Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Questions and Lists

"Would you do it again?" That's an easy question to answer. It gets a resounding, "Yes!" And so does the other question that usually gets asked before or after this one, "Are you glad you did it?"

The next one is "How have you changed?" and that is going to take awhile to answer. We know that what we have seen, heard, tasted, touched and experienced during the past year has already made an impact on us. But how it becomes woven into the fabric of who we are and the choices we make at any given point in our lives is going to take years to unfold. It's an unknown, but perhaps this is one of the most rewarding parts of this trip. A new adventure to be lived out.

While in Casablanca we started preparing for THE question everyone asks, "What was your favourite part of the trip?" The truth is, we don't really think of it as a Trip. It was a Journey. And we have lots of categories of Favourites. We had fun putting these lists together, and you'll see that we didn't stick to any rules about number of favourites!

Favourite Playground

- Kinsmen Park, Saskatoon, Canada

- St. Kilda's Adventure Playground, Melbourne, Australia

Favourite Places to Swim

- Rock Springs, Florida, USA

- Laguna de Apoyo, Nicarauga

- San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

- Tongelreep, Eindhoven, Holland

- White Beach, Philippines

- Falls at Banfora, Burkina Faso

Favourite Countries

- Philippines - the kids loved having other kids to play with

- Australia - great friends, great sights and all the comforts of home

- Canada - we are still here aren't we

- Nicaragua - lots to see and do and easy to get around (relatively speaking)

- Thailand - food, beaches and elephants

Favourite Bike Rides (this is really all our bike rides)

- Santa Monica, LosAngeles, USA

- Brisbane, Australia

- Ometepe, Nicaragua

- Holland - everywhere

Favourite Forms of Public Transporation

- rickshaw, Bangladesh

- moto trike, Philippines

- tuk tuk, Thailand

- Canadian school buses, Nicaragua

- London Tube, England

Favourite Books

- Elijah of Buxton, Christopher Paul Curtis

- Tales of Greek Heroes, Roger Lacelyn Green

- Penderwicks, Jeanne Birdsall

- Making Globalization Work, Joseph Stiglitz

Things Stolen

- one camera case - that was it!

Favourite New Foods

- Repocheta, Nicaragua

- Tom Yam soup, Thailand

- Gallo pinto, Nicaragua

- Roti by Bipul, Bangladesh

- Potato Corner Fries, Philippines

Favourite Places to Sleep

- on the beach at Bowron Lakes, BC, Canada

- Los Banos apartment, Philippines

- Elephant Nature Park, Thailand

- YMCA Geneva Park, Ontario, Canada

- sleeping outside at Parc W, Niger

Worst Traffic and Pollution

- Manila, Philippines

- Dhaka, Bangladesh

- Cairo, Egypt

Scariest Moments

- first zip line, Mombacho, Nicaragua

- shortcut between Clinton and Lillooet, BC

- driving in Bangladesh, anywhere

- driving to Batad (rice terraces) in the rain, Philippines

- learning all our flights were cancelled with 5 months left to go

Most Beautiful Views

- 12 Apostles, Great Ocean Road, Australia

- El Encanto, Ometepe, Nicaragua

- Whistler Mountain, BC, Canada

- Batad rice terraces, Philippines

- sunrise on Mt Sinai, Egypt


Hi, it's Simon, son in the Dewilde clan, and I have traveled the world. The first rule that we had was to have fun all the time. Another rule that we had was to pack light. The third rule that we had was to collect as many coins and bills from other countries as we could. Our last rule that we had was to book all of our flights ahead of time. Do not worry if you travel, you do not need to follow all of these rules.

One of the reasons that I like traveling is that it makes me feel so free. Another thing that I like is that I can go wherever I want.

If I were to do this trip again I would stay longer in Australia. I would also stay for a shorter time in Bangladesh. If I were to stay somewhere for more then one year it would be The Philippines.

The capital of the Philippines is Manila, and there is lots of smog. I would rather stay at our Los Banos apartment.

I think traveling is amazing! You should try it too!

By: Agent S

We were back in our house only a couple days and unpacking all the boxes that had been in storage, when we noticed that Danielle had posted this note on her bedroom door, "Sorry it is messy but it is getting better and better - Danielle." We need one of those signs for the front door of the house! We've been back in Canada for three weeks, and there are still boxes in every room of the house - except, ironically, Danielle and Simon's rooms.

We left Niger with a real mix of emotions. It was hard to say goodbye again, especially after such a short visit. At the same time, as you can imagine, we were so excited to start the journey home. We weren't able to get out to the village where we had lived because the coming rainy season and an unreliable vehicle made it all a bit too tenuous. That was a big disappointment, but after a year of extraordinary experiences and so many plans that worked out so smoothly we can't spend too much time lamenting one thing that didn't happen.

Central market in Casablanca.

We spent two days and two nights in Casablanca, Morocco. Exploring the central market, playing on the beach, eating gelato and drinking fresh orange juice (not at the same time - that would be yucky!). We all agreed we'd like to go back.

Danielle outside our hotel room in Casablanca with braided hair and her new dress from Niger.

We moved back into our house the first week of July. John was back at work the following week. And then it was off to the cottage for a week because it's summer time in Canada. The weather has been unseasonably cold which has been a nice break for those of us who got way too much heat in West Africa - but we do feel bad for those who suffered through a cold winter and are longing for some nice warm summer days. Now we're back home and our only summer plans are catching up with family and friends.

This sunset picture was taken by Pam's dad last week at the cottage. It seems like a fitting picture to put at the end of a post about coming home. Our first stop when we left home on Day 1 of our journey was the cottage. We returned a year later with so much to celebrate and be thankful for. It reminded us of the most amazing sunset we saw as we landed at JFK airport. We had been circling in the air over New York City for almost an hour waiting out a thunderstorm. As we landed there were dark clouds encircling the city and we saw some spectacular lightning strikes. But behind the profile of Manhattan we saw one of the most golden sunsets we've ever seen. It was perfect. We had made it back across the ocean. We had traveled for 364 days and the next day would be a short hop to Toronto on Day 365 of our round the world journey. The scene of dark storm clouds kept at bay by the strength of the sun really was our "picture worth a thousand words" of thankfulness for a year of safety and good health, and experiences that we will cherish for the rest of our lives!

The flight to New York was our 26th flight in the year, and marked the first time not all our bags showed up on the luggage carousel. It would be another ten days before the two missing knapsacks were returned. They got separated from our other luggage during the stopover in Madrid, and then separated from each other. One bag went back to Madrid at least once. The other one bounced back and forth between New York and Toronto, and even Montreal, several times. It proved to be another good analogy of how we were feeling those first few days at home - just bouncing around, not really sure where to "land" and maybe a little bit reluctant to stop traveling.

Thanks to all of you who have been following our adventures, and for the words of encouragement that meant so much to us along the way. We hope that each day you experience the wonder and beauty of the world, no matter where you find yourself living and exploring it!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Time Flies

Can you believe it? We're into T -10 days left on our journey. Our time in Niger has flown by and we still have much to do. Updating our blog has been hard since high speed internet has still not arrived in this country. However, there is no questionning the fact that we are thankful for each day that we are here. It means that the political situation remains stable enough for us to stay here. We continue to pray that the leaders of this country will choose to act in a way that is wise and just.

While here we have met up with old friends and made new ones. What an incredible feeling to shake the hand of someone you worked alongside 13 years ago! We have been greeted with big smiles and lots of laughter - they love the fact that John is still able to greet in the local Gourmantche language. We've spent 5 days with ACEN, the church association we worked and lived alongside. Our plans were to spend some time in the village and do some workshops. The rains have been coming and everyone is waiting for an opportunity to plant so things are constantly in flux. Our village stay was not possible (if it rained while we were there we could be stuck for well over a week) but we did manage to do most of the training. John did a few workshops on hygiene and sanitation. Pam drew from the wealth of resources developed by her colleagues back home and gave a workshop on the work of deacons in the local church. It felt natural to be working with poster paper under a tree, chickens and goats passing by, and groups of small children huddled nearby watching all the action.

A visit to our old village is still coming up (depending on the rain, of course). It just wouldn't seem right to leave Niger without having some millet and leaf sauce.

When not with ACEN we spend three or four mornings a week with the Sisters of Charity. They have a child survival program that includes growth monitoring, a dispensary and weekly food distribution. The Sisters are gracious and generous, as always, and we have met many other interesting expatriates volunteering. Over 10% of the children we see are severely malnourished and are kept for 2 weeks in a small hospital/clinic run by the Sisters. This has been hard to see and led to many good discussions with the kids.

Home schooling continues. We've been able to focus on a few art skills while here. Our friend Ardell is an art teacher, and she has taken us and her four children to visit some of the local artisans. One visit to learn soap stone carving and one to learn wood carving. As I write the kids are sewing wallets from local leather.

Our families have been having fun together. We recently spent three days "on safari" in a national wildlife park.

We've been staying in a family's house while they are on home service. Having a place to unpack is always a treat and we have been spoiled by having our cook from 13 years ago with us again. He didn't know we were coming so he was pretty surprised to see us! We also have a dog to look after for a few weeks.

We still have a few more things we'd like to do here and a few more people to see. Can we squeeze it all in?

The Candy Store People

We have met extraordinary people in many different parts of the world this past year. Unfortunately we often have to say goodbye without really knowing when we might cross paths again. Only once have we met the same people in totally different countries. Sorry, that’s not entirely true. We met up with John’s parents in Thailand and in Holland. But with people we didn’t know before this trip – it’s only happened once. And it all started in a candy store.

We had just finished a tour of the The Rocks, a historical area in the city of Sydney, Australia. We stumbled across a candy store, aptly named Sticky, that produces homemade candy. You can watch the staff make the candy and then purchase it.

There was quite a crowd watching two men pull and roll a long rope of candy when we arrived. When they finished cutting it into small pieces, they offered a free bag to the person who had traveled the furthest. We thought we might be in the running, but a young woman spoke up and said, “Burkina Faso!” She was rewarded the bag of candy.

Burkina Faso is located in West Africa, and it borders Niger. If John and I hadn’t lived in Niger fifteen years ago, I’m certain we wouldn’t have known where Burkina Faso was. Turns out we’d been talking about Burkina Faso because we were still trying to find a place to study French during the two months we planned to be in West Africa.

We seized the opportunity to ask someone who apparently had been in Burkina. I introduced myself and explained that we were looking for any leads on possible language schools. If the young woman said her name I didn’t hear it. She was with a group of people that included other adults and some very young children. They appeared to be in a hurry to get going. She hastily wrote two email addresses on a flyer I had in my pocket, and that was the end of our conversation.

It wasn’t until we were in Bangladesh a few months later, and still looking for a language school, that I pulled out the addresses from “the woman at the candy store.” John wrote an email explaining who we were and how we came to have this email address. We weren’t entirely sure who we were writing to, and likewise, we didn’t know the name of the person who had given us the addresses!

We didn’t hear back from anyone, so we pursued other leads and eventually registered with a centre du formation recommended by a friend who had studied in the same place.

While in Egypt, we received a message from a woman named Bronwyn. She had received our email asking about French schools, apologized for taking so long to respond, and invited us to be in touch again when we arrived in Burkina Faso.

A couple days after settling in Ouagadougou, and buying a phone, I gave Bronwyn a call. She very graciously invited our family to come and have dinner with her and her husband. Near the end of the conversation I asked, “Do you know the name of the woman in Sydney who put us in contact with you?” Bronwyn said, “That was me!”

We had such a nice evening together. They have a pool at their house, so the kids appreciated a place to play and cool off. They have lived and travelled in many different parts of the world, so we had fun sharing stories. Of course, we brought along a bag of candies for our hosts, “the candy store people.”

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Survival of the Coolest

Staying cool in Burkina has nothing to do with what you wear or the people you hang out with. It has everything to do with trying to beat the extreme heat everyday!
When we arrived in Ouagadougou (the capital of Burkina Faso, West Africa) at 3:00am it was 33 C. We just about melted in the few minutes it took us to take off the jackets we'd been wearing on the plane. I don't know what the daytime temperature is - in fact, I don't really want to know - but it has to be in the 40's by the middle of the day (everyday!).
One way to beat the heat is to go for a swim. There is a small hotel with a swimming pool just down the road from our apartment. It's only a fifteen minute walk, but by the time we get to the pool we often are tempted to do a Nestea plunge. I don't think the pool staff would be very happy if we did. We bought a membership for the pool, and are here three or four times a week.
The electricity is often out for a few hours each day. Sometimes it happens when we are in French class in the morning, or in the afternoon when we are trying to do school work. If there is no electricity, we opt for school by the pool.
Another way to beat the heat is to have short hair. Really, really short hair. Since the photo at the pool was taken, John has completely shaved his head. No hair! I'm not sure it really helps keep him cool because he has to wear a hat or risk getting his head sunburned. He looks "cool" though!
Danielle sat patiently for 3 1/2 hours while having her hair braided. Each braid had "mesh" (fake hair) braided into it, to keep it strong. At the end of each braid there is a bead - 98 beads in total. She managed to keep them in for two weeks.
We do have an air conditioner in our apartment, but the cost of electricity makes it too expensive to have it on all the time. Fortunately there has always been power during the night, so we always have it on and are grateful for a comfortable sleep.
Electricity is like "pay as you go". Only once did we run out during the night, then we figured out where the counter is and made sure it's always loaded for the entire day.
We are in French class five mornings a week. Danielle and Simon are in a class together, learning to sing in French, conjugate verbs, and all kinds of vocabulary. They seem to really enjoy the different teachers they have each day, and are slowly starting to put what they are learning into use with the people they meet. John and I are in a different class, and we too have great teachers. We're reviewing all the things we learned 15 years ago and, of course, learning lots of new things too.
The director of the French school, Jacqui, has been an extraordinary host. She found us a place to stay that is only a two minute walk from the school. She also made arrangements for someone to come and help us look after the house and cook the main meal of the day. She's taken us on various "field trips" in and around Ouaga, and she even acted as "tour guide" when we traveled to the city of Bobo-Dioulasso for a weekend.

Bobo is in the western region of Burkina Faso. It is a little bit cooler than Ouaga. Two highlights (we never just have one!) of our weekend: playing in the waterfalls near Banfora. We would have liked to have stayed the entire day but Jacqui had other sites for us to visit. The second highlight was seeing wild hippos in Lake Tengrela. There are about 20 who share the lake with the fishermen and villagers who live in the area. We were able to see a group of 5. We were only able to see the tops of their heads and their ears when they popped their heads' up out of the water. During the day they stay submerged in the water. At night they stay in the bush eating grass and other plants. As we were leaving the area, one hippo gave us a great big open-mouthed smile (or maybe it was a yawn). Simon said, "wow, that's a once in a lifetime thing to see!"

Thanks for all the e-cards, emails and birthday wishes that were sent to John and I recently!
John's birthday fell on a national holiday in Burkina. Instead of giving us a day off, or taking a day off herself, Jacqui organized another field trip. One of the sites we visited was a small farm where a French couple have been raising goats and making goat cheese for ten years. John and I love goat cheese (mainly because we are lactose intolerant and can't eat other cheeses). So, buying fresh goat cheese was a treat.
I've had my birthday this month too. The day before, we went out for dinner at a restaurant with fantastic thin-crust pizza. We tried to go to a dance performance at the French cultural centre, but got the location wrong. On my birthday we were invited out for dinner with "the candy store people." I'm going to save that story, and who they are, for another posting.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Making our way in Madrid

by John

Madrid was not on our original list of places to visit, but when we had to pass through on our way from Egypt to West Africa, it seemed like a good way to practice the Spanish we had learned earlier in Nicarauga.

Madrid is a beautiful city teeming with cafes, restaurants and art galleries. Stuff any 9 or 11 year old would love (or not). Our 7 days there were full, as always, and we had an interesting and pleasant time there. Here are a few of our impressions – things that surprised us and highlights.

- Eating dinner at 9:00 pm is hard to get used to.
- Cafes not opening until well after 8:00 am or 9:00 am is hard for John to get used to (Starbucks opened early though).
- Stuff is expensive. Spain is not the poor cousin in Europe.
- When you order a hot chocolate you are not supposed to drink the melted chocolate syrup they give you. It is for dipping churros in – great once you figure out the system.
- Getting just a "regular coffee" is next to impossible unless you go to Starbucks.
- Cien Montaditos – one hundred sandwiches each for 1 to 1.5 Euros. A real find when you are on a budget (photo)

- Iberian Ham and the Museum of Ham – Mardrillenos love their ham and so do I.
- Toledo was once the centre of weapon making in Europe and Simon just had to have a small sword. We had a wonderful day on our day trip to this historic town (photo)

- Strawberries grow on trees. Not really but Madrillenos believe this is the case. Their symbol is a bear trying to reach up a strawberry tree.
- Bull fighting is hard to pin down but is very big in Madrid. We didn’t go but met some students who did and they were disgusted. We saw a bit of it on TV and it seemed like a dance – we didn’t see the gory parts though.
- Our Spanish language skills are barely past functional and the kids did learn a tonne. They often had to add a word for us.

Now it's time to pack our bags and prepare for West Africa. Allons-y!

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Everyone wants to be an Egyptologist

Egypt was completely overwhelming and awesome. Simon had put Egypt on our itinerary because of years of study at school. We all came away with a new appreciation and interest in Egypt and its past. Pictures, since they tell a thousand words, may be the best way to summarize our time there.

Here we are at the 4,500 year old Pyramids in Giza - we were lucky enough to walk into the Great Pyramid next door to this one.

This should give you some scale of the pyramids - a great puzzle for a civil engineer.

Manar, our guide in Cairo, was a wealth of information. Simon is on overload already.

After an overnight train to Aswan we boarded a boat and were off to see the temples along the Nile. Here is the temple of Philae, rebuilt stone by stone on higher land after dams were built on the Nile and flooded its original location.

The Temple of Kom Ombo - the heiroglyphs and images kept us all fascinated with their stories. Imagine all this in colour as it would have been 2,000 years ago.

The boat was a wonderful reprieve from the heat and the kids enjoyed the company of a few other children.

The Valley of the Kings - 62 tombs found so far and there is much left to explore and discover. We entered three of the tombs and each was unique and fascinating (no pictures allowed though). It was in this area that King Tut's tomb was discovered.

The Temple of Queen Hatshepsut - if you get a chance to read her story in a recent National Geographic you should. The movie is coming out soon.

After Luxor we made a quick hop to Sharm el Sheik and a morning swimming with the fishes. That same night we climbed Mt Sinai and started our 300th day on the road watching the sunrise.

After 10 days we were back in Cairo and our amazing history lesson was complete. Acutally this introduction just whet our appetite and perhaps one of us will become an Egyptologist.

Monday, April 27, 2009

At Home in Holland

When we stepped off the Ryan Air plane (that’s a story in itself) in Holland it felt like we were coming home. Uncle Rick, John’s brother, and his family live in Eindhoven. We stayed with them for more than two weeks a couple years ago, so stepping back into their home felt very familiar. It was a familiarity and an “at home” feeling that came at a good time on our journey. We can see the finish line, so to speak. Yet, there are still lots of adventures, and the need for the same energy and stamina we’ve needed for the past 9 months, to tackle what still lies ahead of us. Somehow sleeping in a familiar room, sitting on a familiar couch, and still knowing where the candies are hid in the kitchen cupboard, gave us an unexpected boost.

Danielle, Simon and their cousin Joram were inseparable the last time we were here – except they didn’t sleep in Joram’s room. This time all three slept in the same room, and except for the times that Joram was at school, the three cousins were playing together. That was an extraordinary gift for Danielle and Simon. They’ve been missing their friends at home so someone to play with full-time came at a good time for them. They also had the opportunity to go to school for a morning with Joram. There was a special Easter breakfast and gym class. Fortunately the kids didn’t need much Dutch and the nervous teacher didn’t need much English to get through a morning of eating and playing. It is worthy of note that Joram did very well as a simultaneous translator during a short story time that morning!

Danielle and Opa out for a bike ride.

We spent Easter weekend further north, close to Steenwijk, with John’s parents, Rick’s family, and more relatives! As you can imagine, there was lots of coffee, biking, swimming at an indoor pool, Easter Egg hunts, and chocolate. The holiday park was next to the national Weerribben park that consists mainly of peat bogs. We spent one very pleasant late afternoon and evening boating about the canals.

Captain on the high "peats" of the Weerribben

We weren’t able to fill our bags with all the treats we usually bring home after a trip to Holland; however, tucked into our hearts is a little piece of “home” that we’ll savour during the coming few months.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Walking in London

Harry Potter Walk
by Simon

The Harry Potter movies were filmed in London. I have read all the books and seen all the movies that have been made. I went on a Harry Potter walk and learned some unique facts.

- The Leaky Cauldron is actually an optometrist shop and the only part that you’ll remember from the movie is the round door.
- One of JK Rowling’s friend’s last name was Potter and she liked the name Harry so the character of Harry Potter was born.
- Gringott’s Bank was filmed in Australia House. We tried to get in to see it but the area is closed to the public.
- The names Snape and Hermoine are the names of villages in England.
- When JK Rowlings thought of platform 9 ¾ in King’s Cross Station she was actually at Euston Station sitting in between platforms 9 and 10. King’s Cross Station is where her parents first met.

The London Eye
by Danielle

The London Eye was my favourite thing in London because I like going up high and I got to see the city with my Grandma and Poppa. You can see the Eye from many places in London.

To get out tickets Poppa had to stand in line for over half an hour. We looked at several street performers, mostly people who were pretending to be funny statues.

We went through security and got on the pod with about 20 people in total. The ride takes about 30 minutes to go all the way around. One of my favourite parts is when we were at the very top. From the top you could see Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, and the Big Ben clock tower. My other favourite thing was when they took our picture. Simon and I made funny faces – we did not buy the picture.

Because We Visited Bangladesh

When we got on the plane out of Bangladesh in the wee hours of the morning, both Pam and I thanked God that we made it out safely. We found this to be the toughest country we’ve lived in so far, but you know that a challenge can only mean great opportunities for learning and unique experiences.

Some of the things that will remain with us are: the sheer number of people who live here, the constant staring, and the opportunities we had to see and experience village life.

There are people everywhere. In the city there is a constant press of people. Even in the country-side you can never be in a place and not see someone around. In the rare case you are alone there will undoubtedly be someone along within a second or two.

Staring is completely acceptable in Bangladesh. It even gets special mention in the travel book. As one of the few white families in the town we lived in, we were constantly stared at. Often we would be shouted greetings as we passed by, or asked where we had come from by complete strangers on the street. Most times this was fun but sometimes it was very intimidating. In one instance, we were waiting in a train station and a circle of twenty people surrounded us to simply stand and stare. We`re so unaccustomed to staring that it even felt awkward to stare back, but with some practice we could do it too!

Our volunteer work involved visiting a number of rural villages. We met with small groups of men and women who, with the help of CRWRC`s partners, are gaining literacy skills, learning new farming techniques, establishing small savings and loans accounts, and challenging some harmful cultural practices, such as early marriage and dowry. We were in the small town of Birisiri and surrounding villages for ten days. We also visited groups in the Gozni, Jamalpur and Netrakona areas. This was a great chance for all of us to see what life is like in rural Bangladesh. John gathered stories that will be helpful in promoting the work of CRWRC and its partners. Pam helped develop some training modules around the subject of `gender and development`, and gathered some stories about positive changes happening for women and girls.

The children enjoyed seeing (and chasing) the animals (dogs, goats, chickens) and playing with other kids. Sometimes when the adults were meeting we had to ask Simon and Danielle to go far away from the group because they always attracted such a large crowd of children. Playing was not easy without language but we quickly learned that all you really need is a ball to throw around. The kids really enjoyed riding around on motorcycles along dusty roads and narrow paths through the rice paddies.
It is very easy to see the hurdles – cultural, political and environmental - facing the future of this country, but during our stay it was the strength and resilience of the people, and the commitment of those we met who are living and working alongside them, that made a lasting impression.

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Sundarbans

After spending the majority of our time in Bangladesh in the central and northern area, we decided we’d end our time here with a cruise in the southern region of the country. The Sundarbans are the largest mangrove forest in the world. They are a natural UNESCO World Heritage Site, and home of the endangered Bengal tiger.

There is a poster in Bangladesh that has been in circulation for at least a decade. It has a picture of a Bengal Tiger and the caption says, “Visit Bangladesh before the Tourist Comes.” “… the Tourist …” Singular. Not a typo. The tourist industry in Bangladesh is still very small.

Our three day tour included two overnight bus trips (read “two long sleepless bus rides”), two full days of cruising on the boat to the Bay of Bengal and back, and a full day exploring various parts of the mangrove. The boat slept 30 people and our group consisted of 8 Westerners and about 15 Bengali men. This included a group of men who are part of a Tourist Club. They were a noisy group, and their loud voices and chattering pretty much ensured we would not see any wildlife during our tour. Oh well, it was part of the cultural experience, right?

Our tour guide dedicated himself to scaring the pants off of us as we walked through the forest. He pointed out the “tiger ferns” that are perfect camouflage for the tiger.

“The tiger could be sitting 3 metres away from us right now and we’d never know it”.

“They pounce on your neck and kill you instantly”.

We met a man who had been chased by tigers twice and saw one just yesterday. To add to the effect we always walked with an armed forest guard. We did not see a tiger and learned later that it is very rare to see them.

We did, however, see deer, beautiful king fishers and dolphins on the cruise up and down.

We saw one monkey. When we asked our guide what kind it was he replied, “a local kind, small.” This pretty much sums up the quality of the information he shared with us during the tour.

The highlights for all us were just being out of the city and seeing a different part of the country. We appreciated the chance to lie on the deck in the evenings and watch the stars. We also appreciated the company and the chance to meet and chat with new friends.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sharing Time

A couple of days ago Danielle and I went to a club for kids who live in the slum surrounding the local railway station. The club is run by the Taize Brothers. It was our second visit to the club. In the late afternoon , the kids play games, sing songs, and have a snack. Our family is a real hit. The kids hang all over us and pull us in every direction to be a part of what they are doing. Danielle is a particular attraction. All the girls swarm around her and want to touch her hair. She has been very patient with it all and just wants to hold the little babies who come with their older sisters.

There are 45 kids in the club and only 7 of them attend some form of school. Most of them collect plastic, tin and paper that they can sell for a few pennies. At the club they had some sharing time. It was an eye-opener for us and I wanted to share what we heard with you. Three boys about 9 to 11 years old were asked to talk about their day. The first boy said he got up, washed his face and went to the market to beg. He got three little fish and 5 taka (about 10 cents). He did not eat lunch. The second boy said he got up, washed his face, and went to the market to sell a few vegetables. He made 30 taka from that and gave it to his parents. He did not have lunch. The third boy also got up, washed his face and a man asked him to help move boxes. He spent the morning moving boxes with a friend. At the end of the job the man paid the other boy but not him. He argued and cried that he had done the same work but the man refused to pay. He did not have lunch.

This is the daily life of these children. It is so far removed from our own that we don’t even know where to begin in response. We are thankful for the commitment and compassion of the Taize Brothers. By encouraging and supporting them in small ways, we are blessed by the big things they are doing in these children’s lives.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Canadian Kite Flyer

Here is a story (in several parts) that illustrates the place we are in, Danielle’s perseverance and the adventures we have daily.

There are kids everywhere flying little paper kites. Some kids fight their kites and various trees and power lines are littered with kites

Danielle wanted to fly a kite like the other kids. I thought the kids were making their kites so we started by making a kite with a plastic bag and twigs and found some light string we wrapped around a piece of bamboo.

There was not a lot of wind but these are all very light kites and we were off to a local open lot. To get to the lot you walk out our dirt courtyard, down a small road with shops and jump over an odorous open sewer. The whole walk you are greeted by people asking your name and country. The lot is surrounded by brick walls and the people who have houses on the other side just dump their garbage on the lot. That day there was a man weaving a rattan mat on the lot and some older kids playing soccer.

Danielle would get the kite going but it kept coming back to earth. To try and get it up she was running in and amongst the piles of garbage and the soccer game but kept running out of room.

One man took the kite when it fell and tried to fix it. He looked at another boy’s for ideas. Finally he just ripped the string off the other boy’s kite and ties the kite to Danielle’s string. Some older boys try to help get it going but Danielle can’t manage to keep it in the air. Another man says she needs a bigger kite and sends a boy off to get one. We still can’t get that one going.

Some other kites were fighting nearby and one kite broke free so all the kids ran after it. The recovered kite finally came back to Danielle – we now have three kites. I try to give one or two back but they won’t accept them. Finally I manage to get the small kite back to the first boy who lost his. We now have two kites, some string and the story continues.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Please Raise Your Hand ...

This poll is for all adult males reading this blog.

Please raise your hand if you have ever had your armpits shaved by a barber using a straight-blade.

Perhaps it only happens in Bangladesh.

Today in town we saw a man sitting in a barber's chair about to have his armpit shaved. There are barbers everywhere you look along the street in town. They set up a chair in what we would consider the most unlikely of places. The man we saw was sitting on a chair in an open yard along the side of the road.

I almost fell out of the rickshaw we were riding in as I twisted around to try and verify what I had just seen. Then I nearly fell out from laughing so hard!

Sorry, I didn't have my camera with me today.

Thursday, February 26, 2009


A rickshaw is a bike with a seat for two or three people in the back. A wallah is the driver of a rickshaw. Normally a rickshaw costs around 20-25 takas (40 cents) for a ride that lasts 10-20 minutes. A rickshaw driver usually rents his rickshaw from an owner. He earns about 100-200 taka a day after paying the rent. We usually travel in the town. If there are two people on the rickshaw you sit side by side. If there are three people, one person sits on top of the seat with their legs around someone and their feet on someone's lap, and the other two people sit side by side. It is fun because it is not as noisy as a car. It is not fun when you have to go over big bumps like train tracks. I have seen so many rickshaws that I cannot count them. A woman has never been a wallah because women in Bangladesh have to be at home taking care of everyone, including the house.

This boy is not a wallah. He just wanted to be in the picture. Wallah's are teenage boys or adult men.

Monday, February 23, 2009

In Bangladesh

Written by Danielle, Simon and Pam while John is teaching English

We are all learning to write our names in Bangla script.
What we’ve been eating in Bangladesh

Since coming to Bangladesh we have had rice for two meals a day. We are not cooking our own meals, so we are eating Bangla food everyday. Curry is served with each meal. Most of the time there is chicken with the curry. It is spicy. Another typical dish that we have with almost every meal is dahl. It is a type of curry that looks like soup. We also have mixed fried vegetables like onions, potatoes, cauliflower, cabbage and peppers mixed with curry. Sometimes there is fish instead of chicken.

For breakfast we have roti and fried eggs. Roti is a flatbread like a big tortilla.

After eating the same thing for two weeks, it is starting to taste like cardboard.

We often eat with our hands, only our right hand. The left hand is for using in the bathroom. Don’t worry, we still use toilet paper that we bring ourselves. When eating with your hand, you mix all the different foods together with the rice. When everything is mixed together then you eat it. It is important to wash your hands before and after each meal.
We went to a wedding in Birisiri. This is the rice that was prepared for all the guests.

The only place to find pizza and spaghetti is in an American restaurant in the capital city of Dhaka. We have not been to one of these places yet. We are looking forward to going next week.

Where we’ve been staying in Bangladesh

We have stayed in three different places in Bangladesh. When we arrived we stayed in Dhaka for only a few days. We stayed at a guesthouse that is like a simple hotel. Most of our time has been in the city of Mymensingh. It is north of Dhaka.

When we are in Mymensingh we live in an apartment. We have a cook named Bipul. He only cooks Bangla food. At the apartment there are lots of kids around who like to play cricket and badminton. They like to stand and play very close to us, so we have to be careful that no one gets in our way, or gets hurt. We bought a cricket bat at a fair, and badminton raquets at a small store.

We are in the town of Birisiri, which is close to the northern border with India, for ten days. We are staying at the YMCA. It costs $5.00 at night for a room. We think maybe it would get a half-star rating. Fortunately it is not dirty, just run down. And the only bugs are lots of mosquitoes at night. We sleep under a mosquito net.

We have traveled from Birisiri to several different villages. We often travel by motorcycle. It is fun. Danielle wrote a song about riding on a motorcycle. The scenery is beautiful. We see many rice fields. We also see the hills that make up the border with India. The air is much better in Birisiri and the villages than in the other cities. However, the villages and travelling on the dirt roads is very dusty.
This is Danielle (and Simon) riding on the back of a motorcycle near Birisiri.

What we are wearing in Bangladesh

In Bangladesh all women wear a sari or a salwar kameez and orna. A sari is one very long piece of cloth that is wrapped around your body many times. A salwar kameez is a long shirt worn over baggy long pants, and the orna is a scarf you wear around your shoulders. The saris and salwar kameez come in many different colours and patterns. Danielle and Pam each have two salwar kameez.

Many men wear shirts and long pants. Almost all the farmers and rickshaw drivers wear a shirt and a lunge. A lunge is a piece of cloth wrapped around your waist like a skirt. Simon bought a lunge in the market. His is blue with white stripes.

Staring in Bangladesh

In the Bangladesh travel book it said that it is very common for Bangladeshi people to stare at foreigners. We experience this all the time. It is also very common for crowds of people to form where you are standing. Here are four questions we are asked more than once every day: “What country are you from?”, “How long are you staying in Bangladesh?”, “What is your name?”, and “What do you think of Bangladesh?”

Everyone we have met has been very nice to us. They tell us how happy they are that we have come to visit their country. Everywhere we visit we have to sit and drink tea and eat cookies. The tea is very, very sweet. Simon and Danielle have drunk more tea in Bangladesh than they have in their entire life. They like all the sugar, and they like the cookies.
Not many people come to visit Bangladesh but they are missing a country with beautiful people.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Day at Elephant Nature Park

by John

You've heard a few snippets about Elephant Nature Park (ENP). I'd like to give you a general idea of our time there.

A typical day was:

7:00 - Breakfast. After our long days this required several alarms each morning.
8:00 - Chores. Scooping oxen poop, elephant poop or cat poop.
9:00 - Project. This could be cleaning the oxen poop from the elephant mud pit; building a fence for a poop pit (do you sense the theme here?); or some other project. One morning we went to a local school and tried with limited success to entertain them with some camp songs.
11:00 - Feeding the baby elephant.
11:30 - Elephant feeding. Feeding them bananas, squash, corn from a large platform.
12:00 - Lunch. A huge buffet of Thai food and fruit.
1:00 - Elephant bathing. A walk to the river to splash and scrub the elephants.
2:00 - Project. This was cutting banana trees for food; vanishing a bamboo house; or, hiking to Elephant Haven/Heaven.
4:00 - Afternoon feeding and bathing.
5:00 - A video or talk or some free time. Almost all the bits of free time we had the kids helped out making elephant food, husking corn or de-seeding pumpkins.
6:30 - Dinner. A scaled down version of lunch.
7:30 - A talk, a cultural activity, a Thai massage or a bit of school work.
9:00 - Lights out after a look at the stars.

As an added bonus to the week there was another family at the park (from Denmark) and 13 children from an orphanage on the Burma/Thailand border. This is the most children they have had at the park and they did well to accomodate everyone.

During our time there we heard the stories of many of the elephants (there are currently 36 at ENP), got to know the behaviours of the elephants and gained a good understanding of what ENP is trying to do. Our time here was rewarding and educational, and affected our outlook on animal treatment.

Saving a Tree

by Simon

In the picture I am saving a tree in Elephant Heaven. The Elephant Heaven was made by Lek before Elephant Nature Park (ENP). Lek and every other staff member's goal is to stop elephant trekking, begging and circus acts, and to stop the cruel way they train elephants for these things.

We want to save the trees because when people cut them down they are destroying the elephants' habitat. By destroying their habitat they will make the 600 wild elephants in Thailand decrease in number by more each year.

The crazy thing is that there are also 1500 domesticated elephants. That's like three time as many as wild. Many of them used to be involved in logging until it was banned. Now these umemployed elephants are used for trekking and other tourist things.

The robes that you use to save a tree come from a Buddist temple, and they have holy water on them. The reason you can't cut down a tree with a non-faded robe is people believe cutting the tree will give you bad luck for the rest of your life. The reason I say, "non-faded," is because if it is faded you can cut it down and not have bad luck. We saw trees with several old and new robes on them.

I really liked Elephant Heaven but I only got to stay there for one night. I stayed at ENP for seven days minus the day in heaven.

My favourite things to do at ENP was feeding the elephants and cleaning their mud pit. We fed them corn, bananas, winter melon and pumpkin. Two times a day you feed them by placing the food close to their trunk, then they grab it by curling the end of their trunk around the food and putting it in their mouth.

The elephants like to play in the mud pit after having a bath in the river.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Why I Didn't Ride an Elephant in Thailand

by Danielle

Everyone thinks that Thailand is famous for riding elephants. I thought so too! So, I was looking forward to riding an elephant at the place we stayed called Elephant Nature Park (ENP).

At the Elephant Nature Park they rescue badly hurt elephants and treat their wounds, and give them positive reinforcement. Lek is the founder of the place and she would do anything if it meant saving all the elephants in the world. She even already changed her family name because her family did not agree with her.

On the first day at ENP we saw a movie about why they don't ride elephants at the park. They don't ride elephants because when all elephants in Thailand are 3 or 4 years old their owners put them in something called a crush. It is a small wooden box and they put nails on the end of a stick and poke the baby elephant for 3-7 days. The crush is part of the training of elephants for riding, painting, logging and street begging.

Lek says elephants can be trained with love. Pom was the second person to work with Lek. She can get an elephant to kiss. It started when Pam put some cream on her leg and the elephant liked the smell so it gave her an elephant kiss.

I loved giving the elephants a bath two times a day. And I even liked the elephant kiss.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Saying Goodbye

Our time in the Philippines has come to a close and we’ve had to say many sad goodbyes. We experienced the hospitality of the Philippines and the kids said they did not want to leave because they’d met so many special people.

Apart from visits to the hospital and seeing sights, you may be wondering what we did during our time here. We spent time doing school work, hanging out with our new friends and some volunteer work with CRWRC. The children were able to volunteer at a Christian school similar in size to the one they attend at home. For several mornings they worked with the kindergarten class – reading, teaching some games, and helping with learning activities. Pam met with several local churches to talk about how they identify service opportunities in their communities, similar to the work she does back at home. John made a trip to the south of the Philippines (Butuan in Mindanao province) to visit a number of projects and made some comments on environmental issues.

Our time here gave us a good perspective of what CRWRC is doing in the Philippines. Joe Lamigo is the team leader and we have history with Joe that goes back 15 years when we all worked in West Africa. He has faithfully worked to develop partnerships and networks that are doing great things. One of the projects John got to see was a peace building group. They have amazing stories of brokering peace in an area near Butuan. This is being followed up with community development that offers people hope and opportunities for a sustainable livelihood.

White Beach and Pagsanjan Falls

Sorry - the computer we're working with today doesn't have enough muscle to let us load pictures. We'll update with photos soon ....

We love to be on, in or under the water. The Philippines is an archipelago of 7000 islands, so you can imagine there is lots of water around to enjoy. We’ll share with you two experiences – one involves beautiful white sand and clear blue water at White Beach; and, the other involves muddy brown water that cascades and flows out of the hills in the southern part of Luzon island at Pagsanjan.

Our trip to White Beach started with a bus ride in very windy weather. There was talk of a typhoon coming but when we got to the ferry in Batangas the seas were relatively calm. And the water was fairly calm for most of the trip but our little outrigger did take in some water, and there were some green looking people when we finally arrived at White Beach.

It is a small community, basically a small strip of restaurants, souvenir shops, dive shops and more restaurants along the beach. We stayed in a small seaside chalet and ate every meal with our feet in the sand. John took an introduction to scuba diving course and spent a full hour under water exploring a reef. As a family we snorkelled at a coral reef and around some huge oysters (unfortunately we do not have a waterproof camera so you’ll have to imagine the photos). Danielle got her hair braided and Simon managed to escape without a tattoo.

The area surrounding Pagsanjan Falls is considered the “Hollywood” of the Philippines. Many people will say that you have not seen the Philippines if you have not been to the falls at Pagsanjan. There are several falls set in a lush ravine and boatmen paddle and pull you up the river and then steer you back down. We travelled there with a group of students from Dordt College who were filming in the area. The falls were nice and all but what has caused the most discussion in our family was the pressure to tip. When we paid for our tickets we were told what an appropriate amount for a tip was. The whole way up the river the boat men would huff and puff and make a dramatic scene of the effort they were expending along with comments about “hard work ma’am”. There was no other discussion or attempt to be a friendly host. Just a lot of talk of the hard work and need for a good tip. For me a tip is expected in some situations (i.e. a restaurant) and sometimes can be considered a wage (i.e. airport porters) but a generous tip (i.e. a bonus) is for work above and beyond the call of duty. In the end our tip was deemed inadequate by our boatmen. That was OK by me and I think there are many other situations that we have come across more worthy of tipping.

PS – we had a great time hanging out with the Dordt students for a few days. The CRWRC people helping them out organized a Balut Night (Google that if you don’t already know). Pam and Simon had a little taste (but not the whole thing) but we certainly couldn’t keep up with the students – some of whom had more than one. For what its worth we did eat the durian and enjoyed it. Durian is a fruit famous for its bad smell.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Life in Los Banos from Simon's Perspective

We live in Bernardo Village, Road 4, yellow gate, unit 3. We live in an apartment with five other families. We only know two really well. We know Lem and family, and Ivar and family. The apartment also has a flat roof, perfect for lighting fireworks and playing tag.

We live close to a street that normally has lots of 3-wheeled motorbikes. To take a trike to the closest supermarket they will make you pay about 7-8 pesos per person. Los Banos is famous for coconut pie or Buko pie. It is also famous for its one and only Mer-Nel chocolate cake place. Los Banos also has many internet cafes and restaurants.

This is a trike with lots of kids in it. Kids fit better than my day.

I like Los Banos mostly because there is less pollution than in Manila.

A few minutes after it became 2009. On the water tower on our roof.

Our New Year's Eve of 2008 was the loudest that I have ever had. I saw at least 500 fireworks. Some were just a big bang, but others were really pretty. We spent close to that whole night with our neighbours. We played games, watched tv, lit fireworks and watched fireworks. It was one of my favourite New Year's Eves ever. I wish that they could make no-smoke fireworks because the only downfall was that the air had a very thick layer of smoke.

Life in Los Banos from Danielle's Perspective

First our house/apartment is small. In the living room, which is attached to the kitchen, we have a fridge, two lounge chairs, and inbetween the two lounge chairs there is a small table. In the kitchen we have our dining table, four plastic chairs, sink and counter. We also have a pantry with the normal stuff in it. And both bedrooms are also normal like our rooms at home. The bathroom is a little smaller than normal but it is good. I think normally we are supposed to do our school in the morning and in the afternoon play with Wakim and Jako, or go out somewhere. Sometimes we don't because we have to go out in the morning. For example, we sometimes help the teachers and students in Kinder 2 at Grace Christian Community School.

Christmas and New Year's in the Philippines: Christmas was out of the ordinary because we were at the rice terraces, it was hot, and we did not really know what we were doing. That is ok. I don't know if going to the rice terraces was the best part of our trip. I think it is second on the list. (First on the list is Bowron Lakes or Volcano Masaya). Now I'm going to talk about New Year's Eve. Fireworks are all day because there is no snow. And we ate to keep ourselves awake. New Year's was not that organized either because everyone has a different watch time, so everyone just says it is New Year's.

These are the rice terraces at Batad.

This is me and my neighbour, Bunny, on New Year's Eve.