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Holiday Season ‘Down Under’

I hadn’t planned on visiting Australia initially because I’d learned from fellow travelers that it was a very expensive country to visit.  However, it was while I was in Malaysia volunteering at the animal shelter that I just happened to receive an email from a good friend of mine whom I’d known back in New Mexico.  We had lost touch over the years despite attempts on both our ends to keep in touch, but alas he found me:)  And as chance would have it, he was living in Sydney!  So of course I had to go see him!!

The timing of it all to this day still fascinates me.  It’s just further proof in my book that everything happens the way it should.  After a couple of email exchanges I made plans to see him and spend Christmas and New Years with him and his partner:)

I arrived in the ‘land down under’ mid-December and was greeted at the airport with the loving embrace and friendly faces of my friend and his partner.  After a quick nibble out, we headed back to their place where I met their two kids, Willow and Bear, two absolutely adorable pups!!  We stayed up quite late that first night (and for the next several nights) with bottles of vino and beer, catching up on all things past and present.  What a truly amazing and still surreal time!

They showed me around all the hotspots of Sydney; Bondi beach (pronounced Bond-eye, not Bondy), the Opera House (of course!), the harbor area, Mansly, the Botanical Gardens and the Watson Bay area where sailboats dotted a quiet bay eclipsed by beautiful homes gently sloping from the water.  It was all so picturesque and beautiful!  We even ventured a bit further out on the weekends for little road trips to the Blue Mountains where we viewed the Three Sisters.

The thing that surprised me about the Opera house was that the roof was made of tiles!  From all the pictures I had seen prior to seeing it first-hand,  the roof simply looked white and I hadn’t noticed anything particularly remarkable about it.  However up close, it was impressive to see that the roof was in fact made of white and beige tiles and that they formed very specific patterns giving each shell a unique and artistic flare.  In addition, again from pictures, I had always imagined that the Opera house was a singular building and each layered ‘armadillo shell’ was part of the design to enhance acoustics for that one stage.  I had no idea that in fact there are multiple stages allowing several productions to occur within the same season.  Just goes to show you that you never really know about something until you get up close and personal with it;)

The Botanical Gardens were absolutely darling!  They seemed to go on forever and though they were basically next door to the heart of downtown Sydney, they had a quiet and calm about them that made you feel miles away from the hustle and bustle of the city life.  2016 just so happens to also be the 200th birthday of the gardens, so that’s pretty cool:)

The Blue Mountains too were a surprise as I had no idea such lush green life and landscapes could be found in Oz.  Again, most of the pictures I had seen of Australia boasted the main highlights of the Barrier Reef, the Opera House or the Outback where the land is red and lacking plant life.  But in the Blue Mountains, I could have mistaken us for being in Virgina near the Blue Ridge!  Simply beautiful!

The only odd thing to me was knowing that it was only a week away from Christmas, yet not really seeing any sort of Christmas decorations anywhere!  There were a few scattered here and there, but nothing like I was accustomed to seeing in the States around Christmas time.  However, that didn’t stop us from doing some decorating ourselves:)  J’s mom had sent him a Christmas tree, so on or about the day before Christmas, we got our drinks on (which put us all in a jolly mood) and set up the Christmas tree and other decorations to get the place looking festive!  A few gifts were exchanged, delicious food was cooked, and we all reveled in the joys of being with good friends.

Christmas Day passed and New Years was quickly approaching, so the next big thing was to decide how to ring in the New Year.  We settled on trying for one of the free spots at a park on the harbor (Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair).  The only trouble was that once capacity for the park was reached, they closed it off therefore not allowing any new people in.  And because this venue was free to enter (and honestly was one of the best in my opinion as it had a fantastic view of the harbor, the bridge and the opera house) the lines would no doubt be long.  The chances of getting in at all were unpredictable!

‘A’ (J’s partner) had to work New Year’s Day, so that left ‘J ‘and I to try for a park place where ‘A’ would meet us later.  We made it there around 10am to find a line that wove back and forth and forth and back with what looked like thousands waiting to get in!  We got in at the back of the makeshift line and thus began the slow and arduous task of walking a few feet every couple of minutes, slowly inching our way to the entrance gates.  Luckily we came prepared however with water, snacks and sunscreen.

I should mention at this point that the Norwegian couple I had met back in Kuala Lumpur were also in Sydney for New Year’s.  We had reconnected via email and arranged to meet at the park.  After about an hour or so, they arrived with another friend in tow and they joined ‘J’ and I in line (which still had only moved a couple hundred feet or so, lol!!).  The mood around us was festive and it was funny to see how many people had already started hitting the beers hard!  Personally it was just too hot in the direct sun for that in my opinion, plus having to find a bathroom would have been its own kind of torture!!

The hours ticked away as we crept closer and closer toward the finish line… Finally, about 4 hours later we were in!  While there were already thousands of people in the park, it didn’t feel as crowded as I would have thought which I was very grateful for!  We scouted a place to sit under a nice shady tree, then sent one of the fellas to the nearby food and drink kiosks for some cold beers!  We sat around enjoying the cold beers and continued chit-chatting and all was absolutely perfect, save for one thing…

‘A’ was still at work… The plan we had hoped for was that he would be able to get off work a bit early, then head to the park where he could hopefully hop in line with us and make it in before the park reached capacity.  However, at this point it was already past 2pm.  The line that had formed behind us seemed longer than the line we had initially started in, and according to the online information, the park had already almost reached capacity and would soon be closed off.  Not happy news!!  As the time ticked on it seemed less and less likely that he would be able to make it to the park.

Seriously a huge conundrum!!  I didn’t want ‘A’ to have to spend New Year’s alone, especially without his partner!!  But I also didn’t want to leave our park spot.  We debated back and forth what to do and eventually settled on me staying in the park, and ‘J’ leaving the park to be with ‘A’.  In addition ‘J’ had started not to feel so hot, as even though he kept reapplying sunscreen the entire time we stood in line, he still managed to get a pretty bad sunburn!!  So as he wasn’t feeling the best he said he was fine with leaving to be with ‘A’.  Though I know I shouldn’t, I do still feel guilty for having stayed behind because I wanted the three of us to be together for New Years.  But as ‘A’ and ‘J’ said, they had “been there, done that” with Sydney’s firework show.  It wasn’t so important for them to see them again, but since it was a first for me, they said I should definitely see them.

So I hung back with my friends from Norway and rang in the New Year watching fireworks shower off the Sydney harbor bridge and light up the harbor waters.  It was such a beautiful sight!  I love everything about fireworks; the sounds, smells and sight of them.  Being so up close and personal to such a spectacular show was unbelievable.  I’m so thankful for the chance to have been able to be there!

After the show, I parted ways with my Norwegian friends and met up with ‘J’ and ‘A’ and we headed home to comfort the pups.  Though we were not able to spend New Year’s night together, we did have our own New Year celebration a bit later.  Popping a bottle of champagne we wrote down things we no longer wanted to be burdened with in our lives and set them on fire Zozobra style!

On to Summer Camp in January

Back to Australia

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Teaching English in Indonesia

My time in Malaysia had finally come to an end and it was time to get out of the country to explore a new one.  I had been wrestling with what to do and where to go for a while and all I really knew was that I wanted to continue to volunteer somewhere, but just didn’t know where.

Tirelessly I researched place after place and continuously ran into programs that allowed volunteers to work with this or that animal, but the cost of doing so was atrocious!  Finally I came across a site called helpstay.com.  After reading reviews about the site as to its validity and exploring the various opportunities they had available in surrounding countries, I decided to take the plunge and join as a member of the site so I could contact one very specific volunteer opportunity.  In all honesty, the second I found the posting to volunteer teaching English at a home site in South Sulawesi, Indonesia that also had an organic farm, I signed up to the site and kept my fingers and toes crossed that they had availability for volunteers.

Within a few hours my inquiry was replied to and a Skype date was set so we could put faces to one another and see if we really were a match for each other, volunteer-wise.  Though part of me was a bit nervous to give away information about myself and Skype a literal stranger in a foreign country, the minute we chatted I knew I’d made the right decision.

The volunteer program organizer is an 18-year-old marvel named Faisal.  He invites people from around the world to stay with him and his family in exchange for volunteers to develop lessons and teach english to local students aged 6 to 18 years.  I was so very impressed with him during our Skype session, that I immediately committed to volunteering for a month with him and couldn’t wait to get there!

Now, all of my volunteering to this point involved animals, because that’s really where my love and strength lies.  I’d never taught English before (and I’d made sure to relate that to Faisal during our chat) but being a native english speaker I thought, how hard could it be? Less than a month after connecting with Faisal I was on a plane from Kuala Lumpur to Makassar, South Sulawesi, Indonesia.  I stayed the first night in Makassar (as my flight landed in the late evening) and first thing the next morning made my way to the Terminal Daya bus station for the 8 hour bus ride to Belopa.

Upon arriving at Terminal Daya I noted several men standing in front of the very, VERY basic bus terminal.  I spoke zero Bahasa and no one so far spoke any English (or very limited at best!) but luckily all that was required of me to say was: Belopa?.  That did the trick as they simultaeously all practically cheered “Belopa!” together.  They whisked my bag out of the taxi and walked me over… away from the vehicles that actually looked like busses… to basically a 4 door Ford truck.  Hmmmm…. is this right???  They all had stickers on the front saying “Pelopo” so I pointed to the truck and said again “Belopa?”.  “Ya, ya” was their response as they hauled my bag into the bed of the truck, took out their cell phones and typed in 150,000… the cost of the trip!

Lord knew at that point whether I was getting majorly ripped off or not, but what choice did I have exactly?  As it turned out, that was the correct and normal price 🙂  Happy day!  Moving on, I paid the fee and squished in the back seat with two other females and after a few minutes we were on our way.  There was actually a third line of seats behind my own, so in total we were a team of 7 people trundling along on the journey to Belopa (an hour South of Pelopo as it turns out).

The journey there was visually beautiful.  The mountains and the sea, vast and open rice fields, the endless green and tropical lush surrounding us.  Absolutely stunning!  The one downfall was that the driver smoked the entire way up, which was a bummer, but at least the windows were fully open to allow quick exchanges of air.  We took one break along the way for some food and a bathroom and made it into Belopa just about 8 hours to the dot later.  After a bit of miming and a game of charades with my fellow passengers in the truck, I was able to communicate that I wanted to be dropped off at the nearest ATM as I seriously had zero rupiah on me.  Luckily enough, the ATM I was dropped off at was next to a coffee shop that offered free WiFi.  So while sipping on a cappuccino (made from an instant coffee sachet) I used the WiFi to let Faisal know I’d arrived, and my exact location.

About 5 minutes later, Faisal showed up in his brother’s vehicle and we finally met in person.  Faisal, again only being 18 years of age and having only studied English for about 2 years spoke english brilliantly!  We loaded my stuff into his vehicle and made the 15 minute drive to his town called Bajo.  The town was absolutely adorable!!  When we arrived there was a football (soccer) match at the village field so there were tons of locals gathered for the game.

Just a bit further along the road we came to his lovely and humble home where I met his mom (mama as we called her who spoke zero english) and dad (who spoke a bit of english) and his cousin Irpan (a student in one of the english classes).  His family was lovely and so immediately welcoming that it just made my heart melt.  I was shown to my room and given a tour of the house and the school-house built by Faisal and some of his schoolmates Ucok and Iswan.  We had some dinner together (Faisal whipped up a deliciously spicy nasi goreng if memory serves) and I made my way to bed.

Thus began one of my most memorable months of traveling…

Visit Faisal’s website to find out more about his amazing volunteer program!!

Review of the Our Chance school

On to Favorite Memories from Bajo

Back to Indonesia

The Majesty of Kuala Lumpur

When I was younger I watched a movie with Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones called Entrapment.  There was a part in the film where they went to Kuala Lumpur to steal something from the Petronas Twin Towers.  The first time I laid eyes on that tower in the film, I knew that one day I wanted to see those towers in person.  Years later, my desire came true!

I landed at the KLIA 2 airport which was built specifically for Air Asia to accommodate their traffic needs.  While the airport itself is great, it is a bit far from central K.L.  Plenty of options are available however to get to the center of the City, including taxis, trains and buses.  The bus (cheapest option to the city) took about an hour to drop us off at the K.L. Sentral (that’s not a typo, that’s how they spell ‘Central’).  It was quite a scenic trip to the City and honestly I was surprised how hilly surrounding K.L. was.  From there, numerous trains and skyrails were available to take one to any corner of the city.

I had pre-booked (so unlike me, I know!) a little B&B about a kilometer from the towers called The Orange Pekoe for several nights while I awaited my next flight out to Indonesia.  While they did provide great directions on how to get to the B&B from K.L. Sentral, for some reason I ended up getting a little lost once on foot.  I’m just going to blame it on being shell-shocked after coming from a sleepy and chill city to the booming energy of K.L., and of course on the heat of the day as well!  Long story short, though I did wander in the wrong direction several times for about a half hour, I finally found my way (i.e. I stopped and asked for directions) to The Orange Pekoe.

The B&B is located in a partly residential, partly small business street of K.L. and is so obscured that I probably never would have noticed it had I not been looking for it!  While the room was a teeny bit on the dirty side, the rest of the charms of the place made one feel at home.  The staff were really helpful and friendly, and the breakfasts, while basic, were filling and satiating.  Overall I couldn’t complain about the place at all, especially considering its distance from the Towers.  It was perhaps only a 300 meter walk to the covered skywalk that led directly into the heart of the Towers.

I felt like a kid in a candy store having finally arrived in K.L. and able to see the Towers up close and personal.  So needless to say, after quickly settling in to my room, I headed over directly to the skywalk to get to the Towers.  Let me give a warning now to all those who really enjoy finer shopping… If you aren’t looking to break the bank or ring up thousands in retail purchases on your credit card, LEAVE THEM AT HOME!!!  The lower floors of the Towers are essentially a gigantic mall filled with every top clothing/jewelry name in the industry!  From Gucci to Ferragamo, Tiffany’s and Bulgari, the 5 levels and endless hallways of the lower towers are a shoppers dream come true!  Dozens of delicious but top-dollar restaurants are also found there along with at least another dozen coffee shops, a huge food court and a movie theater!!

Again for me it was a bit shell-shocking to arrive in such a grand place.  I normally shy away from larger crowds and detest malls because of the crowds, but I wrestled my way through them to the first level and out the front doors so I could stand in front and view those majestic Towers in their full glory.  Generally I can’t say I’m that impressed by buildings and their architecture, but the Petronas Twin Towers are very impressive!!  The way the light hits off the windows during the day and how brilliantly it lights up at night is mesmerizing.  I could have stood there for hours (and over the 4 days I was there literally did) gazing up their heights, taking in how stunning they are.  In front and behind the buildings they have water displays that light up in an array of colors and even have a water show to music nightly, similar to (but honestly not as grand) as those at the Bellagio in Vegas.

Just like in any large city, there is a lot to see in Kuala Lumpur.  And like many cities, K.L. is well-organized with their transportation options.  One of my favorite features was the ‘Go K.L.’ busses that offered free transport to various parts around the city.  During my time in K.L. I used the free service to get to a starting point, then walked on foot around various parts of the city, eventually rounding my way back to the towers in time to see them light up at night.

I explored China Town (which honestly wasn’t that impressive as it was mostly all about bargain shopping and not food!) and the very impressive sentral market; enjoyed a lovely picnic and walk around the park with a couple I’d met at the B&B from Norway, as well as a visit to the Muslim museum.  I was also there during Deepavali, which is the ‘festival of lights’ celebrated by all Hindus, so I got to enjoy several nights of fireworks up and down the streets.  I had thought to visit the caves while in K.L. but sadly the weather wasn’t as cooperative as I was hoping for, and honestly I was content just spending my days lingering around the city, spending time in the Towers and chilling with my new friends.  I did of course take advantage of the movie theater in the towers and  watched the movie “The Wire” starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt based on the true story of the high-rise wire walk between the NYC twin towers.  Kind of ironic I believe…

On to Teaching English in Indonesia

Back to Malaysia 

Further tidbits on the Towers: The Petronas Twin Towers are so named because of the oil company (Petronas) which occupies the majority of the office space of the towers.  They were designed to resemble motifs found in Islamic art, reflecting the Muslim religion. A joining walkway is found on the 41st and 42nd floors of the towers and tours are available most days for about 80 ringgit (if memory serves!).

It took a total of 7 years to construct from its groundbreaking to the inauguration at a cost of $5.6 billion!  The towers were the tallest in the world for 6 years, until Taipei 101 was completed.  However, to this day they still remain to be the tallest twin towers in the world!

Facts about the towers were provided by Wikipedia

Bon Ton Animal Shelter

The Bon Ton animal shelter, located on the Duty-free island of Langkawi originally started in Kuala Lumpur over 20 years ago.  There, a restaurant/hotel owner and animal lover began a shelter and several years later moved the operation to Langkawi.  The shelter consists of several parts.  One is the retirement ward where over 60 dogs spend the remainder of their lives in spacious yards or in the owners home and are tended to carefully and lovingly by full-time staff members.  The second part is located at a different location near the base of the mountains of Langkawi where over 70 dogs are looked after by full-time staff.  The last is also located at the Bon Ton Resort and they are the “regular” shelter dogs.  Over 50 young to middle-aged (or even old dogs who think they are still young such as 16-year old Nemo) dogs call the shelter home and are walked daily by volunteers and have play-time or social time in the afternoons.

The volunteer program is organized by another avid animal lover volunteer of over 10 years, Dorothy, who is a resident of Langkawi and joins in on the morning walks daily.  There are of course other staff members who assist in the cleaning and general caring of the shelter dogs and over 100 cats there as well.  For with so many animals, it would be impossible not to have staff on board!!  While volunteers help with walking dogs, feeding, general cleaning when needed and play time in the afternoons, the staff concentrate on deep cleaning the dog and cat shelters daily and assist in the clinic when a vet is present.

Though I’d only really had one other experience volunteering at an animal shelter, I will say that volunteering at the Bon Ton animal shelter, well it was like the gold standard or 5 star of shelters!  Why do I say this?  Simply because of the standards of care given by the staff to the animals and the way that volunteers are treated.  Accommodations are provided for, daily meals are taken care of, and even one meal weekly from the restaurant is provided!  And let me tell you, the Bon Ton restaurant food is absolutely delicious!!!  To this day I’m still missing their steaks with mashed potatoes in balsamic gravy!!  Accommodations included a bed, private bath with HOT water (almost fainted hearing this), TV (what???) with a DVD player (pinch me now!!).

But of course all this came with actual work.  Six days a week, from 9:45am (sometimes 9am depending on need) until 6pm (lunch break of course provided) we worked with the dogs and cats.  Feeding, walking, cleaning, playing, bathing, constructing new shelter bits, raking yards, putting up new fencing, etc, etc.  The work in my opinion wasn’t difficult, and because I was there for the animals, it didn’t really matter to me how long the work days were.  In fact, there were several times that I or other volunteers worked well past the 6pm mark, but it was all for the animals.  And as animal lovers know, animals know no time!  They are 24/7 responsibilities who in return offer the most amazing and purest of love.

I ended up staying at the Bon Ton Animal Shelter for about 2 months in total.  During my time there I also learned about a horse stable on the island that also allowed volunteers to come help, so I ended up moving there for a couple of weeks, then returned to Bon Ton for the last few days I was on the island.  Then sadly had to say my goodbyes for good and had to head to Kuala Lumpur, then out of the country as my 3 month visa was coming close to expiring.

Volunteering at the Bon Ton animal shelter was an amazing experience.  The loving care provided to the animals by staff and volunteers made the experience so very rich.  I look forward to returning there when time permits and miss the animals (and people of course who I think of as family) daily!!

On to Reunited with Horses

Back to Malaysia