Category Archives: Learning

Why You Shouldn’t Ride Elephants! And What You Should Do!


So many people have elephant riding on their list of things to do when they hit Asia. The elephants are incredible and majestic creatures and amazing to be up close to. But there is something so much better that you can do than ride them. Something that will be the best thing you have ever done. Have a relationship with them by not riding them. See how….

It was five years ago that I rode my first elephant. I was in Laos and I went to an elephant camp where they told me they treated the elephants well and I also went elephant bathing in the river. I must say that I really enjoyed it. But then maybe my naive self had no idea about what was really going on with the elephants in South East Asia.

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My thirtieth birthday…. worried about the state of this elephant. The last time I would EVER ride again,

On my thirtieth birthday, I decided I would go elephant riding again and I did my research on the internet and chose a company where people said that they treated the elephants well. What I was disgusted and horrified to see was giant bloody scab marks behind the ears of the elephants and scabs on their skin. For anybody who knows elephants, their skin is very thick and tough, so for their skin to be broken they have literally been thrashed. They used the hooks behind their sensitive ears to guide them and were yelling and screaming.

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If you look closely you will see the dark, bloody scabs in the crease of the elephant ear, the most sensitive part of the animal.

At the end of the day I stood and stared into the horrifically sad eyes of my elephant. She was crying. And I was on the verge of tears myself. The woman was broken. And there was nothing that I could do about it. She was here, and here for the purpose of making money for those who treat her poorly. And yet there was I supporting something that I hated and realizing that most ignorant tourists are getting all happy and excited about how ‘well looked after’ these elephants are and how amazing it is as this is what they have been told by the company. In all honesty, the only way to.train elephants for riding is to break their spirit. I was so disgusted I decided I would never go back and support elephant tourism ever again.

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One of the saddest elephants I have ever seen. Broke my heart as she stood there crying and tears fell down her cheek

Then one night I was drunk in Pai and I met this girl by the fire. She was telling me about this amazing experience she had at an elephant retirement camp. One where the elephants are not ridden, tied up, or belted with metal hooks. She told me of the elephants being happy and allowed to do what they want. She said you could actually tell they were happy by the way they smiled and flapped their ears and that they loved hanging around with the people. That I should go. And so I took a last leap of faith and I did.

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First glimpses of free roaming elephants, Mr Perfect and his girlfriend.

In Chiang Mai I went to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. It was a fairly expensive activity but for what I paid I would pay again to support it. We were taken to the park in the morning and we were lead out to meet the elephants. The mahouts find them by the cow bells they wear around their necks. Otherwise they are allowed to roam the property as they please.

The first two elephants we encountered were Mr Perfect and his girlfriend. Both of them used to be elephants that were ridden in other parks and had been retired here. Since arriving they had become much happier and you could physically see it in their faces. We got to hang out with Mr Perfect and his girlfriend (name I can’t remember) and feed them and pat them.

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Feeding Mr Perfect bananas. A much happier elephant than the others I saw in Koh Chang.

After that we went to visit a couple of mothers with their two baby elephants, one they called ‘Naughty Boy’ at 2 years old and there was also a 5 month old. Naughty Boy was renowned for stealing things off of guests so they gave us tops to wear with giant pockets at the front. At one point Naughty Boy saw me put my water bottle in the pocket and was reaching out with his trunk towards my pocket in an attempt to steal it. I laughed and held my stuff in the pocket. He also rolled around on the ground, kicked up dirt and behaved like a typical child and the mahouts let him. He is a baby elephant behaving like a baby elephant. It was refreshing not to see him getting scorned and whipped.

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Going for a stroll with Naughty Boy as his trunk wanders around trying to find mischief!

The other baby would play with her mahout and pick him up with her trunk and play. It was great to see the relationship between the two of them being so respectful and not requiring brute force. There was literally a great deal of love between these men and their elephants. Speaking of love, at one point we looked over the hill and there was Mr Perfect mounted up on his girlfriend while all of the locals were yelling and cheering ‘yah, elephant boom boom! Yah!!! Hahahaha” It was hugely funny to the mahouts and everybody thought it quite amusing to see. It isn’t every day you see elephants mating.

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“Elephant boom boom”. For the second time that day….

The afternoon consisted of one of the most fabulous and fun things I have ever done in my life. We went into a giant mud pool with the elephants and threw mud at them and gave them a mud spa. We rubbed the mud all over them, threw mud at each other, the mahouts threw buckets and handfuls of mud at us and everybody was squealing and having a good time.

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Getting down and dirty with the elephants

From there we crawled out of the mud and walked down the hill to the elephants and got into the river with them as we threw buckets of water over them and scrubbed them off with brushes. These elephants were having the best time and were flapping their ears and whipping their tails about. I couldn’t stop laughing the entire time.

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Washing all the mud off with a scrubbing brush

I was sad for the trip to end. These elephants I could have spent all day every day with. They were so incredibly happy. One who I was standing next to kept flapping his ear on me and every inch of them seemed to smile. It is a far better life than the one that involves being ridden for hours on end all day everyday, not even allowing them time to eat the 250-400kg of food they need to eat a day. The life that involves being beaten with sticks and separated from their partners. Elephants actually cry when they are separated from their friends. They are sensitive and intuitive animals. It saddens me greatly to think of the numbers of elephants that are maltreated in this world for the entertainment of humans.

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Another happy customer! The elephant I mean… 🙂 And me too!

But the sanctuary? It is the most respectful form of treatment I have ever seen of elephants and if you are considering having an experience with elephants, make sure that you go to a place that does not condone riding and lets you have a real experience with happy and well looked after elephants. The money that you pay here goes towards providing for their massive food consumption and their wellbeing. Hopefully if people do this, more and more of the riding camps will be shut down and the elephants retired into a life where they can just be elephants and enjoy their lives of munching, mating and bathing, the way that nature intended it!

If going to Thailand, check out the Elephant Jungle Safari for an amazing adventure! And remember always travel responsibly! 🙂

Happy Holi!!!



Ever since I heard that Holi was on the fifth of March this year I have been excited. I actually pre-organized my treks and my flight to Nepal around my desperate want to experience Holi. So to say that I was excited was an understatement. I was literally like a five year old kid on Christmas.

I got up in the morning, put on my white t-shirt and my blue and white elephant pants from Thailand and headed downstairs in the hostel to get my breakfast and see the gang. I was sitting on the balcony when the first water bomb was thrown by the kids next door from the rooftop. I started laughing and then joined back in. We started to throw water bombs back but they had the height advantage so it was a little more difficult for us. The hostel staff gave me my first colour in the form of a blessing on my forehead and then I started out down the road to meet the local family I was spending Holi with.

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Hanging with the hostel boys getting bombarded by the neighbours

When I arrived in the neighbourhood I had no idea where I was going. I started asking around the locals and they pointed me in the right direction. Once I found where I was going I met up with the family and headed out with one of the boys to explore the neighbourhood. Apparently the locals had heard I was coming and I was a wanted target. I met many groups of kids with water bombs and buckets of water and all of them seemed to be coming my way. I was laughing hysterically and having the best time of it.

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Hanging out with the family at lunch

We eventually wound up at one of the neighbours houses on the roof. I am drowned in water and covered in some colour at this point and the war from the rooftops was about to begin. There was a lone kid on the adjacent roof and he was appearing hard to hit. A cheeky and wiry kid. He got some pretty decent shots in on us too.

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The enemy… neighbourhood kids. Cheeky things!

After eating lunch, we continued to explore the streets and get bombarded with more water bombs and colour before the massive rooftop war between three houses began down the road. I was half stung on a bottle of red wine that they fed me at breakfast so my aim was terrible but I managed to get a few good shots in on unsuspecting neighbours reading newspapers and then when the plastic bags to put the water in ran out, we all danced Nepali dance on the rooftops for an hour before heading downtown to Thamel.

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Dancing on the rooftop with the girls

Thamel was craziness. There were tourists and locals everywhere walking around throwing colour everywhere. Given how wet I was from the massive water fight the colour stuck to me like glue. I was a rainbow of pink, purple, blue, orange, green and yellow powders that eventually covered me to a point of unrecognizable. People would take the colour in their hands and wipe it over your face saying ‘Happy Holi’ in a blessing. By the end of the hour I spent in Thamel, I had it caked in my hair, my face was fluorescent pink and I was a total mess. But I had had the best fun I have had in my life. I even had colour in my teeth given that I ate so much of it while I was laughing.

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The product of Thamel Holi street warfare

Post washing, I still have colour in my hair, my face is still dyed pink and so is my hand and I have one yellow boob and one green one. Quite funny. Every time I look at my dyed skin I smile and remember. What a wonderful and fun celebration that allows people to be kids and just play for the day. If only more people would embrace and play every day in life.

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Post face washing…. still stained pink… 😛

I did think many times during the day back to when I was a kid and we would have birthday parties at the bike centre and my Dad would always play devil’s advocate and bring massive amounts of water bombs and water pistols and start up a massive war. It would always be every kid in the place against him, but he would get his own on most of them first before they would bail him up in the toilet and start pouring water over the toilet door. Parents would get mad because their kids would all be wet going home. But what is a bit of water? Especially when it creates so many smiles. The only thing that could have made my Holi better would have been having my family there. Given the amount of warfare we are used to with these fights as kids, the five of us would have been a formidable Holi force to be reckoned with!

Westerners’ Don’t Walk…. And Other Indonesian Musings

At first it really annoyed me. The constant harassment in your face with people yelling at you ‘You want transport?’, ‘You go on moto?’, ‘Where you go?’. It wasn’t until I was in a car driving with a local for the day around to Tanah Lot and Uluwatu in Bali that I realised just how much of a game it is to them. I realized when our driver started yelling out of the car window to his friends ‘Haaalloooooo, you waaaannt transpoooort?!’ and then laughing. Then they would call him on his phone and they would laugh about it some more. The whole thing was just obscenely funny to them. And so I decided to make it obscenely funny to myself.

The first time I really decided to make it a source of entertainment was when I was drunk coming home one night from the Sky Garden Free Flow (two hours of horrendously bad, strong and free alcohol).  They see me, go to open their mouths and before they can respond any I am all over it ‘Hey! You want transport? I carry you while I walk?’ They look at me like I am nuts, laugh and I keep going. And then I yell at cab drivers ‘you want transport?’ and they look at me strangely before they start laughing and so the game continues……

It became evident pretty quickly that as a westerner, it is expected that you don’t walk anywhere. I could have 100m to walk down a one way street opposing traffic flow and the locals would try and convince you that it is too far for you to walk and that they should take you on a 3km round trip around the block on their moto to save you having to walk 100m. The idea of walking anywhere is just absurd. The look of shock and horror on the faces of people when you tell them you are walking somewhere is priceless.

Take for example Baluran National Park which I visited on the east coast of Java. I got to the front gate, paid the entrance fee and asked about transport in and out of the park. They told me it was either motorbike or ojek. You weren’t getting there one way for less than $5 and I had all day to kill and a Mount Everest Basecamp to train for so I said to the guy, no transport there. I will walk in. He says to me ‘NO!!!! You can’t walk?!’ I said to him “Why not?!” He says to me, “You HAVE to take moto! It is too far! It is 15 kilometers!!” I laughed at him and said to him ‘It’s only three hours and it is flat. It is fine. I will walk’. The entire staff look at me like a mental person as I start out along the road. And sure enough, after 3 hours of walking I got there. And had a great time along the way being surrounded by butterflies and interacting with the nature around me.

Of the most entertaining times that we embraced the ‘Westerner’s Don’t Walk’ policy was when I got up at 3am to hike to the top of Mount Pananjakan for sunrise over the Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park. The lovely men outside the front of the hotel were trying to again convince me that 5km to the top was ‘too much’ and that I couldn’t get that far. I told them I walked 15km two days ago and I would be fine. They looked at me cautiously before also trying to convince me I needed a scarf and a hat because 15 degrees was also ‘too cold’. Ha! Try -40 in Canada… I am fine!

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OMG! Look! I am walking overland through the Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park instead of taking one of those jeeps behind me that all the tourists take!!

On the way up I met a couple of cool guys I started walking with and between us we got to the viewpoint 1 for sunrise and then up to viewpoint 2 later in the day after the tourists had re-embarked their jeeps and had gone home. We found a stand of fried banana and I bought two, one for each hand. As the incessant questions ‘You want moto?’ started up, I had a stroke of genius. I said to them ‘No, I don’t need moto. Too fat from fried banana! Must walk!’ The women had a quiet chuckle. The men stared carefully at me as they were not sure as to what the correct response to a woman calling herself fat is and they said ‘OK’ and left us alone. So I employed this for the rest of the day. By the end of the day we had clocked up 3 mountain tops and approximately 25km of walking in around 13 hours. When I got back to the hotel and saw the men trying to sell me hats and a moto I told them where I had gone and walked the whole way. They looked like they were about to die of shock. And then they applauded me. Not a bad effort for a girl about to hike Everest Basecamp. I wonder if they will have me a moto to take me to basecamp…?

So it is about a week later that I discover why I have such looks of confusion on the faces of locals when I met a local in Sidoarjo who literally myth busted quite a few of my ideas. It turns out that fat in Indonesia is a compliment. If you are fat it means that you are healthy and rich and have lots of money to eat. On the contrary if you are skinny you therefore must be sick, having money problems, anxiety attacks, broken up with your significant other or have some other serious issue in your life that needs dealing with. Fat is good. As such, why would I want to be losing weight by walking….??? OK, I think now I understand.

The second thing that he pointed out was something that after about a month I started to realize all on my own…. it isn’t the westerners that don’t walk. It is the Indonesians. They literally can never be seen walking anywhere. They will ride a motorbike 100m down the road to the shop if it saves them from having to walk anywhere. The whole time I figured they were trying to convince me that I needed transport so that they could have my business because I am white and as such I must have money. But no. It turns out that again these horrified looks of ‘What? You are walking 15km?’ are sheer looks of concern given that this is not a concept they can fathom. Turns out that it isn’t the Westerners, but the Indonesians that don’t walk…..

My First Yoga Retreat

So in the grand tradition of me, I started my zen week by rocking into the yoga retreat with a two day hangover, still wearing last nights’ make up under my sunglasses and hat and arguing with a cab driver who was trying to rip me off. Pretty standard entrance really. They showed me to my room, I got changed and I went to my first session. We started with meditation. My meditation went something like this “Shit! Did I have my ukulele with me in the room….? I don’t remember seeing it. Hmmm…. did I take it off the taxi? Fuck! What have I done with it? If I left it in the taxi then I am never getting it back cause the arsehole has probably sold it now to make up for the fifty baht he tried to extort from me that I wouldn’t pay him. Fuck fuck fuck! Ugh, I want to go check on it now but I have 2 fucking hours of this shit to get through before I can and I think this is going to kill me…..”. Time dragged along…. Anyway, I found my ukulele. I left it on the table with my water bottle that I also couldn’t find. Drunk brain has been hiding things again.

The evening was spent meeting people and going out for a shared dinner of amazing Thai food before heading to bed early. You see, there is sunrise tai chi every morning at 6am and I was getting up for it…. Why am I doing tai chi you ask? Because it is the only way to get fed before 10am if you are only getting up for the 7:30am yoga and I don’t think I can handle two hours of yoga unfed. Tai chi it is.

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Morning tai chi

My early morning tai chi was actually pretty awesome. I think it is my favourite part of being here. It is kind of like a martial art form in many ways and takes me back to my days of doing kung fu. In the mean time you have the most amazing sunrise going up over the sheer -cliffed mountain islands in front of you. It is quite incredible. And so we are standing there listening to a speel about how the sun is energy and the sun and the earth create this energetic ‘magnetic’ field around you that shields you from evil things and thoughts and that the more you do tai chi, especially in the mornings, the bigger and greater your magnetic protection shield of energy from the sun becomes. I felt like a kid in class who wanted to put their hand up and say…. “ahhhh, the sun has nothing to do with magnetic fields because it is a giant ball of frickin gas. Gas has no magnetic properties. The earth however has a giant core of iron which has unpaired electrons in its orbitals, thus creating a magnetic field due to the accumulative spin of these unpaired electrons….. Last time I checked a human does not have giant iron cores or currents of electricity running through them with the exception of the small electrical impulses running through nerves but this is not enough to give a person a protective fucking magnetic shield around them from the evils of the planet!” Yeah I was that kid. Deep breath, heed my friend Rachel’s warning about keeping my mouth shut, say nothing, laugh internally, cry internally. Go to first and more vigorous morning yoga sessions.

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Sunrise on the beach during morning tai chi

I can say four things from this. 1. My hips are horrible. 2. My balance is horrible. 3. My lack of patience is even more horrible. 4. At least I still have my sense of humour.  At one point we were doing this stretch where you take a wide stance and then put your chest to the floor. You then get your partner to pull your hands through your legs to give you a deeper stretch. So you literally wind up with someone’s arse in your face while you are assisting. And we are all sitting around talking about how it ‘feels’ to do a partner exercise and how you really need to ‘trust’ the partner helping you and it is all about trust. I was thinking ‘like yeah, I am trusting you not to fart in my face. Awesome’.

And so it rolled on as I sat during the day in my hammock jamming on my ukulele, swimming a bit and being all round chilled. I listened to the Australian news, got mad about politics again and before I knew it, it was time to go back to the afternoon yoga session.

It is hard to know whether to laugh or cry when your instructor is being so introspective that she can’t figure out whether she likes the inhale breath or exhale breath more, but what I did know was that I wanted to find and steal her drug stash. After a myriad of stories about ‘Daddy’ I was about done and happy to retire for the day.

And so my days here continued. Get up, tai chi, two hours of yoga, breakfast, steal left over breakfast and hide it for my lunch, afternoon nap, play ukulele, go for a swim at high tide, more yoga, go out to dinner. I did meet some pretty cool people here, some of them as rational as I am. One friend and I sat there and giggled up the back like naughty school children which is funny because we are both teachers. It is hard not to laugh at times with some of the things they say. So they say ‘it is time to go into plough position (oddly enough lying on your back with your legs all the way over your head). “It is not recommended that menstruating women do this position”. Of course nobody wants to admit to this and we all do it anyway and I am up the back chuckling so hard I can’t stop shaking, “hear that Pat? No ploughing on your period, hahahaha”. Laughing so hard I can’t even plough properly.

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My favourite yoga position…. apparently meditation. I call it ‘nap time’

There were some moments I wanted to stab my own brain out with a fork it hurt that much. I think one of the worst initial times for this was during “froggy” which I used to do at Crossfit as a hip opener so I knew what was coming. Ten minutes later and we are all still sitting in this excruciating position and I am having subtle suggestions sent my way that yoga is about stillness and I am tapping my feet, tapping my hands, moving my head and being an all round ADHD child. Stillness with circulation issues…? Stillness when my process of dealing with pain is to divert it with movement….? Not happening.

By day 6 I was on the brink. I had been rock climbing the day before and my body hurt. I was tired as I hadn’t slept properly in days, constantly having bad dreams and waking multiple times through the night (apparently the yoga is spiritually stirring something up in me emotionally… hmmm… how about frustration as an emotion?) I was also hungry. And then hungry turns to angry for me. ‘Hangry’ as I like to call it. As I am sitting in this circular meditation and I think everyone could see on my face that I was done that morning. I did not want to listen anymore about how my head has a satellite dish on top of it that is channelling ‘spiritual Google’. I did not want to ponder what the self is and how to reach enlightenment. Instead of all the ramblings about “checking in”, I was “checking out”. I just wanted to go to Nepal and hike a goddamn mountain. I was done here.  And yet I was not done. I still had four more sessions and 8 more hours of yoga left to go before my departure and as shitty as I was, stubborn me was determined to see it through because I had paid for it already and because I knew that physically it was still strengthening my body for my upcoming adventure.

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Rock climbing on Koh Yao Noi

On day 7 I started to be a little more relaxed. The instructor for the day would challenge us to think about the morals of stories from Greek mythology or stories from Rumi and it was way more interesting than most of the other sessions as it worked my brain in a way that didn’t make it want to die from the silence. I realised that over the space of the week I was challenging whether you can be non-spiritual and still manage to incorporate some these techniques into your life, especially when everybody has different interpretations.

On my last day I got up and watched the sun rise over my last tai chi session. I had my last session of yoga for the morning and was happy to be up the back with the girls hunched over in forward fold laughing ridiculously at the instructor who told us to ‘start to feel places on your body that haven’t been touched for a while’. It was the most unmotivated session I had had all week but I guess that happens when you can smell the end.

And so I survived. I have three days now until I get to Nepal. And what I take with me is expanded lungs, stronger knees, ankles and back, and a whole bunch of new friends who kept me sane for the week. Not anywhere near as bad as I had suspected, but I am pretty sure I won’t be checking back into a yoga retreat any time in the near future. I think I will stick with punching things and lifting weights.

Why Yoga and I Hate Each Other

“The head is the general and the body are the soldiers.” – Gezrat, My first boxing coach.

Everybody goes on and on and on about yoga and how amazing it is for you and how it is the thing to be doing if you are a zen and awesome human. Truth be told, I wouldn’t know zen if it bit me on the butt. The last yoga class I attended was hot yoga. I was in a bad mood after receiving some bad news, the instructor was brazen and rude to me, I swore I would never go back because I don’t need to be bored and offended all at the same time and so I haven’t.

It is an odd thing. People think that because I travel and am somewhat reflective that yoga would be right down my alleyway. Even my ex, after I ditched his cheating arse, figured I would make my way to a yoga retreat to ‘heal’ and ‘find myself’. Where I did ‘find myself’ instead was singing karaoke whilst dancing on a bar top shotting tequila and getting showered with cans of whipped cream in San Pedro La Laguna.  Even I wonder sometimes how it is that I cannot manage to come to peace with such an activity. I love other physical activity. I box, I enjoy CrossFit, I really love hiking. And people tell me that they guess this is my way of ‘meditating’. I ‘meditate’ so hard sometimes when I am training that by the time I am done I want to puke into a bucket and that is what I define as ‘exercise’. Any form of exercise that I do not find hard is not defined as exercise in my book, especially when I am not even breaking a sweat.

So I finally figured out why this whole yoga thing is such an issue for me. I was born a fighter. I have spent my entire life arguing and screaming at my family members. It is in my second nature to be passionate, feisty and aggressive. It is why these activities such as boxing, CrossFit and hiking are among the things I love. They are a war between the head and the body. The brain being the general gets to tell the body what to do. No matter how much it hurts, no matter how much you think you can’t, you do because that is what you have to do. There is no time to be bored when you are engaging in something so difficult that you need to place all of your focus and mind power into keeping on going.

Yoga on the other hand requires the body and the brain to work together in some kind of harmony that I am unfamiliar with. One must work with the other to find this inner peace that people talk about. I am so engaged and used to the internal war that I love winning (because who doesn’t love winning, right?) that I haven’t yet figured out how to win the war by shutting the fight down. And so this becomes my next challenge. To those of you who laugh at me and tell me it cannot be done, my next challenge is to quiet myself. To fight the inner struggle of boredom and excessive thought. To let the mind be the general, still in control of the soldiers that are to stand at ease and do nothing. Let the games begin….. and shall I not die of boredom, yell at someone and tell them where to go or have a total mental breakdown from my own rapid and erratic thought processes during the week I am interred. Peace out! Namaste!

To see how I deal with my first ever yoga retreat, check out next weeks post!

 

 

 

Shit I Learned In Indonesia

OK, so for any of you who know me personally, you would know that last time I was travelling I used to put a weekly post up on my Facebook called ‘Shit I Learned This Week’. It was a combination of funny and serious facts that I learned along the way that I wanted to share with people. As ordinary life and the monotony of working and then going to the gym set back in, I got lazy and let it slide as it became harder to come up with creative things I had learned. However, back by popular demand on my Facebook page Thomas Takes On… (chuck us a ‘like’ to keep in the loop) is “Shit I Learned This Week” and as a part of this continuing tradition, I shall reinstate it with a special post about “Shit I Learned In Indonesia”.

Shit I Learned In Indonesia
Useful Indonesian Words
  • Doso (doh-zoh) – “high five” useful for saying hi to or scaring small children. Some will laugh and slap your hand, other will scream and run yelling “monster, monster!” in the other direction.
  • Kontol besar (con-tol be-sar) – “big penis”. Men down the street will occasionally tell you that they have one of these for you. You shouldn’t believe them. They don’t really.
  • Capek (cha-pey) – “tired”. Even when you use this word it still won’t prevent police officers waking you up on the train just so they can say hello to you because they want to practice their English. And here I thought I was getting woken up because I am doing something wrong…..
  • Bule (boo-lay) – “white person/foreigner”. The word most commonly shouted when both adults and children alike see you and start pointing at you as if you are a crazy anomaly in society. It will usually be accompanied with the word “foto”.
  • Foto (foh-toh) – “photo”. Avoid this word at all costs. It will mean that you will spend an hour standing on the side of the road while locals take pictures with you and of you like you are some kind of celebrity. Then if you say no, they will still follow you and take pictures of you while you are not looking. Akin to Kim Kardashian, you are famous for doing absolutely nothing.
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My blonde friend getting swarmed by a kazillion Indonesian people and their phones saying ‘foto? foto?’

  • Ayo (aye-yoh) – “lets go!” Useful for getting a boot up peoples butts and to get moving.
  • Tidak (tee-dah) – “no”. Despite being a word in the Indonesian language, this word seems not only to be ignored, but magically most of the time translated into the word “yes”.
  • Kamu cantik (cam-oo chan-tee) – “you’re gorgeous/beautiful”. Frequently used by local men when you walk past them down the street or are sitting on the back seat of buses as their opening line to chat you up. Usually it is followed up by the question “you marry?” to which the appropriate answer is always “yes”.
  • Mas (maas) – “bro”. The men here will usually say ‘hallo mas!’ or ‘terima kasih mas’. I need to remember that while ‘mas’ in spanish means ‘more’, that I am saying ‘thanks bro’ in Indonesia instead of ‘thank you very much’. Especially when I am talking to a woman and she looks at me confused as I just called her ‘bro’.
  • Coca Cola Batik (koh-kah koh-lah bah-tik) – “Fake art work from Yogyakarta”. The local style of art, ‘batik’, involves covering material with a wax and then dying the bits left over. If it is real they say you can wash and iron it to keep it good. Sometimes locals will lie to you and sell you the fake stuff that the dye runs from when you wash it. I am not sure what Coca Cola has to do with this….
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My real batik art, not the Coca Cola crap 🙂

Culture and People
  • If you ask how far or how long something is, do not expect an accurate answer. Concepts of time and distance are pretty much non-existent in Indonesia.
  • Everybody smiles. They can be happy, mad, angry, sad… any array on the emotional spectrum and it will always be delivered with a smile. As such, when angry the best way to deal with things is to smile and be polite. Passive aggression will get you everywhere.
  • On top of smiles is the laughing. People are always laughing in Indonesia and the laughter is often infectious. Sometimes a local will be so amused by something that you do that it almost difficult to not laugh back at them as they are so funny when they are being funny,
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This guy laughed at us and called my friend a ‘bludger’ despite not knowing what it meant and kept laughing for half an hour while we waited for the bus to Borobudur

  • Indonesians do not walk anywhere if they can help it. They will always take their motorbike. Even if it is 50m down the road, the will still go on “moto”.
  • Fat is a compliment. “Hey girl, you fat!” = hey, you have money and eat lots and are super healthy. I wish it was like this in Australia….
  • Say one thing. Mean another. Do another entirely. This is how we wind up having our passport in immigration for 16 days and not being notified of meetings. Then they tell you they have transport to immigration. Then they don’t. Then they do but you need your own helmet. Then they do again. And then they drive you to immigration and leave you on the side of the road there in the middle of nowhere because apparently transport to immigration does not mean transport home. This is also how you wind up homeless on New Years Eve as a ‘booking’ apparently can be given away if somebody with money comes in first and you aren’t there. Always be prepared for the unexpected. Always have your A game problem solving skills cap on or you will wind up in a pool of your own tears. Oh and laugh. Because what more can you do?
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Passed out on the hostel floor on a pile of my junk over new years trying to have an afternoon nap and failing dismally

  • Indonesians have to be the friendliest people ever. I am trying to eat my bowl of bakso on the side of the road and a family invite me into their home to sit at their table to eat it and play with their kids… two hours later I am making my way out the door.
Politics and Religion
  • You will get woken up everyday to the sound of random warblings of Islamic prayer broadcast over giant speakers to the entire community. Earplugs required.
  • In Bali, one needs to constantly watch where they walk because not only will the gods be angry if you step on one of the offerings they lay out, but you will also wind up with massive soy sauce explosions up your leg.
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Some Hindu offerings… no soy sauce this time, just some tasty biscuits and flowers.

  • Soekarno was the first President of Indonesia and was responsible for their independence as a country in 1945.
  • Indonesians will approach you and start listing religions and ask you which one you are. “I have no religion” is never met with a good response, usually anger or confusion. I later learned that according to the “Pancasila” (translated in Javanese to mean “five principles”), which was the document used to found the country of Indonesia and unite all of the islands, the number one legal requirement on this list of all Indonesians is “belief in the one and only God”. What this means…. 1. It is illegal to not have a religion in Indonesia. 2. You are only allowed to follow a religion that is monotheistic. The Balinese made a few adaptations to allow Shiva to be their almighty God allowing Hinduism to be a part of the list of only 6 religions allowed in Indonesia including Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism, Catholicism or Protestantism. No allowances were made for other religions such as Judaism, Sikhism or any of the spiritual beliefs of the smaller tribes from the more secluded islands that form Indonesia. Sounds scarily like discrimination to me……
Other Indonesian Learnings
  • “Hallo Mister!” is a common greeting from all people here. Their addresses to each other are unisex, so I always get ‘mister’. I exhaust myself trying to explain that I am a ‘miss’ because I am a woman. The last English lesson I gave was to a group of 7 kids of 8-10 years old cutting school and smoking cigarettes on top of the hill overlooking the Telarga Warna. They followed me down the hill screaming at me “Miss! Miss!” Well at least they learned something….
  • Bed bugs. After getting them twice in Java I am now a total expert in anything bed bug related. The Indonesian word for bed bug is ‘kutu busuk‘ and I am ‘alergi‘ or allergic to them. I know about hunting them, their life cycle, how to get rid of them and even that if you isolate and tape the bed they will climb the walls and drop on you from the ceiling to get at you and your tasty blood. Ugh, I am creeped out thinking about it and haven’t slept in a month.
  • Fried chicken here rivals that of Colonel Sanders (KFC) an is way cheaper… between these and cheap Magnum Gold’s I will wind up the size of a house and require rehab after Indonesia to deal with my withdrawals.
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Yet another evening on the Magnum Golds… had to find another shop because we cleared the first one out.

  • I am ‘seexxxaaayyyy’ according to a 60 yo local woman on the bus to Wonosobo and this is apparently hilarious to everyone else on the bus.

And I think that shall be it! For the weekly versions (much shorter I promise) tune in to Facebook and I shall be back next week with more challenge and adventure (Si bolang!) Until then 🙂

The Marvellous Men Of Kawah Ijen

As an avid lover of all things volcano, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go and visit Kawah Ijen in the far eastern part of Java, Indonesia. The volcano is most famous for its massive sulfur deposits that the locals harvest for use in cosmetics and other things.

So the wake-up call came at 1am and we were scurried into the back of a car and driven for about an hour to the base of Kawah Ijen. The fact that we even made it to the base is a miracle given our drivers’ penchant for overtaking people on windy roads at high speed into oncoming traffic. I am pretty sure he almost rolled the vehicle about five times. Anyway, survived…. and arrived!

We started the 3km hike to the crater rim of Kawah Ijen and had a local guy following us. Despite telling him we didn’t want a guide, he took it upon himself to walk with us for the entire way up the winding switchbacks of the hill. He would tell us things in broken English or Bahasa Indonesian on his way and point things out to us. When we started getting into high sulfur concentration areas he helped me wet down my t-shirt and tie it around my mouth so I could breathe easier. At this point I had taken a liking to him and I didn’t care if he had just dubbed himself our guide. He was cool and very helpful. I was happy to pay him anyway.

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An attractive look. Wet t-shirt around the mouth to stop the inhalation of sulfur dioxide.

So when we got to the crater rim, then began the perilous descent into the crater rim down to where they harvest the sulfur and to the lake. It was steep and hairy trip down in the dark stopped at times by massive coughing fits from the excess inhalation of sulfur dioxide in the air literally choking your lungs. When we arrived just below the clouds I saw a glimpse of the magical blue flame that they talk about seeing in the crater. And as we continued downwards we arrived on the flat to where there were a whole bunch of men working to collect the sulfur to cart back up the hill.

The crater in the dark was like a crazy world. In among the smoke there were bright patches of yellow dripping down from the hills out of these rusted out metal barrels. The men were taking giant metal crowbars to the solidified sulfur deposits to break them down into smaller pieces that would fit into their baskets so they could carry them.

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Breaking down the solid sulfur into transportable chunks.

When asking them how much was in each of the baskets they told us that they were carrying anywhere between 60 and 80 kilograms back up the hill and then another 3 kilometers down the other side to the weighing station. They get paid 900 Indonesian Rupiah per kilo for this. So on average he said he made about $15 Australian dollars or 10 Euro in a day by the time they do 2 trips up and down the mountain.

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What a 8 AUD or 5 Euro payload looks like.

My brain nearly exploded at this information. This was grueling work. Work that I would probably be incapable of. In fact, I deadlifted one of the baskets like I used to at crossfit training and while I can still pick it up, I could not do much more with it. The men were showing us their scars on their shoulders from where the bamboo baskets were cutting into their skin over the years and laughing about it. I think if I had this job I would want to cry. And yet here they are, the marvelous men of Kawah Ijen laughing about what they do for work and posing to take pictures with us flexing their muscles, sometimes with others photo-bombing in the background just to be even more funny.

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My favourite miner… he took his shirt off to do some funny poses for us

As the sun started to come up properly I started to take stock of the barren wasteland that surrounded me. There was a lake quite close to the sulfur deposits and according to the internet the pH of this lake is 0.5. Mind blown…. for any chemist out there you will know that this means that it is pretty much a lake of a bit less than 1M sulfuric acid (I am a self confessed chemistry nerd). It is the most acidic lake in the world and has this incredibly light blue haze to it that gives it a nice aura around the yellow and grey colours from the sulfur and the rest of the mountain.

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The acid lake with the sulfur deposits on the shoreline

The sulfur became more yellow as the sun came up and the extent of how far you could see it expanded across the landscape. It was like being on the moon and yet not. I sat for quite a while taking it in and watching the men carry their bamboo baskets up the hill before it was time to start climbing back up ourselves.

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Time to start climbing.

We climbed at rapid pace compared to the workers with their baskets. Even as we passed them, they continued to laugh and ask for photos with us and smile. They are incredible people that I have such amazing respect for. Before I knew it I was back to the top and on my way back down the hill among all of the greenery and foggy haze that I couldn’t see at 2am when I was on my way up the hill. It was like visiting the sulfurous and barren wasteland of Kawah Ijen was a dream. And yet here I was with the marvelous men and their baskets full of sulfur as a reminder sitting at the base of the mountain and with a bucket load of photos to always remember them by.

Why Wait? Five Hot Tips on the Art of Micro-retirements

“Micro-retirement: noun 1. the action or fact of leaving one’s job and ceasing to work for extended periods of time on multiple occasions throughout one’s working career.” – from the Danni Dictionary of Good Times.

I was sitting at school one day in the staff room and one of the women there asks me whether I am back next year, to which I respond ‘no’. When she asks why, I inform her that next year I am going on what I term as ‘micro-retirement’ again. I am off to go and travel until the money runs out or I get antsy and need to stop and do some work for a little stability for a while.

She sat across from me and said to me ‘I think this is amazing, and I am so glad that you choose to do this. You never know what will happen tomorrow’. She continued to tell me about how her and her husband had lead active lives and he used to run marathons, was healthy and fit as fiddle. They had spent their entire lives saving for a house, saving for kids, and then saving for their retirement to go and travel, see the world and enjoy their lives. After her husband retired, he went into hospital for a hip replacement from wearing it down through running triathlons. He had a complication in the week following and died of a blood clot post surgery. All of their savings and plans had gone to waste, because he was never going to see or do any of it. And now she doesn’t know how she is supposed to do it on her own.

This to me was heartbreaking. I was almost in tears listening to her talk. Her loss was both abrupt and horrifying. And yet she sat across from me and said ‘You don’t know whether you will die tomorrow. So live like there is no tomorrow. Do what you want to do today if you can. You will never know what will happen, even if you are the fittest and healthiest you can be. You just never know’.

Moments like these inspire me. I hear stories like these from so many people. In the blink of an eye, the plans are gone because their loved ones are gone. These moments remind me of why it is I choose this option of micro-retirements over the conventional decisions that others make. But in many cases micro-retirements can be quite a daunting thing to many. And so here are my tips to living adventurously and like there is no tomorrow by taking a micro-retirements as opposed to saving your whole life for one big retirement.

1. Learn to embrace instability 

Stability-schmility.  There is plenty of money to be had if you are willing to work for it in this crazy world. Who would you be if you weren’t defined by what job you worked, what house you lived in, what stuff you owned and how many kids you had…. an interesting thought in this world that promotes capitalism and excessive need for stability.

2. Become well versed in multiple different jobs

Some people shun me for being “a jack of all trades and master of none”. What I do know is that this particular skill has had me working in every field from science to education to promotions and marketing to forklift driving. As I say to my students all the time “don’t close doors on yourself. Do as much as you can and keep as many doors open as you can”.

3. Be prepared to do literally ANYTHING for work

I am not super proud. To keep me on the road and fund my travels I have done everything from working as a cleaner, a manual labourer and one job I had was sticking promotions stickers on men’s toilet urinals. I have even sneakily collected recycling for bottle collection return.

4. OR choose a career that is supremely flexible. 

My current career as a teacher is greatly flexible. I can teach anywhere in the world and am flexible enough to teach a lot of different subjects. Other friends I have met that travel with their careers are nurses, accountants, scientists, trades people, people who work in hospitality and tourism.

5. Make your money go further

When you are on the road look for deals and do it the cheap way. If you have the time, take the local bus. Eat the cheap food off the street instead of from in the restaurant. Stay in smaller and cheaper guest houses.  Think of the money you spend in terms of “how many nights accommodation” it is worth.

And most of all ENJOY!! If you aren’t enjoying your life to the fullest, then what is it that you are doing? Time to take stock and try something different if what you are currently doing isn’t working!! Good luck!! And happy micro-retirements people!!!

Senses and Sensibility: The Art of Appreciation

So many people in this world live day to day life not ever experiencing the wonderment of their surroundings because they are “too busy”, “too stressed” or “too something-or-other-else” to actually pay attention to what is around them. If only we sat up and paid attention. If only we learned to appreciate things around us and expressed a graciousness for them. I feel that a huge part of being able to do this lies withing the ability to tune in to your senses.

SEE

During my time overseas I learned to look at things with completely new eyes like a child would in many cases. I learned to look up from what I was doing and take stock of what it is that is around me. On my drive to the coast today, multiple things that I saw gave me joy. The kookaburra’s sitting on the electricity wires and in the trees, the bright sun coming up over the mountains, the stunningly rugged lanscape of my surroundings that is so unlike what you would find anywhere in the world. It is beautiful. And although my eyes have seen it hundreds of times, I feel like everytime I see something new and every time I see it in a different way.

In your own life, I challenge you to look up. Look at something and actually see it for the first time. Every single day in this life there is a sunrise and a sunset. And everyday there is a different kind of beauty in these two things. Look up from the road when you are driving and see what is actually in front of you. See the rolling hills, the beauty in the trees, the streets around you, the people.

On my way home from work there is an old man that sits on the side of the road and ‘fishes’. In his chair he sits with a wooden stick from a tree that has a fishing line attached to it and at the end of the fishing line is a coke bottle. He sits out and fishes daily at the same time. And as I drive home from school I wave to him. The excitement he shows in waving back makes me happy. It never fails to make me happy and yet so many people criticize him, make fun of him and say he is weird. Sometimes all it requires is a different perspective. Choose love and show love. You will find love and happiness in return from places you never imagined.

TASTE

Food is one of the most incredible things in this life. It is a gift that we get to undertake multiple times a day. In our busy lives however, it is hard to actually take time out to properly ‘taste’ all aspects of our food while we are chowing it down as fast as we can to get to our next meeting or wherever it is we are going to.

Let what you are eating roll over your tongue. Feel where the sweet, the salty, the bitter is detected on the different areas of the tongue. Feel how all of the different tastes come together to form one glorious sensation for the taste buds.

Eat new things and appreciate the flavours of things you may have eaten a hundred or more times. Appreciate the subtlety of some of these flavours. It truly is one of the most amazing gifts.

HEAR

Sometimes when I am walking down the street, I can tell you whether people are watching television in their houses. Despite not being able to hear what is on the TV, there is this high pitched frequency that occurs when a TV is on that some people have the ability to hear and others don’t. And sometimes we learn to block certain things out so that we don’t hear them at all.

Now there are some things that can be quite annoying to hear, but next time you are outside, listen to the sounds of the wind, for the birds in the trees, for all of the sounds in your environment and focus on them separately. Embrace the sounds around you and let them resonate as a part of you and you will feel way more in touch with your environment.

FEEL

Tactile sensations are wonderful. A simple hug releases a large number of chemical endorphins in the body that make you feel happier. So get your daily dose of hug. Often it is nice also to go and get a massage and just relax with the sensations smoothing out all of the knots in your muscles. But feel is more than just physically touching things.

One of the most magical things I find is the warm feel of the sun on your face on those cold winter days when the summer is starting to appear. Feel your breath and all of the parts of your body working together in harmony to keep you going. Feel your movement and your vibrations and be aware of your surroundings. Appreciate the wonderful gift that this sense allows.

SMELL

How many times have you heard the saying ‘wake up and smell the roses?’ There is nothing quite like the glorious smell of roses and flowers in spring as you walk down the street in spring. Or the smell released by the fungal spores in the air after it rains.

Smells have long been associated with memories and triggering them. Smells associated with people especially. Stop and take note of what smells you have in your house, outside in your surroundings. Take in the aromatic smells of the food you cook and how they make you feel.

By combining your senses and developing your awareness of your surroundings and of your body and how it responds to things you will find that your appreciation and love of life will increase. Your levels of happiness will go through the roof as you find a gracious attitude that is not only calmer but more respectful of the things you have in your life. So take time, sit, and be aware. Use your senses, develop your sensibility.

On The Wagon and I’m Hitchin’ A Ride… Across The Arctic!

To go or not to go, that is the question……

I am sitting in Canada talking to my friend, Tim, in England on Facebook and he is trying to convince me to come to Europe. So I said to him, “There are things I haven’t done here yet that I need to do before I go. I want to see the Northern Lights and I want to go dog sledding.” Well he told me he would deal with this and I should just book my flight. So I did.

Enter this amazing trip to Abisko National Park in Northern Sweden. My friend planned and organized all of the finer details because he is a planner and I am very much not a planner. All I had to do was book my flight from Oslo to Narvik, get on the train at Narvik that goes to Kiruna, get off at Abisko. Easy enough. Or so we think……..

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Views over the fjordlands of Norway from the plane

As Murphy Law would have it, again, (I swear Murphy and I are besties these days), I find myself rolling around the floor in the airport bored to tears for a solid two and a half hours while my plane is delayed. Now given that I had allowed myself that 2 and a half hours to get to the train station for the last train, it was known and accepted that there was to be no train for me that day. As I arrived into Narvik, I trotted off to the Tourist Information Center to assess my options. They were as follows:

1. Spend $1000 AUD on a taxi to get to Abisko

2. Spend $500 AUD on a hotel in Narvik if I could actually find one because the backpackers hostels are closed as it is not the season.

3. Stand on the side of the road til the following morning and freeze.

4. Hitchhike…….

So I asked the woman behind the counter for a piece of cardboard and a permanent marker. I scrawled out the word Abisko and headed down the road to go and find me a car to ride in with my map in hand.

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Me and my hitchhiking sign… hurrah!

Generally when hitchhiking it is a good idea to know which side of the road to stand on. I misunderstood the directions I was given and spent a good half an hour standing on the wrong side of the road before some lovely gents pulled over and pointed this out to me. I felt like a massive moron but laughed anyway and headed over to the other side of the road.

It didn’t take me too much longer from here to find a nice guy named Sven (yeah I know right!) and he told me he would drive me down the road to the junction where most of the trucks go by in very broken and hard to understand English. He got onto his phone and was ringing his friends to see if any of them on the truck route were going that way but no luck.

So after this, Sven decided he would drive me past this intersection and on to the Swedish-Norwegian border another forty minutes. We chatted along the way about whatever his broken English would allow and while we go along I am starting to observe my surroundings and the thermometer in the car. As we got progressively further down the road, the thermostat in the car told me that the outside temperature had dropped from the -7 degrees it was in Narvik to a now nippy -20 degrees…. We also had not seen any cars coming in the other direction as the road took us higher into the mountains and all we could see around was snow. I was starting to wonder whether I had made the right decision about this but then figured… OK, border, there has to be shelter there, I will be fine.

When we arrived at the border there was a tiny hut on the side of the road and a couple of trucks. Sven recognized one of them and he told me to wait for him while he went to talk to his friend. After two minutes he ushers me over and introduces me to his friend, Cornelius. Cornelius said he would love to drive me the rest of the way to Abisko and so next thing you know, the shoes are off and I am lifted by two men up into this luxuriously decked out truck equipped with microwave, fridge, bed, speaker system and stereo and heated seats!

I said goodbye to and thanked Sven for his amazing kindness and we started out drive to Abisko. Cornelius was one of the most incredible people I had ever met. He is a Dutch National and has amazing stories about flying helicopters in different wars, racing horses in Spain, driving truck fleets in Germany, his small kids. It was one of the most enjoyable conversations I had had on the road in Europe and before I knew it, my time was up and we were pulling into a shop on the side of the road. He pointed up the hill to me over the train tracks to where the rest of the town was and I jumped out of the truck, thanked him and wished him well on his journey delivering dairy to the northern most parts of Norway and was left on my own on the side of the road.

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Happily arrived in Abisko, not dead 😀

I eventually found the backpackers hostel. I arrived about half an hour before Tim coming in from the other direction on a high because I did not know I could actually do it and yet I did. That was the start of my Arctic Circle adventure and it set the tone for the rest of what was to be my last couple of days overseas before returning home to Australia for the first time in two years. It was one of the most amazing places on the planet. And one of my favourites……

Read more about what I actually got up to once I made it to the Arctic Circle in the next installment!