The highlight of my visit to Lantau Island in the New Territories of Hong Kong was Tian Tan, a majestic 34-meter bronze Big Buddha. However, there’s so much more to the island than this popular tourist attraction. I had eagerly anticipated this day for months. Unfortunately, I did not get to enjoy every attraction on Hong Kong’s biggest island, but that only means I need to return in the future.
My friend and I started our journey from Tsim Sha Tsui in southern Kowloon via the MTR, Hong Kong’s economical public transportation light rail. We weakly attempted to find the 23 bus at the Tung Chung depot, but were too impatient. My travel companion equally earnest to visit the towering Buddha, noted the 23 bus was not coming, but in reality, we had only waited a short 4-5 minutes. I originally dreamed to hike the steep trail to Lantau Peak, enthused to momentarily escape the frenetic energy of Hong Kong’s metropolis. Instead, we sat for 20 minutes with four random strangers in the cabin of the Ngong Ping 360 gondola to reach the village. The 6-kilometer cable car journey immediately offered expansive breathtaking views of varying bodies of water…Tung Chung Bay immediately within our eye gaze, the South China Sea, and the Pearl River in the distance.
The six of us all gasped collectively shortly after being seated, witnessing a remarkable part of China’s journey into the future. We were in awe of the impressive newly built, yet sparse bridge link near Hong Kong’s International Airport. It was the grand opening of the world’s longest sea bridge spanning 55 kilometers tying Zhuhai, China, to its two Special Administrative Regions of Macau and Hong Kong. The Chinese President Xi Jinping was in the country’s southeastern region for the ceremonious inauguration. Finally, we witnessed one lonely car.
Our day of sightseeing was expensive with the entertainment and transportation value of the gondola. The monetary cost provided a juxtaposition of skyscrapers and the island’s tropical paradise surroundings. My cable car ticket did not seem so pricey when comparing it to the sea crossing’s unfathomable $20 billion USD cost. I have never been a big fan of “boring” politics, but the makings of this the causeway had been filled with controversy, over-expenditures, death, and corruption.
My eyes gazed upon jeweled greenish blue water and luscious forest foliage with a melodic waterfall humming in my ears as the sky ride traveled further up the mountain.
I was excited to observe sprightly hikers who looked eager rather than haggard, winding up summit steps of Phoenix Mountain. I tried to stifle back my disappointment of not fulfilling my ambitious goals to explore the trail head. I reassured myself; another time.
The Big Buddha set below dreamy clouds tantalized us in the distance. It was everything that I imagined it would be.
After disembarking the gondola we walked through touristy Ngong Ping village and past cheesy statues, and Starbucks, the epitome of urban life. Of course, we stopped to gawk at posers taking selfies, and repeated their actions.
We climbed a couple hundred manicured steps to get closer to the gigantic Buddha.
Despite the crowds of tourists chattering in multi-languages and a drone that buzzed in the grey overcast skyline, I felt peaceful and harmonious next to the religious statue set high above natural surroundings.
We descended the statue’s steps meandering to Po Lin Monastery and temple. We redeemed our vegetarian meal included in the price of admission to gain closer views of Big Buddha and intricate accompanying architectural embellishments. We were surprised when the staff forcefully over-served us despite our best attempts to explain we did not want that much to eat, and annoyed to be charged again. There is spirituality, and then there is the financial gain of religion. More food (dumplings, noodles, desserts) went into the garbage than in our already full stomachs.
The monastery flooded me with nostalgic childhood memories of my grandmother, Pau Pau, and Buddhist prayers. During special occasions, we would pray to 3 Gods with the pungent smell of incense wafting in the air. My Pau Pau set the dining room table with sweet fruits including brightly coloured oranges, alcohol, and delicious cooked meats. We bowed with reverence to our ancestors before we indulged in our dinner.
My friend and I made a conscious decision to skip Tai O fishing village, famous for stilt buildings, as time had escaped us. We attempted to hike down, but it was an arduous attempt for my friend to ascend the steep earth in high humidity to Lantau Peak. The Wisdom Trail path move upwards before it carried onto rolling hills that descended to sea level. I adored every moment of the scenery; my senses soaked in the fragrant blooming flowers that overlooked impressionist vistas. After 40+ minutes of heavy cardiovascular action, we we retraced our steps back to the Big Buddha grounds. Our mission was aborted.
Our heartbeats returned to a restful pace as we made a leisurely stroll through the courtyard detouring back to the easier gondola down to the bottom during the golden hour. I allowed the sun’s rays to kiss my soul as both the sun and cable car slowly retreated for the day.
I witnessed picturesque scenery of magical Lantau Island. I hope these images will be forever ingrained vividly in my mind, but I suspect my memories will fade in time similar to a landscape painting typical of classical Chinese silk artwork. I now understood why Asian painters use watercolors with wide brushstrokes similar to calligraphy as a medium. It creates a soft dreamy atmosphere that I was fortunate to experience.
I registered for the Seek the Peak race with a challenging 1,400-meter incline over a deceivingly short 14-kilometer distance. It was inspiring to be part of an adventurous event that fundraised and heightened awareness for the BC Cancer Association and Breast Cancer.
There were 2 reasons that drove me:
Foremost, I raced for my superhero friend. Watching a loved one face cancer with integrity and determination has taught me about the power of positivity.
I clawed, fell, and maneuvered my way to Vancouver’s local mountain peak with exasperated breaths, blood running down my hand, muscle cramps thinking of my dear friend’s demeaning battle with cancer and his inspiring strength. My run was a fun personal competition, and not a battle for life.
I often visited my pal’s bachelor pad well before he was diagnosed with a rare cancer. He would serve me a cuppa of tea while he shared crazy stories of girls who fell head over heals in love. My mate was gleeful explaining how his harem loved when he outfitted himself in Marvel costumes. I thought it was absurdly ridiculous. As I watched how he dealt with adversity, truly believing in his super heroism, I realized I was the fool not buying in. From the beginning of my friend’s diagnosis progressing to his lengthy hospital quarantine, surgery and chemotherapy treatment, he never wavered from his superpower beliefs. He would overcome a rare form of cancer with a lion’s roar. He knew what the arduous process entailed as his younger brother had succumbed to the vicious disease years earlier after a lengthy battle. I never heard any doubts or negative words..
Throughout the morning, I thought of my chum’s tenacity. “I can. I will.”
Secondly, I have always been a glutton for punishment. It was a “sick kinda fun” physically taxing myself on a grueling course highlighting Vancouver’s West Coast landscape elevating from sea level (Ambleside beach) to the summit’s blue skyline (Grouse mountain).
The enthusiastic registrants travelled upwards on dusty dirt trails along the Capilano River to the Cleveland Dam water reservoir, only to be greeted further by North Vancouver’s steeper Nancy Greene/Capilano main artery. The racers earned the bragging rights reaching the Peak of Grouse Mountain finish line via the relentless steps.
The race did not start at the advertised time of 8:15 am. I originally planned to bike to the start as a warm-up, but at the last minute, thought it would be overly-ambitious. What if I could not walk after the race? Instead, I drove to the mountain gondola parking lot, and lackadaisically watched the shuttle depart. I had ample time to stretch before catching the next bus to the start line. I was first in-line, but became anxious as the participants multiplied as it approached 8 am. I eavesdropped in multiple conversations; runners indicated they would drive to the start abandoning the bus option. My anxiety reached a crescendo. I was going to miss the race start.
A race coordinator finally alerted the group that the sponsors were delaying the start time as the bus was caught in road construction. I was relieved, but wondered, “how much bloody roadwork could be occurring on a Sunday early morning?” I rushed to the washroom praying I would not miss the transportation’s arrival. My bladder was heavy from over-hydrating.
When the shuttle finally arrived. I sat beside a tall athletic man who shared his plan of attack. He would conquer the Seek the Peak at his own leisurely pace. I was dubious about his relaxed mentality, and even more so, when he admitted he was a trail runner. Sure enough, his long legs eloquently strode by my awkward steps an hour later near the rugged mountain entrance.
Finally, it was gun time. I did not have any choice, but to take a slower pace. My left thigh felt tight and uncomfortable from overtraining. I had completed excessive hiking and running the weeks prior. It did not help that I had fallen off my bike, and again descending the Stawamus (Squamish) Chief Mountain granite only a week prior, re-opening a huge gash on my right knee.
The course was divided into 4 sections allowing either relay teams or solo; I participated as the latter.
The very first section of the race provided a gentle entry starting relatively flat; however, it was only seconds in that I fell into the gravel pebbles landing fiercely on my right hand. “F&@* me!” Runners asked if I needed help, and I brushed them off. It’s a race. “Don’t stop; move on!”
I got up as quickly as I could. If one falls, bounce back more fiercely. Go hard or go home.
Blood was gushing out of my hand. I attempted to fight tears from the burn. I did not want the bright red blood to clot onto my new Under Armour skort. I had already ruined my favourite LuLulemon capris tripping in Squamish.
The flats were short-lived; it was time to start climbing. We passed the perimeter of the suspension bridge tourist attraction before running up and down rolling hills in the luscious green Capilano Pacific trail to reach the Cleveland Dam. I decreased my speed, carefully avoiding knotted roots and loose rocks.
I panted heavily on the steep ascent, and wished I could meander to enjoy the beautiful rich emerald forest. However, there was no time to smell the Pacific Northwest’s woodsy tree trunk aromas or listen to the ebbs and flows of the rapid river currents.
We encountered multiple sets of wooden stairs before reaching the next phase. I was relieved no one was running, and easily assimilated with the walkers. Maybe the keeners sprinted with vigour, but these middle-of-the-pack racers, including me, slowed to a turtle pace. I reluctantly pulled up one lagging foot in front of the next to get to the next segment of the course.
I pulled out my iPhone to snap a picture perfect moment of the glorious sun’s rays shining on the athletes enjoying the very best of the North Shore’s natural wonders.
I was rejuvenated from the short reprieve from running. As a result, I was able to race up Capilano Road reminding myself how many times I biked and ran North Shore’s hills. I got this!
I forbid myself from walking until I reached the mountain base.
My legs sllll-oooooo-wwwwwww-eeedddddd feeling like dead weights as I entered Vancouver’s infamous tourist attraction, the Grouse Grind hike. I dragged my right foot, then my left, from one stone step to the next. I used my hands to propel me. My ears popped as the altitude changed as I ascended the trail. “Why was it excruciatingly uncomfortable despite my dedicated training?”
I was relieved as I passed each blue 1/4, 1/2, and 3/4 marker. My momentum accelerated with excitement when I climbed through the rocks at the Grind’s completion. Hallelujah! Nooo wait…there was one final precipitous ascent to ready the heavenly summit followed by a downhill to the finish line.
My legs re-accelerated as the loose gravel terrain flattened for the last phase. The relief was short-lived, and the mountain steepened again. It was only in early May, 7 weeks ago, that I downhill skied from the Peak of Vancouver enjoying panoramic views of the city below.
I alternated from racing bursts to a geriatric’s pace. I tried to find a target to follow or surpass to motivate me. Competing with myself was becoming tiresome. Apparently another female participant followed the same methodology. We alternated bypassing each other, playing catch up, and at times bumping into each other apologizing profusely.
Reaching the summit was a BITCH.
It crossed my mind to turn around. What was I trying to prove? I fought physically, but the battle in mind was the biggest obstacle. I did not need to ascend anymore. The honest competitor in me reminded myself of the racing mat at the top to collect my time accurately. It was a letdown to discover there was no visual timing chip at the summit. I had envisioned bouncing on it, similar to a sugar-laden child on a trampoline, throughout the race.
One would assume that the descent would be a sweet breeze. It was not. I could not fly down the steep gravelly ski hill and risk another brutal fall. I descended with trepidation and heavy quadriceps, observing the steady flow of climbers. The competitors became more sparse as I neared the bunny hill. I was unsure where to go except to allow my ears to follow the echoing music and cheers from the chalet finale. I pounced ahead feeling rejuvenated knowing I had almost achieved my goal and would soon receive a shiny medal with pretty pink ribbon around my neck. Bliss engulfed me.
The best and worst part of the race was finishing and stopping. My muscles seized and the longer I stood still, it became more difficult to move. I could not depart immediately for the gondola to the mountain base because I could not put pressure on the sole of my foot. I had alternated running and hiking for almost 2.5 hours, but ironically, I could not walk.
I lingered while waiting for my massage trying to ignore the pain at the bottom of my left foot. I awkwardly pulled off my runner as my foot swelled, and watched the awards ceremony. I flinched. I could not confidently confirm from pain or ego deflation. I watched the youth and the senior women’s receive their awards. Both categories ran faster than me. A 70-plus female geriatric whooped my ass.
That lady has only pushed me to challenge myself further. I have every intention to race the Seek the Peak again in 2019 with the hopes of improving my time.
“For My dear friend & superhero, Ned.
I can, I will.”
In 2011, I decided to do something different from my typical vacation (Las Vegas, Mexico all-inclusive, Disneyland) by volunteering in a developing country. When I told people my plans, I was greeted with a resistance, “What? Why? How? Really?”
An older friend feared for her only young daughter as she ventured to volunteer in the humble remote surroundings of Malawi and Equador. I was in awe, soaking up every word she shared of the fascinating experience. I thought this young woman was amazing, and hoped this would be something my young babes would eventually aspire to do. At the time, it did not dawn on me that it would be something I would attempt. However, the story stayed ingrained in the back of my mind. After life-changing events, and discovering that a friend also dreamed about voluntourism, we both decided to embark on this journey together. It was almost on a whim! I wanted to get out of my element, inspire, give back, and possibly find new meaning to my mundane life. Looking back, I would say this was a life-changing event, and it was a defining moment in who I am, how I travel, and see the world.
The question is now “not why,” but “why not?”
My friend and I finally pinpointed a program and country after much discussion and thought. We identified a desire to work with children in Africa, although the idea seemed extreme. Orphanage work in Tanzania was eventually selected for a combination of reasons. It met our criteria: underdeveloped, safe, yet pretty.
It took over 6 months of planning for the missionary trip abroad after committing to a continent all the way on the other side of the world. It involved researching volunteer travel organizations as our facilitator. The foundation selected served somewhat of a project manager by establishing contact with an appropriate assignment and providing basic suggestions on how to organize ourselves.
I did not realize the enormity of the administrative tasks when I made the commitment. I needed to set a budget, submit numerous applications including references, visas, and update vaccinations, etc. Since I had limited my traveling to North America and Europe, my travel clinic immunization booklet was virtually empty. Even finding the appropriate baggage for the dusty journey seemed daunting.
I selected an agency based on a direct referral that offered placements throughout the world. It seemed to be the most economical, safe, and organized. Despite that, I was petrified. This was the most adventurous thing I had ever done. Looking back years later, I laugh. Now, I book impromptu airfare in exotic destinations without much thought based on flight deals. All I really need is my passport, access to cash, iPhone, and my 55L backpack. Let the adventure begin because sometimes it’s great not knowing.
I was EXCITED and NERVOUS from the anticipation of the unknown in the weeks prior to departure. I was born in Canada, fortunate to travel internationally, but never to a 3rd world country. Why would one do something like that? I knew it would be UN-comfortable, and wondered if I could handle it. I did not know what to expect. My apprehension began to build when I discussed my plans with others. I soon decided, I did not want to tell people anymore about my trip. If I heard one more person say “be careful” with a condescending overture I thought I would SCREAM! What do you mean by “come home safe?” I knew it came from a good place, but the way people spoke, made me scared, annoyed, and even defiant. However, I faced an obstacle if I remained silent. I needed to market my mission to highlight and bring social awareness of the poverty levels and lack of education outside our own bubble. In the process, I was soliciting gently-used donations (school and medical supplies) for the orphanage. I needed to start the conversation to get people thinking about their lives and the world we live in.
I tried to limit my expectations, and found a motto for the experience, “Open Mind & Open Heart.”
Really! My trip:
Two long lights (Vancouver, Canada to Nairobi, Kenya via Amsterdam, the Netherlands) followed by a mesmerizing 6-hour shuttle to Arusha, Tanzania.
The bumpy bus ride was fascinating from start to finish. Our luggage was delayed from the previous evening’s late arrival from Europe, and the bus driver graciously agreed to detour back to the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport before departing Nairobi. We needed to clear security again if we wanted to retrieve our belongings. I have never experienced a full airport facility with extremely foul body odour, and was reluctant to re-enter. I plugged my nose. Little did I know, I would soon blend into the stench, perspiring profusely in the heat.
Finally, with our heavy bags filled with donations, we left the chaotic city of Nairobi maneuvering all the way to rugged Arusha. Nairobi’s traffic was congested. Cars were stalled on the road and shoulder, vehicles broken down in the ditch, and pedestrians weaving in between traffic selling bananas and clothing. It was uncomfortably stuffy even with the open windows as the shuttle came to a halt.
We finally snaked our way out of the polluted streets making our way to the serene countryside. What a contrast from the pandemonium of the city to natural serenity.
I was enthralled by beautiful landscapes of tropical green-land, cattle, and local tribes. Just as I thought we were out of civilization, with no one to be seen for miles, a native African would suddenly appear in the desolate desert. Was this a mirage? I witnessed tall elegant females walking. Many walked with a baby strapped to their back while balancing a large woven basket on the head. What great posture! I wondered, “where did they appear from, how long had they been walking, and where were they heading?” There did not appear to be any landmarks for miles.
As we continued to move forward, young children would be delighted to see our vehicle, and rushed up waving. Their smiles became bigger as we hand-gestured back. I noted many youth were not outfitted in traditional African garb like the women. Instead, they were wearing logo-ed shirts advertising western name brands such as the GAP, Nike, and Disney characters. I sadly learned that the many clothes North Americans donate to worthy causes like Salvation Army were sold for profit in the African street markets. In addition, many foundations take a large administration fee out of our monetary donations. I had such ignorance over these matters. I assumed if you have the pure intention to give, it would be dealt with appropriately, not used for financial gain. My naïve-ness sadly dissipated throughout the project as I became educated on various subjects.
I was startled to witness the aggressive street vendors when we arrived at our final destination. Immediately, a head bobbed in the bus window alarming me. Many villagers were selling local handicrafts. It was difficult to ignore while waiting for our agency pick-up. I was jet lagged, tired, sweaty, overwhelmed by the long journey, and did not know “where the hell” I was. This was so different from the civilized Western life I was accustomed to. Finally, a woman, the resident house leader, accompanied by her driver showed up in a small sedan. Introductions only consisted of ensuring we were all heading to the volunteer in some capacity. They squeezed 4 girls, who just met into the worn backseat, but we quickly changed from stranger status to kindred spirits.
They dropped us off at our dormitory with limited instruction. Real World Africa without the notoriety of MTV. At least we figured out that our sleeping arrangements were located in the converted stables at the back of the property. I was assigned the top bunk bed that was covered with dusty mosquito netting.
Most of the newbies arrived within the day with the impression that orientation was the following, but it did not occur until days later, by which time, we seemed to figure out the essentials.
Thankfully, one helpful long-term volunteer was a wonderful ambassador in showing us the ropes. Bless his heart! He guided us to the decrepit washroom, offered explanations on local customs that would not get us into trouble, water shortages, and power outages.
I quickly learned about water conservation. I retrieved the water from the reservoir outside, pouring a limited amount into a bucket. I squatted in the small tub of cool water to sponge bath. I proceeded to re-use this bathing water to hand-wash my filthy clothes, and subsequently, pulled the heavy container past the 8 rows of bunk beds to the washroom. We needed to re-use the grey water to flush the toilet. I longed for a hot shower every damn day!
This man also taught us how to walk to the main road to catch the bus “dalla dalla” to the ATM & grocery store.
The “dalla dalla” is public transportation via a minivan with a driver and an assistant who retrieves fares paid in Tanzanian coin shillings. The assistant balanced half his body internally and the other, hung outside. He banged hard on the exterior side of the vehicle when passengers needed to be picked up or dropped off. There were NO formal bus stops.
Although it is was an eye-opening experience to ride, it’s not something I particularly enjoyed. On one occasion, I counted up to 22 people, some sitting on top of each other in addition to the potato sacks, baskets of eggs, and live chickens. Did I mention, Tanzania was hot and dusty, and bathing water was limited? The lingering aromas were nauseating. It was too much for a Canadian girl used to an abundance of personal space.
In contrast, I fully enjoyed withdrawing money from the ATM. The slip proved I was a millionaire….in Tanzanian shillings.
The volunteers would meander to the bus stop to commute to our placements. We waited on the side of a dirt road with donkeys and stray dogs, and the smell of garbage burning in the air. It was difficult to ignore the filthy street kids in worn attire with snotty noses. Our resident house mama would lecture the new volunteers because we offered the scrawny local children treats.
Volunteer programs included schools for disabled children and adults, nurseries, and medical organizations. My friend and I were placed at a school with 3 elementary classes in a very impoverished area.
The Director of our placement, a resident to that neighbourhood explained that public education is free, but he opened this school as the majority of the local kids would not attend public school for many reasons. Often schools would be too far to get to, nor parental influence to ensure that education remained a priority. Work to survive. School was not a necessity when you need to find shelter and food first.
The classroom contained sparse wooden benches and bare walls. The children stood and greeted me in a chorus daily with a formal “Good Morning Teacher.” They were very affectionate and rambunctious. They physically fought to hug, hold my hand, and pull my hair. I thought I was there to help, but I seemed to cause a commotion, and separated fighting children.
Porridge was provided, and often their only meal of the day. An auntie prepared the watery paste at her home, and delivered the meal in a dirty pail. I was revolted as I watched the runny consistency poured into a worn plastic cup. It was devoured.
It was a relief to share our experiences with the other volunteers each day. I was often frustrated, unable to help in the ways I had hoped, but I was not the only one disheartened. Our Western expectations of the way of life, customs, education, and healthcare differed vastly from the locals.
A group of us booked a weekend safari offering a short retreat from work. I was greeted with picturesque topography of the great wildebeest migration in the Serengeti, Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro Crater and Highlands amidst glorious sunrises.
When I returned the children were fabulously in awe of the pictures on my camera of my camping experience. They included fierce elephants, lions fornicating (omitted that picture – hee hee), blue bummed monkeys swinging from vine to vine, and pregnant zebras. It dawned on me that many would never have the opportunity to witness the natural wonders in their very own backyard.
My friend and I made 4 home visits bringing rice and goodie bags to the kids. I found it a desolate afternoon that will forever weigh on my heavy heart. The high temperature of the sun diminished, and was replaced by winds and heavy rains. Our feet sunk into the thick mud as we made our way to bleak homes. One household was empty as the mother and her malaria stricken baby were admitted to hospital. Another child was lucky to have a dual-parent household, but both were unemployed. The 3rd home consisted of 6 siblings, all with different fathers, each had abandoned their children, and the 4th family had an even larger brood of 8 children. The mother was unemployed, father had just passed away, and both the 10 year old brother and elder teenage sister had quit school. Despite all these personal conflicts, all families welcomed us with gracious hospitality. We sat on one couch with roosters pecking in and out of the room while the mother was fussing in attempts to make us a pancake-like snack. Her young boy roamed around with soiled-urine pants.
After, we meandered through town to catch the bus back to the volunteer house. I witnessed a baby crawl under a sleeping mother’s arm searching for the dirty loaf. I was angry at the world that day. F&@! mankind.
Despite that day engrained in my memory, my volun-tourism was an incredible eye-opening journey. I went to change the world, and realized that was an impossible goal. Ironically, the experience changed me…offering personal, spiritual, and cultural growth. The kiddies in my classroom inspired and humbled me. I am grateful to have shared the precious adventure with my dear friend, and a great travel companion.
Regardless of the country, the climate, culture, background, age, or class of people, all humankind is the same. We all make mistakes (I seem to be good at the messy ones), want forgiveness, to love, be loved, laugh, sometimes cry, deserve respect, dignity, and to be touched physically and emotionally.
I have been incredibly fortunate to experience further eco-and volun-tourism vacations; however, Africa will forever remain the pivotal milestone.