Stolen Meme

Well, appropriated is probably more accurate, as I will credit this meme to the Sydney Morning Herald – weekend edition.

Right off the bat, I confess two things in this blog entry:

One. I used to pretend I had my own cooking show. Granted I was a pre-teen when I did this, but whenever I was cooking for the family, I would talk to the kitchen wall (a la Shirley Valentine) as though it were a camera, and explain my cooking techniques, step by step. I developed quite a sparkling repartee. I gave this practice up years ago, but on occasion I still fantasize about having my own cooking show. Perhaps this is why I have become a celebrity chef groupie (Rick Stein kissed me once – on the lips!).

Two. I used to pretend that I was on Oprah. This fantasy is more recent – from my university days when I dreamed of fame and glory for my brilliant acting career (yet to eventuate). I would do this pretending when I was driving. I was charming, self-deprecating and suitably humble when I responded to her probing and insightful questions. Unfortunately, the closest I ever came to living that dream was when I went to Madame Tussaud’s in London and posed with her wax figure (she’s quite tall by the way).

So, this brings us to the meme.

I was indulging one of my weekend pleasures, reading the papers, dissecting them, ranking the supplements from least desirable to most intriguing, and then poring over the pages. I came across this meme (a series of questions to answer), the subject of which was Myf Warhurst, who is brilliant and funny, and truly knowledgeable about all things music. From there I worked around to the appropriation. I would indulge my childhood fantasies and in essence interview myself. Until The Herald calls me for the real deal, this will do.

My earliest memory is being in hospital. I was 18 months old, and was there because I had stopped breathing. I was sitting at a small wooden table with other kids, eating Weetbix for breakfast. Later I went missing. They found me in the men’s room, peeking into the showers. (I started young.)

At school I was bossy, too smart for my own good, and a bit of a loner. I excelled in handstands and asking too many questions. In high school I quit the handstands, but was still hugely unpopular, because I had a Texan accent (from living in Texas – not just for fun), and wore makeup in a school full of Aussie chicks who preferred sneakers with skirts and bare faces.

My first relationship was with Shane (I forget his last name). We were 10 years old. He let me look at his Star Wars book, which had photographs from the film. I secretly wanted to be with Mark Hamill, but we were together for almost a whole month – Shane, not Mark Hamill.

I don’t like talking about injuries, surgery, childbirth and other gory stuff. Just talking about it creeps me out.

I wish I’d never worn glasses without lenses in them because I thought they looked cool. It was the 80s. Enough said.

My parents always told me that I could tell them anything.

I wish I had straight hair.

I wish I hadn’t obsessed about a boy called Jeremy all through high school.

My last meal would be in Greece: fresh bread, tomatoes, tzatziki and olive oil.

I am very bad at ball sports. Just don’t throw it, kick it, or pass it to me.

Friends say I am silly, naughty, lucky, bold.

The song I would like played at my funeral is Wonderwall, by Oasis.

If only I could be paid to travel – again.

The last big belly laugh I had was today, on the phone to Ben. He is that smart kind of funny, the kind that is sexy.

What I don’t find amusing is inconsideration. In traffic, at the gym, in shops. Not funny, not cool, not nice.

Cat or dog. Dog, but don’t tell my cat that.

If I were a car I’d be Seriously? This is a question? Why not, ‘If I were a tree I’d be’? Or ‘If I were an animal I’d be’? (A Peugot 307, a camouflage gum, a turtle – just in case you were wondering). Silly question.

I often wonder how things will work out. They always do – often better than I could imagine – but it doesn’t stop me wondering.

That’s all for now…

Traveller or Tourist?

Years ago in another lifetime, I was a tour manager in Europe. I was responsible for running coach tours – 21 to 35 days for a well-known touring company popular with 18-35 year olds. My responsibilities ranged from accompanying a client to the hospital in Venice, to nursing broken hearts and hang-overs, and everything imaginable in between. One of my favourite parts of the trip took place on day one of the tour. We would leave London early morning, and drive to Paris by late afternoon. On the drive from London to Dover, where we would catch the ferry to Calais, I would give my ‘First Day Talk’.

The First Day Talk was a marathon of public speaking. It could take up to two hours, which may seem long, but when you are about to spend 24/7 with 50 strangers for the better part of a month, there are a few ground rules to lay. I covered toilets (not as available in Europe as in other parts of the world), and sleeping arrangements (I was not employed to hook people up), and departure times (I would – and had – left people behind). I also covered money, language, weather, clothing, behaviour, drinking, and food, but the grand finale of the talk was the ‘traveller versus tourist challenge’.

“A traveller,” I would begin, “is someone who tries new food and new experiences, who embraces differences from home, who is flexible and willing to ‘give it a go’. A traveller is interested in getting to know a place, and is keen to attempt the language. A traveller will appreciate that things in Europe are far more expensive than in Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. A traveller will want to get out there and do and see and participate in as much as possible, because a traveller knows they may never get the chance again. In short, a traveller will be an asset to this tour.

“A tourist, on the other hand, is someone who will notice all of these differences, and rather than embracing them, the tourist will complain and whine about them. Be a traveller, not a tourist.”

To this there would be heads nodding in response. I would even hear clients, when in unpleasant, awkward, or expensive moments on tour, say to another, ‘Remember, we’re travellers not tourists.’ Mostly it worked. Most of my clients were good fun and good people. There were a few tourists on the trips – but the others would usually bring them around – by cajoling, ribbing, or even with a few sharp words. Once I established that we were all in this together, the clients tended to develop a camaraderie much like a workplace. You all get on with it, even if you don’t like everybody else. When someone steps out of line, or needs support, the others rally.

A decade later, I still consider myself a traveller, not a tourist. I can think of two really obvious exceptions.

In Peru in 2006, I contracted Salmonella. It is in the tap water – even in a 3-star hotel – and through force of habit I rinsed my only tooth brush under the tap. I was then faced with the dilemma of rinsing it again under the hot water tap, or rinsing it in bottled water. I opted for bottled water, when what I should have done was throw it away. Within 12 hours I was sitting on the toilet, throwing up into the bathtub. I had to crawl on hands and knees between the bathroom and the bed. I could not keep down any food, and was on FULL STRENGTH, serious, do-not-mess-with-me-anti-biotics.

When I sobbed to the tour’s guide that I just wanted to go home, I was not in traveller mode. I was not embracing the differences between home and Peru. I was bloody pissed off. I was pissed at the water, and the hotel, who could not figure out how to get through to my mother in Australia. I was pissed off that I would miss trekking the Inca Trail. I was pissed off that for three months I had been getting up in the dark mornings, and running hills and steps in training for trekking the Inca Trail. And on top of all this ‘pissiness’, I was feeling sooooo sorry for myself. When I finally got my mum on the phone, I sobbed down the line in broken English, ‘I just want to come h-h-home. I h-h-hate Peru.”

I stayed. I got better. I finished the trip, and despite feeling like a cheat when I got to Machu Picchu – because I had arrived on a bus, not on foot – I was glad that I had not flown back to Sydney. When I was well, I got to feed llamas, and ride through the mountains on a motor cycle. I stood amongst ancient ruins, soaked in natural hot springs, and watched the sunrise over the Amazon Rainforest. I got to be a traveller again.
Barely Upright

My other recent experience being a tourist was in Maui and it was, I cringe to say, voluntary.

Ben and I were staying at the Renaissance Wailea Resort, and it was beautiful, particularly the sunsets viewed from the balcony. We had been there nearly a week, and had spent most of our time experiencing as much of the island as possible. We had trekked across lava, and snorkled with the turtles ( I LOVE the turtles). We had driven the Road to Hana, which is only 60 miles, but took us 10 hours each way; we stopped frequently so we could hike, and swim in waterfalls, and get amongst it. Our best meal on that two-day trip was a smoked fish taco from a road-side stall. We were in Hawaii and we were squeezing every joy out of it, including the luxurious touches afforded us at the resort.

On our final full day there, we decided that we would take it easy. We would indulge in something a little ‘touristy’: we would lay by the pool and drink cocktails. We gathered books, hats, and sunscreen, and strolled down to the pool. We grabbed towels and set up our little part of paradise. The sun was hot, the skies were blue and the breeze was gentle. I went for a swim. Ben went for a swim. We dried off, lying on our sun loungers, and then went back and had a swim together. We sipped on ice water and perused the cocktail menu. Ben read, and I took photographs.

Resort Relaxing

We had been there about 45 minutes when Ben turned to me and said, “This is boring. We should at least go to the beach.” ‘Thank god,’ I said, agreeing; it was boring, and definitely not something I could spend a week doing. We packed up our little part of paradise and opted for the beach – about 100 metres away – but even that got old after an hour. “Shall we make a move, Honey?” We spent the rest of the day driving to and from Haleakala Crater, which was incredible and other worldly – a grand mini adventure.

Telegraphs in Heaven

We tried. We tried to do the touristy resort thing, but it just doesn’t suit us. This is not to say that we can’t be still, that we can’t enjoy being in one spot and doing nothing. We can, but it depends on the spot, and it depends on the ‘nothing’.

Reading on a bench overlooking an incredible lakeside sunset in Wanaka, New Zealand – yep, we can do that.
Ben reading as the sun goes down

Sharing a hammock for two – yep, that’s us too.

Sitting by a generic resort pool, amongst row after row of sun loungers, and avoiding ‘kid soup’ (the resort pool), not so much.

When I returned from Hawaii, I met up with a friend’s mother who I see on occasion. She, too, had just been to Maui. “Oh, did you see the lava fields?” “No.” “Did you go out on a boat, go snorkling? Swimming?” “No.” “Did you see the volcano? Watch a sunset? Swim in the ocean?” “No, no, no.” She had not left the resort, but she claimed to LOVE Maui. Tourist. Definitely.

p.s. I am not just a snob about coffee.

Giving Back

Images of wide-smiled African, Asian and South American children in need, pepper our media so much so that we become immune to them. Even those of us who sponsor a child, or community through charities such as Oxfam Community Aid Abroad, Save the Children and World Vision, can become numb to why we do this. The money comes from our account every month, and once in a while we browse the newsletters sent to us, but it is hard to sustain the level of empathy that made us sign up in the first place.

Well, there is a way to reconnect with that empathy. It is a form of tourism that has been around for a while, but is now experiencing a surge of interest. It is known as ‘Voluntourism’, where travellers can pay an organisation – a charity or tour company – to participate in hands-on charity work. You travel to a developing nation and have the privilege of building a home, or assisting in an agricultural project, or even teaching the local children.

Some people even turn this type of travel into a new life. In 2002 Australian Jane Gavell travelled through Central and South America, including Peru, and then spent eight months in Cusco learning Spanish. In 2003, she started Peru’s Challenge with her partner Selvy, a native Peruvian. Peru’s Challenge runs community-based projects which directly benefit children of Peru. In addition, Jane and her small staff host other like-minded travellers who want to give their time to Peruvian children, and pay to do so, as the charity is completely self-funded.

Intrepid Travel has just released promotional material for their M.A.D. (Make a Difference) trips, which span four continents, and range from two to six weeks in duration. The trips are not costly. The accommodation and food are simple. The time is divided between seeing some of the host country and assisting the local communities.

In these and other such trips, you would pay money and then spend a significant chunk of your holiday time helping others.

So, why would someone choose to do this?

I have pondered this question this past week, ever since I received Intrepid’s newsletter, and knew instantly that I want to take one of these trips – either to Africa or South-east Asia. And the answer for me is simple: it is the children.

Now, perhaps strains of ‘I believe the children are our future, teach them well…’ are floating through your mind. And yes, I realise that saying I want to help the children is a little, well, wanky? Naff? Miss America Wanna-be? (I hope those references cover all my readership) But the fact is, when I have travelled to other countries – and particularly developing nations – it is the children who fascinate me, and often reveal something about the place, about the culture.

The country where my encounters with children resonated the most, is Peru.

I was on a organised tour and was struck down with Salmonella. I missed the Inca Trail, and I was devastated, but that is a whole other blog post. Days later, when I could remain upright for a few hours at a time, my guide – and friend – Geraldine, put me on the back of a motor cycle, and rode me across the countryside so we could catch up with the rest of our group at Machu Picchu.

We stopped to take some photos of the magnificent valley, and right there at the side of the road in the middle of ‘nowhere’ were two women, a blanket laid with wares, and a small boy.

The boy, who was 2 or 3, picked up one of the mobiles from the blanket and presented it to me. I did not want to buy it for many reasons, but mostly because we were traveling light and I would have had to carry it. I said hello and greeted him warmly, kneeling down to take a look at what he presented. He smiled at me, a tiny salesman, until I said “No” and shook my head. Then the smile disappeared. He looked at me hard, suddenly a serious little man, then turned away and tottered back to his mother. I wondered how many times a day he did this. He had Winnie the Pooh on his hat, but I doubted that he had many playthings waiting at home.

Another child I encountered with this same ‘old’ look in her eyes, was the daughter of a 15-year old girl on the Floating Islands of Lake Titicaca. She, too, handed me something from her mother’s blanket of hand-crafted goods. When I gently said, “No, Sweetie” and picked up something else that had caught my eye, she hit me with it. I was not deterred, and wanted to get that smile. I cajoled her, making faces at her; her mother tickled her to help me in my quest. Nothing. The same stoic little three-year-old face. I bought something and moved along, but I was intrigued by this little person, with her permanent frown, and I watched as she moved independently around the island.

I had encountered quite a few of these old souls, so it was refreshing and heartening to meet the children at our home-stay on Amantani Island, also on Lake Titicaca.

The people of Amantani speak Quechua, which is an Indian dialect, and some speak a little Spanish. I was on the home-stay with a fellow traveller from Canada and our guide, Geraldine. Geraldine knew no Quechua and Sylvia, our home-stay ‘mama’ knew about as much Spanish as I did (not a whole lot). Our communication over the time we were there consisted of gesturing, pointing, some primitive sign language, and lots of smiles.

Sylvia lived with her parents, her grandparents, her sister and brother-in-law, and her two children, Brian and Jessie. Yes, those were the names of the baby and toddler on this small island in the middle of a giant lake, where no one speaks English and only a smattering of Spanish is known. Brian and Jessie. I asked Geraldine about it, and she said that the home-stays are part of the sustainable tourism program on the island, and that a lot of the small children have ‘western’ names, because the women hear them and like the sounds of them.

Jessie was a delightful two-year-old, who welcomed our gifts of pencils and paper. She laughed constantly, and loved playing peekaboo. She wanted to be tickled, even though she pretended to ‘run away’, which she did in fits of giggles. Brian, about 15 months, had that serious little face I had seen many times before, but when his mother picked him up, his face lit up and a smile erupted.

The home was rustic, with no electricity, no running water, and all the cooking was done in the small ‘kitchen’. This room was separate from the rest of the house, had a low ceiling and a hot fire, and the interior walls were covered in soot. We spent a lot of time in there the evening of our stay, as the temperature outside – and in our room – was very cold. We ate potato stew served over rice with bread on the side. It was delicious, and carried a smoky flavour from the fire on which it was cooked.

Our room had three beds, each covered in layers of blankets, all made on the island. I thought that the four blankets on my bed was a little, um, generous, but later that night when I burrowed underneath them and got toasty warm despite the cold air, I was grateful for the foresight.  At dawn, Sylvia brought a large bowl of steaming water for us to use to wash ourselves. I was mindful that she and her mother had been up before dawn to boil the water for us.

As well as the gifts for the children, we were asked to bring gifts of sugar, rice and flour for the family. I would have brought much more, but the families are paid a small stipend for the accommodation through their local government. To bring anymore would be inappropriate, almost an insult, and there was nothing ‘poor’ about these people. The children were happy and clearly loved, the family members were close, and the farms and houses well maintained.

The ‘home-stay’ program is run on a rotating roster governed by one of the island elders. He distributes the home-stays and the fees collected from our tour company – and others – who visit regularly.

We could inject money into the local economy by purchasing the local crafts. And I did. I bought beautiful hand-woven, hand-knitted alpaca scarves, socks, hats and finger puppets. The Christmas of 2006 my family and friends received many Peruvian gifts.

I would have happily stayed on Amantani Island for many more days. I would have tended to the children, or fed the animals, or peeled potatoes for stew. It was a community with harmony at its core, and I wanted to stay longer than our overnight home-stay. The island, that community, those children tapped into something that is vital to a happy life: humility. I have so much, and because of that, it is incumbent upon me to give back. Somehow.

There were tears when we said good-bye to Sylvia. She was a lovely young woman, who went out of her way to spoil us. We hadn’t needed words to communicate that we were happy to be there, and had so enjoyed meeting her young family. Her husband, who was working on another island, must be so proud of them.

I often think of Brian and Jessie, and then of the children who were not so happy, and were doing it much tougher than these two. There are far too many children in the world doing it tough, and children should never have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, or where they will sleep tonight.

This brings me full circle. I do not plan to be a parent, but I am an awesome Aunty. As a school teacher, I am fortunate to be in a position to educate and contribute to the development of children, but at times I just want to do more, give more.

I will head to Africa or to South-east Asia, hopefully this year, and I will give back, because I am fortunate, and because I can.

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