avoided it because it’s a 3+ hour drive and my girls get so car sick. But… we also know that we can’t let fears keep us from doing the things we really want to do, so we went! And they had the time of their lives!!! We spent a day at the amusement park, surprised at how much they loved the roller coasters. They were small enough and perfect for young kids. The next day we spent a couple of hours at the water park, which I loved, before the kids begged to back to the amusement park to ride more rides. All the dramamine couldn’t save me from these rides. Being on a roller coaster makes me feel like I’m in an airplane experiencing the worst turbulence, on the verge of a crash landing. Voluntarily! But the kids loved it all, as did my other BIG kid (Jeremy)!

And of course we ended the month on a Halloween bang!! Parties in the classroom and the annual MKIS Halloween Carnival. I love getting to be so involved in each of the girls’ classrooms. I can peek in to check on them when I want and I can plan a party whenever a holiday arises. I’m blessed and I take advantage of it as much as I possibly can!!!

We have made it a tradition to attend BIG’s Halloween cooking class for kids since the year we arrived. Saturday morning we awake – and BAKE!!  Olivia looks forward to this class every year! And we look forward to eating her creations!

And in non-Halloween news, Olivia became a Brownie Girl Scout this week. I am her leader, which makes it all the more fun for me. I love that we can do this together.

Monday (officially Halloween) will come and I’ll dress up in my ‘secret’ (but not overly creative) costume and go be a mystery reader in Olivia’s classroom, we’ll do one last Halloween craft, and we’ll mark the end of the month.

I’m always kind of relieved when October comes to an end. Fall is my favorite month and baking with pumpkin is my favorite hobby, but perhaps it’s because I have never been SUPER excited about Halloween? We had a great month and we’re looking forward to the holidays with as much enthusiasm as we possibly can as we refuse to be reminded that we will not see family for another 8 long months.

Like I always tell myself, one day at a time…

xoxo


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Loss and Life…and all things Love

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March 1, 1922 – September 4th, 2016

When the phone rang early this morning here at the condo, I knew why. Heaven gained another angel. I can’t say we lost Grandpa, because we had the best of him for 94 years. Each year, each day, each moment was a gift, so to say that we lost him, doesn’t seem right. I have been on a roller coaster of tears and smiles for the last couple of days. This morning I’m finding more smiles. I have a wave of peace that flows through me knowing he is now at peace. And he is with the love of his life. I can almost see the reunion that has already taken place between my grandpa and grandma – the warm embrace and them both asking each other, “What took you so long?” It’s a beautiful, peaceful feeling knowing that they are together again. That helps make this transition more peaceful and accepting.

He passed surrounded by all the love in the world, the most important love – the love of his family. It was as beautiful of an exit as it was having him in our lives each day. There were stories told, phone calls made, whisky cheers, and laughter. There were no words left unsaid, no what-if’s or I wishes. It was perfect, if that’s something a passing can be. Both beautiful and brutal. Brutiful.

My grandpa was just as extraordinary as my grandma was. He was a man of integrity, of dignity, respect, compassion and all things love. He was a war hero, attentive husband, amazing father. In my 39 years of life I have never heard him raise his voice – other than yelling, “Let’s go Krissy Baby!!” all through my school sporting years. (note: he is the only one who has and who will EVER get to call me Krissy Baby)! He had names for all his kids and grandkids. He always wore trousers and button down shirts. He only had friends and not one single enemy. He gently requested removal of your hat at the supper table. He put God first but Grandma would beg to differ as he always made her feel number 1. In fact, he made us all feel like his #1. He golfed every single day until he couldn’t any longer. He loved having slumber parties as much as Grandma did and he could master silver dollar pancakes. Oh and what they’d do to make us laugh! He loved structure and routine and he never complained (except maybe at the end when he got a little picky about food). He had an amazing sense of humor. He was honest, humble, gentle, kind, and loved his family more than anything.

The picture on the right is my favorite memory of the summer. Grandpa drinks a whisky and 7-up every afternoon at 3:00 but has never had wine. I offered him a drink of mine, and because he will try anything at his old age, he sampled it only to discover why he doesn’t drink wine! We laughed and laughed and had a wonderful afternoon in my cousin’s garage surrounded by family, celebrating life! Goodness, I love this man.

I’m so grateful I had him as a grandfather. I am so grateful I showed my adoration for him, wrote him letters, and told him every chance I got how much I loved him. I’m thankful for our beautiful relationship and for never taking it for granted. I went to visit every chance I got, I called, I wrote, and I appreciated everything about him. No what-ifs, no I-wishes. I gave him my all. And for that, I’m grateful.

He lived 94 years and he lived those years fully. He and Grandma had a love like no other. They never suffered the loss of child, they didn’t suffer through a cancer diagnosis or terrible accident. They both lived a beautiful life, to its entirety, together. It’s all anyone could ever want. And even though our hearts are broken from the passing of this amazing man, we can take comfort in knowing we gave each other everything. There’s no greater gift.

God bless this sweet man, my grandpa. Now go dance with your bride!

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xoxo


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The First Days of School

It was just a year ago I posted about Ellie’s first day of preschool.  You can read about it here.  But to summarize, it didn’t go too well and we eventually decided to pull her out.  It was the right decision and I’m glad I made it.

But my, what a difference a year makes.  Meet Ellie:

She wants to be called Eleanor (her birth name), she’s now 4 years old – too old to ride in a stroller or be carried when she has blisters on her feet (if anyone should be watching).  After 4 long years she’s finally decided to sleep in her own bed throughout the entire night, which also means that I’m finally sleeping through the night as well.  Such anxiety I have had anticipating the first days of school after remembering so painfully and so vividly how much we both suffered through the process last year at this same time.  After cheerleading and trying to exaggerate my enthusiasm leading up to her first day it became very clear that she didn’t need that from me this time.  She was more than ready to walk through that front door into her classroom and be with “a really cool teacher from Australia”!  Wait!!!  No meltdown, no tears, no trauma?!  Not from Eleanor (we don’t need to know what I did when I walked around the corner and let my big girl out into the real world), no sir!!  I hung around for a little bit and would sneak back to peek only to discover that my little big girl is a leader!  She’s confident!  She’s making friends already and uses phrases like “my teacher is so nice”and “my school is so much fun”!! I couldn’t ask for more!  She’s off, world – watch out!!!

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And LOOK – She’s a SUPERSTAR!!!

My Olivia – she ROCKED her first week, just like I knew she would.  She has always had such a positive attitude towards school.  And she has been so fortunate to have had such great teachers who have been the reason for this enthusiasm.  She was so excited to see friends, make new ones, and she’s working hard at getting all her play dates lined up.  I’m just so proud of her!

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My absolute favorite part of the day is getting to hear these two greet each other after a long day.  Olivia always asks Eleanor how her day was and they are so fun to watch.  They tell each other things they forget to tell me!

We had a successful first week of school, which is all anyone could ask for.  Here’s to a wonderful school year!!!

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Grades 2nd and KPA

And a VERY relaxing weekend!!

xoxo