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!)

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Hamburg-ers

This past weekend I took the short hour and a half flight it takes to get from Manchester to Hamburg, Germany. The primary reason for going was to see some good friends of mine, so I hand't done too much research about the city itself ahead of time and didn't know what to expect. Although I didn't find Hamburg to be overly exciting from a tourist perspective, I thought the city to be immensely unique with plenty of attractive qualities.

My friends and I explored many different parts of the city but my favourite hands-down was the Sternschanze area, which is where our rented flat was located. It's a vibrant, trendy neighbourhood filled with young people and lined with cafes and boutiques. Hamburg isn't really somewhere I could ever envision myself living but if I were to move there for some reason, I would definitely want to live in 
Sternschanze. 

Sternschanze

Central Park Beach Bar

One building you can't miss in the area is the Rote Flora, a renowned derelict building that has been occupied (somewhat controversially) for over 20 years. Groups of people could be seen hanging out or drinking there at any time of the day. I don't know how I would feel if such a place existed in my own backyard but as a tourist I thought it added a lot of character to the area.

Rote Flora 



Another quirky thing about Hamburg was that it was littered with old-fashioned photo booths. Unless they're for taking official passport photos, you rarely find these in Vancouver anymore; I don't think I'd taken a photo in one since I was a young teenager. 




Of course my friends and I couldn't resist taking a photo!


Hamburg also had plenty of funky (albeit a tad random) street art. Unusual as it might have been, to me it suited Hamburg's personality perfectly.



Overall I thought Hamburg was (for a lack of a better word) a cool city filled with very cool people (called Hamburgers of course!) It didn't strike me as a fascinating destination for tourists, especially when compared with history-rich Berlin but more as a place to be appreciated for its originality and liveability; in those respects I think Hamburg was indeed a wonderful city.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Friends From Afar

Back in 2009, I was lucky enough to participate in a university exchange program that allowed me to spend a year living and studying (though I'm not sure I ended up doing much of the latter) in the south of France. As cliche as it may sound, it was one of the best experiences of my life. There are countless perks of studying abroad but my favourite part was getting to meet fellow students from all over the world. I made many friends that year but I became especially close with three girls: Christine (from Austria), Sarah (Morocco) and Hana (Czech Republic).

From left to right: Hana, Christine, Me, Sarah

Together we traveled both within France and abroad, grumbled over inefficiencies of the infamous French bureaucracy, learned about each other's countries, lingered in cafes far longer than we probably would have if we'd had any important work to do and watched too many movies on tiny laptop screens (because our low-budget dorms didn't have TVs) squished together on one of our tiny beds (because the aforementioned dorms didn't have common rooms either). Not that I'm complaining - everything about that year was amazing, and these girls were a large part of what made it that way.

La Grande Place, Brussels

After a teary farewell, we were reunited in Canada a little over a year later when the three of them came to visit me in Vancouver. We had an incredibly memorable couple of weeks together catching up and exploring some of beautiful British Columbia. 

Cathedral Grove, British Columbia

Fast forward nearly three years later: the four of us came together again just this past weekend in Hamburg, Germany. It was like no time had passed; I felt like I'd been laughing with these girls only yesterday. While I definitely enjoyed Hamburg as a destination (blog still to come) the highlight of the trip was getting to see some of my dearest friends, ones that I would never have met had I not made the decision to study abroad.




Making friends from all around the globe - yet another reason to travel.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Canada Day Abroad

One thing I've learned from traveling is that no country is perfect. Canada is no exception but generally speaking, I am very proud to be Canadian, and there is no better time to celebrate that pride than on Canada Day (July 1st). 

Most people would probably agree that Canada Day is best celebrated on home soil surrounded by your fellow countrymen, drinking cold beers or watching fireworks. If you're abroad, however, having your boyfriend (who isn't even Canadian) surprise you with an array of typical Canadian food is arguably just as good! Yes, I am speaking from personal experience: yesterday I was completely spoiled with a delicious meal of Kraft Dinner and poutine, with root beer floats and Beaver Tails for dessert. 






I look forward to the next July 1st that I'll spend back in Canada but until then, Happy (belated) Canada Day from England!