Changing Lives

Our experience with a non-profit organization in Cambodia back in May.

Giving back to local communities was an important part of our travels. We have been sponsoring two children; Bunlanh & Sokty in Cambodia for more than three years. So it was clear for us that we wanted to include Cambodia into our itinerary to visit “Shade for Children” a non-profit organization as well as meeting Bunlanh and Sokty. We ended up teaching English at the center for a couple of weeks and it was a heart warming experience.

Shade for Children is an NGO located between Kep and Kampot in the South of Cambodia. The organisation offers free education for rural children. It currently accommodates 210 children and employs four full-time and four part-time teachers.

This is the beautiful story of Sokkea from Cambodia who grew up during the Khmer Rouge era. Shade for Children was founded by Sokkea who himself had been sponsored as a child by a French couple who enabled him to go to school in Cambodia. One day Sokkea went to the south of Cambodia and found a group of 40 children having lessons under a mango tree at a pagoda.

how it started

Most children in the rural areas of Cambodia help their family with farm work and are unable to attend school. On weekends, this group of children had lessons in the pagoda yard. The children and the volunteer teacher used the shade of the mango to protect themselves from the sun. Sokkea knows how crucial education is and started to support this cause. He collected available books, chairs, tables and whiteboards for the children.

Soon the number of children multiplied and with some funding and the help of friends Sokkea managed to buy a rice field and with further fundraising he was able to start the construction of the school. In 2015 a second home for the children opened its doors.

It was a joy to teach English at the school. The children love going to the center as it is a welcome break from working on the fields. The center really represents a second home for them. The children are very kind and eager to learn. They truly appreciate the opportunity of getting looked after and educated.

The families have very basic homes in this rural area. Their houses only consist of one room which is shared with the whole family, often across three generations. One well is shared among the village and many families don’t even have bathroom facilities. One of the challenges for the center is making the parents aware of the importance of education for their children and to enable them to go to school for a couple of hours per day.

How to support this great cause?

You can make a once off payments or join the distant adoption program. Please find more information on the different programs below.

In order to support the cause, Shade for Children is working in tandem with an Italian NGO called A smile for Cambodia Onus. They’re basically the European branch of Shade for Children. Their contact details are below. All donations are made via Paypal or wire transfer. They issue invoices for tax purposes.

Franco Farao and Silvia Turati are heading A smile for Cambodia, based out of Milan. They do a great job fundraising and spending their valuable time twice a year at the center to help manage the project.

asconclus2011.sad@gmail.com

Alternatively, you can also contact us directly and we’ll happily introduce you to Franco and Silvia and answer any questions you may have.

The center runs two programs;

  1. DAY-CARE Center Program: Children of this program have English lesson and Khmer lesson five times a week. They receive support with donations of Hygienic kits, a school uniform and study material.
  2. Distant Adoption Program: Children of this program are matched with sponsors from different countries. The sponsors are called god-parents and they donate $20 per month for below activities;
    • School material, clothing etc: 45% – $9.00
    • Supplementary food: 32% – $6.40
    • Health care: 3% – $0.60
    • Social events: 2% – $0.40
    • Educational program: 5% – $1.00
    • Administration: 10% – $2.00
    • First aid: 3% – $0.60

The Hugging Empire

Free hug campaigns are all over Social Media and have been around for many years. But did you know there is a woman from the south of India who managed to build a whole empire around free hugs? We wanted to know who this woman is and how she managed to build an empire based on embracing strangers. It is certainly impressive how a girl from a simple South Indian village came to be known internationally as “Amma, the Mother of All.” We spent four days at her headquarters and her birthplace in Kerala being lucky enough to meet Amma personally and to receive a hug.

Despite a lot of controversy we were astonished about how Amma as a woman who was born in a small village and only enjoyed 4 years of school education managed to build an international empire. Only observing the tip of the iceberg during our stay we could clearly see that this woman is a genius. We were staying among 3000 people who are worshiping this woman. Her Amrita university claims to be #1 under private universities in whole India. A great way to gain skilled and influential devotees. Each building has a small Amma temple in the entrance hall to ensure students will always remember her – the mother of all. Attending her Bhajans and different talks showed that she is a natural sales talent and surely is highly influential and a great motivational speaker. We can understand why people would follow her all over the world as her Ashram gives a feeling of belonging and gives people a meaning in their lives through helping the less fortunate.

Who is Amma?
Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi better known as simply Amma is considered to be a saint, guru and humanitarian. Her website states that Amma is the “embodiment of love and compassion, insight and inspiration, wisdom and action, laughter and light. Universal motherhood which accepts and embraces everything, a life of pure giving and celebration.”
She is now 64 years old and is still touring the world giving Darshan. Darshan means “to see” and traditionally, a master is seen but not touched. However, Amma started hugging people in her village when she was a teenager. She held and comforted the lonely and suffering. She individually embraces sometimes over 20,000 people in one day over a course of 22 hours straight. Over the past thirty five years, She has embraced over 26 million times and has built an empire. Her headquarter alone is very impressive. However, she also has developed many additional ashrams and centres across the world. Amma runs a number of nonprofit initiatives such as AYUDH (international youth movement). Amrita SeRVe (sustainable development in villages), Clean India (sustainable waste management) and the main NGO being Embracing the World (global network of charitable projects).

How is it to stay at Ammas Ashram?
First impressions are very overwhelming as the Ashram spreads over a big ground with a couple of high rising buildings for accommodation purposes. The headquarter is home to around 3500 disciples and householders. Amma is displayed everywhere, on every single wall. The facility is secured through walls and barbed wire, a security team and metal detectors.
Facilities include; Kalari Temple, main hall, allopathic hospital, ayurvedic clinic, Indian and western canteen and Indian and western cafe, tailor, coconut and juice stall, supermarket, second hand shop, book printing and binding center, Amrita Life Shop (Ammas health care brand), gift shop where you can by for instance Amma dolls, organic ayurvedic shop, recycling center and close by is one of the private Amrita University located.
You can find anything you need on the grounds of the Ashram and there is technically no need to leave the facilities. You can even get good quality coffee, sweets and all kinds of soft drinks. Amma believes that people would buy these items anyways outside of the ashram grounds. So why not offer it in the Ashram and enable people to spend the money inside the ashram rather than buying from outside vendors. While people are encouraged to practice Pratyahara and self control Amma knows that it is a journey to be fully able to master it. So she gives her followers the chance to withstand temptations within the ashram which will make it easier to withstand them in the outside world as well.
Even though the ashram is located on a big ground and thousands of people are staying here, the place seems to be well organised. We were allotted a double ensuite room on the 12th floor with beautiful seaview. The Ashram charges Rs.250 per person for one night stay including tea twice a day and three meals. Anybody can visit the Ashram. International visitors need to register on the website in advance. People from different walks of life are visiting the Ashram or are permanent residents. It seems that Amma runs a kind of timeshare that enables disciples to purchase an apartment and unoccupied apartments are made available to visitors while a householder is travelling or staying at Ashrams in other locations.

What is the daily program?

  • 04:50 a.m. – 06:00 a.m. Puja (Chanting of Lalita Sahasra Nama)
  • 06:30 a.m. – 07:30 a.m. Meditation
  • 08:30 a.m. – 09:30 a.m. Breakfast
  • 10:00 a.m. – 12:00 a.m. Seva (Karma Yoga)
  • 12:30 p.m. – 02:00 p.m. Lunch
  • 02:00 p.m. – 05:00 p.m. Seva (Karma Yoga)
  • 05:00 p.m. – 06:00 p.m. Meditation
  • 06:30 p.m. – 08:00 p.m. Bhajans (devotional songs)
  • 08:15 p.m. – 09:00p.m. Dinner

Various yoga, meditation and scripture classes also take place almost daily and Darshan (hugging ceremony) for the devotees/visitors takes place on Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday whenever Amma is staying at the Ashram herself. You can take an IAM Meditation Technique course which is free of charge as Amma believes that spiritual learnings are ones birthright. However, this doesn’t apply for the Amrita Yoga classes which are Rs.200 and are taking place on specific days of the week.

What about the Darshan?
In order to attend the Darshan ceremony I collected a token and joined a queue. People often queue hours to hug Amma however, I was lucky and the queue moved quickly. I went through a metal detector and passed security and a cloakroom where I left my belongings. I then was allowed to enter the stage where many disciples were sitting on the ground next to Amma to enjoy her spiritual energy. Behind Amma, there were heavily armed soldiers. Soon it was my turn to kneel down and receive my hug. Amma was quickly told what language I speak before she embraced me. The hug lasted a few seconds and Amma was whispering something in my ear which I wasn’t able to make sense of. For most people it seemed a very emotional experience. Many wept tears as they stumbled away from her embrace. Has it changed my life? Probably not but it was a nice warm hug and an interesting experience.

What are the controversies?
I was surprised to see a trained Elephant being chained to a tree on the ashram grounds to entertain visitors since this is very questionable when it comes to animal welfare. I wonder if Ammas endless love also reaches animal welfare? I was also surprised that the Amrita Life Shop advertises whitening cream for females as Amma supposingly does a lot of work to empower women and doesn’t make any racial differences. It is generally difficult to find specific information online about Amma, the ashram as well as her several NGOs. Even residents seem to have a very vague knowledge or otherwise might be instructed to keep information confidential. There doesn’t seem to be any transparency on income and actual donations made towards humanitarian causes. The website embezzlingtheworld claims that only 10% of foreign donations are given to charitable causes. Gail Tredwell an Australian author who served Amma for 20 years published her autobiography, “Holy Hell” which talks about corruption and rape at the ashram. There are also rumors about unexplained deaths at the ashram.

Successful Puppy Rescue

About two weeks ago we spotted those puppies on the side of the road. We made sure to always have some biscuits and water with us to feed them when passing by. We were hoping that the mother would come back one day or someone local would adopt them. Whoever knows me is probably aware that I am not particularly animal-loving. I don’t know if it was my maternal instinct coming to the surface but I fell in love with these two puppies. A few days later we decided to bring them to the local Animal Rescue Center (ARC) opposite the Chapolim dam wall, 2km north of Chaudi. We were so impressed by this organisation that we wanted to share their great work with you. The shelter is extremely clean and well organised and the animals are so grateful for being looked after that it is heartbreaking. We ended up coming back to the shelter almost everyday to visit our puppies and to volunteer. Puppies needed to get bathed, de-ticked, de-wormed and most importantly kittens and puppies needed to get cuddled and dogs had to get walked. At the moment, this shelter looks after 50 puppies, around 25 dogs, a number of cats and kittens as well as a calf.

The ARC was established in 2005 to help care for sick and injured animals and to also control the population of stray dogs through their animal birth control program. They also provide anti rabies vaccinations, emergency care and feed the animals during the monsoon – this is an essential part of their work as most of them are without food during off season. Another aim of the organisation is educating and raising awareness among the local community on how to take care of their pets as well the many stray animals. They take in hundreds of animals injured on the busy roads. Some find new homes among the local community, or fly back with tourists to their new home.

We also saw a lot of sad things at the centre. ‘Hero’ was found on the beach practically beaten to death and buried in a shallow grave but still alive. Every limb of this poor dog was broken and he’d been hit in the head. As the person who found the dog made a very generous donation, the centre was able to bring him to a clinic for a check up. After a couple of days the shelter raised enough founds and is now able to pay for his surgeries.

IMG-20180127-WA0001.jpg

The ARC is a charitable organisation, purely donation based and needs any support they can get. During high season it is great to see that many people coming to the centre to volunteer or make donations everyday. However, things go very quiet during off season and the shelter needs funds to build a roof before the monsoon hits the region and to feed all the strays during off season.

In case you feel generous you can donate through their Facebook Page or through PayPal arcingoa@gmail.com.

They also put together a wishlist on Amazon. Amazon address form details:
Full name: Animal Rescue Centre
Mobile: 9665636264
Pincode: 403702
Street Address: Left under railway bridge in Chawdi near Canacona train station
Landmark: Opposite Chapolim Dam
City: Canacona
State: Goa

If you would like to volunteer please contact ARC arcingoavolunteers@gmail.com. They are currently also looking for a qualified vet.

Hiking in Nepal

We flew to Kathmandu in November and spent a whole month in Nepal. The first few days were spent in Thamel (touristic district in Kathmandu), recovering from a cold and making an encounter with bed bugs. After our dear friend Juliet arrived, only three days late due to a missed flight connection in Istanbul, we got ready for our trek – the Annapurna Circuit. We hiked in total 200 km in 17 days (Annapurna Circuit: 133km & Annapurna Base Camp 66km) and mastered Thorung La Pass at an altitude of 5,426m/17,802ft which is slightly higher than Everest Base Camp (5380m). The view from Thorung La Pass over Gangapurna, the Annapurnas, Chulu West, Thourungste, the Kali Gandaki and upper Mustang region were absolutely stunning. We started from Besisahar with a fun bus ride up to Bhulbhule (840m). The dirt road was narrow and the bus was swaying dangerously close to steep drops. We started our hike with a side trek to Siurung (1854) to experience a home-stay. The hike was quite challenging and pretty steep so we only managed to arrive after nightfall. However, we got rewarded with a great home-stay experience. Sitting on the kitchen floor next to the fire to see how our host prepared a delicious Dal Bhat. Dal Bhat is a traditional Nepalese dish which consists of lentils- Dal, and rice- Bhat with some veggie side dishes that changes according to the region.

We continued our hike the first few days through lush green landscapes with beautiful warm weather. However, the higher we got the more alpine the landscape became until we started seeing the snow peaks coming closer and closer. On day five we hiked up to Upper Pisang and from there continued to Ghyaru view point which was a very steep climb up to 3700m altitude.

The higher we got the colder and thinner the air became. Once you reach a sleeping altitude of 3,000m, it is advised not to increase your elevation by more than 500m a day. It is also advised to take a rest day at 3,400m for acclimatization purposes. Day six was supposed to be our rest day in Braka. We decided to hike up to an ice lake at 4,635m which turned out to be tougher than we anticipated.

Getting closer to Thorung La Pass, moving uphill only became possible in slow motion. The headache got more intense but the excitement of crossing the path was overwhelming. In the tea-houses everybody talked about the next morning and expressed the fear of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS).

On day nine we were supposed to hike up to Thorung La Pass but it turned out that Mathias was suffering from a strong headache and so we postponed the crossing for the next day. Instead we made our way up to high camp in order to shorten the next days crossing. It was only one kilometer to high camp from Thorung Phedi but it felt like the longest kilometer with many switch backs. At such high altitude every step uphill becomes a struggle. We reached high camp just before noon and only a few 8 bed dormitories were left as high camp books out quickly but can accommodate up to 200 people.

On day ten we woke up at 4am and saw hundreds of headlights. The excitement was incredible. The day had finally come to master the pass. We had a hot soup for breakfast before we disappeared into the freezing dark. As soon as we stepped out our water bottles froze. We eventually reached the pass after 2.5h and everyone was very cheerful. We made it! We reached the pass at 5416m. The walk up was tough but not as bad as we expected. We luckily didn’t experience high winds or snow fall. We spent some time at the pass taking pictures, enjoying the view and celebrating with other hikers. We then started a steep descent but we took it easy on the way down with several breaks and visited temples in Muktinath. We celebrated our success with Yak steak and local beer in the evening.

As we completed the Annapurna Circuit way faster than expected we decided to do the Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) trek as well. We were able to meet up with our friend Juliet in Nayapul to do some trekking together. We expected the trek to be easy after having hiked for 11 days and being acclimatized. However, the ABC trek turned out to be quite tough as the trail consists of many steep steps and you constantly ascend and descent which can be daunting at times. We completed the trek within 5 days and had absolutely stunning views of Annapurna I, Annapurna South, Machapuchre and Hiunchuli.

Both treks have equally nice views and are well sign posted. The treks have many tea-houses along the way for refreshments and overnight stays. We managed both hikes independently however, you can hire porters and guides in Kathmandu and all along the way. Even horse services are offered along Annapurna Circuit. We were suprised to have phone reception all the way up and most tea-houses offer WiFi. We were able to have hot showers almost all along the way with a few exceptions.

Annapurna Circuit Itinerary

  • Day 1: By car to Besisahar (760) and by bus to Bhulbhule (840m). From there we hiked to Siurung (1854m) 10km.
  • Day 2: Siurung (1854m) to Jagat (1300m) 15km.
  • Day 3: Jagat (1300m) to Danagyu (2300m) 19km.
  • Day 4: Danagyu (2300m) to Dhikur Pokhari (3060m) 21km.
  • Day 5: Dhikur Pokhari (3060m) to Braka (3438m) 21km.
  • Day 6: Braka (3438m) to the Ice Lake (4635m) and back, 12km.
  • Day 7: Braka (3438m) to Yak Kharka (4050m) 11km.
  • Day 8: Yak Kharka (4050m) to Thorung Phedi (4500m) 7km.
  • Day 9: Thorung Phedi (4500m) to High Camp (4800m) 1km.
  • Day 10: High Camp (4800m) over Thorung Pass (5416m/17769) to Muktinath (3710m) 13km.
  • Day 11: Muktinath (3710m) to Kagbeni and Tiri (2804) 9.6km and continued by jeep to Jomson.

Annapurna Base Camp Itinerary

  • Day 1: Bus from Nayapul (1070m) by bus to Kimche (1550m) and continued walking to Komrung Danda (2100m) 6.5km.
  • Day 2: Komrung Danda (2100m) to Bamboo (2534m) 14km.
  • Day 3: Bamboo (2534m) to Machapuchre Base Camp (MBC) (3700m) 11km.
  • Day 4: MBC (3700m) to Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) (4130m/13549ft) and back down to Bamboo (2534m) 17km.
  • Day 5: Bamboo (2534m) to Siwai (1530m) 17km and continued from there by jeep and taxi to Pokhara.

India – Golden Triangle

Last month we got our first taste of India doing the Golden Triangle. We arrived in Delhi for Diwali, the Hindu Festival of lights. As a result all trains were fully booked and pressed for time we purchased a customized tour with a driver and overnight trains. We visited Delhi, Pushkar, Jaipur and Varanasi. First impressions were slightly overwhelming even after having traveled in Asian countries before. Streets were filled with the sound of honking cars and motor cycles, crowds coughing and spitting, stray dogs, camels, elephants, goats and holy cows. We learnt that nothing is free in India but very cheap after extensive haggling. It is a big chaos and can be exhausting at times being asked for selfies and to purchase goods from street sellers. Nonetheless we had great eight days visiting five cities, doing a cooking class and experienced Indian trains.

 

New Zealand

We spent two amazing weeks in New Zealand. We went on three road trips and traveled in total 3,500 km. We saw astonishing landscapes and experienced incredible kindness of the Kiwis. A special thank you to the best hosts Jelle & Kirsten. We had a hell of a time.

Next on the map is Australia.

 

 

Kausay Punku

We decided to stay off the tourist track and spend a few days (31 Aug. – 4th Sep.) with Arcadio at his project Kausay Punku in Maska. Kausay Punku (meaning Gate of Life) is a farm using exclusively permaculture/ bio-construction techniques. The farm is situated near Pisac in a Quechua community of the sacred valley of Peru.

The overall aim of the project Kausay Punku is the preservation of ancient Peruvian natural medical practices and of ancient seeds. The idea is to live in sync with nature and bring the traditional Quechua way of life back to the Peruvian youth. A central part of the project is a herbal garden. Arcadio uses herbs to make essential oils. He also offers traditional ancient ceremonies.

We were able to volunteer for a couple of days at the farm and learnt how to make compost as well as making bricks from a mix of mud and hay. A great experience.

Rainbow Mountain

After the Salkantay trek we felt like we wanted another challenge and decided to climb the Rainbow Mountain on the 29th August. The air gets thin at an altitude of 5,200m / 17,060 ft. But don’t worry, the tour guides normally carry oxygen just in case. There are horses for hire to carry up anybody  with altitude sickness. The Rainbow Mountains are an absolute must-see when visiting Cusco. We did an 8 hour hike up to the Rainbow Mountain and back through the Red Valley. Check out these absolutely stunning views!