2018

This time last year, I was freaking out a little bit. I had quit my job, didn’t have anything lined up apart from occasionally CRTing, and I was looking down the barrel of 6 months of no real routine.

I started putting in place things to do on certain days- a faux routine that would see me through these uncertain months before I left for Thailand.

Looking back, it’s clear I wasn’t fully committed to this trusting God with everything- letting go of control- thing I had written so much about.

Fast forward 12 months later and I still don’t have it down pat, but it’s definitely getting easier. I’m getting better, in all sorts of ways.

2018 is another year of change for me- I’m travelling until April, when I arrive in Melbourne with no job but with good friends and connections which will hopefully see my CRTing and tutoring while looking for a new one. 2018 also sees me going to the UK- a choice I made today after seeing cheap flights… clearly some part of me has changed- I’m normally a bit scared to book things on whims, so this is a good step I think! And beyond that, I don’t know what else 2018 will bring.

I’m going to be working my way through a devotional book based on Proverbs- the first two studies have discussed the nature of wisdom- what it is, what it isn’t. Already, I can feel God pushing a theme for my year onto my heart

Wisdom- seeking it out and seeking the one who is and gives all wisdom.

Making wise- though not necessarily cautious or timid- choices

Encouraging others in wisdom

Learning from wise people I come into contact with and learning with them

Spending my time and money wisely- though not with miserly tendencies in either case

Treating my body wisely, exercising well, eating well and listening to what its saying to me

As I walk into 2018, I look forward to seeing what I will learn, how I will grow, what I will gain and what I will lose (rice fat!). I invite you to walk with me- what do you think your theme for the year will be?

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Burmese Days- Part One…

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I was really conflicted about going to Burma at first. Its history of human rights abuse, the ongoing issues with the Rohinga, the lesser known issues with the ongoing civil war between different ethnic groups… there are plenty of reasons to avoid the nation- boycotting it so the government won’t profit from any travel that you do in the area. But there are also so many reasons to visit the country- the people (those who are really suffering, the victims of the government’s choices and rule) benefit from your patronage of their shops, townships and villages, and when you travel to Burma, you have the opportunity to learn about the nation, its tumultuous history and how it has changed, in new and different ways to the learning you can do outside its borders.

Of course, it is all too easy to avoid learning anything about Burmese history while in Burma, I was surprised (although, on reflection, not that surprised) at how hard it was to elicit any discussion from the Burmese people I met about what life used to be like under the junta- responses from text books and newspapers that I could read at home about things that were different now were the norm but I didn’t really get to discuss any serious issues while over there and if you travel there now, unless you try to go somewhere that is banned for tourists, you would have no idea that any human rights abuses were occurring. It would be very easy to go, walk through beautiful scenery, take selfies in front of temples, eat your weight in deep fried food, and remain ignorant of Burma’s past, present or tenuous future.

I personally don’t think this is solely a reason to avoid the country- every nation- my own included- has human rights abuse in its past (and sadly, often present) which it doesn’t talk about. I think one must decide for themselves if they are to travel to “problematic” countries, and how they will do so in the most ethical and mindful way possible, if that is a concern to them (which I think it should be for everyone).

To provide you with a decision re: travel to Burma is not the purpose of this blog, I just wanted to preface my recollections with the reasons behind my choice. At the end, I’ll briefly detail what I did to ensure I felt at peace with my travel decisions and some helpful blogs.

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Burma was always with me when I was in Thailand- in the news, in my work, in my interactions with students, colleagues, friends… it loomed large in my mind and its presence dominated my thoughts.

I knew I was going to be travelling there after I finished my time at Free Bird Café and I was filled with anticipation. I kind of assumed it would just be like Thailand- Chiang Mai, but maybe a bit poorer. The place I came to know was not that of my assumptions- it was vastly foreign and eerily… old. Burma felt like the plane I had flown over in was actually a TARDIS- taking me just outside of my time stream into one which had some bits of the world I’m familiar with- thrust over with no explanation or infrastructure- but still retained the old world of Orwell, military rule, thanaka in equal measures.

When I exited the tiny Yangon airport, I was immediately taken aback by the fact that every taxi driver I saw was wearing the traditional longyi- old, young, some in uniform, some privately owned companies… this wasn’t unique to the airport. 90% of men I saw were in longyis… and looked incredible. Beau, one of the Belgians on my tour, worked in fashion and fell in love with the style- I have to admit, I did too. It was classy and comfortable- able to be easily customised, easy to move and work in, easy to dress up or down. It was fabulous. The women also wore traditional dress more often than not- beautifully tailored in silks, lotus, cotton longyis and strictly structured shirts which elongated and beautified their every move.

I arrived around lunch time and as usual when arriving in a new city, walked aimlessly around the streets. I knew the river was at one end of my street so I walked down it; pass tea shops, betel nut sellers, books strewn over tarps ranging in subject from fiction to high school chemistry text books, to cookbooks in both Myanmar and English. I may have picked up a Burmese cookbook on day one. I really do have a problem. As I passed through these streets, I never felt unsafe, but I never felt as welcome or comfortable as I do in Chiang Mai. The stench of colonialism is still present in Yangon and the tourists are few and far between. But the stares I received were not hostile, they were curious- if anything. The areas I was walking- first down back streets of the city and then along the river, a seemingly quasi residential spot, were hardly the glittering pagodas and well manicured parks that I was shown on my walking tour the next day. I was seeing the city proper, and I’m glad I did. From the rattan ball bouncing off the skilful feet of young and old men to the cool tamarind juice which quenched my thirst, even to the fight I witnessed as I walked past the ferry to the village not ten minutes away from the modern hustle and bustle I was living amongst- this was a different reality to that which I was used to.

That night, I went to a restaurant which was training young, disenfranchised Burmese people in hospitality skills. The food was delicious, the location hidden away up a flight of steep, steep stairs, and the waiters and waitresses were pleasant, eager to please and eager to learn.

The next day I went across on the ferry to the island village across the river. Again, the boat ride was a portal to the past and the poor- the poverty was shocking and striking when held up against the neighbouring city. The longyis were tattered and the faces were grubby, the children’s hands outstretched, the rickshaw riders and tuk tuk drivers more insistent and intrusive than I’ve ever experienced. I walked for a while along dusty streets before I realised this was one place that I not knowing where I was going was probably a bit of an issue. I hailed down a rickshaw rider (poor lad. Must lose rice fat) and he biked me around the island to the temples- a patch on the pagodas on the mainland- fishing communities, rice growing communities… conversing in few words “picture?”, “you buy?” before taking me back to the ferry where I hid from the touts and the fruit, pickle, betel nut sellers- staring out across the murky water which separated the two pieces of land in so many ways.

That night I met my Stray crew- 3 other travellers and our guide. The whole tour was Belgian and all extremely lovely. We shared BBQ together, trying new and strange things, and at the end of the night I walked back to my hotel with a bag of watermelon and a cup of sugarcane juice, content and excited for the 10 days to come.

Woops. Burma is not Thailand and one can probably not quite trust the watermelon that one sees on the street. Or maybe it was ice. Regardless, I did not feel well the next day and as we walked around one of the biggest pagodas in Burma, snapping photos of gold and jewels, each other and other people taking photos of us- locals amazed by our pale skin and the height of my Belgian companions, I began to feel worse and worse. Luckily, the afternoon was ours to do with what we will- I collapsed onto a bed- praying and messaging prayerful friends to ask them to pray I would feel better by that evening when we were travelling by bus on unknown roads.

By evening, the rest, prayer and lack of food paid off- I was feeling marginally better, ate a few mouthfuls of plain rice and some Burmese yakult, and slept through the evening despite the horrendous roads. Miracle.

That morning we arrived in time for our first Bagan sunrise and high tailed it to an ancient temple to watch the first rays of light break. Even though it was cloudy, it was magical and upon the crumbling chedi I reflected on how blessed and lucky I am to be here. The sky was changing fast and we drove to a few other temples- some more intact than others- before settling down for breakfast where I felt well enough for some toast. The rest of the day we spent scooting around on electronic scooters, checking out the dusty plains of Bagan- temples scattered everywhere and the history nerd in me just wanted to walk into their walls- see those who worshipped, lived amongst and revered these temples, before they were victims of time, war and tourism. I didn’t think about it at the time but if I went again, I’m not sure I would climb the chedis. While they were clearly meant to be climbed, originally, I’m not sure how damaging my footprints were.

I also went walking in this town- exploring the river and the roads- experiencing much more of Bagan than I was intending when I got completely lost with no data, wifi or physical map. It’s not that big of a city and I quickly found a vaguely familiar road, but I discovered a few more backstreets with their cows, goats and children washing in creeks, in amongst the temples I was used to. Sunset saw us back amongst the old temples and it was just as beautiful (more so…) than the rising sun.

Day 2 of Bagan was another sunrise, this time with balloons punctuating the unsure sky. The pictures speak for themselves and a thousand words were spawned in my poets mind, some spewing onto paper- or Instagram caption. We got bikes again, scooting to surrounding villages which specialised in different handicrafts. Our guide knew the families we visited well and set aside my worries of going to “model” villages. These people were craftsmen of the highest quality and it was a pleasure to see them work. After riding through the villages, I suggested a boat ride down the Irrewaddy which took us to another temple, a fisherman’s house on the banks, and allowed us to settle in for a spectacular sunrise over the water- different to anything we’d seen so far.

The next day was a long bus ride- hair raising for many reasons, the bends, break neck speeds, blind over taking, average food at the pit stop… but it took us to Kalaw where it was chilly, rural and most importantly, the starting point for our two day trek which would take us to Inle Lake- the thing I was most looking forward to on my journey through Old Burma…

Why would you do that?

It was around April when a girl at my gym asked me this question. She asked it with absolute shock, disbelief, and a hint of scorn. I had clearly, in her eyes, made a stupid decision- one that I would regret, sooner probably, rather than later. And fair enough, quitting your extremely stable, reasonably well paying job at a lovely school with wonderful teachers, understanding leadership and seriously great students does sound pretty extreme… but, to be honest, extreme was what I was going for.

6 months ago, I waved goodbye to freezing cold Melbourne, Australia- home of my heart and soul- and moved to the hot, wet embrace of Chiang Mai, Thailand. I had all sorts of reasons for doing so- I needed to get out of my comfort zone, test my ability to trust God, give myself a chance to heal from my clean eating and exercise obsession, do something different, get out of Melbourne winter… the list goes on. But one of the most important driving factors which forced me to buy an (initially) one way ticket to Thailand was my passion for refugees.

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This is not the blog post for discussing the human rights abuses my government is currently committing in my name- if you want to talk with me about that, we can do so at another time- but their actions, or sometimes lack thereof, made me want to do something real related to the refugee crisis. I’ve always donated food and money to local refugee organisations, participated in online and physical protests, incorporated refugee narratives into my classes (in a remarkably unbiased manner, I’m proud to say), and voted with my feet and money by visiting and using organisations, enterprises, restaurants, businesses etc which support, educate and employ refugees who come to my beloved nation. I’ve tried to make them feel welcome, even when media rhetoric spews out bile indicating that they are not.

But it didn’t feel like enough. I wanted to do something long term, sustainable and helpful- and I still want to do this when I get home. Combine this passion with all my other reasons for flying the nest, and you come to the answer to the above question:

I couldn’t NOT do it.

But the story started much earlier than that encounter, obviously, and even earlier than I’m going to go into here (again, not the purpose of this piece), but my journey tangibly began when I first started researching what was then a mere pipe dream. I spent hours, stolen in between feverish marking, exam supervising (sorry…), workouts, brunch dates, and episodes of Masterchef and Doctor Who, googling the different opportunities there were to teach English in Thailand.

Spoiler alert: There are LOTS.

Many of them are paid jobs in either local or international schools, some of them place you as a live in tutor in a (very) rich family, some of them are more like an agency which sets you up as a substitute teacher in different schools. I decided I didn’t want a paid position- it wasn’t my purpose in coming to Thailand.

So, I narrowed my search: “volunteer English teaching in Thailand”.

Again, lots of results. All over the country. Lots of very short term placements came up, with beautifully curated websites with lots of pictures of happy children being hugged by happier westerners. These looked promising… but as I looked more into it, delving into google to try to find blogs about the experiences of people on these programs, I started to realise that these were also not the sort of organisations I wanted to support. They were often quite new, geared toward people with no teaching experience who they expected (it seemed from blog posts) to come up with lessons on the spot with no training, resulting in a lot of games being played and not a lot of learning. They were geared toward one or two week placements… not something long term like what I wanted.

So I thought about what I really wanted, where I wanted to go, prayed a lot, and found myself googling:

“volunteer english teaching + chiang mai + refugees”

And there it was. Maybe 5th or 6th on the first page of results:

“Thai Freedom House: No one is free while others are oppressed”

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I clicked. I read. I knew, instantly, this was going to be the place for me.

The volunteer information listed on the website was detailed and thorough- there was clearly a precedent for long term volunteers, and they weren’t going to mess around with just anyone. You could tell that this was a place that valued commitment and was not just a halfway house for privileged white travelers (of which I am totally one) to get their happy snaps with kids before moving on to the next party. This was a place that had existed for 12 years (10 years when I first started researching it) and was clearly doing incredible work. They also had a vegetarian (now vegan) healthy cafe and didn’t just teach English, but provided a space for Burmese (specifically but not exclusively; Shan or Tai Yai) refugees to call their own, feel safe and express themselves authentically. They  provided art, Thai, Burmese, and Shan classes so students of all ages could be creative, exist more harmoniously in the place they were currently living, be able to communicate with government officials if they ever returned to Burma, and most importantly- stay connected with their heritage and learn their mother tongue. They also had Shan dance and cultural classes. I knew I wanted to be a part of this experience.

I favourited the page, downloaded the application, and set myself a date in about 6 months for when I would complete it- roughly a year before I was intending to depart.

That date came quickly and I sent off my application. Emails to and from Lisa Nesser (the founder of Thai Freedom House and Free Bird Cafe) followed and we finally decided on a start date- 6 months later than I initially intended- but which ended up being perfect as it meant I was absent for the low, smokey season, but present in the busy lead up to the dry, high season. I will forever be grateful to Lisa for looking out for me in my planning.

In that time, I bought my tickets, roughly planned the other parts of my travel which I’m doing post-placement, wrapped up my school year, started another couple of jobs to tide me over and provide me with a bit more spending money, and paid my dues to TFH. I decided that I would go with the option to be hosted by them, meaning that I paid a flat rate and they would provide me with accommodation, lunch every work day, the placement, a bike, a sim card on arrival, in country orientation, pick up from the airport/train/bus station, some Thai language materials and other handy bits and pieces. I’m so glad I did this- my apartment is awesome, close to everything, has a beautiful view and I didn’t have to think about it at all, so good for me, as you sure as hell know I would over think it in a major way.

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I’ll be honest, I was a little nervous when I was arriving in Chiang Mai, as I knew Lisa was still in the States herself (our skype interview had taken place the week prior) and I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I really needn’t have worried. I was met by one of the past students and then staff of Thai Freedom House who is now studying at university in Chiang Mai! He took me first to my apartment, then took me to Free Bird Cafe where I met the staff of the cafe- all of whom welcomed me warmly and made me feel part of the Freedom House Family immediately. I was given a tour of the market, shown where a chemist, post office, and 7/11 was, along with some Thai lessons and a lesson on Thai culture and etiquette.

This feeling of family only increased when Lisa arrived. She and I sat down together to first discuss the goals of the organisation, the history of both TFH and Burma’s issues with its ethnic minorities, and her personal history which led her to this point. This orientation was so appreciated, important and worthwhile; it placed me in a headspace of respect for the work of TFH and made me place immense importance on what I do here.

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As we talked, we sorted out what needs TFH had and what I could do to meet those needs. We decided that I would work on developing a 12 week curriculum for the beginner and intermediate English classes, along with a partnering curriculum for students looking to go into further study- known as “The Pathways” curriculum. I would also help with the Hospitality Training program as both a tutor for the cafe’s amazing waitress, and a contributor to lesson plans, activities and resources. In addition to this, I would also be teaching English one night a week to a class of students ranging from 8 to adults. My hours would be 10-2 on Monday and Friday, 10-8 on Tuesday and 10-6 on Wednesday and Thursday. I would have a lunch break at 1 where I would receive the lunch the chef made for me (best. part. of. the. day) and could grab a tea in the morning when I came in.

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This structure and the obvious needs I would be fulfilling warmed my heart and continues to do so today. Lisa is so encouraging and direct about her expectations that I was always sure of what I would be doing and how it would be used- there was never a point where I felt like I was doing busy work- every thing- whether it be a lesson plan or finding the right picture for a flashcard- had a purpose and a point and this became a trend as I started completing tasks and still is, even now, with less than a week left. My time is valued by Lisa and by our students, and because of that, it’s extremely easy to value theirs and live up to the expectations set by Lisa’s example.

While my days are structured and consistent, they’re also varied and exciting! On Mondays, I teach and chat to our server about the different things she needs to know as a waitress. I’ve even had to teach some very basic maths (bye, bye comfort zone!)! After class, we have lunch together as a family- a highlight of my week, one which really emphasises the power of this organisation and the way it empowers those who pass through its doors.

Tuesday nights, I get to spend my evening with a group of crazy kids who love John Cena, Harry Potter and GOT7 and who are SO eager to learn that they come to TFH after already spending the day at school.

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Wednesdays, I get to host a lunch which invites the women of Chiang Mai- every nationality, creed, colour, religion, class, career- to meet new people, make new friends and connect in a city which could be quite isolating if you let it. I’ve met so many people through this lunch and I’m so grateful for the chance to host it and help other women find their tribe-for-a-time.

My days are never dull, never boring, never repetitive (except for that stage when I was making flashcards…) and most importantly, never worthless. I know, for certain, that the work I do here has lasting consequences, lasting impact and lasting worth.

 

Thank you to Lisa for making me feel so at home in this place and giving me so much responsibility. You are an inspiration to all who meet you and to many more who never will. Thank you for the hope that you spread, the education you freely provide (and not only to the students, but to all those who come to Free Bird Cafe), and the example that your life displays that one person can choose to make a difference- regardless of what the rest of the world thinks.

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If you’re considering volunteering in Chiang Mai- or anywhere, really- I urge you to find a place that will make you feel the same way. Not just for a moment, but for good.

Because that’s why we do it- that’s “why I would do that” random girl from gym…

For good.

(And if you are coming to Chiang Mai, come and visit Free Bird Cafe. If you’re looking to volunteer somewhere and want a truly worthwhile, work based volunteer placement, check out Thai Freedom House.)

 

Cycles of Life – Penang P2

After my ill fated but still highly recommended food tour, I fell into a total food coma, hoping to wake up hungry before my long awaited cycling tour the next day.

While I did wake up with plenty of time for a street food breakfast, my stomach was having none of it. I wasn’t hungry at all and the smells I experienced as I wandered around, trying fruitlessly to work up some sort of grumbling in my stomach just made me feel slightly nauseous. Super annoying on any day, but on the day of a cycling trip? Downright disruptive! Anyway, I wandered, empty handed and empty stomached back to my Airbnb to await my pick up by Matahari Cycles. They were on time, the van was super comfortable and I actually really enjoyed being one of the first pick ups as it meant I got to see some of the other areas of Penang- and see how the other half travel!! The hotel that we stopped at first was like something out of Getaway or Luxury Escapes and while I do love my flashpacker lifestyle, there were certainly some hints of envy tugging at my heart.

It also gave me a hint to the route I could take to my mum’s old house and I got extremely excited as we passed by the old swimming pools she used to train at. It seemed relatively easy to find and navigate to, so I knew I would find it the next day.

Eventually, we had picked everyone up and were soon winding our away around the hills of Penang, avoiding the cyclists for whom this must have been a regular pilgrimage. I became very glad that we were being driven for this section as it went on for quite a while. We soon arrived at a tiny village, in the middle of nowhere really, on the other side of Penang Island. We seemed to be in a different world entirely than that of Georgetown and its heritage listed street art. This was proper, rural living- a world away from the city life I was so used to. I love nature and so was thrilled by the opportunity to escape.

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It wasn’t a total escape, however… there was still a 7/11 and so, even though I wasn’t hungry I knew I needed to eat something or my body just wouldn’t do well on the ride. Dried chickpeas were my friend for the morning. We met up with our awesome guides and after receiving the run down on the bikes (amazing, Giant brand, mountain bikes with everything a girl could want except a padded seat) which had been set for our heights which we had sent through earlier. It was so smooth, organised and it filled me with confidence for the rest of the day.

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The ride itself was incredible, we rode through the back streets of villages, past schools (closed for the holiday), farms and canals; through palm plantations, mangroves and over rice paddies. The riding was mostly flat and therefore really easy, although riding through the rice fields was mildly terrifying and a few people did fall- they weren’t hurt and Matahari dealt with it fine- but still, if you’re not confident on a bike- take the longer way around (which they did tell us to do!).

The highlights of the day were the stops we made- first, an unplanned one at a local Mosque where they were marking a Holy Day which marks the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son and the mercy of God in providing a lamb instead. Vegans or vegos may want to stop reading now as the way they marked this particular day was by slaughtering livestock and dividing the meat into three portions- one as a sacrifice to Allah, one to give to the poor and one to feed themselves. We were lucky enough to see the portioning process and be invited to learn more about it, take photos etc. It was incredible to see and I felt really lucky to experience it.

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The next was a planned stop at a local goat farm where we got to try goat’s milk ice cream (which my stomach actually totally appreciated by this stage), pat adorable goats and also learn about some of the local farming methods and plants they cultivated in the area, such as rubber.

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Our next stop was tea and kaya toast (and curry puffs) at a local fishing village. Again, my stomach appreciated these tasty treats (though I don’t think I’ll be indulging in kaya much in the future- it was very sweet and I was grateful for the blandness of the toast itself to balance it out). We also saw how the fishermen sorted their “subcatch” from the nets. While a catch might be mainly large fish, the nets also pick up much smaller fish- destined for pet food or those fish ball things depending on quality-, prawns and other crustaceans and, I was pleased to see not too much, litter. So, these men and women would squat down and pick out the debris and subcatch from their nets, separating and sorting it as they went. It was a long process and by the time we were there at around 11, they were almost finished, starting the job in the wee hours of the morning.

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We cycled for another hour and a half or so before we came to our lunch spot- overlooking rice fields which stretched out to the horizon was a little bamboo hut- loaded with, glasses of nutmeg juice, bowls of laksa and plates of fresh fruit. It was a welcome sight and a beautiful one, at that. I could only eat a few mouthfuls of laksa- I think partly due to the fishy-ness of the dish of which I’m not a fan, and also because of my stomach issues that day. I think I was still full from my toast- ridiculously. The fruit and nutmeg juice was very welcome, however, and I felt ready to take on the final stage.

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Now, I had booked “The Twist”- an optional ending to the tour which was billed as a challenging climb. I’m fine with climbs as long as I have gears but I realised on the tour that this wasn’t a road climb, it was a mountain bike climb on very rough tracks which often got quite skinny and were always extremely bumpy. I’m certainly no wimp, but I’ve never mountain biked before and I was also very aware of the fact that what climbs up must also climb down. One of the guys in our group had done this ride in reverse and said the climb required you to carry your bike part of the way and there were sections that he had to focus entirely on controlling his bike so he didn’t fall.

And he was experienced.

Scared for my limbs, I spoke to our guide and he suggested that we turn it into a hike for me and the other girl who was now having second thoughts. Our reverse ride friend was fine to ride himself and we would meet him on the other side. I was overjoyed and excited. I love, love, love hiking and was totally pumped to be able to incorporate my two great loves on one trip.

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I’ve never been so thankful in all my life- the climb was steep, yes, but more than that, it was treacherous. AND the views were magnificent- something I wouldn’t have seen if I had been on my bike as I would have been staring at the track in front of me the entire time.

This section of the tour was cool too- we stopped in front of cacao tree (as in CHOCOLATE) and there was a ripe pod which our guide picked and beat open for us to taste. Cacao fruit is DELICIOUS- similar to mangosteen in texture and taste- and not at all like I was envisaging.

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The climb ended and we started heading down and it’s then that I really became grateful- this wouldn’t have been any fun for nervous little me. Plus, the other girl and I were chatting away about all sorts of things which again, would NOT have happened had we been on bikes. I feel like my vocab would have been limited to grunting, swallowed screams and muttered unmentionables as I toppled over on what I’m sure would have been regular occasions.

When we reached the bottom, we were both so glad that we hadn’t skipped “The Twist” entirely- the views of the beaches were stunning during the hike, but the beach itself was so chilled out. There was a hammock, a restaurant with drinks waiting for us and a plate of noodles too. I had a few mouthfuls but again, my stomach betrayed me and resisted the deliciousness despite the amount of energy I had exerted that day.

After relaxing at the beach for a while, Matahari drove us home again, dropping me at my door where I looked forward to scrubbing myself clean in my lovely shower before exploring Georgetown and its festival! The day was already so great that I was a little skeptical that it could get much better.

I can’t emphasise enough how excellently run and organised Matahari was and I HIGHLY recommend them to anyone who likes cycling. It’s such a great way to see Penang and you really do get off the tourist track. I can’t encourage you enough to give them go if you’re heading to Malaysia- it was an incredible day.

 

Revisiting a shared memory…

I’ve never been to Malaysia before. I’ve never even had a layover there. I’ve never had reason to use my tiny amount of Bahasa Indonesian which is leftover from years 3-8 and so very similar to Bahasa Malay…

But sometimes I feel like I have.

Not so much because so many of my closest friends have their ancestral roots in Malaysia and so when they travel to visit their families I see lots of photos and hear lots of tales of the malls of KL and the splashes of the theme park there.

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More because of my own family history. Despite the fact that I am as white bread as they come, I have my own roots laid down in Malaysian soil. My granddad was in the RAAF and as you may be aware, there is an Australian Air Force base situated in Penang which he was stationed at for about 2 and a half years. My grandmother, mother and two uncles joined him and lived there, in the humidity and the heat and exotic haze- a family of five forever intertwined with the cultural heritage of that tiny island which is already so culturally diverse.

So, when I set foot there and hopped on a bus across the island- I didn’t feel so much like a foreigner, but more like someone who was returning to a dream. I’d heard so much about this place of fresh seafood straight from street vendors who didn’t just pass on their wares, but also the dirtiest words of their language to my infant uncle; this land of Chinese Swimming Clubs and monsoonal rains; this land of murtabak and chilli and curries and the call to prayer. I was prepared for the experience of revisiting this new/old place to feel strange but I don’t think I was quite as prepared as I originally thought.

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Walking through Georgetown- with it’s heritage listed status and therefore it’s unchangedness- was like walking through a faded postcard. The houses were colourful, magical… an explosion of nostalgia and history which ticked every box I have. Cycling through the relatively quiet streets- especially on a cool Sunday morning- to explore and discover the street art before the hordes of tourists with selfie sticks descended only enhanced the feeling that I shared more than I knew with this old-new-familiar-foreign place. When I rode through the city to a hipster filled market, I knew that Penang knew me better than I ever thought it could.

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When I booked my flights to Penang, I wanted- more than anything- to visit the house, or at least the area, my family lived in. I love and miss everyone who lived there very much at the moment and my granddad passed away 5 years ago now. I thought by visiting their old neighbourhood, I’d feel their presence so strongly and while I was hoping for this- I didn’t really expect it.

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But when I arrived at the address and the trees were large and the house looked old- foreign- amongst the redone and renovated town houses surrounding it, I could feel the ghosts surrounding me. This was more than I hoped for. This was authentic and this road was the one my uncles and mum walked along everyday on their way to school. This tree which was once small, now shades the window of my mum’s old bedroom. This home housed my Grandma and Granddad, protecting them against the lashings of monsoonal rain- the cool tiles providing some comfort from the tropical heat. My uncle had a paddling pool in the front yard where there is now a motorbike. This house, this place, was a part of my history- despite the fact that my skin was now, after riding there in the hot morning sun, bright red- a feature that belies my EnglishIrishScottish blood.

The illusion of belonging was broken a little when a lady peeked out of the curtains- reminding me that this is not just mine and I am very much an outsider in this street, city, island, country, continent- but belonging is more than skin, it’s more than blood, it’s about where you feel you belong and where the people accept you.

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After my journey to the past, I rode to the aforementioned hipster market and got talking to a lady selling kefir (because of course I did). She asked what I had been doing in Penang and I told her that I had just visited my mother’s old house. She smiled wide and said she remembered fondly the Australian officers who worked in Penang and Butterworth, remembered the makeshift bars and remembered the RAAF school which my mum and uncle attended. She said- honestly and genuinely- that I should bring my mother and grandmother back with me next time, that she would take us to the places they would know, they would remember. She said “welcome back” to me.

Belonging is about how you feel, where you feel accepted, where you feel a part of a shared past.

And Penang- against all odds- held that for me.

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//

Also- I wish Identity and Belonging was still a part of the English curriculum because dayum, sample piece for Mind of a Thief for days…

I’ll post more about what I actually DID in Penang soon. I just felt like writing something other than what would essentially be a review post.

Recent happenings…

I’m currently on my way to Mae Sai to do a border run, necessary to keep my visa valid. I could have done a 30 day extension in town, but that’s 1900 baht, plus the cost it takes to get there and back (unknown but red trucks aren’t always super honest about places beyond the old city) and it’s super unpredictable in terms of wait time etc. 

I decided instead to just commit to being out for the day, do a border run (the tickets cost less than 500 baht return) to the Burmese border, pay my (hopefully) $10 to go into Burma (or 500baht- but the USD is a bit cheaper… but not always accepted so we’ll see!) have some lunch and a bit of an explore around the border town before hopping back on the bus. Yes, it takes longer but in the end, I think it’ll be a much better experience than sitting in an immigration office surrounded by other expats! Plus the drive is offering up some beautiful views!

Some things which have been happening recently: 

  • I organised a trip to and hiked through Doi Inthanon national park! It was an adventure from the moment I posted the notice asking if anyone wanted to join, but definitely worth it! In the end there were 7 of us who took the plunge and went on the tour, ably led by our guide “Mr P”. Throughout the trek, he told us about and showed us various herbal medicines, bush tucker (Thai style) and tools which could be found in the jungle. The hike itself was really chilled, gently undulating with some pretty intense downhills at points. There were a few slippages here and there but no one was seriously injured… despite the threat of mudfoot/bootmud/wetboot… all the names we came up with when trying to remember what trench foot was called after falling into a waterfall and soaking our socks and shoes. One highlight of the day was finding out about Mr P’s life- he was a monk for 12 years as a teenager and went into the service because it offered free education, food and accommodation. I found this really interesting and wonder how many monks do the same for the same reasons and if this has ever been a consideration for Christian ministry in the past- particularly in places like Ireland etc. Another highlight was the food. Mr P and our two porters cooked us up a true feast of chicken and tofu roasted over the open fire, sticky rice and the most amazing vegetables which were wrapped in a banana leaf pouch and steamed over the fire also. They were amazing. We ate our fill of this, and beautiful fresh fruit under the canopy of the jungle, waterfall in the background, while sitting on a tarp of banana leaves. It was pretty magical. If you’re ever in Chiang Mai, I highly recommend doing a tour with Pooh’s Eco Trekking. They’re absolutely wonderful. 
  • At work, we’ve farewelled Jack but welcomed a new face to the team! Jing, who used to work in the kitchen is now back in Thailand so her little boy can go to school here! She’s so lovely and it’s been great getting to know her. P ohn, our current chef and my student, will be leaving us soon 😞 but Jing is super great so I’ll recover.
  • I went to an amazing dance performance which I understand less than half of. But it was very cool and I loved seeing the different styles of story telling they utilised 
  • I’ve been tutoring P ohn and Yim for the last two weeks, going over the menu and looking at our vocab words- linking verbs like slicing and dicing to the dishes they’re used in. We’ve also watched some videos which they narrated- naming the ingredients and actions of the chefs. 
  • It’s been really good to start getting to know Yim and P ohn a bit more- Yim showed me a video of her presenting her mum with a Mother’s Day present and P ohn told me how she was spoilt this weekend too. I showed them some pictures of my parents and am reliably informed that I look like them- a cross between, which is a good thing!
  • My bike tyres go flat very quickly which can make it very hard to ride with confidence. 
  • I’ve met some amazing people over here- the latest being a documentary film maker whose new project sounds so amazing I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re seeing it nominated for awards in the very near future
  • Speaking of documentaries, if you haven’t seen “I am not your negro” then you definitely should. Important and beautifully made and devastating film. I wish it weren’t so relevant. 
  • We’ve had some groups come through recently and it’s been cool to meet people who are so invested in helping grassroots organisations like FBC. If you’re coming to Chiang Mai with a school group or similar, please consider booking a visit with us! You get lunch, a talk and a q and a session. I also got to hear Seng Lao’s story for the first time. She’s one of our ex students who then worked in the cafe, kitchen and then in the office while preparing for uni- which is where she is now! The adversity which she has had to overcome makes me feel exceptionally guilty for any complaints I made about my own education experience and her gratitude and maturity are well beyond her years- though she’s lived through more than most of us ever will. 
  • I used this service called wash drop to wash my sheets and it was the greatest thing ever. I love clean sheets. 
  • Waxing is still an adventure every single time.
  • Thai massages are the best way to recover from hiking- but be prepared for tiny ladies to dig their elbows into your calves and hamstrings because they’re “so tight”. 
  • Only seen 4 rats. Heard more but walked into the road to avoid any chance of seeing them. Good life choice. 
  • Booked my River Kwai trip! I finally got the hotels.com issue sorted after a lot of (reasonably) calm but clearly pissed off interactions. I have decided I’m just doing it myself because then I can decide what I want to see and when. Accomodation is all sorted too! I’m staying in a bungalow on the river (not a hostel!)
  • Almost finished creating resources at work! I wish I was able to use existing stuff but I’m much too much of a control freak for that
  • Finally got to talk to my bestie this week. Makes a huge difference, even if it’s just a short burst 🙂 
  • Said goodbye to my new friend Jennifer on Sunday 😦 I’ll miss our foodie adventures and shared outrage over old white men being gross
  • Have slightly fallen in love with 10baht bags of chia seeds, collagen jelly (both with no sugar) filled up with hot soy milk. It’s so lovely- especially after getting caught in the rain! 
  • I’m getting better at avoiding/being prepared for the rain
  • I bought a cactus for my room! Well, it’s a family of cacti. I’ll introduce them soon. 
  • I have a watch tan. 
  • I’m constantly shocked by the smallness of the world. I visited a new church on Sunday (which I think will become my church) and I met a couple there who knows the Conibear family really well and hosts the group from Maranartha which comes everywhere- which I went to a trivia night to support when I was back in Melbourne! This is the second time I’ve met people with intimate connections to students. What even. 
  • It’s hard to update your voting details while overseas. Regardless, I’m trying! Voting is a right people died for and even in a non binding, non compulsory, totally unnecessary plebiscite, I intend to honour the responsibility that it is to vote. 
  • I have two sets of little dumbbells! Along with my TRX and resistance band, they’re making workouts a lot more fun!  
  • I did the fish spa thing. It was very weird and my friend Larissa and I were very giggly the whole time. 

Hopefully that’s a bit of an update on life in Chiang Mai! Miss you all- although apparently it was Parent Teacher Interviews recently so… not that much 😂 

Love you! 😘😘

Thai Tidbits

I thought I should do a quick little post. I haven’t done anything “special” recently- I’m going to Pai this weekend which will warrant a blog post soon- but every day is filled with something cool! Here are 5 little things which have happened in the last MONTH I’ve been here which aren’t particularly of note but which characterise my time in Chiang Mai.

  1. I finally decided that I needed to wax my hippy-vegan-femme-tacular legs (they were starting to bother me a little bit, but to be honest, I never felt particularly self conscious about the hair. A nice change from home when a tiny bit of stubble caused me to wear tights on beautiful days…) and so went into a little salon that looked clean and reasonably priced… I managed to convey I wanted a half leg wax and so the lady motioned for me to sit on the low couch and stick my leg out. In the main shop. Just in the open. Now, I’m assuming (hoping) it would have been different for a full wax or God forbid, a brazilian, but for a half leg it was fine, if not a little amusing. I was given a free bottle of water and LOTS of compliments that I was “SO WHITE”. It was the smoothest and most pain free wax I’ve ever had so will be back next time.
  2. There are plenty of Facebook expat groups which people update pretty regularly with questions, local events, services, recommendations for cafes, inane banter, bitcoin advice and requests for meetups! I love these groups because it means I have a social life and it keeps me up to date with what’s on around town, even if I can’t go this particular week- it’s pretty likely that it will be on again. In one of these groups, a man (who I later learn is SPOILER ALERT lovely) posted asking for volunteers for a special kind of Thai massage as he is currently training and needs to practice on people as much as possible. This sounded a) amazing [yay! Free!] but b) suss as hell. So, I messaged him and asked:
    Where is the massage located?
    What parts of the body are massaged? and
    What would I be wearing?
    He responded quickly that it was in a public temple training school, it was full body apart from the normal areas avoided in FBM and that I would be fisherman pants and a loose top. I quickly responded that I would LOVE to be a guinea pig for this massage practice and I WAS NOT disappointed. Simon was LOVELY and I’ll definitely be back to help him out again. I know it’s a sacrifice and even I’m shocked at how altruistic I am, but sometimes you just have to give back.
  3. During my cooking class, we went to a market (like most classes) and the lady took us to a stall with- according to her- over 50 kinds of garlic. It was all I could do not to just DIE in happiness. The love that Thai’s have for garlic in their food knows no bounds and one of my favourite things is the regularity of getting raw slices of garlic on the side to add to my curry or soup or stir fry. Honestly, SO delicious. Speaking of delicious things, one of my most favourite street food snacks has become whole roasted sweet potato- cooked over the grill. A bag of them will set you back 20baht or so and it’s literally just sweet potato. Makes a nice change of carb from rice- though I do love that too.
  4. I did a boxing class recently which  was SUPER awesome and I need to go back (I literally have something on every night this week which means I can’t do this week) but I was struck (heh) by how different it was from boxing back home… mainly in the physicality of the instructor! I don’t think I’ve ever been slapped so much. “Power from HERE (slaps thigh) and  HERE (slaps shoulder)” “Hands Up! (lightly hits me on the JAW!)” It was definitely an experience and one which taught me to a) loosen up- (I never felt unsafe or anything! It was just the style of teaching) and b) keep my guard up!
  5. I know I keep posting about this but OMG the rain. Rainy season is not a misnomer in any way. It rains at least once a day and  when it rains, it pours. It can be beautiful in the morning and then pour in the afternoon, or vice versa, or just threaten all day, or something else entirely. I’ve become better at bringing my gorman around with me everywhere but I’ve also just started to embrace it at times. It does sometimes suck when you’re on the bike, at night, though. Not a fan of riding in the dark and the rain. It makes me feel like my travel insurance is being voided, haha. But if you stay in because of the rain then you’re not going to get anything done so you just need to BE PREPARED and also, be prepared to change your plans- something I’m learning to accept 🙂

There’s lots more of course, from my tutoring of the chef at Free Bird Cafe to my adventures in trying to find sugar free bread to becoming lost almost every Sunday morning getting to church, to my weekly runs which have been different every week so far, to my daily workouts/sweatfests, to my attendance at zumba/aerobics thing… every day is slightly different and it’s been so wonderful to have a casual routine but to also have let go of control and instead just trusted that I’m going to be ok, whatever happens.

Cool things coming up:

  • I’m going to Pai this weekend (literally the most spontaneous thing I’ve ever done) for the Jazz festival!
  • I have a church BBQ on Friday night
  • My visa run to Penang in September! I’ve booked a food tour for my first night there and a cycle tour for the Saturday. I CANNOT wait. It looks so beautiful.
  • think I’m going to go trekking in Doi Inthanon in August… it depends how many people I can recruit.
  • Class starting on the 4th of September!!

Hope you guys are enjoying the blog- if you have any questions about anything, every day life or otherwise, feel free to comment 🙂

Love and miss you all,

Amy xx