travel

Oh Rosa, Rosa, Santa Rosa…

farm stand

 

So back into the, chronological, swing and here we are again in California…

It was a whirlwind week full of schools, farms and driving.

 

Thursday: After making it to Santa Rosa last night we woke up to the bright lights of Walmart. We had chosen our spot with a hypocritical mix of fear, cringing and the tourist’s ability to use something previously detested while simultaneously revelling in its bright shiny newness and convenience. I trashily rejoiced in my new ability to shop in nocturnal hours and access a toilet and drinking water at a whim. Love it or loathe it, it’s a symbiotic relationship really – weary travellers get a guaranteed place to sleep that is free and unperturbed by local authority visits, while Walmart gets sales through the sheer convenience of having cheap supplies and food at your feet. We settled in amongst shoppers and RV’s in our, relatively, little tent on wheels – upon a suggestion from our friends back home we had arranged to hire a people-mover type van with the ability to put all the seats flush down in the floor, under the premise that it would act as accommodation where we didn’t have any. To our delight it did the job as hoped, although it took us a few nights to sort out the right combination for a semblance of real comfort – Emma ending up on the back bench seat, Michael on the middle floor with his new $5 walmart blanket and me in the fully reclined and flat passenger seat, having stolen the other sleeping bag.

We packed up in leisurely speed, for once (things had been feeling quite rushed so far in the States), as we were nice and close to our attraction for the day – Summerfield Waldorf School and Farm. We met the ever-smiling and knowledgeable Sallie just after the school’s main lesson – a feature of waldorf education. The main academic lesson happens in the morning when students can best receive it with attention, leaving the rest of the day for other more engaging, physical or creative activities – delightful yet developmental treats like music, hand crafts, arts and outside play. We toured the grounds and classes in the morning, including the end of a ‘farm’ lesson for Class One. They were shelling peas and corn kernels then gathered under the big sitting tree for the customary finishing address.  The lower school farm teacher recapped the lesson and cued its end with “thank you and goodbye class one”, followed by gorgeous chiming children in harmonic reply: “thank you and goodbye Farmer Dan”- so so sweet!

 

collage kindy rooms etc collage lunch

 

We gratefully accepted an offer to stay for the school lunch, which is provided for high school students and staff four days a week. We met Matt and Tom – the joyously proud cooks who made the lunch that was delicious and overflowing with good stuff like lentils, pulled pork, veg and salad greens – even including produce grown at the school. During the refuel, we took an opportunity to talk more closely with the upper school farm teacher, Ronni, about the kind of integration the farm had in syllabus. Using the farm, it’s products and processes to teach life lessons is deeply entrenched in the school – since the beginning in fact, owing to the spirit in which the land is viewed. The school prefers to treat land as something which is stewarded, rather than owned – even entering into a legally binding Land Trust agreement that requires them to protect it as land and wild life refuge in perpetuity. This land was always expected to be a biodynamic farm, in symbiosis with the school – hence, in addition to the usual staff, they have two dedicated farm teachers, a teaching assistant, farm manager and two seasonal interns. That’s quite a crew to bring together all the educational opportunities a farm has to offer – what a wonderful thing to behold!

In the afternoon we walked with the farm manager, Dana, through the 17 acres of farm land (the whole campus measures 38 acres). They use it to grow food (fruit, veg, grains) and keep livestock (cows, sheep, ducks and chickens). Indeed it yields an impressive array of goods for the on-school farm stand – harvested, stocked and open everyday, it sells seasonal fruit and veg along with eggs and yogurt (made by Dana). Students, parents, staff and anyone else so inclined can buy the goods through an honour box. One of Dana’s aims has been to focus on lifting the production of the farm and evidently the sales reflect his success. The funds go back to support the work of the farm. There is also a permaculture garden as part of the high school which students are free to pick from.

collage farm walk collage farm stand

After an incredible day, I’m struggling to describe the overall experience as anything other than ‘wholistic’ – it just felt like life and all it’s lessons were so well addressed and showcased here it was hard for me to feel any other way. I certainly came away with the sense that it would be hard to find a school with a better educational program grounded in the earth and its wonders. To be fair though, they have had over 40 years to work and mould it!

P1050845 em on see saw

Of course the combination of Waldorf School and farm existing as one entity was a must-see for us, given our interests. However it also brought to light the potential for Emma’s own Waldorf School back home – the wonderful natural resources they already have, like a biodynamic almond grove, just waiting to be tapped into when the other resources emerge to facilitate it. That would be an exciting project to see.

 

Friday: While we toured the Summerfield School yesterday, Emma was invited to join Class One for their main lesson this morning – something she decided to do. Kudos to her, little poppet – despite clearly harbouring some nervousness at being the newbie she never asked to back out and apparently warmed up well. So much so in fact, that when we checked back in at recess time, she was keen to stay on for the rest of the day. So she got to spend more time with some new friends, do some hand crafts and help pack up the room in preparation for the next day’s Winter Faire. Bounding out of the class to me down the hill she declared “Mum, I had a GREAT day!”. Well, you can’t ask for more than that, can you?

I continue to be pleased and proud of this little person who could understandably reside permanently in the “this is all too new and too hard corner” but instead chooses to come out often and walk the “try it” path – good on you Em. We spent half the day in the car park (leaving your child in a new place is particularly tricky without being reachable by phone) but it was a great opportunity to read (actually I was very happy about having an excuse to just sit there and read!). However once we knew Em was all good, we ventured out to the local shops for supplies and came on back to our happy child – ahhh, good day…

 

em run garden

 

Saturday: Well, after the tour and Emma’s day at her third school for the year, we went back to Summerfield for the again! (I suspect coming to this school could easily have become a habit). This third day in a row was a Saturday and the school’s once a year big celebration/fundraiser/showcase and more – the Winter Faire!

We wandered around wide eyed while Emma got in a frenzy about all the things she wanted to do and see. We perused the vendors stalls and, amazingly, found an artist there who had hailed from Adelaide and helped found the other Waldorf school in South Australia, (in Mt Barker)! Apparently she came out in need of a reset and tried painting on a whim – she never left. Good thing too, her artwork was beautiful.

After that it was a flurry of cookie decorating, food, craft, food, more craft and and more food! The day was topped off with a circus performance which was neither dinky nor small – this school has a right proper circus tent up for most of the year as an extra building – so you can imagine the quality of their circus program. It was great way to end the day and Em stayed up close, glued to it for the whole show.

 

P1050849 em on stilts

 

Sunday: After taking the leisurely 1 hour drive back to San Fran we let Em in on the secret that we were headed to yet another Waldorf School Fair (that we had by chance found out about from one of the Summerfield Staff). We fit in some work at the laundromat and headed to the San Francisco Waldorf School. Absolutely an inner city school (albeit in a really nice area), it was an interesting contrast to the more rurally set ones we have seen. I think they did a good job with the vertical space they have, although space for outside play is, and always was going to be I guess, fairly small. However the upside of this location is they get to tap into the cultural and natural perks – like some little parks the city has kicking around. Kidding – they have Golden Gate park right nearby which is over 1000 acres in size and encompasses the San Francisco Botanic Garden, California Academy of Sciences, de Young Museum, Conservatory of Flowers and a beautiful massive outdoor music concourse, art studio, lake and even a Dutch Windmill. Phew – imagine having access to all that in just one corner of your area? I don’t think a city school would be right for us but I can certainly appreciate the advantages.

 

collage san fran city waldorf

 

After a lovely day wandering about another school, folding paper stars and dipping beeswax candles, we landed at our new home for the week in Noe Valley – a well-to-do area just south of downtown. We were very grateful to receive a hosting offer from Julia, a member of San Francisco’s Urban Agriculture Alliance Group – a group that just started out with a few people in that area of interest who thought it was a useful idea to try and meet to build a network. I’m not even sure how we found them to be honest – I can’t remember how we got onto it but i’m grateful we did, they are a great example. Later in the week I attended one of their monthly meetings and am glad I did – witnessing one of their meeting later in the week was good learning experience and a chance to meet  people doing great things.

Mon: It wasn’t until we had returned our rental car and walked 2 hours home (by choice – we have been enjoying soaking up the different corners of the city by foot) that we first met our host Julia. Generous, trusting and knowledgable, it was a pleasure to spend the day with her. She took us to the local mexican place for a bite to eat which was both delicious and incredibly well priced I have to say (filling, fresh and healthy food for under 5 bucks each). Then we navigated some of the area’s bus lines and made our way to Alemany farm where Julia volunteers every week. Alemany is an interesting place from the perspective that it is city land (which, by the by was previously abandoned, guerrilla gardened, abandoned and gardened again) and run totally by volunteers without any, as far as I can tell, formal organisation. People organise themselves and the most experienced become the natural go-to leaders, who also take on tasks like weighing and recording all food that comes off the site – an uncommonly organised approach to an informal organisation in my mind – impressive. We spent the afternoon chatting to people and shuttling mulch to various areas being eroded by the much wished for rain (seems they are in drought here too). Emma made no hesitation in seizing the opportunity to play sight supervisor, deftly allocating and instructing Michael, myself and our new host! Well, I normally try and curb this kind of thing but it dawned on me that if we can’t practice this freely in childhood – whenever else in life do you get that kind of open, uninhibited opportunity? I sent out a couple of apologetic feelers then deemed it all good – carry on Boss!

collage Alemany Farm inc sign

 

collage Alemany Farm 1 collage Alemany Farm 2 duo

 

After Julia bid us farewell we continued on with some harvesting – what a haul, including lettuce, cabbage, beets, turnips, lemons, ground cherries (gooseberries), a plethora of other greens  and the new (for us) yacon which was like many things including crunch lychee or apple-y watermelon. It was an impressive site, apparently they are expecting to pull off about 8 or 9 tones of food from the meandering hilly 3 1/2 acre site this year. What a great effort. It was a pleasure to see this place and hear about the food grown for the community – going to soup kitchens, free food stalls and open pick community days, as well as the volunteers. We hope Alemany Farm powers on 🙂

 

Tue: Michael’s 33rd birthday! We started the day early with a stealthy effort in getting ready from Emma and I (because of course Michael was up at some baker’s hour before us). We came out to say “Happy Birthday”, then “get ready, we’re leaving”!! Don’t worry – it wasn’t all that brash, hugs were part of the deal 🙂 We ventured out by bus and foot to a little place I found online that described itself as making ‘creative pastries’ – thinking that was sufficiently intriguing and with the promise of good coffee too, it became the destination. They certainly had some very extravagant looking pastries and other foody items. We dined and drank before setting off again for the Ferry Plaza Farmers Markets, on three times a week in the hub that is San Fran’s Embarcardero (the strip of former bay piers turned restaurants and tourist attractions). We were a touch early so decided to walk to see the “famous” lombard/crooked street. Turned out to be a very long, very steep walk punctuated by the excruciating whining of a small child – followed shortly by my own equivalent. Poor Michael – that, I dare say, was the not-so-fun portion of birthday day! Thankfully after more walking we found a park – that’s always a good reset for the family. As for Lombard street itself I have to say I viewed it more as an exersize in physical endurance rather than traveller’s wonder – I marvelled at what attractions make the ‘tourist’ list (and secretly dispised having become one that bought into it). Sure, it’s interesting and pretty but it’s just a very windy, steep street – cool to see I guess but it was more entertaining to see the antics of other tourists. Both hilarious and infuriating – wide eyed tourists, like children who are told that they should be amazed at what they see, stood everywhere to take happy snaps. That included in the middle of the road while poor tourist-plagued-residents were trying to get out of their own driveways! Sigh. That’s why I secretly despised having become a ‘tourist’. Oh well, no getting away from that – perhaps I can just aim to be a responsible tourist…

collage mic bday

We found our way back, via China Town and perused the farmers markets. Good looking produce at what seemed (to an Australian) decent prices, it was great to see these markets in such a prominent location. I’m told now that there are many many more local markets about the place too, usually sporting better prices and aimed more at the general, local, public. We stopped inside the Ferry Building where there is a foodies heaven of gourmet and good old fashioned tasty value added foods – the best part of which is they mostly had a foundation and focus in organic, local or responsibly grown items. Michael had previously said he had been given a list of foods we must try while in the State s – we ticked one off with a good ol’ Grilled Cheese – sweet, yummy, filling. Stroll’s along the piers, ice cream and running ensued, followed by the (slightly mortifying) discovery of Pier 39 – I think of it as San Fran’s answer to the Gold Coast (or perhaps it is the other way around?). I would say it is like the trashy american donut our dear Virginian friend explained to us once – so bad yet so good!

Then Michael and Emma retired to home (plus a little trip down the street for pizza and ice cream!) while I ventured into the city for the San Fran Urban Agriculture Alliance’s monthly meeting. It proved to be a great example of group sharing to witness as well as an inspiring group of people and projects. So while I’m glad I overcame my reluctance to trek into the city at night, I would probably forgo that ‘adventure’ (ahem) again 🙂 Don’t panic parents and loved one’s, it wasn’t that bad!

Wed: After yesterday’s walking tourist spectacular everyone was pretty pooped so we opted for a quiet day. Michael and Emma did school lessons while I did some much needed photo sorting and writing (in fact i’m hauled up in a starbucks writing this now – tell me, is that cliche tourist or cliche local?). We also ventured out to have our first US postal service experience and patronised a little sweets/gift shop. The incredibly happy shop keeper was overjoyed while Emma slowly selected her little bag of treats – bless her, saying she didn’t want to spend too much money or buy too many treats lol. Ah, self regulation – it does appear now and then 🙂

Thursday: Yes, while including this thursday makes it strictly more than a week, it does close off this part of our trip nicely as it was our last day in San Fran. We were a little unsure about our plans as there were storms forecast for the day and people were sounding really concerned – they even closed the schools in places. It shook us a little like whoa, whats coming, will the buses run, should we stay indoors?? But all we were seeing was rain so we decided to don our rain gear and trek out by bus anyway. Seems like in the end, everyone got a little excited – understandably too. They have been in a big drought here – so much so the preoccupation with the weather, rain and climate was very akin to home. And to be fair things were worse a bit further north, but we did have a giggle when it just turned out to be like a standard rainy day in Adelaide. Score though – we were going to one of the sights of San Fran, the California Academy of Sciences, and along with all the public transport, it was practically empty. We pretty much had whatever we wanted to ourselves  – woo!

And so for putting up with a wet rain jacket we were rewarded with a super fun day spent exploring the Cal Academy’s aquarium, planetarium, rainforest and museum – all this stuff intertwined in one place. topped off with a cafeteria showcasing local organic food in a range of styles. We picked from the grill, mexican hall and the sandwich bar – had a great filling feed which was pretty good value. The day was something we hadn’t budgeted for but it was totally worth it, i’m glad we decided to do it. I never, never, get tired of seeing Emma’s little mind blow up in awe and excitement – and this was a full day of it. We viewed sea creatures from all regions of the world up close in the underwater aquarium from tropical fish to jelly fish and big fish that swam over our head… We picked up tickets to a planetarium show and moved on to see penguins feeding while the biologist told us about them. Taking in lifelike antelopes and tigers, we learned about the evolution of humans and our near extinction which left us with todays diminished genetic diversity – apparently we all have 99.9% in common when looking at our DNA. The giant globe housing a rainforest took our fancy and we entered (what is in fact a US containment facility – you must not leave with butterflies! We learnt about the 4 different layers of a rainforest (forest floor, under storey, canopy and emergent for those of you who want to attend the poop quiz later) and admired the beautiful bird and butterflies breezing by. We investigated some more tunnels where we found starfish and sea urchins we could touch. We took in 2 shows at the planetarium – one of which would have justified the entrance price alone. I actually had no idea what a planetarium was before this – good one to see, apparently its the biggest in the world. Think giant, like giant, domed movie screen in front of you and above – I think some people compared it to IMAX but my guess is this was more immersive, in fact one part in particular left us all feeling like we were really flying through the stars. The two shows covered superficial topics like the origin of the universe and lots of perspective building facts on the earth. more so than facts and pictures, they were both really beautiful movies in their own right – they just happen to be true and scientifically accurate.

collage cal academy

Thanks California – you were awesome xx

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We interrupt this broadcast with a brief message from the future….. (part two)

 

 

P1110892

 

Now that it’s somewhat clearer why sending two thirds of the family home was a good idea, let’s explain how I also ended up home within two weeks of them – despite being months ahead of schedule and still possessing a ticket home from Europe…

So there I was, having farewelled the rest of my family, left to contemplate that decision and the next 4 months of solo travel. It was a hard bus ride home – I was grateful for the sunglasses and practically-mandatory-smog-mask which hid me away.

I came back to our room in the school – we had been graciously allowed to stay in one of the kindy classrooms while the school holidays were on. It was a glorious place for a family to stay – safe, peaceful and surrounded by beautiful Waldorf toys, playground and garden. It was a refuge we were very grateful for. But now, coming back without them felt awful and strange. It was so empty.

Empty, except for a little posie sitting on my pillow – it had a tag which read “love love love”. Oh what a saviour that little posie was – a beautiful token of love and thought left behind by Michael and Emma. Actually it made me cry but it was something I could focus on to move through the initial grief, carefully putting it in some water and arranging it upon a cupboard.

I could have easily turned to my old friends shopping and food that day but for some reason I made the conscious decision not too.  Instead I surrendered to the pain and knew I needed to just sit with it. Acknowledge it, let it pass. Don’t ask me why it changed there and then, god knows there have been plenty of other times it was sorely needed. Maybe it was because I was alone – now I had the time, space and ability to devote all my energy to whatever I felt necessary.

Out of the blue, I decided the necessity was meditation. Again: why? I’ve no idea – meditation wasn’t something habitual for me. But suddenly here I was, spontaneously cobbling together little bits of experience from yoga and relaxation, plus some kind of intuitive feeling for what I needed to focus on. It was incredibly comforting and much to my surprise, the relief was immediate, noticeable and long lasting (unlike my old vices, it came with no trailing guilt). I made a pledge with myself to turn it into a habit, so I read what I could and investigated options for further guidance – suitable courses that were for lay people yet didn’t cater to the wealthy tourist trade were a little hard to find but definitely existed. This, I decided, was what I had been searching for. I would do some simple practice by myself, seek out a good down-to-earth guided course for more experience/technique then I might just be ready for my ultimate challenge – a 10 day Vipassana session (see link here to learn about the immensity which is Vipassana). So I continued with it every morning and night, which also helped a lot to curb the sadness which seemed to peak at those times. It also became apparent it was helping with self-motivation and not getting so stuck in strong emotions like anxiety, sadness or fear. It instilled a confidence in me that I could cope with the challenges I had taken on, as well as those that were to come.

And come they would – the first week alone was crazy. In amongst riding out my emotions, reading, meditating and blog writing I also:

•took myself sightseeing, with a real paper map (for those who don’t know me, I suck at navigating – so please marvel at my accomplishment),

•got into a visiting situation that was stressful, confusing and alarming enough to seriously consider skipping out on them in the middle of the night

•found myself displaced but unable to look for other accommodation because I was a ‘guest’ and therefore they must do it for me,

•successfully navigated the above cultural intricacies and found my first solo overseas accommodation (which was neither a dive nor a rip off – score!)

•managed to meet up with my friends who were a) coming from a different country, b) with intermittent communication and c) without a definite plan – all while having a history of being anxiously anal and freaking out if the smallest detail remained up in the air (apparently that version of me had been knocked around a bit with all this experience….)

So after all that, spending some time with two friends we met at the Navdanya farm in India, was great. Eliza was from the States and Paula from Colombia – it was their first time to Nepal as well so we hung out and saw the sights. We visited the Monkey Temple (Swayambho) and Boudhanath Stupa the first day, then lost ourselves the next in the wonderful museum of Patan’s old city. The third day was spent trying, unsuccessfully, to break into the other old city of Bhaktapur (it’s a long story….). After an epic showdown with the ticket man we gave up and found a cafe to regroup in.

To my absolute delight and amazement we moved through this potentially frustrating, disappointing and day-ending situation into a new plan without so much as a raised voice. Wow – these two really showed me how to keep your cool and talk to each other in a way which is honest about your own feelings while still open and respectful to everyone else’s. And so much so that you end up with a plan everyone is not only accepting of, but excited about. Good work girls! And so the new plan saw us spend the rest of that day with a hired taxi man. He took us to the unexpected delight of Changu Narayan Temple and an awesome little museum that gave my first real insight into regional Nepali life. Then it was up the villages a bit further to Nagarkot. There we took in a cloudy but nevertheless awesome hilltop view and some cracking food at a guest house restaurant. After some seriously happy eating, the taxi drove us right back to our home (and tourist-town) Thamel – no wayward buses tonight my friends (unlike the two previous days…).

We decided the next day would be earmarked for a morning romp in a real-live garden then off to the last of the old cities – Kathmandu Durbar Square.

Saturday Morning – April 25

We had plans to begin with my family’s favourite little local, Namaste Cafe, but found it closed upon arrival. Of course, it was Saturday – this seems to be the Nepali’s weekend, just one day where a lot of people take time off from their shop or taxi to be at home. So we visited another nearby cafe and took the short walk to ‘The Garden of Dreams’ – a European garden oasis in the middle of the city (built by a Nepali President’s son, after winning the money for it from his father in a game – oh the life of royals…). We strolled and absorbed our fix of nature, before consulting the map and walking to Durbar Square.

We entered, getting our bearings and our tickets, then headed to the palace of Nepal’ls living goddess, the Kumari Devi (a young child thought to be the reincarnation of one of their gods of destruction – so naturally she is chosen by being subjected to a night of horrific noises, masks and buffalo heads….yup – that really happens). Inside the palace courtyard, people emplored the caretakers up in the wooden windows to coax the Kumari into showing her face. To everyone’s joy (and/or amusement) she did, before disappearing again shortly after. We strolled out again between the cities’ open square and palace, which held the museum of former King Tribhuvan. The building was an odd mix of ancient wooden palace joined to a newer white plaster european add-on. At the end we turned up ‘Freak Street’, in search of lunch and signs from its hippie-heaven past.

Saturday, lunchtime

We settled on the organic cafe which was still overflowing with white western hippies (literally – they spilled out over all the available steps such that we had to step through them to get in). We made our order and went to the empty second floor for a seat. Eliza had de-shoed and taken up the guitar, Paula was snapping photos by the window. The waiter came up the stairs then promptly started hugging the door frame, saying “oh my god, oh my god”. I was perplexed – moving between wondering if he was joking and trying to decide what else he could possibly be doing. Then I felt it.

My brain finally noticed and knocked on the door of my conscious – “We are moving. We are wobbly – something is happening. Wake up”.

I remained groggy for a few moments more while I scrambled to process what it meant. ‘What is going on?’. Click. It’s an earthquake.

What? How could I possibly be in an earthquake – I’m just spending the day with my friends, we’re waiting for our lunch….

“Wake up, this is an earthquake! Here. Now. It’s happening – and you’re in it”.

Right. Ok.

Historically embedded comments turned-knowledge surfaced: doorway, get to the doorway.

Grab bag, get to doorway, brace.

And so I did. Eliza and I held on to the door frame while the whole building shook back and forth like nothing I could have imagined. Paula was soon there too, after falling several times in her attempt to crawl over from the window. Eliza says “love you guys”. Paula is visibly scared – I hug her and tell her it’s ok. Meanwhile the waiter and another couple also huddled in the doorway with us – the girl cries into her boyfriends shoulder that she doesn’t want to die. “You’re not going to die” he says’- yes, good call.

An uncharacteristic and unexpected calm, compassion and pragmatism were within me – I wasn’t scared, I wasn’t panicking. I did what was necessary and waited for it to stop. It wasn’t the reaction I would have predicted – I am normally prone to anxiety and fear on a good day, let alone this. I only had brief thoughts about the possibility of the overhead stories falling down on us – they left as quickly as they came.

After what seemed like a very long time, the shaking stopped. We stopped too and our brains pondered what next. (my brain and body felt like quite separate entities at this point). Mine said “we need to get out, now”. My friends seemed reluctant but in my head it was the only option. Paula had the presence of mind to pick up Eliza’s shoes then we hastily descended the stairs and got out onto the street. There were people standing around everywhere – stunned, confused, looking, talking.

We got the first glimpse of damage in the form of a great dirty dust cloud sitting in the sky – a messenger of news and particles from fallen buildings. Eliza broke us out of our daze with a sage suggestion of getting out of the narrow street to open ground. I think we were all suddenly acutely aware that aftershocks follow earthquakes.

The open square we passed earlier was very close so we headed for that – joining lots of others. It was a safe place to be, well away from the now ominously towering buildings. It was also the spot where we gained some initial insight into the level of damage – one palace roof was now shorter and akimbo, the old palace/museum was missing a wall and the adjoining white-plaster side had lost great chunks while gaining severe cracks. Most alarming though was the temple next door to the Kumari’s palace – it was completely gone. Reduced to a pile of rubble.

I heard no screaming, saw no one attempting to approach the rubble. Nor did we – it felt too unsafe. Thoughts about what or who might be under that rubble were being suppressed somewhere inside my head.

The square slowly filled. There had been a market there moments ago – some merchants packed up their wares, while other goods were tossed aside as people looked for space. For reasons I still don’t understand, the girls managed to find an intact internet connection and got on with their smartphones. We scurried to send out messages – what a relief it was that our families and friends would know we hadn’t been hurt. The connection soon cut out and the aftershocks began, prompting panic and screams, crying and fear.

It was then I realised how dangerous panic can be. And how staying calm is actually a really practical thing to do that is incredibly valuable. As more people filled the space and/or people got more panicky, the risk of fear-induced pushing and stampeding increased – “this is how people get hurt, calm down” I thought – for goodness sake.

We held and comforted each other as the aftershocks came and went. We saw a helicopter fly overhead with what looked like Chinese writing on it. And a while later a man with a whistle gestured for everyone to sit down as an ambulance made its way through the square. Eventually we saw the first of some heavy machinery arrive. By now we had been in the square for hours, talking with our new ‘ earthquake family’ of fellow tourists. We decided to follow them to a much calmer park area nearby and after a carefully considered risk vs benefit analysis, we went with one of our new friends to find a toilet, food and water. Some nearby shops had opened their doors. Hilariously, (even in that moment), the one selling alcohol and cigarettes seemed to be the busiest. After some food and a long stint without tremors, we decided it was time to finally say farewell and go face our guesthouse.

Would it be there? Would we be able to get our belongings? Either way we had made the decision to sleep outside tonight – I certainly had no plans to be inside one of those buildings anytime soon. Actually, when we discovered that our guest house building was still in tact I found it incredibly hard just to take myself back up into one again. Our rooms were on the third floor – I climbed the stairs with anxiety and fear weighing heavy on me. My body shook as I hastily stuffed things into my bag and got downstairs again. We checked out and briefly chatted to some of the other guests, who were hanging out downstairs and very nonchalant about the whole thing. I felt vindicated though when the manager said he was just waiting for everyone to come back so he could lock it – they were sleeping outside too. Good, we were making the right decision.

It was nice to know because it was hard to make decisions – there was no information, no advice – only whatever limited experience and knowledge you had carried in with you that day, or what you could pick up from english-speaking locals. I wavered periodically in my levels of alarm – bouncing between ‘maybe it’s not so big and plans might still carry on as normal after a while’ to a growing realisation of just how serious it might all get. So I found it hard to judge whether I was overreacting or not. In fact our plan was to sleep in the school’s garden and I was harbouring the fear that I might be doing something wrong by turning up with friends uninvited. But really, it was an earthquake for crying out loud – as if the school staff were going to mind if we took refuge there!

Saturday, evening

Tackling the hour-long walk to school with all our gear and fast-disappearing daylight, we spotted several graffiti tags that said ‘earthquake’ and the date – it was weird and alarming to have the event marked like that already while we were still in it.

nepal earthquake tag 1

 

The roads were full of people, going in all directions. Tourists carried their luggage. Locals took sleeping gear in search of open space to stay in. Nepali soldiers were on the streets and crammed in trucks – the ones in the street just seemed to be standing there, those in the truck were either headed somewhere else or broadcasting garbled-nepali through a loudspeaker. It felt like an informational black hole. What had happened, how bad was it, what areas were affected, what should we be doing now? There were no public answers for tourists and I suspected not a lot more for locals either.

Taking a break along the way, I suddenly remembered we would pass the American embassy- that would be a great place to seek out information and for Eliza to register as being safe. Her passport granted us entry to the first security check where somehow, searching for info (and now a toilet) turned into an offer to stay. We explained we weren’t all American and an understanding quickly developed that the three of us were sticking together no matter where it meant we ended up. Despite making no plea, nor holding any expectation, that man (whose name I sadly forget) said it was his call and we could all stay. Wow – bless him and God Bless America I thought. I was astonished at this development. And that was before realising what kind of an embassy this was – had I comprehended the scale of this place and their resources I bet I would have plumb fallen down on the spot.

We surrendered our weapons (aka knives) and entered not-so-mini America in Nepal. It was a series of buildings in a massive complex for consulate staff, embassy services, a defence unit of some sort plus a crazy-big workshop and who knows what else. The place was incredible. We later found out it had all been rebuilt just years before, to the best earthquake standard available. It seemed we had stumbled into the safest place in Kathmandu.

I marvelled at our change in plans and circumstances. I was safe – so incredibly, luckily, unfathomably safe. So were my friends. And now we had been offered a practically-earthquake-proof, warm place to stay, with food and water. I couldn’t believe the fortune we were experiencing – I was so so thankful. I knew there were so many others out there in such worse situations than me – indeed I felt guilty because I was in here taking refuge while they were out there struggling. But self preservation had kicked in, for better or worse, and it meant I wouldn’t bring myself to jeopardise it. I was going to preserve the safety I had been granted and be damn grateful for it. That came with its own guilt and cross to bear but it felt non-negotiable. I suspect my friends may have been confronted with similar battles. We tried to be helpful in our gratitude by busying ourselves inside the embassy – Eliza and Paula did what they could in the kitchen and dining room while I helped in the library.

After a comforting hot dinner we settled onto our yoga mats in the ‘multi-purpose room’ – where it seemed the consular families with children were camping out. It was a fitful sleep filled with aftershocks and an acutely aware body/brain combo. In fact one of the larger tremors saw me upright with shoes, jacket and bag in hand in a matter of seconds – I was paused like an animal waiting to see if I needed to flee. The tremor stopped and the building appeared to be taking it in its stride so I stayed. But the longer the night went on the more I wanted to leave – feeling like there was no appropriate place for me. We had started to see that Nepal would be no place for a tourist while major rebuild and rehabilitation happened. I felt like unless you could help with food, water, shelter, sanitation or medical aid we would just be more mouths to feed and in the way.

Sunday morning

Another biggie woke me at 5am so I resigned myself to staying awake. That morning was an astonishing dose of food and information – a full hot american breakfast of bacon, eggs, pancakes and oatmeal (plus every cereal and milk under the american sun) was followed by an announcement from the Ambassador. It was exactly the kind of thing we had been hoping for – a public address on the situation; what they knew, what they were doing and what we could do. Currently, what we could do was pretty much stay put, stay safe and look after each other, as well as the surroundings (even in this situation people took to littering their space with rubbish – what’s with that?). We also now knew that the airport was in tact and operating – but only for aid and emergency flights so far. After this and a consulate offer to send messages out on our behalf via email, they soon opened up the library’s computers  so we could do it ourselves. Wow, we binged on information and it was so very satisfying.

The morning wore on and we talked about leaving – the airport was allowing some commercial flights now and we could see electronic ticket sales had opened again. We also talked about sticking together – I liked the idea and was keen to fly out with my friends.  However a combination of visa requirements, time delays and distinct lack of three tickets available on the one flight was inciting indecision. We decided to break for lunch and mull it over.

Sunday lunchtime

We ate, talked some more and considered our options. India was our destination of choice, but it was looking increasingly difficult for me. They had visas and existing flights home from there so it made sense for them to go. I had no visa nor any idea where to buy the next ticket onto in order to gain a ‘Tourist Visa On Arrival’ instead.

Then the second major earthquake hit – we braced in the doorway and got under the library tables. A loud incessant voice siren kicked in, stating something like ‘this is an emergency, take cover….’ – it did not help. It was so hilariously american and redundant that I would have found it funny had it not triggered an involuntary fear response within my body.

The shuddering (and siren) continued and we looked at each other from under the tables, “ok, decision made – we need to get out of here any way we can, asap”. We would seek flights leaving the following day – the girls to India and me to somewhere else.

But where? Believe it or not I wasn’t ready to go home, so what I wondered where else I might go. What if I go to Europe early – where would I stay, what would I do, would the visa be long enough? Should I just go to a country close by for now? Am I up for being in a place where I don’t know my way around nor speak the language?

These tickets are selling out in front of my eyes. I need to get out of here ASAP. I need to buy a ticket NOW.

Ok – I need to go home.

So I changed the destination to Adelaide and waited for my fate to flicker up on the screen – the first flight out was for the following night with an unknown airline from Malaysia. They had only started their operation in Kathmandu months beforehand – if there was any airline least likely to be organised and get out of here, it was them. Plus the Australian legs were with ill-reputed budget airline Tiger. Yup, no way I was taking that ticket. So I booked the next cheapest option, which in fact was not cheap at all but hideously expensive because  it was business class – however I was less than aware of that when I clicked on it faster than the speed of light.

Tomorrow, I would leave tomorrow. Monday night. It was a strange thought. The girls missed out on the first couple rounds of flights they wanted so they ended up with tickets to leave on Tuesday afternoon – now we weren’t even looking like getting to the airport together. Again – as we had done with so many decisions over the last week – we talked, took time to consider it all then came to talk again. They were willing to come to the airport a day early just so we could go together – it was amazing the kindness they showed, but I couldn’t let them do that. To give up their safety overnight just didn’t seem right or necessary.

There had been so much anxiety, fear and rush around snapping up those tickets and finding a way to print out the all-important paper confirmation that it was ridiculous – we were the lucky ones with food, internet and the best earthquake-proof building in the entire country – what the hell was it like for everyone else?

Well, we caught a glimpse later that day when we walked to the Australian embassy – it was literally up the road and also backed right onto the school we had been staying at (weird, right?). I wanted to see what they were doing for Australians and check in to say I was ok. It soon became obvious it was much less resourced – the buildings were no longer considered safe enough to use and there was only access to local phone calls – forget internet. Actually if it wasn’t so serious it would have been bloody comical – typical Aussies, they were all just hangin’ about chatting and camping in tents in the backyard! However, the impact of lack of communications meant they couldn’t call home, it was hard to get outside information to make decisions, and couldn’t book flights. And then there were all the poor locals who were camped out in the open, lucky if they had a plastic sheet for protection against the unseasonable rains.

Sunday night

So after this field trip we found ourselves even more grateful to have a place in the American embassy, but more nervous about keeping it – especially in light of how fast it was filling up. In fact the excursion had also led to a stressful and awkward attempt at helping a stranded traveller from South Africa – both the Australian and American embassy denied her refuge. In the end she found a Canadian who was also stranded at the American embassy after being refused help – they made new plans together. So it seemed like it worked out in its own way but the whole situation was a bit of a shambles and saw the three of us going back and forth through security at various times. It was tightening – there were now more people volunteering in administration and admissions hence there were more questions. I got asked if I had ‘my form’, to which I thought ‘what form?’ but replied “I’ve already checked in” – that was apparently good enough and she moved on. Paula got asked if she had her passport – “of course” she said, “it’s back with all my other gear inside the embassy”. She backed up that winner with a flash of the yellow chip we got from handing in our knives and she was through – kudos, that was some quick thinking. When Paula, Eliza and I were all finally back inside the embassy together the relief was palpable – we were not going back outside that area again until it was time to fly out. I hate to say it but I felt like one of those rats fleeing a sinking ship. It took me to a dark complicated place where instead of my morals triggering the usual upfront honesty, I found instead self preservation pushed me toward keeping quiet – I didn’t like this place. Regardless of how I felt about it we laid low for our last night together.

Monday and the rest

The breakfast had been reigned into a more modest selection of hot potato and rice, or cereals now and we ate gratefully – another safe warm night on the embassy floor had been ours. It was the day I would leave – I always get antsy when it’s time to move on from somewhere and this was certainly no exception. Despite my departure being hours and hours away I packed compulsively, knowing that I would feel better once I exercised that outlet of control and had it done. A loudspeaker announced the embassy was running shuttles to the airport and I discovered another couple was also leaving on my flight – we agreed to buddy up and take the 4pm bus out.

I spent the next few hours feeling that horrible we’re-going-to have-to say-goodbye-soon feeling. Eliza, Paula and I dined on the standard lunch of MRE’s – ready made military rations. While we were eating them out in the sun a staff member jokingly asked how we were enjoying them – actually I was enjoying my veggie patty and crackers immensely! The blueberry cobbler left a little to be desired in the looks department – but still, this was fancy desert/emergency food for sure. We talked and soaked up more sun before it came time for me to leave.

I bid my new family members goodbye – what an unusual link we would have together now and forever more. It certainly felt like fate had brought us together – how serendipitous  all the timing (and nationalities) had been and what a help we were to each other through that experience. And what an invaluable comfort for the future to know that no matter what, there was not one but two dear wonderful friends who understood – talking to Eliza and Paula about it would always be different because they were there, it’s that simple.

To have someone you can relate to in that way is a gift – a gold-plated priceless gift. How strange that circumstance made us that for each other – but how grateful I am that it did – love you girls.

I jumped on the bus and was very happy I didn’t have to negotiate the street or taxis. When we arrived I could see people outside everywhere – yet it was surprisingly quick and easy to get into the ticket holders area. But that’s where all the other people were, waiting, going nowhere. We joined the right line and eventually figured out people had essentially camped on the spot for now because an aid flight was trying to get cleared off the one and only runway in Nepal’s International Airport – incoming flights were diverted to other countries for lack of space to land. No flight in means no flight out, and backed up passengers.

I had prepared myself mentally, and physically for the possibility of camping at the airport – I carried my pack on my back and one of the front crammed with sleeping gear, food and water. I had no plans to check any baggage in case I got stuck in situ without supplies to look after myself so I carried it all – all the way home (actually by the end of it, after trying in both Qatar and Singapore to offload a bag, I was used to being a human packhorse – exploding bits of gear here and there).

Eventually our ticket line began to check people in and move them through customs – that was an uneasy place to be, stuck upstairs in a building of unknown structural integrity with nowhere to go except the enormous stationary ‘foreigners’  queue, while the ‘local’ customs officers sat around with nothing to do. It was crazy. By the time we got to the front people were going in whatever line they wanted. It was painfully obvious the airport was not equipped to deal with the situation at hand – the lack of sense of urgency was distressing and security was a joke (they confiscated the water in my hands but left the 3 litres in my bag?). However to be fair, they were probably doing the best they knew how to – I had already noticed an attitude of acceptance and doing things in their own time seemed an inherent part of the Nepali culture which ordinarily was fine, but in this sort of situation I could see it causing anxiety and anger.

After the security check area, people just seemed to be hanging out. We soon discovered why – the boarding gates were all chocka-block full of backed up and future flyers. I followed the narrow path that was left and found a place to sit on the filthy floor – although I couldn’t have cared less at that point. I looked at the departure board – it was like traffic lights all red, amber and green according to whatever status your flight happened to luck out on (‘as scheduled’, delayed’, ‘cancelled’ or even worse – blank). I struck up a conversation with the traveller next to me who’s flight wasn’t even listed on the board anymore – that sucks. He moved on to find out more and I contemplated my position – I was in the middle of a big room, surrounded by people and no walls or doors nearby to use for protection if there was more seismic action.

I pondered my options a little longer when  the inevitable happened – an aftershock. It was intense enough to make people scatter immediately, but short lived. That was all the impetus I needed – I collected my things and scouted out a better position near a doorway. From there I spied another hall way with less people, more sturdy looking structures and an unlocked door that opened directly onto the runway – that was surely the best place to be should I need to exit in a hurry. I moved again, even managing to score a chair this time and settled in. While my flight was still listed ‘as scheduled’, it was already a good couple of hours past the boarding time – I fully expected to be waiting indefinitely. But no sooner had I sat down than its magic flight number was called over the PA like a lottery winner as “now boarding”. Wow – all of a sudden that’s it – I’m off then. Ok.

The whole thing was hard enough to grasp let alone the style in which it happened – we boarded the Qatar aeroplane, apparently pretty snazzy anyway but of course I had the inadvertent business class tickets which meant it was even crazier. So there we were on the runway in earthquake-devasted Kathmandu being offered champagne, hot towels, television, luxury eye masks, and silver service. Incredibly and simultaneously surreal, bizarre, hilarious and abhorrently inappropriate.

We took off and I thought about what had happened – it was hard to believe it had only been two and a half days since the earthquake. It felt like a lifetime. I thought, wrote and distracted myself with movies as I flew to Doha. That airport is like no other I have ever seen – massive in presence and opulence. For instance in the business class lounge they had an indoor water feature that was about 5 times bigger than any accommodation we had been in for the past 8 months – just because they could, I guess. It sat in the middle of a football field of luxury seating booths, internet kiosks and a couple of restaurants serving free food. Then I took a shower in one of the bathrooms that were like half a hotel room. Wow – I was giddy with luxury and relief. But to go from natural disaster in a third world country to this in the space of about 10 hours was bewildering, to say the least.

I continued on through Singapore where it was no better – I got even more tangled up inside watching the news and hearing people complain about stupid superficial stuff while I sat there eating my fancy pants free food. It was enough to do my head in. Nevertheless I boarded my third and final flight, heading to Adelaide. It was hard to believe really – this would be my last stop. I would then be home.

The thing about going through the earthquake was it had triggered a change in my brain – it told that part which filters important vs not important that any shaking sensations were now SUPER DUPER important. This meant I was now extremely sensitive to any kind of vibration – not good news when getting home involves hours of turbulence three times over. By this last flight I had been transformed from ‘ordinarily excellent flyer’ to ‘oh my god, make it stop’. Nevertheless I made it through and got ready to land, noticing for the first time just how many trees we have in Adelaide. Flying in over the top and with lots of other places recently in my memory for reference, I could see that it was incredibly green by comparison.

I breezed through immigration and customs, suddenly faced with the arrivals hallway – holy crap, I’m here already. Not sure if I’m ready for this. But what else is there to do except keep going? I turned the corner and spotted Emma first – we ran towards each other and started crying. We had big hugs and got back to Michael and Mum W where more hugs, kisses and tears ensued. It was a wonderful welcome.

I had arrived – the challenge was now to ‘land’.

It was so weird to be back in the same place with the same people but feeling totally different. It’s like the entire world has changed within you while everything outside remains the same, and largely unaware. Very hard to feel and very hard to work through.

Plus of course the experience we had been through and the circumstances under which we all returned home was so big it was almost beyond comprehension for me at this point. It left me with an intense feeling of displacement.

That feeling would plague me for some time but as we worked through seeing friends, finding a place to settle down and thinking about ‘what now?’, it waned a little. Trouble was, it all still felt so immense and I had had so much more planned that it wasn’t easy to let go of. Finally one day I said to myself “I’m here, it’s time to start acting like it” and so I picked a project to move forward with – that was a big help in dragging me out of my displacement.

So that’s where I am today, over a month after the earthquake, at home piecing together our new life. I don’t hold ill feelings for my experience at all – I am, and hope to remain forever, grateful. I also hope that something positive can come out of it for Nepal and it’s devastated people. Having an earthquake is horrific enough, let alone when the country is poor and it puts the brakes on their major tourist industry. But here’s hoping…

Oh, and as for me and my remaining ticket home – I plan on using it. As I said to my dad – nope, the earthquake wasn’t enough to deter me from travelling again…..oh dear, I’ve been well and truly bitten 🙂

We interrupt this broadcast with a brief message from the future….. (part one)

P1110671

While our blog is still galavanting around the USA’s West Coast, we in fact, have already travelled on to the East Coast, India and Nepal. But more to the point, (for those who don’t know), we find ourselves back home again in Australia – months ahead of when it should have been and under unexpected circumstances.

So in an attempt to digest it all, I thought it worthwhile to interrupt the chronological order of things and bring it up here and now. This is how it happened…

Part One: Michael and Emma.

Our plan was to travel for a year. At the six month mark, in the throes of trying to volunteer in Nepal, Michael came to me and said he was ready to go home and take Emma with him. Whoa, I was dumbfounded. But I shouldn’t have been so surprised, I knew we were having a hard time – we were tired, grumpy and had worn down the buffers of patience and understanding. We struggled to replenish ourselves and the homesickness that Emma had carried throughout the trip wasn’t waning, it was gaining ground. I guess I just figured we would keep going and eventually push through it – I mean, we had seen so many of those hard times already during our six months. Most of them had laboured forth priceless lessons and growth.

But as is one of his strengths, Michael could see it was time to let go – we had gotten to the stage where the downsides of this travelling were no longer healthy for us as a family, or for Michael and Emma as individuals. He has always been better at making the move to leave something when it seemed impossibly hard. And there was no trace of desperation or frustration – just his calm manner and evident consideration. So despite my shock, I knew it was best and there was nothing for it but acceptance. It was time for them to return to the safety, structure and relationships of home to begin the next chapter, implementing the outcomes of their experience. I understood and supported that without question.

It was the implications I was struggling to grapple with. Because while I knew they must return home, I also knew I couldn’t. I wasn’t ready to.

I still had so much work I wanted to do within myself. We had talked about it extensively and thus already had plans in place for me to stay on after our travels for some alone sabbatical time. It was to be a chance to really sit with myself and find out all the things I either didn’t know or had been avoiding. After all, as Michael pointed out to me, I had grown up with my family and moved straight into a serious relationship with him at age 17, followed by study, work and a family – I had never really been alone in my whole life. (now there’s a scary realisation….)’

So we had both seen this as a great opportunity for me to work on some of those things I skipped as an adolescent. But now, in the current scenario with Michael and Emma leaving, and me feeling like I must still take that opportunity, it left me dizzy with one question – what on Earth do I do now? I was having a hard time facing what it meant. We have to be apart, for a long time. I must do a whole bunch of challenging stuff on my own. And we’re doing it now. Oh boy.

So the plans had changed. Again. In a big way.

Over the next day or so I processed the new situation and Michael and I talked about how we might proceed. I decided I could and would stay on in Nepal – seeing out some of our volunteering commitments then moving onto sabbatical stuff. Michael and Emma would leave in two weeks, giving us a chance to spend some more family time together and do a few more local explorations. We booked flights out for them on April 15 and contemplated the reality of what had transpired.

The next couple of weeks were a confusing mix of lovely family holiday, overwhelmed-induced paralysis and irritated twiddle-thumb waiting. We each had times of struggling, joy or becoming impatient to move on. I do believe that all of us were also grateful –  we spent those last days together exploring the wonders of Kathmandu’s old cities and the quiet peacefulness of Nargakot’s elevated village views. Towards the end we all became nervy and on edge about the impending farewell. But eventually it gave way to the most wonderful of family days: the day of departure included cuddles, stories and breakfast in bed followed by a happy productive air of just generally getting on with it.

Interestingly, minutes before he was due, our previously faithful and frequently used taxi man rang to say he wasn’t coming. Okay then. Luckily taxis were not a rare commodity and so we made our way to the airport unperturbed. The nerves returned though and only grew as we tried to sit for a cup of chai together, realising two things: 1) this dinky little outdoor alcove with a couple of small stalls and grand total of 4 chairs was it in terms of a waiting or farewell area, and 2) it was probably time for them to go already anyway. It was incredibly hard and heart wrenching to say goodbye. Luckily we tempered it well with lots of hugs and kisses, smiles and cry-laughs. I waved until they disappeared into the ‘ticket-holders only’ area then attempted to find a bus home…

So that’s how Michael and Emma ended up back in Australia with me still in Nepal! I’ll wade through my own return shortly in a second part – until then…xx

Portlandia!

Today we reached the final destination of our road trip – Portland. Woo!

We drove in over the city – taking in the trademark White Stag sign, which I didn’t manage to catch on camera. Nor did I do a good job of note taking – my entries here are incredibly scant. Perhaps I was too busy being taken aback by the place – what we saw and experienced here was crazy cool – Portland bursts with personality.

For me, a lot of that was in the community and business endeavours we discovered. So many great new (and not so new) ideas put into action, all with wonderful artistic flair. We came across a community farm, community programs, an eco-laundry, a great food co-op and so many places selling either fabulous local food or beautiful arty crafty goods. Phew!

We made it to the ‘Alberta Arts district’, the ‘Mississippi district’ and East Portland. So occupied were we with all that was in these spots, we never even made it downtown.

We ventured first to Alberta Main Street – heart of the Alberta Arts District. There we parked and wandered, taking in all the buzz and activity of the businesses. What a thriving place, and despite the cold too. Here are some of the goodies along the stretch…

collage businesses alberta street 1 collage alberta street business 2

We stopped at the ‘Random Order’ pie house for lunch – chicken pie and cherry pie. Yum and Yum. And their approach to it all just tops it right off…

collage random order

We took in some more strolling after lunch – one must work off their pie(s). But we did stick to the theme – visiting ‘Pie Footwear‘ on the main road, selling environmentally and socially responsible shoes. They even extended this mindset to the fit out of the shop itself – you can read some more here. We were aiming to get some of the shoes we had held off buying in Oz and fell into a really interesting conversation with the owners, Stacey and JC. Turns out that like our friends Toff & Cara back in Adelaide, (creators of Home Grain Bakery), this couple had also seen a gap and filled it – following the demand rather than their own personal preference for a business type. And we loved finding out that JC used to work in organic veg distribution, so we chatted a little longer on that subject too. Of course there was still more cool stuff to see, including a typical style of painted house that I quietly fell in love with, so we strolled on:

collage alberat street outside plus houses

Actually, the whole reason we had landed in Alberta Street was because our first night was to be in a ‘tiny house’ (see some previous musings on tiny houses here). It was located in the ingenious “Caravan Tiny House Hotel” – a project/business that made use of an abandoned lot to place several (currently 6) tiny houses in a little group, acting as a hotel with separate rooms if you will. The first of it’s kind in the USA (and most probably the world…) took lots of time and negotiation with the city to iron out the legislative hurdles, ahem…. I mean wrinkles. What a great job those trailblazers did of persisting to come up with something brand new – not only great for the community and a livelihood for themselves, but an excellent way for people to try out a tiny house experience. (Incidentally, if you are in Oz or New Zealand there is another way to try out a tiny house experience thanks to the Happy Simply project – check it out here and here.)

wattlebees in front of roly poly tiny house

For more info on the tiny house hotel, you can check out Caravans’ general website here. Or see more photos/info on our little home for the night here. They also have an extensive list of media coverage links here – it’s worth seeing, it’s massive! It also includes an episode of the Portland based, wickedly funny show called Portlandia (which, for the record, I didn’t know about when deciding the title for this post…).

We spent much time getting acquainted with ‘Roly Poly’ by climbing around and investigating. Yes. Literally. Climbing. In a house that could be the size of your bedroom it’s no wonder there are a couple of lofts upstairs for sleeping, and that getting to things often requires climbing up, down or over.

collage climbing in tiny house

Roly Poly – so named for it’s unique rounded qualities – is one of the smaller homes in the hotel. And for me, the design and furniture made it feel so. However, it was beautifully crafted and with only 1 or 2 people in there it would probably be much easier than it was with us 2 biggies and 1 smally. And regardless of all that, it was a super fun experience.

Emma loved climbing all about in there, just witness her hangin’ about over the kitchen. I think secretly though, maybe I loved it more!!! Aside from getting some strength and stretching work in, just by living, there is a great kind of novelty to having nearly everything within your reach. I wonder if it is purely just a novelty or if it turns into one of the pros of a small home. I guess an extended stay would be the ideal way to answer that question.

collage caravan tiny house outside collage caravan tiny house inside

Indeed, if budget had allowed, we would have loved some more time there. Instead we settled on a plan to sleep in our car caravan and started the day with a trip to East Portland, where Zenger Farm, and our  generous tour guide Prairie, was to be found.

P1050628 emma arms zenger zenger farm map 2 smaller

In a space that was open lands in the 1800’s sits the surviving farm, surrounded by encroaching suburbia. What was forest land was logged to help build Portland until it saw a series of owners and eventually turned over to dairy in the 1900’s by a Swiss immigrant family – the Zengers. Their son, Ulrich Zenger, desperately wanted to see the land’s heritage and sustainability preserved. It was eventually bought by the city – keeping and using it’s existing 10 acres of wetlands to help combat the flooding issues fast approaching  with increased urban buildings and insufficient drainage. It also had community and educational potential that began to be realised when it was leased out in the 1990’s to Urban Bounty’s owner Marc Boucher-Colbert. He used the land as a farm but also hosted community and educational events, later forming partnerships with educational institutions in the area to increase it’s use in education. These days the farm’s capacity for serving the community and environment has been expanded and formalised under the direction of a non profit group – Friends of Zenger Farm. This team and volunteers have partnered with the city to officially make it a public space – used as a working model of urban agriculture and education centre for all things sustainable and community. It is a base for a multitude of programs including summer camps, farmer training and a home school partnership. They even run a 60 person CSA and send produce to some local restaurants and farmers market.

They are also big on helping the community to help themselves. The ‘healthy eating on a budget’ workshops were just one example that Prairie joyfully shared with us. These community based cooking demonstrations and related activities have gone a long way to empowering those on the lowest incomes, while honouring and incorporating the huge diversity of cultures from which many of them come. They seem to foster an invaluable exchange of learning and relationships between community members. It was a great thing to hear about. And I loved this tid-bit from the website:

“healthy food comes from healthy soil, which can be anywhere, even in the city”

You can see more about Zenger Farm and what they are doing here.

collage zenger farm 2 collage zenger farm 3 chooks collage zenger farm 1

The mundane but necessary need to do laundry presented itself. So we took on a recommendation from the Tiny House Hotel staff to check out a new laundromat that had opened up in the nearby Mission district. The staff member who told us about it said he hadn’t been there himself but that people were saying it was good. Good indeed – the place knocked my socks off! It’s so odd to get excited about something to ordinarily boring but that is one aspect of the genius – we can make anything and everything an awesome experience! Kudos to the creator, Morgan Gary, who’s concept, execution and environmentally responsible mindset made this as one of my favourite spots we visited. My words aren’t really doing a great descriptive job right now of explaining that which is ‘Spin Laundry Lounge’, so allow me to cheat and read this paragraph from the website instead:

After completing an MBA in Sustainable Business, she [Morgan Gary] set out to give the laundromat a 21st century update: the fastest, most energy-efficient machines in the world + eco friendly laundry products in a retro-mod cafe/lounge, serving local food and drinks. Save time and money, reduce your carbon footprint, and enjoy every minute of Portland’s totally redefined laundromat experience. 

spin laundry and em collage spin laundry 1 collage spin 2 signs collage spin 3 cafe

I mean, they sell microbrews and have arcade games for goodness sake – is that not the coolest way to do laundry ever? We did our laundry and hung out in the cafe, using the free WiFi and sucking up some drinks. We also chatted to Megan, the lovely lady on staff that day. She did a fantastic job of telling us about the place, instructing us on how to use everything and looking after Em with friendliness, textas and spin colouring pages. Our laundry was done before we knew it – I didn’t really want to leave… You can see more about it here on the website.

In addition to doing laundry the fun way that afternoon, we also meandered down Mission districts’, you guessed it… Mission Street.

Like Alberta Street, this also had a fun feel. I observed some sage advice on a door front…

mission street 1 donutsOk. Will do.

We also happened across a funky looking building which turned out to be much more than we expected.

mission steet em building 2 smaller

This was the quirky and wonderful front to ‘The Rebuilding Centre’ – a community resource for affordable recycled materials. It’s a great place to find bits and bobs for all sorts of construction, and also to tap into an inspirational ideas library or their deconstruction service – their website is a great portal for all such things, see it here.

collage rebuilding centre 1

On top of all that, turns out it is actually an income generator for the ‘Our United Villages’ non-profit. Wow! Great place, great resource, great idea.

collage rebuild centre 2 collage rebuild cenytre community legacy

We loved the ‘Community Legacy’ program – a central place, space and imputes for sharing stories that bring the community together. Seems a great way to inspire, forge bonds and spread the word about all those good news stories happening right around the corner! See their website here.

After a very full afternoon we returned to Alberta Street and found fate had alternative accommodation plans for us – the offer of a bed from a kind stranger that we kept bumping into. We struck up a conversation and after hearing about the road trip Yonti said there was an empty room in the space she was renting. We were welcome to fill it for a night or two. It was really awesome to see human curiosity, generosity and trust in action.

When I said it was very kind, she replied “well, I’ve been on the receiving end of it, and know what its like”. Yonti was right – it made me think about our own feelings after receiving generosity and hospitality – it just makes you want to pass it on. I think to receive is to grow gratitude and wish to pass it on. Here is the first, of many, pledges to ‘pass it on’!

It turned out to be a spare room in the basement below a church – cool space! Also, funny to see peoples’ heads at street feet height.

P1050658 the ittle church portland

Not only was it glorious to have a warm, quiet, full size bed and warm shower but getting to chat with Yonti was like a bonus activity! We had interesting conversations and she passed on many wonderful suggestions for people to see around the place.

Sadly, between the other places we visited and the new info intake limit we were fast approaching, we didn’t get to follow up on these. We made a strategic decision to cut some of our plans and slow down. We headed off early to begin our return journey, preparing for the next stage in the area of Santa Rosa – home of the Summerfield Waldorf School.

Lastly as an aside, I want to make mention that I am writing this retrospectively, from Nepal. It’s interesting to do so because having now experienced and seen life here as well as India, it is with different eyes that I view some of our previous experiences. What a curious feeling it is. Like Portland for example, I got so excited about the artistic, cool and happening nature of the place, and with good reason of course. However, one might say it’s at odds with the appreciation I now have for some of the simpler concerns and way in which life is carried out in here in Asia. I find it a strange and hard place to sit. There is beauty in the allure, ideas and aesthetic of what I saw in Portland. There is also beauty and practicality in the simplicity with which people lead their lives here in Asia. I feel like the best way to reconcile this mental rift, as is often the case, is to find somewhere in the middle. I should look for a happy and responsible balance between the beauty and energy of fun, exciting, artistic endeavours while keeping them grounded with a good dose of perspective in the simple and necessary. Wish me luck on the pursuit!

Mel xx

San Fran to Portland, and the trees in-between.

freeway 101 sign

It didn’t take long after crossing the Golden Gate Bridge to hit highway and countryside (in unison). Alas, between one mother and one small person, the need to take toilet stops is ever-present. I was surprised to find how difficult it proved to locate a toilet sometimes – we stopped at a group of shops but found no public options. A kind waiter in the restaurant allowed us to use the bathroom, despite the large “no public restrooms” sign posted in the window (a common sight on our trip). It was also a pleasant surprise to find some tiny houses moored in the nearby water.

 

floating houses santa rosa

 

The first night on the road approached and we spent it at a ‘rest stop’. It was incredibly well appointed with large clean toilets, lots of car parks and lush green space to run around on or picnic in. It also had an on-site ranger patrolling the place. We couldn’t believe it, after having come from staying in Australian ‘rest stops’ which were more like code for ‘patch-of-dirt-on side-of-road’ – and where you were lucky if you weren’t kicked out after night hours struck. To be fair we did also stay at an Australian rest stop that provided a toilet and parking space, but it was a stark contrast to this. Indeed this was an example of how much America is geared up for driving holidays. And to boot, petrol was incredibly cheap at the time – about $2USD/gallon. Thats around 70 cents Australian per litre – certainly no discouragement there.

Back on the road again, we followed highway 101 Northward. Our first planned destination of the trip was the Redwoods but we stopped in at a number of the small towns along the way, like Garberville which had an interesting alternative vibe to it. It also had a frozen yogurt place that made the waffle cones right there in front of you – customising the level of crunchy vs chewy quality if you had such a degree of preference. Yes, we quality tested them. Not bad.

collage yoghurt at garberville

 

Next we made a beeline for the toilet in little Miranda, which incidentally, wound up being the worst we encountered. Nevertheless, undeterred Michael found a dinky little booth serving organic coffee and baked items while I wandered up the road to a woodworking shop.

collage woodwork shop miranda CA

After striking up a conversation, we discovered Mr Korbly had been in business 45 years. After unwittingly learning from one of the great woodworkers of his time, he used his skills to steadily build a livelihood. Deceptively, what looked like an inconspicuous, small operation was actually home to the much sought after skills and products of Korbly and his team. So much so that they now took orders 5 years in advance, turned down hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of work a year and have regularly serviced clients such as Dianna Ross and Clint Eastwood. Wow.

It was really interesting to hear him espouse the lessons which were seeming repetitively clear of good operations and good lives: start young, do what you love, don’t get into debt, work hard and don’t compromise on what is important to you.

Oh, and he just happened to have been eating a local and organic diet for the last 45 years. Not in a ‘rebellion to the food industry’ kind of way but rather the old-fashioned, ‘this is just how we do it in the country’ scenario. He mentioned this point like it was nothing but it struck me as something perhaps not many people can claim anymore – a healthy, chemical and processed free diet for over 4 decades. I suspect it contributed a lot to this man’s vigour and health – we were astounded to learn he was much, much older than we had guessed, and evidently he was only just starting to slow down. Mind you, it often happens this way in the country, something in the air perhaps… Regardless, it was an honour to meet and chat with him.

Onwards and we came to the start of the Redwoods – which is not ‘one place’ per se but more like a series of preserved areas in state, national and private parks/landholdings. We tried to stop in at the ‘drive-thru tree’ – the one you can literally squeeze a car through. However I had seen a sedan scrape through within a whisker on youtube so didn’t hold high hopes for our people-mover. It was also shut and so we could neither try the car, nor see it. So the challenge was not taken up!

collage redwood signs

We moved on and hit ‘The Avenue of Giants’ and Humboldt Redwoods State Park. We didn’t do any official hiking or such but instead stopped off in random places, strolling in and out of the groves – there are so many interesting things to see at each turn. We walked a small loop track in one area and crossed a creek on a fallen trunk at another.

emma mic loop walk redwoods

 

girl in the forest fallen tree creek crossing 2

 

The experience was something else. An immediate sense of wonder and calm washed over me.

We describe the visit as having ‘seen’ the Redwoods, when in reality it would be more accurate to say we have ‘felt’ them. Wandering through the groves felt like walking with elders. It makes sense really – these living beings have been alive for hundreds of years – right there in the same place seeing change that encompassed indigenous habitation, invasion, settlement, wars, farming, houses, industry, television, man on the moon, logging, factory farming and a tech boom borne of the second biggest network going – the internet. I say second biggest because it seems to me that the world’s soils and ecosystems are the largest (have you ever seen the web of soil fungus going on?). As an aside there is some really interesting research and discoveries going on in this area – check out this BBC article.

Indeed we all loved it there amid the beautiful, amazing giants – what a way to invoke reverence.

mic mel emma hug tree redwoods emma hug tree redwoods
Perhaps, it was an apt time for me to ponder the ‘bigness’ of things in the States – in this case the trees, but also other things like bigger shops, bigger food, bigger roads…
Carrying on, we hit another example of the States’ driving culture – a sign that said “No services for 1/2 mile”. That’s less than a kilometre – as Australians we responded with hearty laughter. Coming from a country where interstate travel can involve large tracts of land and sparse towns, the prospect of notifying people they would have to travel less than a km without access to food, water or gas was nothing short of hilarious.
In the night we crossed the border from California into Oregon – woo! We planned a pit stop in the college town of Eugene. It was a nice feeling town, rich in the coffee shops and well-to-do looking people/students that were presumably attracted by/or a result of, the college. We met a homeless man who said if we picked 5 words, he could make a rap on the spot for us and we’d be “helping a homeless boy get by”. We had seen lots of homeless with cardboard signs detailing their plight or needs – this was a new one. Impressed by the man’s willingness to work for help, Michael quickly said yes to paying for a one-off spontaneous rap. Homeless or not, he was awesome – conjuring up a great rhyme about things coming in circles, like the seasons and “even though November brings cold it also brings warmth through the family”. His creativity was testament to his spirit.
We carried on watching the world blur by – which I love. Sometimes I am happiest just seeing what is, watching the landscape, buildings and people go past. I find it’s like meditating – resting yet absorbing your surroundings at the same time, and all while you are productively getting somewhere. It ticks a lot of boxes for someone who doesn’t like to be idle or sit still!
mic mel riverside
on road portland sign
Approaching night again, we found yet another wonderful spot hidden in a random unmarked path off the road. We had dinner here and carried on.
 mel and emma dinner by river and mountain
As we headed on, I considered one more musing which crystallised into thought – maybe it was all that forest air. There appeared to be a kind of common trait in the attitude of Americans. It was something I had perceived even back in Australia during conversations with American friends. There is some kind of inbuilt confidence they acquire here – a cultural normity where one is not afraid to say hello and express their opinions forthrightly, nor to contradict another, but in a way which gives space for everyone to own their views.
An interesting cultural mannerism – one that I would like to take a little of and add to my own…
Next stop, Portland!
forest dinner sunset

 

Roadtrippin’ begins

 

drive blur

 

Today was the day to pick up our rental car so we bussed into downtown San Fran – bang on the right stop this time, woo! We were early and so took a walk down to the Ferry Building area. It was a bustling little place with the beautiful and historic Ferry Building itself, the nearby piers and trolley cars coming and going. There were also vendors setting up lots of stalls with tourist trinkety plus some decent photography.

 

collage ferry building

 

We also saw many homeless here – not unlike the rest of San Fran – it is very visible. It proved a good conversation starter though for the issue which Emma took in – I think perhaps realising for the first time that not all people have a house to sleep in.

After some more wandering we found the car hire office. We had booked it earlier in the year, while still in Australia. Initially it was looking to be a horrendously expensive exercise once you added milage and insurance to the price tags. We also investigated the “car moving” companies who get paid to move cars for dealers or the wealthy retired population that migrate south to Florida each winter. Seems like an ok deal for a traveller, very economical but you do give up some freedom in how long you can meander for.

Luckily for us we eventually came across a couple of sites set up specifically for renting cars to foreigners. They act as a third party, offering deals on behalf of most providers and usually all the requirements are included – i.e. our’s included unlimited milage, all insurances and no fee for pick up at a ‘special’ place (like the airport). For some unknown reason, this ‘all-inclusive’ option for tourists is way cheaper than booking directly. So with all the fine print and finances agreed upon, we took the deal. When we got there it was as easy as present your printed third party voucher, sign the register and “here are your keys” – sweet!

And even sweeter was the unexpectedly fancy-pants example of a car we got – a minivan type vehicle: the Chrysler Town & Country. It was bright shiny new in flashy red with electric everything – windows, sliding doors and seats. It had fold-flat-in-the-floor capable seats and cup holders everywhere. Oh, and even usb and standard electrical outlet charging points – we could charge our phone and computer on the road. Whoa – it was all a bit much for us budget travellers to take in. It sure was appreciated though, particularly the flexibility and comfort as we were using this for part-time accommodation.

collage car

 

We discovered a Whole Foods Market was nearby (a very large organic/fair trade supermarket chain all over the US). We stopped in to stock up for the drive – and got lost in the world that is Whole. After the lengthy diversion we set off, dropping Michael in the absolute deep end of driving on the wrong side of the road amongst downtown traffic of a busy US city. But, as with most things, he took it in his stride and did a fantastic job.

Contrary to our map’s suggestion, we opted to exit the city via the Golden Gate Bridge – how could we not? It took us past the pier district which was alive and interesting. We could tell we were getting closer to the bridge by the proportionate increase in traffic congestion. But before long, there it was – a stunning red icon to drive along. While we missed out on a car park to stop and admire it better, driving through it was a picture to remember.


golden gate bridge

Now, we looked forward to some country driving en route to California’s famous elderly – the giant trees in the Redwood State and National Parks.

 

rainbow tunnel coastal road

Onto the trees!

 

STATES ahoy!

P1040970 small

 

By chance, rather than design, our flight from Brisbane to San Francisco went through Honolulu. Oooh, we’re going to Hawaii!
Well, not really, but we were scheduled for a 6 hour layover. Surely long enough to duck out and see something nearby. We went outside, circled the terminals several times in an effort to find a bus that went into town. Nothing was really working and apparently we were all tired grumpy So with that, the new plan was to just wait for our next flight. We were clearly incapable of making it happen in our current states, but I was still bitterly disappointed. Begrudgingly I joined the others back in the terminal – where we all promptly fell asleep.
Some time later we woke up and wondered out through a different door to find a little courtyard and garden – perfect for streching out and letting Em have a run around. After recharging in the fresh air and sunlight we strolled over to the domestic terminal. Strangely, I found the surrounds and decor much more kitsch than I expected. A 70’s looking facade of browns, oranges and carved wood, . The culture of Hawaii seemed also characatured – it was also this way elsewhere in the USA. I would have liked to stay and experience some tradition of the islands.
em hawaii 2
Upon the next plane, we headed for San Fran(cisco). Getting in late at night, we had summoned the forethought and investment to book a hotel room close by for the night. Boy, was that a good plan. We landed, stumbled upon the free airport shuttle bus (which arrived within minutes), ate at the 24 hour restaurant attached to the hotel then crashed into bed. While Michael and I woke up at a sprightly 7am, we had to wake Emma because she was getting close to missing our checkout deadline of 12 noon! 11 hours of sleep for a child that has never, ever, been a long sleeper = great start. Despite the rest, our stomachs were still in a strange place – thus our lovechild of a breakfast was born – pancakes and fried rice (eaten separately, not together – just so you know).
Fueled up and ready to go, we began the first – of what would be many – adventures in negotiating the local transit systems. A bus took us into town where we tried to find the first of our American food and outdoor gear. After all that, the sun was threatening to set so we got onto finding the next bus to our next destination – an Air bnb room that would be our home for a few days while we explored San Fran. We had successfully identified on our tourist map where to pick up the bus – but I have to say the walk there was unnerving, which crossed through a few different neighbourhoods of downtown San Fran. It wasn’t the homeless – although we did see lots of them and of course seeing others in such a predicament calls into question your own comfort. It was more the array of shifty looking characters just hanging around on the street with apparently nothing better to do. Anyway we made it, albeit edgy and irritable with each other, only to find when we jumped off we miss calculated the stop – we still had a long walk ahead of us. Much whining later from Emma, and maybe me – ok mostly me – we found our way to a charmingly quiet friendly neighbourhood and main street. We followed the air bnb host’s instructions and hey presto, the door unlocked – woop! We had a home 🙂
After failing to recognise the coloured tape system inside the strangely empty but partially lived in house, we relocated to what seemed the right room. It was with relief too – this one had a real bed, rather than one of those double blow up mattresses which suddenly turn into a catapult every time someone gets on or off. For the couple of days we were there, we didn’t see anybody. It felt awkward and wasn’t what we had expected. I think we pictured hanging out with some locals who could tell us about town and share dinners with. Neverthless, it was a lovely room, clean and well located for us to explore. We checked out the local main street – Clement street in Inner Richmond – which was healthily populated with Asian nationals, resulting in a wonderful selection of food and little supermarket offerings. However we skipped those for the first nights dinner – ironically had at a place specialising in dessert: sandwiches and chilli at the ‘Toy Boat Dessert Cafe’ – they were good. Then for some unknown reason we forewent dessert there and ended up with donuts from an asian bakery.
Having selected a rental nearby Golden Gate Park, (in another freak stroke of forethought), we walked on down, coming in from what felt like the back entrance on the northern side. We marvelled at a public park big enough to contain roads. Not only did they service cars and the local buses, but there were lanes for runners too – ha! We wondered through some manicured lawns to find the Koret Children’s Quarter playground and carousel.. The day we picked happened to be thanksgiving and so lots of families were out playing. The carousel however was closed, but Emma didn’t dwell on that for long – relishing the chance to hop on a playground full of kids. She meandered through some beach shaped climbing items, the expansive playground and concrete slide – Michael had a go too of course.
After another wonder down Clement Street yielded some yummy dahl ingredients, we cooked them back in the home kitchen and prepared ourselves to leave the next day. We used our last foggy morning to head downtown and explore the pier and ferry building areas, taking in a great walk and sights.
pier edited
collage san fran 1
 san fran  bridge
Next, we would pick up a rental care and take off on a road trip through Northern California to Oregon (and back again)…
Bye for now San Fran – see you again soon 🙂

Bris-vegas (also sometimes referred to as Brisbane)

family river boats

 

As I look back on this last period of time before we left Oz, I am struck by how little I wrote in the way of diary entries. In fact, this one pretty much sums it up:

Sunday November 23, 2014 – Words are sticky and elusive right now. Heavy and too energy consuming.

I think I was suffering ‘catch-up’ from all the new places and people we had met – taking it all in still. That, and we were in a comfortable safe place to do so: spending our last few days in lovely Brisbane with Mum W, who flew all the way up from Adelaide to spend some more time with us before we left. Naw!

So here is a brief little ditty on our last days in Oz….

Started the week off by meeting Mum W – aka, Grandma – in Maleny. Some lunch and a mozy in the area was followed by a tour back at Crystal Waters. It was great to show just where we had been, what we had been doing and who with (sometimes it can all feel a bit surreal, doing things like this away from those you would normally share it with).

collage grandma arrives

 

After meeting and greeting with our hosts, Max & Trudi, we said our final goodbyes and headed down to Brissy town. While we were sad to leave a place we had settled so comfortably into, I think we all got a little bit excited seeing a big city again.

collage mic em apartment view

 

Not to mention the apartment we were lucky enough to stay in – lovely, and just a stroll away from the city centre. Turns out, it was New York-themed. How very appropriate to have a preview of the real thing we’d be seeing so soon.

collage brissy NY apartment

 

We spent the next few days relaxing and exploring around town. If Australian cities are your thing, or will be part of your next travel itinerary, Brissy is worth your time. It has a different vibe to Sydney or Melbourne – more relaxed and easy going (with better weather too – I reckon). As an Adelaidean, and Queenslander by birth, I think of Brisbane fondly – like a big sister to Adelaide. She is warm and fun, casual but cool. The usual city stuff like shopping, eating, museums, galleries, shows and social spots are all present and accounted for, in lovely sprawling landscaped style. Perfect for strolling – South Bank being a good example. I took the footbridge over there and admired the new ‘Brisbane’ installation.

brisbane sign

 

We also checked out the well stocked Queen Street Mall; a green and bustling Botanic Garden and playground, plus the three floor cushy and comfortable Brisbane Square Library.

brissy mall nightbrissy botanic peace garden brissy peace garden brissy playground library market

Interestingly, I took one door into the library and when I came out the other side, this second hand market had popped up in the square!

 

We also saw the first, of many on our trip, city bike rental scheme – nice!

collage city cycle 2 collage rental bike

 

I love the playful, colourful nature of Brisbane – they even give their electrical boxes the community artist treatment:

collage Brissy Painted Boxes

 

Of course, everyone loves a pool so we made good use of that – and the chance to chill out in our room.

collage brissy pool brissy office apartment room

 

Pop-quiz – name one of the bonuses of being with family when travelling.

Having someone to take photos of all three of us? Yes!

What’s another?

Date night – yes! Woo! And in some far off location from home – double woo!

Thanks to Grandma, Michael and I got to wonder the city in search of dinner and sights…

brissy sky bridge 1

 

brissy sculpture fox man

collage mic climb wall brissyAfter Michael got his fix of climbing for the day, we found our way to China Town down in the valley (Fortitude Valley), and had what was the top contender for ‘best meal we’ve ever stumbled across’Red Lotus offered Vietnamese dishes through the most outstanding example of an Asian, or any, menu I’ve seen – gorgeous delicious photos and fun descriptions, elaborate enough to really inform a Western audience. Some dishes even had their own story – like Duck Doggy Style. Yes that’s right, and we ordered it too. What? They’re just referring to duck cooked in the traditional way of dog meat – what did you think they meant?…..

Reading the menu became a fun activity all of it’s own!

By the way, I thought I didn’t like duck.

I was wrong.

So, so wrong….

collage date night 2

 

We wrapped up our last afternoon with a lovely meal up high in the middle of Queen Street Mall – at the recently reopened outdoor ‘Jimmy’s on the Mall‘.

em grandma mall dinner

 

 

brissy puzzle

On the day of departure, we completed a puzzle – both for fun and to check where we were going. Then, inevitably, it was time to pack up and ship out.  That was quickly followed by me upgrading our travel insurance in a flurry of last minute panic – if that’s not a window into my default nature I don’t know what is.

I love how laughable I am sometimes….

We checked out and made our way to the airport – having planned our flights out of the country and Grandma’s back to Adelaide within short timing of each other. But they were, of course, in different terminals – quite a foreign concept for us Adelaideans, where the air traffic fits happily in just one. So we negotiated the terminals and their connecting bus – complete with a bewildered driver who couldn’t seem to wrap his head around us paying to use the service – apparently it’s normally used by those with a free pass from Virgin Airlines. And so after the confusion cleared and all parties had checked in, there was precious little time to sit before Grandma departed.

farewell em grandma

 

I have to say, it was really nice to be able to say goodbye to Mum W before departing the country for a year. How grateful we were for that, and having had an opportunity for time together beforehand.

We continued back to the international terminal, via the same bewildered driver, and prepped ourselves to leave Australia behind……..

to the plane

 

So long – we’ll be seein’ ya!

xxx

 

WWOOF round 2 – with a side order of village, permaculture style

village hill view

 

Next stop: Crystal Waters Eco Village in the beautiful Sunshine Coast hinterland of Queensland.

For us, this was to be round 2 of WWOOFing, and a chance to visit family just down the road – my Dad, Step-mum and two sisters. Actually, they are the whole reason we went to Queensland. And why we even thought of taking the car and some extra time to see Australia on our way out – cheers to that!

It was also round 2 of seeing community life, though this time we could settle in and experience it ourselves for a while. For the first week however, we stayed alone on the property (dejavu!) as our hosts, Max & Trudi, were away for birthday celebrations. Max gave us some excellent instructions so we set to work on those jobs.  Despite this, and that there are always jobs around, it’s still a little harder to get into the swing of a place and its work without the owner there to point you in a particular direction. or mention how they do things – at least to begin with anyway. Nevertheless we managed to find our way around and make ourselves useful. When all else failed we had a weeding bonanza – it may have been a little more than necessary but, a good old weeding blitz every now and then is a good thing 🙂

In the topographically endowed plot they have two garden areas, plus various plantings of useful trees for bees, birds and humans alike (such as the freaky but fun – and yummy – Jaboticaba). One garden is up high and close to the house with crops that require more frequent care, as in the permaculture idea of zoning (highest maintenance areas are placed close to where the labour is). Think greens and such: lettuces, herbs, spinach, onions, cucumbers, salad greens, tomatoes and flowers for companions. It was a good sized area with about 6 large raised beds sitting over a sandy base and plantings around the edge (another permaculture principle; value and use the edge – in this example it is taken literally in terms of space but one could also consider it more laterally in valuing ideas, people or products that are on the fringe). And just like at home, cherry tomatoes were proving to be troopers so we foraged lots from stray bushes to make many a tabouli bowl with the abundant parsley.

mic emma upper garden

 

Then the other ‘lower’ garden, as per its name, was located down the hill a bit. As you might guess, the less frequently visited crops were down here. At this end of spring it included the last of plants like broccoli, kale, cabbage and more onions and parsley.  We partook in these too, then helped prep for new plantings in the five super long beds with some home grown chook poo and worm castings (aka, you guessed it – poo) for fertiliser. Turns out, moving wheelbarrows up and down the slopes was, deceptively, much harder than I expected – gardening on a hillside will keep you fit! Then we topped em’ off with locally abundant shredded bamboo for mulch and they were ready for the next planting – some of which we got to do before we left. We sowed peas and beans in time to see them raise their little heads and stretch leafy wings – I love seeing the birth of seedlings!

upper garden

 

Emma was prospering in the setting and lifestyle here too. While on our own, she quickly settled into a routine of looking after the chickens by herself – ushering them in and out; checking water, grain and eggs; and dragging over spent broccoli. I say ‘dragging’ because, by this time, the broccoli stalks had grown to be pretty much bigger than her.

collage em food

em chicken chillinWe often found her taking solace in the hen house, just hanging out with the ladies. She really enjoyed having that responsibility – I think the morning and night animal chores punctuated her day.

She also took to playing hospitality – ‘the tea party hotel’ as she liked to call it. She set up tables, took our orders,  made food for real and even sometimes did the dishes after packing it all up! True to her independent ways, she was completely adamant that she must do it all. Well, it was her hotel I guess. In light of her enjoying this kind of service role, we took the opportunity to add a related responsibility – doing the breakfast dishes while Michael and I went out for another couple of hours work in the morning. Despite not being over the moon about it, she agreed, then volunteered to make the breakfast too, go figure! Seems the freedom to take responsibility and feel strong brings on a flourishing in her.

I’ve yet to mention our accommodation – a beautiful swiss style chalet. And when I say Swiss chalet, in sunny Queensland, I don’t think its a joke. Max is actually Swiss. Picture a wooden cabin with two bedrooms, decks, central lounge and kitchen, viewing the Northern woods and dam. We certainly felt spoiled – even Ruby got a bed!

collage cabin

 

And as for the village’s landscape, Max & Trudi’s lot sits within the 640 acre bush property – 14% of which is allocated to residential land. The rest is owned in common – as preserved bushland mostly, plus commercial land (the village green, commercial kitchen & deck venue, other business space/ventures, paddocks and an eco caravan park).  A body corporate, community co-operative and sub committees manage the public facilities and village green activities. The property is a wildlife refuge and so a no dog/cat policy is in place to protect the diversity there. And diversity abounds – as do the kangaroos and wallabies that frequented our cabin and the gardens every day. Literally. Plus deer – not as often or as close, but not far enough away for a gardener, hence the wildlife-proof fences which surround the edible plantings. Birds, frogs, butterflies and snakes also visited us. And spiders, lots of spiders. But after daily clearing of webs, and nightly refilling, you just let it go and get used to it. Throughout the village are dams, ponds and a sparkling, rocky creek – containing fish and even platypus. It certainly is a beautiful slice of bush that seems to succeed at incorporating refreshing environments for humans and wildlife alike.

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Then early one morning we met Max – up with the sun, as he is everyday. I think he was a little surprised to see some WWOOFers doing the same. Lovely man – matter of fact and warm. Not long after we met Trudi – working diligently in the bee house and equally lovely, exuding what I think of as a typically wonderful country disposition: equal parts down-to-earth frankness and friendly hospitality.

Then, the bees – oh the bees! This was our first introduction into bees and beekeeping. Scary and captivating is how I want to describe the experience. The gentle calmness Max demonstrated seemed an essential qualification for checking the hives and collecting honey. For that reason I donned a bee suit but mostly watched while the born-calm Michael learnt the ropes. Fascinating – I would love to have a go one day. For now though, I headed in to help Trudi with the processing. Sticky fun sees waxy caps of the honeycomb taken off frames with a heated knife, followed by spinning to release the honey. Then it just goes through a series of mesh filters and into a bucket. Voila! Simple, and such a bonus that honey keeps just fine at room temperature and is naturally anti-bacterial – great product to work with.

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While Max and Trudi keep bees and sell honey as a business (Crystal Waters Raw Honey), I suspect that for them, as for others, its about more than just honey and money. Watching Max with the bees was like watching someone in pleasant ritual. In mediation. Not to mention the importance of helping to sustain a healthy bee population – both for their own sake and ours.

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In case you’re uninitiated, bees are responsible for pollinating, and therefore producing, a significant chunk of our food. As well as who-knows-what other valuable roles in the eco-system. Seems they are having ever-more trouble from disease, habitat/food loss and our increasing use of chemicals in agriculture. The American (aka Californian) almond industry is a great case in point. The sect has turned over massive tracts of land to almond trees – and usually only almond trees = massive monoculture. They rely solely on bees to pollinate their crop and turn blossoms into almonds, but there aren’t enough bees around naturally, (i’m thinking it’s pretty hard to live in a place with only one food at one time of year), and so they truck them in seasonally from all over the country. Increasingly though, more bee deaths are occurring after the event and across the country in general (the mysterious, cause-unknown, syndrome is being called ‘colony collapse disorder’). And it looks like the chemicals the growers are using are also a contributing cause. It got so bad that they had to ship bees in from Australia! Can you believe it? I was shocked, having no idea they did that. I know what we’re like after such a long trip – I can’t imagine it does the bees any good either, never mind the resources that go into the transportation and quarantine issues. Turns out quarantine issues did emerge and the risk of foreign disease/parasites from our bees caused the US to put the Kibosh on that option. Looks to me like plugging a badly designed boat with ever-growing wads of bubblegum. As for a solution, well in my opinion, it seems it might just be the same as what we need – diversity of clean food. We don’t do well eating the same thing endlessly, nor living in a food desert or consuming processed/chemicalised (yes, I’ve now made that a word) food. Neither do they. So plant something else with the almonds, its not hard (unless the system is set up to be a large scale mechanised factory in a field…). It’s just another reason to support the growers using more responsible and sustainable practices – i.e. without the chemicals and mass-scale.

Ok, I’m back from ranty-town. Shall we continue?

Max & Trudi also run cows – on some of the communal land the village holds. Residents have the opportunity to lease land from the Co-op and now it’s free to do so, provided you agree to look after the parcel of land in whatever venture you are using it for. So Max and Trudi have several paddocks to run the cows through, including their orchard of pecan trees. They break up the land with the portable electric fencing that was a game changer for sustainable farming,  letting farmers run stock using cell grazing techniques (see the start of this article). A higher density of animals in the smaller area, for a shorter period of time, mimics nature more closely. Thus producing a myriad of advantages like more complete grazing, quicker recovery and higher quality pasture. The better management creates a healthier environment which translates into more nutritious products. They ran four beautiful black lowline cows – these girls don’t grow horns and are shorter than your average cow, but still rather hefty. So much so that when we first met them, Emma stuck herself firmly to my side and said:

“Mummy, will they eat me?”

Snigger. A lesson followed on the, suddenly relevant and contextualised, meaning of a  ‘herbivore’.

collage cows

 

In addition, Max & Trudi also have an orchard of kaffir lime trees and work on their other business in environmental consulting as well as a non-profit which encourages and educates in the area of communities and eco-villages. So a day’s work on such a property can cover tasks in many areas. To paint a picture of our WWOOFing days though, think of time spent in garden beds working the soil with natural amendments, weeding, planting and watering, as well as tying cucumbers and putting the ingeniously simple shade cloth covers in an infinite number of configurations, according to the days weather. Then other tasks were decidedly bee orientated – helping to check, clean and collect from hives and process the honey. Emma enjoyed watching and helping with the bottle labelling too. And I think we all enjoyed getting a good dose of woodworking when drilling, hammering, nailing, gluing and wiring up new bee frames was required. While Emma was busy learning to use the electric drill and hammer in eyelets, I made a comment about this being a woodworking lesson for her, but despite my best efforts she didn’t believe me. Oh well, apparently those skills belong in some other category!

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We also went to one of the local markets at Witta to help set up Max & Trudi’s stall, which adjoins that of Pat and Johns – they recently bought the Lindegger’s long held seedling business. They were a great couple of stalls in what was a lovely example of a country market, selling lots of great local, sustainable produce.

In amongst the work hours – which can be a flexible arrangement by the way – we tried to get involved with some of the many activities going on. Most days we would wake up early to do a couple of hours then do another couple after breakfast or leave it until the afternoon. We also did more on some days so we could organise larger allotments of free to time for excursions. The type of work schedule depends upon the host and the work they have going – but from what we have seen and heard, most hosts are more than happy to be flexible and give WWOOFers encouragement, time and help in getting to know the area and people. It’s a sharing platform after all.

Well, at Crystal Waters there is so much to see, do and join in with that we tried our best to take advantage of what we could. For example, Every Saturday in the village green their organic, handmade sourdough bakery opens up to serve it’s bready delights, plus morning sweet treats and coffee. The second hand shop located across the way also opens and people can mill around, sit on the outdoor tables and chairs or shelter up on the deck. People come down for their weekly bread, some stay for a cuppa and chat, or many with kids come down to socialise while the children amuse themselves with the play equipment and each other’s company. Its a lovely, relaxed atmosphere where people are happy to linger and socialise. In contrast, on the first Saturday of each month it grows into the Crystal Waters Market where you find a busier, lively atmosphere. In addition to the bakery and second hand shop, there is live music and vendors selling an array of things like second hand goods and foodie items (ranging from fresh produce and ready to eat yummies – think home made pies, curry, sorbet, real lemonade and juices – to more specialty stuff like kombucha). And the commercial kitchen and communal cafe on the big deck opens up too.

collage market

 

Thats just the tip of the iceberg though. Every friday night there is a movie on in the Eco Centre, followed by the bakery saturday-moning-social (as i’m calling it) and then usually a saturday night show of some sort – we caught a comedy performance when were there, great fun. Then on Sunday morning they shake it all off with a bush walk in the property or surrounding area. After the bush walk I joined in some of the other happenings during the week – like taking Emma to the community choir (thought she might find it fun) only to have her abandon me for a new friend  – well! It now seemed I was there to join the choir – nothing left to do but try and sing. Not to worry though, I found it was so much fun I went back the next week! And it was of course great for Emma – she and Ellenie had a wonderful time. We even organised to come back for another play date.  Then we all went along to watch the Marimba band practice. If you’re not familiar with the marimba, imagine a mutated wooden xylophone-like creature big enough to have its own legs and stand at an adults waist. Now imagine several of them in one room with players beating in time and tune. On arrival we were given instruments and an apologetic forewarning that they may not be right on top of things – it had been a little while. The instruments were great fun, the sounds jubilant and the warnings unnecessary – we enjoyed every minute of it, especially emma who surprisingly found a comfortable home and rhythm upon the drum.

So the activities were great and we had a blast, but what we enjoyed most was meeting the people. The chance to meet, chat and connect was invigorating and I enjoyed hearing other’s perspectives on all sorts of topics, including the village. We spent the rest of our free time visiting our family, relaxing in the cabin, chillin down at the creek or exploring places outside like nearby Maleny, Ananda Marga River School, Manduka Coop Community and Chenrezig Institute Budhist Retreat (all of which, were very rich and interesting in their own ways).

collage emcreek chilling collage CW spare time

 

Looking back, I think of the mixed messages we got about this place. It’s reputation as a worthy model is based on the fact that it’s been around for about 30 years, is still going and was the first permaculture eco-village ever designed in the world – not to mention the leading examples of sustainable buildings which can be seen there. Yet, the village seems to suffer from a different reputation in some parts of the greater area – with negative hippie-type stigma or insinuations that things there aren’t working. When we talked about going there to see an illustration of a good intentional community, we received discouragement – the source of which I suspect lay in mismatches of expectations or the natural frustrations & challenges which are present in managing that amount of land and people.

Later on, Max (who also co-designed the village) chatted to us about the issue too, saying people often expect the village to be one way or another. For instance, everyone getting along or thinking the same way, all being into some healing or spirituality, or that the place would be dripping with food. He added that in reality, expectations are often wrong and the village just is what it is – about 200 people co-living in an area with the accompanying diversity one might expect of a group that size.

But in the face of the initial contradictions, we decided that whatever the actual situation was, we could learn from it. Examples to emulate are just as powerful as examples to avoid. And I’m so glad we did – what a rich experience we had.

While we may not know all there is to know after seeing it for a few weeks, it’s still true that we were actually there. We met people, got involved and saw it for ourselves. We saw that there are challenges to be worked through, and trade-offs for the lifestyle – but I think that’s the case anywhere. More importantly, we saw why is the villager’s have decided the up-sides and positives outweigh them – we saw a place where the land and environment are respected, where people come together for activity, joy and in need. And where a healthy lifestyle can flourish.

As a result, we have real admiration and respect for the village and what they have done/are doing there. The continuing journey ahead will be an interesting one that we wish them all the best for, and hope to hear more about.

Lastly, we are grateful to have met the people we did – it was such a pleasure. And particularly to our hosts Max & Trudi for their open and sharing spirit – thank you for the opportunity and conversations. We took a lot away from our time there – we hope we also left a little piece of ourselves behind….

 

WWOOF WWOOF – the first foray


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When we talk to people about our interest in farming or growing things, a lot ask if we come from that kind of background. The answer is no, we don’t. While there may be some historical farming further down the generational line, our interest is born out of exploration, rather than upbringing. As well as what we feel the world needs today – responsible farmers and real food. These farm warriors are already out there  – we just want to see more.

Oh, and the idea of growing something as simple and necessary as food fits in well with the capitalist/entrepreneur/opportunist in me (yup, that’s all in there too…). Maybe we can make a living out of this – after all, it’s not like eating is going out of fashion anytime soon.

Seems as good a livelihood as any in which to place our bets….

But back to the original point – we don’t come from farming and so arriving at our first WWOOF stop (willing/worlwide workers on organic farms), Sat Chit Ananda, was the first time for any of us living on a farm.

 

 

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I feel like I’ve written about the concept of WWOOFing already so for those who have missed it, or in case I was just hallucinating, here is a link to a quick wiki explanation, or see here for the international website.

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While this would only be a two week stay, and it can take a lifetime to read land or perfect farming craft, it was long enough to get a good feel for the farm’s routine and lifestyle in that particular season. It was also the longest we had been in one place since starting our travels.

Getting used to life here was hard for me at first. I think I came unconsciously with expectations of what would happen on a ‘farm’ and what might be expected of a WWOOFer – like so many hours per day of work and structured job lists, etc. Indeed, I’m sure there are places like that out there, but it was different here. In fact, I came to realise that like anything, the deeper we delve the more variation we find – farms come in all different shapes and sizes. And motivations.

Sat Chit Ananda is not a commercial farm. And so that is not what drives the activity here. Kerrie and Paul are building themselves a sustainable refuge from the world. And one that they want to also be an example for others. I admire their aspirations in what they are wanting to do here – in fact what they have already done here. We arrived near the end of Spring, to a land parched and desperately waiting for summer rains, so at first it was hard for us to see easily what was happening here. But soon enough we realised just how much they had accomplished.

Taking old cattle land that had seen much degradation and little water, they set about transforming it towards self-sufficiency. While it isn’t there yet (what ever is, really?) Paul and Kerrie have made long headways into a food forest, water collection, solar power and composting toilets. They have farmed food and animals for veg, meat, milk and eggs – even producing their own cheese. They’ve also delved into alternative farm transportation with miniature horses and built the most magnificent ode to sustainable housing in the form of a 2 storey geodesic dome – a sight to behold, which even greets you from the roadside.

 

collage Sat Chit Ananda trees

 

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All of this, amongst life and its setbacks. Certainly, Paul and Kerrie showed us a down-to-earth attitude and acceptance of life’s realities that I hadn’t seen before. They were great examples of how to operate positively while living in the truth of our own limitations, which we rarely stop to acknowledge. Seeing our resources, like time, energy and money, as they actually are rather than what we want them to be, is a healthy habit I want to take on. Acceptance of how things are, and what we really have control over, seems tantamount to freedom.

One example of which is Paul. After having a stroke some years ago, there are limitations on when or how much he can do in a day. As a result of this, and just life’s limitations in general, the work here often follows opportunity, rather than schedule – taking advantage of the times when resource planets align and going for it.

As it happened though, most of our first week was to be self driven, while our hosts were away on a much needed vacation. So for someone who’s strength is not self-discipline, battling the pre-conceived ideas, self starting and an energy-draining intense heat was: tough. Having said that though, those same conditions meant it was a really good place to dip my proverbial toe and inch into the new experience of living on a farm and being a WOOFer.

In that first week, we really appreciated and enjoyed the trust and freedom which comes with looking after someone else’s farm. We worked with their daughters to keep things going and tried to be newbie helpers rather than a hindrance. We managed pretty well I reckon – Michael in his element with fix-it jobs, Emma taking to the animals and me tackling a shed full of sorting. In fact, I like to joke that we had farm life pegged by the end of the first day – we spent it chasing escapee animals and fixing fences!

 

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We fell into a daily schedule more easily than I expected, centred around the animals:

Wake early, do some work, drink tea. Milk the goat, feed and move the animals, eat breakfast. Maybe some more work, let the chooks out. Swelter in the heat. Maybe some late afternoon work, round up chooks, feed and move animals. Have dinner, sleep, repeat.

It was good – there was enough routine work to structure the day with predictability, yet plenty of free time for personal activities or getting to know our hosts. We really enjoyed that aspect – Paul and Kerrie were very welcoming and inclusive, we shared meals and social time most days, Working, chatting and getting to know people in this way is really rewarding.

And in a wider sense, its been incredible for us to try out so many different sharing experiences (WWOOFing, couch surfing, out of the blue visiting, and the random occurrences that come from travelling overall). It has allowed us to explore the things we are interested in such a rich and varied way.

What I love most about these kind of platforms, or any groups that come together over some common interest, is the infinite number of angles to come at it from – so there is always a new experience, perspective or approach to be discovered. I have done it time and time again: come to a group assuming the people there will be of a particular mindset because of the common interest – but invariably I get surprised by those who differ from me in some way I had not expected. I fall into the trap of assuming these people must think and believe in the same things as me because of this one common point.

It was like seeing them as identical shapes which could overlap and stack on top of each other, fitting nicely and neatly into some vertical tower of understanding. Now it seems more accurate to view them as shapes on a horizontal plane, (or perhaps three dimensional space), that meet and overlap in just one part of themselves, not the whole.

More like a connected system of floating spheres – a network, not silos. Probably more like nature itself, eco systems are linked webs – creatures meet and cross paths at different points of commonality, morphing through time and space. And they change as a result of the meeting or missing of others.

Anyway, regardless of how I describe it, these experiences are always valuable reminders to step back and check on the narrowing of my own perspective.

So it was great to experience life here, and grow to know our hosts more. And that spirit of curiosity and sharing was certainly alive and well. Actually, it brings me to think of an advantage of WWOOFing in your own country – the absence of a cultural and/or language barrier. While you may not experience a new culture, it does allow you to get a deeper understanding of the people or processes you are meeting. For that reason, I would recommend WWOOFing both in your own country and abroad – getting the best of skill sharing, making friends and novel cultural exchange.
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When it came time to leave, it was hard. Particularly for Emma, who so quickly connected to the life, people and animals here. I’m really grateful for this experience, and to Paul, Kerrie, Janine and Tegan for letting us join their lives – we wish you all the best, and would love to cross paths again some day, thank you!

 

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