A Kind Travel Guide

I am about 7 weeks away from having my first child and have discovered another truly wonderful pregnancy symptom: third trimester insomnia. I often find myself lying in bed trying to catch the train back to the Land of Nod and sometimes I do, but more often than not I end up on the couch flanked by a Pug and an Allen. Before this mornings interruption I tried a faithful tact – visualising myself in the most tranquil setting I could imagine. Invariably this takes me back to Ubud – a jungle town located in the mountains of Bali, Indonesia. An hour past the hustle of the main tourist region of Kuta you can find a paradise that will forever be fodder for your late night meditations (even the unsuccessful ones).

This is the most relaxed I think I have ever been.

Bali often gets painted as an island of abandonment. A place where the trinkets are cheap, the drinks are flowing and ‘luxury’ is within reach of the common man. While holiday spending is somewhat a necessity (Bali’s primary industry is tourism, after all) the encouragement of ‘reckless’ consumption can be at a detriment to the local environment, people and animals. But fear not – there are plenty of ways to find relaxation and fun without harming the environment or becoming a culturally insensitive ‘Bali Bogan’. While my experience was specific to Bali the same principles can be applied on any travels, particularly in South East Asia.

Consider ‘Alternate’ Accommodation

There are plenty of accommodation options past the generic hotel chains where it is accepted that you can treat the staff like garbage if you wish. We visited a friend in the lobby of one such hotel and I couldn’t believe the way some young (i’m ashamed to say) Aussie girls were treating the staff – it was painful to watch. My hubby and I instead opted for Pondok Saraswati which comprised of 4 open-aired villas within a village compound. Overlooking the breathtakingly beautiful rice paddies, you are accepted here as part of the family and do not have ‘mignons’ at your beck and call – a holiday ‘feature’ I was determined to avoid. The villa was simple and free of all mod cons – just a bedroom, a mosquito net, some day beds and an jungle style shower. Bliss.

The open air ground floor – simple and divine.

How can something so simple be SO tasty. Fruit, fresh coconut and palm sugar.

One of the gorgeous staff members would come past every morning to offer and bring breakfast (the most amazing tropical fruit I have ever tasted) and beyond that you are on your own. You were always welcomed at the kitchen (where there was a bar fridge full of Bintang) and there was always someone to chat with. Instead of being pigeon holed into one monotonous task, the employees here (mostly extended family members) had a range of jobs from tending to the gardens, cleaning, cooking. They all described it as a far more full-fulling style of work.  Nyomen Rusni a hilarious, matter-of-fact woman, manages the resort and is more than happy to drive you in and around town for a flat rate. In the end we were sad to leave more due to the friendships than the stunning setting. I could not recommend more looking for this slightly ‘alternative’ form of accommodation instead of the cookie-cutter chain experience. Search for bed and breakfasts and retreats when deciding on your accommodation.

With the Pondok family (Nyomen is just next to me).

The view from the shower. DREAMY.

Don’t Be A Snob

As can be displayed in this repugnant – not to mention uneducated – article by The Age’s Carolyn Webb,  Australians can foster a certain attitude towards the Balinese. Ms Webb skillfully manages to display a complete lack of understanding of the concept of poverty while simultaneously conjuring up this caricature of a racist, self-important parrot. Talented journo that one. She complains about being ‘harassed’ by “frankly terrible street touts”. Yes, in Bali you will be approached by Street Sellers who want you to buy superfluous nicknack’s. Yes, you may get conned a couple of times and spend $10 on a massage instead of $5. If this upsets you, instead of following Ms Webb’s lead and being a condescending and offensive prick about it, try and remind yourself of the economic climate you are enjoying. Bali is a developing country that has been devastated by terrorist attacks, bad press due to foolish decisions (drug smugglers) not to mention our old friend the GFC. While a lot of Australians have had to tighten the proverbial belt the Balinese have had to more literally address their belt buckles – in fact the average Bali family survives on the equivalent of $100AUD a month.

On top of that, the industry that is carrying the country is also destroying it. The once agriculturally self-sufficient island is now crippled by its lifeblood; fields have been converted into hotels, water is diverted from crops to golf courses, streams are polluted with rubbish. If you want to learn more about how this rampant tourism is both killing and supporting Bali then watch the below short documentary Bali: They Paved Paradise which was featured on ABC’s Foreign Correspondent.

So instead of getting frustrated (don’t make me use the hashtag… oh stuff it … #firstworldproblems) try learning a local phrase like “Tidak, terimah kasih” which translates to “No thanks”. Say it with a smile and see how that goes. Chat with the people too. I got some wicked hints of local places to eat, attractions to visit and also managed to have a competitive game of ping pong just from sporting a grin.

Cruelty Free Animal Encounters

I am sure I would be considered a spoil-sport but regardless… I am often horrified by the Facebook holiday snaps I see on Facebook where people are posing with baby orang-utans and suspiciously sedate looking tigers. A baby orangutan is no different to a baby human – it should never be seperated from its mother. A tiger is very different and being a ferocious carnivore should want to eat you. Yet for our own pleasure and cheap entertainment we are altering natural behaviours of wild and beautiful animals. Recently a disturbing new tourist trend emerged in Thailand called ‘Tiger Teasing’. Tigers are allegedly drugged and then teased by tourist in shallow pools with bags of food (see the video here). What could go wrong? This trend is verging towards the upper eschalon of animal exploitation in the name of tourism but allegations of druggings have long been present even at the ‘friendlier’ parks and zoos. Tigers, orangutans and elephants are routinely used as props and (due to the cycle of poverty that is enslaving them) are treated very badly. It is not neccesarily the owners/trainers fault (though depraved acts have been documented) but instead those that are demanding the service… tourists.

Image by Emily Ehlers

The point is – if you truly love animals and are looking for an up close and personal experience – then choose an activity that helps them rather than harms them. Elephant trekking seems to be a favorite pastime. But these elephants are routinely beaten with bullhooks or electric prods. And if you want to learn how baby elephants are trained just google ‘Phajaan’ or ‘The Crush’  – trekking may not seem so attractive then. Instead of this why not visit an elephant sanctuary where you can bathe with the elephants, feed them and clean them without the cruelty linked to the trek? For example The Surin Project is an amazing and holistic organisation. Instead of confiscating the elephants from mahouts and consequently driving up demand for the illegal trade of elephant smuggling, Surin provides a sanctuary for the elephant AND the trainer and their family. They provide a synergy of animal welfare and employment (growing food for the elephants, manning the sancutary). These opportunities are all around for all types of animals – you just have to look for it! Be informed, make the kind choice.

A baby elephant learns about Phajaan.

If you are interested in a holiday centred entirely around volunteerism and helping abused/neglected animals then you may want to check out my past blog about my short visit to BAWA (Bali Animal Welfare Association). She that here.

Eat Local Cuisine

Eat the cuisine of the region. Make a resolution that you are going to experience the place in it’s entirity. I am always flabbergasted when people go to these places and then visit Western restaurants… or worse… fast food chains!!!  In fact my favorite meal was the simplest. You will never try tropical fruit like this.

My own thought…. if you have ever wanted to try vegetarianism/veganism then South East Asia is the place to do it. In Bali I ate some of the best vegetarian food I have ever had in my life. And hey, if you make a holiday resolution there you may find it sticks when you get back? Here’s me with my fave meal in Bali (Gado Gado)…


Eco Activities

While you are away choose to partake in kind activites. Use the rule of thumb – it should not exploit the people, the animals or the environment. While you are dreaming up your perfect holiday and researching prices… go that step further and look into the companies as well. Make sure that workers are being paid fairly, animals are not used as gimmicks and try to ascertain the philosophy behind the company. Travel blogs can be SO helpful this way as well as travel forums. I was going to visit a ‘reputable’ Turtle Sanctuary in Nusa Dua but was warned off it by a friend. I was shocked – it has ‘sanctuary’ in the title… surely it was legit? I then let me fingers wander to google and found this article which confirmed my fears – I almost got greenwashed! A near miss for something that sounded so genuine. Research, research, research.

There is plenty available in the way of ‘Eco’ touring!

An example of a ‘nice’ activity we found was the Bali Eco Cycling Tour. Not only was this tour one of my favourite experiences of our Bali trip, but of all my holidays. For a very reasonable price we were treated to an educational tour down the main volcano in Bali (Mt Batur) and this included 2 of the most delicious meals I have ever had the pleasure of noshing as well as hotel transfer. It was truly amazing. I will end this blog article with some happy snaps…

We started the day by having breakfast in a cloud… literally! Looking out the windows of this restaurant was opaque white. Then the clouds cleared and revealed a massive volcano and the Crater Lake which provides the water to the entire island of Bali!!!

Our gorgeous tour guide, 16 year old Ring (“like jewellry ‘cept i’m worth more!). This kid was a comedian and the thing I loved was that his dream was to become an English teacher… rather than a carpenter like his father. Therefore this job as a tour guide was helping him perfect his English – he had a firm grasp of it including some dirty jokes. Here he was trying to convince one of us the eat the ‘sweetest chilli in Bali’ which was actually the hottest.  

Amazing rice paddies.

With my love.

We were shown through a family compound where we met these delightful scallywags!!! Another note… take gifts for the children. I had children begging me for biro’s and notepads. Next time I go I will be taking a massive stash of books, pads, pencils etc.

ZOOM ZOOM ZOOM. Just to show how nice the tour guide was (and what a Hobbit I am) I forgot to wear shoes. Ring gave me his pair of thongs!!!

I faced a fear and had this ‘friendly’ Orb Weaver on me. I was amazed at how heavy it was! It’s legs… or feet?… were so sharp. Like little pins.

The best meal I have ever had in my life. EVER. I preordered the vegan option and got this wondrous plate was awaiting me. Gado Gado, Goreng, Green Salad (hot hot mix of coconut, chilli and herbs), cabbage rolls and Sticky Tempeh (which a fellow tourer was convinced was pork!). Amazing.

And dessert? Well. Bali really reminded me that simplicity is key…

So. Those are my tips and a little bit of my own experiences. What about you? What are ‘kind’ travel tips that you use? Or do you disagree with any of mine? Have you been anywhere particularly wonderful? Please share in the comments!

Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life…

A close friend of mine is going through a really tough time at the moment due to an out-of-the-blue, awful family breakdown. Seeing her so despondent has been hard, especially when I really think about the situation and realise that is does indeed seem pretty hopeless.  Following a week of high octane-emotion it all culminated last night when I started blubbing because some poor, confused shelf stacker told me the store would no longer be stocking Borax. Sadly my pregnant belly is not showing properly enough to be able to blame my crazy emotional state and I had to scuttle out of the store mumbling something about ‘family feuding’ and ‘DIY cleaning products’. Not the most positive state of mind.

So as of this morning I needed to remind myself that good can come from seemingly hopeless situations. It actually didn’t take long before I stumbled upon a whole load of green innovations and kind acts. I came to the conclusion that nothing is ever hopeless and I should stick my chin back up in the air. I am in a much better mood now – with or without my local supply of Borax. Take a stroll with me…

Christchurch Eco-Rebuilds

2011 has not been the best for our Kiwi counterparts. Christchurch was hit by a devastating earthquake in February that resulted in 185 deaths which was followed by a large and damaging aftershock in June. The Cashel Mall was destroyed in the earthquake which eliminated a cultural hub for citizens trying to rebuild their lives. As a temporary solution to try and stimulate tourism to the city – Re:START was born. Old shipping containers were employed to create a provisional shopping mall and inject a bit of life back into the city. While I am not into the needless consumerism that shopping malls inherently support I do agree with creating a colourful, vibrant zone for people to meet – especially when it’s made from recycled materials! I think it looks absolutely stunning. Wouldn’t it be great if more developments were made with these low-impact, reused materials? I hope it has lifted the spirits of everyone in Christchurch who are going through such a difficult time.

Learn more about Re:START here.

The Tide Turns For Australian Marine Life

On the 14 June 2012 a historic announcement was made – Australian Environment Minister Tony Burke proclaimed the world’s largest network of marine sanctuaries. HALLELUJAH! After constant stories of destruction and  corporate greed triumphing over the worlds prized habitats (and the amazing creatures that live within them) finally the environment has won out. That is worth celebrating I think. Read all about it here at the Save Our Marine Life webpage.

Laboratory Chimps See Sunlight For First Time

I am yet to watch this without crying. Ten chimpanzees that had been used for medical testing by a pharmaceutical company have been filmed in Austria being released from captivity and seeing sunlight for the first time. They hug each other, scream, jump about and are completely joyous. Most of them were born into captivity (some were kidnapped as babies and flown to Europe) where they were injected with the HIV virus to test for cures. Medical Testing on chimpanzees was outlawed in 1997 however this was after these poor souls had been purchased. An intense legal battle followed and then rehabilitation which brings us to the release video which was filmed in 2011. This gives me hope for the millions of animals that are currently being tested on (read more about Animal Testing here). Get your hanky ready…

Enslaved Elephants Given New Life

It breaks my heart when I see holiday snaps on Facebook of people riding the elephants in Thailand, especially when you notice the blood running down their scalps from the ‘Elephant Hooks’. These Hooks are used by the Mahouts (owners of the elephants) to ‘guide’ and discipline the elephants which are forced to ferry tourists around for pittance. It is barbaric and hard not to direct the anger at those that are inflicted the pain to the poor elephants. The Mahouts are not doing it for their own enjoyment: elephant owners struggle to make a living and therefore move their elephants to the city to support their families. This is where the Surin Project shines. They not only provide a sanctuary for these amazing creatures but also subsidise the Mahouts who can live within the sanctuary while they are educated about kinder ways to provide sustainable economic revenue.

If interacting with the native animals is part of your holiday ‘must’ list then please make sure you investigate what sort of industry you are supporting before adding to the vicious cycle. You can get up close and personal with these personable pachyderms by visiting the Surin Sanctuary or go one better and volunteer there. I will steal words from Ellie’s testimonial – “You will never forget the sensation of an elephants’ trunk in your hand”. To find out more about volunteering at Surin see this link.

If you would like to learn more about the Surin Project see this link.

These Pictures – Nuff Said

Last week Buzzfeed went viral with their slideshow of 21 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith In Humanity. They kinda did.

Two Norwegian men rescue a sheep drowning off the coastline…

A firefighter rescuing a cat…

A man gives his shoes to a homeless girl in Rio de Janeiro…

A villager rescues kittens from a flood in Cuttack City, India;

And My Old Favorite 

In terms of seeing the good instead of the bad I can never go past Alice Herz Sommer: an 108 year old Holocaust survivor who also happens to be the worlds most positive person.