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Thursday, 30 April 2015

A Laowai's life in Liaoning


COUNTRY: China
PROGRAM: GapBreak
PROJECT: Teaching Placement
WRITTEN BY: Robert Meek

It's been two and a half weeks since my placement at the North Yucai Bilingual School in Shenyang, Liaoning. My spacious dorm room is on the 3rd floor of a residential building on the campus of a sister school right in the centre of the city. My window looks out over an enormous park which facilitates early morning Tai-Chi, social dancing, community exercise sessions and plenty of space for sitting, reading, singing, playing and jogging. I have my own room and bathroom and share the hallway with 4 other teachers, a sweet old Japanese lady and the maintenance husband/wife duo. My food table holds a big bag of oats and some instant coffee; my fridge contains ice-tea, milk, beer and baiju.

Much of the furniture and many of the appliances were stolen over the holidays by workers (microwaves, shelves, sheets, lamps) and so my room is home to two brand new flat-pack clothes stands bought from the local WalMart, as well as an inflatable mattress bought off TaoBao (effectively Chinese Amazon). The mattress was not replacing a stolen one, it was simply a necessary addition to the piece of plywood that served as my original mattress. My colleagues are all very jealous of this.

My school is an hour's bus ride away from my dorm which demands a 5:45 wake up for a 6:50 coach to school. My getting ready routine inevitably involves buying an extremely delicious breakfast wrap from a stall conveniently placed between the gate and the bus. 5 kuai (AUD 1$) for a big doughy eggy wrap filled with lettuce, mystery meat and some kind of mouth-watering sauce. I have to admit that at least once this wrap has been the highlight of my day.

I arrive at school just before 8am every morning and check into the office. At this time the students are up, dressed and jog-marching in perfect squares around the grounds to patriotic marching-band music blasted out of low quality speakers. Classes at every age practice marching frequently; it is not uncommon to walk past lines of 6-year-olds marching behind a whistle-blowing teacher.

I have 18 classes a week. 8 are grade four and 10 are grade one or two depending on the week. This means I only have to plan two lessons a week and get to practice them and improve them with each new class, a very good set-up for a teacher-in-training. My grade fours are able to hold a conversation with lots of thinking time, but grade one and two often rely on my assistant to have my instructions translated. They all have their own local English teachers; it is my role to activate the vocabulary and get them speaking.

The school is a fine establishment, despite being in the middle of nowhere. North Yucai Bilingual boasts a huge gymnasium, a football field and grandstand, an enormous lecture hall that doubles as a performance hall. There is a music/arts department, but those subjects aren't taken seriously compared to languages and mathematics.

Classes are difficult at first, but get easier as I modify my lessons. My first week of lessons consisted mostly of introducing myself and Australia and having the students create name-tags, a source of endless amusement. Chinese names always double as actual words in the language, so left to their own devices Chinese kids will name themselves "Dragon" or "Spider" for the boys and "Flower" or "Princess" for the girls to give a few examples. I was delighted to meet a "Major Tom" in grade two.

I always have lots of free time at school, sometimes up to 4 hours at a time. I used this free time over the last two weeks to watch TV shows on the net, but plan to use this time in the future to practice Chinese, read books and play basketball.The length of the work day leaves me with very little time to pursue any kind of afternoon activity as I get home at 6 (on a good day) and am usually exhausted. This usually warrants a trip to the food court of the local shopping centre for dinner and a bed-time of 8:30pm. The weekend is of course a different story. After some exploration and trial-and-error with address pronunciation at the expense of frustrated taxi drivers, we've come across plenty of expat bars and local nightclubs hidden away between the countless Karaoke bars and restaurants. A typical Saturday night will end at 3am with us arriving home by taxi reeking of second-hand smoke and our wallets mysteriously empty. A typical Sunday is spent recuperating, doing laundry and planning the next week of teaching.

Living conditions are very similar to Beijing. Tap water is still a no-go, pollution levels rise and fall daily, alcohol is still cheap and there is still no end to the relentless staring, pointing, and giggling at my slightly different facial features. As a non-Asian, I and all my colleagues are considered "Laowais" (foreigners). Laowai literally translates to "old person" and is appropriate due to our hair colour, as native hair is only ever anything other than jet black when it starts to go grey with age. The "Laowai Treatment" as coined by expats before me is a two sided coin.


On one hand, Laowais are often respected and revered for our heritage and use of English. Making friends is easy as everyone wants to practice their English with you. Bar owners have given us free drinks before (possibly trying to get us to bring more laowais). Random people on the street will shamelessly ask to take a photo with you; the red carpet treatment has often put a spring in my step. Everyone is nice and polite and usually do their best to overcome the language barrier that looms despite our best efforts to learn the language.

On the other hand, being the subject of amusement of an entire society can quickly get under your skin. The more sensitive expats call these incidents "microaggressions" which includes the pointing and giggling, the "ha-lou"ing and (rarely) being refused a taxi ride. We have often been used as a marketing tool to draw in more local customers (another reason for the free drinks I suppose) and some vendors will quite openly mock us while we purchase. Of course a lot of this is probably due to the language barrier which is our own fault. In the history of mankind, this rates insignificantly low on the racism spectrum, but it's part of the culture shock and while it gets on my nerves now, I'm sure I'll learn to appreciate the attention and get used to it.

At the moment weekdays are bland and uncomfortable and the respite of the weekend is short-lived, probably due to the struggle of settling in and adapting to such a wildly new routine. However I sense a change approaching with the impending Summer season. Shenyang has been referred to as a city in hibernation and I'm certain that some heat will breathe new life into this place. I can feel the settling-in struggle period coming to an end and a routine forming. I'm focusing on using my time to learn as much Mandarin as possible and utilise the free gym across the road. One day I will conquer the art of surviving this crazy country!


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Thursday, 23 April 2015

Settling Into Shenyang


COUNTRYChina
PROGRAMGapBreak
PROJECT: Teaching
WRITTEN BY: Robert Meek

It's been two and a half weeks since my placement at the North Yucai Bilingual School in Shenyang, Liaoning. My spacious dorm room is on the 3rd floor of a residential building on the campus of a sister school right in the centre of the city.

My window looks out over an enormous park which facilitates early morning Tai-Chi, social dancing, community exercise sessions and plenty of space for sitting, reading, singing, playing and jogging. I have my own room and bathroom and share the hallway with 4 other teachers, a sweet old Japanese lady and the maintenance husband/wife duo. My food table holds a big bag of oats and some instant coffee; my fridge contains ice-tea, milk, beer and baiju.

Much of the furniture and many of the appliances were stolen over the holidays by workers (microwaves, shelves, sheets, lamps) and so my room is home to two brand new flat-pack clothes stands bought from the local WalMart, as well as an inflatable mattress bought off TaoBao (effectively Chinese Amazon). The mattress was not replacing a stolen one, it was simply a necessary addition to the piece of plywood that served as my original mattress. My colleagues are all very jealous of this.

My school is an hour's bus ride away from my dorm which demands a 5:45 wake up for a 6:50 coach to school. My getting ready routine inevitably involves buying an extremely delicious breakfast wrap from a stall conveniently placed between the gate and the bus. 5 kuai (AUD 1$) for a big doughy eggy wrap filled with lettuce, mystery meat and some kind of mouth-watering sauce. I have to admit that at least once this wrap has been the highlight of my day.

I arrive at school just before 8am every morning and check into the office. At this time the students are up, dressed and jog-marching in perfect squares around the grounds to patriotic marching-band music blasted out of low quality speakers. Classes at every age practice marching frequently; it is not uncommon to walk past lines of 6-year-olds marching behind a whistle-blowing teacher.

I have 18 classes a week. 8 are grade four and 10 are grade one or two depending on the week. This means I only have to plan two lessons a week and get to practice them and improve them with each new class, a very good set-up for a teacher-in-training. My grade fours are able to hold a conversation with lots of thinking time, but grade one and two often rely on my assistant to have my instructions translated. They all have their own local English teachers; it is my role to activate the vocabulary and get them speaking.

The school is a fine establishment, despite being in the middle of nowhere. North Yucai Bilingual boasts a huge gymnasium, a football field and grandstand, an enormous lecture hall that doubles as a performance hall. There is a music/arts department, but those subjects aren't taken seriously compared to languages and mathematics.

Classes are difficult at first, but get easier as I modify my lessons. My first week of lessons consisted mostly of introducing myself and Australia and having the students create name-tags, a source of endless amusement. Chinese names always double as actual words in the language, so left to their own devices Chinese kids will name themselves "Dragon" or "Spider" for the boys and "Flower" or "Princess" for the girls to give a few examples. I was delighted to meet a "Major Tom" in grade two.


I always have lots of free time at school, sometimes up to 4 hours at a time. I used this free time over the last two weeks to watch TV shows on the net, but plan to use this time in the future to practice Chinese, read books and play basketball.
The length of the work day leaves me with very little time to pursue any kind of afternoon activity as I get home at 6 (on a good day) and am usually exhausted. This usually warrants a trip to the food court of the local shopping centre for dinner and a bed-time of 8:30pm. The weekend is of course a different story. After some exploration and trial-and-error with address pronunciation at the expense of frustrated taxi drivers, we've come across plenty of expat bars and local nightclubs hidden away between the countless Karaoke bars and restaurants. A typical Saturday night will end at 3am with us arriving home by taxi reeking of second-hand smoke and our wallets mysteriously empty. A typical Sunday is spent recuperating, doing laundry and planning the next week of teaching.

Living conditions are very similar to Beijing. Tap water is still a no-go, pollution levels rise and fall daily, alcohol is still cheap and there is still no end to the relentless staring, pointing, and giggling at my slightly different facial features. As a non-Asian, I and all my colleagues are considered "Laowais" (foreigners). Laowai literally translates to "old person" and is appropriate due to our hair colour, as native hair is only ever anything other than jet black when it starts to go grey with age. The "Laowai Treatment" as coined by expats before me is a two sided coin.

On one hand, Laowais are often respected and revered for our heritage and use of English. Making friends is easy as everyone wants to practice their English with you. Bar owners have given us free drinks before (possibly trying to get us to bring more laowais). Random people on the street will shamelessly ask to take a photo with you; the red carpet treatment has often put a spring in my step. Everyone is nice and polite and usually do their best to overcome the language barrier that looms despite our best efforts to learn the language.

On the other hand, being the subject of amusement of an entire society can quickly get under your skin. The more sensitive expats call these incidents "microaggressions" which includes the pointing and giggling, the "ha-lou"ing and (rarely) being refused a taxi ride. We have often been used as a marketing tool to draw in more local customers (another reason for the free drinks I suppose) and some vendors will quite openly mock us while we purchase. Of course a lot of this is probably due to the language barrier which is our own fault. In the history of mankind, this rates insignificantly low on the racism spectrum, but it's part of the culture shock and while it gets on my nerves now, I'm sure I'll learn to appreciate the attention and get used to it.


At the moment weekdays are bland and uncomfortable and the respite of the weekend is short-lived, probably due to the struggle of settling in and adapting to such a wildly new routine. However I sense a change approaching with the impending Summer season. Shenyang has been referred to as a city in hibernation and I'm certain that some heat will breathe new life into this place. I can feel the settling-in struggle period coming to an end and a routine forming. I'm focusing on using my time to learn as much Mandarin as possible and utilise the free gym across the road. One day I will conquer the art of surviving this crazy country!

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Monday, 30 March 2015

Reflecting On Our UniBreak Teaching Experiences in Udaipur


COUNTRY: India
PROGRAM: UniBreak
PROJECT: Teaching Placement
WRITTEN BY: Christina Poon

On arrival, it is undeniable that the raffishly charming Udaipur is all foreign, new and almost overwhelming, and the information that we have to teach two classes a day only adds to the anxiety and apprehension. Nevertheless, the lovely people, our coordinator, other fellow volunteers and the eager-to-learn students all have made this seemingly unimaginable experience feel possible and comprehensible and ultimately so enjoyable and fascinating that it made goodbyes nothing but heart-breaking.


“We are able to bring home heaps of special, personal and unforgettable memories that I’m sure will last a lifetime.”


Needless to say, teaching in such a different setting lead to a number of notable differences in teaching; some of which were noticed before the actual teaching even began. I still vividly remember the shock when I learnt from a German girl, Anna, who has been teaching for the past 10 weeks, that we have to make each and every worksheet by ourselves. Luckily, we actually got carbon paper. This peculiar blue paper, formerly unseen and unheard of, soon became my best friend. Although the process sounds tedious, it is actually a very enjoyable and manageable process since we have a small class-size and we teach in pairs.

Another difference that is absolutely rewarding is the children’s attitude towards learning. Their parents might not send them to school, but when they are actually in school, everyone is so eager to learn. While the little ones show their excitement by climbing and crawling on you, the older boys shows their appreciation through the concentration and their tears on our the last day. On the note of the little children’s love of crawling all over you, one advice I would give is that rather than disciplining them and stopping them from doing so, turn this into a reward for answering a question correctly or finishing a worksheet as it is supposed to be done so as to give them incentive and motivation to learn.


Overall, this experience has been immensely rewarding and I believe it is fair to say these 6 weeks is almost life changing. The only thing I can complain about, as I was in the airport on my last day with the other volunteers, is that we can’t each bring five people home. Though it is beyond the bounds of possibility to bring our beloved students home, we are able to bring home heaps of special, personal and unforgettable memories that I’m sure will last a lifetime.

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Thursday, 26 March 2015

Five Things My UniBreak to India Taught Me



1. Teaching skills
Books may teach you all about the psychology of teaching children; that silent high achievers need more attention, attention seekers indeed should not be given too much attention and so much more, yet it is only during this demanding yet rewarding placement that you actually discover, day by day, how to teach and how to best facilitate their learning. Teaching in two different age groups in two different settings allows us to experience and learn more and it is the committed five-days-a-week teaching that taught us the teacher's way of life and how and what to teach.


2. Learnt and understood cultural paradigms
I would not say I have experienced much cultural shock because I have been reading books about India, as well as literature such as Shantaram prior to arrival. Nevertheless, week by week, I slowly learnt and understood the Indian way of life, not by reading about it, but by participating and living in it. From the little talks with staff, the children, even watching Bollywood movies, you get to progressively understand what Indian people prefer, value, respect and what they expect of you.


3. The ability to travel around the world
After applying for the almost-impossible-to-get Indian visa, the various unpleasant, aching vaccines, booking your own flights and packing your bag, I would say I feel more competent and comfortable in travelling around the world.

4. Communication and interpersonal skills
The language barrier was definitely one of my main concerns prior to arrival, but surprisingly our coordinator Pankaj and Minakshi, and our chef Meena Ji all speak perfect English, even the children are pretty competent as a result of many volunteer’s continuous and propitious teaching. Nevertheless, it is a still bit challenging when trying to teach the children, especially if you’re trying to teach them a new concept or extend the syllabus. But I will strongly suggest you not to let the language barrier put you off. You have to constantly step out of your comfort zone because at the end of the day, you are here to teach the children. And I can assure you that not only will you feel so rewarded when you see their progress as the weeks pass, but you will always acquire the transferable skills that every employer seeks – communication skills.

5. The Indian way of life
From my counting in Hindi to doing Henna art to wrapping ourselves in saris, all I can say is volunteering and staying in the same place for 6 weeks really presents you with experiences, involvement and insight that tourists would not give (although I have to admit even after my 6-week stay, I still struggle to wrap myself in a 5 metre long fabric called a sari despite my countless attempts!) Oh well, what can I say? I guess you just have to stay even longer!

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Monday, 23 March 2015

Our Top 5 “Must Dos” in Udaipur, India!



COUNTRY: India
PROGRAM: UniBreak
PROJECT: Teaching Placement
WRITTEN BY: Christina Poon

1. Bagore Ki Haveli
Located in the heart of the market is an architectural splendour. Situated right by the lake, the building highlights the picturesqueness of the city. But what’s even more exciting is that we get to watch a cultural dance programme inside! The programme exhibits 4 different kinds of traditional Rajasthani dances, ranging from puppet shows to chime bells dances to the most exciting dance of all, where the dancer performed with 9-10 pots on her hands on sharp edges of metal plate and broken glass. It is not only culturally rich but also immensely entertaining! Put this on your list!



2. Go exploring on the weekens
Teaching and lesson planning can be exhausting, so make sure you get yourself some downtime to unwind. Go explore the city to refresh your body, mind and soul! Jaipur, the Taj Mahal, national parks - there's SO much to see.



3. E.A.T
As I’ve mentioned in my last blog, all food is A-M-A-Z-I-N-G. We fundraised to allow us to provide a meal in the local school and the boy’s home we teach in. Hence, we get the opportunity to enjoy a meal with these exuberant and lovely children and consequently learning all these names for food - such as subji, poori, dahl, chapatti, nan etc. But there are so much more to try other than just the savoury meals, traditional Rajasthani sweets include gulab jamoon, dahlia pori and many more. Gulab jamoon from the streets in markets are pretty awesome.

4. Shopping
Though Udaipur is not famous for it’s shopping, it has all it needs to please all of us. We bought merchandise, souvenirs, clothing, home wares and saris and so much more. Nevertheless, we have noticed most shops in markets sell similar products; therefore, walking into shops and asking for prices are crucial to buy the same item for a cheaper price. And now I’m sure all three of us can proudly say we are awesome at bargaining. Most importantly, we made friends with some shop owners. Chakil, an owner of a clothing store not only offers us chai while we shop, but also takes photos with us and writes our name in Hindi for us, making shopping a genuinely fun and relaxing break from our long days of teaching.

5. Meet the people
Most people are very nice and friendly. As mentioned above, all shop owners are super welcoming and often offer you chai tea. They would even ask their son to guide you to the nearest ATM! The school kids or even just random children in the streets are often excited to see you and will always wave to you and call you didi (elder sister). Yet, it is still true that touts exists (men will tell you to shop in their brother’s shop for commission), so while you enjoy the amiability of the people, you still need to look and judge and I’m sure you will enjoy Udaipur as much as anyone of us!

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Thursday, 12 March 2015

Challenges and Celebrations in China



COUNTRY: China
PROGRAM: GapBreak
PROJECT: Teaching
WRITTEN BY: Robert Meek
 

I'm writing on Monday, the 23rd of February, 16 days after the program started. Fireworks are going off relentlessly outside my window on what is hopefully the last day of New Year's celebrations; there are only so many fireworks you can take before it's just noise and light, like a week-long hangover.

Don't get me wrong, China offers plenty of opportunities for hangovers, alongside many opportunities I'd never have experienced in the humble suburbs of Australia. To kick things off, here's a quick list of some of the more outlandish things I've done in only 2 weeks:
• Eaten three whole scorpions
• Had my outdoors Tai-Chi lesson interrupted by a McDonald's home delivery man
• Climbed to the top of a section of the Great Wall of China
• Set off fireworks in the middle of a road that was still being used by vehicles
• Mastered the art of crossing the road (the trick is confidence; Chinese drivers can smell fear)
• Had a beer with my schoolteacher
• Walked on a frozen river
I live in one room with my roommate Hugh, the only Kiwi on the trip. All 50 of us live in similar conditions. It's cramped and frustrating, but we don't spend much time there. I am a member of a vast minority of monolinguals (all from either Australia, England or Scotland). Everyone else is at least bilingual, and some can speak 4 languages (not including Mandarin). Most interns are from Denmark, but many are Swedish or Norwegian. After some deliberation with colleagues, we established the final list of the collective spoken languages among us:
• English
• Mandarin
• Dutch
• Danish
• Swedish
• Russian
• German
• French
• Norwegian
• Korean
• Spanish
• Portuguese
• Albanian
Surprisingly, all 50 of us get along perfectly. After a week social groups formed based on either your native language or whether or not you smoke. The school schedule has been increasingly hectic with the arrival of Teacher Practice (TP) week, but generally sticks to a High-School-esque period schedule, with three 90-minute lessons a day plus Mandarin classes after school. So far we've handed in four big assignments with the due date for the fifth rapidly approaching.




Tap water is unsafe to drink, so drinking water is purchased at the local supermarket and/or liquor store for about 10 kuai (aka Yuan or Renminbi) for five litres. It has to be said that the hotel food has the potential to be atrocious (today's broth contained entire chicken feet and possibly its' Aorta/Femoral arteries) and so, with no communal kitchen, a trip to a local restaurant or vendor is sometimes necessary. Luckily food is cheap and everywhere. The local dumpling shop has saved many of us from starvation, and if you're really homesick the local McDonald's delivers straight to your door.

Beijing is a filthy place, but entirely devoid of litter. These kinds of compromises have become commonplace on our various expeditions into different avenues of the culture. There are no Chinese Bars/Pubs, but every restaurant, cafe, supermarket, corner store and lemonade stand sells alcohol. The roads appear to be a chaotic hell at first glance, but there is a method to the madness of the streets. While the Chinese cannot be called "good drivers", there is absolutely no doubt that they are "good at driving".

The process of learning Mandarin is excruciatingly slow, but can be attributed to the enormous workload and being always surrounded by English speakers. I expect my Chinese to improve when I get to my placement.

The responsibilities of schoolwork and the inevitable culture shock are balanced by the intelligent, interesting people that surround me every day. The freedom to explore China and its' weird and wonderful ways is secured by the support of the in-country partners and the Antipodeans staff. And the brain-melting early starts are combated by the knowledge that every day will present some wacky custom or ridiculous challenge or life lesson to wrap your head around.

Living in China is not easy, and I already feel better for it. I wouldn't pass up this trip for anything, and I still have 5 months left!


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Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Our Unbelievable UniBreak in Thinadhoo, Maldives

COUNTRY: Maldives
PROGRAM: UniBreak
PROJECT: Teaching and swimming coaching
WRITTEN BY: Vivienne Zhu


I’m sad that this will be my last blog post for the trip. We’ve experienced so much, and it’s rapidly coming to an end in two days. It has been an extraordinary and memorable journey with five amazing girls and we were lucky enough to see some beautiful wildlife today; a pod of dolphins, some sharks, and a three-legged turtle!

For future Unibreakers, I want to give you a few tips.

Firstly, add your group on Facebook prior to the trip and don’t bring excessive quantities of items. There are plenty of local shops you can go to buy all your household needs: toothbrush/toothpaste, shampoo and conditioner, Nutella, peanut butter, etc. Bringing these items will just weigh your suitcase down when you could bring books and games for the kids to play.




Secondly, don’t let bad weather spoil your fun! Our second trip to Havodigalaa Island began with overcast clouds and rain, but we were still able to chill in hammocks, and watch a beautiful sunset. We concluded the night with a glow stick party and karaoke - singing and dancing until we were tired. I also helped the locals light candles to use at night (a bit difficult given the heavy winds!)

Thirdly, immerse yourself in teaching – whether it is inside or outside the classroom. You get a grasp of how unique each child is and you come to recognise their strengths and weaknesses. I will certainly miss their persistent calls of “MISS” whenever they have problems or simply want my attention. Without a doubt, putting in the time and energy has been worthwhile.


Additionally, the progress the kids have made in swimming has been phenomenal. Some are able to swim freestyle without kickboards and through constant encouragement and praise, all the students were able to get in the water. (A tip for sports coaching – “hands on heads” will have the kids quieten down almost immediately!)

On our last day at school, we held an assembly where we presented a video Janelle made and gifted the school with our painting of Australia. Ajeeb invited us for a farewell dinner at school, where we dressed up in traditional Maldivian dresses. We captured many special moments with our teachers and were constantly praised on how beautiful and model-like we looked (#MissMaldives2015). Some of us even had veils tied to our hair, and it was like our own Maldivian wedding! We were treated to a great feast prepared by our teachers, and we said our final thank you to our in-country agent and the school.

Finally, treasure the memories you create with your new friends, your teachers and your students. We may come to a resort again in the future, but how often will we be able to live on a local island in Maldives? Getting to know the locals, saying “hi” to strangers, and going on snorkelling trips were certainly the highlights of the trip for me. Living as the locals do allowed us to truly understand the culture and lifestyle of Maldivians.


The Thinadhoo group would like to give our sincerest thanks to our in-country agents. Ibrahim, our local tour guide, thank you for purchasing our small household needs whether it be fruit or toilet paper! Whilst you appear shy, we have had so much fun with you, and are so grateful that you have been able to show us around the island.

Assad, you have been so amazing. Whenever we had a problem or wanted to go somewhere, you were quick to get it fixed or organised. Words cannot describe how efficient and kind-hearted you are, and we will surely miss your singing! We will certainly miss you in the weeks to come as we will no longer have snorkelling trips or see you on a near-daily basis.

We’ve taken so many photos and created countless memories, which will remain with us forever. This past month has been unbelievable and certainly unforgettable. We will definitely keep in touch with one another and we’ve already organised meet-ups in the coming weeks!

Thanks for sharing this journey with us! Love the Thinadhoo group.

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