This page features all the articles I have written for my local community of Riddells Creek. They have been published in the Riddell Roundup and I would like to express my thanks to friend and editor Amber Vavallo for asking me to come on board.
We hope you enjoy our travel stories!
Riddell Roundup November 2016
The world is an extraordinarily diverse and interesting place full of the most amazing experiences and adventures. But why is it that we humans, especially in the Western world, collect so much stuff? It’s as if somehow our identity, the essence of who we are and what we value, is intrinsically bundled into what we own? Since cleaning and purging our family home of stuff (and still going) making way for tenants, we have noticed how easily it has been getting caught up in purchasing, storing, and loving stuff. And so with our impending trip, we have made the decision to travel around the world for the entire year with just carry-on luggage. I say it again, carry-on luggage only for an entire year!
On our previous family backpacking adventures, the six of us have hauled larger style backpacks around, as if it was a rite of passage into being an authentic backpacker. The constant unpacking and repacking as we went along and the tears of misplacing and forgetting items that were still packed away in drawers at accommodation rooms. And in the Asian heat and stifling smog while boarding buses, trains and taxis, the backpacks, multiplied by six, were at times cumbersome and downright heavy. So for our upcoming year away, we’ve purchased smaller backpacks, in an assortment of colours, and making travel life as a backpacker easier. The other day I read a 16-year old’s travel blog – Where my carry on takes me – who is currently travelling with her family of six for nine months and her advice was simple: stock three items of everything – one to wear, one to wash, and one to dry. Makes sense.
I often get asked, “have you started packing yet?” and when I respond with no and share the carry-on luggage plan, there’s a sense of confusion, almost anxiety appearing on their faces. Packing to go on holiday, even just for two weeks locally causes many travellers serious concern. They can’t imagine packing for a year! But really, when you think about it, items we desperately need can be bought along the way and donated when we depart. We don’t need to own cupboards nor backpacks full of clothes; we are not leaving our home in Australia for an entire year, to cart our homely possessions and clothing around with us. We are doing this to step out of the mainstream, to try something different, and live a year having experiences collectively as a family.
When we packed our small backpacks as a trial weigh in, what stood out for us was not the amount of clothing sprawled out on the lounge room floor, but the amount of digital technology we’ve adopted. On the one hand we are going minimalistic – less clothes, less possessions. But on the other hand we look like we’re going to launch a satellite into space with the amount of digital devices and gadgets each of us is packing, but this is so we can have education on the road.
And one of the best things about having just carry-on is not having to wait for six pieces backpacks to appear on the luggage carousel, or losing them in transit, or paying extra for luggage on low cost carriers. And if we really see something we want on our year-long adventure, well we can always send it home. But then again, next year we’re collecting experiences and storing moments, not things.
The First Six Months
Riddell Roundup October 2016
For the first six months of our year away, we be about touring and living in the two most populous and diverse nations in the world: democratic India with the Taj Mahal and The Ganga and communist China with the Great Wall and the Yangtze River. And although that sounds like an interesting travel journey on paper, one has to be prepared for a different kind of living immersion experience. India with a population of 1.3 billion and China at 1.4 billion, what could possibly go wrong?
January – March 2017
We snake our way up the India southwest coast, beginning in Kochi (aka Cochin) in Kerala State where we will see Cantilevered Chinese fishing nets set against the backdrop of a blazing orange sun setting across the horizon. We plan to travel by train so to see the countryside and mix with the people. We arrive in the former Portuguese colony of Goa – another white coastline stretching along the Arabian Sea and we welcome in the New Year. Another train (one of many) to the bustling metropolis of Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay). Mumbai is the most populated city of India where the iconic stone archway Gateway to India stands tall as a reminder of the British Raj. It’s a place where Bollywood movies and millionaires share the flamboyant city with the poor and destitute slum dwellers.
From Mumbai we’re flying to the far northern state of Punjab to experience an arranged Indian wedding. These types of celebrations go on for days filled with local traditions and customs. Post-wedding festivities, we arrive in the state of Maharashtra, a place called Buldana where we will set up home for two months. It is here we will work with a doctor and help deliver basic health care and education to rural Indians in village areas.
April – June 2017
As we farewell India, with a brief visit and final foray of Indian love at the majestic Taj Mahal, we travel to Shanghai, China. With an estimated population of 24 million, Shanghai will jolt us upright from our rural slumber. Financial hub Shanghai is the biggest and most populated city of China. Strolling along its walkway promenade the Bund, we hope to set upon Shanghai’s tastiest steamed dumplings to snack on while we gaze at the skyline and its famous landmark the Oriental Pearl Radio & TV Tower in Pudong district with its captivating, Tang Dynasty inspired pink coloured pearl spheres. A visit to Shanghai’s recently opened Disney Resort to meet Mickey and Co could be on the list too.
We then catch a bullet train from Shanghai to Beijing. The trick will be getting ourselves to the right station to catch the correct train – there are so many of them! The 1,400km journey to the country’s capital will take just under five hours. When we arrive in Beijing, our plan is to stay in a traditional Hutong home complete with authentic neighbours and shared courtyard, which I hope will kick start the Mandarin lessons. Getting for the best tickets to the Beijing opera while speaking Mandarin might do the trick!
July 2017 onwards
A change of pace after China, we catch the Trans-Siberian train and journey into landlocked and nomadic Mongolia, the most sparsely populated country in the world. Wow all that (and more) in just six months. Hope you’ll stay tuned. Now off to pack up our house!
Fork in the Road
Riddell Roundup September 2016
Now that we’re planning and counting down to our backpacking year away of travel, I seem to come across inspirational messages that answer that calling. One was, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” The quote was by American baseballer Yogi Berra. Now baseball and backpacking don’t have all that much in common, however it made me think that no matter the vocation or passion one follows in life, we all have choices to make – this way or that?
As I was cleaning up, I came across some loose papers in amongst old journals. Dated 2013, they outlined checklists for family travel around the world for a year. Our initial idea to travel the world had been planted years prior to us recently purchasing six one-way tickets out of Australia. For 3½ years we had been in an on-off discussion about taking a year out to travel. We faced all the questions: how, why, where, when. And then tried to answer them. It was hard – could we face our fears and jump so far out of our routine, our comfort zone? And how did we know that it would be the best decision for all six of us? We really got stuck around education, money, career, and friendships. There were, and still are, many practical reasons not to go, but when we reached the intersection – this or that – the reality was that our four children were growing up; years were disappearing, and we’d never get them back.
We originally made our decision to not travel with a balanced approach, in addressing the practical: we needed another bedroom, a kitchen makeover, a more comfortable second car. We had two full time jobs; the first time in 15 years that we enjoyed the perks of a decent double income. We shelved the travel vision, and joined the side of materialistic creed. We talked with builders, collected renovation quotes, visited car yards, dreamt of summer days poolside.
But one night, as my husband and I went to bed the decision was gnawing within. I verbalised the feelings with, “when we’re old and grey, do you think we might regret choosing not to travel around the world with our girls?” And the answer was yes. The practicalities – sharing bedrooms, outdated kitchen, and an old car, no pool – really could wait. What wasn’t waiting was time.
I fell in love with the idea of our family tackling a year-long backpacking adventure on our first backpacking trip to Vietnam in 2012. Since then the romance and resilience of a family travelling adventure was lodged into my psyche, and when we made that bold decision late one night, it finally felt right. Since then, our priorities have manifested, the education and money concerns answered.
Since making the decision to travel in 2017 public, the three questions I get asked the most by people is 1) what do the kids think about that? 2) what will you do about their education? and 3) how can you afford to embark on such an adventure?
So here are the answers:
1. Our kids thought we were crazy! A year was too much for them to process – it felt like forever. They had a meeting in one of their bedrooms, very official with door closed where they planned on running away! All we heard for many weeks was “you can’t make me”. Their tune has changed and now they’re actually quite excited, but it’s taken many conversations explaining why, how, and where.
2. We are taking the Victorian Curriculum with us via Distance Education Victoria. No repeating, no year off, no falling behind. One of the main reasons we’re travelling with our family is to learn and understand the world. With the globe being connected via internet we are studying all the way.
3. We’re saving like crazy in many different ways – no new clothes, limited eating out, no renovation or new car. We gave up drinking alcohol for the entire year, and the money saved has paid for six one-way tickets to Malaysia!
We are ready to embark on our 2017 Six Backpacks adventure. And as the Buddhist saying goes, “If you are facing in the right direction, all you need to do is keep on walking.”
Backpacking the World
Riddell Roundup August 2016
So we are going away. The Six Backpacks family is heading off on another adventure; this time much bigger and longer than usual. We are renting the house, quitting our jobs (long service leave for some), cleansing household stuff, taking education on the road, and saving like hell as we plan our 12 month backpacking adventure around the world throughout 2017! This is our now or never time of realising a long held travel dream we’ve been wishing for over many birthdays!
We are going to imitate great travel explorers who have traversed the world, searching for all experiences new and worthy. From Vasco da Gama to Ferdinand Magallen. We are going to mine the depths of some of the great philosophers from Plato to Socrates who said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” The universal human question of how to live and to go ahead and explore the richness of human life, not just at home, but abroad across the oceans and into the world is on our agenda.
As a family of six backpackers we plan to travel with the expectation that a sensitive, thoughtful and peaceable approach brings abundant rewards. As we travel, we will work to live as simply as we can in a complex world, where we can sit more lightly on the earth, and influence others to do the same. This year-long slow travelling journey has been planned and considered, but there are always going to be surprises and challenges that cross our path.
Our planned itinerary has been thought about, debated, voted on, and argued about. We have six individuals who desire to experience vastly different countries and interact with myriad of cultures. And there’s just not enough time in one year to experience them all, especially with slow travel. But the agreement is that the compass is tilting north-west (so far) and we will follow the warmth of the sun to Malaysia, India, China, Mongolia, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, and Indonesia, staying for up to three months at a time in certain places. Such is the rare beauty of being unleashed from the usual chains of obligations and commitments that the home-work-school triad sets for us. As we travel we can alter and change paths as needed along the way.
And the countdown is on. Our date of departure is booked – Monday 19 December. We have commenced cleansing by purging our “stuff” that has collected in our house over many years; keepsakes boxed and stored. We are completing unfinished jobs in and around the house with gusto – nothing like a big future to help motivate. But most importantly our family is very excited about our year of travel next year and we hope you will continue to read about our adventures on the blog or right here.
PS anyone want to mind two dogs and cat?
Saving The World, Part II
Riddell Roundup July 2016
In a previous column, I shared about my youngest daughter, Dacey and her plans on “saving the world” with her friend Molly. I’m happy to share that their little seed of an idea has now grown and developed into something quite more significant for two 10-year girls, but also for a village in Achol Amiol located in South Sudan who find themselves without easy access to clean drinking water.
David Nyuol Vincent grew up in Achol Amiol. He arrived in Australia stateless on a humanitarian visa eight years ago after surviving a childhood of war and conflict in his home country of South Sudan. He experienced four years as a child soldier, and then 17 years surviving the harsh reality of refugee camps. In Australia it took him four years to write his story, face his demons and connect with what he really wanted to do with his life: making a difference.
After the Riddells Creek Primary School Grade 5 & 6 classes read A Long Walk To Water, 10-year old students Dacey and Molly thought they’d try their hand at “planning on saving the world”. After gentle guidance and strong support from both parents and teachers, the two girls embarked on something quite extraordinary – tracking David Nyuol Vincent down via social media and inviting him to visit and share his story at the primary school and to receive the $500 fundraising money.
David did visit the school, he met the girls and made an engaging and entertaining presentation to the Grade 5 & 6 classes. Then the magic started to happen. That little seed of an idea that the two girls started had taken root and had developed into something else. Something big. Something meaningful. Something that would help save lives in South Sudan. David was so inspired and encouraged by the girls’ initiative and desire to make a difference, that he asked them to continue working with him on a water project: bringing clean drinking water to his village Achol Amiol in South Sudan. The people living in this village have two options for drinking water: drink from nearby contaminated and stagnant ponds with the animals, or walk 45-60 minutes one way and collect clean water.
Young people can make a difference in this world. Both Dacey and Molly have agreed to work alongside David Nyuol Vincent and begin an awareness and fundraising campaign to drill a bore hole into the South Sudanese ground that will pump clean drinking and bathing water for the entire village. The project, Pump Up South Sudan Water Project needs to raise US$10,000 for a bore hole to be drilled and pump installed that will provide easy access to clean water for the village. The barriers to making this happen are great – roads are non existent, large equipment needs to be brought in from overseas, and so far just 5% of the total money needed to make clean drinking water a reality in Achol Amiol has been raised.
But anything is possible. And the girls are not daunted by a five-figure fundraising goal that they aim to reach by then end of this year. We hope you’re not either. To support the PUMP UP SOUTH SUDAN WATER PROJECT you can make a donation soon. Stay tuned for further details on how you can help two 10-year olds make a difference.
Meaning of Travel
Riddell Roundup June 2016
Wanderlust, gap year, volunteering abroad, adventure travel, food safari, trekking…are all millennial travel buzz words that offer a suite of travel styles and options for the modern wanderer, and with 195 countries in the world on offer, time really is of the essence. But what lies at the heart of travel – your bucket list? What meaning have travellers traditionally associated with travel and how has it changed? Younger generations are increasingly engaging with altruistic travel experiences that promote world-changing, life affirming programs, the type of fork in the road fulfilling the travel bug before settling down for career, family, and debt. And as many places as there are to travel, there are as many different reasons and motivations.
Travel has morphed throughout the ages, beginning in the 17th Century with the construction of passenger railways that increased people’s mobility and accessibility. Travel was reserved for the ultra-rich due to exorbitant expenses, people’s preoccupation with working, and a fear of the unknown prevented many accessing the opportunity of travel. In the 1980s and 90s the reason to travel was more attuned to attending sporting events and visiting destinations made popular from advertising selling the perfect holiday. It created what we know today – mass tourism.
Now the world is a connected digital maze of instant communication and access to information and apps. But we still travel physically and with all our senses, to experience the differences and similarities that to exist within the world. The presence of ecotourism, also known as nature tourism, is trying to take root in a storm of mass tourism operators and big corporate giants. So, I ask, what meaning could we derive from travel? Is travel always about the traveller, or is there an opportunity for a more give and take approach to travelling?
Can we consciously think about what meaning we, the traveller, associate to a destination, culture, environment, or are we so consumed by the act of consuming travel that we forego the critical thinking required and follow the promise of advertising dollars and its subservient crowd like sheep? Can we really begin to say no to mass tourism, its advertising industry and its associated risk taking trail of destruction, and transform our itineraries to include respect, sustainability, preservation, and protection? We hear the tour operators call: “travellers MUST travel now to places like Cuba and Myanmar before they change”. It’s common knowledge that once a country opens up they are guaranteed to lose their uniqueness and transform into…what? Once the unregulated flood gates of tourism development seeps into a place and takes hold, they won’t be thinking of working in partnership with local communities or maintaining and respecting cultural sensitivities or environmental complexities.
It’s the mighty capitalist dollar that shines with anticipation, but I think slowly, modern day travellers are adjusting their thinking to a more ethically empowered, integrity focused and driven model of travel consumption. Well I hope so anyway.
Saving The World
Riddell Roundup May 2016
Often I wonder how the world continues to go round and round, and ponder how my children will best learn about it and influence its often broken parts. Will they, as the next generation, take a compassionate lead and make a difference, somewhere and somehow, to people who are less fortunate? And then BAM! Out of nowhere I receive a text message from my youngest daughter Dacey, 10. It read, “Hi mum, can I go to Molly’s house because we are planning on saving the world”. At work I reread over the message, and smiled brightly and wondered what are they up to…
Dacey walks in the front door, energy buzzing around her like a swarm of bees. This commenced the three nights of bold planning to save the world. She spent time on her device talking with friends via Messenger – who they were saving, how they were going to do it, and when it was happening. The dining table was transformed into a planning precinct, and each time we walked through it, we emerged shaking our heads in disbelief, eyebrows raised and thinking something big is going down in there!
Floating energy drifted through the front door again after school, but with doubts. Thoughts of changing dates and who they’re “saving”. We sat together and Dacey outlined what her and Molly’s original plan was: to “save” the people of South Sudan. After reading the book in class, A Long Walk to Water, both girls were keen to make a difference to those less fortunate than them, specially in South Sudan. Back on Messenger, the idea was set – they would fundraise for the South Sudanese. Less planning went into how to actually get the money to them…we weren’t travelling to South Sudan any time soon! More importantly, who exactly were they “saving”. After explaining ‘saving’ versus ‘empowerment’ with the steadfast fishing analogy, and a quick connection via social media to a South Sudanese acquaintance who had fled South Sudan as a child soldier, the girls were happy to support a charity called Peace Palette.
Sparks of energy peaked in the planning room tonight. After dinner, Dacey had her entire family engaged in her plans. We helped make a banner and other signs to be displayed at the table outside Foodworks supermarket the next morning. As I kissed her forehead and with wriggling toes she said, “Mum, I’m so excited.” It was then that I realised the dance between planning and passion. It didn’t matter the amount of planning or money they raised the next day, what mattered was their crazy ideas, pure initiation and bold plans. They were proud of their project – to save the world – and see it through.
Icy cold and drizzling with rain, we set up, erected the banner, and trusted that the girls would be able to share and explain their passion for this project. Amongst the raffle prizes, lolly guessing jar, loom bands, and a collection of old books the girls shared their bold idea. People stopped at their table, asked questions and listened to the girls. The temperature didn’t rise much but their fundraising tin did. With onesies on, the girls begged to stay longer. They played their guitars, one man donating money because the song they played (the only one they knew how to play Smoke On The Water) was his favourite!
So never underestimate the power of passion and the ability to plan on the fly in our young people. When it’s unleashed it’s dynamic. And sometimes it’s best to just move aside and let them do their thing. I certainly have greater hope for a brighter world with these girls in it.
Thank you to all those who donated to Dacey, Molly and Hattie who raised a total of $450. This money will be donated to Peace Palette, a charity who endeavours to provide services to and advocate for a community free of conflict by sustaining stronger, resilient and harmonious society for South Sudan.
WHO ARE YOU THINKING ABOUT?
Riddell Roundup April 2016
As International Women’s Day around the world was celebrated on 8 March 2016, my thoughts meandered back to the women I had met in rural Buldana, India in January last year. Images of their cultural, social, political, physical, and emotional burden that prevent them participating fully and freely in life because they were born female. On the one hand I try to make sense of these embedded gendered constraints, and on the other I have a burning desire to find a way out, a way forward, in any cultural or political cracks that would grant them their rights of being human.
I don’t assume that all Indian women experience this inequality, but for the women and girls I did meet in rural India, there is a long, long, long way to go before the words – equality and parity – can even be uttered. The Dalit, or previously commonly known as the untouchable caste, must also hope that their girls and womenfolk will one day be afforded the respect, dignity and equality of their male counterparts. However, to this day, it’s an area of rural Indian life that is not yet fully considered, freely taught, or deeply felt.
Lilly is in her twilight years; best estimates of her age puts her at 70+ years. She lives in an unventilated hut in Manubai Village within the rural Buldana District. She lives in extreme poverty in her dark and dusty home. Because no one took Lilly to see the doctor for a health check, she is now blind. A simple diagnosis from a doctor and treatment of her cataracts could have saved her sight. But there’s no money, nor is there any great concern for her health or wellbeing. Lilly’s husband, a tailor used to sell shirts and pants, but he died. That event caused Lilly’s and her children’s life to turn upside down. She found strenuous work in the fields to make ends meet for her family, but it was difficult to survive.
When Lilly’s husband died 12 years ago it placed her in a terribly dire circumstance that many rural Indian women find themselves in: being a widow. She had three younger children then – one son died in childhood, her daughter, now married, lives with her husband’s family in another village, and her only living son looks after her as best he can. He has no job, but needs to feed his own young family and he feels he can’t leave the village to find better employment because he has a wife, children and a blind mother to support. He finds labouring jobs here and there, but there are no long term jobs in this village area. Most days he walks door to door begging for food, scraps, anything just to get by.
Lilly is uneducated, at best she can speak, maybe had the ability for basic reading and writing in the local language of Marathi. But that was then and tis is now. And it’s all on Indian time. Tick tick tick. No sight. No food. No help. No equality. Many women, especially widows, die alone and unwanted in these cruel and harsh circumstances.
As I attended an International Women’s Day event, and stood as a proud feminist with both women and men for worldwide equality and all the opportunities a mother like me could ever wish for her four millennial daughters, my thoughts will also be with Lilly in her dusty Manubai village hut and the millions of other women around the world who find themselves to be the almost certainly the forgotten women of our modern era.
LEARNING FROM OTHERS
Riddell Roundup March 2016
Throughout our travelling journeys we have seen stunning sunsets, eaten amazing food, visited interesting museums, trekked up and down mountains, caught noisy chicken buses, and experienced the true essence of a place. But what we value most on these adventures are the people. It’s people who we really learn from and who most influences the way we view the world, and often determines what’s really important in life.
Vipul Kharat, rural India
I was fortunate to have met Vipul in rural India, Buldana. I got to know Vipul as he travelled from his home in New Zealand to support and assist the volunteer immersion program his brother, Dr Moses, had organised in Buldana. The immersing into rural Indian life was an experience I will forever treasure, and was enhanced through the sharing of intimate knowledge and understanding of rural Indian customs, language, food, and religion. It’s the nuances of a deeper level of understanding a place, such as the extreme contradictory nature of India that was shared through Vipul’s personal, and at times tragic, stories. At time we were amazed that on the one hand India could be the biggest democracy in the world, and on the other have such injustice and inequality.
Vipul died a couple of weeks ago. He was back in Buldana assisting his brother, volunteering his time, paving the way forward in making a difference to the poor people classified still to this day as Dalits or untouchables, the forgotten people of Indian society. I feel the loss, of someone willing to fight for people and go against the norm. The world is definitely less whole without Vipul’s vision, passion and larger than life personality.
Sister Anne, Hue in Vietnam
We had never met Sister Anne before, having only communicated via email the finer details of our arrival via train into Hue railway station. When Sister Anne enquired in one email how she would identify us on the platform, I chuckled and replied back saying that I was fairly certain we would probably be the only white, western couple with four red-haired girls on the platform. And in case we weren’t, I mentioned that my husband was very tall and she couldn’t miss him. And so it was – Sister Anne and Co waving at us on the platform as we hauled the backpacks onto our backs and walked towards their welcoming, smiling faces. By staying at the convent with the Sisters, our family got to know them and see the tireless work they performed and the important service they provided in a communist society to poor and disadvantaged families.
Sister Anne wanted to take us everywhere: visiting orphanages, village kindergartens, tourist attractions like the Royal Palace. In the car they shared their vivid war stories of surviving the devastation that remained after the “American” War. They survived by eating bark from the trees, roots from the ground and survived with no food, no rice, no warmth, and nearly no hope. At the Royal Palace we shouted them Magnum ice-creams. They cost A$2 each. And as we sat there licking our ice-creams in the cool of the shade, Sister Anne thanked us and told us that this was the very first time she had ever enjoyed an ice-cream like this one. The chocolate coated ice-creams in the fancy wrapper were always too expensive.
We watched her enjoy that Magnum on that blistering hot day, her child-like smile broadening across her face, while our eyes welled with tears and our hearts missed a beat.
HOME BOUND TRAVEL
Riddell Roundup February 2016
I truly appreciate the unstructured holidays when they come round. When one is home bound, it’s a wonderful opportunity to unwind, embrace sleeping-in, and of course create and plan the next travel adventure! Researching and planning the next backpacking trip can be rewarding in these home bound times. Although nothing beats having your feet on foreign ground and soaking up the people, place, food and culture, the very act of collecting and reading tourism brochures, travel articles, and day dreaming at world maps fulfils the uneasiness of not going overseas.
Another way to overcome a temporary travel hiatus lull is to become a visitor in your own city. Grab a backpack, water bottles and head to the local train station is a good start. Wandering around a city that you think you already know is full of unexpected delights and at the end of the day comments such as “we should do this more often!” flow freely.
Our highlights being home bound this summer holiday break were visiting places in our own backyard: the National Gallery of Victoria and seeing the Andy Warhol and Ai Wei Wei exhibition. The opportunity of understanding more about contemporary China through Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei from his relentless pursuit of freedom of expression and human rights to addressing current global issues including the relationship between tradition and modernity was a treat. A couple of hours at an exhibition like this calls forth questioning of one’s life and perspective.
A visit down to the Queen Victoria Night Market felt more like a visit to an overcrowded Indian city. But that’s what I loved most about it (probably not what the kids enjoyed the most). The feeling of community, togetherness, food from around the world, and lots of engaging entertainment – singers, jugglers, acrobats and sword swallowing, fire throwing street buskers while the six of us wandered slowly through the overwhelming crowd under the haze of a balmy Melbourne night.
When we travel overseas we rarely use cars as our mode of transportation, instead we ride public transport or hire bicycles. But when we’re at home, we take the car EVERYWHERE! With a couple of cousins in tow, we opted to leave the car behind and take public transport to South Melbourne beach for a dip in Port Philip Bay, return to the CBD and enjoy the cheapest dinner in town – a wholesome 3-course Hare Krishna vegetarian meal and an impromptu dance on Swanston Street walk with some of their most avid drum beating followers afterwards. Often the most memorable moments happen when you least expect, or plan.
And of course staying at home means having family and friends come and stay. It’s a wonderful time to slow down, be together, and catch up before the modern world’s over-scheduling takes over. But right now the beauty of being a home bound traveller is in erecting a 10-person tent in the backyard and sleeping under the twinkling stars in the dark sky and then waking up to the birds chirping and singing at day break. Planning the next trip is underway.
A NEW YEAR
Riddell Roundup DECEMBER 2015
I’m sitting in Pindi, an authentic Indian restaurant near where I’m staying in Jairpur, Rajasthan. It’s New Years Eve and a young boy and his uncle perform traditional Rajasthan songs to an almost empty room on special bamboo horse haired stringed instruments. I have no idea what the song is about, but I’m grateful for the distraction while I grow accustomed to sitting alone on my solo week travelling through the northern Golden Triangle.
I order two dumplings and a Kingfisher beer; the beer arrives as a towering 650ml bottle and I’m slightly embarrassed. What are the rules for a foreign woman, travelling alone and drinking beer in India? It’s an uncommon practice, especially in socially conservative India. I ask my driver who’s hovering around me to please sit down and share the beer with me, but I realize that too is as uncommon as landing on the moon. I unfortunately stay away from the masala and tikka dishes, as I’m still full after enjoying a late lunch of vegetable samosas.
The young boy places his bamboo instrument gently on the ground near his uncle and walks over to my lonely table and starts dancing. I’m told he’s 10 years old. I assume he wants money for his performance, and hope I have a bundle of Rupee notes to give him. Foot anklets ringing with bells complement the rhythm of his uncle’s music. A brightly coloured, neatly prepared turban sits perfectly on his small head. I just hope snakes are not involved in this performance. The boys’ arms flow above his head gracefully, and he hops from foot to foot and twirls his body around to finish the dance in a pose.
After an 11-hour driving journey from the capital Delhi to Agra and take in the magnificence of the Taj Mahal, we continue on to Jaipur. We manage to escape Agra’s dusty congested back streets teeming with tuk-tuks, buses, cows, and people. We arrive into the city of Jaipur under the stars with little street context. I’m looking forward to exploring the Royal Pink City and visiting the Amber Fort.
I ponder whether I will actually see the New Year, and in any case, as I glance down at my watch, it’s already a new year back home. I hand the dancing boy 50 Rupees. It’s hard to gauge how much to give. I recall buying a garnet necklace for 300 Rupees through the taxi window while stopped at traffic along with a bonus bunch of ripe bananas. My driver shook his head, disgraced at my inability to barter. The man selling was elderly, he had a kind face, but I had paid too much. The boy looks happy, as he returns obediently to his uncle’s side. They both smile at me and bow their heads with the palms of their hands in prayer. I respond with the same gesture.
Happy New Year I think to myself as I slip into bed with the night’s vibrant Indian music echoing in my mind. And as I drift into a much-needed sleep, the familiar sound of fireworks penetrates the quiet of the hotel. I haul myself out of bed, and watch the spectacle of colour explode across the Indian sky and I wonder where the dancing boy and his uncle are and if they too are looking up into the new years night sky.
AN ANGKOR ADVENTURE
Riddell Roundup NOVEMBER 2015
When visiting the South East Asian nation of Cambodia, one must travel to the northern city of Siem Reap and experience a journey like no other: Angkor Wat, the 12th Century temple built by Khmer King Suryavarmana II. There are significant other temples too, my favourite being Angkor Thom Temple with giant date trees revealing their cascading fair skinned root tentacles dangling from centuries old stone structures until they reach the ground.
Surviving the grueling heat bearing down on us and then reflecting back off the pathway, we arrive with squinted eyes into the majestic world of Angkor Wat. Trip Advisor rates it as the second most popular place to visit on earth and is on many travellers’ bucket list. And there we were, our family standing at the entrance of one of the wonders of the world with four battered and bored children. It didn’t occur to them as a momentous “bucket” moment occasion; rather it was their opportunity to complain: my legs are sore, my mouth is dry, I’m bored at this temple, this stone looks the same everywhere.
We pushed on with chilled water, hand held fans, and the incessant voicing of first world complaints while the temperature soared upwards. Before leaving I suggested, “Let’s get a family shot!” It’s not a nice one.
We arrived at Bayon Temple next and were greeted by stone chiseled faces looking out beyond. Folded arms, stern attitudes and a flat refusal to leave the tuk-tuk were met. Not even the alluring promise of ice cream did the trick.
After a lunch stop, we arrived at the final temple on the tuk-tuk circuit and our child posse agreed to explore the site of giant trees. But the moment to behold here was not giant trees, but the falling rain and rumbling thunder. This brought about a healthy dose of child rejuvenation: playing in the rain, kicking water at each other from fast-filling puddles, and falling down into the bronze-brown water now flowing fast. The art of getting wet in a tropical storm took seconds; the art of finding our way out of this temple took hours. Through a maze of nine centuries-old square slabs and captivating trees, we found ourselves completely and utterly lost. However everyone seemed okay with this change in weather, actually, overwhelmingly delighted!
And it was here that our real adventure commenced. We were no longer ordinary tourists passively wandering and clicking; we were action heroes navigating our way out of a temple with the diamonds – yes I realise that’s going a little Indiana-Jones-too-far – but it’s exactly how it felt. The rain kept falling heavy and thick and suddenly the family unity disbanded and…well…we lost the kids! We traversed back through the water filled temple, calling out their names between shouts of thunder. Eventually we were reunited with our lost children (who were obviously better at navigating through temples than their parents) only to experience further disorientation: where was our tuk-tuk driver? We slowly realised that the temple had an east and a west entrance. So we had to go back through it!
Travelling in the tuk tuk leaving the Angkor Wat site and our Indiana Jones characters behind, I fondly recall the children’s book We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. It was a favourite when they were small, when these countries of the world seemed beyond their little feet, and I smiled while humming the lyrical chorus to myself, ‘you can’t go over it, you can’t go under it, you’ll have to go through it!’
WANTED: A SIMPLE LIFE
Riddell Roundup OCTOBER 2015
It has been one of those weeks. It started wholesome, ended up rotten. The car broke down, the hot water service faltered, the teenagers gave us a gutful, a red light on the washing machine started blinking, to returning home late from work. I’ve had enough! And as my dutiful husband hauls his body up from the laundry floor and I dispose of the collection of rusty bobby pins and coins from this great white machine, my thoughts drift back to rural India where washing by hand on the smooth rock near the well was the way. Monday’s school uniforms can wait.
And now I’m transfixed, yearning for a simpler way of life. But everywhere I look life just seems complex and multilayered, automatic and unknown and I’m drained (along with the bank account). Our travel journeys have given us a different perspective and to live a more frugal existence: go without the new car, home renovation, and landscaped garden. We earn good money to keep it all rumbling along, but lately I’ve started questioning again, “Is this really going to mean anything?”
I reach back to recall some of the best travel memories we’ve experienced to provide my psyche with some relief. The life less travelled, living basic with a cheap pack on our backs, no cars, no machines, no work. We preferred staying at homestays rather than hotels. Once with a H’mong family in the hills of Sapa in northern Vietnam, and another arriving under a blanket of twinkling stars to our Buddhist Myanmar family after trekking all day and collapsing with exhaustion (and relief) on their kitchen mats, and recently our time spent with a welcoming community in Kampong Cham in Cambodia’s east treating us to swimming and fishing in the Mekong, playing soccer with the children in the torrential downpours, and wandering the streets greeting the entire township. They are all moments of our family living simply, without the need or the expectation for more. What I saw in other cultures was something I liked and wanted to cultivate more at home: simplicity.
When we travel we don’t require luxury, when we get back home it’s breathing down our necks. Forget the planes, and the fluffy towels. I yearn for the no-frills travel experience and meeting people and enjoying each other’s company first and foremost. For me, luxury is complicated and we get used to its fickle promises always wanting more. Maybe that’s the true nature of capitalism? The locals who work in overseas owned five-star hotels are the people I want to get to know, and swap life stories over dinner. But in the land of overseas luxury, they’re working and earning, trying to get ahead on our travel dollars.
So that’s what’s been happening in between calling tradespeople, negotiating teen human rights, tween play-overs, and trying to get home earlier from work. I’ve been dreaming of a kind of freedom that’s not readily promoted here – being unplugged. My daydreaming returns and transports me elsewhere purchasing H’mong handicrafts from the women on a steep slope, or in Cambodia playing soccer in a foot of water, or washing clothes in rural India on a rock by the well.
Riddell Roundup SEPTEMBER 2015
Travel is about taking yourself to another place to explore and experience the diversity of humankind. It’s also about understanding where people have come from and appreciate what kind of life they have lived. It’s a lesson in history where the past intersects with the present. Unfortunately, as you discover when you travel, much of a country’s historical record has a narrative of colonization, violence and injustice. As our family travelled to other lands on our earth, we too came to better understand a country’s past. From Vietnam and their perspective of the “American War” to Myanmar and the military junta’s long standing internal oppression, Cambodia is no exception.
Tears have been shed on the road. Standing on soil that knew of historical secrets of genocide and horrific stories about the Khmer Rouge is both confronting and liberating. Questions fly about amongst our innocent tweens and idealistic teenagers. Why they ask. Why would they want to kill their own people; how could they think that way? The year was 1975, not 1075, and over four years the Khmer Rouge wreaked havoc on its people and history.
Our tuk tuk driver Phi Lay now lives in Battambang, an old colonial town in the north west of Cambodia. He shared his personal story with us that revealed a time of extreme hardship and lucky survival after the Pol Pot’s youthful guards marched into the capital of Phnom Penh carrying loaded guns and stone faces. He was 10 years old and lived within a closely-knit family of eight siblings. Not long after the guards’ arrival the city’s residents were pushed out of their homes and onto the street forced into the countryside. Phnom Penh was a ghostly town in a matter of days.
The systematic genocide that took place was unleashed entirely onto its own population. Year “zero” was to commence. Money abolished. Rural work camps established. Young child guards turned on the adults. Babies were killed. Starvation arrived. Mass murder prevailed. The S21 prison was a place of torture that distilled pure evil. Pol Pot’s regime planned on rewriting the future of Cambodia, instead they rewrote its history for decades to come.
We visited the S21 prison and the Killing Fields just outside of Phnom Penh. There are more of these fields (aka mass graves) scattered all over the country including Battambang where Phy Lay’s parents and many of his siblings were killed. We heard the stories wishing the atrocities he endured were made up. But they weren’t and the nightmare Phy Lay has had since he was a child continues into his old age.
We walked around the killing fields with our children for a couple of hours. Skulls, bone fragments, checkered cloths and dug out impressions in the earth is what remains. I watched them in proud amazement how they were so willing to learn more about this part of Cambodia’s dark history and try to come to understand why. Exposure to these historic places and its people with their stories renews and shapes our commitment to travel more and better understand the complexity of being human. We may never unravel the why, but we are better human beings for trying.
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ART
Riddell Roundup AUGUST 2015
We spent two weeks in a resort on the sunny Thai island of Phuket. It’s quite a change from our backpacking themed accommodation, but an interesting experience into the world of five-star luxury holidaying. We’re now spending the final two weeks backpacking throughout Cambodia. Due to the proliferation of technology and WiFi throughout Asia traditional backpacking has been transformed. It was 16 years ago when we first backpacked around South East Asia on a shoestring budget, and that meant carrying a backpack from one accommodation to another, haggling for the best room rate, maybe for a fan or just hoping for a vacancy. These days with a device in our hands, all that can be avoided.
And even though the experience of backpacking has changed, we still prefer it to resort five-star travel. And this is why.
It’s true! The cost to stay at a backpacker’s is markedly cheaper because it’s basic. There are no considerable excesses, often sharing rooms and facilities. In our materialistic lifestyle where purchasing the best but wanting more is becoming the norm, the basics are a welcome reprise. And it means we can spend more on what really matters – exploring. Backpacking cleanses the stubborn “more mentality” and washes away the desire. In Siem Reap we valued the cheap dorm rate and had a memorable extended family experience of the nine of us sleeping in the one room! Bonus was the connection to our backpacker’s owner and friends – with hugs and handshakes all round and “goodbye and good luck for the rest of your journey” from the regulars that we got to know at the bar. Priceless.
Our experience of five-star is that you miss out on experiencing the real culture of a new place altogether. Resorts are more like barricaded compounds, usually with a guard who stands at the front gates but you never get to know. Sure we can “access” culture by leaving the resort but mostly mass tours are taken and more money spent. However, it’s a certainty that you will meet an eclectic group of locals and guests at the backpacker’s all for the cost of a local beer who will share where to go and what to do while you’re in town. We create entertainment not via TV but mixing with the expats and the locals of the backpacker’s community. An even better way to experience culture is taking the challenge of a homestay within a village.
Resort food is a let down. I certainly didn’t travel to Asia to experience eating the best pizza. This type of food can be found anywhere at home. Isn’t the purpose of travelling afar to discover new taste sensations, especially local authentic cuisine? I must admit we do mix the food up a bit, especially for the kids who are usually hanging out for a burger or something similar after a couple of weeks of eating rice/noodle dishes. But my experience of resorts is that authentic cuisine is limited and Western-style food is readily available but pricey. Little local restaurants and street food can be an amazing experience and backpackers have an array of suggestions. It just takes a stroll around the streets to find them.
My experience of the staff at resorts has been mostly pleasant, but not overly friendly. They sit behind a desk, looking at a computer screen for most of their day in an air-conditioned room and seem reluctant to engage in any interesting banter. I feel like a visitor with an expiry date. It’s quite the opposite feeling at the backpacker’s where we feel like adopted family. It’s a community rather than a corporation. It’s the friendly vibe that gets us. The main draw card is the quality of the experience – paramount is the no frills whereas the resorts hook their quality experience on a rooftop pool or all you can eat deals with free soft drinks for the kids. Really?
When we stay at a backpacker’s, we feel more connected to our sense of adventure and stepping out of our comfort zone. It’s about coming home with a great story to share – the dorm room experience, meeting quirky people, exploring places. Why travel afar and be restricted to an air-conditioned room or a pool in a compound when there’s so much more? Most importantly, family connection doesn’t necessarily show up ON the trip either. It’s in the aftermath of an epic backpacking adventure – like being in the middle of a thunderstorm in Angkor Wat’s Ta Prohm Temple and getting lost within the Indiana Jones set labyrinth of stone corridors and gigantic trees where the great stories start to take shape. These are the stories that are shared and retold over and over at the dinner table. And when that happens, we know we’re onto something special.
Backpacking is not for everyone. Trust me, at times it demands all of our energy to make it happen, but the reward is worth it. And although we prefer the no frills over the fancy, we had an amazing extended family holiday experience in a resort in Phuket because we were altogether. And that’s what it’s all about.
Love from Phnom Penh x
Riddell Roundup JULY 2015
It’s hard to imagine warm weather, sandals and bikinis. But then again…
Our family of six is embarking on a journey to warmer weather in far away lands after having a hiatus from overseas family travel last year. This time round we’re changing it up by experiencing the 5-star, idyllic dream in Phuket. Two days in a resort like this will drive me nuts, but the kids are delighted and high fiving each other. We’ve turned the way we travel on its head but there’s more to the story and it’s got to do with the grandparents.
I plan to entertain my 5-star boredom with the things I never get around to enjoying – reading books, sleeping in, eating slowly. And when we’ve rested and explored as much as we can in resort oriented Phuket, we duck over to Cambodia for a bonus two-week backpacking treat.
The similarity with both of our travel fortnights is that we will not be alone. Not that the six of us have ever felt alone but from the moment we board our international flight at Melbourne Airport we will have extra travel buddies – my parents. They’re not the type to explore the world on budget beers and accommodation, they’re immunized against such basics now. But my parents’ vision is for all of us to experience some R&R together within the comfort zone.
As I imagine the sight of our mob travelling in a foreign country, I visualize our own reality TV show – a merging of the 80s Australian Ask The Leyland Brothers with the popular US series Modern Family. A bubbling cauldron of personalities, bonding and learning that occurs in the mayhem of a family trip like this has the potential to produce some magical moments and at times unmemorable tension. My giving parents have been planning this mega-family trip for over a year now with my brother and his family in tow too. All I know is that there’s going to be plenty of stories to reminisce about well into my children’s futures.
So after two weeks near Patong Beach in Phuket, we fly to Bangkok and then onto Siem Reap in Cambodia, the site of the magnificent Angkor Wat temples and take to the ground on buses and bikes backpacking from town to town and travelling with our next group of family travel buddies – my husband’s sister and our two nephews. It will be their first trip to an Asian country as well as their first backpacking journey. Our 11-year old nephew was excitedly telling my husband over the phone that he’s mentioned to his school mates he’s going to a place called Cambodia and their response was, “that sounds dangerous”.
As we rummage through our wardrobes locating t-shirts, shorts and sandals, the winter bulge keeps the bikinis at bay…but as I face the reality that my white skin in its winter coat won’t disappear in a couple of weeks, I dream about exploring and discovering and experiencing the world out there. The count down has begun and it’s too late for the beach body to appear from behind the cape of its winter work suit, however it’s never too late to dream a little more. I’m grateful for the gift of travelling with my extended family, no matter how it’s experienced either with golden sand between the toes in Patong Beach or a group of nine lagging backpacks and navigating through the vibrant and chaotic streets of Phnom Penh.
Riddell Roundup JUNE 2015
May has come and gone. Leaves have changed colour from green to red to finally orange and in a slight breeze float down to the ground. The warm Melbourne air has turned crisp and before we know it the first fog and frost arrives. During the day it’s a delight to bask in the warmth of momentary sunshine. And with change comes reflection. May seems to be that particular month of the year that pulls me back within and sits down with me and asks ‘how’s life going?’
I recall my wedding day in May. This significant life event is bound with autumn leaves and leaving the country the morning after saying “I do”. And that day, Mother’s Day, we enjoyed a champagne and Crown Lager breakfast with our proud parents after the celebration of our union and then waving at them as we embarked on our first backpacking journey together throughout South East Asia for two months. And now we have four amazing gentle souls who will make handmade cards with messages of love, gratitude and lots of kisses for me until the end of my days (I hope).
The month of May also commemorates two years of writing for the Riddell Roundup. The first article, always the hardest, was called My Top 5 Reasons Why I Love to Travel Abroad. In it I described what I appreciate most about travelling to other countries – culture, language, sights, food and of course that exciting departure; slipping through those sliding doors at the international terminal and entering no-man’s land.
And as I reflect on the privilege of writing freely about what I’m passionate about and feeling gracious for being published in my hometown local gazette, I’m reminded of where we started, where we’ve been and where we want to go. These ideas and thoughts are not written down, or scrupulously compartmentalised into goals or bite size actions. But there is a loyal vision to continually travel as a backpacking family rather than a wheel based suitcase tourist couple. The reason is simple – because there’s a beautiful and breathtaking world out there with a myriad of seductive countries to travel to with extraordinary people to meet and to better understand. Now I’m thinking of Mongolia on horseback…
Anyway, our next travel destination is Thailand and Cambodia over four weeks in June/July. And we’ve changed it up slightly by travelling with our extended family: parents in Phuket, sister in law and cousins in Cambodia. Now all we need is a video (they say)…oh…eldest daughter Charlie has saved for and purchased a GoPro. But I will still be writing to you. Don’t worry, writing about travel will not dry up my ink. On the contrary, it’s a constant evolution just like you and me. And as I look forward to our family’s new adventures in distant lands, I’m looking forward to writing so much more on where our travel adventures take us. So here’s thanking you all for your readership.
PS Sending a cheerio to all my readers – especially Mark and Tom.
Riddell Roundup MAY 2015
To travel is to meet people. The path less travelled always provides the opportunity to see the places and get to know the people. It’s what makes backpacking such a magical pursuit. Here are three people I was fortunate to cross paths with during my Northern India adventure.
Sitting with Rohan:
I had almost given up finding the “official” government travel booking centre in New Delhi after being taken to numerous rip off joints. After investing an entire day into finding this obscure place, it appeared: near platform 1, up the stairs, a shady office. Inside a young man in a trendy grey suit introduced himself as Rohan. He had a black bristling beard that hugged itself around his face. I sat in a small cubicle, outlining my destination wish list for northern India: the Golden Triangle solo adventure. We drank chai, talked about life and I met his English girlfriend Emily. It felt like a homecoming and a brief reprieve from the two days of loneliness on Delhi’s manic streets. They are engaged now and hope they have a wonderful life together.
Driving with Ravi:
Then I met Ravi who drove me half way round the Golden Triangle starting with Delhi’s tourist sites, Agra’s Taj Mahal and then the vibrant city of Jaipur. Our camaraderie developed quickly – me alert during the long drives between cities where dogs, cows and people crossed without warning and he turning up the Indian beats. He shared his life story of having to leave his young family while he moved to the city to earn money as a driver.
Ravi had a mountain of medical debts from an operation, and subsequent infection, on his leg after being hit by a car. He had had a year off work to heal but life was getting on top of him. In the quiet stretches of our journey together, he would gently massage his leg and I saw the grimace of discomfort emanating from his mouth. Our limited vocabulary prevented us from deeper conversations, but I assisted setting up his business Facebook page and I occasionally receive a Facebook message asking me, “when you come back to India madam?”
Then I filled in time with Ramdeo:
I was returning to Delhi via train – the home straight of the Golden Triangle tour. I waited on Platform 2, but no train. Anxious, I wondered if I was at the right place. The loudspeaker drooled incessant Hindi, so I had to ask, “Where is the Delhi train?” Quizzical looks and finger pointing got me nowhere. And finally dread – “delay 6 hour madam.”
I wasted the first three hours sitting at a nearby family restaurant, drinking copious amounts of chai and reading a book until asked to leave so a birthday celebration could get underway. I wandered slowly back to the train station, choosing to sit out the remaining three hours. It was dusk and a flock of raucous birds flew overhead; the peak hour traffic thick and steady. Ramdeo, a 65-year taxi driver approached me and I ended up taking selfies with a group of taxi drivers. Ramdeo offered to put my backpack in his boot, but I wearily rejected his kind offer. Another hour disappeared and he invited me for chai across the road. And so with that, my pack was quickly secured in the trunk of his car and we moved across the swarming intersection like snakes gliding gracefully across water. I met his friend – a fat, bald, Muslim chai-house owner and sat with them in the back of the grubby little shop watching orders for chai being shouted out over young apprentice boys’ heads.
Ramdeo lived with his family – all 11 of them – his wife, 5 children with some daughter-in-laws, plus grandchildren. He turned to me, like an excited boy, and asked, “Would you like to meet my family?” Next we vanished through the suburban backstreets of Ajmer in his beaten white taxi. I met Ramdeo’s beautiful family and toured his meagre home.
I feel privileged to have met and trusted Ramdeo, Ravi and Rohan. More importantly, I reflect and cherish the moments of our connection, of shared humanity. As the time came to say farewell to each of them we hugged and went our separate ways, tears swelling in my eyes each time.
Riddell Roundup APRIL 2015
It’s New Year’s Eve 2014 and I’m leaving the bustling Indian city of Delhi on a tour of the India’s northern Golden Triangle. First stop: Agra. We drive into the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh and travel a little over 200km in a south-easterly direction along the Motorways named Taj, Noida, Yumana and Masala. Today I am going to witness the honour of love – the Taj Mahal.
But I have to get their first. I peer out from the window of my front-seat. Of course my driver, Ravi enjoys the opportunity of presenting a variety of Indian beats – early morning loud music that pierces my ears, but I enjoy it all the same as it reminds me that I’m really here in India. As the insistent fog that has choked the city of Delhi reluctantly vanishes, I see India from moving car – men relieving themselves from the side of the road, dogs wandering casually across the freeway, horns tooting constantly at the tractors, motorbikes, bicycles, and the public buses starting and stopping. We pass a large road sign that reads “SPEED THRILLS BUT KILLS – HAPPY JOURNEY”. I’m happy that I have not been struck down with Delhi belly (yet); I’ll be even happier that I reach Agra alive.
I’m catching up with my eldest daughter via social media as the car enters the city of Agra. The town of Agra looks like a Hollywood movie set – dark, menacing and congested – tuk tuks couriering cramped and covered Muslim women around, pigs squealing on the side of the dirt clad dusty road, limping dogs, angry drivers and demure women carrying baskets on top of their heads. I question whether this could actually be the town where love resides.
We collect my arranged guide from the side of a hectic road; he jumps in and we start our introductions. We arrive. I’m excited. I still can’t see the Taj as we leave the driver and walk on foot. After purchasing a foreign ticket, having my bag scanned and body searched by security, I’ve reached the main gateway that leads into the grounds. Simsed, my guide, recommends I take a photo of the looming and omnipresent Taj through this gateway. We walk through and I find myself in awe of the most glorious building I think I’ve ever seen. Its beauty is truly captivating. A perfectly symmetrical building of translucent white marble, that appears pink in the first light, with extravagant embedded precious gemstones decorating the mausoleum.
It is said that 20,000 workers, artisans and master craftsmen worked on the Taj, along with 1,500 elephants. It took them 22 years to complete. Emperor Shah Jahan’s third wife died giving birth to her 14th child in 1631. This story of love rivals that of Romeo and Juliet – as the empress closed her eyes, a last teardrop slipped out from her beautiful eyes and caressed her cheek. The grief stricken Emperor removed the teardrop from her face and eventually built her a mausoleum that looked as though it was an eternal teardrop, descending from the heaven, on the cheek of time. Her name was Mumtaz Mahal.
So I sat there under the quiet shade of a tree where I was able to ponder and reflect on love. I called my beloved who was more than 10,000km away. It was contagious as I told him how much I loved him. And in that moment I was assured of the existence of the power and wonder of love in our world.
Riddell Roundup MARCH 2015
The biggest question asked since I’ve returned home from India is “How was India?” It even surpasses my own children’s long line up of repetitive questions including but not limited to “what’s for dinner?”, “can I go to the party?”, “can I have a lunch order?” It’s a great question to ask, but it’s an even harder one to answer. India tourism marketing campaigns slog us with their catchy slogan – Incredible India. And I get it. It is incredible. Because it is India. But how does one go about answering a simple, yet multifaceted question?
I venture back to my senses that were fully engaged, and at time enraged, in my first few days in India. They’re not the usual senses of sight, smell, sound, taste and touch. But it was the myriad of feelings such as compassion, fear, solitude, gratitude and adventure that were tested and revealed. Landing in India’s capital city, Delhi, I wandered into a crowd of unknown faces. What I was expecting at the airport was a sign stating my name in black texta written on a piece of cardboard held by a demure and happy looking taxi man who was supposed to be driving me to my accommodation. Instead, I had to think fast on my feet – literally with a weighty backpack on a tired and weary jet lagged body – about “plan B” outside the international gates. I looked like a lost little lamb, bleeting out for help and those faces looked back at me like a pack of hungry wolves. I was alone. I was disconnected. A shocking feeling of helplessness and vulnerability engulfed me.
I cried hard that night. I kept questioning why a 40-year old happily married with children woman, who lived in a quaint little town would ever think that arriving alone into a hardened city, just shy of 17 million, would be straight forward. To fill in the blanks, yes I did find myself in the middle of a scam that night. They say resilience in children is a good thing to cultivate. Well, resilience within 40 year olds travelling alone to India is too. I forced my startled mind and body out of bed the next day, out of the safety of my cold yet comforting YMCA room to get my bearings, gain some confidence and conquer Delhi. And that was day one. I had 41 days to go. As I walked out onto the early morning street, the fog still lingering from a cold 2.4 degrees overnight, I saw the homeless. Lying motionless on the concreted footpath, a single blanket wrapping their body from head to toe. It would not be the only time.
As my confidence grew with the visualisation of roads and names and a small handy map, I walked into Connaught Place, the former headquarters of the British Raj. The main financial district of New Delhi built on traditional white colonial British construction. It was a relief seeing a Star Bucks; not so pleasant greeting a security guard at its front door. Fear of attacks from not so friendly neighbours keeps security personnel employed and CCTV cameras operating throughout the city and market areas. A constant reminder of terrorism. I accrued 50 “friendly” men around Connaught Place in one day who would walk alongside me asking the same boring questions and telling me where to buy train tickets or book Golden Triangle tours of Northern India. Each one a scam. I became selectively savvy and was able to look like I knew where I was going and what I was doing. A scarf over my light coloured hair and dark sunglasses accompanied by a fed-up-with-you greeting worked most times.
But it was back at my accommodation, where I celebrated my daily victories. Navigating this crazy city alone, visiting the extraordinary sites and being able to share the tales in my journal was an accomplishment I had never experienced before on my own. Solo travel, I realised, was not for the light hearted in India’s capital city of Delhi.
TOUCHING THE UNTOUCHABLES OF INDIA
Riddell Roundup FEBRUARY 2015
India is a land of contrasts, contradictions and complicated beliefs that makes it one of the most fascinating places to understand and one of the most difficult. I’m in India for 40 days and have seen the very best and very worst of what it can offer. Before coming here I read that to experience India is “an assault on every sense”. Spending a couple of hours wandering the streets, whether that be in the bustling capital city of New Delhi or the unknown rural district of Buldhana, every sense is in overdrive. I have spent my time in the north and middle states of India – Delhi, Rajasthan and Maharashtra. In the latter state I am leading a group of nine volunteer university students from Melbourne who have decided to spend their summer break in rural India volunteering with a doctor called Moses Kharat.
Moses was born into an untouchable family. It’s hard to fathom from Australia the significance of that. But the untouchable class of society are denied almost everything. His father grew up in a very poor family; for years he never wore shoes not because he didn’t want to but because he could not afford any. His mother, also from a very poor rural village family, was lucky to survive as nine prior siblings had died from lack of proper maternal-child health. She survived because the Christian missionaries arrived at their village and brought with them better services. Dr Moses is the eldest of four children, with the two younger siblings living and working in New Zealand. They were able to access education as untouchables because of the missionaries. His parents lived in New Zealand for a year, and were granted citizenship but they decided in their later life that India was where they felt most at home. Dr Moses himself had opportunities to live and work abroad as a doctor but he too had a vision for his life: providing ongoing health care to the untouchables.
In India no one cares what happens to the hundreds of millions of people who have been born into the lowest social class in India. They do not have access to health care, many do not bother to educate their children, and many are malnourished because they don’t eat nutritional food. Dr Moses has set up a mobile health clinic that visits eight villages (and growing) around the district of Buldhana. He supplies medicines and health checks to the people no one cares about, for free. I have seen the clinic work within the village and it gets busy! Women and children are seen first – weight checked, basic sanitation checked under the fingernails and eyes, blood pressure taken and a chat with the doctor. Then the men. Dr Moses’ sister Varsha is a nurse and has worked in the public hospital in Buldhana for 20 years. She attends the village visits with Moses and distributes the medicines to the patients – mainly pain killers, vitamins, creams, antibiotics. It’s a privilege to be able to see something so simple yet so complicated in India.
More village people waited to see Dr Moses, but the $100 worth of supplies had been handed out. They would have to wait until next time. Other than health care being offered to these remote rural villages, many with up to and over a population of 1,000, Dr Moses has established groups for adolescent girls. These girls range in age from 14 to 18 years. They receive higher protein food – an egg and a yellow dahl rice pack and sanitary pads. They also receive education on customary social practices including child marriage, the bride dowry payment, and gender equality and empowerment. I have met and talked amongst one of these groups of young adolescent girls and it was spine-tingling to witness their committed desire to be educated, delay marriage and reject the dowry. This generation of girls really give hope of a better, more equal and just India. But like everything, there are limitations to what can be achieved in one day, one week, one month and even one year. But I believe you have to start somewhere. Isn’t the first step the hardest? I have seen that by being in action and touching the lives of those who are unfortunately labelled “untouchable” here in incredible India, one can see the small seeds of hope planted within these villages and the sprouts of possibility coming from the people who know now that someone cares about them.
If you would like to make a donation (tax-deductible) to Dr Moses and his projects with rural villages or understand more about the work happening in Buldhana go to Community Based Health Project website.
Riddell Roundup DECEMBER 2014
Janna is staying with our family until Christmas Day. She is from Burma. We now have five daughters, five beds and five lunchboxes to contend with. We brought her over here to give her an opportunity of experiencing our way of life. Janna catches the bus to school, wears a uniform, helps out around the house, receives a fortnightly allowance, enjoys shopping for clothes and eating the meals we cook (except the vegetables). Overall she’s adjusted amazingly and fits in well. On the holidays we plan to cruise down the coast, motor up the highway, catch a V-line train to the city, and hike up Mt Macedon. All the doing things are in the diary. But it is the state of being that is having the greatest impact.
You see we thought we were, in some way, embarking on expanding the life of someone else. And to an extent, that is true. Few 16 year-old Burmese kids get this kind of opportunity of travelling and living in Australia. I’m sure that is transpiring, but surprisingly Janna is transforming us in our own home. I’m the first to admit that life under our roof is pretty hairy at times – teenage emotions and attitude are taking root; younger siblings fighting over folly. And Janna absorbs it all and shares what she sees. Her perception stops me in my fast-paced world and makes me think about “our way” of life.
Comparing Australia with Burma is difficult, especially when it comes to lifestyle and opportunities. But the contrast is turned on its head on attitude to life. Janna is wise beyond her years and sees how our children have so much – food, water, education, cars, homes, health – yet devalue them all. Nothing is a necessity, everything is an entitlement. She tells me that I move too quickly, she hears me in the kitchen tinkering late at night when her head rests on her pillow. She thanks me, as her surrogate mum, for giving her this experience. She can see where she devalues her own mother’s love, time and commitment over at home in Burma.
We have travelled far as backpackers to experience exactly that – another culture, another way of life, to sit still and notice the present moment. Travelling away from home, leaving behind the habits that don’t serve us is one way to do it. Another is at home with backpacks stored away. We are seated not in a rattling, overcrowded bus, but are firmly grounded in our comfort zones while being confronted by values that regard community and connection and concern above any THING you could ever purchase.
It’s difficult keeping these values in their right order. But for now we have Janna here to help us steer the family ship and keep the ways of the world that matter alive. And all we can say is thank you to a Burmese girl called Janna for changing us. It’s the best Christmas present ever.
IN HER SHOES
Riddell Roundup NOVEMBER 2014
It’s always an exciting time to travel. For years Aussies have been ranked most travelled nationality in the world. The opportunity of experiencing a different place, surrounded by different people, eating different food and seeing the sites excites the authentic explorers amongst us. And isn’t that what we’re really paying for when we travel – an opportunity to experience a contrasting life, one that is different from what we know so intimately and regularly back at home?
So what would the feeling be like for a 16-year old girl from Myanmar/Burma travelling to Australia? She has never travelled outside her of country, hardly ventured beyond her home city of Mandalay, her English is okay but it’s difficult for her to express and understand easily, she is poor, and everything her family and extended family earns goes into providing her with an education because she represents the future. A future that is full of hope of living a quality life for her and for them.
In her shoes, she’s excited but also nervous. She comes with courage. She arrives with trust. How she leaves, time will tell. Her name is Janna and she is staying with our family in Riddells Creek until after Christmas. My dream for her when she returns home is for her to know the world is full of possibility. But in the meantime, there is reality to deal with. In Mandalay people are everywhere; Riddells Creek is quiet, serene and sparse. In her home she shares a double bed with her mum as there is no other; in our home she will have her own bed and share a room with a foreign sister. In her kitchen meals are cooked under flames stoked by wood; in our kitchen meals are cooked by turning switches and pressing buttons. Life here will be vastly different.
But this is the beauty of being a traveller. A time of living outside comfort zones and realizing one lifestyle is not “better” than another, rather they are unique and magnificent in their own ways. When my family of backpackers travelled to Myanmar, we were welcomed into her home like family, and enjoyed her food, fans (it was hot) and friendship. We toured around Mandalay in our shoes, and now we have created the opportunity for Janna to walk in hers and repay the hospitality that was extended to a family of backpackers in dusty Mandalay.
PS Since our eldest daughter Charlie thought it would be nice to get Janna to see our world after backpacking to her country Myanmar in October 2013, it has been a long and patient project, but now we are grateful that a travel Visa has been issued. If you see her around town please say hi!
Riddell Roundup OCTOBER 2014
I’ve never been to Africa but in the year 2000 I did purchase the Lonely Planet Africa on a Shoestring with travelling intentions, but pregnancy arrived before the plane tickets and the book has been a doorstop ever since. In the meantime, I’m raising four daughters and have gained five sisters. Say what?
After reading the book A Thousand Sisters by Lisa J Shannon, I was inspired to support women living in war-torn and poverty-stricken countries in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan. We financially support one sister for a year through the Non Governmental Organisation Women For Women International. For $30 a month, we provide training for women in skills and rights so they can rebuild and transform their lives. That’s one week without takeaway!
We have helped four women graduate so far. Their lives, like mine, are entwined with motherhood and work, but much more laborious. My first sister, Pascasie has four children and looks after another; none of them attend school due to a lack of money. I receive letters in her language, accompanied with its English translation. In one she shares, “I always wake up at 5am, I go to fetch water at a distance of one hour. As soon as I arrive at home, I clean the house at 6.20am; I clean the dishes at 7am and I go to the farm at 8.30am and cultivate up to 4pm.” She continues working to 9pm until her children are fed and washed.
The other women I have sponsored include Evelyne, married with three children; Noella, widowed with six children; Clementina, married and caring for seven children (her age undetermined as she doesn’t have a birthdate), and just last month I received correspondence from my newest sister Mwamini who is married with two children. Her year-long journey has just begun. I’m in awe of these women and their resilience to overcome their circumstances in life and strive for something more.
The women’s stories are all too similar – survivors of war, hunger and abuse. Their dreams are the same as anyone’s – to make their lives and those around them better and peace on earth so we can all experience freedom from desperation and worry. I love reading my sisters’ graduation letters and I often write back, or send them pictures of my family. Many times, I’m confronted as what to say to them. How do I share my safe and privileged life? It seems quite trivial and overly excessive compared to what they have to live with. But writing to them is supporting them as I visualize my notes and photos tacked up on their walls within their thatched homes. A symbol of support and sisterhood – a way to honour the relationship we have created from afar.
Although I have never touched African soil, I feel blessed to know a little of the lives of five amazing women who live on the same planet as me but experience a profoundly different world. They are my beloved African sisters, and one day I will visit them.
LIFE OF LAUNDRY
Riddell Roundup SEPTEMBER 2014
Over this winter’s school holidays an endless cycle of washing occurred in our household. The numbers stack against me: four children and a sport-loving husband. Laundry is one domestic chore that is unrelenting, and in winter time operates on a continuous loop of wash-dry-fold-wash-dry-fold. On cold, grey days, our lounge room is a vibrant and warm space that resembles more of a Chinese laundry – a colourful kaleidoscope of shirts, underwear, tracksuit pants and flannelette PJs on display. Only on warmer, sunnier days, does the iconic Australian invention, the clothesline, bloom full of colour. In the third stage of folding, I began to daydream about how other cultures around the world do their laundry.
It took my memories back to Hong Kong in 1991. My first authentic experience of Asian-style laundry was wandering down its narrow streets with high-rise buildings towering on either side, and the criss-crossing of electrical wires snaking overhead dominated the blue sky. But it was the myriad of colours and cloth that grabbed my curiosity – an assortment of clothes hung from every balcony, either pegged to a long line of wire attached from one balcony to another. Women used long, light steel poles with hooks that placed their clothes right in the middle of the line, obviously the most airy space for drying in downtown congested Hong Kong.
Across the seas, dhobis in India have washed clothes for centuries. Today, they perform their washing by hand work for many hotels and hospitals. There’s a famous tourist destination in Mumbai called Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat. It’s renown as the world’s largest open-air laundry. Each dhobi works in a watered concrete pen and they wash and literally flog the articles against a stone to remove the dirt. On his journey in India, Mark Twain said, “Indians break rocks with their clothes” and this seems true watching the dhobis wash with intentionality and vigor. Unfortunately, it’s become a dying art, with the increased availability and affordability of washing machines in India, the centuries old dhobis laundries are experiencing the pinch as consumerism takes over.
On this particular day, I have a lot of laundry to fold. I ponder how the Eskimos wash and dry their laundry living in one of the harshest places on Earth: ice. Interestingly, quick research tells me that the Inuits don’t do laundry. They wear seal skins until they fall apart and need replacing. I started visualizing my family getting about in seal skins, but that thought soon vanished after discovering Inuits are conscious to not over exert themselves physically, as to avoid perspiring. That’s not my family!
In African countries, women visit waterholes in the early morning and scrub their clothing between their hands, then wring them out to bask and dry on a makeshift clothesline. On our travels through South East Asian countries we watched women down by the river, washing their laundry while they were wearing it. I can see the benefits. But for now, folding and daydreaming over, it’s time to pull out another load of washing and hang it out to dry.
Riddell Roundup AUGUST 2014
I was down the street the other day, and a woman approached me saying, “I read all your travel articles and just love them!” I thanked her for the feedback. She went on, “I’m amazed at how you can think up all these different topics to write about each month.” I think I responded with something along the lines of, “oh, well I have so many travel writing ideas.” And then, later at my desk, it was gone. All those ideas dried up and the twinkling sparks burned out like a falling star. So I sat at the computer. Blank. I went for a run. Blank. I talked to my dogs. Blank.
I started to think that maybe because I hadn’t been wandering for some time, my homeliness had in fact extinguished the ideas. Solution: I needed an adventure, a journey away to build my ideas from within. But that was unrealistic right now and certainly not able to happen. I thought of the people I would let down – two people in fact: my editor and the woman who reads my articles. And all I had was blank.
But from out of the resolute piece of my mind…I remembered a handwritten travel note given to me from a friend. It ended the blankness. In stylish fountain pen writing the words from Robert Dessaix filled my blank mind: Travel is about intensifying your experience of being alive. An attempt at answering that question (of what it means to spend time well), therefore I think the answer to the question is something to do with intensity, and whether you travel to know the world or whether you travel to experience bliss, salvation, paradise, whatever it may be, I think you are seeking to intensify your sense of being alive, to magnify your humanity.
I felt empowered again and thought instantly about Dr Seuss’ Oh The Places You’ll Go and nabbed it from the kids bookshelf: You have brains in your head, You have feet in your shoes, You can steer yourself any direction you choose. It was all at my fingertips – travel was all around me, limited only by my own imagination and perception of what to write and where to write. I could be on the road, on top of a mountain peak, crossing a border, or inside my own head. In this space I could create something out of nothing…a love letter to travel that reminded me just how in love I still am. I gave light to my filed snippets of notes and re-read favourite passages in books by searching for the underlined sentences. They were the one’s that gripped me back then; it was love at first sight.
I collect travel books, quotes, ideas. Like Hermann Hesse’s 1920s held-together-with-a-bulldog-clip-book Wandering: I won’t leave my heart behind me, as they say in love letters. No, I am going to carry it with me over the mountains, because I need it, always I am a nomad, not a farmer. I am an adorer of the unfaithful, the changing, the fantastic. I don’t care to secure my love to one bare place on this earth. I believe that what we love is only a symbol.
And then I remember one most precious piece, that stole my heart, and funnily enough one that author Isobelle Carmody titled Fish Hook in My Heart. Striving towards comfort deadens you to the world and a striving to ease stops you noticing things…It’s a conscious thing – not just to being alert to the world but being alert to your own responses to the world, to being in it. I think travel, moving around the world outside your comfort zones, it does that to you…I think it is good to travel and strive consciously to not be safe, that’s in a larger philosophical sense. I am back and I am writing what I love: all about travel.
Thank you Robert Dessaix, Dr Seuss, Hermann Hesse and Isobelle Carmody, my patient editor and especially the woman down the road who can now read my travel column. This month I have travelled far for you.
MIDDLE KINGDOMRiddell Roundup JULY 2014
I first travelled to China in 1990 with the high school’s soccer team. Not that I play soccer or even followed it, but the Chinese language group tour had been cancelled the year before due to the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989. So we tagged along with the soccer boys visiting Hong Kong, and the major eastern seaboard cities of China as well as taking in the breathtaking Great Wall of China mountain view. What I remember most was the poverty, the smog (yes even 24 years ago!), the bicycles and the stares. China had closed its doors to the rest of the world for so long that when we landed in China, foreigners were perceived as aliens with fairer skin, big noses and light-coloured hair.
But a quarter of a century on, China has transformed itself into an economic powerhouse. Scholars confirm that economic reforms have been successful in pulling millions of Chinese people out of poverty when 84% of China’s population the year I visited lived in the bottom half. By 2008 that figure had decreased to 45%. Along with economic changes, the cruel social practice of binding women’s feet was banned. However, other social policies continue to persist in China’s new economic future including the one-child policy and the household registration system, known as the Hukou system.
Social unrest builds amongst the largest population in the world, hovering just under 1.4 billion, over these policies today. Although the policies have been relaxed somewhat, they have not been adequately reformed nor abolished. The one child policy was introduced in the post-Mao era to alleviate social, economic and environmental problems. The current 4-2-1 social structure where 1 child supports 2 parents and 4 grandparents and in a country where social welfare systems do not exist, places immense pressure on younger and older generations. The preference for sons, remnants of the Confucian system and a growing sex ratio imbalance of 117 males to 100 females continues to widen. It seems the practices of abortion, infanticide, abandonment and disease will continue to skew this ratio. Fines are also issued to and collected from families who defy the policy and have more than one child. Quite a few billion Yuan (Chinese currency) has been collected over the past 30 years, but where is that money?
The Hukou system, a policy implemented in the Mao-era, controls internal migration. Chinese people are permanently registered to the place they are born. This policy prevented migration of rural dwellers into the urban areas and successfully restricted the mobility of people within China. The economic boom has attracted rural workers and their families to urban areas. They’re used as cheap labour in the construction industry. However, millions of rural migrants do not have access to urban social services including public education for their children, access to hospitals and health care and basic housing. Some have suggested the policy represents a form of apartheid that divides rural migrants and urban residents. Workers are unhappy, rural families are separated and many Chinese are calling to overhaul policies and invest in China’s social systems.
I think back to the closed China I visited in 1990 and recall watching thousands of workers emptying a frozen lake: large cubes of ice cut out from the lake would pass from the hands of a long line of workers until it reached a truck and was transported away. It was a way of cleaning the lake in winter. China has come a long way since then, but it still has much to do. Poverty still exists; you just need to look beyond shiny skyscrapers, fast cars and concreted cities. The smog is at an all-time high especially in the capital city of Beijing. The basic bicycles and the staring at foreigners have been traded for flash cars and shaking foreigners hands. When I return, without the soccer team, the only feature of China that will have remained the same is the Great Wall of China. As it snakes on the top of mountain peaks as far as the eye can see, China’s economic prowess and social torpor will continue to do battle in the middle kingdom.
NEXT STOP: INDIARiddell Roundup JUNE 2014
Lately, I’ve been asked where we are travelling to next? And I feel a pang of disappointment when I reply with “nowhere this year”. The reality of taking yearly backpacking expeditions with the family doesn’t always balance out in our favour. And with the ever-present consistent combo of school fees and mortgage payments, travel seems more of a luxury rather than one of life’s great necessities unfortunately and falls down a few pegs in priority. While our busy days disappear like sand and the errands keep coming, the dust remains settled on our backpacks. However, with unforgiving determination I have been researching other ways. Specifically, travel where I can utilise my skills, work with like-minded people and continue making a difference out there in the world. And I found it in India.
India’s elections hit world headlines last month. The largest democracy on earth with a population of 1.237 billion people, had millions of voters voicing their desire for change in their society. Admittedly, I don’t have an in depth knowledge about the country or society as I have never been there…yet. But that is the thrilling part – reading, learning, understanding and then boarding a plane to somewhere unknown, untraveled. Initial thoughts that come mind is its paradoxical nature – vast richness and poverty, impressive palaces and slums, and the undeniable forces of the powerful and less powerful. With the horrible legacy of a caste system still functioning in Indian society, this new majority-elected national government has based its promises on social change and opportunity for all.
My opportunity is set in rural India during January 2015 at a town called Buldana with a district population of 2.6 million. It lies in the western part of India, approximately 500km east of Mumbai and where I will coordinate a group of student volunteers who oversee a community based health care program with a man by the name of Dr Moses. Dr Moses was born into a caste family and as such was denied many of life’s opportunities and chances. However, he has been able to overcome his birth status and gain an education that is proving to benefit the poor rural people in the district of Buldana. Over there it is about little things making a huge difference to peoples health – washing hands, having access to basic medicine and preventative controls. And over here it is about ways in which we can help empower Indian people to take responsibility for their health, especially considering many don’t have enough money to journey into the nearest city to see a doctor, let alone be able to pay for one.
Of course one cannot mention India without acknowledging the Indian institutions of Bollywood and cricket. But where I’m headed out west, I doubt I’ll see much of that type of Indian culture. Rather my initial research on Buldana takes me back to a distant epoch when a meteor collided into earth and formed Lonar Crater Lake, the second largest crater of its kind in the world.
I’ve read numerous travel experiences of India, and one that wriggled under my radar described the mere act of visiting India was an assault on your senses. I must say I’m looking forward to it.
BEAUTY AND THE BEASTRiddell Roundup MAY 2014
This time 15 years ago, I travelled to South East Asia with a new backpack, a husband and a wedding ring. On the Saturday I wore a flowing silk dress, the next morning I dressed in a singlet and three-quarter length khaki pants. We waved Australia goodbye without opening our wedding presents or looking back and began our married life in Asia on a two-month backpacking adventure.
The travelling highlight, if we were to name just one, was our time in the landlocked country of Laos. Sharing borders with Vietnam, Thailand, China, Myanmar (Burma), and Cambodia, border crossings were mostly closed to foreigners and the English language non-existent except for the universally zealous greeting of “Hello” that greeted us throughout. Travelling through Laos was a journey that grabbed our hearts and to this day continues to pull at the heartstrings, but for very different reasons.
In ’99 the small intrepid travelling community we moved with was off to a quiet town called Vang Vieng. There we were to spend days floating down the Nam Song river in truck tyre tubes. After hiring a tube for 20 cents and hitching a ride along the dusty road we commenced our slow, and although we didn’t know it then, once in a lifetime Laos-Nam Song River experience. Hours passed as we floated down the gently flowing river, enjoying our arms and legs dangling over the tube, splashing each other while taking in the spectacular karst mountainous scenery that joined the clear blue sky. Silence surrounded us except for the harmonious sound of nature.
However, in just a decade unknown Vang Vieng hit the tourist news big time. Not for it’s beauty, but for the beast it has become: an ‘anything-goes-on-here’ epicenter of South East Asia. Young Western backpackers flood the river arriving with wads of Kip (local currency) finding their way through the dense forests and over the steep hills. Their purpose is to get ‘lost’ consuming copious amounts of alcohol, local drugs and behaving badly. Word of mouth spreads like wildfire, and now we read reports of its deterioration and destruction, as well as tourist deaths, in the paper.
I think back and only remember the beauty of the place – the women who would come down to the water’s edge and wash their clothes and bathe as the golden sun set, or the children and their laughter as they were piggy-backed across the river on the shoulders of their fathers, or the peaceful natural environment of an unknown place in the middle of a landlocked country.
In 2012 our family travelled to Vietnam and we met up with many young backpackers who were either on their way to Vang Vieng or had escaped the place unscathed. They wore singlets that promoted the town’s new vibe: “I survived Vang Vieng”. On a bus, they shared their stories of partying for days on end on top of floating wooden platforms, swinging from tree ropes and jumping off under the midnight moon, music raging and blaring out into the nothingness while consuming insurmountable amounts of party enhancers. We listened and felt sorry for what they had missed out on: the enjoyment of eating granny’s tasty homemade chicken, egg and rice dish at the end of a river tube, a longneck of warm local Laotian beer, and especially the experience of time standing still, while being conscious, as we watched the golden sun set. Back then, Vang Vieng was like no other place on earth, we told these young travellers.
I share about our honeymoon in Vang Vieng with my children now, knowing they will never get to experience the beauty, only the beast. But I can keep dreaming about the Vang Vieng I met 15 years ago, and know that when we travel to far away places we tread with respect and a conscious awareness of never leaving our mark behind.
SUNNY PARADISERiddell Roundup APRIL 2014
We parked our car in long-term car parking near Melbourne Airport and caught a bus up to the main airport area. We hauled our bags with shoulder straps that slowed us down especially when other families tootled past us gliding their cases around on wheels. I kept telling myself we’re a committed backpacker family after all. We arrived at the International Departure area, but instead of stopping here (yes it was hard and I had to close my eyes at all the amazing places on offer lighting up the departures board) we kept on walking right up to the domestic terminal area.
This time our family was going on a holiday. A summer holiday to lap up some northern NSW coastal lifestyle and visit family in Kingscliff. Passports were left behind, so too were our trusty backpacks, replaced with carry-on luggage. Our mindset lingered on the opaque sliding glass doors and walking through to no-mans-land. But that wasn’t to be…not this time round.
We reached the Gold Coast’s Coolangatta Airport with our clocks turning back an hour only to reset them 10 minutes later when we crossed the border into NSW. We had left scorching hot Melbourne and were welcomed by sunny paradise. For the next eights day we lapped up the consistently warm weather that allowed us to venture outdoors for fun in the sun and were pleasantly surprised that there were no pesky flies, just sunning water dragons, chatty geckos and a family of scrounging wild turkeys.
Verdict: Kingscliff is a great spot for family holidays. We ran along the beach and bike paths, jumped waves in the tumbling surf and swam in the gentle river. And whatever we did we walked–having no vehicle was such a delight. A birthday present of a 2-hour surfing lesson was appreciated with a friendly, bronzed surf instructor named Tevie (a Tahitian name). Now I have a household of girl-surfers living in landlocked Riddells Creek! Paddle boarding out on the river was a meditative activity being surrounded by quiet and amongst nature. The kids even went snorkeling at high tide following fish of all shapes and colours. But most importantly, shoes were off and feet were bare enjoying the freedom from confining shoes.
We gave the restaurants a try too – from Mexican, Thai, Indian to unique Nepalese cuisine to easy Fish N Chips and refreshingly cool fruit smoothies. The BBQ got a workout too. We enjoyed meals outside with the stars gazing down on us. Every activity we did, except watching the Australian Open Tennis, was done outdoors. The bonus: no annoying flies or screaming mosquitoes. Just white sand between the toes that quite often got left behind down the hall and amongst the bed sheets.
Life up here seemed easier, simpler and we all felt the goodness of a primitive vitality, of simply being more alive from being outdoors. But of course, we were traveling, we were on a holiday away from our homely habits and workday routines. Travel can be quite a dangerous pursuit – you never really can be sure if all of you will ever come back in quite the same way, especially from a sunny paradise.
ARE YOU OKAY?Riddell Roundup MARCH 2014
To really know how something feels, you need to experience it. And that something was a grass fire heading straight to Riddells Creek on a Saturday afternoon. Our family was at home after returning from sporting commitments and planning on doing the weekly shop and getting some errands done…then my phone starting ringing.
Everyone knows the story and everyone has their experience of that day. The township was saved, but once golden pastures were scorched black and a lingering smoke remains. We left our home that afternoon. The view of smoke billowing up over tree tops from our front door and collating information from various sources sent us out our front door.
Sitting in the car driving north with four children, two dogs, paperwork such as passports and birth certificates, we watched the plumes, sighted the flames while listening to the radio trying to grasp this new reality that our little town, mentioned over and over on 774, was actually under threat.
It became an adventure of sorts for our family. Leaving early and heading straight up the Calder Freeway, I turned around to face the gang and got present to life and what’s important: we are all here together. However, with my husband driving in silence, I couldn’t help but think of all the “stuff” left behind.
I imagined the people of Syria, having to flee their homes with very little except maybe their life. The displacement of families and the rubble of homes was an everyday contemplation. What do they value after their continued horrific experiences – life, family, community, support, a phone call asking how are you going?
Late in the afternoon we ventured to the park in Kyneton to have pizzas. There we discovered fellow Riddells Creek residents waiting under the cool of a tree with their children frolicking, small pets secured in cages while larger ones secured with leads wrapped around tree trunks with bowls of water nearby. A community of refugees congregated under the shade of a tree, with many bringing their own accommodation with them. The pizzas were good.
We had offers from close and afar for accommodation. What we hoped for was our adventure away to be over, returning home to our beds. But with Riddells Creek in lockdown, we journeyed further north to Sutton Grange where a friend’s family offered us a bed for the night.
The girls had packed a bag of things that were important to them: books, PJs, toothbrush, numerous soft toys, and grade 6 graduation memories. I on the other hand had nothing except old clothes and paperwork to sleep with. We slept easy, far away from sirens, smoke, choppers and road blocks while others did not.
The calls kept coming from family, friends and people we hadn’t heard from for a long long time. So too did the Facebook check-ins all asking “are you okay?”
RIDING INLE LAKERiddell Roundup FEBRUARY 2014
We’re travelling east by bus leaving the temple city of Bagan, Myanmar (Burma). The pot-holed-single-lane-dual-direction road winds up and down mountains that swirl stomachs. The monk who is sitting in front of us is discretely vomiting in a black plastic bag. I have ours on stand-by.
The view from the bus window changes somewhat from flat, temple-strewn paddocks to lush, green mountains and an abundance of fresh water. Inle Lake is an area of 116km squared and sits between the Shan Hills. It’s a change of scenery for the eyes.
The air is cooler here too, mountain homes are built sturdier, and the people are as friendly as anywhere else we’ve been in Myanmar – smiling, welcoming and always saying mingalaba (hello in Burmese) to us. The locals of Inle Lake live, work and play on the water. Homes and businesses are built of wood, standing on long, thin stilts. Transport is by canoe, either motorised or paddle.
We hire a canoe with driver for the day. We board a long, thin structure that sits the six of us on chairs with our driver at the rear and we are taken out to see life on the lake. We stop and meet a fisherman who shows us his catch and his fancy footwork of skillfully manoeuvring his oar with his foot. Then he holds a large cone-shaped net and balances it over his boat with confidence. He is a real man of the water: living and working on the lake.
We continue on, the motor is revved up a notch, and we pass taxi-canoes that transport 25 people at once. They sit inside the hollow of the canoe, holding umbrellas over their heads to keep the sun at bay. We slow down and enter a labyrinth of narrow channels and on either side we see the famous floating gardens. Tomatoes climb stakes and spread out over the top of the water.
We stop at silverware and umbrella factories, but prefer to be out on the lake with the breeze in our faces rather than haggling shop owners. But then we make one last stop, and I finally meet, face-to-face, women from the Karen tribe, known as the long-necked women. This cultural practice if the Karen tribe places thick, heavy copper wires around young girls’ necks, lengthening them as they grow. It’s a practice many of the younger Karen generation choose not to pursue.
The Karen women sit together in full dress: 15, 18, 50 and 60 years of age. On the table beside them sits a copper necklace. We are told to pick it up, and as we do we feel its true weight: 8kg! I can’t help but notice the women’s drooping shoulders.
I’m telling myself this is really happening, and I’m on the verge of tears as my 14-year long dream to meet a Karen woman comes to fruition. We introduce our family, shaking hands and smiling. We sit down and talk. Our daughters are timid at first as their necks are noticeably elongated under the golden wires, but that soon dissipates with their genuine friendliness. The shopkeeper tells us there are only 80 long-necked women left on earth, and we had the privilege of meeting four of them.
This day, riding Myanmar’s grand Inle Lake, has been one of the most culturally enriching days of our life and I think one that we, as a family, will never forget.
BRILLIANT BAGANRiddell Roundup DECEMBER 2013
The one thing travellers can get tired of in Asia is the mighty temple. Love them or loathe them, they’re unique and every country loves to show them off. And with the majority of the Myanmar population being Buddhist, there are plenty of temples in here.
Our first temple stop was the larger-than-life 326-foot Shwedagon Pagoda located in the bustling and congested city of Yangon. Amongst the constant movement of traffic, people and pigeons there stood solidly and quietly, a golden 2,500-year old temple whose spire, adorned with jewels of gold bells, diamonds and other precious stones, rose high up into the cornflour blue sky. Shwedagon is impressive to visit, but its real purpose of prayer still entices local Buddhists from all over Myanmar.
Travel 630 kilometers north by bus from Yangon to the ancient temple town of Bagan that is littered with 800-year old temples and stupas across its plains. Untouched, some climb so high that the cool morning mist hangs low allowing pinnacles to poke through.
Bagan is a quiet city with horse and cart transport clambering along its dusty and pot-holed roads. We tried all transport options but settled on hiring e-bikes, a rechargeable battery operated Japanese import that allowed us to frolic in, around and out of temple areas and cruise easily up and down connecting pathways. It was fun, especially for the kids, and cheap at $8 per bike per day.
But the ‘a-ha’ moment came from one of the last temples we visited at sunset called Shwe Sandaw temple. After climbing extremely steep stairs and heaving our bodies upwards clasping onto the solid metal railing, our family of six reached the top landing, sweating and out of breath. I remember looking out, my eyes consuming the most unique and magnificent panoramic view I had ever witnessed: thousands of red-orange temples rising up from the earth dotted the landscape as far as the eye could see. There are no words for that exact moment, except perhaps breathtaking serenity.
We relaxed for a bit on the top-most terrace of Shwesandaw, built in 1057, and enjoying the view and beautiful sunset with a bevy of intrepid travellers. We sat there and contemplated life, the universe and getting back down.
Back on earth, we started our e-bikes eager to get off the roads before darkness descended and blinding traffic lights made it difficult to navigate along the hazy roads of this ancient city we call brilliant Bagan.
THE PERFECT BUS TRIPRiddell Roundup NOVEMBER 2013
The infrastructure in Myanmar is formidable with single-lane roads, potholed, and eroded, catering to two-way traffic of impatient bikes, cars, buses and trucks. This makes for slow, tedious and long bus travel. We had a brilliant idea – to travel from beautiful Inle Lake in the north-east to Chuang Tha Beach on the west coast hugging the Bay of Bangal by bus. It would take 18 hours.
We booked the 12–hour overnight bus from Inle Lake leaving at 6pm, but it was 45 minutes late and that created a domino effect: the connecting bus from Yangon to Chuang Tha Beach would leave without us.
We arrived to Yangon’s morning haze and hustle, jumped off the bus and into a taxi, with all six of us crammed in tight. We arrived into the western area bus terminal after 7am and caught another bus to Pathein, a town that was only two hours from our final destination. As we sat, relieved in our seats, we watched people opposite us snack on deep fried whole baby birds.
We arrived into Pathein at 12pm. By now we were feeling stale and emotional. There was more negotiation of transporting the six foreigners from an unknown bus stop in Pathein to the bus that would finally deliver us to Chuang Tha Beach. A deal was struck and we hauled our weary bodies into another small taxi. It was 1pm and we were hungry.
We arrived at another bus stop with a woman informing us there’ll be a bus leaving for Chuang Tha Beach at 2.30pm that will take two hours. Great. We find a restaurant, and eat rice with pork and rice with chicken. The bus pulls up outside the restaurant at 2.15pm, and it starts to rain. Bags are tossed and arranged on the roof of the bus with a large tarp covering the bags while the downpour continues.
The girls board the bus while I cross the muddy road and take some happy snaps. Charlie slides the bus window open and says, “There’s no room for my legs mum and it’s so hot.” I reply, “stop complaining, you’ll be right.” Smile…snap.
There really is no room: it’s full of passengers, bags of rice, potatoes and onions and not a chicken in sight! The bags of produce are stacked in the aisle and I crawl on top of them to reach my allocated seat. I can see Charlie’s not happy. Neither is Ashley. It’s so hot. It’s still raining. There’s a baby screaming and it won’t stop. Dacey starts crying too because her bag slipped through the open window and landed face down in a pool of muddy water. Her iPod is floating in the puddle. Steve wants to know how he is going to get into the bus let alone sit in his seat for the next two hours! I SCREAM…
We disembark. Everyone stops crying, even the baby. Our backpacks are tossed down and we negotiate a price for a small taxi to take us to Chuang Tha Beach. And if any of you have seen the movie The Hangover, our journey got a whole lot more interesting with ‘Chow’ as our driver. But that’s another story for another time.
At 5pm we finally arrived at Chuang Tha Beach. A mammoth 23 hours of bus and taxi travel around Myanmar and we’re all tired and weary, but happy as we race to the beach and breath in the salty Bay of Bangal air. The journey continues.
GRATEFULRiddell Roundup SEPTEMBER 2013
I interviewed a woman the other day called Mao. Mao was born in Laos, a landlocked country sandwiched between Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, China and Vietnam, but fled with her family after the communists claimed victory in December 1975. Mao was just 11 years old. Her family, part of the Hmong ethnic group, lived in the peaceful inland area of Long Chian. The peace disappeared when Hmong men were recruited by the CIA in the early 60s to fight for the Americans, mainly along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, against communism spreading into southern Vietnam. The persecution of the Hmong people, due to this secret war, continues to this day deep in the jungle of Laos.
It sounds more like a movie script than real life. Mao and her family spent the next four years living in squalid conditions in refugee camps on the Thai border. They arrived in Australia on 22 February 1980 with the only other 62 Hmong people in Melbourne. Unfortunately, her father had contracted tuberculosis and passed away shortly after arriving. Even though Mao married and had four children, her extended family of uncles, aunts and cousins were scattered in America and France. She didn’t know exactly where, and even if she did, there wasn’t money to make expensive calls.
In 1999, I visited Laos on a backpacking honeymoon adventure throughout South East Asia. My experience of Laos was beautiful: untouched, uncommercialised and unassuming. Life was slow: we trekked up mountains, tubed down rivers, ate food and drank beer. We purchased sweet tea cake from an old Hmong woman’s stall who kindly offered an aside, “you like some opium too?” Walking along a pot-holed road with no cars, just women with their iconic carrying poles, and chickens, piglets and mangy dogs scurrying about we were asked by a pair of Americans, “you seen any ATMs ‘round here?” Really? I thought observing the scene: river washing, basic buses, tangled English. The culture, their way of life was unique and such a privilege to experience.
As I sat with Mao and listened to her journey, I was overcome with gratitude: grateful to call Australia home, and grateful to a myriad of opportunities, including travel. Mao has never returned to her country and she probably never will. Imagine how many amazing journeys exist, untold, just like Mao’s.
TUNE OF THE TRAFFICRiddell Roundup AUGUST 2013
Australia is a sparse country even though our population ticked over to 23 million on the night of April 23. Sounds a lot on it’s own, but when you compare other countries’ population, that significance dwindles. When you go travelling to another land, a place more populated than our “lucky country” you soon begin to realize how much space we have to swing our arms around.
When we backpacked to Vietnam, the slither of land that snuggles up to Cambodia and Laos and backs onto the South China Sea, we discovered that there were more motorbikes on the road than people in Australia! With a population nearing 90 million and a growing affluent middle class, the thought of more bikes than Aussies had us contemplating our future.
The sight and sound of bikes starting up, pulling up, parking on walkways, tooting down narrow streets and swerving around animals and/or pedestrians is a way of life. As a pedestrian, crossing roads in the congested and ever so lively cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, depending on how you viewed it, was either a death wish or a challenge in karma.
The best advice we were given on our first family street crossing in Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur was this: “You don’t wait for lights. Close eyes and raise hand in air. They (numerous crazy drivers) think you blind and move round you. Remember no stop or think or you die!” Thanks for that…you got all that kids?
In 1990, I travelled to China and the population then was just over 1.1 billion. Sitting in a bus navigating through millions of bicycles was a slow yet memorable experience. I believed then that there were more bikes than stars in the night sky. I had a go with my own pedal pusher, and unfortunately ran into the back of an elderly man’s wheels. He started to stutter something at me, until he glanced up and noticed me – Western, white and woman. He smirked, like that explained it all, and pedaled away.
These are the moments to reflect and share of moving to the tune of the traffic within different countries, whether that’s pedalling through the streets of Shanghai, or zipping around Ho Chi Minh City, or taking advice from the locals – we’re all moving, all 7 billion of us.
FALLING IN LOVE WITH A NEW (TRAVEL) EXPERIENCERiddell Roundup JULY 2013
Travel engages all of the senses. It also gives wanderers an opportunity to explore and discover more about the world they live in and to learn something new about themselves. Travellers abound in the infusion of sensory, cognitive and spiritual experiences. I read a travel blog the other day and it expressed an idea that unequivocally resonated with me, ‘The truth is, travel is such an important part of living that it’s worth fighting for.’ I believe that; I’m fighting too. Travelling, each with a backpack, commands my family to step out of comfort zones and socialise with perceptions that beforehand didn’t exist.
That was our family’s intention last year: backpacking for five weeks throughout Vietnam and this year, in September, we’re headed to mysterious Myanmar (Burma). Joseph Kipling said of Burma, ‘It is quite unlike any place you know about’. Typically, everything seems different in a foreign country: from the food, streets and fashion to the climate, customs and rules. It’s a holistic perspective challenge and, if you’ve ever visited India, I’ve read, it’s an assault on your senses. However, delve below the surface of any country’s tourism propaganda and transform into a noticing traveller and discover a universal similarity: we are all human. Humans create cities and communities, build nests and families, experience love and hate, and continually eat and drink and sleep. At the heart of travel is the element of our own humanity.
I declared on our Vietnam trip that I would never complain again about having a small kitchen after spending time cooking traditional Vietnamese cuisine with a local family in their small, undeveloped kitchen in Hoi’An. My four young daughters vowed to never harass me for more after meeting children their own ages who have no parents and owned no things. But back at home in our comfort, the realness of that perspective waned and the nagging returned. The kids started their pestering song too – I want, I want, I want.
Moving around in the world, giving away with comfort and living in the moment are precious gems. I’m looking forward to collecting them in Burma and noticing the beauty of simplicity that sanctions the prevalent “more” mentality to wash away while falling in love with a new perspective in a new land. I’m hoping Kipling’s perception still stands.
THE FIRST RULE OF TRAVEL – PATIENCERiddell Roundup JUNE 2013
The night before take-off: backpacks are zipped up, name tags attached, alarm set. An array of comfortable clothing is laid out, ready and waiting. Last minute calls are made finalising pet sitting and mail collection to friendly neighbours. The atmosphere in the house is electric; excitable children are still bouncing off the walls at a quarter to ten. Off to bed!
I’m awake before the alarm. Thinking about a lengthy checklist, ensuring everything is covered while we’re away. Kids are up, dressed and eagerly loading bulging backpacks into the car. It’s time; let’s go. Who’s got the passports?
It’s an exciting journey just getting to the airport with a myriad of thoughts passing amongst us in the car about the journey ahead and the knowledge of the six of us being together 24/7 for five weeks interrupts my trance. One family’s extended excursion is another’s worst nightmare. We’ll be fine.
We arrive at the airport and haul the packs up onto our back. It’s no longer a practice drill. This time our packs contain clothes, shoes, toiletries and medical supplies rather than soft toys and blankets. This is the real thing. All eyes widen with anticipation of boarding a big plane to a far-away land.
And then we’re there: sitting, waiting, wandering, fidgeting, managing restless and whinging kids at the international departure lounge. The incessant question of “when can we get on the plane?” plays over and over and grates on me like scratching nails down a blackboard. My children believe I have the power to hurry things along. The voiceover confirms our fears – DELAY. The outrage commences: “I’m bored”, “I’m hungry” and “I’m tired”. Eyes are now narrowed with disappointment and disillusion.
An hour of waiting beyond the door of no return with protesting children feels like an entire day of housework. We wait, watch and wail. And then the announcement…all passengers can board now. KL here we come!
MY TOP 5 REASONS WHY I LOVE TO TRAVEL ABROADRiddell Roundup MAY 2013
I was recently asked, “Why do you love to travel?” Stunned at the question I responded with another, “Doesn’t everyone?” Here are my top five:
AIRPORT – I love walking through the frosted glass sliding doors; it leads to a place where no one can reach me. My luggage checked in, passport stamped, hand luggage scanned, metal detector approved and I’m untouchable! I wander around buying magazines, lip balm, water and casually call past Chanel and spray to my heart’s content. I haven’t got a care in the world because I’m now officially out-of-reach.
CULTURE – meeting people from different cultures is a highlight of travel. I’m amazed at how people live: passing down customs and rituals from generation to generation, traditional clothing, ways they behave and interact with one another. Apart from squat toilets, which can take some getting used to (except for my 7 year old who thinks they were the best in KL!), many of the cultural nuances of a country are spectacular.
LANGUAGE – I agree language can present difficulties. It can make the game of Charades seem real and deliver long belly-laughs. Mimicking distinct accents, attempting standard salutations of ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’ and ‘thank you’ and dabbling in your unique pronunciation of a foreign language must benefit the neurons in some way.
SIGHTS – exploring the natural and the man-made: cities, mountains, roads, lakes, caves… At home I travel by car, so I love the fact that the car stays put and I catch alternative means of travel: train or a bus passing over beautiful countryside, riding a bike around ancient temples or jumping on a boat and cruising down a river.
FOOD – The best thing about travelling abroad is realising that authentic local food is nothing like what is served at home, which is a good thing. Visiting fruit and vegetable markets, trying street food, being daring and eating a snail, or a cricket or a lotus bud because a Vietnamese lady at the flower stall tells you it’s tasty (and it was, but by the 10th bud I was lotused out). I enjoy searching for my meal – no cooking, just find, pay and eat – a rare treat for a mum of four!
Of course there are more…so stay tuned.