Friday, March 18, 2016

HelpX 2: Wongawallan

             Our first awesome HelpX experience having whetted our appetite, we decided to let HelpX pick our next destination. Spending weekends in Brisbane meant we wanted to stay on the Gold Coast. So we scouted a few HelpX posts, and we were lucky enough to get a reply from one host. At that point, we had no idea just how lucky we were. And they had no idea how unlucky they were.


             These hosts had a property near Coomera station, so we hopped on a train on a Monday afternoon, and got to see the Gold Coast countryside again from the train windows. Our hosts have vast acres of land nestled between hills in Wongawallan, where they are in the process of building a house. My pictures don’t do it justice, but this was the Australia we had envisioned, wild, isolated, serene. Rather than put us straight to work as would have been fair, Dan brought us to the local swimming hole for a dip. In a sign of things to come, I spilled beer in the car while trying to pick up his phone. I wiped it off with our towel. For the next week and a half, I was going to be functioning without a brain. But I digress.  The wide yet shallow creek was warm from a day in the sun, but just perfect for us to cool off in with a beer in hand. After a while we headed back to the property, and we sat down for a lovely family dinner. Once again, HelpX had come through for us. This kind of traveling, meeting great people, made to feel part of the family, eating delicious home-cooked meals, and discovering locations held secret to the average tourist, is definitely for us.

Rosie lost her best friend two weeks ago. They were inseparable.

Of course, there is work to do. However, HelpX hosts seem to be careful not to scare away helpers, so even the work is either fun or not difficult. For Dan we had to spray weeds, water plants (I broke the nozzle of the hose), collect rocks (Hi-ho, hi-ho…), line them up along the driveway, and then, the best part of all, we had to cement them into place. That meant mixing cement ourselves, and pouring it ourselves. Here not only did I manage to drain the battery of the mower I was using to haul rocks, I also let cement dry in the mixer and had to chip it out. We also got to work at Jo’s mom’s house, where we cleaned her pool, dug up some plants and leveled the soil for turf, and then we got to the fun part: the water-blaster. There were tiles around a pool stained by weathering, and all they needed was a little high-powered pressurized water to bring them back to life. The blaster was so strong I had pins and needles in my arms after using it. The dirt didn’t stand a chance. Neither did the pool. The water blasted most of the dirt straight into it. So much for cleaning it. Even worse, I sectioned the hose feeding a sprinkler while digging… I also forgot my shorts between locations not once, but twice. I had become a walking calamity.

 For those of you who haven’t become a Dumb and Dumber character, the best part of working like this is that nothing ever becomes routine. Jobs vary from host to host, but also from day to day with each host. The problem is that you never feel competent at any single job. I’m terrible at mixing cement. I’m terrible at most manual labour. I can only cling to the hope that I am getting less useless with each finished job. In the end the job got done, though not as much as our hosts deserved.

Surfers Paradise under attack. Where are the Watchmen when you need them?

            Since working only lasts 4 hours a day with most HelpX hosts, we had plenty of downtime to enjoy our new surroundings. They were nice enough to drop us off at Surfers Paradise one morning, where we headed for the beach. This was our second walk along the beaches of the Gold Coast, and this time I jumped into the crashing waves. It was a beautiful day, the air was hot, and the waves were big, just a perfect day to spend a morning on the beach.

            The fun didn’t stop there. Our hosts were determined to make our stay unforgettable. So on our last day, Dan took us for a ride on his boat. He dropped the boat in the Coomera River, and we headed for Stradbroke Island. Stradbroke has an interesting history. There are two islands, North and South, which used to be connected at low tide. There was a leper colony on the island, and when its inhabitants died, they would be left in the channel between the islands at low tide. Come high tide, sharks and other creatures would feast on the remains. Now though, there is a nice little café on the southern island, where we stopped for a meal and drinks. Of course in cafés in Australia kangaroos and goannas are also regular patrons, so we got to feed a drooling kangaroo who refused lettuce but loved french fries.

             After that we took off on the boat again racing against the tide that was going out. Then, adventure came to grab us. Or rather it grabbed the boat, which got stuck in shallow water. We were facing the very real prospect of being stuck there for hours until the tide came back, unless we could push the boat to deeper water. We all got out and hauled the boat closer to shore, hoping to find a channel, no luck. We hauled it out back towards the opposite shore, still no luck. We were running out of options, there just aren’t that many directions to haul a boat when you’re stuck in a river. It’s either right or left. But finding deeper water is apparently like plugging a USB, it only works on the third try. Somehow, hauling it back towards shore again, we hit the channel we had hoped to find but missed the first time. With sighs of relief, we jumped back on the boat and headed home just as the sun was setting.

            Throughout all of this, we got to know our hosts, and we’re better for it. One is an accomplished businesswoman who immigrated to Australia from the UK when she was just a backpacker. She built herself up and became quite successful, eventually running her own company and managing dozens of employees. The other manages to wake-up every day for a job he hates, but the money keeps him in it. That takes more determination and heart than I have. After a day’s worth of dirty, grueling work, he comes home and builds his house… I found myself admiring both of them and what they’ve accomplished. They had had two pretty rough weeks before we got there. They lost a beloved dog to a nasty tick that no vet could seem to find. A week later, wild dogs ate one of the two goats they’d picked up from a shelter. On the third week we arrived. These people deserved better. Leaving them on Friday, Squid and I both felt the heartache of separation you’d feel from leaving good friends. Luckily, I would see them again soon, because I’d forgotten my camera on their property!

               They only started working on the property a few months ago, so there’s plenty left to be done over the next several months. If you want to help these good people, you can find these awesome hosts on HelpX.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Our First Experience with HelpX


      We arrived in Australia at Coolangatta airport on January 31st, 159 days after setting off on our voyage around the world. Five months and six days after our initial departure, I needed a holiday from the holiday. I needed to work. That may sound strange, but teaching over the past 7 years gave me a sense of accomplishment that I couldn’t often find in travelling. Trekking to Everest Base Camp can’t exactly be a regular occurrence, and cooking or massage classes aren’t always affordable, so I needed to find something to do that made me feel useful. The person who came to pick us up at the airport was going to help me do that.
      Shortly after joining HelpX, I got a message from Kathy saying she could use two helpers for garden work in an eco-village. We would be provided food and shelter in exchange for four hours of work a day, which is typical for HelpX. She would pick us up from the airport, and we could grab a lift whenever she was going out, so that we could explore the surrounding area. That sounded like a pretty great opportunity, and we jumped at it. We did not regret it. On the contrary, HelpX might provide the best way to visit Australia, which is huge and expensive.

The Best Way to Visit Australia

Swamp hen. These guys can run, swim and fly competently.
For six days we would be able to keep our costs near zero, visit the very “off the beaten path” Currumbin Valley, work among kangaroos and ibises and swamp hens, birds that sounded like fighting monkeys and other birds that sounded like laser guns, learn about gardening (Maybe I’ll stop killing all my plants now?) and best of all, live with an Australian family and feel at home. It helped tremendously that Kathy, her daughter Vanessa and their bird Melasky are wonderful to be around, and perhaps not all HelpXers can be so lucky, but if things aren’t working out for you, you can always hop on to the next host.

Working Among the Kangaroos

We immediately discovered how rich the bird populations of the Gold Coast are. There were birds everywhere, and some were even as large as dogs. It was a novice birdwatcher's paradise. On top of that, every evening and almost every morning, kangaroos would come munch on the grass across the street, or sit in the shade of a tree in the front yard of the house. They would eat, lie there, hop around, fight and scratch. Kangaroos love to scratch, especially their bellies with both hands as if they were digging for something. It’s hilarious. Kangaroos are adorable, even when they fight. Since we were working outside, they would entertain us while we pulled weeds or hacked away at overly vigorous and resilient basil bushes.

The Backwaters of the Gold Coast

In our time off we would wander into a part less travelled of the Gold Coast. The eco-village we were in likely isn’t on any tourist map. But the creek that runs through it is lovely, as are the forests in the highlands surrounding it. Follow the creek and you’ll end up at a beach, with a view of Surfers Paradise in the distance. There was also a beautiful café right in the eco-village. Between the abundant wildlife, the trails, the beaches and the café, there was plenty to keep us entertained. If we were feeling more indoorsish, there was always Netflix.

Now doing this may not provide you with the kind of excitement that say, swimming with sharks would. But after six days of spending close to no money, buying that shark package will be a lot easier to justify. That’s why I think HelpX is the best way to visit expensive countries like Australia.

Following the creek towards the beach.

In the distance, Surfers Paradise.

Small-dog sized Ibises forage in an expanding circle.

It's not just the birds that are weird, so are the trees.

Caught in a shower.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Sad Birds of Japan

            Meet Jim. Jim’s a nice guy. Jim isn’t picky about what he eats; he’s an omnivore. Jim is pretty sociable and well behaved, so nobles of Japan’s Heian period (794-1185) liked to keep his kind as pets. Heian means “peace”, and the period is celebrated for its poetry and literature. Brown-eared Bulbuls were a part of that. Jim is also a pollinator, which is unusual for birds his size, and he can eat the fruits of 53 different plants, helping disperse their seeds. As such Jim is a good friend of the forest, too. Now this would make Jim an esteemed and accomplished member of society, but underneath this respectable façade lies a secret. You see Jim has a problem. He’s seen things. Terrible things.

          Meet Jim, the bird who suffers from PTSD. While everyone else is enjoying the multitudes of treasures and pleasures that Japan has to offer, Jim can be heard reliving the horrors of his troubled past. His long, high-pitched screams will wake you up in the morning, or they will jar you out of your daydreams. This has led many to call Jim a “Noisy Bulbul”, which is rather insensitive considering his condition. Poor Jim, listen to him. Only the trees of the forest know what Jim has seen, what Jim has done. Since I don’t speak Entish, I guess we’ll never know his secret.

You might meet Jim in Japan, Korea, Eastern China or Taiwan. So please, if you see Jim, try to talk him into getting the professional help he needs. We’ve all suffered enough.

            Now meet a lovely owl whose exact name I’ve forgotten. He or she, let’s say “she” this time and call her Kim, is a Spectacled Owl, found mostly in South America. The poor thing was a newcomer to the owl café (yes, owl cafés are a thing in Japan), having arrived only three weeks before our visit. Far from being welcomed by its brethren, they had bullied Kim mercilessly day and night. The staff said this was because owls are territorial, but also because they found her dark face scary and intimidating. The owls all glared at Kim, especially the “queen” of the café, who never broke eye contact with her. It became a game to see how far she would go to keep glaring at Kim. She cared about nothing except giving Kim the evil eye. That was her whole day. Poor Kim sat on her perch, barely daring to move. We felt sorry for Kim. We shouldn’t have.
            It turns out that Spectacled Owls aren’t well liked in the wild either. They are solitary animals, getting together only with their own species and then only to mate. While owls usually answer or react to the calls of other owls even from different species, the Spectacled Owl probably wouldn’t piss on them if they were on fire. The Spectacled Owl often can’t even be bothered to answer calls from its own species. The only interaction it wants is sexual. If you’re not making a booty call, the Spectacled Owl does not give a shit about you. This anti-social behavior starts early. Spectacled Owls usually lay one or two eggs, but the weakest one rarely survives since its stronger sibling forces it to starve or kills it outright.



         Well I can’t dislike an owl; I still love you Kim. And I think it’s mutual, just look at the affection in her eyes.

Oops, not that one, maybe it’s more visible in the next one.
Damn. Just, trust me.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Everest Base Camp Trek - Journal (Part 4)

For our EBC Trek cost-cutting tips.
For a guide to take you there, contact Ngima Tamang.
For part 1 of this EBC Trek journal. It covers days 1 to 3, from Lukla to Phakding to Namche Bazaar.
For part 2 of this EBC Trek journal. It covers days 4 to 6, from Namche Bazaar to Tengboche to Dingboche.
For part 3 of this EBC Trek Journal. It covers days 7 to 9, from Dingboche to Everest and back to Gorak Shep.

Gorak Shep, the town at the end of the world, seen from Kala Pattar. In the middle of the night, it looks smaller, almost fearful of the mountains surrounding it.

Day 10 - The Town at the End of the World
Waking up at 3 :30AM, we threw on every piece of clothing we had in order to take on Kala Pattar before the sun brought the world out of deepfreeze. Leaving Gorak Shep, we were not in total darkness. A crescent moon smiled at us, and the canopy of stars, though not as impressive as in Dingboche on day 7, reserved a special gift for us. Squid saw a long shooting star. 
The sun is just about to take a peek in the valley.
We slowly, tortuously made our way up the snow and rocks, and from a height, all alone in this inhospitable landscape, Gorak Shep looked puny and lost. We were looking at the furthest reach of human civilisation, an isolated outpost forgotten on a distant planet. We certainly dressed the part, bundled up and protected like astronauts. But the cosmos shrank a little when, gingerly at first but with increasing regularity, other hikers came to join us, making us feel connected once again. Then the autumn sun dawned, and all but the Morning Star took a bow in the now purple sky. When it turned pink, even Venus conceded defeat, as we almost did. The trail took us 400 metres up through treacherous rocks and ice in arctic weather. Squid’s feet were wet somehow, and she imagined her toes blackened by frostbite. They felt as though they would have to be amputed. She was not having fun. We left Kala Pattar almost as soon as we reached it, unable to bask in our accomplishment, and our longest day had only begun. Even after a 3-hour hike, a 9-hour slog awaited us, going back through Gorak Shep for breakfast, then on through Lobuche to Thukla for lunch, and finally to Pheriche, with a brief camera pause at the Everest victims’ memorials. That’s what I’d forgotten on day 8.

The view from the memorials.
The location for the memorials was well-chosen, providing probably the most striking views of the entire trek. There you can find the memorial for Scott Fischer, immortalized in Everest (based on Into Thin Air), as well as the memorial for Babu Shiri Sherpa, who summitted Everest ten times before the age of 36. He once climbed it twice in two weeks, and he set the records for the fastest summitting and the longest time on Everest without auxiliary oxygen. He also holds the record for being the youngest to summit. But I don’t know if anyone can ever conquer Everest. Babu Shiri Sherpa died during his 11th attempt to summit, falling into a crevasse. A chilling reminder that Everest defeats even our most gifted and deft. That Tenzig Norgay and Edmund Hillary won the battle of Man vs. Everest for the first time over 60 years ago is a herculean accomplishment. First atop Everest, they have become giants in my eyes.

Other pictures from day 10:

The last of dawn's pink light is almost gone, and there's finally enough
light for my camera to take usable pictures.
Wherever the sunlight isn't hitting yet, it is minus Jesus! Fuck! degrees.
Even our guide was cold because we were so slow.
Near Pheriche, racing against the sun and clouds to arrive before nightfall and its chill.

Day 11 - Making Up for Lost Time
A day lost to snow and rain in Namche on day 4 meant another long day today to catch up,from 8AM to 5PM with about an hour’s break for lunch in Phungke Tenga. I was too tired to write. Still, today was one of the best days of the trek. The road from Pheriche to Tengboche, and Tengboche to Namche carries you through a variety of landscapes, and a relative multitude of towns. 
Mornings make you feel reptilian. The first order of business is always to get your ass into the sun as quickly as possible.

We got to see Ama Dablam in all its glory, dominating the Khumbu Kola valley, magnificient in the midday sun. We got reacquainted with fire bushes and ghost trees, but just when we thought the trip was winding down, and the trail had nothing new to offer, it proffered up birds of all kinds, including a vulture and the strangely out of place looking national bird of Nepal. The Himalayan Monal is much more colorful than I expected Himalayan birds to be.
As the clouds rolled in close to Namche, the world disappeared, enveloped by clouds to leave only the trail about as far as a lantern's glow. There was nothing but the trail and us. It was a fitting image for what the past 10 days had been, when our life shrank to one objective and the road that was taking us to it. I relished the simplicity and peacefulness of it, the camaraderie born of sharing the same goal, and the small town feel of bumping into the same people over and over again. For 11 days the world had made sense, and I knew my place in it from morning to night. All the little nags of the daily grind, all the suffering in the world had receded from my mind and it would have been happy never to bear their assault again.
At that moment I was melancholy, reluctant to leave behind this simple, fulfilling life. Then a light breeze blew. The fact I could smell my own stink brought me back to reality and the need I had for the creature comforts of the civilized world : a hot shower, warm nights, internet access, varied cuisine, beer, skyping with family, a change of clothes, clean clothes, a heat source other than yak dung…  They say meditation brings enlightenment, but breathing your own stink works just as well. Just one more day until Kathmandu.

Other pictures of Day 11:

Once you hit sunlight, you hit your stride. All you need to do is to
avoid the yaks.
I don't know what they're called but you can see why I choose to
call them fire bushes.

Ngima Tamang and Squid, near one of the many "tea houses" or
Nepal's national bird. What exactly is such a large colorful bird
doing 3000m. up?

Day 12 - Day of the Donkey, Squid Takes Off
The trail was very crowded as it was market day in Namche. Porters zipped up and down the trail as though they weren’t carrying the equivalent weight of a small whale, while donkey caravans and ox trains created traffic jams. Of all the pack animals, donkeys are the smelliest, and on parts of the trail, it was impossible to avoid the dung. We did our best to keep moving and we scored a small moral victory : we could hear Ngima breathing.
Not hard, and it was probably because he was sick, but nevermind all that. It felt as though we were finally fast enough to give him some exercise. The man once made the entire trip down from EBC to Lukla in twelve hours, because one of his charges had been airlifted out, but we chose to ignore the more obvious culprits and decided it was because we were setting a good pace. Stop scoffing ! We finally arrived in Lukla at 3 :30PM. Our journey was at an end at last. A hot shower was just a night’s sleep away. Or so we hoped. I was worried our flight the next day would be cancelled, as they often are, forcing us to extend our stay. We would then have to withdraw more money at a very bad rate, and I’d had enough of that. But there was nothing to do but hope for good weather and watch the children of Lukla at play from the hotel windows. The hotel was freezing cold, the bathroom smelled like someone had died in it, but the food and the company were good. That was all we needed anyway.

Day 13 - Departure ?

I woke up at 5AM, worried about the flight. I heard what sounded like rain, so I had little hope. In the end though, our luck came through again. By 8, the skies were clear and the sun was out. We boarded the plane, as the exhaust from the plane made the plants behind it shiver. The flight was beautiful. This time, there were no clouds to hide the valleys and villages. I marveled at all these isolated hamlets, tenuously sewn together by thin trails, spreading over plateaus or nestled atop ridges. I remembered signs on the trail talking about the musk deer of Phorche, the various monastic retreats, the festival in Tengboche or the painting school in Lukla. Each of the villages we were flying over seemed to hold such a secret, waiting to be shared with travellers if only they could find their way there. Nepal looks full of surprises waiting to be reavealed. I can't wait to return.

Our thanks go out to Ngima Tamang and the team for making it possible.