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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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Favorite Memories from Bajo

Not in any particular order:)

Riding on the motorbike with Ainul: This one has a little back story.  We were all out in Belopa hanging out at one of Faisal’s friends place (Misba) and among other things we got into a conversation about the Muslim religion.  I learned about ‘haram’ (forbidden) and ‘halal’ (allowed) and about proper ways to interact with other Muslim men and women.  On our way back to Bajo, I rode with one of the students, Ainul (Arabic for ‘eye of God’ essentially) and he continued to educate me about the religion during our 15 minute drive back.  He told me that the Muslim religion teaches to love your family, your neighbors and yourself.  To treat others with respect and kindness.  To give what you can and be grateful for what you have.  Then he asked (which still brings tears to my eyes thinking of it) whether I had heard of the recent bombings in France (November 2015).  I replied yes, I had.  To which he said ‘those people are not Muslims.  Our true religion teaches love, not hate.  Those people doing those bad things are not true Muslims.’  Through my welled-up eyes I simply replied “I know.”.  People so often judge others and their religions based on the evil behavior of a few who claim to be of the same religion.  But at the real heart of every religion lies the same undeniable truth: Love one another and be good to one another.  We are each here just trying to live our lives in the best way possible for ourselves, our families and friends.  It’s a shame those with evil intentions and evil in their hearts try to ruin it.

Spicy food:  Ok, so I love, LOVE spicy food!!!  I thought up to this point in my travels that I’d already encountered the spiciest food available in Asia, but I was wrong!!  Indonesia (at least South Sulawesi) has THE spiciest food I’d ever tasted!!  Even something simple like nasi goreng (fried rice) was so unbelievably hot that I was in heaven!!  Truth be told however I couldn’t always finish all my food because of the heat of the meal and the heat of the day!  Indonesia blew both Thailand and Malaysia out of the water in the category of spicy foods!

Cooking with Faisal: Watching this young man teach english was a marvel enough, but amazingly he’s also a talented chef!  I enjoyed joining him in the kitchen several nights a week to watch him whip up  delicious traditional Indonesian dishes full of intense flavors and of course spice!

Meeting his friends: Misba, Ucok, Mita, Iswan, Andre, Aput, Ainul, Lily, Diarah… the list of his beautiful friends could go on forever!

Helping to make Kapurung with Mama and at Iswan’s house with his family.

Amazing Hospitality: Everywhere you went, the hospitality was unbelievable.  Such beautiful people and so giving in every way


Treated like a celebrity: Seriously if you’ve ever wanted to know what it must be like to be a celebrity,  GO TO Bajo!!!  People literally stop and stare, ask for photos and want to get close to you!  They are all of course very respectful and will ask for pictures etc, but once you give the ‘go ahead’ they will come in close and one picture turns into about 70, lol!!  ‘Lagi, lagi’ (again, again) was the common word heard during picture time.  Even just walking down the street to the store I would be stopped by people driving by for a picture with them.  Seriously an ego boost!  Though truthfully there were lots of times when the honor wore off!  I would still always acquiesce to pictures with the people, but after that experience certainly would never want to be a real celebrity!!

Hiking the mountain: The name of it escapes me but it was one of the tallest in our area.  Iswan had a family home at the top of the mountains and after a 2 hour hike, we enjoyed a beautifully relaxing, quiet and calm afternoon chilling at their home.  We practiced our shooting skills with a pellet gun (only shooting targets, no animals!!!) and ate fresh food cooked up by the boys literally plucked from the earth.  So beautiful!

Going to Iswan and Ucok’s home: Such amazing families and homes!!  They were simple yet so gorgeous!  Animals roamed around as we sat on the floor eating home cooked traditional foods and talked.  We tried some palm wine (normally haram, but was only served to myself and the two other volunteers so it was all good!).  We met the most amazing man, Iswan’s grandfather who was apparently over 100 years old, yet looked as if he was maybe 60!  He loved meeting tourists and though he didn’t speak a word of English, his smile and constant laugh said it all.  You couldn’t help but smile and laugh with him non-stop any time you were in his presence!!

Mama: Faisal’s mother was just too cute!  She didn’t speak any English yet was still able to communicate in her own way.  She was warm, welcoming and always a bright spirit to be around!  I loved going to the markets with her or just hanging out with her on the front porch.

Learning Bahasa: I started to carry a little notebook with me so I could write down any new words of Bahasa to refer back to when needed.  I would always write the word phonetically so I could pronounce it correctly and was often corrected in my spelling, lol!!

Salma: One of Faisal’s cousin is an amazing!  She invited me to her beautiful home and served me kapurung (a traditional soup made with sagu, vegetables and meat) then took me to her sister’s house for a tour of their land.  I actually learned the majority of Bahasa words from her.  She couldn’t really construct sentences, but she knew a lot of individual words so as I watched her prepare lunch she would point to items and say their equivalent in Bahasa.  One of my favorite afternoons!

Dressed in local wedding attire: What an amazing experience this was!!  Another cousin of Faisal, brother of Salma was a make-up artist and he turned myself and the two other volunteers into brides complete with the full traditional hair, make-up and gowns!  We were then whisked off to Belopa to several locations to have professional pictures taken by 3 individuals (Aput-the real pro and Andre were 2 of them).  Talk about feeling like a star again!  We even went to the home and met one of the Queen’s of South Sulawesi (one of 8!) and were allowed to take pictures inside her home:)

Karaoke: As part of a going-away gift, Faisal, Ucok and Iswan treated myself and another volunteer from Spain to a night of karaoke!  Sooooooo much FUN!!!!!  We had our own booth and jammed away until our time was cut off, lol!!  Loved it!

The students: Attentive, respectful, full of life, cheery, smart, inquisitive, beautiful students!!  From the 6 year olds up to the 18 year olds, what a wonderful group of kids to have been given the pleasure of teaching!

Visit to recycle center: My first task upon arriving at the request of Faisal was to help set up a recycling center at his home.  Traditionally all trash is burned (not good for the air!) but luckily a recycle center was located in Belopa.  So we visited the center and arranged for us to be able to bring in our recycling.  I set up a little center near the school and we educated then encouraged the kids to bring in their plastics, paper and metals to us so we could collect them and take them to the main center.  Faisal would even get some money from the recycling, which could in turn be put back into helping fund his school!  Visit Faisal’s Environmental Page!

Leaving Bajo: This one was definitely a bitter-sweet memory.  I didn’t want to leave, yet at the same time was ready to.  I received one of the most beautiful send-offs however.  They loaded me with parting gifts and hugs.  I tried my best not to get emotional and cry, but that was just impossible.  I was a big ball of sopping wet tears by the time I got on the bus.  I still carry each of their gifts with me and smile whenever I see or wear them.  My eyes are welling up again…

Building and blessing the volunteer house: I really can’t take credit for this bit as I didn’t actually help build any part of it, lol!!  I kept hanging around and asking if they needed help, but the boys and Faisal’s father had everything under control.  They built a beautiful 2 room home for volunteers just behind the school-house.  I did help with some of the painting however and with a little poem written on the inside of each room, but that was the extent of my contribution, lol!  Once complete, we had a gathering in one of the rooms with food and the entire family and friends and had a little prayer to bless the new space.

Spiderman/Justin Bieber: One of Faisal’s nephews, a feisty character of a young man was often at the house as many other young family members were.  We’d often play games of hide-and-seek or watch them rollerblade around, and the reason he got the nickname ‘Spiderman’ was because you would literally have to look up the walls or to the ceiling to find where he was hiding!  Quite the talented climber that one was.  And he’d constantly sneak up on you from the most random of directions while we were painting or writing on the walls of the volunteer house.  Can’t recall why he also got the nickname ‘Justin Bieber’, but using either of those two nicknames and everyone knew who we were referring to, lol!!

The guitar and songs: Hanging out with Faisal, whether at his home or Misba’s place, one of my favorite times was watching him and listening to him play his guitar.  Self-taught and brilliant!  I could listen to him play for hours while either humming along or simply sitting quietly.

Children, children and more children: Aside from the school children we were accompanied daily by younger family members and in general anywhere around town or other people’s homes would be swarmed by them.  Too cute!!

Invited to an ‘Aquika’: Not at all as you should spell that word I’m sure, but essentially an aquika is a series of blessings given to newborn babies.  Family and friends gathered together to eat and watch the blessings and celebrate the new life.  The first blessing was to ensure good fertility, the second was to ward off bad spirits in her life and the third to grant her good health throughout her life.  Absolutely amazing to be a part of!

Learning the Bajo way of cracking eggs.  Basically use one egg to crack the other!  To crack the last egg they use the table top of course.  I crack my eggs the Bajo way now:).

Going to Faisal’s sisters house to watch her make (and us subsequently eat) donuts and muffins for her bakery business.

On to Learning Bahasa

Back to Indonesia

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

Reunited with Horses

For two of my weeks on the island of Langkawi, I took time out from volunteering at the Bon Ton animal shelter and headed over to Island Horses to volunteer there.  I had originally planned to volunteer there longer, but due to an unforseen event, was only able to do two weeks.

I’ve been a rider for most of my life but hadn’t been near any horses for over a year at this point, so needless to say I was so thrilled to finally be back in their presence.  Perhaps only horse people will be able to relate to that the smell in the air when approaching a horse facility.  It is perhaps my favorite in the world as it smells like coming home to me!

Island Horses is a working stable with three main functions.  First, they train endurance horses and have a team that competes worldwide (in fact during my time there the owner and his son were in Argentina for a competition!).  Second, it’s a breeding facility for Malay Arabian horses and finally, they offer jungle and beach riding tours for tourists.  They are very safety conscientious when it comes to taking riding tours out, which of course is very important!

As a volunteer at Island Horses a bed and bathroom were provided (shared with staff) but meals were not.  However the GeoPark (where the cable car was located) and the seven falls waterfall national park, were only a 5 to 10 minute walk away.  There, a variety of foods could be found all reasonably priced.

As a volunteer I was assigned 5 horses to care for and an aisle of horses to water 3 times a day.  Our days started at 7am until 7pm with a lunch break from 12-2:30pm.  All that was expected of me was to groom each horse twice a day as the stalls and feeding were done by the staff.  While I did spend my first day simply grooming my five horses (essentially with a fine-toothed comb so I could get to know every inch of them to get a baseline for any changes during my time there), three days didn’t even pass before I’d incorporated other little tasks to my daily duties.

I will admit that the first several days there were tough for me.  And not for any other reason except perhaps a bit of cultural differences and the natural environment.  The way I’d been raised to care for horses was not the standard I’d found there.  I’m not saying the horses were not cared for, because they were all fed quite well and watered appropriately and such, but other things in my opinion, were not up to snuff.  However, what made it extra tough was the natural terrain and weather of the environment, which made caring for horses in general that much harder.  Wounds don’t heal as fast as they would in dry environments and keeping stalls dry is equally difficult during the wet season.

As someone who was simply coming and going in only two weeks, my business there wasn’t to complain and point out all the things I thought weren’t right, but rather to simply lend my hand and do my job (so to speak).  So it was by the third day I’d made up my mind to take care of my five horses as if they were personally mine.  On top of daily grooming I also began to take care of cleaning their stalls, treating their boo-boos and cleaning equipment used for them.

In the short time I was there, I rode twice on the beach and through the jungle.  It was such an amazing feeling to be back on a horse!!  Words simply can’t express the exhilaration I felt!  It was also funny to me because while I’d been used to riding draft horses and having to physically put in a lot of work just to make them and KEEP them moving forward, I’d almost forgotten how easy it is to get Arabians to move forward, lol!!  And while I would have loved to have ridden more, since I was young it’s been instilled in me that as horse people our primary concern is for the care of the horse.  Riding is a privilege and comes only after all the needs of the animal are met.

The facility itself is undeniably in one of the most beautiful locations on the island.  Surrounded by lush jungle, nestled at the base of one of the mountain ranges and only minutes from the beach, I certainly got spoiled living in such a beautiful environment.  The wildlife in the area was also fantastic.  Aside from the horses, cats and dogs at the stables we would also be frequently visited  by deer, two types of monkeys, water monitors, bats, snakes, wild boar and stray dogs!  It practically was its own zoo!

While I was only there two weeks, leaving was just as hard as if I’d been there years.  Leaving the animals of course was the hardest part for me but also leaving Amirah (my staff roommate) and Shanto (a 12 year volunteer) was very tough.  Even in that short time I felt like part of the family and welcomed in ways I hadn’t imagined.  I think of them daily, as I do my family at the Bon Ton shelter, and look forward to being able to return there again.

On to The Majesty of Kuala Lumpur

Back to Malaysia

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

Duty-Free Langkawi

I finally left Thailand via ferry from the Tammalang Port at Satun and about an hour and a half later was greeted into the Northernmost island in the Andaman sea of Malaysia, called Langkawi.  After clearing customs I grabbed a cab for the T-Star hotel in Cenang.

During the 40 minute cab ride my driver informed me of some interesting facts about the island.  According to him,  Langkawi was barely visible on the map of tourism and tourists until the 70’s when the Prime Minister declared the island Duty Free.  Since then, Langkawi has skyrocketed as a hot spot for tourism (loads of tours from feeding eagles to snorkeling are available) and shopaholics looking for the best deals on booze, makeup, chocolate, perfumes, etc.

Another tidbit he shared with me was that the population on the island was about 85% muslim, 10% Indian and the rest a mix of Chinese, Expats, and Europeans.  After having been in Thailand for so long with diversity in foods only being available in larger cities, Langkawi was a breath of fresh air on that front with a large variety of cuisine choices to choose from.  Of course they also had traditional Malay foods, which consist of rice, fish, chicken and lots of vegetable varieties.  The foods are generally a bit spicy (though not as spicy as Thailand) and their national meal is Nasi Lemak, which is a rice dish cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaf 🙂

I went to Langkawi with one specific goal in mind: to check out the animal shelter on the island and see if they needed volunteers.  T-Star, my chosen hotel for the week was an absolutely delightful place and only about a 45 minute walk to the shelter.  Every day, at least twice a day troops of the macaque monkeys came through the hotel leaping from balcony to balcony in search of any sort of food.  There were signs everywhere to beware of things left on the balcony as they may be snatched and for good reason because those little guys were fast in snatching things!!

The day after I arrived I started my wander toward the animal shelter to check it out.  I was a bit confused about it at first because online they seemed somehow located at a hotel resort, which didn’t make a ton of sense until I got there and learned the story.  The Bon Ton resort, located next to The Temple Tree hotel is owned and operated by an animal lover.  The owner started both hotels and the restaurants attached to them and uses moneys from the hotel and restaurant to fund an animal shelter located just in front of the resorts.  There, over 100 dogs and over 100 cats find shelter and a loving home.

I arrived a little after 10am and chatted with the volunteer coordinator, Dorothy, and began the next day doing half days at first (since I was walking 5 km there and 5 back daily).  Morning activities consisted of taking over 50 dogs for walks around the hotel grounds with fellow volunteers, then picking up after them and finally serving them lunch, which consisted of rice cooked in beef broth with chunks of beef and a variety of vegetables, all prepared FRESH daily by the restaurant chef!!

So for the first week I walked to and from my hotel to help walk the doggies in the morning, then spent my afternoons trying out new restaurants in the area and walking along the Cenang beach.  As my week started to come to an end, it turned out that one of the Nepalese workers for the shelter had to go back home, so I was asked if I wanted to stay in one of the volunteer rooms so I could help with full-day activities along with the other 2 full-time volunteers.  I agreed and moved in to my new accommodations (complete with 2 yard dogs, John and Mummy) and began full day activities.  Of course, though I’d only planned at first for a month there, it quickly turned into two:)

On to Bon Ton Animal Shelter

Back to Malaysia

Koh Lipe Trash Hero!

While on the island of Koh Tao, I’d volunteered to be Trash Hero on several occasions and was tickled to see that Koh Lipe had their own Trash Hero organization as well!

Koh Lipe has amazingly beautiful clean and clear waters surrounding all its edges, which honestly was surprising seeing how many longtail boats (easily over 100 with petrol run engines) were parked along the shores and the amount of trash that could be found washed up along the beaches.

Yes, this was my only critique of this otherwise lovely island.  Trash could be found everywhere on the beaches.  Generally the trash was washed up fairly high along the coast line so you could easily find spots closer to the water free from trash to lay on, but still seeing all the waste was disconcerting.

The Trash Hero chapter on Koh Lipe thankfully is quite well organized however.  They meet every Monday at the start of the Walking Street along Pattaya Beach (if at other locations, someone at the Dive shop there will direct you).  Along with the weekly trash pick-ups on Mondays they offer full day and even week-long trash volunteer programs where you can be dropped off on an island for up to 2 weeks, camp and eat there, enjoy the nature and pick up trash for 4 hours a day!  Had I the time to stay longer, I would have signed up for that adventure, but alas…

I showed up along with 2 other volunteers at the end of the Walking Street on a Monday morning, and we were directed by one of the Dive Shop employees that the meeting location had been moved to the north end of Sunrise beach.  So we headed off and were joined with another 5 people waiting to volunteer.

From there, we hopped on a longtail boat and headed to a nearby island (Ko Adang) to get started on picking up trash. To my surprise, when we arrived, there were at least 5 other longtail boats already there, each carrying at least 5-10 people!  So in total, between the organizers (about 5) and the volunteers, there were probably about 30 of us!  It was amazing to see such a great turnout!!!

We spent several hours picking up trash, then enjoyed a nice break with fresh watermelon and beers!  Volunteers even enjoyed a nice swim at the end some even did some snorkeling 🙂  The amount of trash picked up in such a small amount of space was astounding!!  I would venture to guess over 50 large trash bags worth!  Absolutely unbelievable as the stretch of beach we picked trash from was no more than about 50 meters long.

Once the beers were consumed and the swimming was finished, we loaded the trash into the boats and headed back to Koh Lipe.  From there, the group went to a local bar for some lunch and socializing.

A few things I’d recommend for anyone out there wanting to volunteer for Trash Hero on Koh Lipe: First, bring a camera because you never know where you are going to go and the beauty to be seen!  Second, wear your bathing suit so you can join in with the swimming!  Third, bring money and don’t make any plans after the fact if you are wanting to join the others for a late lunch after volunteering:)

But most importantly, if you are going to visit Koh Lipe, please do your part.  Don’t litter while there, and join in to be a Trash Hero!!

Picture courtesy of Google Images 🙂

On to Don’t Mess with Thailand!

Back to Thailand

Through the Looking Glass

I was first introduced to the local bakery and coffee shop called ‘Through the Looking Glass’ on Koh Tao by an acquaintance I’d met while volunteering for ‘Trash Hero’ (a volunteer group that got together weekly to pick up trash on the island and beaches).  After one particular volunteer session, the fellow volunteer suggested we get some lunch, so we wandered into ‘Through the Looking Glass’ for a nibble.  While I honestly wasn’t very hungry at the time, I soon discovered why the little bakery was a local favorite.  Their coffee was REAL (fresh ground!!!); all the breads and baked goods served were made and baked FRESH on the premises (seriously, finding baked bread is a treat all by itself in Thailand, but to also find cakes, brownies and other goodies??? Pinch me now!!); and their chicken, bacon & mayo sandwich was to die for!!!

Though I didn’t know anyone there (except the fellow Trash Hero volunteer) it was easy to see (apart from the delicious food and coffee) why this place was so popular.  Everyone said hello to one another whether they knew them or not.  The owners (Deb and Rick) engaged with customers and treated everyone as good friends.  The location itself (being off one of the main roads in Sairee) was a delightful spot for people watching.  And best of all, everyone was greeted by Am.  Am was once a street dog who adopted Deb and Rick.  While she stays true to her street dog nature by bounding off and visiting her street dog friends daily, she also enjoys the loving attention and care of her adopted owners.

Perhaps it was a week or two that had passed since first popping in for a bite at the Looking Glass when I got to thinking that I needed a routine.  When staying in one place for a while, it’s important to develop a good routine that also gets you out and about.  So far my only real routine had been to go to Muay Thai training but then after I’d want to chill out the rest of the day at home and would find myself not engaging with the outside world so much.  So I decided I needed to inject a social routine, and the Looking Glass was the only place that popped to mind when thinking just how to get it done.

The new routine went as such: Muay Thai training in the morning, home, shower and then to the Looking Glass for coffee.  It was no time at all before I practically knew every person on the island!  As I chilled out at the Looking Glass consuming (admittedly) a ridiculous amount of coffee (up to 6 cups a day, but on average only 4) I met numerous new people, got caught up on all the goings-on of the island, spoiled Am with lots of loving, and chatted with Deb and Rick whom I grew to consider as family.

For the rest of my time on Koh Tao (over a month) not a single day passed that I didn’t stop by for a visit (except for their day off).  It was quite a bitter-sweet moment when it came time to leave the island.  Once Anna arrived, while we did spent another 10 days or so exploring Koh Tao together and enjoying daily coffees and sandwiches at The Looking Glass, it was time to move on and explore more islands of Thailand.  For our last night on the island we went out with Deb and Rick to A Taste of Home (delicious German food and homemade Bailey’s!!) and drank and ate and laughed until the wee hours of the morning.  I miss Deb, Rick and Am terribly but am blessed to have known then at all.  It’s friends like them that you meet along the way that make traveling all that much more special!

On to Ao Luek & Chalok Bay

Back to Thailand

Koh Tao Island

After leaving Bang Saphan I headed directly to Champon to catch a catamaran over to the very beautiful island of Koh Tao in the Gulf of Thailand.  Only 21 sq. Km, Koh Tao (turtle island) has surprisingly a lot going for it!  It boasts 2 of the top diving schools in the world and is considered one of the top spots in the world to dive, has several volunteer opportunities from being a “Trash Hero” to helping at the Animal Clinic and even some Marine Conservation programs as well.  In addition, it has 2 Muay Thai Kickboxing training facilities: Island Muay Thai (where I’m currently training and will write more about in another post) and Monsoon Muay Thai Gym.

The island itself is lush and green with a large variety of foliage and critters all around.  The beaches are breathless with clear blues and greens and abundantly diverse marine life to boot.  Sadly, the island does have a dark past as it is the site of the very unfortunate murders of a young British couple just last year in September that made news world-wide.  There are even websites dedicated to the “dark side” of Koh Tao, but so far I haven’t witnessed or felt any dark side to the island.

Like the two neighboring islands to the South of Koh Tao, Koh Samui and Koh Pha Ngan, Koh Tao also parties it up every full moon.  They call them “Full Moon” parties, which is really just another excuse to do what people do nightly here (party in bars) but apparently kicked up a notch.  Before coming I had heard the Government is trying to put a stop to them because of the drugs that also surface during the parties, but so far all the islands are still celebrating the moon phases.  The other two islands apparently also have half-moon parties and even new moon parties!  I haven’t experienced the Full Moon party here (the first one I will be present for is tomorrow night) but honestly have no interest to join the crowds at the bars for it.  See, while this place does have a huge party scene to it, my purpose here is to train in Muay Thai and get involved where I can in the available volunteer opportunities.  Guess I’m growing up a bit… Just a bit though;)

The expat community here is also huge!  Most are in their early 20’s and have come here originally just for vacation and ended up getting jobs and staying.  I would say honestly the population of people from the UK or Australia is possibly more than that of Thai’s and Burmese.  It is legal to get a job in Thailand as an expat if it’s in an area of expertise that a Thai local wouldn’t necessarily have, such as teaching English or in the case of Koh Tao, diving instructors.  One of the bummers in my opinion about having so many expats on the island however, is that the Thai culture seems lost a bit.  Many of the locals speak better English than most native speakers and while they may view it as a benefit for them, it’s hard to find locals who only speak Thai.  Hence why I wrote my other post on “Talking Thai” so I wouldn’t forget what I’ve learned so far!

As the island does boast some of the best diving in the world, there are dive shops absolutely everywhere!  You could probably throw a rock in any given direction while walking, and within only a few meters (depending on your location) could hit anywhere from 3-5 of them!  They really are everywhere you look, which makes it tough when trying to pick one to go with.  Everyone has their opinion on which is the best, and so far each person I’ve spoken to has named a different one as “the best”, lol!!  Though I do have my open water certification, I have yet to have done any diving as it’s been so long since my certification and I would have to do the refresher course AND for this month at least, I am tapped out financially on my extra-curricular spending.  It’s all about the budgeting!  Perhaps next month I’ll get into it, but for now, I frankly enjoy going to the beaches and simply snorkeling!  It’s free to snorkel on your own (though there are snorkel tours available too) and the variety of marine life seen snorkeling is impressive enough to me to stick with that for now.

Truth be told… while there are several beaches around the island I’ve so far only made it to two!  Sairee beach and Hin Wong beach.  Hin Wong beach is teeny and is privately owned so the owner (Mol of Mol’s beach bar) asks that each visitor either pays 50 baht (equivalent of just over $1.50) or buys a drink from the bar.  The snorkeling is unbelievable there and I keep returning for it’s absolute beauty and range of marine life!  Every time I go I see something new!  There are irradescent clams, blue-spotted sting rays, parrot fish, all sorts of damsel fish, christmas tree corals, anemones, puffer fish, and on and on!  Every time I go I also wish I had an underwater camera so I could share the beauty under the water!

Since I don’t have a motorbike however (the roads are absolute crap on the island and the other drivers are nuts to boot!!) I walk there, which is yet another way I get my exercise.  It’s a literal pain in my rear to scale the wee but very steep hill to get to the other side of the island, but it’s well worth it once there!!  While I do adore going to that beach, I also try to space out how often I go because inevitably I end up having some drinks at the bar then curse myself as I have to make the trek back over the hill, sweating my rear off (and hopefully some of the booze) to get back to my place.  Mol herself is quite the character too!  She is a native Thai but speaks English perfectly and even has a cockney accent when she drinks, lol!!

When I first arrived, I walked my way in the blistering heat from Mae Haad (where the boats all dock) toward Sairee and found very close to the Wat a place called Happy Bungalows.  For 400 baht a night I got my own bungalow with a bed, bathroom and little fridge.  When I first arrived I wasn’t sure honestly how long I’d actually stay.  My plan was to check out the two Muay Thai gyms and if I liked one, I would stay for a month to train.  If not, I would hang about for a few days to a week then head elsewhere.  Within 3 days I’d decided to stay and found a monthly rental with a kitchen through Bua Management.  Now almost 3 weeks in, I’m planning to stay for another month.  There are two reasons I came to that decision: first, I’m really enjoying the Muay Thai training and want to give it another month and second, one of my friends will be popping into Thailand to see me.  Since she is interested in diving, I figured I may as well stay put so at the very least she gets to do some diving in one of the best spots! 🙂

Eating Bat and The View

Back to Thailand

One for the Dogs

For this post, I just wanted to put up some pictures of a few of the wonderful dogs at the sanctuary.  Enjoy the pictures:)

Noodles sleeping in his favorite position:

Noodles
Noodles Favorite Sleeping Position

Piglet eyeballing me nervously (she won’t let anyone touch her but loves being a porch dog).

Piglet
Piglet

Puppy playtime with Shadow, Sky, Bo, Bella and Serena

Puppy Playtime
Puppy Playtime

Bo pinning down Sky… Notice Bo is pinning another down with only 3 legs:)

Bo Pinning Sky
Bo Pinning Sky

Shadow having a lick

Shadow
Shadow

Bella with her cone

Bella
Bella

Bo seeking attention

Sky getting the big bad shade

 

Sky
Sky

Blind, old Wiley with his tiger print wrapped tail

Wiley
Wiley

Xena relaxing

Xena
Xena

Everyone wanting attention

Xena, Xyla & Nunu
Xena, Xyla & Nunu

Bang having a stretch

Bang
Bang

Wilma (lost the use of her back legs in a car crash)

Bang and Blaze chilling

Blaze & Bang
Blaze & Bang

Crash (who also lost use of his back legs during… well, a crash)

Gizmo (can actually use his back legs, but chooses not to.  He bit me once just above the knee and took out a large chunk.  He really didn’t mean to though, he was aiming for the dog I was carrying but since he can’t jump just ended up getting me instead, lol!)

On to Power of a Howl

Back to Thailand