Ten years ago today, on my 24th birthday, I set out on my biggest adventure yet. I had recently graduated from theatre school and was looking for something completely different to do. I researched various travel companies, looked at backpacking options and read about volunteer trips before finally deciding to head to Kenya to volunteer in an orphanage. I couldn’t think of anything that would be further away from my current life and thought it would be an interesting and challenging way to kick off my 24th year on earth.
Heading in, I knew it would be an adventure. After touching down at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, making my way through customs and heading out to find my ride into the capital city, Nairobi, I knew immediately that my time here would be a completely life-changing experience.
I arrived in January 2008, while the country was still in the midst of the violence that erupted following the election on December 27, 2007. I had been following what was happening closely and speaking with members of the Global Volunteer Network (the organization I was going with) who were currently in Kenya to decide if I should be pulling out like some of the others had – and like I’m sure many of my friends and family hoped I would. But in the end, I decided I was still going. It was a clash of tribes and at this point, no foreigners had been harmed. I knew I’d have to watch where I was going and stay away from the growing number of rallies taking place, but overall I still really wanted to go. So on January 12th, after one final wave and “Happy Birthday” from my tearful mother, I boarded the plane and headed to Kenya to meet the handful of other volunteers who still elected to start that week. After a couple days of orientation, we were sent out to our placements. Some were working in schools, others at local hospitals, and some, like me, were based in various children’s homes. I was placed at the Manaseh Children’s Home just outside of Karen, Kenya with another volunteer who happened to be from Canada.
As we pulled through the gates, we were greeted by a number of the home’s 32 children screaming hello and waving. I was immediately pulled into hugs by the woman who ran the home and the kids, and although it was all very overwhelming, I knew coming had been the right choice.
We quickly settled into life at the children’s home, helping with meals and homework, figuring out what days the water was working to shower, playing outside and trying to infuse as much love as possible to these kids who so badly just wanted to be hugged. The children here ranged in age from 4-16 years old, and while some spoke more English and were able to communicate with us easier, we had no trouble communicating with laughs and smiles as we ran around outside or worked on homework questions.
Many of the kids here would finish their homework only to ask us to make them more questions. They so desperately wanted to learn and knew how important getting an education was to improving their life. I learned that primary school is free to attend, but you need to be able to afford the uniform, leather shoes, books and lunches, so school is still out of reach for many Kenyan children. I asked why some of the children here weren’t in school and was told they didn’t have the money to cover all the fees. I had put on a show to fundraise before I left so I’d be able to help with things like this and soon all the kids were in school. We’d visit the classrooms the kids went to and lead them all in songs and games. Walking into a kindergarten classroom to find all the kids quietly drinking tea and waiting for their next lesson is something I’ll never forget.
After purchasing some soccer balls, we’d spend many afternoons playing soccer games in the back field and hours sitting around cutting up mangos and passion fruit while the kids taught us Swahili words and laughed hysterically when we’d mess them up. They would entertain themselves for hours playing with an old water bottle or an empty yogurt cup as real toys were few and far between here. Some days, I’d spend hours getting my hair braided and re-braided by the girls wanting to practice or teach the younger ones.
We spent time in the kitchen learning how to make chapati, which were my favourite and a rare treat around the orphanage for special occasions.
Generally, our meals consisted of rice or ugali and whatever vegetables the owner could get for a discount (usually meaning they were close to being bad). Meat was a rare treat and usually only happened when one of us went to visit a local butcher (for more on that experience check out my Kenyan Valentine’s Day post!) Most nights would end with everyone gathered around the living room after dinner and at least one child climbing into my lap and falling asleep.
While I was there, we’d also have weekly volunteer outings, where those of us placed nearby would go for dinner or a movie or visit a local attraction. We went camping in the Ngong Hills (careful to put all food away at night so we wouldn’t attract the local lions), and visited an animal orphanage where I got to pet a cheetah!
But my favourite outing of all was visiting the Giraffe Centre where you could pet, feed and kiss the giraffes!
We took a bus trip to Mombasa and Diani Beach, where we slept in tree houses, swam in the warm Indian Ocean and visited a local eco park.
A few of us also headed north to climb Mount Kenya, not quite reaching the summit as a nasty storm was coming in. Our guide told us he could get us up, but couldn’t guarantee he could get us back down. We decided the last couple thousand metres weren’t that important and headed back down, only to be stopped while a rogue elephant was chased away!
With everything going on in the country, my flight home was cancelled, allowing me to stay longer and experience more. We had a pizza party movie night, where most of the kids tried pizza for the first time (many didn’t like it). We also had cake and ice cream for Valentine’s Day, but most of them let the ice cream melt and then drank it as it was too cold.
I went to the boys’ boarding school for parent night and met their teachers, learned to make beaded jewellery, and helped fund an outdoor kitchen so that they’d be able to cook their meals even when it was raining. Imagine not being able to get your stove to start if it rained and trying to cook on an open fire indoors, creating thick smoke throughout the house. Things like that really opened my eyes.
For the most part, my time there was safe and uneventful, though one night a couple of weeks after arriving, we awoke to screaming coming from next door. Next thing I knew, it seemed like the whole village was up and running around outside. I sat crouched by the window, trying to see what was happening. The next morning, the owner explained that the house next door was broken into and the whole village heard the screams and went out to chase the thieves away. At this point, most people didn’t bother calling the police. They just dealt with issues on their own. We were told that two got away. I never asked what happened to the third. We were also told they weren’t professional. When I asked what the difference was, he explained that if they were professional, they’d have guns, and we could all be dead. Very eye-opening.
It was also a surreal experience watching the news each night. The home had two channels, a local one and the BBC. We’d spend the evening watching horrific scenes of what was happening in the country we were currently living in. I always knew when a particularly bad day had occurred when I’d get a panicked phone call from my parents just making sure I was okay. I was careful about where I went and thankfully the feeling I had that I’d be okay when I decided to come followed me through my time here.
Before leaving, I went on safari to the Maasai Mara with another volunteer. What an incredible experience it was seeing all these animals up close and sleeping out in luxury tents under the African sky. (This was the only time I had a hot shower while I was in Kenya!)
When it was finally time to leave, my kids each packed a chapati for me to take home (customs had a laugh at that as I tearfully explained that I couldn’t leave them behind). After lots of hugs and tears, I finally got in my taxi to head back to the airport. Leaving them all behind was harder than I ever could have imagined it would be, and as I sat in Heathrow on my stopover wrapped up in my Kenyan Kikoy, eating my chapatti, I had to fight the urge to turn around and head right back to the children and experiences that had so greatly impacted my life.
Coming home, I had trouble adjusting back to life here. It took me quite awhile before I could go grocery shopping without crying over the fact that we have 25 kinds of chips, while they survived most days on rice.
My time in Kenya definitely showed me what was important in life – friends, family, experiences, love, and understanding for those who are different from you.
These kids had lost everything and yet were more loving and caring then most of us ever will be. They played with garbage and ate the same meal day in and day out and I never once heard anyone complain. They were always willing to help each other, and although there were fights (as there always are with large groups of kids), the disagreements never lasted long.
It’s hard to believe that ten years have passed since my first trip to Kenya. I still remember everything so vividly that at times it feels like I’ve only just returned. While I’ve had many other amazing travel and life experiences since then, I’m not sure I’ll ever have another that will turn out to be quite as life-changing as this one was.
As always my new year’s resolution for 2018 is to travel. Travel to new places. Travel to old favourite places. Explore and say YES to as many new adventures as I can.
Happy New Year!
Over the years, when I found Christmas tree ornaments that I liked on travels I’d take them home as souvenirs. It started as a fairly sporadic collection, but over the past few years, I’ve tried to find ornaments from each trip to add to my Christmas Travel Tree.
It may not be perfect, but the more you see of the world, the more you understand it and begin to see things from other perspectives. With each place you visit, you take a little piece of it with you when you leave until your soul is filled with all these beautiful little memories to cherish.
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.
When you think of Macau, it’s likely the dazzling casinos and grand hotels that come to mind. I mean, it’s not known as the ‘Vegas of the East’ for nothing. But if you head past all the hustle and bustle and ‘Ka-Ching’ of the slot machines, you’ll find yourself in Coloane, the leafy green part of Macau filled with hiking trails, beaches, temples and the giant pandas!
For more info on the A-Ma statue and cultural village click here
I’ve always enjoyed seeking out ‘Crystals’ in my travels around the world.
From the beautiful Crystal shops in Hungary and the Cristal beer in Cuba to swimming with manatees in Crystal River, Florida to these shining Crystals at the Galaxy in Macau.
So when I heard there was a Crystal Pagoda in the small village of Ban Thaton, where we were staying, near Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand, I just had to go see it for myself.
Wat Thaton is a large temple complex located at the top of a hill overlooking the Mae Kok River. It turned out to be quite a hike up into the hills surrounding Ban Thaton, near the border of Myanmar. The view on the hike up was incredible.
The temple complex is built on several levels, hosting statues, temple buildings and a Buddhist school on the way up to the top.
While the hike itself was beautiful and all the statues and buildings on the way up were great, none were as striking as the Chedi Kaew or Crystal Pagoda.
Sitting at the top of the hill, this colourful building can be seen from miles way. The structure is covered with intricate designs depicting the Buddha’s teachings.Wandering inside, we found a large number of Buddha statues coming from many different countries. In the centre of the Chedi Kaew is a spiral platform that leads to the top level of the building, with more artifacts found along the way.
The Wat Thaton organizes several programs to benefit the local community. A project for local children and hill tribe children aims to bring several communities living in the area closer together.
Within the complex , there is a Buddhist school for monks and novices and a Vipassana meditation center. You can also find a herbal medicine center, a restaurant, a large meeting hall and several other buildings.
So, if you’re headed to Northern Thailand, pack your hiking shoes and visit the beautiful Crystal Pagoda. The Wat Thaton is open from 8 am until 5 pm. Admission is free and the view is incredible!
While in Northern Thailand, what better way to travel from one place to another than by traditional long boat?
After flying into Chiang Rai, we spent the night at The Legend Boutique River Resort & Spa in Chiang Rai, a gorgeous, peaceful spot a short tuk tuk ride from Chiang Rai’s bustling night bazaar.
After a delicious breakfast in the morning, we made our way down to the dock, where a long boat was waiting to take us along the Mae Kok River to our next spot.
It was a long 6 hour journey, but it was peaceful out on the river with hardly anyone else in sight most of the journey and the landscape we stunning.
Our long boat captain knew the river like the back of his hand, easily maneuvering through the sometimes very shallow, sometimes very rough water, knowing exactly where any dangers like rocks or sandbars were hiding.
Along the way, we stopped at the Ruammit Elephant Camp in Karen Village. While you could ride them here, we decided against that and instead spent our time feeding and petting these incredible animals, before heading across the street for a delicious Thai lunch.
Continuing along, we made it to our final destination, the Maekok River Village Resort, another incredible resort on the banks of the Mae Kok.
The grounds here were lush and filled with flowers and you could wake up and have breakfast each morning with a view looking out over the Mae Kok River.
While it may take longer, if you are travelling around Northern Thailand, consider taking a long boat. You won’t regret it!
Halloween is my favourite holiday. I love the decorations, Hocus Pocus, carving pumpkins, and most of all – dressing up. It’s a magical holiday, so what better place to celebrate than at one of the most magical places on earth! Disney World is one of my favourite places to visit and I’ve always wanted to celebrate the most wonderful time of the year with the magic of the park. So this year, I headed to Magic Kingdom for Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party to celebrate Halloween with Mickey and the gang.
The event is a separate ticketed event that runs certain evenings from the end of August until November 1st. Once you get your wristband, you are given a bag to go trick or treating!here were Treat locations set all over the park where you could go to get candy. There were also lots of characters out for photos and autographs, including those who aren’t normally out like Jack and Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas
There were Treat locations set all over the park where you could go to get candy. There are also lot’s of characters out for photos and autographs, including those who aren’t normally out like Jack and Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas.
In Tomorrowland, you can join Mike Wazowski, Sulley and Boo for a Monstrous Scream-O-Ween Ball – a fun dance party with all your favourite songs.
Not all of the rides are open, but there’s still a good selection for those wishing to enjoy them (including The Haunted Mansion, the perfect ride for this time of year!)
Mickey’s “Boo-To-You” Halloween Parade makes its way through the park at 9:15 and 11:15, filled with Mickey and friends as well as a number of villains.
One of the main reasons I wanted to go was to see The Sanderson Sisters in the Hocus Pocus Villain Spelltacular! The sisters were back for the night to brew a potion to create the most Villainous Halloween Party the Kingdom has ever seen. They were joined by a variety of Disney’s greatest villains and ended with their iconic song.
As always, there was a great fireworks show over Cinderella Castle. This one had a Halloween theme. “Happy Hallowishes” invites you to join the 999 happy haunts for an evening of fun!
It was a great night at the park with all of Magic Kingdom decorated for Halloween, but one of my very favourite parts was getting to dress up in costume and seeing everyone else dressed up, wandering around this magical place!
Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party runs from 7pm-12am on certain dates during the Halloween season, but you can typically start entering the park as of 4pm. Just be sure to get your wristband as only party guests are allowed in the park after 7pm.
Be sure to check out the costume guidelines on the website before planning what character you want to be.
Treat bags are fairly small, so if you want to hit all the locations, you might want to bring a bigger bag or buy one at the park.
The character lines are LONG, especially Jack and Sally. They are out before the party officially starts, so you can get in line early or try later at night.
For more info visit the park’s website
Full length versions:
Happy Hallowishes Fireworks
Hocus Pocus Villain Spelltacular