What a year 2016 has been. During the year, we have been in eight different countries and seen some stunning sights around the world. Our boys have grown so much, and we have all learned new and wonderful things about this world we live in.
Here for his annual post, Derek has the Swanson Family's Year in Review for 2016.
2016 has been a great year for the Swanson family. We added 6 new countries to our family map, moved to a new apartment, adopted a kitten, and watched as the boys grew.
We turned our focus to moving apartments in May, leaving the KFC Building for Al Shaheen Towers, above the Choithrams Grocery Store. The new apartment included parking, and was equally close to the Corniche, while providing us with nearly twice as much space. The move was able to happen about six weeks early, which meant that we were not moving in before the end of the school year. Prior to moving in, the apartment was painted, cleaned, and had general maintenance, so it was very comfortable to get situated.
In June we were finishing the school year, and left for our European summer adventure, which lasted to the end of July. It was Ramadan at the end of the school year, which meant that we had to make some minor changes, such as making sure that we didn't eat or drink in public, made sure to keep the car stereo off, and dressed a bit more conservatively than usual. One of the highlights of Ramadan was getting to go to an Iftar buffet, which is where the fast is broken. The variety of food, and the ambiance was unlike anything that we had previously experienced. Soon after school finished, we boarded a plane to Munich, Germany, to begin the summer fun. In Germany, we hit Legoland, checked out the Neuschwanstein Castle, and toured downtown Munich. Then we rode a sleeper train to Amsterdam where we saw the canals, the Resistance Museum, and met lots of our extended family. After a week in The Netherlands, we took a train to Paris, France where we enjoyed a remarkable bike tour of the city. We spent the remainder of our summer spending more time in Croatia and a little time in Rome. We fell in love with the Mediterranean lifestyle and are already plotting ways to get back to the area. After a flight back to Munich, we returned to Abu Dhabi to settle a bit more into the new apartment before the school year started.
Before the summer was up, we adopted a new kitten, an orange Arabian Mau, that we named Sandy, went to the Emirates Palace for a golden cappuccino, and made sure that we were ready for the start of school.
For the Eid holiday, we decided to make our way to Muscat, Oman. Muscat is about a six hour drive from Abu Dhabi, so we packed the kids into the car and drove through the desert for a five day stay. We saw dolphins, explored some new cities, and spent lots of time swimming! Later in October, the hockey season started, where Derek was playing for a new team, the Yas Island Bananas. We also attended the Fall Festival at school, where Owen and Oliver were part of a parade, had snacks, and played games. Oliver continued swimming lessons, Owen played basketball, and Becca coached Owen's team. Additionally, Owen started playing soccer for a local club, with one game a week, and one practice a week.
In November we camped near the Omani border, including S'mores, a zip line, and dune bashing. Becca continued her graduate work, Owen was playing soccer with passion weekly, Oliver built the Burj Khalifa out of boxes at school, and I helped to compete in the robotics nationals.
Oliver's birthday started off December, with him turning five years old. Oliver is obsessed orange, Star Wars, and reading. It's great see his imagination come to life. We were able to have a great set of family photos captured, then we welcomed Oma and Opa, Scott and Mary, to Abu Dhabi. Every day with them has been an adventure, with fishing, a tour of the Grand Mosque, a trip to the Burj Khalifa, and more, we had a great time finishing out 2016.
Although every month finds us with loads of activities, have dinner as a family nearly every night, we make time for play with the boys, and read together frequently. Family is important, and we make sure to treasure each other often. We are proud of how much the boys changed for the better over the last 12 months, and we look forward to how 2017 will be better.
Spring break feels like ages ago, but we have only been back to school for a bit over week. In that time, Owen had softball practice, we had report cards dues with comments, Derek did a huge live-streaming event for a badminton, and I started graduate school.
But I'm getting ahead of myself...
For the second week of break, we were a bit more mellow than the first week. We started off by returning to the Mother of the Nation Festival, as we had promised the kids they could try out the zip-line in the kids' area.
The sunset was splendid that night.
Then we decides to head out to Al Ain again for a few days just to get away from the city. We stayed at Danat Resort this time, mostly because there was a Groupon deal. We spent most of the time hanging out by the pool at the hotel, but we also got out a little. You know us, can't stay still for too long!
We went back to the oasis, checked out Hili Fun City, and saw the zoo a second time during our short stay in Al Ain.
Back in Abu Dhabi, we took some time to check out a few of the parks that we haven't been to yet. This city has so many parks and playgrounds, that I don't think we've even seen a quarter of them yet! The weather is starting to heat up here, so I don't know how many more chances we will have to play all day in the sun until next fall.
To make the best use of the last remaining good weather, we also checked out the Al Wathba Wetlands Reserve which is home to 20,000 flamingos at different points in the year.
Oh, and we spent some time at the beach. Those boys just love splashing around in the water.
It was a wonderful holiday that truly allowed Derek and I to relax before attacking the last quarter of the school year. Now, we need to start really planning the details of our trip to Europe!
In early February, Rebecca went to Hong Kong for professional development, learning more about Advanced Placement Statistics. Then, at the end of February, during the Tet Holiday, we went to Chiang Mai, Thailand. In Chiang Mai, we got to see a night safari, make elephant poo paper, ride on songthaews, and go to the highest point in Thailand. There were markets and some of the best food in Southeast Asia. Also, Rebecca joined me on a charity trip to people throughout the Go Vap part of Ho Chi Minh City and to several orphanages, to provide food, and other supplies.
In March, we explored Ho Chi Minh City, nearly every weekend going to a different corner of the city. There were cafes, temples, and culture. Rebecca was nominated for the Secondary Teacher of Excellence award, given to the top teacher for the company that we worked for. She would find out that she was the first runner up, which is prestigious given the volume of teachers nominated for the award. Robyn came to visit for her spring break in March. We took a tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels via boat, and went on a Vespa city tour. Between the boat and the motos, we were able to showcase HCMC rather well.
With Tet holiday landing in February, the traditional March spring break was pushed into April, so we left for Hoi An, Viet Nam for the holiday. The UNESCO heritage city of Hoi An is a fantastic place to be transported to the past. We went throughout the city walking, rode bikes through the countryside, went to An Bang beach, visited Marble Mountain, and canoed for several miles around the area. Hoi An is a special place, and very memorable. Rebecca traveled with other ladies for a weekend in Bangkok in April, making lots of time for shopping!
Rebecca went to Singapore in May, the prize for her placing in the Secondary Teacher of Excellence. She was joined by Jessica and Elizabeth, for a fun weekend away. In late May, we traveled by bus to Mui Ne, Vietnam for a weekend on the beach. It was a great way to wind down the year, and hit the Viet Nam beach once more before our departure from Ho Chi Minh City. May also meant our shipment to Abu Dhabi was departing, which called for numerous hours of packing and preparing.
In the closing days of the school year, I had the opportunity to travel with students to the Hang En Cave in central Viet Nam, the 2nd largest cave in the world. After hiking out to the cave, we were able to spend the night in the cave, an amazing experience. School in Viet Nam was completed in mid June, and we had a couple of days to decompress at Riverside in Ho Chi Minh City and say goodbye to our expat family, before making our trip home through Narita, Japan. In 2014, we had the opportunity to spend the day in Narita, so we knew the spots that we wanted to go, and immediately went to the Naritasan Shinshoji Temple. After the flight across the Pacific, we landed in Denver, to spend our extended summer break in Colorado.
Before we knew it, summer was over and it was time to head to beautiful Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. On August 6, we left DIA in Denver for Chicago with 9 checked bags, hockey sticks, and 8 carry on bags and Rebecca’s mom en route to Abu Dhabi. We landed in Abu Dhabi in the early afternoon, where we were met by several people from the school, to take us to our apartment one block away from the Abu Dhabi Corniche and the beach. The time change take time to adjust to, but we were quickly off to explore the city. In August, we were able to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, went to an overnight stay in the desert, including a camel ride, and visited Dubai for the first time.
In September, we spent time getting our house to feel like a home, and seeing other parts of the city. The weather was starting to cool down at that point, and we were able to spend long stints outside. We arranged for a purchase of a car at the end of September, a Mitsubishi Pajero. Owen and Oliver both settled in school, with Owen in first grade and Oliver in a preschool program. They both transitioned really well and enjoy their “Abu Dhabi School”. At the end of the month, we went on a day trip to Dubai, visiting the local market, some of the souks, and the mall.
Rebecca went to the Blue Souk in Sharjah, north of Dubai, in October with a group to shop for carpets. The market was full of historical carpets, all handmade, and she was given tips of things to look for to determine if a carpet is worth what the vendor claims it is. With the weather becoming really comfortable in October, we drove to the desert to let the boys play in the sand. We spent the afternoon with sand toys, soccer balls, and were able to capture some amazing photos.
In November, we went to Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates for the weekend to see the second largest city in the Abu Dhabi emirate. Al Ain is an oasis city, and reminded us in some ways of Da Lat in Viet Nam. We went to the zoo, drove up the Jabel Hafeet, went to the Al Jahili fort, and spent lots of time swimming at the hotel. In the early part of November, I was with a group of students that qualified for the international competition of the World Robotics Organization, which was held in Doha, Qatar. Rebecca left with a student group to go to Pondicherry, India, for service with Habitat for Humanity; however, the trip was hindered with one of the most destructive rainstorms anywhere in the world for 2015. Rebecca was fortunate to be able to get home when she did, as the airport and many of the roads were closed due to the storm.
The city of Al Ain is quiet--especially compared to Abu Dhabi or Dubai and reminded Derek and I of a mix of Dalat, Vietnam and a quaint European town.
Friday morning we started early (because Oliver was awake by 5). The pool didn't open until 9, so after we had breakfast, we hopped in the car and drove to the top of Jebel Hafeet. It was a beautiful drive with several places along the way to pull off and take in the views. Once at the top, we could very clearly see the line dividing the UAE and Oman. Actually, there was a fence at the top that you could walk right up to, but there were several "No Photos" signs posted. The boys and I were quite chilled up there which makes me wonder how we are going to fair in about a month when we land in Colorado.
At the foot of Jebel Hafeet we found a lovely green park where the boys played happily until it was time to go to the pool at the hotel.
The hotel had a lovely pool area complete with water slide, and I was too busy chasing the boys around to take any pictures. The water was still a bit chilly at 9am, so we didn't stay too long. We got cleaned up, and headed out to the mall to pick up a few things Oliver needed for his school holiday performance.
After checking out the fort, we went to the largest of the oases in Al Ain. It felt rather strange to be surrounded by so much greenery after several months of nothing but sand.