Monday, 29 September 2014

A Holy Lake, an Amber Fort & a little something called the Taj Mahal

PROJECT: Teaching
WRITTEN BY: Fiz Eustance

The past two weeks have been intense to say the least.

It's only now -on our first weekend home since the last blog post- that we've actually been able to laze about and relax. That being said, we're not complaining about it because India isn't really the kind of place one goes to relax. So we've been busy- but the good, exciting kind of busy.

Just a couple of weeks ago, a car full of us volunteers- Australian, English, Austrian and Swiss, crammed into a van for a 6 hour trip to Pushkar. Thinking back to it, the day we spent in Pushkar was one of our favourite days so far. Sifting through the markets, we walked from our hotel to a local Sikh temple. It was beautiful, though not the kind of beauty of a building like the Taj or Jaipur's Amber Fort. Instead it possessed a kind if serenity and peace that only an in-use temple can possess. We spent a while there, just sitting and taking it in. From there we wondered past various market stalls to reach the Holy Lake, nipping into another temple along the way. Another place of a calm, serene beauty, Pushkar's Holy Lake is situated in the middle of town. Despite this, when you see it's undulating waters and feel the remnants of its breeze upon your skin, it's easy to forget that the bustling market is just behind you. Another high point of the Pushkar trip was the Durka Temple, located on the very top of a large hill. We woke up at 4:30am that day so that we could climb up it and drink chai on the top just in time for sunrise.

The week of teaching following the Pushkar Trip was wonderful, as I feel like it was that week in which we all really started to find our stride with both the kids at the school and orphanage. However, after just four days back, we left for Jaipur, this time cramming ourselves into one India's renowned overnight 'sleeper trains'. Some highlights of Jaipur include the elephant ride up the Amber Fort, seeing the world's largest sundial at the observatory and celebrating Shoumyaa and Annie's birthdays by storming into their room and smashing cake all over their faces (an experience which I doubt either of them will forget). A day later and we were on the move again, this time by bus to Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal.

I think it's fair to say that anyone reading this had probably seen a picture of the Taj before. And it may be also fair to say that when you saw it, some part of you thought that it probably looks better in those photos (sunrise, some birds silhouette flying through the frame, some woman in an orange sari) than in real life. But thankfully it doesn't. That first view you get of it through the gates is one you remember, and I'd say that all of us would agree on that.

Leaving Agra, every one of us was extremely tired and ready to get home to our own beds, Meenaji's cooking and to teaching our kids. However, there was one thing yet to get through: the 13 hour 'sleeper train' home. Thankfully, we got through it, but let's just say that it certainly isn't a memory we'll forget.

It has been just over a month since we arrived. Reflecting on it, it's interesting to see which things stand out the most. Obviously, our weekend trips have been brilliant and memorable, but to me at least, I think more about our time settling into what we now think of as our second home- Udaipur- and above all things, the teaching. So, although much of what gets written in these posts may inevitably be about where we went and what we did, the children we teach have been the most extraordinary thing for all of us so far.



Sunday, 28 September 2014

We're honourary Ghanaians! Well, at lease we think we are...

PROJECT: Teaching
WRITTEN BY: Etta Napier


Welcome to the second blog post for the August 2014 Ghana GapBreak group. Three weeks in, and I think it's fair to say we are now honorary Ghanaians! At least we think we are… the locals probably think otherwise.

We have finally got the hang of navigating the chaotic streets of Swedru, bartering in taxis and tro-tros, politely declining marriage proposals and avoiding the slightly soggy-looking pastries sold by venders on the side of the road - no matter how much they insist to us that they are freshly made. We have learnt to love the noise, chaos and the constant claustrophobia of Ghanaian life, so much so that I think heading back to Australia will be quite a culture shock for us all! We have made some fantastic discoveries in the past two weeks about everyday life here, first and foremost being Fan Ice - a semi-frozen ice cream sold in plastic bags that is literally the best thing that has ever happened to us. We have also discovered that everything we want to buy has two prices - the real price, and the ridiculously inflated obruni (foreigner) price, which is irritating to say the least.

Most importantly though, we have discovered how truly happy and optimistic the Ghanaian locals are here, despite living in a comparatively poor and basic environment. It really does put into perspective how lucky we have it back at home, and how important it is to not take such luck for granted.

Our first two weeks of teaching were a real eye opener. A great one, of course, but wow. These kids are something else. Most of the group have been working with 7-9 year olds, and they range from being angels to devils. We love both equally though. It's hard not to, they have such sweet smiles! It takes all of our willpower not to just squeeze them for hours on end. Teaching is a mental and physical challenge, and most days we leave the schools absolutely exhausted. But it is so worth it. Already we see how much these kids benefit from having a teacher that nurtures rather than commands them, or in some cases having a teacher at all! Hopefully we are getting through to them, as they have most certainly made an impact on us.

Our weekend travels have been the perfect way to unwind after a hard week's work. Last weekend we made a trip down to a resort within Accra called Big Millys and celebrated Georgia's birthday. There we were treated to some live reggae music and cocktails by the beach! Pretty blissful.

This weekend we went on a fascinating trip down to Elimina - a small fishing town and home to St George's castle, the largest trans-Atlantic slave trade castle on the Gold Coast (the bottom photo above). It was beautiful, in a way that sent shivers down your spine. It was almost ethereal to be within a place so rich in history.

Hope you enjoyed, until next time!



Saturday, 27 September 2014

Volunteering begins for Southern Africa Gappers

COUNTRY: Southern Africa (Swaziland, Mozambique & South Africa)
PROJECT: Teaching & Care Work
WRITTEN BY: Emily Forbes

Greetings to our friends back home in Australia. I am writing this watching the Mozambican countryside fly by, as we make our way to Tofo Bay for a week of rest and recreation!

Our first two weeks at our volunteer placements have been an exciting challenge to say the least. We have been placed at different neighbourhood care points all around Ezulwini Valley, teaching underprivileged children aged 3-7, helping them to prepare for primary school. While these children are there they are fed both breakfast and lunch, which is an important incentive that makes many children show up each day to learn. When it comes down to it, all these gorgeous children want is love, a cuddle and some attention.

The past fortnight has certainly not been easy but we are finding that each day there is something new to learn which helps us become better teachers. Our typical day begins at 8.30am when we leave the lodge for our various placements. We spend 3-4 hours there, conducting English lessons where we teach numbers, the alphabet, seasons and days of the week, amongst other things. After our lesson is finished we have playtime with the children before heading back to the lodge for lunch.

Our lunch breaks are most often spent soaking up the beautiful weather Swaziland has put on show for us by lounging by the pool. Our afternoon schedules vary day to day, and we try to make the most of the time. We have visited the local hospital, had Siswati lessons, spent time with the children at orphanages and visited the Manzini markets.

Our weekend was spent on a zip-lining canopy tour at Malolotja nature reserve, right next to the border of Swaziland and South Africa. The tour encompassed 11 zip-lines and a canopy bridge, the highest being 60 meters above the ground. The area was set between mountain ranges, which offered stunning scenic views.

With just two weeks left at our placements in Swaziland we are frantically working to help better the lives of the children in Ezulwini. We have successfully started and completed a veggie garden as a more sustainable food option for our kids. Mitch, Anna and Lucy are also working hard to get bars put on the windows of their kitchen to stop their children's food being stolen.

All in all, we are settling in well to the Swazi lifestyle and feeling more and more like locals each day.

Until next time,

Usale Kahle!


Friday, 26 September 2014

Welcome to Cuzco

PROJECT: Teaching & Construction
WRITTEN BY: Steph Rainbow

Hola from Cuzco,

Our first week in Peru has been a blur of new sights and experiences. Arriving in the capital of Lima after a gruelling flight from Sydney, we were immediately thrown into the chaos of Peruvian traffic. Drivers seem to obey their own rules, with everyone battling for space in order to get to their destinations.

Arriving in Cuzco a day later, we were relieved to be able to see the sky once again as opposed to the thick blanket of smog that lies constantly overhead in Lima. Cuzco itself is a whole different world and with only Laura being able to speak Spanish, everyone has relied heavily upon her to be our translator. While everyone adjusted to the altitude sickness and the dangers of eating the local food, we sought out the wonders of Cuzco. We visited the San Pedro markets, where the vibrant colours of the local textiles drew us in immediately and the sickening smells from the meat section left us gagging. As soon as we left the sanctuary of our hotel we were swarmed by locals selling absolutely everything. There was jewellery, paintings, and even locals wanting to polish your shoes for the 'best price'. At night, everyone flocks to the local bars and clubs. Muma Africa has become a favourite of the boys in our group with weekly salsa lessons at the club.

We were finally introduced to Antips' In-Country Partner, who took us to our new hostel away from the main square. From there we began some much needed daily Spanish lessons and tours of the Inca ruins Saqsayhuaman and Q'├źnco. We quickly realised how much the altitude leaves you out of breath. We were also taken on a tour of Cuzco, learning interesting facts (such as why there are churches on every corner) and getting to taste the local market bread and fruit.

We were pretty anxious to meet our host families, however we were welcomed in with open arms. The mothers in particular were eager to adopt us as their own and my host mama was immediately trying to feed me a three-course meal. Trying to communicate that we were full (in Spanish) proved quite the challenge. The language barrier is the most difficult aspect of settling in, but it's good to know that all the host families are trying their utmost to provide for our every need.

The weekend brought with it more exploration of ruins, and we visited Chinchero where we saw how the local textiles was made. The temples of Ollyantaytambo tested my fitness and fear of heights, and we were nearly blown over by the freezing winds in the town below. We also managed to do a bit of shopping- and may have gorged ourselves on cake too.

Next week we begin a whole new experience as we begin teaching at the school and our construction work!

Adios amigos,



Sunday, 21 September 2014

Festivals, elephant rides and Buddah's birthplace

PROJECT: Teaching
WRITTEN BY: Jess Kellett

Hello everyone! The three of us are now in Kathmandu for our last weekend here all together, it's hard to believe that our two months in the village are nearly up. How time has flown!

We have been sup1er busy these last few weeks. Recently we spent the weekend in our village celebrating Teej, the two-day women's festival. We dressed in red saris and gold jewellery, and spent the afternoons dancing with what seemed to be all of the women and children in the entire village.

Last weekend we travelled down from Kathmandu to the famous Chitwan National Park in Nepal's Terrai region. The first thing we noticed getting off the bus was the heat. The second was probably how flat the land was, having gotten used to the hills of the Kathmandu Valley over the last two months. We spent our time in Chitwan sightseeing, going on a jungle walk, a visit to the elephant breeding centre, a canoe ride through a crocodile invested river, and an elephant safari! We rode elephants through the park, seeing deer, monkeys, crocodiles and rhinos with their babies - definitely a highlight of the trip.

We then travelled down near the Indian border to Lumbini, a small town known for being the birthplace of Buddha. We spent a day exploring all of the temples, monasteries and ruins that surround the main attraction, the Maya Devi Temple. This site, sacred to both Buddhas and Hindus, marks the exact spot of Buddha's birth with ruins, a large pond, and the pillar of Ashoka. Despite the 40-degree heat and 11-hour bus ride back to Kathmandu, we all thought that Lumbini was definitely worth the trip.

When we're not celebrating festivals or travelling around the country, we are settling in to our role as teachers. More confidence and well prepared lesson plans, along with stickers of course, has meant the kids are learning lots and still enjoying our lessons, which is so great to see! But it's not all hard work at school - Fridays are half days here, finishing at one, so sometimes the school just cancels lessons altogether and has a special day for the students. A few weeks ago it was a school-wide volleyball competition, and more recently we held a spelling bee day for the older kids, complete with running races and a memory competition for the year 4s and 5s.

Last week we celebrated my birthday in our village. Our host family went all out with a big dinner, presents, and even cake brought over from the next town! Next week we get to do it all over again for Tarnya's birthday and can't wait!

Now we are in Kathmandu for our last weekend here all together. Next week will see the end of our teaching placement and the start of one of the most important festivals of the Nepali year, Dashain, a two-week long festival in which families gather together to celebrate. We will spend this time in an orphanage just outside of Kathmandu, followed by two weeks of trekking, whitewater rafting and sightseeing. We are so sad to be leaving our village and our school, and know how much we will miss our wonderful host family and the cheeky kids we've gotten to know so well. But at the same time we couldn't be more excited for the adventure ahead!


Saturday, 20 September 2014

This is what a GapBreak is all about!

COUNTRY: Argentina
PROJECT: Teaching & Care Work
WRITTEN BY: Clem Rocks

Hello everyone! It has been a busy few weeks for our group of seven. We write to you from our 14-hour bus trip home from Mendoza, Argentina's wine region near the north border of Chile. It is amazing how after three weeks in Buenos Aires it really does feel like we are heading home after a weekend away.

Two weeks ago we had our orientation with Antips' in-country partners, who explained to us the significance of what we would be doing over the next three (now two) months. The primary objective is to "improve the children's quality of life in marginalised areas by generating opportunities for a better future in Argentina." The work that we do is primarily after school care, working in small community centres in 'las villas' playing with the children and essentially giving them something to do in the afternoons so they aren't wandering around the slums. Most of the activities we offer are recreational: puzzles, reading with the kids or playing soccer and skipping. For many of the children it is an escape and often the highlight of their day, and it is quickly becoming the highlight of our time here too. Only two weeks in and we have already chosen our favourite places and have fallen in love with these kids.

The group managed to get out of Buenos Aires on our first trip together - a long weekend in Mendoza. We arrived on Friday morning after a sleep on the overnight bus (in seats that are definitely business class standard) and that afternoon set off on a wine tasting tour of the region. Mendoza is known for having the best red wine in Argentina, though in addition to tasting the Malbecs and Shiraz we also had amazing olive oil at a small factory along the way and learnt the process of making wine at these vineyards.

The next day was Georgia's 19th birthday, and what a better way to spend it than on a high mountain tour of the Andes. Mendoza is semi-desert and it is quite rare for it to snow in the Andes at this time of year, so naturally we were expecting the blue skies and 20-degree weather we were told about. What we were met with was -7 degrees and snowing- definitely different to what we were prepared for, but so much better. We visited the highest mountain in both the Western and Southern Hemispheres and had lunch at an altitude of 3557m above sea level. We ended the tour in Las Cuevas, the final town before Chile with a population of only ten people before heading back via the Inca Bridge.

On our final day the girls opted for the city tour where we learnt about Mendoza's history and climbed 'Cerro de la Gloria', an iconic hill in Mendoza with spectacular panoramic views of the whole city; as usual, none of our photos do it justice.

Outside of volunteer hours we have also been very busy discovering more and more of Argentina. We dedicated last weekend to seeing many of the main tourist attractions in Buenos Aires. We visited Recoleta Cemetery, home of some the most elaborate graves we have ever seen, including that of the Peron family (see photo below). On the same day we also discovered El Ateneo, a beautiful theatre turned bookstore which was a lovely escape from the craziness of the city, even if just for an hour or so. On Sunday we returned to San Telmo markets with more determination than last week; not only did we make it the whole stretch this time but we also picked up some souvenirs to bring home along the way.

During the week we attended 'La bomba del Tiempo', an Argentine percussion show which we were told was one of the top three things to see in Buenos Aires- and it definitely lived up to this claim! The boys have joined a local football team, playing with and against other travellers about once a week. The girls attempted tango lessons which were less than successful (none of us are very coordinated), though we claim victory after the few 'buenos' we received from the teacher and are definitely as good as the locals now.

Today marks two months until we leave and although that feels like a long time we know that it will fly by. The combination of volunteering and travelling is really what a GapBreak is all about. We are planning to go to Uruguay in a couple of weeks and this weekend some of us are going to volunteer at a summer camp with the kids we see during the week. We are well and truly settling into life in Buenos Aires and are starting to feel like locals, though our thick Australian accents often give us away, along with our not-so-fluent Spanish.

Till next time!

Clem

A whale shark welcome to Tofo Bay

COUNTRY: Mozambique
PROJECT: Marine Conservation and Care Work
WRITTEN BY: Lottie Mellowes

Hello from Mozambique!

We've been in the little coastal town of Tofo for almost two weeks now, and we're already having the best time. We have settled into our volunteer accommodation, which is a traditional thatched house only a few minutes walk from the beach.

The first week was fairly relaxed and mainly involved some of us completing PADI diving courses or introductions to the marine conservation side of the program. Almost every day at least one of us was out on the boat and in the water, swimming or diving with the amazing marine life the coast of Mozambique has to offer. Sian, Ryan and I were lucky enough to swim with a whale shark on our second ocean safari! Unfortunately, the hype of jumping in the water meant that none of us were able to get our cameras ready. I assume we will see plenty of whale sharks over the next three months so expect photos in the near future!

Helena and Sophie have been busy diving and are now certified divers. During their dives they have seen numerous fish and octopus as well as humpback whales. As we become more accustomed to the marine project we will be collecting data and photo IDs of the animals both shore based and boat based. Shore based data research involves humpback whale monitoring and data entry- not as exhilarating as diving or snorkelling, but just as important!

Our program is the unique combination of marine conservation and social work at local schools and kindergartens. The children and teachers are so amazing and so grateful to have us help out. After a long and somewhat uncomfortable trip to school on the local 'chappa' we are always greeted with huge smiles and hugs from the children. Sian and Ryan are helping to build a vegetable garden at their kindergarten and Helena, Sophie and I have been busy at our placement teaching English to the teacher and taking the kids for swimming lessons. Our kindergarten is seriously under-resourced and a huge part of our job is creating a fun, comfortable environment for the kids to play and learn.

It is really important that we are involved in the social and marine projects on a long-term scale as we will be able to see the full effect of our work. This week we will be continuing at the kindergartens as well as visiting another primary school. Quite a few whale sharks and mantas have been spotted so hopefully we will come across them this week on our dives and ocean safaris.

We'll keep you posted!