A few pics – because it was just too beautiful not to share
My final day in Argentina is coming to an end and as I travel on the last leg of the journey through wine country (Mendoza) I thought I would share a few insights to the wonderful experience it has been.
Argentina and South America as a whole, was the first place I would be truly alone on my trip. Arriving on a continent where I knew not a soul, nor the language, was somewhat terrifying, but so far it has been amazing.
I started my time with some much needed intensive Spanish classes. While my speaking skills are slow going, I can now generally communicate enough to get me by. In my limited vocabulary I can usually find a word that broadly conveys what I am trying to say, but this has not been without laughter from my audience from time to time. But I persevere.
In more recent weeks, in an attempt to accelerate my grasp of the language, I have participated in both a ‘speed dating format’ language exchange, which (in theory) pairs you up with a Spanish speaker for 5minutes of dialogue in English and 5minutes of dialogue in Spanish, before the bell rings and you move onto the next person. In reality, the lack of native English speakers meant I was paired with 3 Spanish speakers on each rotation – no easy feat for a beginner trying to hold down 3 conversations coming at you at once. I felt a tad like a performing monkey – everyone so excited to interact with the ‘native’. But it was a good experience and I met a variety of interesting people.
I also stumbled upon a website which promotes ‘conversation exchange’ around the world and thought I would give it a try. Once again I was bombarded by literally dozens of messages from Spanish speakers inviting me to meet up. Some seemed to see the site as a quasi dating forum – not exactly what I had in mind. I politely declined the invite to meet one guy for the first time at midnight in a salsa club. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for meeting new people, but this seemed a little odd to me – trying to exchange language skills in a dance club…..
Nevertheless I DID meet with a variety of people who gave me some great insights to the city of Buenos Aires, as well as so kindly helping me with developing my Spanish. Interestingly, one person tried to explain to me how so many English speakers use the wrong intonations when speaking English. Yes, thankyou native Spanish speaker for picking up on the faults of English. It’s great that you have corrected our language for us 🙂
Anyway, end result is mi Espanol es mejorar ahora, pero necessito mucho mas practicar.
Buenos Aires is a beautiful and eclectic city with tonnes to do and see. It has a variety of parks, gardens, museums and neighbourhoods to explore during the day, and restaurants, tango clubs and bars to explore by night. It is a huge city, with travel leaving a lot to be desired. It can take exhorbitant amounts of time to go relatively short distances. After trying train and taxi, I decided it was almost as fast to walk anywhere I needed to go. Quite often the trains would be so packed, you would have to let 2 go by before you were able to squeeze yourself into the overflowing carriage – then to have the train randomly stop at stations for 5-10mins at a time. A journey of just 7km took some 45mins on more days than I care to remember. Alas being on the roads did not move any faster, with a combination of traffic and hundreds of traffic lights (which Murphys Law always saw in the shade of red) ensuring a slow crawl. Very frustrating when you need to be somewhere by a certain time, but after a while you learn this is just part of living in Buenos Aires. BA is also home to the widest street in the world, where you have to cross it in two stints because it is virtually impossible to make it across in one go. I did manage to make it once, but was literally running to cross all 14 lanes (plus another 3 on each side for good measure – technically these don’t count as the same road though….) before the lights changed again….
With the frustration of roads and trains, biking is popular, with the local government providing free bikes for an hour at a time to get around the city. I took a bike tour one weekend to see the graffiti (of the legal kind) that is scattered around the city. Very interesting tour and a remarkable day out in general. After being quizzed by a visiting friend, the guide has accumulated a wealth of knowledge on the emergence of graffiti in Buenos Aires, from the political slogans, to attempts to ‘brighten’ the city after the financial crash, when several out of work graphic designers branched out into graffiti art to try and put some joy back into the city. Of course there are the usual ‘taggers’ that also mark various walls around the place, but the works created by the graffiti artists are impressive, unique and sometimes just downright odd!
Outside of Buenos Aires, it is obviously a huge country, but I managed to visit Iguazu Falls (most amazing set of almost 300 waterfalls at the border of Argentina and Brazil), Bariloche (stunning town in what is known as the lake district, with several ski resorts also nearby. Tried my hand at skiing – all was going well until a twisted knee ruined my hopes of ever going pro….on the mend, but still twinges occasionally as a cruel reminder of what will never be **sigh**), Salta/Purmamarca/Humahuaca/Jujuy (incredible scenery in the far north of Argentina, with fields of cacti, multicoloured mountains and endless salt flats) and lastly Mendoza (wine country. Malbec specifically. VERY generous tastings).
So now I am en route to Santiago, Chile in a bus crossing the Andes. Unbelievable scenery and it has the added bonus of saving me $95 in visa charges (which apparently Chile only enforce if you fly into Santiago). I will have a few days to explore the city before joining a tour for the next month (and must say am VERY excited to not to have to organize accommodation or transportation for a whole month!) My tour will cover all the traditional tourist sights through northern Chile, Bolivia and Peru – Atacama Desert for some stargazing, Uyuni Salt Flats for some optical illusion pics, Lake Titicaca – the highest lake in the world, cruise in the Amazon, trek to Machu Pichu, Nazca to check out the strange parallel lines before finishing in Lima. Can’t wait!
Ok I’ve been copping some flak about my absence from the blog world of late, but in my defense, Wi-Fi in certain parts of the world leaves a little to be desired… and with my ‘spontaneous’ schedule, when I DO get Wi-Fi momentarily, priority usually goes to me organizing somewhere to sleep for the night, or arranging more formal modes of transport than hitchhiking (which as every Australian knows can have somewhat dire consequences #belanglo).
So here I am to make up for lost time and fill in a few of the blanks of the last few months. Let me start in Thailand, at an Elephant Park in Chiang Mai….
I had the wonderful experience of staying here for 3 days as a special treat for my birthday. While I had initially hoped to go to a refuge for Elephants and fulfill some kind of altruistic desire, my lack of Wi-Fi meant I missed the window to secure this spot (next available spot some 3months later!) so I ended up at the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre (TECC) on a 3-day homestay.
While I’m not sure what my experience would have been at the refuge, I LOVED the experience that I had at TECC and would highly recommend it to anyone who has a soft spot for these amazing creatures.
TECC allows you to spend 3days immersed in the centre, learning about the elephants themselves and the life of the Mahouts – the amazing men who train and care for the elephants. Each spends many years living with their elephant (who often live as long as humans) developing a special bond with their animal, who is not only their means of income, but also part of their family.
TECC allows you to learn the commands associated with directing the elephants, along with the daily care and also teaches much about the practical use of elephants in the Thai countryside. The park invites tourists in each day to also enjoy a glimpse of this world, but as part of the homestay you are literally up close and personal with the animals– even participating in the daily demonstrations. TECC is about teaching the community, rather than ‘performances’, so steers away from any circus like stunts and the elephants generally seem to lead a rather pleasant existence, despite being in ‘captivity’.
The mahout I was assigned to work with, Noot, has been with his elephant Prachuab for the past 9years – a beautiful and spirited 32 year old elephant. She loved the attention and companionship of almost every elephant at the centre, although had a few special relationships and would actively seek these elephants out at every turn.
On the first day we were taught the basic commands of dealing with the elephants and learnt how to climb on (*command to lift leg* and grasp ear as you try to throw your other leg over the top of a ~2meter high animal…. No easy feat, but my mahout was ever patient in giving me the extra boost that was undoubtedly required), climb off (either by climbing down the same leg, or my personal favourite, sliding down the trunk), sit down, lie down, pick up any item that has been dropped, walk, stop, turn, drink, and drink +spray (which was essential to know in the waterfights that ultimately ensued during bathing times.
Each morning would start with an early rise to collect the elephants from the forest hillside, where they are given relative freedom to roam overnight. Despite ultimately being chained (which I am told was to protect the elephants from any altercations between themselves) they are still given some 50-100mtrs of freedom to roam about at their leisure. The mahouts live in a village nearby with their families and are always on hand should their elephant ‘call for’ them in the night (apparently each trumpet is distinctive, although I failed to recognize the difference in my short stay). After collecting the elephants, they would be brushed down, fed and bathed. Bathing was undoubtedly my favourite time with Prachuab. She LOVED this pastime, especially when allowed to bathe with her closest ‘friends’. I was near deafened on more than one occasion as she bounded into the water to join her best friend Prathida. It always amazed me that one moment I would be atop a 3.8tonne elephant and next would be shoulder deep in water as Prachuab literally disappeared beneath me, sometimes staying underwater for much longer than I though was physically possible.
After the morning bathing we would continue with the elephant down to the centre where they would be fed more (they eat some 200kg a day, so their appetites seem insatiable) before we would change to clean (and dry) mahout outfits before reconvening for the park open and the start of the demonstrations. More bathing+waterfights, followed by ceremonial parade into the arena where the demonstrations on elephant capabilities in forest work would begin. This process was repeated in the afternoon, before returning the elephants to the forest.
After this was free time to wander the centre, which also included a nursery and hospital (they are the only centre that has the capacity and training for hospital work, so many elephants from around Thailand are sent here for treatment. Once such elephant still being treated, sadly lost much of its foot after stepping on a landmine several months ago)
All in all, this was a truly amazing experience to have the opportunity to work with such beautiful and intelligent creatures. Noot was a quietly spoken, yet friendly and modest man who took great pride in pointing out his home in the village to me, as well as telling me about his hopes for his two daughters. It is a humbling experience to have an insight into the simplicities of their world and something I will always treasure.
So I have just left the hot and dusty Cambodia and arrived in Thailand. Aside from the heat and the dirt, Cambodia is still one of my favourite places.I am always deeply moved by how friendly and welcoming the people are, despite their somewhat difficult history. They each go about their day trying their best to make a dollar (and it literally is only $1-2 for most), yet the tenacity and pride they put in their day to day tasks is astounding. I often find myself watching with fascination stall owners preparing pancakes, fruit or delicacies to sell. Watching the tuk-tuk drivers cheerily offering his services, knowing that the chances of a ‘hit’ is unlikely. They know the situation is bleak and that they are only ever destined to earn a mere pittance compared to the developed world, but they keep toiling away with a smile on their face and pride in their actions. They may never have a lot of money, but they make up for it in charisma and culture.
This is my third trip to Cambodia, but I cannot resist seeing more of the temples for which Siem Reap is so famous. This time I went a bit further afield to see the Banteay Srei and Kbai Spean temples – around 2hours by tuk tuk from Siem Reap, which gave me plenty of time to take in the scenery. I always find the skills of your average motorcyclist in Asia amazing – how many weird and wonderful things they can fit onto a motorcycle …… along with all the extended family. Especially amazing is how they can then maneuver those along the road in the somewhat organised chaos that is the traffic system. More than once I came a near miss on my pushbike (perhaps a lucky thing that tourists are not permitted to rent motorbikes here) as people randomly pick the side of the road that is more convenient for them or seemingly less congested at any point in time. Technically the traffic is to drive on the right, but if you turn a corner and happen to end up on the left, then so be it. Seems its not really a big deal in Cambodia and you learn to just accommodate for the fact that anyone could be going any direction around you at any point.
On some other day trips, I had the opportunity to meet some amazing local people in villages and rural communities, and hear about their lives through my friend as a translator. It astounds me how every Cambodian person seems to welcome you into their life and home without question, sharing what we in the west would consider intimate details about their lives. One small rural village we visited, we were welcomed by one family and quickly joined by around 10 others from the village who insisted on cooking us lunch and offered water and softdrink as we sat and talked for almost 4 hours. They told of their life in the country, the difficulties encountered through the year as the community goes from near drought conditions to expansive floods (communities here have boats on hand to be able to get to town for basic supplies). They told me their memories of the Khmer Rouge period. Of family members missing, tortured and killed, of the constant starvation that gripped the country, and of course the overwhelming fear. Surprisingly, I found on multiple occasions that the older generation seemed eager to share their memories of this difficult time – perhaps to promote understanding of the atrocities so it might never happen again, or perhaps just because it was such a significant part of their lives. Many of their own children and grandchildren are skeptical about the stories they tell, thinking they are embellished tales – not believing these things could have possibly really occurred. I find the strength of these people admirable, that they can come through such a devastating period with an open heart and an ability to still smile after it all. As one person explained to me, “a Cambodian is someone who smiles, even when he is sad”.
The main purpose of this visit to Cambodia was to work with a local teacher that I met last year – Jimmy. Obviously ‘Jimmy’ is not a particularly common Khmer name, and indeed his real name is Sarath, however apparently this was all too difficult for one tourist to grasp, who started referring to him as Jimmy – he thought this was hilarious and has run with Jimmy ever since.
Jimmy had always wanted to learn English, so as a child he collected plastics to be able to afford to put himself in English classes and buy books to study. He then spent many years talking with tourists to improve his English skills, and still works as a moto driver by mornings to support his family. In the afternoon and evenings, he runs an English school, at his mum’s house in Siem Reap, teaching more than 140 students. The school is completely free for children to attend, relying on donations for all supplies and resources. Jimmy also helps with clothing, medical costs for the children, and supplies food for the poorer families. Fundraising via friends overseas will soon allow Jimmy to improve the classroom he has created in front of the house. They will concrete the floor, buy proper desks and install the internet with several computers for the children to use. He dreams of one day having enough money to extend the house for a larger classroom and eventually build an independent school, where he can accommodate more children, perhaps incorporating a restaurant where children can learn hospitality skills, working to earn money for their families, while also having exposure to tourists to improve their English. He would use this as an opportunity for the tourists to also learn more about the Khmer culture and history.
Jimmy also dreams of opening a medical clinic – some of the students tell of their aspiration to become doctors – Jimmy hopes to be able to arrange sponsors for their schooling and have them eventually work at the clinic.
Jimmy welcomes any tourists to Siem Reap to drop by the school and meet the kids. Stay for a few minutes, an hour, or come and help to teach a class or two. There are 4 different levels of class and all ideas are gratefully welcomed. If nothing else, the children always love hearing about different countries and just having interraction.
Jimmy is being sponsored to go to university to gain his much desired teaching degree. Coupled with moto driving and running the school, he runs a busy schedule! While not formally qualified I have never met a teacher more passionately give themselves to their students and truly wish the best for their future.
He is making plans to ensure the financial security of the school and wants to move away from pure reliance on donations. He plans to buy mountain bikes he can rent to tourists, which will help to fund the school and provide money for the children to take home for food. He also supports several of the children to attend art school – he hopes that one day the artwork may be sold – again the majority of these funds would go directly to the student and their family, but also a portion would ensure the school remains alive and prospering to help others have access to opportunities that Jimmy’s school provides.
The children are nothing short of amazing. Since it is regarded as a privilege for them to be able to attend a school like this, they work exceptionally hard to try and pickup everything and anything that we are able to teach and are not shy in showing their appreciation. I have left Cambodia with literally a mound of gifts from the children. More paintings and drawings than I have walls to hang them, magnets, friendship bracelets, stuffed toys, stickers and one little girl even gave me her hairclip. Trying to decline these gifts is to no avail – it is really quite moving that they so genuinely want you to have their own possessions, despite having so little themselves. There is nothing I could give them that could match their generosity, so I settled for the somewhat shallow ‘western experience’ I could buy them – pizzas and icecream! While it is difficult to leave, I hope to return soon and see the progress that Jimmy has made with the school and his plans, and of course to check in on the ongoing development of each of these incredible kids.
Anyone who may like to contribute to the work that Jimmy does can donate money to:
Canadia Bank Plc 315
Ang Doing Street
Or send books, clothing, hygiene supplies, stationery etc to:
Jimmy’s Village School
It’s hard to believe I have less than a week left in Bali. My time here has been nothing short of amazing and has passed in a flash. I have truly loved every day of the experience and it will be a bitter sweet feeling to move onto the next stage of my adventure.
The dive course was much busier than I expected it to be, starting most mornings at the dive shop at 7 and not returning till 4 or 5 in the afternoon. Days off have also been limited and I have been ‘working’ 28 of the 35 days I have been here. However it has been worth it for the variety of experience with clients and diving generally and I am now pleased to say that I am a fully fledged Divemaster with more than 100 dives under my belt. The course also delivered some unexpected practical experiences along the way, including a real life rescue scenario of a panicked snorkeler, as well as my buddy running out of air at 15meters depth after blowing an o-ring on his equipment. Thankfully I passed both ‘tests’ and everyone walked away unscathed, although with nerves perhaps a little frayed.
The diving experiences otherwise have been amazing. I have had the pleasure of diving several times with the graceful mantas on Nusa Penida – most recently we had 5 mantas swimming around us for the entire dive. I never tire of watching these creatures and the excitement on every person’s face, particularly when seeing these beautiful animals for the first time, is priceless. If you have the opportunity to get up close and personal with mantas, I highly recommend it.
The team at Joe’s Gone Diving have also been incredible – lots of fun, patient and very helpful. The program allowed me to spend time with each of their instructors and Divemasters ensuring I had plenty of exposure to different teaching styles, personalities and diving techniques. I am so grateful to every one of them for taking the time to impart their knowledge and allow me to participate in both training and fun dives and of course for the amusing day to day banter. Will definitely be back to visit in Mola Mola season!
I was lucky enough while I was here to also have several visitors pass through Bali. While the travel aspect is certainly fun, it’s always nice to have the touch of home and be able to share part of the experience with others. My brother and his family visited for just over a week, which also meant a substantial upgrade in my accommodation for that period of time. Not that the other apartment isn’t very comfortable, but this place just set a whole new standard. Proper kitchen, lounge, private pool, canopy bed, driver and…… a washing machine! Sounds crazy I know, but this small life luxury is way too taken for granted. OK yes it’s true they have numerous laundromats in Sanur, but after carefully selecting each article of clothing to cram into my 20kg of luggage, I am not willing to part with any of it, which my Bali sources tell me can be common practice. As such I was limited to handwashing until… this heavenly week with a washing machine. Anyway enough about my newfound washing machine fetish – this of course was a minor highlight, to the main event of sharing time with my brother, his wife, my niece and nephew who spent the week marvelling at the cultural differences of Bali. My niece also enjoyed her first foray into snorkeling and was ecstatic upon finding ‘Nemo’ – future diver in the making??
While in town, my brother and I also encountered the Balinese police – pulled over for apparently being marginally beyond a line at the traffic lights. However it turns out that if you talk incessantly the officer will soon be begging you to continue on your way just to give them some peace and quiet…. Fine Free!! 🙂
On 12March I had the chance to experience the annual day of silence that falls upon Bali. Known as Nyepi, the island effectively shuts down to mark the first day of the Hindu New Year, with strict rules imposed on all residents in Bali, including tourists. No one is permitted to go outside (well, some of the large hotels buy the privilege of pool usage for their guests, but venturing onto beaches or outside the compound is prohibited), cable TV is switched off, in theory no lights are to be used or fires lit, the airport closes and the roads empty. It is a rather eerie silence with no telltale ‘beep beep’ of passing bemos or scooters and even the dogs seem to respect this auspicious occasion. Prior to the silence falling upon the island, there is a period of raucous celebration, where the communities make large statues called ogu ogu, representing the evil spirits from the past year and parade them through the streets. Fireworks are launched and a procession of fire torches, ogu ogu and a team of musicians on drums and gongs take over. The roads are effectively closed, with the police and officials trying unsuccessfully to maintain control of the crowds that flock to see the parade, with little more than a whistle. The chaos is not aided by the seeming lack of any official details on the parade with no one knowing when it will commence, where it will come from, or exactly what will happen. Nevertheless the experience is once in a lifetime and a spectacle to see.
Today I managed to navigate my furthest distance yet on the scooter, heading up to the ever tranquil Ubud for a day of relaxation amongst the rice paddies and rolling hills. Lunch overlooking the rice fields was idyllic, followed by a spot of shopping and a Holistic Massage which combined a variety of massage techniques into the perfect relaxation therapy. As I started on my way back to Sanur I happened to pass by the home of Ketut Liyer – the medicine man featured in ‘Eat, Pray, Love’. Curiosity got the better of me and I decided it was only fitting to drop in. After wandering into the serene grounds I soon came face to face with the toothless man immortalised by the book and movie. He asked me to wait while he caught his breath, after already having done some 18 palm readings on the day (at $25 a pop, this guy is doing pretty well!). So I paid my fee and joined him on the mat for my reading. First is the ‘reading’ of ears, lips, chin, cheeks, nose, eyes and forehead. All of which I’m told are ‘very lucky. make Ketut very happy’. Particular note made of my dimples which apparently give me an extra element of luck! (the cynic in me acknowledges that ‘unlucky’ probably does not sell quite so well, but nevertheless it’s a nice sentiment). He reads my palm which he tells me I will live long (100?!), be successful at anything I do, although notes I am rather impatient. He tells me not to worry, not to be sad as there is a ‘handsome man’ in my future who I will be with for the rest of my life. He also ‘reads’ my legs, which he says are strong, without accident, but he cautions against driving fast – I suspect this is more a reference to Bali’s chaotic traffic, rather than any impending accident I have to look forward to, given I had also mentioned in passing that I rode the bike to Ubud. Nevertheless I was just slightly more cautious on the ride home.
Overall, while his reading wasn’t especially insightful, Ketut is a sweet guy, with a big smile, who farewelled me with his catchphrase ‘see you later alligator’ .
Landed in Bali almost a week ago now and time has just flown! Have been flat strap (that one’s for you Haidan) with my dive course, either in the pool or ocean every day so far. Has been intensive and … Continue reading
As my last week in Australia counts down, I am relishing the opportunity to spend time with some very important people – my family.
As has been tradition over the past 17 odd years, my parents and various extensions of the family convene for an annual holiday in Boambee Bay, near Coffs Harbour on the north coast of New South Wales. While work commitments have usually precluded me from joining this event, I am elated to have the time now to partake before I head offshore again. It is especially nice to be able to spend some valuable holiday time not only with my parents, but also my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. It’s all too easy to forget sometimes how valuable something as simple as ‘time’ can be and that regardless of how busy life gets, you never want to regret missing out on these opportunities. So I am grateful for both the time and the opportunity right now.
There is plenty to keep us amused here, between tennis, fishing (also pre-requisite ‘yabby-ing’ beforehand for bait – for those not familiar with this pastime, see the pics below), golf, paddle-boarding, canoeing, bbqs, running on the beach and lazing by the pool. Am hoping for some diving later in the week (at one of Australia’s top rated sites – Fish Rock Cave), but after the recent weather in Australia the dive shops have been confined to dry land. Nevertheless, I am on standby with the possibility it will be a go by Thursday.
Foodwise, I have to also highlight the Fredo’s Famous Pie shop we called into on the commute to Boambee Bay – while I am no stranger to the good ol’ aussie meat pie, this was a new experience with every weird and wonderful flavor of pie you could imagine. Their signature pie is ‘crocodile’ however you can also enjoy other aussie delicacies such as kangaroo and emu (yes we eat our coat of arms), as well as the more exotic flavours such as chilli beef, lasagna, beef stroganoff , thai chilli pork, macaroni and cheese etc. I settled on ‘beef beer and chilli’ (three of my favourite things) and was not disappointed. This was followed by a childhood classic dessert (and still one of my favourite ice-creams ever), the ‘Golden Gaytime’. Mmmmm am in Aussie food heaven.
Ahead of my travels, my life the past few weeks has been dominated by planning and as all astute travellers will know, when time is on your side and cashflow is limited, you try to take advantage of every ‘bargain basement opportunity’. So this is what I have been doing. Scouring the internet for every flight, hotel and travel deal I can find.
Now I know I shouldn’t complain, but this process can be tedious so needless to say, whenever I thought I had stumbled across the bargain of the century, I was continually frustrated to find all those sneaky +++ quickly adding up with each click of the mouse.
Seeing my irritation build with each ‘bogus bargain’, my Dad so kindly introduced me to Fascinating Aida, who reassured me I am not alone in my frustration.
Take a look at the clip below (a few years old but still infinitely relevant and very entertaining) – make sure you watch right to the end…..