Sunday, July 31, 2011

Tracking Mountain Gorillas in Uganada

This morning (22 July) we rise before dawn ready for our Gorilla tracking in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Southwestern Uganda. The Gorilla population here is approximately 320 with the total Gorilla population being estimated at 706, making them the worlds most endangered ape. After a 2 hour drive and a briefing on the rules of being with the Gorillas we find ourselves on the outskirts of the forest. A group of trackers walk ahead of us in search of a Gorilla family based on where they were the day before. The Gorillas can be anywhere from 20 minutes to 8 hours away and yesterdays group walked for 2 hours before spotting one. 8 of us (this is the daily human interaction limit) along with a guide and some armed men enter the forest. I slip almost immediately down a steep hill. There are no paths and our guides use machetes to cut thorny trees out of the way. Despite being covered from head to toe, the plant life seems to reach out and grab at any exposed hair or clothing.

We hit jackpot within half an hour and the trackers radio through that they have found the Gorilla family that we are looking for. We drop our daypacks as no food or drinks are allowed near the Gorillas and follow our guide for 10 minutes or so to the family. From our first sighting the countdown from 1hour begins as this is the stipulated time allowance to avoid behavioral disturbances to the Gorillas. We have been instructed not to move closer than 7 meters to avoid the spread of human borne diseases to the Gorillas who share 98% of our DNA. The first Gorilla we spot leaves me in awe of their sheer size and human like movements. For the next hour or so we push through thorny trees, use vines to pull ourselves up trees and slide down vertical slopes in order to get closer to these gentle beasts. At one point I am standing extremely close to a large Gorilla when he stands up suddenly with a roar and pounds his chest King Kong style. Assuming he is going to charge and against all instincts I crouch down and cover my face as I have previously been instructed. The Gorilla runs off deeper into the forest and leaves me alone with a pounding heart ad sweaty palms. Meanwhile Brent is being entertained by a young Gorilla who almost seems to be posing for the camera, allowing him to get some great snaps. Before long we are told our hour is up and we begin our trek out of the forest. By following the Gorillas for our allocated hour we find we have moved deep into the forest and so our walk out takes almost two hours. Elated and exhausted we sleep all the way back to our campsite, ecstatic with our sightings.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Our little Angel at Lake Bunyonyi

Whilst half our group treks to see the Gorillas the other half stay back at our campsite free to take advantage of the pristine lake and perfectly manicured gardens. Brent and I opt to visit the local orphanage with a Ugandan man named Duncan. Duncan was sponsored by an English couple when he was a child and as a result was able to attend school and get an education. As an adult wishing to somehow repay his sponsor family Duncan used his education to set up an organisation called 'Little Angels'. It is a place for needy children and orphans to get an education, find a guardian to house and feed them or if they are lucky receive a sponsor parent.

The school we visit is little more than 3 small wooden rooms with a few rows of wooden benches and a blackboard. There appears to be no other resources including books and play equipment. After spending a short while with the children in the classrooms we move outside to help feed the children their porridge lunch. Unfortunately there is not enough t go round so several children go hungry that day. After lunch the children gather round to sing to us. One of the songs they sing is called 'Make a melody in my heart' and it is so catchy we find ourselves singing it for days afterward. The children sing like angels and move with rhythm and soul. Their voices bring me to tears.

After some playtime Duncan asks us if we would like to donate some money or sponsor a child. Brent and I hadn't discussed this so I am pleasantly surprised when he responds "yes, we would like to sponsor a girl". I am absolutely beaming at the thought of being able to make the kind of difference Duncan's sponsor family made but then he asks us to choose a child. Brent and I agree that this is too difficult and ask Duncan to choose a child who really needs sponsoring immediately. We can hardly contain our excitement when he brings in 6 year old Samansa. She is shy with gorgeous dark eyes and braided hair. I realise later that during the singing I had mainly photographed Samansa because of her beautiful voice and passion in her eyes. Little did I know then that I would be sponsoring her.

It was wonderful to be able to spend some time with Samansa and take photographs with her. Although she is not an orphan her family suffer from extreme poverty and by sponsoring her we are ensuring she receives an education, food, clothing and HIV testing. Brent is already planning her Birthday gift of Hawthorn paraphernalia, although I think books or a doll would be more fitting. As her sponsor parents we can have as many updates on her as we like through Duncan via email and receive photographs every 3 months. AS we part, I wave goodbye to Samansa sincerely hoping that we ca one day return to Uganda to meet with her again.

Let the Safari begin

We begin our tour from Nairobi and drive West to Lake Victoria where we learn to pitch our tents and spend the night before heading to Uganda. The first three days of our safari is little more than long drives on rough and bumpy terrain, but it gives the passengers a chance to get to know each other and become familiar with our tents and truck. Our guide 'Mwungi' devises a roster for everyone to help pitch in with the cooking, cleaning and truck maintainence. This is an all hands on deck safari with little time for luxury.

In all we are a group of 15. (we will be picking up 10 or so more midway through the tour). We come from Australia (there is another Aussie, a retired Gardner from NSW), a Swiss couple, an Austrian couple, a handful of English and Americans, which makes for a good mix of the cultures.

From Saris to Safaris

We left India on July 15th, headed for Nairobi, Kenya in East Africa. It wasn't to be that we would leave India without a final drama as the day before we left 3 bombs went off in a terrorist attack in Mumbai's Opera house killing 18 people. As luck would have it, Brent and I had originally planned to be leaving from Mumbai but a week prior changed our flight to leave from Delhi. Despite the tragedy not affecting us directly, it sent fear and anger soaring through the Nation which will no doubt bring about turmoil and instability, something I do not wish to be apart of.

As we touch down in Nairobi, I finally allow myself to feel the excitement of visiting Africa for the first time. Admittedly, I am weary about the Kenya's capital which has earned itself the nickname 'Nairobbery' but as we pull out of the airport safe in our taxi, I feel a weight lift off my shoulders I didn't know I was carrying. The only way I can describe it is as a kind of reverse culture shock or an undoing of culture shock that had become so embedded into my daily life I wasn't eve aware it was still there. When you first arrive in India, the culture shock and sensory overload is so sudden that it's hard to pinpoint exactly what it is that makes the country so overwhelming. By the time 6 months have flown by, one is immune to all the idiosyncrasies, annoyances and complexities that makes India, India, that its not clear that you have been in shock the whole time until you have left. (In retrospect, despite all the differences, Sri Lanka and Nepal are quite similar to India which could explain why this reverse culture shock has only occurred now)

The first noticeable differences are apparent as soon as we sit in the taxi. Our driver speaks fluent English and we are able to hold a conversation for the entire trip which goes beyond the typical Indian " What your country?" and "You like my India?" American R and B replaces the high trill of Punjabi music and the backseats have seat belts which we are required to wear. We drive in lanes, indicate t turn and only use the horn if necessary.When we arrive at our budget accommodation I am shocked at how lovely it is. The walls in reception are clean and freshly painted, the bathrooms have toilet paper and lack the obligatory diarrhea-stained toilet bowls. The sheets and pillows in our permanently pitched tent are clean and stain free. When we order our food it comes out as expected, without the usual 'curried twist that Indians so generously apply to everything even fruit salad!

I realise perhaps truly for the first time just how challenging our travels in India have been. I am not being naive and realise that Africa will pose some of its own challenges but for now we relax at our campsite in Nairobi before embarking on our 24 day Game Drive and Gorilla Tracking.   

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The story of an ex political prisoner

On my way back from breakfast yesterday, a Monk handed me a flier with an invitation to come and listen to a Tibetan ex-political prisoner talk about his experiences. Having both just read Nelson Mandela's autobiography which describes his 40 odd years as a political prisoner in South Africa, Brent and I jumped at the chance to listen to this man.

For those of you who don't know, Tibet was invaded by China in 1949 in an effort to wipe out Tibetan identity, tradition and culture and take control of this 'snow land' country. China still occupies Tibet today and Tibetans are still subject to repression, intimidation and torture. It is a modern genocide and more than 1.2 million Tibetans have been killed in the process.

We arrive in the tiny hall that evening and sit among several dozen other Westerners eager to hear this Tibetan mans experience. Unfortunately, his name was too difficult for me to recall (or record) so for the purpose of this blog I will call him 'Jim'. Here is Jim's story:

In 1994, 19 year old Jim and four of his friends started a harmless protest against the Chinese government in his homeland of Tibet. The protest was started because the five friends who were all Buddhist monks were forced out of their monastery due to a Chinese introduced law that said each monastery could only house 40 monks and this meant that Jim and his friends were forcibly kicked out of theirs. Within five minutes of their protest the men were stopped by Chinese police and taken in to interrogation, a process of torture that lasted four months without a sentence or explanation. During this time Jim was continuously asked who forced him to start a protest with the assumption that he was too young to start one on his own. He was also questioned as to who drew the Tibetan flags he was carrying during the protest and when he answered that he himself drew them and he himself started the protests he was subjected to torture. One such method of torture included having Jim place his hands, palms upwards, underneath a stool on which Chinese officials would take turns sitting on.

Finally after four months, Jim was sentenced to 6 years imprisonment for "disturbing national stability "(how ironic!). Torture and beatings in the prison intensified and food was scarce, 2 momos for breakfast and a small portion of rice with vegetable broth for dinner. At this time, Chinese doctors would regularly visit Jim and take blood from him. When Jim asked one day what the blood was for he was told it was payment for his food. Later these doctors would take vital spinal fluid instead.

Other forms of torture included having his skin pinched and twisted with pliers, standing or kneeling on ice for hours at a time, beatings to the head with mental tools and zappings with cow prodders. Perhaps for Jim the most torturous form of punishment was working in the Chinese "green houses" which required him to use pesticides to kill bugs and insects - something completely against the Buddhist philosophy and way of life. Towards the end of his imprisonment Jim was advised that he would be given the privilege of daily exercise. This turned out to be another form of brutality as he was forced to run from dawn to dusk in the stinking heat with no protection from the elements.

Jim's features soften and sadness washes over his face as he tells the audience that 12 of his fellow political prisoners died from the beatings or lack of medication needed as a result of the torture. He recalls seeing his closest friend being carried by the Chinese officials, his body limp and face covered in blood and being thrown into his cell like a piece of luggage. Jim's friend was dead and he admits that still to this day he has vivid nightmares and flashbacks of his dear friend's face.

Finally in 2000, Jim was released from prison but despite supposedly being granted the same rights as other civilians, Jim and his friends and family were continually haunted by the Chinese officials. Jim was unable to hold a job because the police would threaten his employers with business closure. He was unable to sustain normal relationships with friends and family because they too were threatened by the Chinese government. Realising his inability to live in his own country, Jim finally made the heartbreaking decision in 2005 to take exile in India. A 25 day hike through rough mountainous terrain saw Jim reach Nepal before eventually reaching India, alone and with almost nothing to claim as his own.

Jim finishes his story by pointing out that his is in no way special or the exception to the norm in Tibet and that it is just one of many thousands. His story is a chilling reminder that China still occupies Tibet and continues the same brutal atrocities today. Remarkably, during question and answer time, Jim admits that although he feels "strangely" towards Chinese officials if he sees them today, he has no hard feelings towards the Chinese people in general. When asked if he thought Tibet needed to change its strategy of non-violence towards Chine, he (predictably) answered that he held strong his belief in the Buddhist method of non-violence and following the middle-way.

At the end of the evening Jim simply asked that we share his story with our countries and our people. So many people don't know or have forgotten that Tibet is still under the harsh and unforgiving grip of the Chinese Government and by sharing his story and reminding the West of Tibet's struggle we are putting pressure on China to one day free Tibet. This is why I am sharing this one man's story. Please don't forget about the Tibetan struggle for freedom and spread the word.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Dharamsala home of the Dalai Lama

I'm glad we made the time to visit Dharamsala because along with Varanasi and Rishikesh, it was on my list of must see places in India. When tourists talk about Dharamsala they are usually talking about McCleod Gang, a small town up hill from Dharamsala where the Dalai Lama lives in exile along with thousands of Tibetans who have fled from their China-invaded homeland. We arrive a few days after the Dalai Lama's 76th birthday (it was on the 6th July) and although I am crossing my fingers we might get to see him speak as July is one of the more likely times to catch a glimpse, it turns out he is touring the USA.

Mcleod Ganj reminds me of Nepal, with green mountains surrounding colourful rooftops and prayer flags flapping gently in the breeze. According to the Dalai Lama it is also not unlike Tibet. It is probably safe to say that there are just as many Tibetans in Mcleod Ganj as there are Indians and that means the town is full of Tibetan foods, trinkets and Buddhist temples.

We spend our first morning searching out a good Yoga studio (there are plenty to choose from) and interestingly we find the same yoga teacher whose class I attended in Goa. Vijay, the Indian owner, is a world renowned  yoga instructor who also gives yoga teacher training. When he is not touring the West he divids his time between Goa and Mcleod Ganj. I am excited to be in his class again, for the sessions in Goa were incredible. I am not suprised when I arrive at my first class to find the room filled to the brim with eager yoga students. I am suprised though when Vijay gets up and leaves the room to make way for one of his sidekicks to take the lesson. Unfortunately, this man doesn't seem to have the same knack as Vijay and unlike our gentle teacher in Rishikesh he stalks the room, roughly and abruptly slapping people in areas that need correcting. The poor man next to me who has never set foot in a yoga class and struggles to sit cross-legged cops many slaps to the back and has his shoulders are pulled back repeatedly. Despite this we soon fall into a routine of attending twice daily and spend the time in between browsing the streets, reading and hunting for the best places to eat.

Due to the large expat community in this town there are excellent coffee houses. I haven't had a 'real' coffee since leaving Australia so I was a tad excited when I was served my first delicious latte. Stupidly, I ordered a second and was so caffine sensitive I thought I was going to drop dead of a heart attack and had to go and lie down for a few hours. I think all this yoga and lack of processed food and coffee has left me detoxed!

Tomorrow we will visit the home of the Dalai Lama, even though he won't be home (I'm pretty sure you can't go in anyway!).

Yoga town of Rishikesh

The drive to Rishikesh is a welcome relief after the hot Rajasthan desert. Once we were past the two dead bloated cows on the side of the road and the stoned anorexic Indian man striding stark naked (apart from a pair of gloves) down the middle of the highway, the lush green trees and paddocks make for a pleasant change.

The city of Rishikesh is similar to any other Indian city, except perhaps for a few more temples and shrines and certainly a lot more ashrams and yoga centres. Across a large swing bridge which is evidently used for pedestrians, motorbikes, livestock and as a hangout for cranky monkeys is High bank. Nestled among the trees and away from the hustle and bustle, High bank is a small cluster of guesthouses, cafes and yoga studios.

Because it is off season we find ourselves a great hotel complete with hot water, cable tv and a Hatha/Iyenga Yoga studio next door for just $4/night. We spend our week in Rishikesh taking early morning Yoga followed by breakfast, reading, watching movies, another evening session of yoga followed by dinner and more reading. Our Indian yoga teacher is brilliant and due to the small class sizes he is able to attend to each student, gently manipulating our bodies into correct postures for maximum benefit. After each class we emerge even more relaxed, centred and flexible than the last one.

On one occassion we decide to venture from our High bank sanctuary to take a look around Rishikesh city. In the thick humid heat we walk to the ashram made famous by th Beatles in 1960. We arrive only to find it closed off to tourists but from our view it appears to be  almost completely knocked down, surrounded by rubbish and rubble. The Ganges gushes through the middle of Rishikesh and because we are reasonably high up there is little rubbish in it, so we both dip our feet into its ice cold waters, not for a moment believing that it is washing our so-called 'sins' away.

Our intention was to spend our last two weeks in India in Rishikesh but as usual we get itchy feet and book a last minute overnight bus to Daramsala, home of the Dalai Lama.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Agra and that big marble building

Ok, I am the first to admit that I wasn't too fussed on heading to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. It is not that I didn't want to see it, it is just that I am more inclined to enjoy natural beauty than I am man-made ones and I just didn't think I'd be that 'wowed' by a big marble building. After an overnight train trip coupled with 'India Belly' (formerly known as Delhi Belly) I was even less in the mood for sight seeing. I was so ill that I almost stayed hidden in my hotel room until I had a "you can't come to India and not see the Taj" revelation.

I am mighty glad I had that revelation too, because that big marble building commonly known as the Taj Mahal is every bit as magnificent as everyone says it is. Brent and I were both in awe of its sheer beauty and it easily trumps any other man-made monument we have come across in India. As usual we (like so many other tourists) proved to be of more interest to the Indian tourists than the poor Taj itself. The novelty of having our pictures taken with the locals has more than warn off, especially when we now know what some of the more unsavoury men are doing with those pictures! While I did let the odd child take our picture, I was pretty annoyed when I sat down (in an effort not to vomit on the Taj) and an Indian man sat right next to me (almost on top of me) and his friend began taking unwanted photos of the two of us. I'm really not sure what he plans on telling his friends about the photo of him with a foreign girl doubled over in pain with a look of disgust on her face, because that is exactly the kind of picture he got.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Varanasi - burning bodies and all

I am not sure how or why I have conjured up images in my head of Varanasi being a sea of orange. Perhaps it is the thought of the baking sun's reflection turning the city orange, maybe it is the idea of red dirt surrounding the Ganges or simply the saffron robes of Hindus and golden sari-clad women that has implanted the idea. Needless to say I am initially disappointed when I step out onto the hotel's balcony overlooking Meer Ghat and the holy river to find stretches of grey. Grey muddy water surrounded by grey dirt, grey monuments and an equally grey sky. It is somewhat disheartening to come to India's holiest and most sacred river to find scores of rubbish floating down it. People are ogling at the rivers beauty and I honestly feel like I have either spiritually missed the point or am becoming very cynical. I berate myself for having expectations of the city in the first place and try to erase all 'orange' glistening images still left in my mind.

If you can look past the filth (of which there is plenty and is only magnified in the rains as it floats between  your ankles) then there certainly is an element of intrigue and magic to Varanasi. Walking the Ghat is prime people watching material as devout Hindus flock to the holy waters like moths to a flame. Every conceivable task takes place along the waters from clothes washing to bathing, swimming and boat ride, religious offerings, men, women, children and babies having their heads shaved, farmers washing their cattle and of course the deceased being doused in the holy waters before being cremated on piles of expensive wood for all to see.

I am not as troubled by the sight of burning bodies as I thought I would be. What I am troubled by is the scene that surrounds the cremation. The filth honestly resembles a tip, complete with cows, goats, buffalo and dogs defecating, urinating or sleeping nest to the fires. Some men chat loudly on their phones while simultaneously urinating next to the body, oblivious to the solemn occasion. Others bathe in the waters next to where the corpse is washed. The scene is confronting and made more so by the fact that the wind is blowing the ashes of the dead into our eyes and mouths. It is a complete sensory overload. Sometime later as I stop along the ghats to look at the view I realise rather abruptly that I am standing next to a corpse. My childish reaction brings me filthy looks from the locals and I am embarrassed at my behaviour.

Aside from the Ghats, the tiny alleyways of Varanasi are amazing to walk though and simply get lost in. Filled with every imaginable kind of Indian food, silks and crafts with chanting constantly filling the air, we have managed to eat and drink our way through the labyrinth maze that is  Varanasi. A chaotic and candid place, well worth the visit. 

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Never a dull moment when back in India

I was excited to be returning to India. Something was drawing me back, so  much so that we decided to leave Nepal before our visa finished. We figured there was so much we were yet to see of the country with relatively little time, so we hopped on a bus and headed for the border.

As we inched closer to India the heat and humidity began to climb. When we reach the border some 10hrs later, the contrast between Nepal and India is stark, despite the two being separated by a mere 'Welcome to India' sign. Beyond the border all I can see is hordes of people, barefoot beggars and scantily clad children. The streets are overflowing with rubbish and as if on cue as we step into India it begins to pour, a reminder to us that it is monsoon season. I look back across at Nepal and begin to doubt my decision.

We have planned to spend the night at the Indian border before heading to Varanasi. In the pouring rain we find the only hotel in the area and ask to see a room. The room turns out to be reminiscent of a prison cell with nothing more that 4 concrete unpainted walls with a bed in the middle. The bed is unmade, has clearly been slept in and has fresh mud trampled through the sheets. We decide get on the next bus to the next town.

As I step on the bus I am gobsmacked by the sight of a young girl of maybe 5 or 6 years old holding a newborn baby clearly no more than 24hrs old. The baby is naked and the two are saturated. The little girl holds the baby as through she is a limp doll and she devours a cookie perhaps given to her by  a stranger. It is not until Brent points out that the bus has no windows that I realise I am staring at this child while ankle deep in water, getting soaked through the windowless bus. We find a different bus, equally as wet and dirty but with windows to shut out the rain.

We haven't traveled more than 100m when we pass an horrific accident. A truck has collided with a motorbike and both rider and passenger have been killed. As we drive past a few meters, an angry Indian throws his pushbike in front of our bus. Brent and I are sitting upfront next to the driver and look to him confused at why the man would do this, when seemingly out of nowhere a mob of Indian men come charging at our bus with batons and sticks.

Without turning the engine off the bus driver leaps from his seat to shut and lock the back door. This causes people to panic and try to escape. The men outside begin violently smashing the bus and yelling in Hindi and the babies and children inside begin to cry, adding to the drama and consequently my fear of being trapped on the bus. I know full well that if you are in a traffic accident in India the best cause of action is to get out and run, for the people will relentlessly and indiscriminately attack you, but we have not caused this accident so I am confused as to why we are being targeted. The bus driver has left his window open and a man outside tries to climb in. I am not sure if it is the fear in my eyes or the fact that he probably won't fit through that makes him retreat, but I am somewhat relieved when he does.

After sometime the focus moves away from our bus and we somehow learn that the people, over a hundred of them, are 'striking' due to the accident. We are unsure of why our bus was targeted but were told it had to do with our bus being a government bus. The people have stopped attacking the bus but refuse to let us leave. We watch the commotion for over an hour and it seems that the two deceased have been put in a rickshaw for the people to come and view. The whole scene is chaotic and animalistic and I can't help but wonder how these people could possibly unite in a natural disaster or crisis. After sometime we realise we aren't in any danger anymore and we leave the bus and walk up the road to find another. Third time lucky, we get on a bus that gets us safely all the way to our destination. We check into a hotel in the middle of the night, which is no more than a bed, bucket and hole in the ground, but after the day I've had I'd be happy sleeping outside with the cows! Tomorrow we have another full days bus ride to Varanasi - hopefully it is less eventful.  

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Everest Base Camp Trek

Day 1: Lukla to Phakding 2610m
We begin the morning at 5am anxious about the 17 seater plane but excited about what lies ahead. As it turns out we have great weather and a very easy flight into Lukla. Today is an easy 2.5 hour walk following the Dudh Koshi River. This is because we have already flown in at altitude and we need to allow our bodies time to acclimatise. The walk is relatively flat with only a few ups and downs, just enough to get the heart pumping. Our room is cosy with misty mountain views and we feast on traditional Nepalese Dahl Bhaat and roast potatoes.  A stray dog follows us all the way from Lukla airport to our guesthouse and I am surprised to find that somewhere in the afternoon he has found his way into the lodge and plonked himself outside our room.

Day 2: Phakding to Namche Bazar 3435m
We walk about 5 hours today mostly following the river and crossing several large swinging bridges. For the first 2.5 hours the walk is similar to yesterday with a few easy slopes. The last 2.5 hours is a steep and steady zig-zag climb made even more difficult by the fact that I have food poisoning. The altitude makes my ears pop and our steps slow. We have been lucky again with clear weather which makes for some incredible views. Namche Bazar looks like a quiet town of colourful homes, lodges and guesthouses.

Day 3: Rest Day
Today is known as arrest day but it really means a day of acclimatising and this means climbing high and sleeping low. We climb 3900m in Sagarmatha National Park in order to get what is supposed to be our first glimpse of Everest. Unfortunately the clouds come over in just minutes of us waking and by the time we reach the top of our destination we can barely see 50 meters in front of us. We climb back down to our guesthouse in Namche and spend the day here. It is important not to sleep during the day as this effects the acclimatisation process but the thin air makes us sleepy. We take a stroll through Namche markets and spend the afternoon rugged up and reading.
Day 4: Namche to Debuche 3820mToday we walk from Namche to Debuche taking approximately 5 hours with the first three being relatively flat and the last two hours quite steep and uneven. Despite the cloud the views are nothing short of magnificent. Several hours after reaching our lodge, Brent and our guide Seshi (pronounced Saucy) frantically wave for me to come outside. The clouds have moved and we get our first glimpse of Mount Everest. From our view the mountain sits behind Lhotse Sahara and to the right of Lhotse Mountain. We can only see the peak but it is still breathtaking to be looking at the world’s highest mountain. We stand out in the chilly air for over an hour watching the mountain disappear and reappear from behind the clouds. It is more exciting than we could have imagined and we end the day completely elated.

Everest is the tiny bit you see at the back - In front is Lhotse Sahara

Day 5: Debuche to Dingboche 4410m
The walk today is relatively short, approximately 4 hours and it is reasonably easy hoever the altitude makes it harder than it would be otherwise. It is difficult to explain the effects of altitude. Even walking on flat ground is difficult, almost as though you are walking through water. We see our first actual Yak today and they are smaller and hairier than the cow cross we have seen since Lukla. A funny moment is watching a brave little dog trying to cross a swing bridge. Each time with legs shaking he gets about ¼ of the way across, panics and runs back. Eventually he gets the courage up and runs full speed across the bridge. The weather is quite clear in places and we get some great views of some of the mountains. Ama Dablam at 6856m is the most beautiful and prominent.

The little dog trying to cross the swing bridge

Ama Dablam
Day 6: Rest day at Dingboche
The morning doesn’t start too great. A husband and wife team who we have continued to bump into is staying out the same lodge as us. During the night without any of the usual warning symptoms the husband fell ill with severe Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). He developed fluid on the lungs, began vomiting and began to lose vision. An emergency helicopter was flown in to rescue him and his wife. Another trekker from an Indian school group staying at our lodge is also walked back to Namche Bazar with mild AMS and is later flown out as his condition worsened. I have woken this morning with the flu and this makes detecting common AMS symptoms more difficult. This combined with seeing two people fall so ill so suddenly is quite scary. Nevertheless it is essential for us to acclimatise and this means trekking high and retuning to our lodge. We climb to 4,900m and we experience the most incredible views I have ever seen. For a decent amount of time the weather is clear and we sit in awe at the 360 degree snow capped mountain views. As the clouds blow in we are literally sitting amongst them. We are so high that instead of craning your neck to see a mountain we are simply looking across at them. We spend the afternoon resting, crossing our fingers that we stay free of AMS. We now know that no one is exempt.

Day 7: Dingboche to Leboche 4910m
The walk today is rocky and uneven with barren terrain surrounding us. The sky is unusually clear for off-season and we are once again graced with gorgeous mountain views. The altitude makes breathing difficult but the mountains are energising. Our guide tells us the trek will take 5.5 hours but we unintentionally walk it in 4. This causes me some problems and about half hour out of our destination I experience a severe headache to the back of my head followed by nausea. I am told this is the worst kind of headache associated with AMS because it means a lack of oxygen reaching the brain. It is better for us to continue the half hour to our lodge then turn back for 3.5hours so we push on. Despite knowing the seriousness of AMS, we are a day out of Base Camp and I am determined to reach it. We decide to sit and wait a few hours before turning back and I drink copious amounts of lemon tea (over a litre) which is supposed to ease symptoms. Several hours later I feel a little better and we make the decision to stay. During the night another Indian student begins vomiting. He had also been suffering severe headaches earlier in the day. He will not be seeing base camp and will be walked our flown back in the morning.
Day 8: Leboche to Gorakshep to Everest Base Camp 5180m to 5365m
We wake early with excitement and anticipation about today’s trek to base camp. Within 2 hours we will reach our lodge where we drop off our pack before continuing on to base camp. This first two hours is rocky and gives us both altitude induced headaches but it hardly matters. After hot tea we rug up, wish each other luck and head off. It is a 2 hour trek over extremely rocky and sometimes icy terrain. The altitude makes me feel like I have been hit in the back of the head with a pole and the simple task of buckling our day pack is a challenge. The sky is incredibly cloudless and we are surrounded by mountains with Khumba Glacier (the world’s largest) to our right. We also have a perfect view of the top of Everest. My head is pounding from the altitude so I pop my iPod in to take the focus of the pain. Listening to the iPod isn’t as bad as it sounds because aside from the odd scurrying rat, the atmosphere is silent. As we approach Base Camp over rocks and ice I take it out in order to listen for falling rock and breaking ice.
With thumping heads and heaving breath we finally reach Everest Base Camp. From the camp we look directly at Khumba Ice fall and it is incredible. You cannot actually see Mount Everest from base camp, which we were aware of, but I am surprised that base camp is just rock covered ice without a sign or monument acknowledging the spot. I am told this is because the exact location varies from year to year and that in peak mountaineering season the camp is covered with the tents of those brave enough and experienced enough to attempt the summit.
We spend about half hour marvelling at the view, ecstatic that we have accomplished our goal of reaching Everest Base Camp. After a few too many snaps and a chocolate bar to refuel we slowly head back to our lodge against the icy wind with our backs to the camp. Although our main goal has been achieved and we could technically trek back to Lukla in 3-4 days we are hoping to attempt crossing the potentially dangerous Chola Pass in order to reach Gokyo Lake. So while we spend the afternoon reflecting on our accomplishment, it is still a little premature to be celebrating.

Day 9: Gorakshep to Dzonglha to Pheriche 4900m
We wake at 4am with the intention of climbing Kala Pathar Mountain (5545m) in order to view Mount Everest from top to bottom but when we look out the window all we can see is fog so we go back to sleep. I am glad of this as my altitude headache has gotten worse and my cold has moved to my chest. When we wake again in a few hours it is snowing. This makes our guide question our chances of being able to cross Cholla Pass tomorrow but regardless we head off in that direction. Walking in the snow is not as romantic as I first thought as we walk on slippery wet rocks on narrow cliffs. When we reach Dzonglha some 4 hours later and my altitude headache is still thumping with my chest becoming infected our guide warns us that I am a perfect candidate for frozen liquid on the lungs. He points out that our accommodation is still at high altitude has no heating and no phone service thus no helicopter rescue should I get worse during the night. If we leave however it means we won’t be able to cross the pass but we can still see Gokyo via an alternative route if I feel better tomorrow. We decide to descend to Pheriche another 3 hours away.
Day 10: Pheriche to Phortse Thanga 3675m
After a full nights rest at lower altitude I am feeling much better so we inform our guide that rather than heading back to Kathmandu we would like to go on to Gokyo Lake. He is clearly disappointed at this and perhaps thought he was going to get a full weeks pay without having to finish the trek but nevertheless we head the few hours walk to Phortse Thanga. Again we walk along narrow cliffs and pass through some gorgeous tiny towns built of stone and sustained by potato farms. Our guide either storms off in front or lags behind complaining of a sore stomach and we can’t help but wonder if this is a ploy to get us to turn back. Brent and I enjoy the walk which is difficult in places but mostly looks like a forest out of a fairytale complete with a gushing river and Spanish moss or ‘grandfather’s beard’ hanging from the trees. When we reach the lodge I have my first shower complete with hot water since day 2 and Brent has his first since we left. My goodness we must have needed it!
Day 11: Phortse Thanga to Marcherma
After a steep descent yesterday our legs are sore for the first time during the trek and this is accentuated by today’s steep and seemingly continuous climb. In four hours we climb 800m and are more than relieved when we reach our lodge. The owners have a DVD player and this is somewhat a novelty for all of us so we sit around the yak-dung fire and watch GI Joe and drink hot chocolate.
Day12: Marcherma to Gokyo Lake 4900m
We trek for 3.5 relatively easy hours. When we reach the lake at 10:30am the weather is clear with no wind and the lake looks like a perfect glassy reflection of the sky. It is aqua blue and still and surrounded by mountains. A couple of orange feathered ducks are the only thing to disturb the water. It is tempting to swim in it but the water is not far above freezing and with the chilly air and my lingering cold I opt for dangling my hands in. We drop our packs off at the lodge and then decide to trek halfway up Gokyo Ri Mountain (another few hundred metres) to get some more views and snaps of the pristine lake. After lunch the clouds and wind roll in and I am glad we made the effort to climb the mountain earlier. Later in the afternoon an array of multi-coloured yaks descend from the mountain and graze contentedly on the sparse shrubbery surrounding the lodge.

Day 13: Gokyo to Phortse Thanga
Brent wakes several times during the night gasping for air, a common complaint when at high altitude. When our alarm goes off at 4am so we climb Gokyo Ri to the top to watch the sunrise, it is Brent this time who is glad it is too cloudy to see anything. A few hours later though the sky has cleared and despite already having a 4-5 hour walk ahead of us we decide to climb it. There is something addictive about trekking high in thin air. Even though it feels as though you are competing for oxygen and the simple task of blowing your nose leaves you gasping for air, each step towards the top gives way to an even more incredible view and motivates you to keep going. Today we are competing with the clouds and we trek as quickly as possible to get to the top. After an hour and a half or maybe more we reach the top at 5360m. We have a few minutes of spectacular views including the top of Everest before the cloud and bitter winds come in. Climbing down is physically more demanding as it puts a lot of pressure on your knees but with each step down comes a little more oxygen.
Once at the bottom we begin our 3 day descent back to Lukla. We walk for nearly 5 hours before reaching our first destination back again at Phortse Thanga. It has been an almost completely downhill walk and our knees are aching. We celebrate our accomplishments with an Everest Beer that is cold enough to drink straight from the cabinet. Brent finishes the night off by sharing a jug of ‘Roxy’ with our guide – a potent Nepalese spirit drank with warmed water.
Day 14: Phortse Thanga to Namche Bazar
Despite it being day 2 of our descent, today requires us to climb up and over several mountains to get back down to Namche. On our way we stop off at a Buddhist Monastery where for a small donation you can view the skull of a Yeti. For those of you who don’t know, a yeti is in Nepalese tradition an abominable snowman of 6-8 feet tall that lives high in the mountains and preys on anything including humans. The skull was a gift to the monastery and although initially received with disappointment became more cherished as scientists and mountaineers  alike showed growing interest in it. A short walk from the monastery is Khumjung School that was established and inaugurated by Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to Summit Everest. It is Sunday, but in Nepal that is a school day and the children are in class so we only briefly walk through. We arrive a short time later back at the Moonlight Lodge, the plushest accommodation of the lot. Brent tries his luck with a Yak steak which we are later informed is buffalo and I stick to steamed Tibetan momos.

Yeti Skull

Buddhist Monastery

Khumjung school
Day 15: Namche to Lukla
Today feels like an eternity. We have left Namche early and walk for over 6 hours. It feels like the most difficult day thus far. Perhaps this is because there is no promise of a beautiful mountain at the end and we know that our trip is finally coming to end. As with all things the trek does eventually end and we celebrate with an Everest beer in one of the empty pubs. We get an early night as our flight is at 6am.

Brent exhausted after he carried our 18kg pack the entire way!

Day 16: Lukla to Kathmandu
I wake again apprehensive at the thought of having to catch the teeny tiny aircraft. My nerves are warranted though as the plane is notorious for crashing due to the ever changing weather in the Himalayas. Apparently during our trek a helicopter doing a routine rescue crashed in the mountains killing the two pilots aboard and this plays through my head constantly. As luck would have it we have another perfectly clear day and we arrive back in Kathmandu without a hitch.
 I don’t think in this life time I will be climbing Mount Everest so to get to Everest base Camp was quite an accomplishment. This has definitely been the highlight of all my travels so far. Challenging and rewarding, I urge anyone with a reasonable level of fitness to attempt the trek. Now I am off to officially celebrate!
Brent and I with an elderly Sherpa woman on her way up the mountain


goodbye India Hello Nepal

Nepal is the kind of place you know you will come back to. It is the kind of place you fall in love with the minute you step off the plane into the tiny little airport. It is the kind of place you instantly feel at ease with as the rhythm of your walk falls into place with the buzz of the streets. Ok, so my relationship with Nepal is premature as we have only been here two days and haven’t yet left Kathmandu, but I can already tell.
My last exam finished in India on the 27th and by lunch time on the 28th we were getting lost in the maze like streets of Thamal in Kathmandu and sipping hot Nepalese chai. I have officially finished my university exchange program in India and because I am unable to continue my studies in Australia until next year (due to certain subjects offered in term 1 being a prerequisite for me enrolling in term two) Brent and I have decided to spend the next six months travelling. It wasn’t an easy decision and required me to sell my near new car, but I don’t think this opportunity will come by again anytime soon, so we have leapt at the chance. Nepal is our first stop and we have booked a trek to Everest base camp.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

3 seconds of fame

While eating lunch at the local shopping centre the other day (yes there is a very modern shopping centre that looks extremely out of place amongst the rubble and makeshift houses) I almost choked on my chapatti when I looked up at the television and saw my face staring right back at me!
I had completely forgotten that a couple of months back I had agreed to take part in the latest LPU television commercial. I had agreed to do it putting it down to another experience that wouldn’t come about otherwise. On the day of the filming I was an absolute mess. The day prior, my grandmother and uni friend had both passed away and I was still in shock and a blubbering mess. When I received the call that I needed to be on set at 10am I politely asked if I could be excused due to my current state and I was shocked when they told me that unless I was dead I still needed to be there. I tried arguing the point but I had signed a contract and they had measured me for my costume (which was just a t-shirt that anyone could have worn). Of course the real reason they would not let me back out was due to the fact that I was the only western female at the uni and the whole campaign was based around how ‘international’ the university is.
Dutifully I turned up on time for my hair and make-up and was told I would just need to wait 10 minutes. In India this translates to “You could be waiting for hours” and seven hours later sitting in a tiny smoked filled make-up truck someone came in to brush my hair and put powder over my face. At one point I attempted to leave the truck and I was physically grabbed by the back of my shirt and literally yanked back in by a creepy little man who had the job of ‘supervising’ me. When I was finally filmed for my part, I was taught a native Indian dance move and was surrounded by Indian women in their traditional dress. Interestingly, my small part on the big screen is a close up of my face and I am unsure of why I had to go through the torture of learning the dance steps.
I have worked in advertising and I am fully aware that things in commercials are not always what they seem, so when I saw the ad for the first time I wasn’t that surprised to see a gleaming well-equipped university that looks nothing like the one I attend. I can only hope it is what the university is aspiring to and that one day in the very near future it will actually look like it does on the ad.

The basket ball courts

Barbed wire surrounds everything at the uni - at least I'm safe!

My education block (the blue perplex was a recently knocked out window by protesting students)

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Final Examinations

Final exams are finally here and my first taste of sitting the three hour exam of five essay questions, five short answer and 5 long answer questions proved to be rather frustrating and a little interesting. Initially when I turned up to my exam, the examiner had not received note of me sitting the exam and I could have predicted this. Earlier I had been to visit the head of department to advise that I had not been given notice of where I should sit my exams (despite all my classmates having received the email). After being shuffled from one person to the next and eventually back to the original person I had spoken with, I was given the details of my exam. This information, not surprisingly, was not passed on to anyone beyond me and seemed to cause much confusion in the exam room. Nevertheless I was allocated a seat and sat down with various other students in the steaming hot examination room. While waiting for the exam to start I watched on, amused, as the people surrounding me furiously scribbled notes on the desks, the back of the chairs and up their arms while under the inattentive eyes of the examiners.
I was surprised to be interrupted 10 minutes into my exam to be told I needed to move seats for no apparent reason and again surprised when I was interrupted several more times with questions from the examiner still trying to work out who I was or why I was there. My surprise however turned to frustration when another man came into the exam room and asked that I leave with him so the university could sort out who I was and why I was sitting an exam. Having been here for five months I knew better than to ask for extra time due to the inconvenience and I dutifully followed the man from person to person until after some time it was decided that I was in fact a student (Yes, I have student ID on me!).
During the exam, the level of cheating was unbelievable and so obvious that I am shocked the examiners did not pick up on it. Despite the rule of not being able to have a phone on you during the exam this didn’t stop people having phones sitting at the front of the classroom. Several times when people were stuck on a question they simply got up walked to the front of the room, retrieved their phone and stood just outside the door to ‘phone a friend’!It was like being on an episode of ‘Who wants to be a millionaire’. The man next to me despite sitting a different exam to me spent as much time looking at my answers as he did turning around and asking out loud what the answers were from the women behind. Eventually I informed him that my answers on social change were not in any way going to help his maths examination, but he didn’t seem to mind. All this took place while the examiners drank chai and chatted to each other and the many visitors that dropped by during the exam. In this particular exam two windows were broken somewhere nearby and the shattering noise seemed be noticed by no one but me.
More than half the questions were directly related to India’s economy and problems and how sociological practices and so forth can affect or improve these things. I have been informed previously that I am supposed to ‘appeal’questions that directly refer to India because they are common knowledge that comes from being an Indian and are not taught in the curriculum. I know better than to ask for a new exam and know that even if I did it would never eventuate. I am not going to appeal half the exam and besides I feel that 5 months living and breathing India qualifies me to know just a tad about what is going on the country.
It will be interesting to see what eventuates from the next exam. Bring it on!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Bye Sri Lanka

As the setting sun melts into the horizon, bows down to make room for the moon and closes its eyes on the day, our last day in Sri Lanka, we sit silently sucking in the salty ocean breeze hoping the scent will linger in our nostrils long enough to see us through the next six months. Tomorrow that scent will be replaced by a heady elixir of exotic spices, cow dung, incense and urine - a now familiar smell that still sits uneasily on my skin, in my hair and through my clothes. The sound of waves dancing in the ocean will be replaced by the chaotic hustle and bustle of horns and the sounds that only a billion people crammed into one small country can make. I am nauseated by the thought of returning to India but excited all the same. Just like the country itself, my emotions about the next leg of our adventure conflict and contradict each other. Tomorrow we will return to India where I will prepare for and sit my final exams before travelling the country.

For the past week or so, Brent and I have hopped from one golden sand beach to the next including Mirissa, Unawatuna and Hikkadua. Being off-season, the beaches are near empty but it’s hard to see why as the days are still long and hot and the rain is yet to arrive. The exotic coconut lined beaches are frequented by men with baby monkeys on their backs, pythons slung round their necks and cobras in their bags trying to coax unassuming tourists into having a pat or cuddle (for a small fee of course!) This drives me crazy as I am sure the monkeys have been stolen from their mothers and the cobras have had their fangs pulled out as one tout is all too happy to let it strike him over and over again. We don’t pat the animals (although a few years back I would have been just another na├»ve tourist) and I glare at the men every time they stalk past us. On several occasions I am graced by the presence of a couple of sea turtles while swimming in the ocean and during our stay on Hikkadua beach, a regular school of reef sharks lurk in the shallow waters just outside our room.
Sri Lanka truly is a magical place to visit. Rolling carpets of tea leaves one minute and rows of coconut palms in tropical paradise the next. Now that the war in Sri Lanka is well and truly out of sight and the majority of the tsunami damage has been rebuilt, I think tourism in the country will boom. It may just be the next Thailand or Bali!

another beautiful Sri Lankan sunset

Monday, May 2, 2011

Surfers town Arugam Bay

Brent and I have spent the last five days or so on the East Coast of Sri Lanka in a sleepy little surfers town known as Arugam Bay. The moon shape beach is renowned for its point break and is often regarded as the best surf spot in the country. Being off season, Brent is in heaven surfing from dusk to dawn while only having to share his waves with a few locals and a handful of tourists. Unfortunately he learnt the hard way on his first day that the surf sits on top of a sharp and nasty reef and as a result has earned his far share of reef cuts and grazes.

While Brent surfs his days away I am trying in vain to study for my exams but am more often than not distracted by the vast array of wildlife that combs the beach, monkeys, snakes, goats, cows, lizards, birds and the obligatory stray dogs and cats. Upon driving into the town we even spotted a few wild elephants and Brent has been lucky enough to spot a few turtles in the surf. Further inland crocodiles lurk in mangroves but the locals charge a hefty price to visit them. Our little beach hut isn't without its own small menagerie of insects and creepy crawlies and I seem to be sharing my crackers with a mysterious creature that takes his share noisily in the night. I was also surprised to find myself sharing a bed with a centipede as long as a lizard!

Despite the quiet lazy days, nights are frustratingly noisy. The dozens of seemingly harmless stray dogs that bask silently in the sun by day turn gremlin like and ferocious by night as they attack each other in futile and brutal dog fights. The local do not seem to hear a thing!

Another thing worth mentioning about the town and Sri Lanka in general is the incredibly delicious food. The food is distinct and complex and often requires ordering in advance. Despite the staple being rice and curry it is unlike the cuisine of its Indian neighbours and I am surprised it has not taken off in the West. When we think of curry in Australia we tend to associate it with curry powder or Indian curry but the curry here could not be further from that taste. A vegetable curry generally means a bowl of rice with 3 to 8 separate bowls of different vegetables all prepared in their own unique way. I cannot tell you the names of what I have been eating but my favourites have included the most delectable eggplant curry, an insatiable beetroot dish and a butternut squash curry that was to die for.

On one such occassion we were told to visit the little old man who runs the library by a young family of hippies. They insisted the man was a genius in the kitchen. True to their word this yoda like yogi with a greying beard almost to his navel works magic in his little kitchen. His restaurant consists of an 8 seater dinning room table and his library is an impressive collection of his own books which he allows tourists to book swap and buy. Food needs to booked a day in advance here and there is no menu, he simply cooks what is fresh and seasonal into an intricate mix of mouth watering curries. While we ate at his home, browsed his bookshelf and pried into his impressive travels the old man knocked back a family of five keen to try his magic because he needed time to prepare. He informed us while he rubbed his temples that chopping and grating all those vegetables took much concentration!

Tomorrow we will leave this sleepy surf town for another. Lets see where the bus takes us. 
The damage after hitting the reef

Brent's first surf in almost five months

Brent riding the waves of Arugam

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Wild Elephants

Brent and I along with the five other volunteers at the conservation center were lucky enough to be invited along with the owner/vice president of the center into a rural village to witness some of the human elephant conflict that takes place in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, the village we visited has, like so many others, encroached on the natural habitats of the wild elephants which leaves the elephants either hungry for more food or confused as to why their usual migration path now contains houses. As a result elephants wander into the village and ruin the crops of the local farmers in order to get food and are often shot or injured. Too often, locals are killed by bull elephants who are aggressive, have been previously injured, are frightened or are simply looking for food. Just days before we visited the village a man was killed by an elephant who was frightened of his flashlight. The purpose of visiting the village was to see if we as outsiders could come up with any fresh ideas to combat the issue. Through a translator we chatted to locals about the issues and how they felt about the elephants. It was decided that not only did we need to come up with a way to repel the elephants but a way to educate the people on how elephants can be used as a resource (in terms of tourism, compost and dung paper) rather than be seen as a pest.

After a traditional Sri Lankan lunch we were taken by jeep into the jungle to spot some wild elephants and see them in their natural habitat. We were so lucky and spotted around thirty different elephants including a calf as well as two bull elephants fighting. It was an incredible experience and I found it quite an adrenalin rush considering our new knowledge about how dangerous they could be. At one point our jeep was about 5 meters from an elephant and while I snapped as many pictures my heart was thumping at the though of what this wild beast was capable of.

At the end of the day we were treated to another traditional style Sri Lankan meal cooked by the locals and we discussed a plan of action. The following day we managed to put together a plan based on some research we found on elephant/human conflict in other elephant abundant countries together with the information we gained from our trip. Hopefully something positive will eventuate and the people will learn to live in peace with these magnificent animals.
Safari style!

two bull elephants fighting head to head

A little calf elephant

Monday, April 25, 2011

Letting go on Adam's Peak

Whilst at the elephant conservation center we are allowed to take weekends off if they aren't too busy, so along with two other volunteers we organised an overnight trip to Adam's Peak or Sri Pada as it is known in Sri Lanka. This holy mountain is a sacred mountain to Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims and stands at 2,243 meters high. At the top of this tear drop mountain is a footprint and legend has it that it is the footprint of the Buddha, while Christians believe it to be the first footprint of Adam from the bible hence the western name 'Adam's Peak'.

We had heard that it was best to get to the top to see the sunrise and this meant leaving our guesthouse at 2am!. I shared a room and a very small bed with the other female volunteer while Brent shared with the other male. During the night, my restless sleep was interrupted by a very strange dream about my late Grandmother. I woke in the middle of the night startled from my dream, covered in sweat with tears rolling down my cheeks and decided then and there to dedicate my climb to my Grandmother as my way of finally saying goodbye.

We set off in high spirits at 2am and began climbing stair after stair along with thousands of Buddhist pilgrims who chanted and sang the entire way up the mountain. The dedication of these people was incredible, with young women carrying their babies, elderly people slowly hovering up the steps and even a one-legged man on crutches. The path is dotted with little tea-stops and we made one refuel stop before continuing on. Not surprisingly it started to rain on our way up and the four of us shivered and dripped in our very unprepared outfits.

About three quarters of the way up I bought a single lotus flower from a man selling offerings to Buddha. I decided I would lay my flower down at the top for my Grandmother. The flower was tightly closed when I purchased it, but as I slowly made my way to the top of the mountain in the pouring rain, my flower completely opened its petals, strangely moving me to tears once again. As I reached the top of the mountain I prostrated respectfully to the Buddha and left my flower and Grandmother at last, at the top of the mountain.
There was something extremely magical and spiritual about walking up those steps in the dark and the rain amongst such devout Buddhists. Unfortunately the rain was so heavy by the time we reached the top that there was no sign of a sunset or any sort of a view or 'footprint' but I felt a huge weight lift off my shoulders at being able to finally let my Grandmother go in such a beautiful place.
Suzi, me and Kate wearing our Buddhist bracelets

Adam's Peak

The start of the walk

The walk down in daylight with a lot less people

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Teaching in Sri Lanka

Teaching in Sri Lanka is understandably nothing like teaching in Australia. To begin with, the teaching takes place outside on the concrete under a tin roof. There is a blackboard and nothing else - no chairs, desks or most importantly lights, which means while I take my one-two hour English lesson in the afternoon as the monsoonal rain belts down, the children squint to see me and my well-intended resources. I also need to  yell quite loudly in order to compete with the crashing thunder and sound of rain belting on the tin roof.

I really had no idea what to expect on the first day but I wasn't surprised to find 20 odd children ranging from 4 to 16 years old waiting eagerly to learn something when my tuk-tuk pulled up in front of their 'school'. I had heard a range of reviews about their level of English but after the first day  found that it varied from non-existent to reasonable with those who can speak English having mainly memorised things in a particular rote order, including the letters of the alphabet which many struggle to identify if asked randomly.

Obviously it is quite a challenge teaching to such a broad range of abilities but their appreciation and beautiful smiling faces make it more than worth while. I didn't bring any resources with me and even left my computer back in India with all my teaching ideas and plans on the desktop but I have managed to rack my brain for enough lesson ideas that are adjustable enough to the different levels. Ideally, splitting the children into ability groups would make their experience much better but as there are no pens or paper or resources each group would require a 'teacher' to support them and of the 10 or so volunteers working here, Brent is the only one I can convince to come along. Yesterday I discovered the children love to play Bingo, so I spent the day creating Bingo cards that have simple sight words instead of numbers so hopefully that will be a hit and a good teaching point for today.
The children making letters in groups with their bodies - this is a T

Using the floor and chalk instead of pencil and paper

Word Bingo