Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Aix Marks the Spot

As I've mentioned a few times on this blog, I was lucky enough to have the chance to spent my third year of university studying in Aix  (pronounced ex) en Provence, a charming town in the South of France.    

To this day, it remains one of the best experiences of my life: I was living in a gorgeous city where I got to speak French everyday, I got to meet like-minded students from all around the world, I spent far more time galavanting and cafe hopping than I ever did studying and I had Europe at my fingertips. It was an almost entirely carefree time, a once in a lifetime opportunity that I will surely never experience again.

With so many fond memories of that year, the city of Aix held a very special place in my heart. Four years down the line I found myself on holiday with Ben's family in the French Alps, with Aix just a five hour drive away. I wanted so badly to re-visit the place I'd once called home but was also apprehensive; Would it still seem as magical as it once had? Would returning spoil the near-perfect image I had of the city, and of that year as a whole?

I decided to chance it, and so Ben and I made the five hour drive south. I was anything but disappointed. The city was every bit as wonderful and special as I remembered (and Ben enjoyed it too, which was a plus!) Some things had changed (like the addition of several bagel shops - four years ago bagels were nonexistent in Aix!) but for the most part it was just as it was when I left.

Pavillon Vendome

Place d'Albertas

Sunflowers at the market

Bagels are coming!

Whether it's sharing street food with locals in Myanmar or spotting wild cassowaries in Australia, travel experiences can rarely be replicated or recreated. They're unique, one of a kind, and my year studying abroad was no exception. Be that as it may, visiting Aix this time around was a beautiful walk down memory lane, one that I got to share with Ben. And I can't ask for much more than that.

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Wonderful Beaches of Oz

There are many things I miss about Australia (the high wages, awesome wildlife and Vegemite, to name a few) but none more so than its glorious shores. With 25,760 kilometres of coastline, this country-island-continent has no shortage of beautiful beaches perfect for swimming, snorkelling and watching the sun go down. I'm still amazed by just how many exquisite beaches I came across during my time down under, especially since I only made it to four out of Australia's eight states!

These were some of my favourite beaches around New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania and Queensland:

Bondi Beach, NSW

Ventnor Beach, VIC

Killarney Beach, VIC

Adder Rock, QLD

Manly Beach, NSW

12 Apostles, VIC

Cowes Beach, VIC

Freshwater Beach, NSW

Wineglass Bay, TAS

Shelley Beach, NSW

Myall Beach, QLD

Albert Park Beach, VIC

Friday, August 1, 2014

VTT

One of the main reasons I love traveling so much is that you're constantly pushed outside of your comfort zone and given the chance to try things that, oftentimes, scare the crap out of you.

Speaking of said guy (whose name is Ben, for anyone who doesn’t know) one of his favourite sports (and something that scares the bejesus out of me) is mountain biking. I didn't know too much about it before I met him but I’ve since learned it's not so much rolling lazily down a hill as it is racing down bumpy, narrow and steep dirt paths at breakneck speeds (mostly while standing up on the bike; there's not too much actual sitting involved). Since it's something that borderline terrifies me, plus is a big part of Ben's life, I knew I had to give it a go here in the French Alps (where is it called 'VTT', or 'velo tout terrain').

So much harder than it looks!

Ben in his element

Great views from the chairlift

Me giving it my all



Exhausted by the end of the day

It was definitely strenuous, I fell more than once (or twice...) and was absolutely caked in mud by the end of the day but it was also exhilarating and challenging in the best way possible. I was well outside of my comfort zone but, as is usually the case when I find myself there, I enjoyed every minute.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Mountain Sound

Although I lived and studied in France for a year, I never made it to the one of the most talked about destinations in the world: The Alps. But then I went traveling in Asia, met a British guy and a little over a year later found myself on holiday with his family at their apartment in Les Saisies, a small town in the heart of the French Alps (which are every bit as beautiful as I had hoped they would be). It's funny how life works out sometimes. 

View from the apartment

Mont Blanc in the distance

Home sweet alpine home

The nearby town of Beaufort

Huge wheel of Beaufort fromage!

Lake Annecy

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Just Beautiful

Many of you reading this may remember that nearly two years ago, I spent some time teaching English in Cambodia. While I was there I learned a lot about the country and the host of difficulties that it faces, many of which stem from three decades of war. One problem in particular that has been ongoing since the 1960s is that of landmines, incredibly destructive pieces of ordinance that have been buried all around the country and continue to maim and kill hundreds of Cambodians every year. 

Today, Cambodia has a population of over 14 million people, 40,000 of whom are amputees. Although this is one of the highest ratios in the world, landmine victims receive little to no government support and as a result have extreme difficulty finding work and earning a livelihood, with many resorting to living on the streets and begging. Bel, a Khmer man who is landmine victim himself, understands first-hand just how challenging finding a job can be, and that's why he is working hard to change that.

I met Bel when I was volunteering in Siem Reap back in 2012. He is the founder of KILT, The Khmer Independent Life Team. Founded in 2009, this local NGO is working to provide training and employment opportunities for those impacted by disabilities and/or poverty. Bel employs a handful of Khmer people, some of whom are disabled, and has trained them well in the art of jewellery making. The jewellery is then sold at local hotels and markets. 

The money they make goes towards supporting the KILT homestead, which provides shelter and care for not only Bel and his wife/child but also for his group of adult employees and 17 children (there were 13 when I was there in 2012 but they have since welcomed a few more!) Some of these children are orphans, several have disabilities and many have parents that live in the countryside and simply cannot afford to care for them and send them to school. Bel ensures that every child attends government school (where they learn subjects like math and science) but also recruits volunteers at KILT who teach the children English when they're not at school (I did most of my volunteering with another organization but spent some time at KILT as well).

Many children's homes in Siem Reap are terribly corrupt (I even wrote a blog about it) but this is just not the case with KILT. Tourists are not permitted to come in and just start playing with the kids, as is the case with many children's homes; the children there are raised in a family environment and feel sibling-like bonds with one another (you'd honestly never know they hadn't all been raised together since birth); the children do not have to 'earn' their keep in any way... simply put, Bel has the best interests of the kids at heart which, sadly, is not always the case.

But here's the thing: During Siem Reap's 'high season' (October-April) the city experiences a huge influx of tourists taking advantage of the dry weather. The rest of the year is considered to be the 'low season' when, due to heavy rains, there are far fewer tourists. While KILT is able to sell a lot of jewellery in the high season, they tend to struggle a bit in the low season. 

That is the main reason I'm writing this blog: when I visited Cambodia in May of this year, I paid Bel and everyone at KILT a visit. Being that it's the low season I made a (very small) donation to KILT but promised Bel I would write a blog to create a little awareness about the amazing work he's doing. He's apparently having some bank account troubles and is currently unable to receive online donations (though I will be posting another blog with information on how to donate as soon as this issue is resolved) but in the meantime I just wanted to spread the word about an NGO that in my opinion is incredibly worthwhile. 'Bel' actually means 'beautiful' in French and to me, that's exactly what the jewellery Bel makes and the work he does is - beautiful.

Some photos of KILT on my most recent visit there in May

* I apologize for the embarrassingly low quality photos, I arrived at KILT sans camera (not so smart) and at dusk, which made for pretty rubbish photos on my iPhone *

Bottles turned into plant holders - so resourceful! 

Part of the art studio at KILT

Open space where the kids play

The kitchen

Games with the kids at sunset

A group of incredible kids!

To learn more about...
- My visit to an active landmine field, click here 
- The Khmer Independent Life Team (KILT), click here
- Bel and the great work he does, click here
- Volunteer opportunities at KILT, click here (or contact me!)