Tag Archives: Sunset

Travel Guide: Santorini

One of the perks of being an international educator is the time and opportunity to travel. This October break, we scooted off to Greece! (Literally – Scoot is the name of the budget airline that provided an eleven-and-a-half-hour direct flight with food, water, blankets, or entertainment not provided but available to purchase. But it got us to and from Greece for under SGD550, so I’m not complaining.) Upon landing in Athens, my girlfriends and I switched terminals and then boarded our 45-minute flight to Santorini. (Olympic Air is a budget airline so we got those little cleansing towelettes and two snacks – Greek hospitality is just so lovely.) We were staying in Oia,  the town you probably picture of when you hear “Greece”. It is simply stunning.

Oia is pretty at night, too . . .

. . . and it has a fantastic bookstore, Atlantis Books, which we visited and purchased from twice. The exterior should give you a hint at the wonder of the interior. Books in all languages stacked floor to ceiling, hidden behind the staircase, and available to borrow and trade on the upstairs patio. Small signs and notes with suggestions from the bookstore employees. Just the best.

Watching the sunset is a popular activity in Oia, and considering how crowded the western part of town grew in October, I can’t even imagine how it would be during peak tourist season. It was cloudy every night, though only once during the day, so many of our fellow viewers were disappointed but I thought the clouds made for some really beautiful pictures. And just being there with good friends was easily the best part.

We took a few adventures from our first base in Oia. On our first full day, we spent five hours on a very fancy catamaran with a delightful crew, unlimited beverages, and delicious lunch. The weather was bright and sunny but slightly chilly so they even made us coffee!

We stopped at the hot springs, where I actually got into the very chilly water . . .

. . . the Red Beach . . .

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. . . and the White Beach. Snorkeling was an option but it was cold! And I was perfectly happy to bask in the sunshine and chat with the crew. I miss being on boats.

The next day, we walked down the steps of Oia, from the top of the volcano to the water, to check out the seafood restaurants at Ammoudi Bay and go on our next adventure. I’m a vegetarian but one of my friends was really excited about the sun-drying octopus and booked us a seat for dinner at a restaurant that turned out to be delicious.

We waited at Ammoudi Bay for a ferry to take us across to Thirasia, another of Santorini’s islands. My brother recommended that we go and it was really cool to be able to share travel experiences and advice with him. He told us to walk up all the stairs . . .

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. . . and eat at the restaurant at the top where an elderly man greeted us, singing and grilling fresh fish. So we did!

And then we wandered around town, which was eerily empty. It felt like a combination of an abandoned film set and a ghost town. In addition to the people running the restaurant, we saw three construction workers, one elderly woman, and another woman running the town’s only other restaurant (it was actually called Different Restaurant because it’s obviously not the one, but the different one). My pictures are a little weird and grainy, which accurately reflects the strangeness of the town but is actually because I mistakenly used the wrong setting.

The part of the town near the water was more like a boardwalk of restaurants and again, this was low tourist season. Empty.

Our last full day in Oia was probably my favorite day of the whole trip and that’s because it was the greatest adventure. It’s pretty common for travelers to hike the path between Fira, Santorini’s largest city on the eat side of the island, to Oia on the west. We’d read that the path is mostly downhill, not terribly strenuous, and difficult to lose. Great!

But not so when you go the other way! Of course, we learned this hiking the other way, from Oia to Fira, and it was challenging in parts, a little scary when we found ourselves on the side of a cliff in gusts of wind, and a little more scary when someone we couldn’t see started hunting birds. But we made it!

We left Oia at 7am, which is before the sun rises and before anything is open. It was so cool seeing the streets dark and empty, lit by streetlights.

There were some signs along the 10.5km route . . .

. . . but also a critical point that was difficult to navigate coming from Oia. Turns out we did have to go behind the desalination plant on the edge of the cliff. Found that out after realizing we were on a road curving the wrong way and had to hike up a hill behind a hotel to reorient ourselves. And then, under a menacing sky and loud gusts of wind, we traversed the beautiful, sometimes desolate wilderness that is the edge of the caldera.

No matter how tiny or empty the landscape, though, Greece has many churches . ..

. . . and their frequency increased as the hike became more urban. . . .

At times, the hike took us through resorts and villas, which was a little strange, but it was also comforting to see people. After a stop for breakfast and about four hours, we were delighted when we finally reached Fira!

Once in Fira, we found a taxi to take us a little further to Santorini Brewing Company, the only brewery in Santorini. They brew five beers and offer free tastings of three, which we enjoyed very much. And because I wanted to be able to say I’d had all of them, we bought bottles of the remaining two and sat outside the brewery (because it doesn’t have a liquor license) to drink them.

Afterwards, hungry from our hike and having made the acquaintance of the adorable kid on staff at the brewery, we asked for recommendations for lunch. He suggested Artemis Karamolegos Winery, a 5-minute walk down the road. The winery is beautiful, staff delightful, and food absolutely excellent. Best meal I’ve had in recent memory and the most full I’ve been in recent memory. And then they turned up with desserts and a digestif, which happened throughout our time in Greece. Truly an amazing country with wonderful people.

Finally, we decided it was time to return to Oia. Hiking the four hours back would have lost me two friends so we took the local bus first into Fira and then onto Oia. Forty minutes and keeping my friendships instead of four hours and losing them seemed worth it.

All in all, we loved our time in Santorini (and in Athens and Delphi). The people were wonderful, the food superb, and the wine plentiful. And it’s just gorgeous.

Travel Guide: Battambang x2

Two years ago, I spent a week in Battambang, Cambodia’s second-largest city, as part of my school’s field studies program. That week completely changed the way I see education, my role as an educator, and what is possible with and for students. Last week, I had the opportunity to return to Battambang with about sixty grade 10 students for the same program, a week that has left me again convinced that young people can do anything as long as we support them.

On this trip, I acted as the school trip leader and worked closely with the program lead from the JUMP! Foundation, the organization that really puts together the whole experience. I can’t say enough good things about the work they do for students and communities and I am so proud to partner with them.

As trip leader, I wasn’t attached to a particular group of students and instead filled in for staff as needed, managed all student issues from discipline to illness to homesickness, switched groups daily to get to know each student, and met nightly with school staff and JUMP!’s lead to hear feedback about the day. Prior to the trip, I arranged airplane travel and rooming assignment, worked with teachers on curriculum coordination, communicated with parents, and managed petty cash. And, despite mental fatigue that hasn’t quite worn off, I really enjoyed it!

Welcome to Battambang, the arts and culture center of the Kingdom of Cambodia!


We flew into Siem Reap and immediately drove the three hours to Battambang where we spent the rest of the week. One of my friends immediately pointed out how much greener Cambodia is in November than it was in February on our last trip. It was really nice to be back in a city I had come to know a couple years before and see how it had changed.

On our first full day, I went with a group taking a tuk tuk ride to Phnom Sampov. Many of the students had never been on a tuk tuk, which is a really lovely way to see and engage with the countryside. The ride itself is beautiful and provides insight into how people live in a country still recovering from decades of civil war.

 

Phnom Sampov is a mountain dotted with Buddhist temples. We paused in front of several, but the goal of our time there was to visit a killing cave, one of the many legacies of the Khmer Rouge. Each group was partnered with a local facilitator for the week, in addition to teachers and a JUMP! facilitator, which gave the students a cultural connection to Cambodia that they would not have had otherwise. That was a change from the first trip and made a great impact on the students’ understanding of where they were and why.

 

That afternoon we visited Buddhist University and two monks led us on a tour of the campus temple and then guided us through a short meditation. From there we visited teh university library, which, in addition to the novel sight of monks on laptops, had a specific section for writings by peacemakers. That made me very happy!

 

As our last activity of the day, we met the dancers of Cambodian Living Arts, one of the many organizations working to revive the arts and culture that were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge era. They performed for us and then taught us a traditional dance involving coconuts, leaving everyone laughing and in high spirits. This was an uplifting change from the somber feel of the morning.

We caught a gorgeous sunset on our way to dinner, still travelling by tuk tuk. The sun rises and sets very early in Cambodia, something I always forget, but that also means that the stars are out when it’s still early enough to enjoy them.

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The next day I joined a group at FEDA, an educational organization we used to work with that had just stopped its operation. Now, the visionary leader behind FEDA is working to build a peace museum on FEDA’s campus to chronicle Cambodia’s history and ongoing reconciliation work. That afternoon, we visited Banteay Srei, an NGO working for women’s empowerment in a country where there is a clear status difference between men and women from childhood onward.

It rained the following day, which was delightful because it cooled everything down and left the air quite pleasant. It’s always amazing to me how great of an impact weather has on the way we experience pretty much anything.

Another group started their morning with COMPED, an NGO that focuses on waste management and composting. The students learn about what COMPED does before going to the market to pick up organic waste. They then deposit it at COMPED’s dump sight. I missed it this year but remember the lesson very vividly: Everything goes somewhere and nothing disappears; we leave traces of ourselves wherever we are and that impacts people the world over.

Laster that day, I joined a group heading to Cambodian Children’s Trust. This is the organization that had the greatest personal impact on me from our last trip. CCT opened my eyes to the realities and dangers of orphanage tourism and the astonishing statistic that 80% of children in residential facilities worldwide have living parents. CCT works to support families by providing holistic care and services to the children they work with and their family members.

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I went to bed laughing after spending the afternoon with a particularly entertaining group of young people. There’s a certain ease and genuineness that comes from eating together, learning together, and playing games together outside in sweaty clothes. It’s my favorite way to interact with students because everything I want for them, everything that leads to real questions, connections, and ideas, comes naturally.

The next morning we visited the Phare Ponleu Selpak, a non-profit providing children with academic education as well as arts education, specifically centered on circus skills, as a way of providing them with future work opportunities. I’d seen Phare’s show in Siem Reap on this trip two years ago, but this time we were able to participate in an amazingly fun circus skills workshop! We learned tumbling and how to juggle, took a tour of the campus, and got to watch some of the students rehearsing. We saw Phare’s Battambang show on the last night of the trip and were excited to see the same students perform.

 

That afternoon, in keeping with the arts theme, we visited Lotus Gallery to meet a local artist and make some art. The gallery itself was beautiful and had a very calming influence on the students.

 

I spent most of the afternoon chatting with the artist about the creative process and how she gets inspiration from her love of nature and purposely surrounds herself with plants and flowers, even building a garden sidecar for her motorcycle!

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I also enjoyed chatting with her husband about his work in drugs education through theatre. He told me that the drug of choice in Cambodia is methamphetamine, which likely comes into the country from Thailand. It was a real joy to meet a couple who have invested their lives in work that they are passionate about and can also make a positive impact on others.

I spent our last full day on a cycling tour with Soksabike, which had been a highlight for me the first time around. We stopped periodically to learn about local livelihoods and the local families that Soksabike supports. We visited a family making rice paper . . .

 

. . . Cambodian scarves, which are called krama . . .

 

. . . banana chips . . .

 

. . . and bamboo sticky rice, which is a popular street snack. . . .

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The bridge that we would normally take to cross the river had been dismantled, so we crossed by ferry instead. Needless to say, I loved this part. Water and I get along really well.

 

After the cycle tour, we continued that day’s local living theme by visiting the market, which was just such a joy. The students had a scavenger hunt to help them interact with locals and my job was to follow a group and make sure they didn’t get into any trouble. We saw food stalls . . .

 

. . . the usual array of meat, fish, and produce (my favorite!)  . . .

 

. . . textiles, toys, and dry goods . . .

 

. . . cosmetics and toiletries (and hairdressers and nail salons!) . . .

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. . . and a surprising number of jewelry counters! (Hint: This is where we found the most English speakers.)

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I love markets. They are always my favorite part (or pretty close) of any place I visit. I love seeing people come together for the same needs the world over. I love watching people interact and engage in the common pursuits of humanity. I love watching life happen in its most natural ways.

After Phare’s circus performance to round out the program, it was time for an early night before a 3am wakeup so that we could make the three-hour drive to the airport in time for our 10:30 flight. Absolutely worth it.

JUMP!, I can’t thank you enough. I watched students learn, grow as individuals, become closer to each other, create new friendships, engage with new ideas, and experience a culture and a place that is very different from what they usually see in Singapore. Thank you for bringing out the best in our young people. Thank you for all that you do.

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Travel Guide: NSW to Victoria Road Trip

This post details the second part of the week my girlfriends and I spent in Australia over October break. We started in Sydney and, after three nights there, were ready to exchange urban life for something a little more remote. We picked up a car and followed signs to Wollongong, which our trip planner (and also DJ!) promised would take us along the coast for small towns and pretty views. When we saw signs for the Grand Pacific Drive, we turned off the A1 to follow them and I’m so glad we did!

I was driving so I couldn’t take pictures, but I absolutely loved the winding, twisting, narrow, tree-lined roads of Royal National Park. The trees were thick and green on one side of the road and there were signs of fire on the other. There were so many different types of trees, too, many that I didn’t recognize. At times, we couldn’t see more than one twist in the road in front of us, which was challenging because bikers also enjoy the park – and with good reason. We rolled the windows down and felt the fresh air all around us, drinking in the blue skies and sunshine. I haven’t been on a road like that, one with no place to stop and only places to go, in a long time. It felt like flying.

When there was finally a place to pull over, we did. I was glad to take the time to actually look at my surroundings instead of darting glances out the passenger window with half an eye on the road.

We stopped in the town of Bulli for lunch and ate outside in the cool breeze off the ocean, which was so beautiful and relaxing. Perfect weather for a hot coffee, too! Australia has a very hip coffee culture but I have to admit, I prefer American-style filter coffee to the long black that is Australia’s next best thing. But it was fun to be on the other side of the Pacific Ocean with a coffee in hand!

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A short while later, we also stopped in Kiama to see Cathedral Rocks. We went around in circle in a neighborhood a few times before we realized that there’s no official “get out of the car here” spot. After agreeing on that and making sure we weren’t doing anything illegal (after all, ours wasn’t the only car), we pulled over and looked down.

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I climbed down, too, which truly made me feel like I was in a different world. I walked along a sandy patch that is definitely under water in high tide, surrounded by cliffs and rocks that have been weathered over so many years. The sound of the ocean and smell of salt in the air completely drew me in. I could have stayed down there a long time.

The final stage of the first day of driving led us past fields, farms, and pastures with cows, horses, and rolling hills. It was beautiful and green, but a very different landscape than the forests we’d been through earlier in the day. It was sunny and warm and we rolled the windows down to feel the air. (It’s amazing how much weather impacts attitudes and enjoyment. I found myself energized and able to breathe more easily just being in air that floated rather than hanging thick and heavy as it often does on the equator.) It was such a joy to drive and just laugh, sing, and listen to Australian political news on the radio.

When we arrived in Batemans Bay to spend the night, the weather had cooled and the sun was in that stunning position between late afternoon and evening.

Without meaning to, we left for dinner at just the right time to capture the most beautiful evening of the whole trip. This time, we pulled over into an empty parking lot and watched a family fishing on the beach.

The following morning, we left Batemans Bay to continue our drive south through New South Wales into Victoria. Before really getting on the road, we stopped for breakfast and coffee at a café that I think I would frequent often if I were a resident of a small coastal town in southern Australia. They had a sign that largely echoed my view of the world and it made me very happy. I took the picture on my phone, so that’s what you’re seeing.

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Over the course of our second day in the car heading towards Lakes Entrance, we watched the landscape change from hills and mountains in the distance to expansive farms with cows, sheep, and horses. We passed dairy farms advertising their cheese and wineries advertising their wine. We also saw a fair number of signs indicating the level of fire threat for the day; all indicated that the threat was low. Every so often, the two-lane highway would slow down and we’d enter a tiny town with little more than a local school, church, and traffic circle. Several of them had used bookstores, too!

About halfway through the drive, we stopped in Eden because it’s supposed to be the place to see whales. We had no interest in taking a boat cruise so instead we stopped at the harbor just to see the boats . . .

. . . and then headed to the highest point we could find to look down at the ocean. We weren’t the only people scouting for whales from up there, either. The water was suspiciously disturbed in certain areas and while we didn’t see anything that we could identify as a whale, I’m sure they were there!

However, we did manage to see live kangaroos! We’d been passing signs telling us to be careful of kangaroos and wombats the entire time we were on road but had only seen them as roadkill until the last half hour of our drive. We saw three or four in quick succession, each standing alone at the side of the road. It was very exciting.

Our Australian colleagues had warned us that Australia is expensive and they weren’t wrong. Lakes Entrance, however, was not. We stayed a cabin I found on Airbnb, walked to the grocery store (which we also did in Sydney thanks to another Airbnb), and made ourselves dinner. And by “made”, I mean opened crackers, sliced cheese, heated up soup, broke chocolate into pieces, and uncorked two bottles of wine. It was delightful.

It was raining the next morning, which sort of added to the appeal of the cozy cabin but was also a nuisance; I forgot how tiring it can be to drive through heavy rain! But the sky ultimately cleared and the sun was out by the time we made it to our final location – Melbourne! Stay tuned!