Stepping over boulders on a sandy trail that holds numerous bodies underneath posed the question, who is really in charge whilst we are out adventuring?
Often we are reminded of the true power of mother nature when out in the great outdoors, from pounding waves formed across huge ocean expanses to the ever changing alpine weather conditions; she never ceases to show her strength.
Two years ago today, the Gorkha earthquake struck Nepal and created such a devastating impact across the developing country. Something that certainly cannot be planned for resulted in a tragic loss of life, both Nepali and foreigners.
The Langtang Valley hiking trail, one of the World's most popular, only just officially reopened in September 2016 and during our recent trip to Nepal with our April group, we saw the damage is still ever-present and far-reaching.
Cracks scar the lucky buildings that remained upright and many still remain completely flattened.
Upon arriving in Syapru Besi (town of the Langtang Valley trailhead), a large land slide can be seen from town. Locals told us that a large rock went straight through a house at the bottom, killing the two residents inside.
In almost every direction, mountain sides bear scars from landslides from that day or from the many aftershocks that proceeded.
The most tragic, the landslide above the town of Langtang inside the Langtang National Park.
The earthquake triggered part of the Langtang glacier to fragment and a large sheet of ice became airborne, plummeting down the rocky mountainside between Langtang II and Langtang Lirung. In an instant and with an estimated force of half an atomic bomb, the mountain village of Lantang was almost completely wiped off the map. Only one house remained, tucked under a rocky outcrop to the side of the landslide. Trees on the adjacent side of the valley were levelled by the wave of force generated, blowing bark off their trunks. All trees can be seen strangely lying on the hillside facing uphill to those that dare look.
An estimated 310 deaths, including 176 Langtang residents, 80 foreigners, and 10 army personal lost their lives. More than 100 bodies have never been recovered, buried in the impenetrable mix of ice and rock (some estimates 30m deep in areas). Today the walking trail passes over the site and provides trekkers with a strange feeling knowing that bodies still remain below.
People of Nepal are inspiringly resilient and continuously show high resolve in the face of severe adversity. One of the world's poorest countries is still recovering and tourism back to the country and areas affected is significantly important to help communities in these areas.
Upon reflection, we never know when mother nature may decide to show her strength and where we are or how we may be affected. What we do know, is that we can learn so much from the Nepali people and continue on with life in the best possible way we can. We are proud of living in the moment and using our time to challenge ourselves, to learn about ourselves and other cultures and to help those less fortunate. If and when that time comes, we know we have squeezed everything out of the time we have been fortunate to share on this planet.
Would you like to help us make a sustainable difference in Nepal? Join us on our upcoming trips, visit www.thisworldexists.org/nepal for more information or to reserve your spot today.
Twelve months ago, I signed up to volunteer on a THISWORLDEXISTS education project in Sorung Chhabise, Nepal. In doing so, I was also signing up for a hike to Everest Base Camp. Many people have this trek on their bucket list – I was not one of those people. At that point, I had never owned a pair of hiking boots. The number of mountainous hikes completed – zero! The number of friends and family who thought this was a smart decision on my part – also zero!
So with a bit of training under my belt and my world jammed into a 60L pack, I headed to Nepal with my daughter Madie on New Years Day. What a way to start 2017 and to celebrate Madie’s 18th birthday on January 3rd! Descending into Kathmandu, I was admiring the clouds when I realised I was also looking at white mountain peaks. I was in a plane, still at high altitude. What were those mountains doing way up there? The magnitude of what I had signed up for suddenly dawned on me.
Arriving at the Samsara Hotel in Kathmandu, I met my fellow THISWORLDEXISTS adventurers. On Facebook, this group had looked a little scary to this middle-aged, city-dwelling lover of mod cons – all young, fit, bearded, outdoorsy types. I was worried that I wouldn't fit in with these Bear Grylls disciples. I was so very wrong.
As we commenced our trek, this group quickly transformed from scary strangers to my new family. With a shared desire to help improve education in developing countries and embark on a crazy adventure at the same time, our differences melted away. The group bonded over nights spent in tea houses, playing cards, eating pringles, sharing stories, hanging it on each other and the much loved evening ritual of the ‘buff ceremony’ – he or she who did the most stupid thing that day was awarded the buff. The nominations for this prestigious award were always long and distinguished.
Now I won’t lie, it wasn't all pringles and laughter. At times it was tough. Trekking in January at the height of the Himalayan winter, it was damn cold (but with few trekkers at that time of the year, I often felt like we had the mountains to ourselves). Sub-zero temperatures inside saw me sleeping with my water bottles and phone so that they wouldn't freeze. As we climbed higher each day, the Sherpas would frequently say ‘slowly slowly’ – it’s fair to say I brought a whole new meaning to that term as my lungs worked hard to suck in every ounce of O2.
I was fortunate not to experience headaches or nausea (common when at altitude), maybe the result of sleeping in an altitude tent for three weeks leading up to the trip. But the altitude certainly left me short of breath when going uphill and took away my appetite. Everyone on the trek was affected in some way – a headache, nausea, exhaustion. There is a saying in the Himalayas that anyone who says they aren’t affected by altitude is either lying or a Sherpa!
When I reflect back on the trek, there are so many beautiful memories. The breathtaking snow-capped mountains, the bridges suspended high over pristine rivers, the quaint little townships, the incredible fitness and kindness of the Sherpas and the immense satisfaction of reaching Base Camp. The challenges are also hard to forget. The freezing nightly dash out of my clothes and into my sleeping bag that left me breathless, the frozen pipes that would deliver no water and the uphill sections of the trek that, at times, seemed to go on forever. But what I think about the most, above everything else, is the crazy bunch of people I shared this journey with…the people whose humour, stories, kind works and looks of encouragement kept me going for 12 days.
If Everest Base Camp is on your bucket list, if you want to travel in a different way, if you want to volunteer on a education project and create friendships and memories that will last a lifetime, get on the THISWORLDEXISTS bus. Strap in and enjoy the ride.
Written by Joanne Lardner, THISWORLDEXISTS January 2017 team member.
Photos by Ryan Gray @ryangraymedia
For more information on THISWORLDEXISTS Nepal trips, please visit www.thisworldexists.org/nepal
1. a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.
"Sorung Chabisse is a Nepalese community"
2. a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.
"the sense of community that being a part something greater than yourself can provide"
Everest's summit soars above all else in the Himalayan mountains that trekking to base camp (5364m/17,590ft) is still an adventure of the highest sort. An achievement made easier with in a group that continually lifts you up when struggling.
A community of 16 people from around the world that shared wanderlust, and shared stories of how their lives had brought them to this point. Simply, it was a match made in heaven as relationships quickly formed over commonality despite so many individual differences.
Our group trekked through some of the world's most spectacular mountain landscape after spending two days discovering the historic treasures and rich culture of Kathmandu.
Tea houses in small villages were set against mountains of incomprehensible scale and we enjoyed discovering more of the unique Sherpa culture as we bonded with our guides and porters. The group walked trails lined with mani stones, engraved with Tibetan Buddhist prayers.
Our group discovered remote mountain monasteries and learnt about the Sherpas' spiritual perspective on the mountains they call home.
Travel for purpose
Behind all THISWORLDEXISTS adventures is a strong purpose to use our desire to travel, to learn, to grow and to help those less fortunate than ourselves.
Placed in the remote region of Udaipur, Nepal is the small community of Sorung Chhabise. After starting this project earlier in 2016, the community greeted and celebrated our return with open arms and open hearts.
The sense of community and openness despite having significantly less than ourselves was overwhelming.
Our goal was to develop a completely new earthquake-resistant establishment for the school in Sorung Chhabise as their previous facility was completely inadequate or sufficient to cater for the entire community.
Whilst trekking through the himalaya was a bucket-list item for many of our guests, the most memorable and satisfying part of the trip for almost all of our guests was the time spent in Sorung Chhabise. Working hand-in-hand with local tradespeople, sharing conversations through nothing but smiles and hand gestures and constantly learning. Learning the real importance of giving from the community of Sorung Chhabise.
Learning about ourselves, learning about other cultures and learning about what life is like for people in other parts of the world was what we expected but we left with so much more.
It is hard to describe and put down into words, something that our latest 16 people to join our growing THISWORLDEXISTS community understands and will undoubtedly treasure for their lifetime.
Below is a selection of photos from our time working in the village. If you would like to join us on future trips to Nepal please find more information here.
This project is expected to completed by local labour by April 2017. THISWORLDEXISTS also commence our next project in April 2017 in Nepal. Watch the short video to find out more about our next Nepal education project.
Do It Before You Die: Hiking the Himalayas
FROM THE FOOTHILLS OF THE HIMALAYAS, IN THE REMOTE VILLAGE OF SORUNG CHHABISE, COMES THE STORY OF A YOUNG GIRL BORN INTO A LIFE OF HARDSHIP AND SOCIAL OPPRESSION.
For centuries, the inhabitants of regional Nepal have lived under a traditional Hindi social caste system, the bottom members of which are known as ‘untouchables’. Traditionally, these outcasts where known as ‘Dalits’, meaning “oppressed” in Sanskrit, but that term has recently been outlawed. Although small changes are taking place throughout Nepal, social disparity is still quite noticeable. The following recount is from my time spent travelling and supporting disadvantaged communities with THISWORLDEXISTS in Nepal.
During my time in Sorung Chhabise, I was able to spend an afternoon walking the outskirts of the village in which we were constructing a brand new earthquake resistant school. I had the privilege of meeting some of the locals in their homes. This alone was an incredible experience. Seeing how others live, such simple yet appreciative lives, was incredibly humbling. Families living with their animals in very basic and modest abodes. Some houses had been damaged by, and remained un-repaired, since the earthquake in 2015. The hospitality shown by every household was something I hadn’t experienced before, people with almost nothing offering us the little food and tea they had available.
Every greeting left me humbled and grateful, yet slightly brokenhearted, but none of the little insights experienced here hit home quite as hard as the story of Monika and her grandmother.
Like most of the villagers in Sorung Chhabise, Monika and her family live in a small clay/timber construct house, nestled on the precipice of rice paddy crops. Monika’s mother labours for people of a higher caste in the villages surrounding the farms. Often the untouchable workers receive little more than enough food for their families as payment. Monika’s father moved away to the city seeking work quite some time ago and never returned to his family, unfortunately this is quite a common story for the 'untouchable' women.
Upon reaching Monika’s home, my attention was instantly drawn to her grandmother, who in her old age, was still working hard in the fields gathering banana leaves for the household cooking.
Monika’s grandmother first gave the group a very timid greeting and retreated to the cover of her house. Seeing this, I knew she was somewhat embarrassed and probably felt as though she shouldn’t be talking to us. I immediately split from the group and approached her. In Nepali I greeted her and asked her name. “Namaste Ama, Tapai ko nam ke ho?” She was completely taken aback! Before I could utter anything else she rushed over to her door, pulled out a bamboo mat and placed it on a ledge, beckoning for me to sit. I politely obliged. She then climbed up a thin notched log that led upstairs and disappeared, I waited, not knowing what would happen next. Shortly after she returned with a plate of fruit, a few small bananas and mandarins. I immediately understood the significance of this gesture and the pride she would feel from me eating her food. Typically, the traditional Nepali people believe that any food or dishes touched by an untouchable shouldn’t be eaten by anyone of a higher caste.
Buzzing from this interaction I began to eat some of the tastiest fruit I’ve ever had, communicating only with hand gestures and smiles. Such simple gestures had broken down the traditional social barriers.
Monika’s grandmother, now more relaxed, sat back and told me her name, “Sarkini Kanchi“. It struck me at that point, that she wouldn’t have been asked her name in a long time, that it took her a while to process what was happening and remember. Sadly the name she gave me was the name she is commonly called as an untouchable woman. It was later explained to me that commonly people like Sarkini, having lived all their lives as untouchables, wouldn’t know their birth name or year. They would remember years by significant events, for example ‘3 years before the earthquake’ etc. Despite only learning her common name and not being able to communicate above the basics, the feeling of mutual understanding and appreciation was incredible. For her, acceptance from a stranger, for me, a life changing experience. Something as simple as sitting and eating together, and trading basic Nepali had for a moment connected us and made us equal. What a truly moving experience.
Shortly after my interaction with Sarkini, Monika came out from playing in the field with the rest of the group and joined us for some fruit. She sat next to her grandmother and shyly smiled at the rest of us. In that moment I began thinking, this gorgeous little girl as happy as any other, has a very limited future ahead of her. Limited opportunity of education or an improved quality of life. Unless, of course, we could help! We had already, in our short time in this village, managed to make so many social changes, the biggest of which was a brand new safe structure that will accomodate and educate so many more students. With ongoing contributions and literacy programmes, children like Monika will be able to receive an education and continue to challenge social barriers.
After some time to reflect on this and many other experiences from Nepal, the thought continually occurs to me how fortunate we are in our lives. To have education so freely available and to have the opportunity to help those who don’t.
For more information about how you can help create a difference in the lives of others in Nepal, click here.
Why are we supporting Women's education in Nepal?
Interested in learning more about our education projects in Nepal? Find more information right here.
September 16th 2016, 4.45am the alarm goes off and I jump out of bed. It takes a lot of effort to jump out of bed at that time, but not when you have the excitement of starting a journey that you have always dreamt of. It was time to leave behind work and the gloomy English weather to go and carry out a volunteering project at a school on the other side of the world with THISWORLDEXISTS, a project and an adventure with 13 other people from around the world!
Volunteering at a school had always been on my bucket list, I didn’t have a specific destination or vision in mind, just that I knew I wanted to do it.
I wanted to because I have always been in a position to do so.
I guess the satisfaction of being selfless and devoting some of my not too precious time to help the lives of others was the main reason, and when the opportunity to visit Cambodia with THISWORLDEXISTS came up I jumped at it with both hands.
The first joy came on day 1, the crew of new faces started to assemble from around the world. It was exciting to meet people who had the same visions as I did, who wanted to travel, explore and most importantly help others. The group did not feel like strangers for long, with so much in common, an instant bond formed between us. After just a few days it honestly felt like we had known each other for years as we shared jokes and exchanged travel stories that continued to bring us closer. The start of the trip was perfect for forming these friendships, people had come off long flights and some had not visited Cambodia before, so it was a chance to familiarise ourselves with the essence of Cambodia, to try the incredible local cuisine and to partake in some history and tourism by visiting the sensational Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples of Siem Reap. An absolute must do in South East Asia!
The next step of our journey was to head to the famed pristine jungle of the Cardamom mountains where we would commence the first element of the trip - The Adventure.
All THISWORLDEXISTS trips are structured to include a challenge of some description, the challenge in Cambodia would be to trek through the jungle for 5 days. Everyone was buzzing with excitement to get started as we drove through small farming communities to an opening in the jungle. The team were introduced to our knowledgable guides, all of which were carrying bags that made our rucksacks look pathetic - these guys were jungle pros!
It was an easy start, we slowly made our way into the jungle on fairly established tracks, it wasn’t like taking a hike across the fields though. Every footstep you watched carefully as we came to terms with our new jungle environment that we would be a part of for the next 5 days. The heat of the jungle became increasingly intense, and drinking lots of water is a necessity, you soon learnt that keeping hydrated was the key, in fact getting wet in anyway just didn’t feel a problem but offered more relief from the sticky South East Asian climate.
In the jungle you don’t get swing bridges and walkways, if you need to cross a stream or river you do it by foot. Every day had at least one crossing, and it was always a great pleasure to get wet and cool off. Ironically we would carefully cross the river trying not get anything wet, then drop our bags and take to the river for a swim to cool off and enjoy the serenity.
These river swims proved to be the most popular activity of the trek, luckily for us every evening we camped beside a good swimming hole so opportunities to cool off were abundant. This wasn’t by luck, nor our judgement as we really had no idea where we were during the entire trek. It was down to the phenomenal knowledge of our local guides that knew the jungle better than I know my small garden at home. They seemed to know every inch of the jungle, generations of their families had roamed these lands and the skills, craftsmanship and orienteering had been past down through generations.
From setting traps to finding natural ingredients and sources of food they taught us the tricks of the jungle as we trekked through, what blew our minds day in day out was the craft of building camp every evening. We would arrive at a camping area in the afternoon tired and ready for a swim so we all would unwind and enjoy our new surroundings, during this time our guides would continue to work forming shelters to sleep under and making fires to cook dinner on. A few of the camps they had used before and had basic infrastructure as a foundation, however some had nothing and the guys worked tirelessly as they made sure we would have a dry place to sleep. This never failed to impress us and we were eternally grateful every evening when we got into a cosy hammock to sleep in with a full belly from another amazing meal.
As we trekked further into the jungle our path was even more unclear, often the guides would have to cut back growth to open it up big enough that a person could squeeze through. We never got lost though and always felt safe, it was on the treks that the group began to bond even more. From hiking word games to big group chats there was never a dull moment in the jungle, especially when we were greeted by the waterfalls! We were so lucky to see these beautiful sights in amongst the dense jungle canopy.
You would often hear the noise of a waterfall as you approached, as you got closer getting more intrigued at what size it would be. To our delight they were virtually always epic and nearly always provided another excuse to go swimming. 5 days of trekking, sleeping with the noises of the jungle and waterfalls, seeing beautiful sight and forming even better friendships came to an end as we popped out onto a road on day 5, it felt strange to pop back out into the real world and really highlighted what an amazing adventure we had just undertaken.
The memory of that experience will stick with me forever and will remain a travel highlight of my entire life.
Now that we had completed our personal challenge, it was time to give back to Cambodia and complete the most important part of our trip - The Project.
Before making our way out to Boeung Kunchung Primary School, we had time to clean ourselves up, relax a little and have some time to ourselves. As soon as the Tuk Tuk driver dropped us off you could see that this school was so different to any that we had been to as children. It was basic, rural and a little overgrown, but one thing was exactly the same, happy children. We were greeted by lots of them, even though it was not a school week when we visited. They all wanted to be part of this exciting new chapter for the school and were eager to meet us, play and get up to mischief!
It felt like these children were no different to any other children, which cemented even more to me that what we were doing was a great thing, to give all children the same access and benefits from education wherever they were born.
The money raised prior to the trip soon started to make a difference as the school’s transformation started to take shape. New toilets with running water and hand washing facilities were installed, with education that followed on the importance of personal hygiene. The classrooms and general site had a major clean up and a good lick of paint, focusing on waste management for the future to build a more enjoyable place to learn - the waste management program also helps to fund an ongoing literacy program for the school.
By sprucing the place up we reinstated a sense of pride in the school for the community, it made it more of a focal point for the village and made it something they could be proud of.
Our main work was the transformation of an old building that was being used to house a cow in recent years, with no benefit to the school at all. After a tough few days this cowshed became a library that will be filled with books for the children to improve literacy skills. The money raised also helped the teachers gain a higher level of literacy from a training and development program, knowledge that they can pass down to the schools pupils, along with other teachers that pass through the school in future years. The wider community of Boeung Kunchung will truly benefit from the new infrastructure we helped create for them.
Working everyday at the school was hugely rewarding, it felt like you really were helping and achieving something. It wasn’t a holiday, we were all focused that this was something great to work hard for and that optimism and enthusiasm was converted into a passionate project.
We left the village after 4 days feeling a huge sense of personal connection with the school and its many students, I will never forget the smiles on their faces.
Volunteering and going on an adventure with THISWORLDEXISTS offered me an opportunity and an experience that I couldn’t have had as a regular tourist to Cambodia. I also was gifted new friendships, the opportunity to take a huge amount of photos, many unforgettable memories and the sense of achievement from helping others less fortunate.
Do you want to join THISWORLDEXISTS this September for your own adventure of a lifetime? Visit the Cambodia adventure page here to find out more or make a reservation today.
Much of Oregon's beauty can be captured during the summer months., but its seasons impress me the most. Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring offer unique filters to every day adventures.
A popular waterfall in the Columbia River Gorge can transition from being practically non-existent in August, to packing a powerful punch in November. More specifically, Multnomah Falls reshapes during each season.
You will find beautiful colors surrounding this area in Fall, but as the temperature drops, the waterfall reaches a freezing point. This creates a unique experience for such a large waterfall.
Eventually, the ice secures a fresh coat of snow. Once again the outfit changing its appearance. But this view doesn't last long. As the temperatures rise and the spring season ensues, the snow and ice sheds away.
A short drive away from Multnomah, you will encounter similar changes from Fall-to-Winter at Latourell Falls. But bring your traction, the walk way becomes quite slick with the thick layer of ice.
Impressively, at every waterfall in the Columbia River Gorge the beauty is magnified. Each season reinventing the scenery. Elowah Falls transforms from being a route for hikers and trail runners, to a trail that is extra slick. Getting to it when the temps are above freezing is a piece cake compared to when a thick layer of ice forms.
Traction on your shoes typically circumvents the ice problem. Luckily, the ice and snow sticks around for no more than a couple of days. So if you hear potential freezing temps hitting the Portland-Metro Area. It's time to go to the Columbia River Gorge!
A few miles east of Elowah, you will find Wahclella falls transitioning from an extremely popular summer hike, to a less ventured winter one. During an icy morning, the falls develop a mustache.
A rocks throw from Wahclella, you venture to the second most popular hike in Oregon, Punchbowl Falls. It depresses to a tiny stream in August, before reenergizing with the rain. Regaining most of its volume during the winter months.
But just as noticeable the change is from Summer-to-Winter, it is equally so from Winter-to-Spring. Slowly but surely, the waterfall begins to dry out-- more so these days due to lower snow levels.
A few more miles up the trail along the Eagle Creek Trail, from Punchbowl Falls you will be led to Tunnel Falls. The change may be measured by the spray from the waterfall as you venture through the tunnel.
Navigating a bit further east along I-84 to Hood River, and then south along HWY-35, you will reach Tamanawas Falls. A waterfall that maintains power throughout the year, but experiences an impressive change in color.
As you venture away from the waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge, a lake in the Mt Hood National Forest transitions from a popular campground, to a cross country skiing and snowshoeing adventure park.
What reflections are lost in the lake, the winter flavor makes up for it. But don't be concerned! At each of the thawing stages, the lake slowly regains its reflective ways.
Over in a region near the capital, Abiqua falls, a very popular waterfall during the summer. During the warm season, it serves as beautiful place to cool off. But this atmosphere turns from warm to cold quickly! As the wet season arrives, the rain adds plenty of power to the falls. After Abiqua falls fills up during the wet months, it begins to recede again in early Spring. At this point the weather warms, the rain slows, and the people begin to flock back to this wonderful area.
On the more Eastern side of Oregon, lies White River Falls. Whatever amplitude is lost during the summer months, it certainly makes up during Fall and Winter. During the early mornings in February, the mist travels so far that most of the surrounding surfaces turn into a thin layer of ice. Dangerous to an unsuspecting visitor.
Venturing south and more central in the state, Crater Lake National Park, transitions from a warm summer oasis to a winter wonderland. Visitors thin out as the snow begin thickens.
While the snow is on the ground, take every opportunity to enjoy it. Whether it's through cross country skiing, snowshoeing or just looking out from the Crater Rim Village. You will rarely hear and see the park this quiet and majestic.
Overall, Oregon with its seasons is outstanding. If you love it during summer, you will certainly love it during the off season (Fall, Winter and Spring). But I invite you to look at the wet season as an opportunity to experience the surrounding beauty through a different filter. What else are jackets for?
As Samantha and I first walk into the paths of the Alaska Rainforest Sanctuary, our nerves have the better of us. We are, after all, in Ketchikan, Alaska, where the bear population is twice that of the human population. On top of that, we are completely alone with whatever wildlife awaits.
Imagine immersing yourself in a 40-acre rainforest preserve within the Tongass National Forest, the largest in the US at a whopping 17 million acres. Picture the surroundings. Densely forested with cedar, hemlock and spruce. Everything coated with a thick layer of moss and lichen. “Old man’s beard” or “goat’s beard”—which only grows in areas with extremely pure air—hangs from countless branches. Eagle Creek, one of the foremost salmon spawning streams in Alaska, flowing through a network of interconnected bear-viewing bridges, allowing for some spectacular wildlife viewing. No fences, no worries.
Being two passionate nature photographers, we have a great respect for all things wild, especially predators. We took the precaution of bringing a “bear flare”—just in case—and have that in an east access pocket. The most important element of our experience right now is the advice an old Tlingit Native American told us on the day we arrived in Ketchikan. He said, ‘you must speak with the bear, with the deer, with the fish. Not only that, but you must treat them like they are your brother, talk to them. Be nice to them and they’ll be nice back.’
As we part from the tree line and step into the shade of the thickest woods we’ve ever seen, the forest wholly swallows us. Softly treading along the earthy path into the heart of inner Eagle Creek, we find ourselves talking out loud, calmly announcing our presence to the bears. In less than a minute I spot a black mass through the undergrowth, about 10 feet off the left-hand side of the trail. Taking about 20 more steps, I turn and tell Sam what I’d seen. Personally, I don’t want to go back, but we have to get a shot if we can. Slowly creeping back to where I’d caught a glimpse of black, sure enough, we see a small adult black bear, sprawled out on a bed of moss. There’s a brief moment of fear and then we just calmly lift our cameras and start to snap away.
We say thank you and part ways, continuing down the trail, until it opens up onto a large, raised platform. Having found the best vantage point, we see now, they are everywhere.
Small bears flee into the nearest tree, as a large male emerges from the shrubbery, heavily lumbering along, splashing through the stream to feed. Around the creek corner, a sow and her two cubs are wary of the oncoming threat and stealthily meander away, seemingly into the earth, itself.
Some moments are best viewed with your own eyes, so for at least a few seconds, we watch in delight as the bears totally acknowledge us then immediately move on with their lives as if we are a part of the scenery. Being a black bear in the Salmon Capitol of the World means never having to go hungry, maintaining a consistent food source that is high in fat and the nutrients required for winter. This also means they don’t view humans as prey. Respect the wild and it will respect you back.
For the rest of the summer we had countless close encounters that were one-hundred-percent friendly. Never did we push the boundaries of proximity or bait the bears in any way. Through and through, it was one of the purest wildlife experiences imaginable.
The perks of being a seasonal photographer for the company that runs the sanctuary allowed us to literally hangout on the preserve, after hours. Guided tours are offered throughout the summer. What we were able to do was a true privilege and are forever grateful.
What does it look like to contribute to education projects overseas?
A diverse mix of twelve volunteers joined THISWORLDEXISTS in assisting the Boeung Kunchung Primary School in Koh Kong Province, Cambodia. This was the first volunteer group to kick off Boeung Kunchung’s education project, making considerable progress during the visit.
To ensure the school would receive the right implementations, our contact Vuthi and the headmasters laid out their expectations of what they wanted to achieve during our visit. Communication between the volunteers, the school stakeholders and the wider community is an important step in solving any issues or misunderstandings. Being a well-respected member of the community and school, Vuthi acted as a crucial player in developing THISWORLDEXISTS’ projects in Cambodia.
Vuthi went far and beyond to provide us with tools and local knowledge in order to progress in our work. His smiling face was an encouragement to work harder under the hot and humid weather conditions! The eagerness of the village children to help us paint, scrape, dig and clean demonstrated the community’s acceptance of our presence.
Getting down to business meant first employing skilled local workers to accelerate the school project. Prior to the group’s arrival, fundraised money went towards building a new sanitation block to improve health and hygiene within the school. Once we arrived, we began working on the building that would become the school’s new library. Builders assisted with bricklaying and guiding the direction of the library renovations.
The benefits of using skilled local labour in THISWORLDEXISTS projects are clear. Employing members of the community stimulates the local economy, and provides more localised employment opportunities for workers to remain in their communities. In a time where it is increasingly common to migrate in search of better employment opportunities, employing local skills and knowledge allows human capital to remain within the village, keeping families and rural communities together.
After tireless efforts from builders, school superiors, volunteers and the wider community, our project came to a close. This is temporary, however. Next year in September 2017, another volunteer group will be visiting the school to provide more support in developing buildings and their education programs. THISWORLDEXISTS will continue to support the Boeung Kunchung Primary School even when volunteers are not present. Fundraised money will go towards developing a teacher training program to improve teaching skills and the quality of education. This will not only give teachers professional development opportunities, but it will also improve the school’s education standards and, overall, create a reputable school that the community can be proud of.
By the end of the project, neighbors of the school who owned small businesses and cared for their families nearby, joined in on helping us to paint a mural on the wall of their new library. This mural was a symbolic gesture in celebrating what can be achieved when people unite to grow their community.
Would you like to get involved in our Cambodia projects in the future?
THISWORLDEXISTS will be returning to Cambodia in 2017 to continue our work and continue to explore this beautiful country. If you or someone you know would like to join us, we would love to share the experience with them.
Click on the picture below for more information on our upcoming trip.
Health is more than just being disease free. The World Health Organization recognizes health as a “state of complete physical, mental and social well-being.”
Dating back to the early major cities in China and Greece, healthcare was intertwined with foliage, water and natural elements. These aspects were considered fundamental to people’s well-being and recovery. As the industrial revolution took centre stage, these natural elements have increasingly been dismissed and, in many cases, have disappeared from healing centres altogether.
The current fast-paced society is far removed from recognizing health as a pyramid of physical, mental and social well-being. Rather, its focus has shifted to expelling and/or managing disease and disease like symptoms with pharmaceuticals and invasive procedures. In many scenarios, pharmaceuticals and invasive procedures are essential to the first step of recovery. Yet recovery is more than just one step. It is a gradual process which seems to lack a natural element in this day and age.
Although accessing nature may require effort, the minimal burden is overshadowed by the long-term benefits in the reduction of disease and disease like symptoms that plague society. Whether it’s a visit to the mountain or to a lake, the natural setting exposes you to environmental chemicals, biological agents and neural reactions that have many known health benefits.
Thanks to dedicated scientists, we have a plethora of research noting plants’ abilities to give off organic compounds that help with blood pressure, autonomic activity (the unconscious activity of your body) and boost immune function (Komori T et al 1995; Glaser & Kiecolt-Glaser 2005).
The air surrounded by trees, mountains and moving water reduces depression and helps with sleep (Morita et al 2011; Goel N et al 2005). Greener areas have been tied with lower rates of obesity—in many cases mutually exclusive from physical activity (Bell et al 2008; Dadvand et al 2014; Lachowycz & Jones 2011) .
The list extends to: restoring & improving attention; recovery from stress ; stronger pro-social ties, increased generosity; reduction in pain; short- and long-term benefits related to cancer; reduced anxiety; faster medical recovery; and reduction in migraines to name just a few. (Chow & Lau 2015; Gamble KR et al 2014; Brown et al 2016; Brown et al 2013; Weinstein et al 2009; Cohen et al 2008; Yamada 2007; Li et al 2007; Li et al 2010; Maas et al 2009; Song et al 2014; Ulrich 1984).
To examine a particular point of interest in nature, let’s take a look at how scientists have found waterfalls benefit our bodies. To see a waterfall is one thing, but to experience it is another. Why is that? A notable reason is that water produces negative ions. Since the 1950s, researchers have been exploring the naturally occurring negative ion phenomenon (although a European Monk in the late 1700s suspected its benefits). It wasn’t until recently that researchers have had the equipment to study negative ions in the lab.
The phenomenon is most naturally found near waterfalls. The largest known generator is Niagara Falls—producing 100,000 negative ions per cubic centimeter/per second (Niagara Falls Review). The event occurs when oxygen molecules combine with several water molecules creating a negative-ion cluster.
You may be thinking, “So what?” Well, interestingly enough, studies have shown that inhaling water generated negative ions increases the activity of the body's natural killer cells. Studies have seen these benefits in mice with chronic skin inflammation. This opposed to the skin inflammation becoming significantly worse when exposed to electrically generated negative ions. Furthermore, the same group of researchers found another unique discovery. Mice injected with a chemical carcinogen and exposed to water generated negative ions experienced significantly lower rates of cancer than the group of mice that did not get this treatment (Yamada, 2007).
This doesn’t mean you should go and inhale waterfalls 24/7 and anticipate these rules. But it should make you intrigued by how these natural elements provide such benefits. Although that's in the physical form, so are these benefits emitted by something as basic as seeing a picture of nature?
Luckily, you don’t have to be in the physical environment in order to experience the benefits (although the results are more profound when you are in nature). Some studies have shown that exposure to images of trees, grass and fields can increase parasympathetic nervous activity and decrease heart rate (Gladwell et al 2012; Brown et al 2013). Images of nature have also been found to improve attention, quality of life and reduction in pain (Eggert J 2015; Gamble KR et al). Furthermore, the well-being of a patient or family member can be positively influenced by incorporating natural elements into the environment of a waiting, emergency or a patient room (Beukeboom CJ 2012; Nanda U 2012; Velarde & Tveit 2007). Although the research isn’t extensive, it seems promising.
Personally, I have been in many waiting rooms—primarily hospitals. During the time spent in a waiting room, we get bored, fatigued and agitated if we encounter excessive wait times. But I have discovered in the instances where there are natural elements or images of nature, I have felt less fatigued and agitated.
Two years ago, I experienced a critical electrolyte imbalance and my blood sodium level dropped to record shattering numbers (NA 95—a number that typically kills or leaves people with brain damage). It was later learned that this was caused by a pituitary tumor. During that stay, I recall laying in my hospital room, not answering or talking to anyone and simply staring at the walls. I would focus on the medical equipment and the doctors name on the white board. After not seeing daylight for a few days, I remember laying in my room and focusing on the TV that had a reflection of a partially opened window from the opposite end of my room. Obviously, my brain was deprived, both internally and externally.
Thinking back, I wonder how I would have felt if there had been one or two images of nature in my room? Would my body have recovered faster? Would I have gotten out of the ICU faster? Would I have avoided the roller coaster ride of getting out of the ICU only to be wheeled back hours later worse than I started?
Writing this today, I can’t say for sure. But I can ask the question, “Do we have enough nature in our lives?” How easy would it be to populate waiting rooms and hospital hallways with beautiful scenes of waterfalls and coastlines? Could these same images be added to facilities where residents struggle with Alzheimer’s or Dementia?
In my opinion, all of these benefits have been documented in research because humans have had a strong connection with the physical environment for so long. As society became more industrialized, the gap between the human experience and nature has increased. Leaving our body and mind with a craving for something so basic and simple.
I encourage everyone to do their homework and make their own decision. In the United States we are experiencing a health crisis. We need more of something to fix the path that we’re on. Experienced doctors, nurses, researchers and scientific discoveries are trying to move us in the right direction. Perhaps in the meantime, we can use a little boost. We shouldn’t ignore that unique element that has been providing therapy for centuries—nature. Get out and explore it. You will thank yourself later.
As if from a dream, bright green foliage ushers adventure seeking eyes down to a perfectly clear stream that at depth, looks an unnatural blue. The Rio Escalena (Escalena River) is something that needs to be seen to be believed.
If the colours of the Sierra Gorda valley in the Mexican state of Queretero aren't enough, then a little upstream will really blow your mind.
Keep in mind, the journey isn't for the faint of heart and definitely make sure you pack carefully to ensure you are safe, dry and prepared if things don't quite go to plan. We were told of two adventurers getting stuck up stream as nightfall made it impossible to pass the countless river crossings and precariously positioned ladders over the raging rapids below.
Wading through waist deep water as we passed from river side to river side. Rio Escalena continued to flow strongly between moss covered rocks and twisted vines. The journey is well worth it though and comes highly recommended for those looking for a genuine adventure.
What was hiding in the dense Sierra Gorda foliage was the appropriately named, Puente de Dios (Bridge of God).
Darkness ahead proved we had finally reached our destination, soaked but completely energetic to explore the Mexican marvel. The final makeshift ladder wedged between rocks exposed the inside of the cave that stretched about 50 metres to the other side that shone in the afternoon light as if straight from a dream.
It had an unrivalled power of continuing to draw us upstream as ever different water soaked corner brought something new to astound the eyes. How do places like this even exist?
Continuing to wade through the sparkling mountain water through to the other side of the cave, it opened up into an absolute wonderland.
Cascading water fell down the carefully crafted mineral rich cliffs of the Sierra Gorda, was a 50 metre waterfall that plummeted directly in front of the cave.
Darkness was rapidly approaching and we didn't want to be caught up stream as the light faded quickly in the deep valley that was shrouded by thick semi-jungle foliage. It was time to return home but we knew we would be back to explore further and deeper into the canyon.
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Find out more about our Mexico Adventures here.
Christmas will be upon us in no time and January 2017 is getting closer and closer - an important month for us here at THISWORLDEXISTS.
We will be welcoming 14 eager adventurers from around the world to our ongoing school build in Sorung Chhabise, eastern Nepal. The project has been officially running for several months now and has progressed well, with the first two classrooms almost complete. As we progress through the build of six classrooms, a hall, a long terrace, and a hygiene and sanitation area; we are constantly vigilant of the community’s needs and involvement.
Community Comes First
Before we engage with a community and begin to draw up the plans for a new THISWORLDEXISTS Education Project, we ensure that the local community is behind the project 100%, and if there are any issues among community members or school stakeholders; that these are addressed well in advance of the project commencing. We were very fortunate to know someone who was born and raised in Sorung Chhabise, and having gone to Kathmandu to run a successful business and raise a family, is well respected in the village. This man is Anish Sharma and he has been an essential part of the development of THISWORLDEXISTS’ presence in Nepal.
If it weren’t for his constant enthusiasm, logistical genius, and incomparable in-depth knowledge of all things Nepal, our going here would be far tougher. Anish acted as an intermediary between us and the senior community members who are directly involved with the new school in Sorung Chhabise. The volunteer principal of the existing, underdeveloped school, Prem Khatiwoda, was understandably enthusiastic at the premise of a large, NGO-funded school with a modern curriculum for children of the village who could not afford or reach the nearby public school. Community enthusiasm and emotional investment was confirmed when a local man selflessly donated a package of land to us to extend the school grounds. This generous act was a humbling moment for us and made us realise just how important ‘education for all’ is to this community. With the local people behind us, it was time to get building.
Local Labour, Local Materials
Our volunteers love to get their hands dirty and work directly on the build phases of our education projects - but at the end of the day, at least 90% of the work is done by local labourers. This is an important part of our ethical obligation to local communities.
By employing and paying skilled local labourers we not only stimulate the village economy, but we keep those skills localised. In many developing countries there is a notable ‘brain drain’ where many intellectual and manual workers are leaving their villages, or even the country entirely to search for better opportunities abroad. This negatively affects the economy in rural areas, and separates families as many married couples may not see each other for years at a time, or, tragically, never again. By creating lucrative work opportunities where labourers can continue to live in their own homes with their families and use their skills to benefit their own community, we believe we are doing the right thing. We have heard of several NGOs who mostly utilise paying foreign volunteers to do the majority of the work, thus robbing local people and economies of job opportunities and money. We don’t want to make the same mistake, and usually the local labourers are so skilled in working with the landscape and materials, that they can work far more efficiently.
We also invest in local materials, sustainably sourcing construction essentials from the immediate area to where the school is located. Before the 2015 Gorkha Earthquake, concrete was becoming king in Nepal. Reinforced concrete is an unsustainable construction method in earthquake prone areas, as many tragically discovered, and now people are being urged to use traditional materials such as masoned stone and bamboo to reconstruct their homes and other buildings. Authorities are also urging locals to utilise earthquake resistant designs such as braced corners, single storey construction, and roundhouses to minimise the impact of future earthquakes. Of course, concrete still needs to be used for mixing mortar, reinforcing bamboo joins, and swelling foundations; but the dependence on it is understandably diminishing. This also enables us to source more materials locally, thus driving down the overall cost of the school and further stimulating the local economy.
Luckily for us, our first two volunteers and project pioneers, Mavi and Simon; are sustainable design experts. Trained architects from Italy and Germany, they have a passion for utilising local materials and labour, which fit with our ethos perfectly.
The design they developed is earthquake resistant, with very deep foundations (shallow foundations are an issue with many buildings in Nepal) and a structure predominantly comprised of bamboo. Using bamboo keeps the structure light, so that less heavy detritus can come down on people’s heads in the event of an earthquake.
It also ensures structural flexibility, meaning that the building can flex in the event of a tremor, giving it a far better chance of standing than a heavier, more brittle structure. Add these attributes to the fact that we had an abundance of strong, local bamboo available to us - and we had a design we, and the community; were very happy with.
Bringing the Design to Life
With the community behind us, local labourers itching to work, and a sustainable, earthquake resistant design finalised, we were ready to commence construction. Simon, Mavi, and Suman (Anish’s brother) oversaw the the initial phases of construction, as the first building comprised of two classrooms began to take shape.
They worked tirelessly, not only managing the build but also labouring hard with the locals to bring our dream to life. By the time our first group of 8 THISWORLDEXISTS Adventurers arrived, the foundations, lower walls, and many of the structural pillars were already in place. In addition, the land had been levelled to make way for the additional buildings, and the adjacent field had been flattened by an excavator - a process that had been in the making for 50 years! The local community had been wanting a larger piece of flat land to be developed for so long but due to the always difficult Nepali bureaucratic process, a lack of funds, and disagreements within the community; it was delayed for decades. To celebrate, the locals even hosted an inter-village football tournament the week after the land had been levelled.
Our volunteers found themselves in a wide variety of roles during their time in Sorung Chhabise, and worked very hard during their time there, despite the blistering heat and notable culture shock. Digging new foundations, beginning work on the 28 metre long terrace, reinforcing bamboo joins with concrete, collecting stones from the riverside quarry, and moving heavy bamboo pillars into place are some examples of the work tasks that our volunteers engaged in. Always under the watchful eye of our architects and of course our skilled team of local labourers, our volunteers attacked the rewarding work with gusto, and really enjoyed themselves. The feedback from the work component of our September THISWORLDEXISTS Adventure was overwhelmingly positive and just shows how hard work for a good cause can produce immeasurable joy in those who participate.
The Next Phase
Due to the large size of the project in Sorung Chhabise, the build will continue under local management and labour, with intermittent visits from THISWORLDEXISTS volunteers; for at least several months. In addition, our January THISWORLDEXISTS Adventure will introduce 14 volunteers to the project, who will have the same fantastic work opportunities and roles as the group in September. Following their visit, construction will continue locally until complete, upon when we enter into Phase 2 of our education project.
At THISWORLDEXISTS we don’t just want to build schools, we want to support the community over many years by developing outwards from the new school itself. Developing and modernising the school curriculum, improving teaching and learning outcomes by ‘teaching the teachers’ and encouraging a progressive approach to learning, and constantly upgrading and maintaining school facilities and materials are just a few of our Phase 2 deliverables. Once the school is thriving, and children who previously had no access to education are receiving a world-class learning experience; we move into Phase 3 where we focus on wider community development. Using education as the crux of our approach, we will engage in improving adult education, hygiene and sanitation facilities and practices, sustainable road and electric infrastructure, food security, and more - cementing our relationship with the local community and delivering benefits for years to come.
Join us in Nepal
Our January group is itching to get to Nepal and be an active part of our education projects there, and we have many more dates in 2017 where you have the chance to come to Nepal for the adventure of a lifetime, and of course to make a positive impact on our projects.
Upcoming dates are:
April 1 - April 16
Sept 23 - Oct 8
Dec 30 - Jan 20 2018
If you’re travelling to Nepal independently and want to get involved with the volunteer-only component (construction work, teaching and learning support) in Sorung Chhabise, let us know! We have a variety of transport, accommodation, and donation packages to suit you; all managed through our safe and reliable logistics managers based in Nepal.
The thing I remember most was the smell of smoke. The smell that crept through closed windows and filled your nostrils with the scent of fear. I remember the dust that coated the highways and filled the air with floating particles of ash. The smell that turned a familiar home into an unfamiliar alternate reality. I remember the feeling of fearful anticipation, of waiting for the knock and the quick, ten minute evacuation warning as wildfire threatened to consume.
This area has seen a lot of hardship over the past few years. Between the wildfires that charred the trees and swallowed the trails and the floods that broke the dam and washed away the lake, Bastrop State Park is a charred remnant of its former self. But there sure is some beauty in the ashes.
The trickling stream crawled sluggishly across the red earth as I wandered the paths through the remains of what was once a lush, green forest of tall pines. Their charred limbs baked in the harsh sun of a hot Texas winter day. The further I walked along the caked, dry trail the more layers I shed as the temperatures continued to climb and shake off the chill mist of morning.
My puppy wandered here and there at the end of her leash -- darting unexpectedly at times across my path and creating an almost Three-Stooges scenario as I tried to avoid what seemed like an inevitable trip and fall.
I paused for short yoga breaks and moments of exploring and clambering across giant boulders as my puppy sat on the ground, ears twitching side to side in confusion about why she could not join me up high. The gravel trail crunched underneath my feet and then came the soft swishing of the sand in the dry paths between the leftover trees.
There is something so enchanting and haunting about walking through the crumbling remains of a once great forest. Almost like a great cathedral or ancient European castle fell into ruins - the magic and mystery of the place remains. Dry and broken limbs reached towards the sky as if reaching for something they couldn’t quite grasp - a desperate search for meaning amidst the chaos of life and loss. Green shoots poked their heads through the piles of dead, dry limbs as the landscape struggled to heal itself. A colorful reminder amidst the black and brown that life always wins eventually.
Written by Lauren Bringle. Photos also by Lauren. See more of her adventures on Instagram: @laurenbringleyoga
"Yet somehow I still remain cautiously optimistic. Maybe, just maybe, as a society we can learn from our mistakes and shift our perspective to one of caring for the natural world rather than taking it for granted. We need to stop looking at the environment as a resource or something that needs conquering, but instead of something that needs to be cared for - because it's a part of all of us." - Nick Zator
It's been a while since I've put together a film project. As soon as I decided to make another one, I knew my inspiration would be based on how I've continuously let myself run wild & free throughout nature's playground, inviting many friends along for the journey and meeting new inspiring superhumans along the way. This is a special one for me, and my focus this time around isn’t necessarily about dance, but rather the energy we absorb from Earth’s natural lands, and how it can move our souls in the most simplest of ways.
To take my "Tuesday night therapy" outside the comforts of a studio was a first for us. After we spent a few days creating indoors, we ventured off for 4 separate days of filming in various landscapes. With that said, this journey didn’t come without new challenges, obstacles, and lessons along the way. Choosing to create with film in the great outdoors puts you at risk for almost anything - namely the dangers of the wilderness and unexpected weather changes. I’m thankful for having assembled a group who were willing to get out of their comfort zones without hesitation.
The last set of movement projects I captured through film ranged from 2011 - 2013 and I have to admit, it was a bit scary coming back to this familiar territory after taking time away from it all. It almost seems foreign at first and then it slowly returns, but with the feeling of unease and doubt. To be completely open with your art, vision, purpose, and to share your personal work to the world can be overwhelming but ultimately, uplifting. I commend all artists out there who puts themselves in this position repeatedly.
I created this new project to serve as a simple reminder - if you enjoy the natural beauty of our home, please
"take care of our public lands, teach respect and the importance of conservation, take only photos and leave only footprints."
Conservation International states it best - Nature doesn't need people. People need nature.
We hope that our project motivates anyone who watches it to somehow explore more of what the Earth has to offer and take advantage of nature's free therapy. And if you already do this on a regular - cheers to you. Thanks for reading and for taking a closer look. Let's continue to take care of ourselves, each other, and our home. If you're ever craving an adventure, hit me up and let's take you away...
An understanding of the natural world and what’s in it is a source of not only a great curiosity, but great fulfillment. -David Attenborough
Last week, I think I fell in love all over again.
I’m not exactly sure if it was with a “who” or with a “what”. Maybe it was with both? But it happened, and it started above 10,000 feet of elevation in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. So... what exactly happened?
That feeling happened.
You know, that feeling when you first allow love to slowly take over your system after some sort of connection, interaction, or exchange. All this time I thought I was already in love with the great outdoors, but for some reason, this recent experience re-opened my soul, knocked me out, took me to another level, and had me seeing stars, literally. It felt different, yet familiar.
Was it just a reminder of some sort, resurfacing it’s way to the top? Perhaps.
Was it the altitude sickness affecting my brain? I wouldn’t doubt it.
Was it mutual? Hmm... no clue. I unfortunately did not stick around long enough to ask.
But also, who says falling in love has to be with someone? We can all be capable of falling in love with a new city, a new country, a dog, song, a best friend, a restaurant, our craft, our home. Love can be anything. Love can be free.
And my heart as of late, has never felt this free in a long time. More wild, open, fluid, adaptable, and constantly curious.
I may have just fallen in love with this recent experience I had in the wilderness - which includes everything and everyone that was involved, intertwined with my childhood memories coming into the forefront.
Before I wrote this, I had finally finished unpacking my clothes out of my backpack, still heavily fragrant in campfire smoke, skillet-cooked meats, and burnt almond wood. My trip consisted of spending four days in the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains, approximately 6 hours away from where I live, disconnected from civilization, internet, traffic, and city pollutants.
We set up our home away from home next to Saddlebag Lake, which, on the opposite end nearly 2 miles away, holds the entrance to the 20 Lakes Basin in the Hoover Wilderness. To our west, the Tioga Pass entrance to a side of Yosemite I was excited to finally experience.
Along with me were 17 other colorful strangers & friends. We came together to unplug, and to strip ourselves of everything that society defined us to be. You put a handful of wild souls together from all over the map for several days, high above the treeline, and some beautiful things are bound to happen.
And something did happen.
So while it’s still fresh in the head, this is my brief poetic attempt in explaining my current state, in retracing my footsteps, in sharing my observations, in connecting the dots, and then, just letting it be...
So what exactly is my “love above 10,000 feet?”
In no special order...
It’s the weather playing mind games with you. Bi-polar, unapologetic, mysterious. No matter the circumstance, you’re prepared to either fight back or simply give in.
It’s pure, unfiltered, clean air. So fresh, that you’ll feel a tinge of suffocation when you return home because it instantly reminds you of something you’ve been living without for years.
It’s when the temperatures reach below freezing, and you accept it nonchalantly, because you have both the campfire and someone’s body warmth to make it all OK.
It’s your entire squad being unexpectedly separated in the open wild, and finding your comfort in a new friend.
It’s the moment when you realize that you’re going to be that last person falling behind on the trail. And when you look up, you find your friends adjust their pace to your level and push you all the way to the top.
It’s having an out-of-body, emotional experience simply by practising yoga outdoors. Natural ground with no mats, nature’s soundtrack and the scents of the Earth.
It’s meeting that married couple, whose support for each other is so addictive, adorable, and genuine, that it makes you rethink your own doubts on love & relationships.
It’s instantly connecting with someone for the first time, excited that by the end of the trip, you’ll be going home to the same county.
It’s also instantly connecting with someone for the first time, and then realizing that you’ll be going home to two different sides of the country.
It’s the sounds of water boiling in a pot, food sizzling on a cast-iron skillet, and coffee beans being ground by hand, ready to provide you fuel for your next trek.
It’s the childlike wonder. It’s re-entering your childhood, and re-living the memories of your family camping trips.
It’s meeting one of your best friends during your teenage years, growing up through your twenties, and finding yourselves together out here in your thirties.
It’s the mountains welcoming you, demanding your respect, and then embracing your every footstep.
It’s all the frustrations while trying to figure out the answers of childlike camp games.
It’s reuniting with friends you haven’t seen in a few years. It’s reconnecting with people who were meant to be in your life.
It’s jumping in the lake no matter how crazy it seems or how cold the water is, and coming back out with all of your senses fully stimulated.
It’s waking up next to your friend cuddling with your pack, and then low-key wishing it was you instead because you’re freezing your a** off.
It’s relishing the moments with your group in slow motion.
It’s the simple joy of having theme days (i.e. flannel day) on your trips, no matter how old you are.
It’s those surprisingly deep talks you share with someone as you make your way back to your campsite, and then slowing down your pace because you just don’t want the conversation to end.
It’s live music around the campfire and on the trails.
It’s your new friend giving you a personal kayak lesson, no matter how many times you think you know the way. It’s that friend who chooses your safety first over everything.
It’s the altitude completely wiping you out, and then suddenly breathing life back into your system.
It’s cleansing your whole being, while laying inside a natural hot spring.
It’s when you disconnect to reconnect with your soul through nature.
It’s the continuous flow of learning, growth, and acceptance that the outdoors can provide.
It’s the feeling of being humbled just by looking above and beyond. That personal reminder of how small of a speck you are in this world.
It’s the million stars sky high above your head, with nightly viewings of the Milky Way Galaxy and shooting stars so close you can feel it’s speed.
It’s when all of your personal expectations and all of the world’s distractions quietly fade into the background, and you’re able to finally see the forest past the trees.
It’s when you live for these moments. For newness. For that next adventure.
It’s when you realize that going outside...simply feels like going home.
Since claiming a landslide victory in the Philippine election on May 9, President Duterte has killed more than 3000 people in his war on drugs. These killings have often been carried out arbitrarily, by both the police force and unidentified attackers. Consequently the Australian Government's Smart Traveller website has advised that travellers use a “high degree of caution” when travelling to the Philippines.
Our trip had been planned several months prior and we were not deterred by the warnings, or Duterte’s drug war. Although the country is experiencing some problems, the citizens are some of the friendliest that I have ever met; they are jovial, forever smiling and always keen to chat.
After some research, Siargao Island, located in the southeast corner of the Philippines had been chosen due to its reputation as the “8th best surf spot in the world”, its seclusion and its overwhelming beauty.
Siargao Island, located in the province of Surigao del Norte, is just one of the 7,641 islands that make up the archipelago. It’s a short, fifty-minute trip from Cebu, with only one flight in-and-out per day. Alternatively, there’s a boat from Surigao City to Dapa, which takes about 3.5 hours.
The island is dotted with coconut palms, white sandy beaches, a large mangrove forest, several inlets and stunning coral reefs, which make up the surf breaks that are scattered along the east coast. The most famous of these breaks is Cloud 9; a hollow, barrelling right hand tube that breaks hard and fast over a shallow reef. For the less experienced there are a variety of different waves, though they are predominantly reef breaks.
Although the local economy relies on the influx of travellers, and there are a variety of resorts, hostels and restaurants to choose from, Siargao has still managed to hold onto its charm and authenticity, keeping it unscathed from mass tourism.
When you need a break from the crowds for 150PHP ($5AUD) one of the boat drivers can take you out to one of the outer reef breaks and waits for you while you surf. J-Fox, our driver took us to The Bommie, Rock Island and Cemeterys; all within a ten-minute boat ride from the Island. It is moments like meeting J-Fox that epitomise travelling for me. Conversing with locals gives me a deeper understanding of humanity and makes me appreciate the opportunities that I have been given in life.
During our stay we went on the Island Hopping tour, which comprised Naked, Daku and Guyam Island. Apart from Naked Island, which is a sandbar that is only accessible on low tide, it’s hard to encapsulate the beauty of these islands in words. Turquoise water, white sand beaches and coconut palms cover both Daku and Guyam Island. On our arrival on Daku the locals picked fresh coconuts and prepared the fresh food, letting us chill and explore the island, laze about under the hut, or swim in the azure-green, twenty-nine degree water. The surrounding islands of Siargao truly embody a traveller’s paradise.
Another expedition that we went on was to Bucas Grande and Sohoton Cove - a 2.5 hour journey from General Luna. It’s advisable to take earplugs as the roar of the boat becomes deafening. The Cove comprises a variety of inlets, channels and openings, which give way to steep, sharp, limestone cliffs and islets that are covered with thick vegetation and stalactites. It’s an enchanted beauty; one where you almost expect a mermaid to pop up at any time and say “hello”.
The islets give way to caves, which can only be entered at low tide. Our guide took us to Hagukan Cave. The only way to enter is to swim down, popping up inside an eerie, glowing, open-air cavern, completely separated from the outside world. The water was crystal clear, yet extremely salty. Lunch was again bought at the local market before leaving, and the local staff prepared yet another delightful seafood meal. After a full day of swimming, caving and lying in the sun, it was time to return back to Siargao. With a cold beer in hand and the sun setting it was hard not to feel content and at peace with the world.
The variety of waves, beautiful beaches, crystal-clear water, coconut palms, fresh seafood, islands, caves and activities make it an adventurer’s paradise. It isn’t just the stunning beauty that makes this place, it’s the people too. Although we were from different parts of the world, speaking different languages and coming from different cultures, we had the common bond of adventure and travel. A constant search for that utopian spot, learning through experience. Although there are travel warnings put out there for our safety, if we lived our entire life by the rules who knows how many stunning places we would miss out on, or beautiful people we would encounter.
An incredible feeling has to be shared. Wandering through dense jungle foliage, every turn of the corner looked the same as the last. This made us feel lost in the green expanse, yet safe with how effortlessly our guides led us through.
Located in southern Cambodia, the Cardamom Mountains express unique, pristine environments. Each day we trekked to a new waterfall, a welcoming retreat from the hot, moist tropical climate. We hastily leapt into deep rock pools and showered under powerful streams of water, taking care not to slip on the mossy rock below.
Despite our reluctance to part with this beautiful piece of Earth, we said goodbye and moved on to our next leg of the trip. We arrived at the Boeung Kunchang Primary School, remotely located in the Koh Kong Province on Cambodia, not too far from the mountains we'd been so strongly attached to.
We were welcomed with open arms and open hearts from the moment we arrived. Smiling faces were everywhere, the kids eager to start a football match under the hot and heavy midday sun. Keen to get to work, we delegated tasks and from that point on it felt like the work never stopped.
We chipped away at walls, dug up ground, slapped on paint, and sweated incessantly. The kids wanted to help out too, filling up water buckets, painting walls and mischievously playing tricks with us. We struggled to keep up with their non-stop energy!
After four days of intensive manual labour, litres of sweat and isles of smiles, the school had a refurbished library to move in to, freshly painted classrooms, and a brand new sanitation block to put to use once school resumes. Our vision was to transform the school into something the students and staff could be proud of. The success of this project was a testament to the passion held by the students, staff and volunteers to deliver and improve access to education in Cambodia.
Written by Renae Verboon. Photos by Tom Jessett.
Check out more of Tom's photography and adventures on Instagram: @trex.photography.
Click here to find out more about our upcoming trips to Cambodia.
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