Monday, June 19, 2017

Singapore: 50 Shades of Green

Singapore was a surprise: clean, green, safe and friendly. Full of fabulous parks and green areas, an awesome public transport system and amazing zoos. Over a very short space of time this tiny country, barely bigger than most cities, has shown how you can take a high population density (3rd globally) and still have a very healthy, liveable, green and happy country/city. Called the greenest city in Asia, with a total green cover at 47%, a country barely the size of half of London accommodates over 5 million people. It does not feel that way, with the amount of greenery giving the impression of space and size. This has been by design with laws mandating that new developments replace greenery lost by installing roof gardens and cascading vertical gardens on the new buildings.

One of the highlights was the Gardens by the Bay. This is a large botanical complex with a wide variety of themed gardens and two huge specialty buildings, the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest. On top of all that it has these huge artificial structures they call Supertrees. Apart from looking amazing and being part of a twice nightly sound and light show they are also solar collectors and vertical gardens. The sound and light show was a 12 minute extravaganza on a Star Wars theme. You might well ask, 'But what about the power use?' Well, the park has its own biofuels power plant powered by its own waste, the domes are water collectors and as mentioned the supertrees produce power from the sun.

At 7 Tons this sculpture called 'Planet'
looks like it is floating.

We also bought a 4 park pass for the zoos: Jurong Bird Park, Singapore Zoo, Zoo's Night Safari and River Safari. All of them had a focus on education, conservation and species protection. Do not like to see animals behind bars but there was a large number of big unfenced bushland enclosures using other methods such as moats to ensure safety. So many beautiful animals in beautiful surroundings. With the help of the subway and bus system we trundled from park to park to park over a 3 day period. The 3 day tourist pass allowing unlimited use of public transport is very convenient and excellent value.

Monday, June 5, 2017

The final voyage of the Dawn Princess

Cruising is one of the most relaxing ways to travel. So when we decided to explore South East Asia and found out a ship from Fremantle can get us there, the decision was made. Then came the cat and mouse game of constantly checking prices to find the price sweet spot. When tickets got to nearly half their initial price (coming down to less than $100 each per day) we snapped them up. Never saw them go any lower.

A typical day for us started in the well stocked gym, trying every different machine and making muscles I did not know I had sore. Then a buffet breakfast with lots of gluten free choices, including amazing bread. The day was then filled with trivia games, Spanish lessons, dance lessons, gameshow challenges, amazing shows and solo performances, dancing and lots of food. Those not your cup of tea? Then there were pools, bars, casino, massages, outdoor games, bingo, cinemas or just go to the library and read a book or lie on deck and watch the ocean go by. It's up to you. It's like an alternate reality where the outside world does not exist.

One evening's dessert haul
As gluten free vegetarians we were incredibly well looked after. At dinner each night the waiters were always worried we were not eating enough and kept offering us extra salads and soups and would give us every gluten free dessert from creme brulee and apple crumble to flourless chocolate cake. We put on weight and had to cut back when we started feeling ill. They were killing us with kindness.

The ship stopped in five ports to allow day trip exploration. We left the ship twice, checking out Kuta beach in Bali and doing a tour in Penang. Bali was a pain getting out of the port as we were told to only use the blue bird taxis with meter on. But they are not allowed into the port area by non marked operators trying to push for fixed prices. If they come in they get chased out. This bit was not explained and we worked it out when we saw a taxi and tried to hail it but it drove off when a guy pressuring us for a deal made gestures at him. Eventually we realised we could get one by heading out of the port area and turning right (initially we turned left).

In Penang the highlight was the Entopia Butterfly Farm, where we got to release young butterflies that have never flown free before. One big fella hopped on Elizabeth and wouldn't get off. I used a piece of paper to gently prise him off her but he flew straight back on. I had to prise him off again and then shield Elizabeth so she could get out of the farm.

Batik Factory

During the other port days we stayed on board to enjoy the ship. These days were our best chances of winning at trivia as most of the passengers would go ashore (hopefully all of the smart ones). We also got to play table tennis and enjoy other normally busy activities. We did win once (a bottle of champagne) in a liar liar gameshow as it seems we are very good at picking the one person telling the truth.

There were a few special days. Elizabeth had her birthday on board. I had previously alerted the authorities to this occasion :-) so they were ready. It also happened to be the day of the Captain's address so everyone was treated to the sight of a huge champagne fountain on a tower of individually placed glasses. At dinner four waiters came over and sang happy birthday  and presented her with an individual birthday cake. They had a ceremony when we crossed the Equator; Neptune arrived and set upon some unsuspecting volunteers who've never crossed the Equator before and covered them in all manner of sticky and fluidy substances.

Champagne Fountain
Neptune in action

This was the last voyage of the ship as the Dawn Princess as it has been sold and will be re-named. So there was a special nostalgic feel about the trip and that came through from the crew. The ship had 2000 passengers and 1000 crew so it was like a mini city and chatting to so many new people brought out many stories: Eddie our cruise staffer (dancing and language instructor) from Venezuela who only a short while ago was skipping food queues to avoid starvation; the Philipino singer who put on a benefit concert last year to raise money for her mother's cancer operation; a trivia partner who met her cruise buddy on a Princess cruise one year ago; and a surprising number of staff from Peru who would query me about my Peru Hop T-shirt. How many stories has this ship seen? It was an interesting and very relaxing cruise.

Bon Voyage Dawn Princess

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Exploring the Kimberley

Kimberley trip 2016

Sorry this is under construction as I have not had time but want the order of trips preserved.

Coming soon...

Monday, April 17, 2017

Peru again.....and a bit of Bolivia too

I was worried Cusco and Machu Picchu might not seem as special second time around but Cusco was just as charming as on first inspection. And Machu Picchu was even better cos there was no rain and no rush. We got to spend a whole beautiful blue day there and saw the sun gate and lots of llamas ‘mowing’ the lawns. It’s been renovated but in a sensitive way that blends in with the original site - just more walls and more gardens and smoother paths to prevent injury.

Aguas Calientes has grown a bit with more hotels but is still as beautiful as ever.

The rest was new territory. Ollantaytambo turned out to be our favourite town. It's a living Inca town where people live in the original Inca houses on tiny cobbled streets and small canals run down every street carrying fresh water.  We stayed at Casa de Mama hostel which had a very friendly manager Victor and endless hot water, yay! (finally got to wash my hair). We visited the main ruins on the hill overlooking Ollantaytambo, which were very simple ancient walls but gave fantastic views over the surrounding countryside and farms in the Sacred Valley and the colourful native flowers growing all over the hillsides. Next day we trekked to some ruins on the other side of the valley just above Ollantaytambo which cost nothing and gave fabulous views over the old Inca houses in town and their lovely gardens and mini orchards.   

Practically all of Peru was perfect. Highlights were the Nazca Lines, Huacachina sand dunes (highest dunes in South America) and the islands on Lake Titicaca (highest altitude navigable lake in the world). The reed islands were the most interesting because they were so different but sadly we didn't get to stay on a reed island. But the island we did stay on overnight was beautiful - we felt as though we were on an island in the Mediterranean with the calm blue lake so huge it felt like an ocean and all the colourful flowers and buildings very Mediterranean as well.  We were billeted in a large hostel built by a middle-aged couple as their income source. After getting totally soaked on our rainy trek to the top of the island to watch the sunset, we were fed and dressed in warm traditional clothing and taken to the community hall to dance to music by a local band.  Next day we toured another 'Greek' island where a man gave us a great feed in his garden and demonstrated how they make shampoo from a plant that grows there.

Bolivia was all about Uyuni – the world’s largest salt desert – which took us two days of bus rides to get to. We set off from Puno on the shore of Lake Titicaca through beautiful high altitude hills with great views down over the lake on both the Peruvian and Bolivian sides. We could tell straightaway when we saw our first Bolivian town that this was a poorer country than Peru. When we finally reached Uyuni it was amazing. A friend in Australia had said to me when I told her I wanted to travel miles from anywhere to see the world's largest salt flats and Michael couldn't understand why, 'Well, think about it Elizabeth - salt flats!'

But what salt flats. They were endless and as it got nearer to sunset the textures and colours revealed themselves more strongly. By the time we got to the cactus island, our final stop on the tour, it was late afternoon and the walk around the island in the early evening sunshine was breathtaking. It's hard to describe the vast sparkling immenseness of it, you had to be there. But the photos certainly help!

We left so late - it was hard to drag ourselves away when the full sunset hit - we thought we were in danger of missing our overnight bus back to La Paz, Bolivia’s highest altitude city. But these tour operators obviously know what they're doing. They got us back just in time to grab a snack bar and jump on the bus (luckily they'd fed us well at lunch in a cave-like restaurant built entirely from salt).

We arrived at La Paz central bus station at 4am so we had a long wait before we could respectably arrive at our hostel. Stay in La Paz for a day to check out the views of the snow-capped mountains overlooking this highest altitude city in the world, eat at the 'vegetarian' restaurant Tierra Sana (Healthy Earth) which has non-vegetarian versions of all its vegetarian fare, then go. (And be prepared for taxes on everything, from the few metres trip from the bus station to the bus stop, to the tax at Cactus Island that you weren't told about in the tour itinerary.)
We stayed an extra 'unnecessary' day in La Paz: unnecessary for sight-seeing but necessary for recovery from our Uyuni trip - day and night on bus to get there, day there, whole night to get back. Yours truly then picked up a brochure at the hostel about the Peru/Bolivia Hop bus just as her long-suffering Michael was about to book us a plane to Lima for a few days' rest & a day trip to the Nazca lines, before flying home. 
So the last week of our trip was spent cramming in as many of the sights of Peru as we could by Hop bus. We went straight to Copacabana just before the border on the Bolivian side. It was in glorious sunshine so we planned to spend the day on Isla del Sol, a Bolivian island on Lake Titicaca, but there was an argument between the tour boats and the Islanders about money so they were on strike. Our consolation prize was to climb to the top of a hill overlooking the lake and enjoy the 'Mediterranean' scenery again. Onward to Arequipa which was supposed to be one of the most beautiful colonial cities in Peru. We were a little bit underwhelmed because the colonial part of the town was fairly small but our free walking tour explored the local market which sold interesting things like llama foetuses and cactus fruit. And ended at a restaurant which gave us free Pisco sours, our first Pisco sours since arriving in South America.

Next day we did a long day tour to Colca Canyon, the world's second deepest canyon - scenery was beautiful, sweet cactus fruit tasted like kiwifruit, sour cactus fruit was so sour it made my eyes water but the most amazing part was watching the condors gliding overhead. The canyon was pretty but not a patch on the Grand Canyon or any of the other canyons we've seen like the one on Kauai or the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado. Fun trip though with a nice bunch of travellers, a great buffet lunch and got to 5000 metres on a plateau where we saw lots of llamas.

Bussed to Nazca, which was a nice little town with the typical family-oriented central square like in most other Central and South American towns. The trip to Nazca passed through some beautiful desert hills winding right down to the Pacific Ocean. The very high and dry rocky dunes reminded me of the beautiful rockscapes in Morocco. Next day we did the light plane flight over the Nazca lines which was as much fun for the dipping and swerving plane ride as for the huge figures of birds, monkey etc..

By early afternoon we were back on the bus for a lightning trip to Huacachina which has the highest sand dunes in South America. Shame we could only stay an hour but we got the best hour of the day - sunset hour. Just had enough time to climb up one of the dunes and get a view of all the other surrounding dunes and the oasis below in the tiny town. Then on to Lima where we arrived late at night to crash in a comfortable hostel room right opposite Kennedy Park. So we got to say a brief hello to the cats of Kennedy Park next morning on our way to pick up our bright red Peru Hop T-shirts and zip in a taxi to the airport.
The cats of Lima

videoThe reed islands of Lake Titicaca

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Volunteering in Peru

March 2016 - ‘Home’ again in Cusco – this time for 3 weeks instead of 3 days. It definitely feels like home as we settle in for 3 intense weeks of voluntary teaching and Spanish language study. We live with local lady Carola who feeds us tantalising tropical fruit breakfasts and wonderfully filling vegetarian gluten free dinners in her cosy suburban apartment.

We teach for half the day at Inti Runakunaq Wasin School (Kechuan for House of the Men of the Sun) and it turns out to be one of the happiest teaching experiences of our lives. We finally get to team teach, which we’ve dreamed of since we first became teachers over a decade ago. The work is incredibly rewarding because the children are so enthusiastic and appreciative. They range in age from 6 to 13 years, boys outnumber girls 3 to 1, and the school is running a program for them during school holidays because they come from disadvantaged backgrounds. We teach them English during the morning and their other teachers run classes in practical skills like art, gardening and cooking.

We work pretty much non-stop from 9.30 to 1.00 but it’s still hard to tear ourselves away and by the end of the 3 weeks we really don’t want to leave. The children are making such great progress and we have so many ideas buzzing around in our heads about new topics to teach them. We learn heaps from the children about their culture, especially on the day Michael turns 55 and nearly gets his head pushed into his non-gluten free birthday cake. He manages to close his mouth just in time so his lips only get grazed by the icing.

Turns out the cultural norm in Latin America is to squash birthday boy or girl face down into their cake before everyone eats it: a messy, unhygienic and hilarious custom. Michael only escaped because he yelled out, ‘I’m allergic to my cake – I couldn’t get a gluten free one’ when the attack began. We also learnt more about Peruvian food as we were often invited to stay for lunch, which was made by the cook with assistance from the children and served in the classroom.  

The school has its own dog, that would meet us each morning

My Birthday

Last Day with the class :-(

Looking at what they had made in crafts

Cleaning up after lunch