31 December 2013

The year that was: 2013

On the last day of the year, like so many people, I took time out to pause and reflect on the year that was 2013, a year of unexpected twists and turns, a year of wonderful moments and extraordinary highlights, but also a year when I learnt even more the value of appreciating the small things - of smelling the flowers and laughing at the antics of tiny frogs, and the lesson of living each day as if it was my last.

My first six months of 2013 were spent in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and one of the highlights of that time was the two weeks I spent helping out in the workshops of the Giant Puppet Parade project in February. The project brings together children from local NGOs and staff and volunteers from around the world to build a series of giant puppets. The culmination of the workshops is a night-time parade through the central city with the excited children proudly showing off their enormous and very splendid puppets, with the majority of the city’s inhabitants and visiting tourists turning out to watch.

Cambodian children are wide-eyed, cheeky, desperately poor, smart, smaller and thinner than they deserve to be, cute, capable, hard-working, affectionate, creative, playful, sensitive.… One of the joys of my last few months in Siem Reap was managing the transition of Helping Hands, the project this boy attends, into the Globalteer family. It is so satisfying and rewarding to know that in a very small way I was helping to give these children a better future.

If you know me, you know I am addicted to things old and ancient, so living in Cambodia was a paradise for me, offering regular doses of the ruined and the aged to feed my addiction. One day I particularly remember was a trip to Beng Melea with new friend Jill. The 90-minute tuktuk ride there and back was a joy in itself but the ruins are even more superb, especially as they are distant enough from the main Angkor Wat complex to avoid (most of) the madding crowd. Though the ruins have been much ravaged by vegetation, temple authorities have constructed wooden ramps and stairways that help negotiate the fallen stonework easily. It was a superb day out.

I also fed my addiction with almost daily doses of pagodas and I’m sure I was fast earning a reputation amongst the tuktuk drivers as that crazy old white woman, as my weekends were often spent tuktuking through the countryside in search of more temples. Wat Damnak, pictured here, was one of my favourites and was on my circuitous route into town so an easy place to pop in to. You can read more about it and the many other pagodas I explored on my other blogs.

Wat Damnak didn’t just offer beautiful buildings and quiet contemplative spaces, it was also home to some of the local wildlife, in particular frogs and lizards. The frogs’ antics were often laugh-out-loud funny but the lizards also made me smile, with their hilarious dance-like actions, their ability to change colour when aroused, and their truly impressive tails. Both these Oriental Garden Lizards and the tiny geckos that inhabit every nook and cranny of every building in Cambodia, as well as the Tokay geckos that cry out “okay, okay, okay”, charmed and entertained me, and helped provide me with the memories of Cambodia that I’m sure will never leave me.

The frogs and lizards weren’t the only beasties that made me smile in 2013. I am not a twitcher or even a birder but I’m definitely a bird-watcher and a bird-lover. As the great naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough once said: ‘What wild creature is more accessible to our eyes and ears, as close to us and everyone in the world, as universal as a bird?’ In Cambodia, I enjoyed the birds that visited the trees outside my window and the glorious creatures (like this magnificent Indian Spotted Eagle) at the Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity. In Kuala Lumpur, I spent a wonderful afternoon at the bird park, where the huge free-flight aviary provides a very natural environment for the birds to live in. And since I’ve been back in New Zealand, I’ve enjoyed reacquainting myself with my Kiwi feathered friends.

When I visited that bird park in Kuala Lumpur, it was during a short five-day break, a wonderful birthday treat to myself. I loved the cultural diversity of KL. I loved the incredible modern architecture of the Petronas Towers. I loved the Indian and Chinese temples. and the character of the old shophouses. I loved Merdeka Square with its eclectic mix of British colonial brickwork, Islamic arches, Moorish cupolas and Moghul domes, all bordering a rectangular green where the Brits once played cricket. And I loved sharing part of my holiday with my cousin Julie, who flew up from Singapore for the weekend to help me celebrate yet another birthday.

I’ve spent the second half of 2013 back here in Auckland, New Zealand and, though I certainly didn’t expect to still be here as 2013 drew to a close, I am enjoying so many things about being back again in this beautiful city: the history of her heritage architecture and creativity of her public artworks, the green of the expansive parks right on my doorstep and waking to the sounds of tuis, walking the seaside boardwalks and bush-lined pathways, my tiny but perfectly formed apartment and the convenience of city living, watching the weather and the ships come and go across the sparkling waters of the Waitemata harbour, catching up with friends and the latest movies, and so much more.

Though this return to Auckland was not in my ten-year plan to travel the world, I am reminded of the wise words of the Dalai Lama: ‘Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.’

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