Category Archives: People

{Live to the point of tears}

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I saw this wonderful quote by Camus on Twitter today and the first thing that came to my mind was a scene that I witnessed at the Kabal Tralac Village in Cambodia. We were playing ball with the kids when one of the SSF volunteers got them to gather around and they started singing this song. I was struggling to hold back my tears as they sang. Their voices were so beautiful and so energetic, and it was really a wonderful moment.

I’m aware that my language is getting simpler, simply because I cannot find the right words to justify how I felt in that moment.

富有生命力的局面, 让我很感动。

Sao Sary Foundation

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“The day before I set up the office for SSF, I had a dream where many children came running to me and asked me for help. I’m still looking for these children.” – Vichetr Uon

When we were kids, most of us were able to take comfort in the fact that we would always be able to turn to our parents for help and protection. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many children in Cambodia, some of whom are in high risk of being trafficked, abused or sexually exploited because their families are so poor.

When Vichetr Uon first visited Kampong Speu in 2006, he was shocked to see a family of 9 huddled around a bowl of rice water and living in conditions that were “15 years behind time”. Shortly after, he established Sao Sary Foundation, which now runs a child protection center in Kampong Speu and has undertaken several community projects to help the rural villages around the province. Despite many difficulties in getting through to the villagers at the beginning, SSF has come an incredibly long way and is now an esteemed partner in the community. Apart from being provided with a safe haven, the children are also given opportunities to study and some are even given scholarships to attend university.

WB and I were extremely fortunate to be able to accompany the teens from SSF to a few of the rural villages in Kampong Speu, where we witnessed first-hand the wonderful work that they are doing with their Bio-Sand Filter project.  Within a week of their installation, these bio-sand filters will provide potable water to the villagers, a luxury we have long taken for granted in Singapore.What we found most remarkable was the sense of empowerment given to the children and teenagers of SSF, as they are now the ones bringing out about change in the rural communities. That was our happiest day of the 9 we spent in Cambodia.

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SSF is currently transforming a three-storey building into a guesthouse that will also serve as a training center for hospitality. Slated to be done by end-January, it will have 6 bedrooms, a cafe, a large meeting room and several lounge areas for its guests and volunteers to hang out. I can’t wait to stay there!


Anusarnsunthorn

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One of the reasons I love the underwater world so much is the absolute serenity of silence. No matter how the waves crash over you or how a school of fish swim past your feet, the sound of silence is constant and therapeutic for that half an hour or so. Yet as much as I love it, that feeling of breaking through the water’s surface and hearing the cacophony of the earth rush back into my ears is always welcoming and energizing. That sensation reminds me that I’m back in reality again.

For many of the students at Anusarnsunthorn School for the Deaf (Chiangmai), their reality is like life underwater, 20ft deep. The sound of silence, whilst overwhelming to us, is familiar to them. Yet their actions do not reflect the stagnancy of silence. Instead, these children are constantly engaged in a dizzying array of activities. Be it dancing, playing volleyball, creating artistic masterpieces or even performing in a band, there is rarely a moment in which they are not making meaningful use of their time. I would even say that the average student there is a lot more “all-rounded” than our students in Singapore.

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Percussion performance during cultural night

Some of the dances put up by the students (:

(Videos courtesy of Glen Liang)

I must admit that I went there thinking that we would be able to impact these children’s lives with our fancy math and science educational manipulatives and our fun silk-screen printing techniques. Yet I was humbled by how their techniques in art far surpass ours. Their patience and attention to detail is amazing, and I believe that the inner serenity they possess plays a part.

In retrospect, I realize that I did not meet a single student who perceived their inability to hear as a disability. This, I believe, is credit that is largely due to the teachers who never allowed them to feel inferior to “normal” students. As educators, we are more than likely to encounter students who are “imperfect”. Yet instead of  being quick to condemn or place our own limitations on them, with patience and faith, we can help those who can’t hear to see meaning in producing beautiful music.

Click here to look at more photos of my time at Anusarnsunthorn (:

Bike for TNT!

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I’m not someone who exercises a lot. I probably visit the gym less than 10 times a year. However, I’ve noticed that I somehow enjoy giving myself physical challenges every year. 2 years ago, I participated in the NUS Legs & Paddle competition with Weibiao, which was a 5km run + 3km kayak race. Last year, I went on the Inka Train, a 45km hike over the course of 4 days that eventually led us to Macchu Picchu. This year, on May 1st, I will be embarking on a 42-mile (67.6km) bike tour around the five boroughs of New York City (Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island, Brooklyn and the Bronx).

I’m pretty excited about it because, to be honest, I haven’t been to the Bronx or Staten Island even after 4 years of being in the city, and doing this will perhaps be the perfect way to commemorate by life here before I leave in June. However, I’m also excited because I’m taking this opportunity to raise funds for Traveller Not Tourist (TNT), the organization in Arequipa that I volunteered with last June. If you click on the “Traveller Not Tourist” tag on the right, you’ll be able to see some of the articles I wrote on my experience there.

Please, please support me in this venture by donating some money (any sum will be appreciated!) to this cause. The money will go towards school supplies for the Flora Tristan school that I taught at, and also the Casa Holgar orphanage that TNT is supporting. They have been actively trying to raise money in the past few months to build a new orphanage as they are being forced to move out of their existing building. If you’re interested, you can also take part on their “Buy a Brick” scheme (more details here)!

To donate, please click here.

Muchas gracias from me and everyone at TNT!

Thank you so much! (:

How to Kopi?

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Image credits: mikeyeow.wordpress.com

Last weekend D got into a pretty heated dispute with a coffee shop uncle in Serangoon Central over how he should have ordered “kopi with milk and without sugar”. It might seem that that’s exactly how he should have ordered it – “Uncle! Kopi with milk and without sugar!” – but in Singapore coffee shop culture, there are specific names for these things which in my 22 years, I’ve never actually bothered to really take note of or remember.

According to Wiki, these are the different names for your kopi combo:

  • Kopi, coffee
  • Kopi-gau, coffee (strong brew – “gau” is “厚” in Hokkien)
  • Kopi-po, coffee (weak brew – “po” is “薄” in Hokkien)
  • Kopi-C, coffee with evaporated milk
  • Kopi-C-kosong, coffee with evaporated milk and no sugar (‘kosong” means empty in Malay)
  • Kopi-O, coffee with sugar only
  • Kopi-O-kosong, coffee without sugar or milk
  • Kopi-O-kosong-gau, a strong brew of coffee without sugar or milk
  • Kopi-bing or Kopi-ice, coffee with milk, sugar and ice
  • Kopi-xiu-dai, coffee with less sugar
  • Kopi-gah-dai, coffee with extra sweetened milk

What happened was that D wanted Kopi with regular milk but without sugar, but such a combination apparently does not exist, and the uncle made that extremely clear when he exclaimed in a really loud -and rude- voice: 这个我不会泡!你自己来泡啦!  And yet, D has been ordering this at coffee shops for all his life now. (Note that it’s also not Kopi-C-kosong in this case, because D wanted regular and not carnation milk.) D could not accept that he’d been using the wrong name for all these years, while the uncle, in all his kopi-making pride, could not be bothered to make the effort to try and understand what was wanted or explain why the term was erroneous. I, on the other hand, was completely lost in what all the different terms meant. I always order teh-O (tea with no milk, just sugar). And I’m quite willing to bet my iPhone that a good proportion of people in my generation can’t tell their xiu-dai from their kosong either. In a decade, these terms will probably die out or be replaced by lattes and fraps. How depressing.

Cochabamba: Raw Bolivia

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There are virtually no tourists in this city, which is slightly surprising since it holds the largest statue of Christ in the world. Yup, it’s 44cm taller than Christ the Redeemer in Brazil. WB and I are here because it’s the only way we can get to Parque Toro Toro to check out the dinosaur footprints and explore some caves.

On our first day we had pretty good vibes of the city. Even though we must be the only asians around, we weren’t attracting that much attention and the people here don’t seem as likely to spit on us as they do in La Paz.

Cochabamba is also somewhat like the food and market central of Bolivia; the Cochabambinos are fiercely proud of their food, and there are huge markets here that are reminiscient of Bangkok’s Chatchuchak.

This morning we were on a taxi to this street where we could supposedly find our bus tickets to Toro Toro. Halfway through our driver braked suddenly and made a U-turn. “Bloque! No paso!” The only way to get to our destination was to make a detour around the lake ( and pay an extra Bs/8). Not having much of a choice, we agreed. When we finally finishes touring the lake, we saw a group of men holding large sticks and shouting as they walked down the middle of the road. “Muy malo gente (very bad people),” our taxi driver shook his head and muttered. A second later one of the rioters began gesturing and shouting at him in rapid Spanish. He nodded hurriedly and told us to get off quickly and pointed us in the direction we were to go.

These men had big sticks, loud voices and they were not afraid to use either. They stood in the middle of the road and gestured angrily at the cars, and at one point yanked a cab driver out of his vehicle and began hitting his arm with a stick. An elderly lady we were walking by went pale with fright. “Es malo! Mi dios mi dios! (It’s bad! My god my god!)” Luckily the driver managed to scramble back in quickly enough but they continued to whack the back of his vehicle. It was pretty terrifying. WB and I tried to be a unobtrusive as possible and prayed that they had no grievances against tourists.

The taxis here are a recipe for adventure. Our taxi driver from the bus station back to the hostel hit the back of a motorcycle and the cyclist stumbled a little but was generally unharmed. No words, numbers, or IDs were exchanged- they looked hard at each other for a moment, each inspected their vehicle, and then went on their way.

Because of the strike, we’re not even sure if our bus to Toro Toro will still be running this evening. Hopefully the situation will be better in a few hours. Going off the gringo trail can be exciting and refreshing, but it sure as hell is scary too.

Lake Titicaca: Pooping with a View.

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I didn’t realize how long I hadn’t seen a full body of water until I arrived at Puno and stood at the port of Lake Titicaca. Somehow everything we’ve been looking at for the past month has been mostly very… solid. So standing at the port and not being able to see what was on the other end of the horizon was quite a refreshing change.

We bought our round-trip boat ticket to Isla Amantani for a super cheap S/30 (USD 5). Unknown to us, this included a free stop at the super commercialized but fascinating reed islands of Uros. I was actually quite annoyed with this detour because I’d mistakenly thought that all the islands (including Amantani) on Lake Titicaca were reed islands, and that Uros was the only super touristy one. Then I realized that it was probably impossible for a reed island to support “ruins on top of a hill” (Lonely Planet, 2010).

Isla Uros

Anyway, the reed islands are pretty cool. Walking on them is like being on one of those big bounce castles because they’re so spongy. The islanders place about 5-6 meters of reed on top of these fibrous rocks and then anchor them to the bottom of the lake. They have to be changed every 6 months when the reeds begin to rot. The islanders build everything out of the reeds- their houses, their look-out posts, their boats… Some of the boats definitely look like they would fit in perfectly in our Chingay parade.

A mini-representation of how the reed islands are built!

Islanders singing the tourists away

It's pretty amazing how everything floats.

Isla Amantani

It took an arduously long (3 hours!) boat ride before we reached Amantani. Just before we arrived, our captain took down all our names so that he could assign us to the different homestay families on the island. We were lucky to be assigned to Senora Josefina and her uber cute son, Nelson, but not so lucky that their house was up on the middle of the island, which involved us walking up a very steep slope with our 20kg backpacks and 5 kg daypacks (no porters this time :/). At a certain point, I was wheezing so hard I thought I was going to have an asthma attack. It definitely felt harder than anything I’d done on the Inca Trail. Sheesh.

Josefina and her husband, Senor Martin, have 10 kids, although 8 of them are now working in other Peruvian cities, leaving 9 year-old Nelson and his 15 year-old brother, Alex. We had lunch with them and they were extremely amused when WB put a handful of muña tea leaves into his tea-cup. (You’re only supposed to put 2 stalks.) They were laughing so hard they had to leave the room. After lunch (and a siesta!), Nelson brought us on a hike to see the ruins of Pachamama, which, guess what, was right on top of the island. More wheezing ensued.

The hike up to Pachamama; WB teaching Nelson English.

Halfway up the island, we suddenly heard someone shout, “la luna! (the moon!)”, and we turned to see half the moon peeking over the hill leading up to the Pachatata (Father Earth) ruins. It was the brightest moon I’d ever seen. I was quite stupified at this point because just behind me, the sun was slowly setting. It was the first time I’d ever seen the sun set and the moon rise simultaneously.

Getting up close and personal with la luna (:

After dinner, we went to the nightly “la fiesta” with our host family, dressed in the traditional Amantani garb. However we left after 20 minutes because it was overwhelmingly touristy. They were playing “Hey Jude” on their banjos. Not cool.

With our host family; Josefina, Alex, Martin and Nelson (:

Taquile

The day started off pretty sketchily because our boat to Taquile was experiencing some engine difficulties, and it was was rocking so hard that WB and I were afraid it was going to topple over. Being kia-see we were the only ones who wore our life-vests, lol. We arrived at the Taquile port not looking forward to the 500 steps we had to climb to get to the center of the island. A French lady on the boat was kind enough to help me with my daypack but WB made it to the top with both his heavy bags! Having sufficient sleep the night before definitely helped. The captain of the boat also helped us to ask ard for a place to stay at night and we ended up staying with señor Cesar. The hospitality that we received was tremendous.

We went to the town central to watch the celebration for the Fiesta de San Diego but before that could happen, we bumped into the other volunteers from TNT! It was such a great feeling meeting them again (: We learnt something interesting from their guide: on Taquile, all the men wear chullos but the color and type of chullo they wear indicate their social status. Married men wear fully red chullos while single men wear red and white chullos. They also have pom poms at the end of their chullos and if a single man puts his pom pom on his left shoulder, it means he’s looking for a partner! Married men also wear intricately woven belts, half of which are made out of their wife’s locks. All the us looked slightly put off at the mention of this. Haha.

Family reunion (:

After lunch we watched the different communities dancing in the main plaza. They have really elaborate costumes with colorful headgear and their dance kinda reminds me of the Turkish whirling dervishes. The women also have incredibly slim legs hidden beneath their billowy skirts.

Fiesta de San Diego!

The conquistador-inclined community.

Then we walked down to the ‘playa’ and on the way met a Singaporean who’s been living abroad for many years. Her accent was unmistakeable nevertheless. We were excited because she’s the first Singaporean we’ve met in the past 2 months. We later bumped into her family again whn we stopped at a restaurant for drinks. She called us “adventurous Singaporeans” and we talked about how much we miss laksa and hokkien mee.

Then WB and I spent an hour hiking up to the top of the island through the Andean terraces. On the way, I was extremely overwhelmed by the urge to poop and after much deliberation, I chose a spot behind one of the terrace walls and did what I had to do, but all the while I couldn’t stop thinking about how great life would be if every poop job involved a view of a vast lake and snowy peaks. So after the deed was done, I made sure to make a stone offering to Pachamama to thank her for being so damn beautiful.

We waited at a little stone sanctuary at the top of the mountain for the sunset. It got pretty cold at ard 4:30pm and we could hear the wind breathing through the rocks. The sunset over the surrounding islands was beautiful, but it was the moon rise over the frozen lake and Bolivia’s Cordillera real that really stole the show. I’m pretty sure that for now, it’s the most beautiful sight I’ve ever witnessed.

Moonlight over the frozen lake. Amazing.

Updates from Flora Tristan!

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Can’t believe it’s been 3 weeks since I’ve started teaching at Flora Tristan! Teaching has really been a joy here because the kids are so enthusiastic about learning. Here are some videos of the games we play in class:

Prepositions class:

On giving directions:

The kids are split into 2 teams. One member from each team is blindfolded and assigned to be either ‘cat’ or ‘mouse’. Their team members have to direct them through the maze to either catch/avoid being caught by the other member. This was such a big hit with the kids!

Also, more pictures of adorable kids to whet your appetite:

Daniel & Rodrigo playing "Restaurant" in class.

Top-spinning whizzes.

Weibiao teaching the older kids Mandarin.

Oh my heartbreaker.

Our blur babies.

Only 2 weeks left ):

Raving Rapids.

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Having been white-water rafting twice before (once in Costa Rica and once in upstate New York), I must confess I wasn’t too excited about white-water rafting in Arequipa since, you know, how different could it be? Well, that just teaches you never to be complacent about things, because this trip sure turned out to be one helluva exciting.

We were rafting down Rio Chili, a river 30 mins away from downtown Arequipa that weaves through gorgeous plantations, volcanic rock and peek-a-boo waterfalls. My raft had 5 of us including the instructor: Allie, Mesi, Weibiao and I, which basically mde it the lightest boat of the three. So anyway, we were just about to tackle this rapid called The Goal (and right before we did it, prophetic WB said, “Dont own goal ah!”) which involved us navigating the rock through two big rocks. Sounds simple enough right?

This is what happened next:

X marks The Goal.

Oops. Missed the goal but landed on the goalpost instead.

It's amazing that WB still has time to smile for the camera.

GOOAAAALL = GG.

So basically right when we were in “The Goal” itself, the raft got stuck on one of the rocks and our instructor Salvador, shouted “All left!” But just as we were all moving to the left, the raft got shifted thanks to the rapids INTO the goal and because we were no longer on the rock, all the weight on the raft was on the left and it tipped over. Mesi was the only one who managed to grab onto the raft but I floated away almost immediately. I was trying to remember what the instructor said about lying on your back and not standing up, until my butt scraped against a rock and I think I sat up in the water instinctively. And then, the raft that was about to rescue me must have swept over the rapids because suddenly I was UNDER that raft and struggling to swim as fast as I could to get out under it. I swear, it was THE SCARIEST three seconds of my life because I was trying to breathe under water but I couldn’t lift my head up cos the darn raft was above me. And I didn’t know how long more I could hold my breath for. So I was just kicking as hard as I could (can’t even remember if I had the paddle with me now), thinking it would be damn ironic if I died drowning since I’m most confident in water, until finally their raft must have moved sideways and I came up above the water gasping for air. Then someone extended their paddle to me and I grabbed it and I was then heaved up onto the boat. And this is the funny part: before I could even sit up and regain my nerves, TWO more people were thrown on top of me. So, I was just lying at the bottom of a giant heap of people, gasping for air (and feeling rather forlorn), hoping that I didn’t survive drowning to get suffocated to death. Anyway, it turned out to be WB and Allie! That rescue raft had a good 9 people on it before we went back to our original raft.

The swimmers survived!

We did several Class 4 rapids after that that had 1-3 m drops but wa lau, nothing was more exciting than that ‘goal’. We also took a little rest and did a ‘cliff’ jump from one of the rocks. That was quite nerve-wracking for me too cos good things generally don’t happen to me when I jump (e.g. rope burn at OBS) but it all turned out well in the end. Just felt like one of those things we all had to do and experience (:

Really raving rapids.

Leap of faith!

So there you go, my most exciting rafting trip to date. The landscape probably felt the most natural of the three times, simply because we always came very close to the rocks (had to duck several times plus the instructors seem to take perverse pleasure in making us smack into the boulders), and at certain points we were just rafting through white volcanic rock, which was amazing. Also helped that we had the Volcano Chachani smiling down at us in the background, and random waterfalls just popping out from the corners. It really felt like we were rafting in The Land Before Time.

Volcanic rock.

Peekture Perfect.

Third time’s the charm indeed.

Party Animals.

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Hey jiggle, jiggle,
Minnie and Daffy wiggled,
While the lion tried to eat the ass’ head.
The Arequipeños laughed
To see such a zoo
And the bull gave the cow a smackeroo!

El toro giving la tara a big kiss!

Halloween sure came early this year.

I’m proud to say that my adaptation of the nursery rhyme “Hey Diddle, Diddle” is 100% factually-based and inspired by Saturday’s costume party. We had all sorts of creatures: 2 asses (i.e. donkeys), a lion, a chicken, a pig, a bull, a cow, 2 mice (Mickey and Minnie), a duck (Daffy) and then 2 Incan royalties, a Roman gladiator, Zorro, a Super Creep, Miss AreCreepA, etc etc.

Most of the costume rental shops are in downtown Arequipa (Ave Siglio XX). They have an astonishing variety of costumes: from the above-mentioned animals (including gorillas, monkeys) to superhero characters to traditional Peruvian ethnic wear. Weibiao and I went as “Incan warrior royalties”. (It’s really an exaggeration of traditional Incan wear.) I had the most amazing headdress (replete with a real fish skull, jagged fish bones, fish scales, red and blue feathers and beads) and a dress with leopard preens and two skulls. WB was going to go as a mummy but decided on this Incan ceremonial garb that had one of the most elaborate embroidery that I’ve ever seen. Fashion came at a price though. The headgear was mad heavy, and I was paranoid the whole night about knocking into the chandelier in the house or stuffing my feathers into people’s faces while at the club.

Hello, my name is Xena.

Amazing detail on Weibiao's costume.

Things got pretty wacky at a certain point when we decided it would be fun to mix and match costumes. I never knew how hard all the walking stuffed animals/ cartoon characters at theme parks had it until I put on one of those animal heads. It was so hard to see and the silly head kept bobbing around my neck. As the night progressed, we started having lion-headed gladiators, dancing headless chickens, and an Incan Minnie.

Talk about cross-breeding!

Party animals in the volunteer house!

We went out to get takeaway Chifa (Chinese food) for dinner and befuddled quite a lot of the locals along the way. The Chifa hawkers very sincerely asked us if we were from the circus. Attracted even more attention when we went pub-crawling at Calle San Francisco. There was a lot of wolf-whistling, lip-smacking and shouts of ‘bonito!’ (pretty) and ‘muy bien!’ (very good). We were also let into (most) clubs instantly. Guess it’s not everyday that you have a whole zoo heating up your dance floor.

Having a good time with the locals (:

Much fun (: Dressing up should totally be a random affair and not something we only do on Halloween!

Click here for the Facebook album!