Tag Archives: Wonders

{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。

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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!


i ♥ volcanoes

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I am so in love with volcanoes. They are so majestic- seemingly silent but actually raging inside with such power and energy. They leave scorch marks in their wake and yet cradle colourful bodies of water. Their grounds are fertile and lush and their shapes unexpected and unpredictable.

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View of Mount Kintamani (Bali) from our restaurant. It had been completely obstructed by clouds when we first got there but this gorgeous view was slowly unveiled over the course of our meal.

So far I’ve seen volcanoes in Costa Rica, Japan, Peru, Guatemala and now, Indonesia. In Antigua (Guatemala) my friends and I had the fortune of climbing Volcan de Agua in our pjs and roasting marshmallows at the top. Definitely redefining pyjama party, if you ask me. I was quite disappointed that we didn’t get to see any lava because the volcano had erupted in May of the previous year. Thanks to our errant tour guide though, we definitely had our fair share of adventure on the trek up!

The pyjama team a.k.a Singapore's national dress code for volcano-climbing

Volcanic rock that crumbled underneath our feet

Okay, I don’t know if I’m being greedy but if I could see this I would definitely die happy. Until then I will aspire to see some lava action in Hawaii. Someday.

 

//edit

I just read a post on Volcano Boarding in Nicaragua and it looks amazing!!! Damn, another thing to add on the volcano lust list.

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 (:

If I had all the time (and guts)…

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I would travel Southwestern Bolivia on a mule.

My mule (whom I would call ‘Muse’) and I would probably start off from the town of Uyuni. We’d trot slowly as the hordes of 4WDs zoom past us and we’d be alone to appreciate the emptiness of the salt flats. We would hear the rhythmic crunch of the salt under Muse’s hooves, and see where the volcanoes define the horizon’s edge. There is something strangely calming about being a tiny speck of a person (or animal) amidst that great expanse of blankness.

We would probably take a day, instead of 2 hours, to reach Isla Incahuasi, an island that sprouts hundreds of phallic-shaped cactuses. By then, all the tour groups would have left. I would then hike up to the top of the island and take in my surroundings. (Ideally by this time I should have learnt how to paint as well. Cameras are amazing, but they can’t capture the way cacti glow in the sunlight, or the way the sunsets here are a special kind of purplish-pink.) I would spend an hour or so painting the view before me; it shouldn’t be too hard since everything is white. Then I would pitch my tent on the salt flat (not sure if this is legal actually), and equipped with the warmest sleeping bag and wind-resistant tent, I would wait for the howling winds to sweep salt onto my tent. Come nightfall, I would stick my head out of the tent and watch the Milky Way stretch across the sky, accompanied by an infinite number of twinkling stars. And if I’m as lucky as I’ve been, I would wait eagerly for the shooting stars to streak across the sky, and wish each time for a life as good as this.

Isla Incahuasi

Muse and I would probably spend about a month making our way across the Altiplano and the Atacama Desert. We will pass by many volcanoes on the way, and if I’m feeling fit enough, I might be encouraged to climb one. We will laugh at all the tourists bouncing uncomfortably in their 4WDs (although we would not be so pleased with the clouds of dust they generate). We would trot past fantastical lava formations, past colourful volcanoes with multiple craters, and on lucky days, we will arrive at lagoons filled with flamingos. We will be amazed at how these haughty, fragile-looking creatures can survive in such a desolate and harsh environment and marvel at the way they strut across the frozen lagoon like models on a runway. Muse would also have a lot of time to graze as I attempt to paint these beautiful creatures in flight. On our journey, Muse would also make a lot of new friends with the wandering Andean foxes, llamas and vicuynas. They seem to be pretty friendly and curious creatures.

Flamingos flourishing in the smelly sulfuric lagoon.

Volcano of Seven Colours; The yellow parts mark where the sulphur from the different craters are.

Crazy geyser activity; The lava is only 700m below surface!

It would be an extremely difficult journey given the crazily cold climate and lack of food or water. And knowing me, we will definitely get lost at some point. But then again, being lost is a concept that can only exist when you have a specific destination and time-frame. And since I would have all the time in the world, the only thing I could really be lost in is the beauty of my surroundings.

Parque Toro Toro: Land Before Time

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Our joyride!

As with all Bolivian journeys, getting there is half the adventure. We were a little anxious about our bus from Cochabamba to Toro Toro since we´d received conflicting information about the location and timing of the bus ride from everyone. We ended up getting our tickets from Trans Toro Toro at Av. Republica and Av. Barrientos for the 6:30pm bus.

6:30 pm: Our bus is a real character. It looks like it´s about 10 years overdue for refurbishment. The seats are almost completely ripped at the seams and look like they are ideal nesting habitats for mice and roaches. The only available light on the bus are 4 tiny, exposed bulbs. Unsurprisingly, the bus is overbooked and there are about 5 people standing on the aisle, each with a huge bundle of something.

7:00pm: The bus has finally left. WB and I are sitting in the last row and as a result every bump and rattle is experienced manifold. It´s like being on an OSIM uGallop gone awry. I can´t even dig my nose without the fear of jabbing my finger all the way into my nostril. The brakes also have a gasping hollow screech.

8:30pm: WB just saw a sign that said “92 km a Cochabamba”. We´re very happy entertaining ourselves with the thought that this journey is going to end in 2 hours at the speed this bus is travelling.

11:40pm: The bus stopped abruptly to let a whole bunch of villagers get off. People are moving all sorts of barang down, including televisions. My legs are beginning to feel numb. Economy class syndrome?

12:30 am: We are still driving uphill with no apparent end in sight. I have two people snoozing on my shoulders and I need to poop very urgently. With fewer people on the bus, the ride is even bumpier.

12:45 am: Suddenly I can spot a dozen glowing lights in the distance.  A mirage? It looks so inviting.

12:49 am: Not a mirage!! We´ve finally arrived. Thank God Felix from Villa Etelvina (where we´re staying) is still waiting for us at the bus stop; the bus driver and a villager had very convincingly pointed us in the opposite direction when we didn´t see Felix at first. Hmm.

Umajalanta Trek

We woke up early on Saturday to look for a guide (Bs 100/day) at the Tourist Information office. Toro Toro is tiny- there are three main streets, one school, and two churches. At the office, we´re really lucky to be just in time to join a group of 4 people who are headed on a trek to the Umajalanta cave, which is 6.5km away from the town. (We´re also really lucky that the other people in our group can speak both Spanish and English and hence can help us translate! There are no English-speaking guides here.)

Parque Tor0 Toro would probably be every geog- lover´s paradise. The volcanic eruptions of yesteryear and the active seismic activity have resulted in the formation of hills that look like they have been dramatically and abruptly sliced in half. As it is the dry season now, the rivers are completely parched and the exposed sedimentation is pretty spectacular. This area also used to be home to dinsosaurs. There is a theory that the multitude of dinosaur tracks found here were made when the dinosaurs were fleeing a volcanic eruption, after which the lava swept over the clay and resulted in the fossilized footprints.

Mr Moo looking for some water in the parched river.

Tracks of the Carnosauria.. which I suspect is the Spanish term for any carnivorous dino.

We finally arrived at the cave after hiking for about 3 hours. The trail is pretty moderate (quite a lot of walking uphill and some nasty thorny paths) and we saw (and heard) a lot of sheep and blur-looking mules along the way. Our descent in the cave was pretty exciting. Our guide had to hook up his rope several times for us to rappel down (not having helmets also made it pretty exciting) and there was a lot of heaving, climbing and sliding involved. But the best part was when we had to go completely flat on our bellies so as to crawl through the tunnels. We Asians got the last laugh then! Heehee. There were also some amazing stalactite and stalagmite formations; so old they´ve melded together to form colums in the cave. Some of the stalactites were also slightly hollow and produced music when we tapped on them. At the end of our descent, we also came to a pool of water with tons of white blind fish. It was pretty funny how they kept bumping into each other while swimming around.

They look more blur than me, no?

Fantastical cave columns!

Literally stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Vergel Trek

We met up with our group and guide again the next day to do the ´classic´ Vergel trek, which is delightfully only 8km long. The scenery wasn´t quite as stunning as the day before, although we did get to walk along a dried river bed for about 1km and see the internal structure of what would be a waterfall in the rainy season. We also saw humongous footprints belonging to the Brontosauras today; they´re so big a baby (or WB now that he has lost so much weight) would fit pretty nicely in them. We also trekked down the canyon (466 steps!) to the falls of El Vergel, a lush oasis in this arid, arid land. On the way back, Pablo brought us to see more dinosaur footprints. There were several criss-crossing tracks made by both the herbivores and carnivores. Very cool (:

Rainy season: Waterfall. Dry season: Rock theater where theatrical performances are held!

Massive footprint of the Brontosaurus!

**We were supposed to go to Potosi after but there is a bloqueo on all roads leading there so we´re in Oruro now, waiting to head to the Uyuni salt flats tonight. We made this last minute decision at the bus station last night and arrived in Oruro at 2am last night, without a hostel to stay. This city is also freaking cold compared to Cochabamba. Anyway, there is also a bloqueo on the atas train to Uyuni so now we have to take the scary cold bus. Sian.

Pictures tomorrow when I can get wifi! The internet cafe here is pretty crappy.

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.

Travelling Without Tourists.

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For some reason, WB and I have been very blessed with meeting minimal tourists in most of the places we’ve travelled to in Peru so far. You know how it’s annoying when you go somewhere, and there are hordes of tour groups, tours in 10 different languages, and people everywhere taking photos? Amazingly, we’ve had very little of that, even though we’ve seen some truly spectacular sights. Here are some of the off-the-tourist-radar places we’ve been to:

Toro Muerto Petroglyphs, Castilla.


I was pretty convinced we had walked into one of Dali’s paintings. Or onto the moon. The 1,500 petroglyphs in Toro Muerto are scattered haphazardly across acres of white volcanic sand, and we were the only people in that entire expanse, surrounded by all these rocks with fantastical and mysterious symbols on them. There are two theories as to why the petroglyphs exist. Some people believe that the Incans carved these symbols on rocks to educate their descendants  (for example, about the best place to fish or hunt), while others think that they were merely documenting the animals/landscapes/parties they saw.

Animal Depictions. From left: The lizard, the puma and the falcon.

The Cat and The Serpent.

Incans worshipping and welcoming their god. with fire.

A symbolic map. The zig-zag lines represent the mountain range, the dots represent the areas good for hunting, and the thick line in between represents the river.

Party scene!

There used to be more than 5000 petroglyphs but many of them were pillaged and destroyed to build churches and farms. It is worrying though, as to how many will continue to disintegrate or be ruined since there seems to be no real system of preservation. Much as our guide was great, WB and I had a mini heart attack everytime he rubbed his finger along the petroglyph to explain what the symbols meant. There was also graffiti left behind by idiots who probably felt that that was the only way they could make a mark in history. Since it’s not necessary to visit a guide, the handling of the petroglyphs is really left to the individual’s discretion.

Chauchilla Cemetry, Nazca

Set in a desert about 45 minutes away from central Nazca, this was a cemetery meant for the elite Nazca folk. There are 13 ‘open’ graves, and it’s just bizarre to see grinning, toothless skulls sitting neatly in a row. Some still have huge and extremely long ponytails extending out of their skulls. Apparently, hair length was an indication of status then. It’s still very well preserved because the arid conditions and lack of humidity in the desert help in retarding the process of decomposition.  As we walked from grave to grave, we could also see tiny fragments of human bones and pieces of cotton that were used to wrap the mummies up.

Burial of the elite.

You can tell they died happy!

Someone forgot their dentures.

Cahuachi, Nazca

Cahuachi was once the capital of Nazca (from 500 BC to 500 AD), but it was abandoned after it was struck by earthquakes and then floods. Rediscovered in 1985, it is still undergoing extensive excavation. There are supposedly 40 pyramids altogether, but there is only one distinctive one that has been excavated so far. There are also many tombs here and archaeologists have been discovering a lot of bones and ceramics. I found my first legit human bone too!

The lost city of Cahuachi.

Supposedly a human femur. What do you think?

Local cemetery en route to Cahuachi.

Somehow, it just felt as if we were on the cusp of something big, and who knows? Maybe one of these will be the Giza of the future. Well, we were there first! Or early, at least. Getting off the gringo trail definitely pays off (: