Squeezing the most out of life | An Aussie and a Colombian living life with a wandering spirit. Eight years together & over 60 countries up our sleeves, we're sharing the love |

Back in the beat of Bogotá

dsc_0374Colombia is one of those countries that plays havoc with good intentions; in a you-only-live-once, reckless kind of way. Being back on the busy, high altitude streets of Bogotá, where the weather does it’s drizzly best to lure you in to cafe’s, bars and restaurants, it’s easy to forget all the rules and dive in to eating and drinking like a local (albeit one who has been told they only have days to live!).

dsc_0375Within 24 hours I had succumbed to the intoxicating aroma of Colombian beans, kicking a four year abstinence from the stuff well and truly to the curb. Within pretty much the same time (because we all know coffee is a gateway drug), I decided that my long term sobriety was an equally stupid idea in a city that is all about music, staying up late and dancing with abandon. Not to mention, the magical powers of alcohol when it comes to the ability to speak in a second language. Add to all of that a decadent array of high calorie cuisine and my stomach is fast realising that five weeks at this pace may need 5 months of recovery. But who cares, seriously?

Colombia has definitely grabbed us by the short and curly’s and reminded us why life in Latin America is all about enjoying the moment with family and old friends.

Between some crappy phone shots and my good camera, here’s a taste.

Kris

Next stop: the historic town of Villa de Leyva.

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Reflections from Planet Hospital

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As the weeks are flying by, I’m learning the practical side of being a social worker at our local hospital, a place that often feels completely surreal. Along the way I’m realising how the environment I’m in and the personal stories I hear are very much about new life or change – just as often as they are about the end of life and the finality of death.

It’s an environment that makes me appreciate even more the vividness of nature and the joy of being ‘outside’. A place that reminds me how precious time is. A place that tells me how much we all need to let the menial crap we tend to get worked up about totally slide.

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Half way through my Placement now I can appreciate just how much I have learnt in only nine weeks. I’m learning to sit with strangers as they cry, as they attempt to verbalise how much their illness equates to loss, or how different their life looks from a hospital bed. Stories that I want to hear and not only understand, but be able to offer support in some small way; maybe even make some patients laugh for a moment.

More than ever I realise that a sense of humour is necessary for social work, at least it seems essential in a health setting, not only for patients and their loved ones, but for everyone working there. In such an intense clinical environment where people are generally always hearing bad news it can feel too much to take it all on, so the need to lighten the mood feels universal amongst the staff. Privately of course, and not at anyone’s expense, but keeping life, loss and death light seems to become second nature for a lot of the medical team. Sitting with real grief seems to come around often enough.

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Planet hospital has also quickly reinforced my long-term beliefs around money, adventure and life choices. It seems that no matter how hard you work your arse off, loads of assets won’t make that much difference in your later years. Sure, you’ll get a better pick of residential care homes if you make it to that stage of life, and a glass of fancy wine with your mashed peas, but you’ll be alright if you haven’t got much either. It seems the love around you and the way you’ve lived your life will be all you’re thinking about towards the end.

No surprises there – but to really see that everyday, feels like a deeper lesson.

Speaking to patients reminds me that following your dreams, saying yes to adventures and not working at something you feel dispassionate about can make all the difference in life. Just as much as you think good genes or healthy living might give you an advantage, a little decadence and poor health choices aren’t always as detrimental as you might think either, so why not enjoy yourself.
DSC_0115Thinking about how much the first half of Placement has shaped the way I look at the health system as a whole makes me appreciate how much more there is to learn. After only studying the theoretical and practical counselling skills of social work before Placement I am more determined than ever to finish my degree and start working in the field.

After another little adventure though!

While I am definitely enjoying this journey I can’t help but start looking forward to our holiday in Colombia, a country that does a good job of reminding me of all the reasons why its good to be alive, quite easily, all by itself.

Here’s hoping you’re also working towards an adventure or an experience that brings you joy.

Kris

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A different kind of journey

63162_478687125495124_1846408123_nThings are going to be quiet on the Sporks side of life for the next few months as
I explore a new, slightly terrifying, but hopefully rewarding environment.

As a student of Social Work at the University of Queensland, my degree includes two semesters of full time Placement – one during my current third year, and one during the last semester of fourth year. The aim being to give students the opportunity to explore the practical reality of Social Work, in an area that we feel most passionately about. For me, after volunteering in aged care as a teenager, while it sounds morbid to most people, I have always been drawn to the idea of working with families around end-of-life support. Specifically, the emotional and practical processes of grief and loss, death and dying. Ideally, that would involve working in private homes, a community hospice, or a hospital; with the aim of advocating for individuals to die in the most meaningful, autonomous and dignified way as possible.

I believe it would be a privilege to support people on their final ‘journey’ and to help those who are left behind to function in their grief. For a long time, I’ve felt that so many other cultures outside Australia incorporate the rituals around dying in to life in so much better ways than we do. Through travel I’ve been fortunate to watch funeral processions through rural villages in different parts of the world; witness the public rituals of burning bodies on the banks of the Ganges in India, and I have seen how other cultural beliefs and traditions ensure death is very much a part of everyday life. These experiences have shown me that death is not only natural, but not always something to be feared. Sometimes death and dying can even be peaceful or long awaited – albeit undeniably and universally sad.

Seeing how other cultures celebrate life and witness death in a much more inclusive and community supported way has made me acutely aware of the heavy medico-legal model of sustaining life (at all costs) that we have here in Australia. I feel like our culture struggles to prepare, discuss, or plan for a ‘good death’ when it is so much a part of everyone’s reality. It’s a sad fact that seventy percent of Australians who are terminally ill would like to die in their own home, while unfortunately, only fourteen percent get to do so. No matter what your spiritual or religious beliefs I feel we can do it better, and I want to be a part of seeing real change in that area of our rapidly ageing society; through public policy, less controlling legislation, a greater provision of in-home palliative care services and hopefully through community education and development. 

I am extremely fortunate to have scored a position at an adult public hospital as my first Placement. It will be a full time (four days a week), unpaid position that starts on Monday. There will be little time for anything else as I will need to work the remaining three days of the week to pay my bills and save a little. In other words, zero time for wandering and socialising – but all worth it in the big scheme of things. Andrés will continue to work hard as well of course, and our plans to head to Colombia for a holiday in late June will definitely be the carrot for all our efforts. 

It’s nice to be feeling that familiar combination of excitement and nerves about it all, the same feeling you get when you’re about to visit a new destination; an understanding that nothing will ever be quite the same after experiencing someplace new. No doubt I will be heavily moved by people’s individual stories, as well as changed by the learning that will come from navigating a hospital environment and the different types of people that work there. I will also need to learn to separate such an intense role with my personal life, but I hope, that through a better understanding of death and dying, and being able to help in some small way, that I will have a renewed sense of life. I imagine that I will have a greater appreciation of what really matters in the here and now for most people, in a world that I often find dominated by consumerism and social disconnection. Overall, I feel excited to see, learn, and be emotionally moved by the reality of life on a daily basis.

With all of that in mind I want to wish all my lovely university friends who are also going on Placement a smooth, enriching and wonderful ‘adventure’!

Kris

Man lives as if he is never going to die, and then he dies having never really lived – Dalai Lama

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Getting our art fix at the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art 8

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For visitors to Australia, it is impossible not to see how heavily neighbouring countries influence our food, our culture and in many ways, our appreciation of art. As part of a larger Asian Pacific community, with about a quarter of our population born overseas, the ‘face’ of our Australian society can’t be simplified with a description of one look; nor can the diversity of contemporary art styles within our region be easily generalised.
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Luckily for us, Brisbane gets to host the incredible Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art every three years, and this year it is on again. Beginning in 1993, the eighth and latest incarnation is known as APT8, an exhibition space that chooses to celebrate the creative influence of traditional difference within our region in a truly accessible and public format. Displayed in both the Gallery of Modern Art and the nearby Queensland Art Gallery, art lovers can get their creative kicks for free.

APT8 emphasises the role of performance in recent art, with live actions, video, kinetic art, figurative painting and sculpture. All with the aim of exploring the use of the human form to express cultural, social and political ideas, as well as valuing the central role of artists in articulating experiences specific to their culture and country.

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APT8 includes more than 80 artists and groups, an ongoing program of artist performances and projects, a lengthy cinema program, and a seemingly endless activities schedule to occupy kids and families. The children’s ever-developing, glow in the dark art space is particularly cool.

For those that can’t make it to Brisbane for the exhibition I’ve added some images from my favourite pieces; the air-conditioned, architectural spaces almost as appealing as the artwork on a sweaty Summer’s day. And for those curious about the history of APT you might like this, or a link to our blog from the last one – APT7.

Here’s hoping you can make it there – it’s on until April 10!

Kris

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Photodump: Chinatown, Singapore

DSC_0795Singapore has an awesome Chinatown, set within a backdrop of colourful colonial architecture, a thriving market and some very chatty locals. Chinese Singpaoreans are totally up for a game of regular mahjong if you show enough interest. There’s also a temple housing a tooth relic of Buddha that glows with hundreds of statues in his honour.
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If I’d have timed my visit properly I could have happily eaten and relaxed my way around the endless food stalls, restaurants, traditional Chinese medicine practitioners and spa centres. Take an appetite and time for a massage. Kris

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Photodump: Poking around Haji Lane, Singapore

DSC_0657You’d be forgiven for thinking you’re visiting an upmarket area of Egypt or Morocco in this part of Singapore. Staying close to the mosque, I was reminded by the call-to-prayer that Islam has a beauty all of its own. If you want to walk amongst colonial buildings with a touch of Arabic styling, the sweet smell of sheesha floating in the air, a thriving night life and a decadent amount of Middle Eastern choices on the food front, head to Haji Lane in the Kampong Glam areaKris

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Gardens By The Bay, Singapore

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What country goes to all of the trouble to build an artificial marina with sand imported from nearby countries, just so they can plant trees and gardens? Not only does Singapore ace town planning but whoever came up with the idea to build a huge park, complete with glass atriums, cloud forests and solar powered super trees that light up the night, is brilliant.

As far as free things go in Singapore, the Gardens By The Bay seems really popular. Not that it feels crowded; in fact it’s the perfect space to find a little calm in an otherwise heavily populated city. You can pay to go in to the glass domes and walk along the skywalk between the super trees, but it’s a wonderful spot to visit without the extra expense. There are enough garden zones to tire the most avid green thumb or orchid enthusiast, so take some fresh spring rolls and plenty of water, it is truly massive and beautiful!

Kris

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Photodump: Little India, Singapore

DSC_0711Singapore might have a bright and shiny reputation, a charisma that screams efficiency, but there are a few spaces in the city where shit gets a little more real; like Little India. I love the place, and will definitely choose to stay there on our next visit. If you want to eat some authentic masala dosa, walk amongst the smells of curry, incense and sweat, there’s an area in the historic part of Singapore that you’ll need to visit. Kris

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The silk artisans of Siem Reap, Cambodia

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“Anyone interested in stopping at the silk farm?” someone shouted out to our group en route to Siem Reap from Battambang. No response. How exciting could silk worms be?, I thought to myself.

As we got closer to the city, the team I had been volunteering with during my stay in Cambodia got more excited about the temples we would visit and the giant buffet dinner we would eat – all in the name of celebrating the end of the year together.

The question remained.

Somehow the executive decision to stop at the silk farm was made and as the bus pulled up I felt less than enthusiastic.

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But boy was I wrong – again!

Seeing Cambodian handicrafts being made was actually really wonderful, in a watching-people-using-traditional-techniques-to-make-beautiful-things kind of way. It was also kind of wonderful because as a farewell gift for my volunteering efforts I received a pink and purple silk scarf (above) as a thank you. I had just experienced how nice it feels to wear delicate silk and had no idea how much time, attention to detail and patience goes in to creating the fabric. My scarf felt even more precious knowing that it can only be made because numerous silk worms, who spend their last twelve hours alive making love, create silk cocoons around themselves before they die. Kind of romantic huh?

The silk artisans are also just a small part of an organisation that is providing well respected jobs for people in rural areas who are interested in learning the ancient arts of silk-making, stone and wood carving, lacquering and painting. As a place of texture, colour, earthiness and tradition – all set in a beautiful garden just outside of Siem Reap, I highly recommend visiting Artisans Angkor.

Check out the handmade gorgeousness…

Kris

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A village homestay in Snoeung, Cambodia

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The village of Snoeung sits close to the Thai border – about 35km from the city of Battambang where I’ve been volunteering with Ptea Teuk Dong (PTD) these past few weeks. I had the pleasure of visiting the community in my first week, mostly to look at the site where PTD are building a community centre and school for the local villagers, and also to see the weaving work of the local women. It’s an area that really struggles financially as rice farmers, but as I quickly realised, in no means socially. With the opportunity to stay with women that have been a successful part of the PTD reintegration program some years ago I was keen to work out a way that I might be able to raise further awareness of their needs. I was also excited to get involved at the beginning of a community development project that has been a long time in the planning. It felt right that the project was coming to fruition just as the rice was being harvested.

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With the translation help of my colleague from PTD we spent time with a few of the grandmothers of the village; women who had become widowed a number of years ago and needed the support of PTD to get themselves and their young children back on their feet. Around a similar age to me, I felt an instant connection with the women on my first visit, so when I was invited to return for a longer stay I was keen to make it happen. Luckily for me, the community centre was just starting to be built during my time in Cambodia. With the project kicking off, a ceremony was organised to give donated note books and pens to all of the children in the surrounding Snoeung villages, so that when the school is complete in June they can attend with an equal start. This would be the first time that the children had either a book to write in or a pen of their own.DSC_0505

Adding to the whole experience, there also happened to be a wedding in the village on the night that I stayed. For Cambodians a wedding normally lasts a few days. Besides the invited guests on the day of the wedding, a warm up dance party is held on the previous night and everyone is invited. To say the music is loud is an understatement. Wedding music is designed to reverberate across the rice fields, keeping everyone up from 4am until late in to the night, with the aim of sharing the joy of the marriage. As it’s wedding ‘season’ in Cambodia right now I have been woken several times to the crackling beats of a distant wedding even from my hostel in the city centre. Joining in the celebrations in a small village is not only a way to quickly meet some of the locals but kind of unavoidable. Being the only foreigner in the village that night meant a policeman had been called to ensure I was looked after and the attention I received felt at times overwhelming, but so positive and warm. Little girls showed me how to dance traditionally, special food was shared and videos were taken on mobile phones of my attempts at dancing. All good fun!IMG_1302The brightest moments were seeing the faces of the women and children as they gathered around the construction site of the new community centre the following morning. As we waited for the guest of honour to arrive to hand out the books, the children played around the edges of the lake, gathering lotus flowers and shyly presenting them to me, one child making a necklace for me from lotus stems with a flower at it’s centre. Even without many words it was easy to share the joy in these moments with some of the elder women in the group, beautifully aged faces with eyes and smiles that spoke so much to me. If only I could properly communicate my gratitude for allowing me to peak inside their world.

Kris

The PTD Snoeung Community Centre Project will be looking for long term volunteers (for three months at a time) to teach the local children English and to live amongst the community. If you are keen to get involved please leave me a message in the comments or on the 2Sporks Facebook page and I can connect you with the right people. Otherwise you can contact PTD directly on their Facebook page: www.facebook.com/pteateukdong 

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