West and South Coast Sri Lanka

There are two types of people in the world. Those who like to travel and those who don’t. And for those who fall into the travel category, there is a huge sense of achievement when you enter new, unexplored territory and discover that it ticks all the boxes. For me, Sri Lanka is a definite travel success story. It has culture, natural beauty, friendly people, budget prices, delicious food, fascinating history and most surprising of all – traveling here is easy. Unlike many other Asian countries and emerging tourism hotspots, navigating Sri Lanka is simple. There is noticeably less hassling and haggling, people who offer you help generally do just want to help you and the best thing is, we didn’t get sick once. This place truly is heaven on earth.

When you travel, timing can be everything. And there is also a notable feeling of having a win when it comes to nailing the timing of your journey. And the timing that we chose was perfect in more ways than one. First of all, if you want to visit Sri Lanka you should come now. Book a flight, pack your bags and leave immediately! One of the reasons Sri Lanka was so high up our travel hit list was that we wanted to visit while the country is a relatively new tourist destination. Now I am not one of those people who complains about crowds for the sake of complaining (I mean for goodness sake you are always going to have crowds at the Eiffel Tower or Machu Picchu places get popular because they are worth visiting!) but there is a very small, beautiful window when a country comes out of conflict or economic turmoil before the crowds descend and possibly never abate. And for Sri Lanka, that window is already closing. The 26 year long civil war between the Sri Lankan military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) only ended in 2009. According to the Lonely Planet, a record number of tourists visited Sri Lanka in 2011 (over 800,000) which was an increase of almost 40% from the previous year. And there are no signs of tourism slowing down. According to locals, business is better every year. And for someone of my generation, this is a unique opportunity to experience this country before it changes too much. Like I said, I’m not against change and development but I never had the opportunity to visit places like Bali before they became tourist havens. So take my advice and get to Sri Lanka as soon as you can. Before the prices get too high and the crowds get too crazy.

Secondly it is worth noting that Sri Lanka has a very defined tourist season. Arriving in mid April was the best decision we could have made. We still managed to score perfect weather in the South coast before the monsoons rolled in a week later, but we also managed to avoid the European crowds chasing the sun during their winter and were easily able to find accommodation on our arrival at different locations. And the best part – often we were paying up to half the price of peak season rates.

The West and South Coast beaches of Sri Lanka are everything you dream of in an idyllic holiday destination. We started our trip with the obligatory stop over in Negombo as it is the closest place to the airport. While Negombo certainly isn’t anything spectacular, it is a good starting point. We stayed at Sachal Mir’s guesthouse and were warmly welcomed by Massi, the Italian avid traveler who is currently working there. Massi was a wealth of information and we left armed with print outs of guest houses he personally recommended around the country. Next stop was Bentota beach. The beaches in the Bentota area are long, beautiful and uncrowded making it a great place to begin to unwind. There are plenty of great restaurants serving fresh, locally caught seafood and many local operators offering boat trips on the vast lagoon. Bentota has its fair share of high end resort accommodation so the mid range and budget options are more limited compared to other areas. We stayed at Hotel Susantha for 5000 per night including breakfast. It was a simple but clean room, but this guest house does have great beach access. The train line does run right along the beach in front of the hotel so you may want to pack ear plugs.

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The train line along the beach at Bentota

From Bentota we caught the train to Galle and I would highly recommend taking a train journey somewhere along this coast route. The views are stunning as the train hugs the coast the entire way with coconut trees framing the endless stretches of beach. From Galle we took a three wheeler (tuk tuk) to Unawatuna where again we reaped the benefits of visiting in off-season. We found an amazing beachfront room for 4500 including breakfast and AC at Little Villa where the owner claimed they charge $US100 in peak season. Unawatuna is an absolutely stunning beach – with crystal clear waters and fresh seafood dining on the sand by night – but by all accounts it has a very different vibe in the high season. While we experienced tranquility, escape and fell asleep to the sound of waves crashing onto the sand, locals informed us that in peak season you cannot find a room without booking and you cannot get to sleep at night as the tourists party into the wee hours of the morning. So my recommendation – Unawatuna is not to be missed but definitely aim for shoulder season if you can avoid the monsoons.

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Sunset view from our balcony at Unawatuna. You can’t get more “beachfront” than that!

Our final destination on the south coast was Mirissa Beach. Again we had no trouble finding accommodation – another beach front room at Coral Beach which is in the western corner of the first bay, in front of the surf break. Coral Beach is a great place to stay and the staff are very friendly and helpful. There are plenty of rooms, but we managed to score two out of the three beach front rooms with AC and breakfast for 4500 a double. Mirissa is a great place to let your cares melt away into the azure sea while you sip on a Lion Lager or a pineapple juice and enjoy the endless sunshine and fun surf. There are some great restaurants along the beach displaying fresh seafood for you to choose at night as you dine under the stars.

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Another “room with a view” at Coral Beach Mirissa

All I can say is a week on Sri Lanka’s South Coast is the perfect start to a holiday.

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Back to Reality

It is hard to believe we have been back on the Sunshine Coast for just over two months. And this is my first blog post. So I suppose I should make a confession. There is a significant part of me that doesn’t think my ordinary, everyday existence is worth blogging about. There it is! Writing while volunteering in Africa or writing while exploring and adventuring in South America or Europe makes sense – there are infinite opportunities for inspiration and life changing experiences that are begging to be shared. But here? In paradise? Where I live? What would I say?

While it feels somewhat of a relief to come clean and let you in on the fact that I question my everyday existence, I think there is a lot we can learn in processing these kind of thoughts and expectations we have of life. When you come back from a significant stint overseas working in an environment that is so different to your own, there can be a lot of challenges in “coming home”. Adam said to me recently that at the beginning it really frustrated him that everyone wanted to know what it’s like being “back to reality” or “back to the real world”. We were processing this strange concept or assumption and talking about the fact that this “reality” or this “real world” is so far removed from most people’s understanding of reality. My daily routine of walking on the beach, having three lattes, driving my own car, coming home to my own house, having access to any type of food I could ever imagine and living every day without fear – is so far removed from most people’s grasp of “reality”.

The facts show a fairly stark “reality”. An estimated 3.4 million die every year from a water related disease, or one child dies every 20 seconds. There are an estimated 27 million people in slavery today. Almost 1.3 billion people live on less than a dollar a day. All of sudden my reality doesn’t look so “real”.

But for some reason my world is just that – it is my reality. And I think and I hope that every day of my life I will probably struggle to reconcile that. The reason I hope is because I don’t want to get too comfortable and take my life for granted. But I am grateful. I am aware. I am thankful. My experiences have certainly shaped me. Three months in Africa has made me a different person. And that is a good thing because I don’t want to be the same person I have always been. I want to be aware of the world and the impact I can have in it. I don’t want to take my life for granted and I want to keep growing. So while this is my reality for now, I am fairly sure it won’t be forever. But while it is, I am grateful and I plan to make the most of every day. I plan to smile often, to squeeze hard when I hug people, to look for ways to bless others, to love passionately, to use everyone moment of every day wisely, to dream big…ambitious I know…but for some reason I have been blessed with all the tools I need to live that kind of life today so I plan to seize every opportunity while I have it.

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Highlights of Bolivia and Peru

When I’m travelling I usually love to blog as a kind of cathartic, debriefing, reflective exercise. But the last three weeks have been such a whirlwind that I have found it impossible to even catch a moment to gather my thoughts.

And so this blog is a bit of a collection. A pessimist might call it lazy travel writing but as an eternal optimist I prefer to think of it a blogging bonanza. A feast of experiences, a tasting plate of scenery, a degustation of highlights. Actually quite simply I have stolen the concept from my Uncle Gary who has come up with a family tradition of reflecting on your “top three”. Usually this is done over happy hour nibbles and drinks as a way of reminiscing about how awesome the last few days of family festivities been. Around the table, each person must share their three favourite things. I have adopted it as a bit of an approach to life so here are my top three things in Peru and Bolivia (in various categories).

Top three adventures

1. The three night, four day Salkantay trek in Peru. We chose to do this trek as an alternative to the traditional Inca Trail as we had heard some reviews that the Inca trek is getting quite crowded. The Salkantay offers a perfect mix of challenge and reward with views that are simply astounding. We trekked with Inti Sun and were impressed with their service from the beginning planning stages right through. The first two days of the trek were solid days of walking. Day two is by far the most difficult as you cover about 30 kilometres, trekking for about 9 hours including three hours of solid uphill to reach the Salkantay Pass at 4600 metres altitude. We decided to take up the option to indulge in the hot springs at Santa Theresa on the third day before reaching Aguas Calientes rather than hiking the last 4 hours on that day. After a night in a hotel we then had the whole day to explore Machu Picchu and climb Huyana Picchu before heading back to Cusco absolutely exhausted. The trek and Machu Picchu absolutely exceeded any expectations.

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2. Mountain biking death road in Bolivia. Check out my previous blog if you want to find out more details about this ride but it is absolutely phenomenal. We chose to ride with Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking who was the first company to offer bike tours down death road. Although they may be a little on the pricey side this is one adventure you don’t want to skimp on as the road has earned it’s name.

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3. White water rafting in Arequipa. While Arequipa’s rafting may seem tame compared to the Nile or other class 5 rapids, it is a great introduction to white water rafting and provides enough adrenalin and excitement to get you hooked! A significant part of the adrenalin can be attributed to the freezing cold water which shocks you to the core when you cop a face-full, which happens quite frequently. The backdrop is jaw-dropping with El Misti Mountain in the background, and the wet suits and booties provide enough respite for the bone-chilling temperatures. The trip only last for 45 minutes on the water and I would highly recommend it as a great introduction to white water rafting or as an adrenaline-option to take in some more amazing scenery.

Top three views

This has to be the most difficult category to select a top three for. Everywhere we have been in Bolivia and Peru, the views have been astounding. So while they didn’t quite make the cut, I have to mention the first sighting of La Paz hidden in the valley, every single view on the journey down Death Road in Bolivia was amazing and sitting at the top of the Colca Canyon in Peru watching the Andean Condors glide past definitely deserve a mention. So with that preface, here are my top three.

1. The view over Machu Picchu from the top of Huyana Picchu. The number of people allowed to climb this mountain has been capped at 400 per day (spaced out with 200 at 7am and 200 at 10am) so with about 3000 visitors to Machu Picchu each day, you do have to book in advance. The reward at the top is well worth the pain required to make the climb, even when you muscles are already screaming from a few days of hard hiking.

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2. The Salkantay Pass. When you reach the Salkantay Pass you have already hiked about three and a half hours of solid uphill, including mean switchbacks and steep shaley climbs. There is something magical about finally arriving at the Pass and seeing the mountain Salkantay (the Savage) up close and personal in all her glory. We were lucky enough to have perfect weather and even witnessed a few small avalanches just to complete the moment.

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3. View over Lake Titicaca from Isla del Sol in Bolivia. Again the reward of such an amazing vista seems so much sweeter when you have earned it. We hiked the length of the island to arrive at the Hostal Inti Khala which to us seemed like paradise just for the view. We spent several hours on the balcony resting our weary feet and just taking it all in.

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Top three cultural experiences

1. Eating with the locals in Chivay, Peru. We stayed in Chivay so we could visit the Colca Canyon but this little town provides many cultural experiences of its own. We enjoyed soaking in the thermal baths and wandering the streets but the most memorable experience was dining with the locals, Peruvian style. In Chivay we found the best street food and also sat and dined in a big dining hall with various stations offering all kinds of Peruvian cuisine for just a few Soles. The stuffed peppers were a favourite while Adam swears he did enjoy his liver stew (even though he didn’t know what it was when he ordered it).

2. Machu Picchu. There are some places in the world that are definitely on the bucket list and Machu Picchu was certainly one of those places for me. Often there is a bit of a fear of disappointment when you have such high expectations of a place but MP didn’t let me down at all. I would highly recommend having a guide if you want to learn anything about the Inca civilisation and it is also well worth arriving early if you want to beat the crowds. There is no denying Machu Picchu’s well-deserved title as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

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3. The Monasterio de Santa Catalina in Arequipa, Peru. This site is absolutely huge and is considered a citadel within Arequipa. It provides fascinating insight into the introduction of Catholicism and the life of the nuns in Peru. The architecture is stunning and rooftops provide an amazing view of the mountains that frame Arequipa.

So there are my highlights! Let me know if you agree or disagree!

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Bolivian Adrenalin

Of all the places I have travelled – India, South East Asia, Eastern Europe, the US, Africa – I would have to say that Bolivia is the country that has surprised me the most. Not the shock, horror kind of surprise of “oh my goodness, why on earth did I decide to come here” but rather the “oh my goodness, how can this place be so stunning and why have I never been here before” kind of surprise.

After a marathon journey from Australia we finally landed in Bolivia with excitement and anticipation. I had the added excitement of meeting my sister after three months in Africa so jet lag was thrown aside for our descent into La Paz. Driving from the airport into the city is a visual feast. I had been told by fellow travellers that it would be an experience to remember but nothing can prepare you for the surprise of your first glimpse of La Paz as you drop down from the plateau to see the city that was previously hidden from sight, sprawled out in the basin and framed by the snow capped Andes.

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We stayed at Estrella Andina which was a great hostel located centrally in La Paz, within easy walking distance of markets, sights and restaurants. The markets are great for stocking up on warm alpaca wool clothing to get you through the August chill.

We had already booked to mountain bike Bolivia’s infamous death road with Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking so we stopped into their office to be briefed, fitted with helmets and gloves and of course to sign our lives away. There are six of us travelling together (Adam and I, my sister Emma and her husband Jesse and friends Lauran and Brad). Lauran had opted not to do the ride and was planning to take the bus but she was suitably impressed with Gravity’s equipment and safety measure that she too decided to join us on taking the plunge – literally!

The day began with an early morning start and an hour bus ride to where the ride begins. Our guide and mountain biking extraordinnaire Marcus, put our minds at ease from the beginning by talking us through every section of the ride in detail. But there is no playing down the imminent danger. 19 cyclists have died on death road since 1998 and before the new road was opened in 2007 an average of 26 vehicles per year disappeared over the edge. Historically it has also been a place of martydom. When Bolivia was on the verge of democracy the dictator of the time blindfolded five opposition candidates and pushed them over the edge of one of death road’s many lethal cliff faces. The danger makes it all the more important to select a reputable company, (there are countless companies offering death road trips but equal stories of second-rate bikes, faulty brakes and no safety) and also play it safe. Many fatalities are blamed on over zealous riders and just plain stupidity. Our guide told a tragic story of one such fatality where an Australian rode up to his friend who was standing stationary with his bike and skidded in front of him in a dispaly of seemingly harmless Aussie larrikin behaviour, only to send his mate plummeting over the edge (luckily he manages to claw his way back up from a four metre fall). It was made crystal clear that while we didn’t need to be fearful, death road needs to be respected.

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We began our ride at 4700 metres above sea level. The first 22 kilometres is on sealed road, providing the perfect opportunity to get to know your bike (which when you ride with a renowned company like Gravity, is a downhill mountain bike that is serviced after every ride). The scenery in this part of the world is simply astounding. The challenge is to take in the snow capped mountains, the icy springs and the bone-tinglingly high cliffs, while still keeping a responsible eye on the road. And this is the easy part.

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The sealed road soon ends and it is onto the real death road for 38 kilometres of heart stopping downhill mountain biking, where the edge of the road drops away to deep abysses that have claimed many lives before you. I realise it sounds slightly crazy but I guess there is something in the human psyche that wants to conquer the seemingly unconquerable. All I can say is, it was one of the most amazing, unbelievable, memorable experiences of my life.

By the time the ride ended at Yolosi we had dropped 3500 metres in altitude, had gone through seven different climate changes and felt like we had ridden from winter into summer. We began layered in thermals and jackets and scarves and finished with just a tee shirt and pants and a layer of sweat.

And if that wasn’t enough adrenalin for one day, we had already signed up to do the zip line at the end. So before we could relax with a beer and breathe a sigh of relief that we were alive, we has to fly across three Bolivian valleys at speeds of up to 80 kilometres per hour. I won’t lie, on my first zip line I let out such a blood curdling scream my friends described as the sound they imagined I would make if I was being murdered. But once I realised the Bolivian safety standards had in fact held out, I could just enjoy flying along the mountains for my next two rides.

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While the rest of our group on the ride headed back to La Paz, we decided to stay two nights in Coroico where the ride ends to enjoy the higher altitude and the warmer climate and to recuperate momentarily. Coroico is a stunning mountainside town complete with Bolivian charm and jaw-dropping scenery. After a fairly action-packed started to our trip we enjoyed sipping beer in the central square (Plaza) watching the sun set over the valley and sampling the culinary delights in the village. I would highly recommend the vegetarian fare in a lovely garden setting at Villa Bonita and the French fusion at El Cafetal which may be difficult to find but is well worth the walk.

A day of relaxation was much appreciated before beginning our journey to Lake Titicaca.

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Late night contemplation

If there are two things you should never do simultaneously, it is probably late night contemplation combined with a healthy dose of melancholy and sad farewells. And yet here I am…the middle of the night in Uganda…awake and contemplating.

If I had to give a reason it would be twofold. Firstly my pillow is feeling a bit damp. After three months in Uganda, of falling in love with so many people and so many places, I said my goodbyes with a brave smile on my face and then I crawled into bed and silently sobbed myself into a sleepless stupor.

Secondly, I spoke to my little sister just a few days ago and she said that I should make time this week just to sit and reflect. She was imagining me sitting on some Lion King-style African plateau overlooking the savannah. I thought it was fairly unlikely considering what was due to be a manic last few days (and of course the lack of local savannah-type settings). And yet here I am. In the middle of the night, on my last evening in Uganda, overlooking the beautiful fishing lanterns on Lake Victoria. Contemplating.

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I find it completely ridiculous that two weeks ago I was feeling overwhelmingly homesick and yet this evening I am bawling my eyes out wondering when I will return to this place, when I will see these people. I think one of the hardest things is leaving friends. These are friends from all over. From Australia, from South Carolina, from Texas, from Jinja, from Kampala. Friends that I have only known for a few months but friendships of such a depth that I did not imagine possible in such a short amount of time. It is hard to say goodbye not knowing when you will see someone again. Especially when these people just get you. In life we meet people all the time. We greet and we farewell. People pass in and out of our lives likes feathers floating in an autumn breeze. But not these people. There is some kind of deep connection made when you do life with people on the other side of the world. And I have to admit there is a claustrophobic effect when that is pulled out from under you. Even when you know it is coming.

The difficulty for me is in knowing where I am supposed to be. If I am brutally honest I think I must have a split personality…. I feel like I belong here equally as much as I feel like I belong at home. But this has been an amazing season and I want to appreciate it for all that it has been. And I want to return home with excitement and anticipation of what the next season will hold.

Most of all I am grateful. I can’t even begin to express everything I am grateful for in this experience but even if I just begin with today, our last day…. I am grateful that we ended our three month period with our Ugandan staff asking us to stay. (George asked Adam if he wouldn’t stay if he could at least leave me because them he knew Adam would eventually have to come back). I am grateful that Dacia made it back from Bukaleba for dinner and I got to give her loads of hugs before leaving. I am grateful that Chloe Laiti giggled throughout dinner and told me she would look after Dacia. I am thankful for fake British accents, beautiful cards, equal doses of hilarity and deep conversations, planned mutual adventures to Cuba/Southern US/Australia and the very last minute arrival of the man with the mustache before we departed.

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And most of all I am thankful for my life and the grand adventure it seems to be. I think I may be on this rollercoaster for awhile.

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Friends without borders

I am going to come right out and say it. Working in Uganda can be really difficult. When you are wired for operating in a workplace where deadlines must be met, delays are avoided at all cost and time always equals money, the frustrations of the day to day can be overwhelming. That is the simple, honest truth. But amid the daily frustrations there is also time for reflection, for contemplation and for patience. There is time to stop and appreciate the things that at home, I may not allow myself time for.

If you know me well, you would know that family and friends are very important to me. And one of the most difficult things about being here has been being alone. Being isolated. Being removed from the people who know me best. But in that time of missing home, missing family and friends and missing some really important times in people’s lives, I have also been able to take stock and reflect. One of the amazing things to consider is that even though I am on the other side of the world, I am far from alone. Of course Adam is here, so I’m not entirely alone, but there has been an absolutely phenomenal array of people who I believe God has brought into our lives to share this journey with us. And so in the midst of feeling far away from home and the people I love, I also feel like I should honour some of the people who have been part of this adventure. There are so many, it would be impossible to name them all, but I wanted to just share with you some of my new friends. For my family and friends back home, you have probably heard these names before. Here are the faces and the stories of the people who have made these last three months the amazing experience that is has been. They have inspired me, challenged me and made me laugh. I appreciate them all immensely and I know it will be really difficult to say goodbye to them.

George Kakuuku and Patrick Kisimbira

George taking a boat ride over Lake Victoria

George and Patrick are Living Development Jinja. They have been working with Allan and LWD since 2008 and it has been an absolute joy to work alongside them these past three months. George has a contagious, toothless smile and an attitude that just appreciates everything and everyone. He is a keen learner and has a few sayings that I will definitely remember. George says multiple times a day:
“This is it” (which has rubbed off on Adam)
“Oooooosh! “(which is kind of like “wow!”)
“Wonderful!”

Patrick standing proudly in front of the LWD Jinja signpost

Patrick is softly spoken and eager to learn. He is humble and gentle and is instantly likable. These two men immediately became our colleagues but it did not take long before we also called them friends. Saying goodbye will be hard but we are also so confident in their capabilities and commitment to sustain LWD Jinja for the future.

Dacia Newton

Dacia and I enjoying dinner while away in Kampala for a girls weekend

Where to begin with Miss Dacia! I am already dreading having to say goodbye to this beautiful friend. Dacia is from Texas and lives in Jinja full time working for Arise Africa. She wears multiple hats, including running a guesthouse here in town and she works hard! Dacia has an amazing heart for God and people and for the last month she has been looking after beautiful Chloe Laiti (as well as working full time). Being here, I have certainly missed my girl friends immensely and Dacia has been a breath of fresh of air in my world!
If you are interested in Dacia’s journey here in Uganda you should check out her blog http://www.thisismyjoy.org

Andrew Armstrong

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Meet Andrew. Andrew is our much-loved third wheel. An environmental engineer like Adam, Andrew works for Water Missions in South Carolina and had been doing a stint here in the field with them for two months. We are absolutely stoked that our time here corresponded with his and we have managed to squeeze in many adventures with him – including hiking out at Bukaleba, a weekend trip away to Sipi Falls and many meals and late night chats. We have dreamed big, talked smack, I have zoned out while the boys talked engineering and we have planned visits to each others home countries. I am excited at the possibility of meeting up with Andrew in Haiti later this year and possibly his wife too.

Kimberly and Simon


Simon and Kimberly are back in Australia now but we did life and work together for our first six weeks here. We are really grateful to them for paving the way for us and being such great friends and support. We learnt a lot from each other and also had some great adventures together (including the infamous trip to Murchison Falls and the tyre fiasco!) We came from the same town but didn’t know each other at all before this adventure but are now joined together by this amazing experience.

Clarice

Hiding from the rain

Clarice is astounding. She is here long term after committing to return indefinitely after an initial three month stint. Clarice may be young but her capabilities belie her years and she is currently managing a children’s home with more than 60 orphans. She is committed to be here long term and she is an absolutely inspiration. I love her!

Caity Dickson

Caity and one of her many animal friends at Sipi Falls

Caity is on her summer break during her first year studying business at college in California. She is living in Jinja for three months learning business enterprise. Caity is a lot of fun! She is always up for an adventure, whether it is a hiking trip to Sipi Falls, a Ugandan comedy night (which is whole other interesting story) or scaling a fish. I am confident Caity will lead a big, exciting life and we will look forward to catching up with her when she hopefully comes to Australia for her next summer adventure.

Bryan and Emily

Bryan and Emily at dinner at our place

Emily has been in Uganda about five years and Bryan about three. The Mohrs were married here last year and have both been working for Water Missions Uganda – Bryan as Country Director and Emily as Community Development Officer. They will soon be finishing up their roles with Water Missions and we are excited to see what the next step will be for them. Emily and Byran have been an absolute blessing to us. We were honoured to house sit for them when they returned to Australia for three weeks and even more excited when they returned home to Uganda and we could actually hang out with them. This is one talented, committed couple and all I can say is…watch this space because they are world changers.

The Gaede family

The Gaede girls (minus Judith) – Grace, Julie and Emma

I have already raved about the Gaede family in previous blogs and I cannot begin to express how much I love and appreciate them. We have been on a big adventure with Carl to South Sudan, which was so remarkable, and an experience we will never forget. But for me, just hanging out with these guys has been such a blessing during my time in Uganda. I have appreciated so much that they have opened their home up to us and just allowed us to slot into their family – which is so easy to do, and one of the things that you miss a lot being here away from your own family. So meet my adopted family! Julie and I have chatted for hours on end and she has challenged me and encouraged me in so many ways and I will be forever grateful for her friendship. Carl has inspired us with his vision and his love for his family and also his freely given friendship. I have much love and respect for Carl and Julie and their beautiful daughters Judith, Emma and Grace and their grandson Elijah. Miss them already!

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A place for healing

This past seven days has been a week of spontaneous decisions, the most epic kind of road trips, of mistaken mishaps, of forging lifelong friendships and of witnessing transformation that is inconceivable.

Last week began as an ordinary week but I love that one conversation can change everything. Let me take you on the journey of our epic road trip to South Sudan. On Sunday we were catching up with our new friends Carl and Julie and their beautiful family who came to hang out with us for the day here in Jinja. Carl and Julie have been in Uganda for four years working to provide trauma rehabilitation for victims of war. They did a lot of work in northern Uganda with children who had been abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) as child soldiers and sex slaves during the height of the civil war. They have recently started their own NGO called Tutapona which plans to expand their rehabilitation program into other war affected regions.

Tutapona uses the EMPOWER trauma rehabilatatiom program which is a two- week program developed by my employer Dr Robi Sonderegger and Family Challenge Charitable Trust. Since I happened to be in the region, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to visit the field and see our program in action in South Sudan.

I suggested this to Carl only on Sunday and on Monday I received a call suggesting that if we were to go, the ideal time would be this week as the program was about to wrap up in a village on Thursday. Since I am not one to turn down a spontaneous adventure, the following morning we were on our way to Kampala and then onwards to Gulu in northern Uganda. The timing was perfect and Adam was able to accompany us as the photographer. About an hour outside of Gulu we encountered our first mishap, which on reflection is far less dramatic than it could have been. As we were hurtling along Kampala-Gulu Road, making the most of the limited sealed roads, a small child (read: imp) catapulted a rock at our vehicle which hit the back seat passenger window where Adam was sitting. Poor Adam didn’t see the child on the side of the road and the sound of the impact, the shattered glass held in only by the tinting and the small round hole in the window right at his heart-level left him expressing expletives and searching for bullet hole on his body.

The bullet/rock hole

Once we had established Adam had not been shot and the only injury he had received was a few years stolen from his lifespan by a moment of gut-wrenching fear, we had to deal with the challenge of the window. We decided it wouldn’t be wise to drive all the way to South Sudan with the broken window so planned to get it replaced in Gulu. With a promise that a new window would be on its way from Kampala that evening and could be replaced early the following morning, we were hopeful our journey may only be delayed a few mere hours. But to our dismay our spate of mishaps was not quite over. The appointment with the mechanic early the following morning resulted in a fitted window that was several inches too small, leaving a significant gap. Somehow in the communication between us, the Gulu mechanic and the Kampala window supplier, the wrong window had been ordered. We should have realised our chances of success were fairly slim!

Faced with the options of abandoning the journey or forging on a day later, I certainly wasn’t keen to head home when we were so close, so we decided to make the most of the extra day in Gulu. Carl took us to visit his trauma team as well as the Watoto Children’s Village and the Living Hope Women’s program. Before even arriving in South Sudan we were able to meet some of the children and women who have been through the EMPOWER trauma rehabilitation program.

We set off early the following morning along the bumpy, dusty, orange road to South Sudan. After about three hours we arrived at the border where trucks were lined up stretching kilometres from the immigration post back towards Uganda. South Sudan relies heavily on Uganda to supply most of the new nation’s food needs so the border is always busy with trucks and lorries. There is some form of a process to leaving Uganda and entering South Sudan although it is a bit of guesswork to establish exactly what that process is. Somehow we managed to navigate the powdery orange dirt, the lines and the people pushing in, to get our stamp out of the country. As we drove across the border and stopped at the immigration checkpoint in South Sudan to purchase our visas, it was hard to believe that we had just legitimately changed countries. It seemed to be somewhat of a “good-faith” system as we were not checked at any point after stamping out of Uganda and into South Sudan. It was just assumed that we had done the right thing and crossed the border legally.

We drove straight out to the village where Carl’s team was wrapping up the final session of the two-week program. Driving into the village we were greeting with singing and a formal welcome by the local villagers including the community LC and the village Boma Chief. Many of the community members have only recently returned to their village after fleeing during the war. South Sudan’s violent history shows why the need for trauma rehabilitation in this region is so great. South Sudan was only recognised as an independent state on July 9, 2011 and many people have only just started to return home as many fled to escape the frequent terrorisation at the hands of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). There is no doubt that the people of South Sudan paid a high price for their freedom and the mental and emotional scars are desperate for healing.

The village participating in the program under a mango tree in the community, proudly displaying the EMPOWER manual

For me personally it was both exciting and rewarding to see the EMPOWER program in action in a region where there is so much need. One of the most impacting parts of the program for many participants is the teaching on forgiveness and reconciliation and it is here where huge transformation often takes place. It was an absolute privilege to speak with the village chiefs and several participants and hear their stories. In this particular village there was a common story of displacement and loss of identity among the young people. Often the stories of victims of war who bear physical scars or personal stories of brutality and heartbreak are the stories that we hear shouted the loudest. But I met so many young people who had fled their homelands with their families and the trauma they had experienced was a trauma of displacement, of hopelessness, of homelessness, of no purpose. Time and time again, individuals told of planning to take their own lives because they felt worthless, hopeless and like their life had no value. But their stories didn’t end there.

Reflection

The testimonies of transformation were remarkable. As the Tutapona trainers spent two weeks in the village taking this community through the EMPOWER program, real change was taking place. A woman showed me the scars on her feet from being forced into a small box and smuggled across the border to escape the war. She told me how she had planned to hang herself because she imagined no future for herself or her baby. But now she is changed. She can forgive herself and those who wronged her. She has hope for her future and she has dreams she wants to fulfill.

Beauty

These stories are endless. The transformation that takes place is hard to fathom. I left South Sudan excited by the impact that EMPOWER is making in war affected regions and proud of Carl and the Tutapona team who have sacrificed so much to make it happen. To literally take it to the frontline, to the hurting and the broken.

The Tutapona trainers, David and William

I feel like I need to finish this blog by encouraging you to check out Tutapona and support their work. Carl, his wife Julie and their beautiful family Emma, Grace, Judith and Elijah are based in Uganda full-time and work tirelessly to provide rehabilitation to people who need it most. Tutapona goes where others fear to tread. They rely on support to fund their work and they have an amazing vision for expansion. I would encourage you to get behind them, follow their blog, check out their website, pray for them and support them by making a financial contribution. You can visit their website for more information http://tutapona.com/

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