Borneo and the Sarawak Rainforest Music Festival

The famous orang-utans of Borneo.

Borneo!  For me it has always conjured up images of the wild man of Borneo, headhunters and orangutans.  Having said that, I must say that prior to this trip I did not really know much about this place.  Borneo is actually the third largest country in the world, lies north of Australia and is administratively made up of three countries, Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia and Indonesia. Sabah and Sarawak are the two Malaysian states and Kalimantan is the Indonesian one.  Confused?  So was I!  Spending a bit of time there, however, helped me to wrap my head around it.  Borneo proved to be an exciting as well as interesting place, and we didn’t spend nearly enough time there.  This is definitely a place that I would like to come back to and explore.

Nothin’ like a good foot massage – Miri.

Whilst our destination was Kuching, we had to fly from Miri.  Without getting into it, Air Asia does not fly from the capital of Brunei to Kuching, so we had to catch a bus across the border to Miri, which is in Malaysia, and then take a flight to Kuching.  Easy, peasy!  The bus was leaving early and from the city centre, so we had to get up early and get a taxi from the Empire Hotel to the bus stop.  It was an interesting bus ride – although people in the country of Brunei clearly do not live like those in the capital, they clearly aren’t poor either.  As we crossed over to Malaysia, this clearly changed.  Upon reaching Miri, we promptly looked for a place to stay. We bumped into a Malaysian woman who was living in Australia, and she proceeded to tell us that she had a friend who had a guesthouse.  In no time at all, she made a phone call, and we were on our way to the guesthouse.  It was a good little find; clean, safe and quiet.  We were only really here long enough to have a bit of a wander around town and eat some fantastic food (always a good thing!)…oh, and get a brilliant foot massage from some Chinese massage students.  THAT was definitely an OMG moment.  I have always said that a truly good foot massage is better than a body one.  And that was a good foot massage….Linda and Alex were agreeing in unison!

Kuching.

Again, our flight to Kuching proved to be without commotion; it was the place we needed to get to next, before embarking on our stint as Artist Liaison volunteer workers at the Sarawak Rainforest Festival. Whilst all of our accommodation would be paid for and organised by the event organisers, we would be arriving a couple of days before to check the place out.  We checked out some accommodation on line (what would we do without the internet…or more to the point, how did we do without it before?), and ended up booking Singgahsana Lodge.  It was clean and central – a perfect spot from which to explore the city.

In a temple in Kuching.

Kuching (which means cat in Malay) is very easy to navigate, especially as the main sights (and sites) are on the southbank of the Sungai Sarawak, or Sarawak River.  A decent dose of fitness and some decent walking shoes is all you need to explore.  Oh, and water…lots of it, as it gets mighty hot, especially by mid afternoon.  We thoroughly enjoyed this place, walking around, trying different foods, sampling the local beer (Alex and Linda!), going to and through markets, visiting different sites and museums.  It truly is the kind of place you can just wander around in, and see where you end up.  The southbank of the Sarawak River has been really tastefully developed, with a one kilometre stretch of paved walkway, lawns and flowerbeds.

The ‘ferry’ between the two banks of the river in Kuching.

It’s also an excellent place to people-watch, both foreigners and locals alike, which is actually one of my favourite pastimes. One afternoon, as we watched and observed, Alex and I decided to take the short boat ride across the river and do some exploring where few tourists venture.  Again, it was great to weave in and out of areas that gave us an insight to how people really live.  Whilst not destitute, the people here certainly were not living the high life.  When I travel (it’s a personal thing) I think it’s important, if not imperative, to see how the locals really live.  I know that this can often be both daunting and uncomfortable, but for me this is the solar plexus of travel.

I must say…the rambutans were good!

Food.  Did we eat, or did we eat?  Of course we ate, trying many different things, from hawker-style fare, through to the famous Kuching laksa (which left me relatively unimpressed, and I tried it on a couple of occasions) and the various noodle and rice dishes on offer.  Whilst Kuching is supposed to have the best selection of food in Borneo, it was no comparison to Penang (more on that later).  Generally, however, I mostly did like the food.

Swinging around!

There was quite a bit to see and do in the City of Cats, and I think we managed to pack a fairly mean punch in a couple of days.  We visited the Main Bazaar, smack bang in the middle of town,  on  a couple of occasions – if retail therapy is what one has come for , this is utopia! It’s the oldest street in Kuching, dating back to 1964, and is lined with old shops. Despite the throes of people trying to hunt down a bargain (its veneer), it represents the very heart of Kuching’s history (it’s soul).  Again, it’s a great place to buy and an even better one to observe people.

How can one come to Borneo and not see the orangutans?  We did our homework, and found out that we could go to the Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre.  Established in 1975 for the rehabilitation of confiscated and surrendered animals, it’s only 20 kilometres away from the centre of Kuching.  Too easy, we caught a bus out there one morning, in order to get there for when they are being fed (they’re fed twice a day, which is really the best time to see them in action).  It’s said that 20 of Borneo’s great orang-utans (which means people of the forest, by the way) live there and although there isn’t sufficient natural forest in the surrounding area to make actual reintroduction possible, it’s still a wonderful way to see our relatives interacting with each other.    Shy, cheeky, jokesters, wanting to be the centre of attention…they are all of these things, and watching them was fascinating!

One of the houses we saw walking around Kuching.

Our exploratory walks took us though China Street, India Street as well as a multitude of temples and museums.  Whilst we saw a lot there is also only so much that one can humanely do.  We certainly gave it our best shot!  The time had come…we checked out of Singghasana Lodge, and made our way to the Santubong Resort, where all of the artists, media personnel and volunteers participating in the Rainforest World Music Festival 2010 would be staying.  The festival would run from the 9th until the 11th of July, but we had to be at the hotel a day earlier in order to get ourselves organised.  As soon as we got there, we introduced ourselves to Peggy Wong, who was the Festival Co-Director and the person we had been liaising with for months, who promptly gave us our Welcome Packs,  including everything we needed to know as well as festival t-shirts.  She then helped us organise the keys to our rooms.  Women and men were to have separate quarters, and I would be sharing with Linda and one other person.  The whole resort/ hotel was abuzz with activity…artists arriving from all over the world, everybody trying to get organised, media floating around, people translating.  It had a good vibe; seemed like it was going to be lots of fun!

L to R: With I Beddi (Davide, PierPaolo, Giampaolo, Mimi).
The very talented men from Galandun Galundaina.

Our room was clean, comfortable and very big.  We dumped our stuff inside and relaxed briefly, before getting ready.  There would be a series of buses to take us all back into the centre of Kuching, where we would all attend the launching ceremony and Welcome Dinner at the Sarawak Tourism Complex (on the site of the Old Courthouse Complex).  The next few days proved to be lots of fun but pretty full on too.  As far as ceremonies go, it was fairly stock-standard:  Tourism Minister comes really, really late, everyone hangs around starving and wanting to go and eat, speeches made, everyone runs out to buffet and starts eating and socialising.  Some things are the same in every country! There was also a little taste of what was to come, with a brief performance by Portugese band, Galandun Galundaina. Alex had been assigned this group, who all spoke excellent Spanish.  A great group of guys.  I also got to meet my band, a group of four guys from Italy, called I Beddi (or the beautiful ones). They play traditional folk/ acoustic music from Sicily. Four lovelier guys, I could not have met – they all proved to be gentlemen!  Luckily for Linda, she did not get to meet her band, Novalima from Peru, until the next day.  They proved to be difficult to deal with, rude, arrogant, wanna-be rock stars whose music, quite frankly, was not a slice above average (chichera meets house rock!  In house joke!  He, he!) The one saving grace for that group was the excellent guitar work of the talented and polite Yuri Juarez, who was actually standing in for the group guitarist who couldn’t make it.

Giampaolo playing the harmonica.

The actual festival itself was held at the Sarawak Cultural Village, which is effectively a living museum, showcasing the heritage of the major racial groups in Sarawak.  This includes replicas of their dwellings amidst 14 acres of tropical vegetation.  Once a year, however, this massive space becomes a massive stage (or two or three) and is attended by people from all over the world, who come to participate in an event that is most aptly described as culturally enlightening.  During the three day event people are treated to a multitude of workshops and, at night, a series of concerts.  The entire village is abuzz with excitement, activity and sounds.  Everything from local bands from Borneo to a groups from as afar as Africa; there is something for everyone.  It was sometimes hot, sometimes muggy, sometimes wet, but always fun!  Market stall holders, mixed with henna tattoo artists; photographers mixed with volunteers, it was terrific.  We all made lots of good friends here.

Dressed up in traditional clothes at the festival.

Different volunteers did different things, but our role, as artist liaison, was to make sure that our group was where they had to be on time as well as translating, if there was the need.  The three days flew by, as we mixed helping with watching concerts and performances where we could.  All of our meals were included, and we were given coupons for buffet lunches and dinners.  On two of the three nights it rained so hard that I thought that the entire village was going to slide away, but rain or no rain, people were out there jammin’ (and getting drenched) to the groove.

Ombi, Alex and Linda with I Beddi, from Sicily! 

Time off?  Yeh, there was some of that.  I did not get to see lots of either Alex or Linda during these days, as we were all off doing stuff with our own band, but when I did have time off, I was hanging with the boys from my band, Davide, Mimi, Giampaolo and Pier Paolo.  I truly hit the jackpot with these guys – they were talented, intelligent, interesting, fun, and included me in everything.  We hit the pool together a few times, and chatted whilst swimming and sun-baking (probably my other addiction apart from travelling).

Many of the artists jamming at the hotel.

Apart from the festival itself, on many nights,  members from the various bands would come back and jam at the hotel, staying up until the early hours of the morning – this had a totally different vibe from the festival, as it was more intimate.  Having said that, there were some huge egos amongst some of those performers…

And just as it had begun, it was time for it to end.  The day after the last day of the festival was again a day full of activity, as the various performers, photographers, volunteers etc packed up and left, one by one, group by group, and person by person.  We stayed until one of the last buses took a group of performers to the airport (so we could hitch a ride).  When the Italian group left, we were all crying – a real friendship had been forged between the five of us.  They all looked out of the bus window, and I waited outside waving, with them waving back.  When the bus finally took off, I ran waving after it with tears in my eyes.  I will see those guys again!  I told them that!

Some of the performers.

Before we knew it, we were on an Air Asia flight to Penang.  Well, that is actually a lie!   The  flight arrival time was changed something like four times in the space of the few hours whilst we were at the airport waiting to board the original flight.  We were already meant to be arriving late enough, but ended up doing so after midnight.  We frantically combed the internet for accommodation, as rocking up in central Penang at 2.00am looking for a place to stay did not seem at all appealing to any of us!  The hotels were either booked up, too far out, too expensive or too something else!  We finally found a place, right in the centre, called the Oriental Hotel.  It looked OK on-line and so we called up to make a booking.  We were told that whilst no bookings were accepted (we should have heard the warning bells then!), that we should just rock up on arrival, and that space shouldn’t be a problem.  Couldn’t be that bad, or could it?  Desperate people do desperate things!

Ombi

What am I reading?

Dedication: I want to dedicate this blog to the four beautiful ones from I Beddi: Davide, Mimi, Giampaolo and PierPaolo.  You were an absolute pleasure to be around and I will always remember you fondly.  Davide, you made me laugh so much; Mimi, tranquil, down to earth and with amazing insight; Pier Paolo, I loved our discussions on the meaning of life; and Giampaolo, so sweet…it was with such warmth and integrity that you would show me with love the pictures of your children.  You all hold a special place in my heart, and I know that I will see you all again some day.

Dedicazione: Voglio dedicare questo blog ai quattro “belli” del gruppo, I Beddi: Davide, Mimi, Pier Paolo e Giampaolo.  Eravate un piacere di avere intorno e vi ricordero’ sempre con molto simpatia.  Davide, mi hai fatto ridere tanto (diciamo, che mi hai fatto pisciare sotto); Mimi, tranquillo, molto alla mano e con tanta perspicacia; Pier Paolo, mi hanno piaciuto i nostri discorsi a riguardo il significato della vita; e Giampaolo, cosi dolce…era con tanto calore e integrita che mi mostravi con amore le fotografie dei tuoi bambini.  Ognuno di voi avete un posto speciale nel mio cuore, e lo so che un giorno ci rivedremo.
“Friendship is a single soul dwelling in two bodies” – Aristotle.

A couple looking over the bridge – Kuching.
Closing night, with Giampaolo and PierPaolo (I Beddi).
Traditional painting, Borneo.

With Peggy, Randy and I Beddi.
Closing ceremony ‘mud slide’; infront of stage, in the pouring rain!



Hi ho, hi ho, it’s overseas we go…Brunei Darussalam

Outside Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque

C’mon, give me a break…it was ABSOLUTELY time for another trip!  Hey, we didn’t go anywhere last Christmas, and we’d been to Ecuador way back in mid-1999, so we were about due.  To be fair, we’d already booked this trip to Malaysia with our friend Linda back in September 2009.  Keen, hey! What can I say…if you can’t physically travel immediately, the next best thing has got to be making the booking!  OK, OK, I don’t even try and hide it anymore…I’m a travel junkie!

Held in Sarawak, Borneo

Linda had told us about the Sarawak Rainforest World Music Festival (this is the 2010 event link, but here is the one for the upcoming event in 2011)  in Borneo, and it all sounded very exciting to Alex and I.  The Rainforest World Music Festival is a unique festival that brings together renowned world musicians from all continents as well as indigenous musicians from the island of Borneo.  It has been going for approximately eight years and its success has largely been due to all of the volunteers, both international as well as local, who freely give up their time to help out.  Linda asked Alex and I if we would be interested to volunteer…HELL YEH!!!  That took hardly any convincing at all; Linda showed us the web site (she also has lots of contacts there, and the Andean band she manages in Australia, Inka Marka, have played there before)…and we were immediately sold!  Linda then proceeded to use her contacts, and in no time at all, it was official…Alex and I would be volunteers!  It was an easy sell – whilst I had been to Malaysia, I had never been to Borneo (part of which is Malaysia), and Alex had never been to either.  Of course I am always up for a new country and a new experience.

Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque & Royal Barge



Linda also mentioned Brunei and the Empire Hotel and Country Club…Where?…What?  The Sultanate of Brunei is a tiny Muslim country nestled between Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo, and the Empire Hotel and Country Club is its 5 star hotel centrepiece.  Whilst I have never had a huge desire to travel to Brunei, we decided to go there, as we were already going to be so very close. Staying in a 5 star plus hotel?  Linda had been there before with her band (Inka Marka), and said it was worth the splurge. With some really decent on-line deals, we decided to “OTT” (over the top) it, and act like royalty, well at least sultans, for a day…or two.

This speaks for itself!

Good ol’ Air Asia.  Flying ain’t what it used to be!  Once we booked our Melbourne – Kuala Lumpur return tickets, we were able to get our internal tickets quite cheaply, which allowed us to see a fair bit of Malaysia (Sarawak in Borneo and Penang on the mainland) and Brunei in just two weeks.  As usual, we packed a lot in.  Cheap sometimes comes at a cost, however, with Air Asia changing the internal flight times so often that we lost count. It’s all good if there is no urgency to be at a certain place at a certain time, but if you have a tight deadline, I would definitely recommend another carrier.

This sure beats vegemite!

Linda drove to our place, where she left her car, and Dad drove us all to the airport.  We had pre-flight drinks (coffee!) and then boarded the plane.  We’d done our homework – food isn’t free on these flights, so we came armed with sandwiches wrapped in foil and a host of other delectables which would hopefully keep our taste buds happy.  I reminisced about my primary school days where the “wogs” would try and hide the foil and want to spear their parents for giving them salami or prosciutto in continental bread rolls…if they were lucky they could swap with one of the Aussie kids and score a vegemite sandwich (sliced, doughy, white bread).  I laughed out loud..these days, WHO would swap salami in a continental bread roll for vegemite in tip-top bread?  Multicultural Australia…we sure have come a way!


The flight was good, no problems at all.  Once we arrived  in KL, we had to wait a few hours before flying on to Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB), the capital of Brunei (whose official name is actually the State of Brunei Darussalam).  Linda had her lap top with her, so we filled in our time by sitting in a cafe, and sipping on coffee (as you do), whilst using the free wireless provided.  You can never have too much coffee, or wireless internet access for that matter!  Soon back on a plane, we were on our way to Brunei.

The Empire Hotel…no luxury spared.

We arrived in BSB late in the afternoon, and promptly caught a taxi out to the Empire Hotel and Country Club. I had seen their web site and read up on it, but nothing could prepare me for what I was about to see. OMG…OTT!!!  Translation – Oh My God…Over The Top!  The Lonely Planet Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei guide got the description down pat – “Imagine a zillion-tonne hunk of Italian marble dipped in gold and tossed into the rainforest – you’ve just picked the fanciful Empire Hotel and Country Club”. Couldn’t have described it better myself!  We entered the grandiose gates, passed a lot of highly manicured lawns, the entrance to the golf course, the quote, health club, unquote (health club I said, NOT gym!)…and then were left outside the grandiose doors of the hotel.  And there the three of us stood, looking very much the backpackers.  What can I say?  Oil and water?  Never the twain shall meet, or mix at least.  I felt like I had been dumped outside Buckingham Palace in my bikinis!

Beachfront view from the Empire Hotel

Once inside I couldn’t help but be overawed by the opulence (our three day stay here would provide me with many more OMG moments!) of the place, but decided that, hey I was here, so just enjoy it. As the saying goes…if you can’t beat ’em…join ’em!  We were promptly taken to our ocean front rooms, and I must say they were luxurious indeed. The hotel really did have it all…various swimming pools, ocean access, various restaurants, massage, spa…just to name a few things.  It truly was a city within a city. The only downfall was that it was far enough from the city centre to make taking taxis in and out rather expensive, and buses were quite infrequent (A) because the number of cars per person in this small country is astounding and (B), which is actually a result of (A), public transport is scarce and infrequent.

On the Empire Hotel:  It was built in the 90s on the same scale as a Las Vegas Casino, and was commissioned by Price Jefri, originally as lodging for the royal family (talk about putting a new spin on private accommodation!).  Construction costs were estimated  at US $1.1 billion, and the property was quickly transformed into an upscale resort to recover some of the construction costs…word has it that this will never actually happen!  Amongst many other things, the hotel boasts two camel-shaped lamps made from pure Baccarat crystal, topped with solid gold…they cost a mere US half a million each!  Now that is extravagance!

Linda and Ombi – wining & dining at the Empire Hotel

Apart from soaking in the many outdoor pools, we actually had a lovely time in Brunei, spending a bit of time in the city centre, and checking out some sights.  Whilst Muslim, it is not as conservative as many of its middle eastern cousins.  Having said that, it is always both polite and courteous to observe the dress code of those around you.  When in Rome, do as the Romans.  We were very lucky to get a personalised tour on our second day, as Linda has a friend who works in Brunei Tourism.  Chris Robles met us at the hotel and then spent a day driving us around the main sites, which meant that we got to see quite a bit, including the main sites. Without a car, for reasons previously

Royal Regalia Museum

explained, this would have been really difficult.  Some of the highlights were the Royal Regalia Museum (basically a celebration of the sultan and all the trappings of Bruneian royalty), the Brunei Museum (giving a great overview of the country and its people as well as the brilliant Islamic Art Gallery) and the Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque, which was built in 1992 to celebrate the 25th year of the current sultan’s reign.  The sheer volume of the place was amazing and the myriad of  woven rugs scattered across the men’s prayer hall astounding.  Amongst all of this we stopped for both a buffet lunch and some decent coffee.  When Chris dropped us off back at the hotel, we were knackered.  We thanked him for his kind hospitality, and made our way to the pools, for a relaxing finish to our day.

Which side of the Yarra d’ya reckon the mosque is on?
Homemade boat & paddles – Kampong River



























The next day we made our own way into the city centre and wandered around.  We seemed to not only be the only tourists, but the only ones walking around, and I must say, it was pretty hot.  That couldn’t possibly have been the reason!  We visited the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque,  (built in 1958 at a cost of about US $5 million…then!  They don’t go by halves in this country!), another very aesthetically pleasing monument.  Alex and I also walked around Kampong Ayer.  Right in the centre, this water village is an amazing juxtaposition to the many lavish buildings which surround it.  Just minutes away from the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, is a jumble of wooden planks and shacks, considered to be the biggest water village in the world.  Housing an estimated 20,000 people, Kampong Ayer is made up of 28 water villages.  As we wandered and meandered around the walkways, and on many a  broken plank high enough above the water to make the idea of tripping over positively frightening, I couldn’t help but be amazed how poverty could reside so close to luxury.  I alternated between looking at the rotten planks below me, and then looking out to the city from which I had just walked.  What a contrast!

Brunei water-taxi service

It was mid-afternoon and getting rather hot (hmm, well, hotter!)  We walked back to the centre, where we met Linda, and then just browsed around, stopping at some shopping centres, as well as refuelling on coffee.  I cannot say that the shopping was overly exciting, and we didn’t really buy much apart from some food.

Our three nights and four days in Brunei passed in a flash, and before we knew it, we were on a plane flying out to Kuching, where we would be volunteering at the Sarawak Rainforest Music Festival.  Whilst I was glad that I had seen Brunei and had seen and done some interesting things, I cannot say that it tops my “5 places to re-visit” list.  Interesting enough it’s kind of more in the been there, done that category!

Ombi

What am I reading?
The Havana Mob – T.J. English


“Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less travelled by” – Robert Frost

How people on “the other side” live – Kampong water village

Outside wooden house – Kampong water village

Boy going to school – Kampong water village

Opulence – Empire Hotel & Country Club

Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque

Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque

Inti Raymi…Australian Style!

L to R: (Back) Narelle, Jane, Natarsha, Ombi  &(front), Linda, Karen & Kirrily 

As I tap away, I am acutely aware that we are almost in the month of  November, which would not normally be such a big deal, except for the fact that the last time I updated my blog was months ago!  I have been meaning to write for weeks, months really, yet that elusive thing called time always seems to somehow, well, elude me!  Having said that, I have decided this fine Sunday morning that “the woman on a mission” has a new mission, which is to write a series of blogs that will update you on mine and Alex’s comings and goings over the last few months or so!!  So, let me get  cracking.

Peruvian shaman

In Late June my close group of friends that I fondly refer to as the “South America Contingent” collectively organised an Inti Raymi Party.  Inti Raymi, or the “Festival of the Sun” (to be exact, “resurrection of the sun”  in the Quechua language) was a religious ceremony of the Inca Empire to honour the Incan Sun God, Inti.  It also marked the winter solstice and a new year in the Andes of the Southern Hemisphere.  As a bit of an aside, since 1944 a theatrical representation of the Inti Raymi has been taking place at Sacsayhuaman, a sacred site only two kilometres from Cusco, on the 24th June, attracting tourists and visitors from all over the world….I was one of those visitors in 1999, only months before I met Alex.  The energy was intoxicating, and it is a memory that will always remain in my heart and soul.

Linda beating to the rhythm of the drum

Meanwhile, back in Australia…our dear friend Linda, aka “Ms South America Melbourne”, was involved in the organisation of this event in Melbourne (one of many), with a contingent of mostly Andean, and to be specific, Peruvian friends.  It was an invitation only event, to be hosted at the home of our also dear friends, Mick and Claudia Benham.  Let me tell you, that night it was definitely the Rain god and not the Sun god that was present, as there was an alluvial downpour to rival all downpours.  The backyard would have made a brilliant mud-wrestling pit, but alack and alas, the ceremony went on, rain, mud, slush and all!

Mud-fest at Inti Raymi

Despite the rain, a great time was had by all, as most of the attendees have some connection to South America, the Andes or its people.  We were all asked to bring along a plate to share, but before we all got stuck into the food, a shaman took us through the ritualistic part of the ceremony.  This ceremony transported me back to Peru, or even to outside the churches of Chichicastenango in Guatemala…a world where cultures, traditions and religions are mixed.  In moments such as these, I desperately want to be anywhere but Australia, as I long for that deep-rooted culture and tradition that I find so lacking here.  I suppose yearning is the word.  My physical body lives in Australia, but my heart and soul are constantly travelling the world – neither seems to want to settle in Australia!

Shaman conducting Inti Raymi ceremony

Despite the continual rain (the Rain god was NOT going to give in!), we danced to Andean music and conversed with our peers.  Unbenownst to others, I was floating in and out of my own little world….before backpacking through South America and meeting Alex 11 years ago, I knew not a lot about South America, its traditions or its people…but traversing this continent would change my life forever.  My travels and experiences there have touched me in the most profoundest of ways.  It turned me into a “culture jockey”…ever since, my life has consisted of straddling two cultures!

Shaman making offerings to Inti, the Sun god

Whilst I love Australia, and am proud of being Australian, not a week goes by where I do not yearn for South America.  I love the vibrancy and passion of its people, many of whom have nothing, yet have everything…and then I think of my own country…where many people indeed have everything, but who spiritually have nothing.  Love, passion, spirituality and few material goods  versus a plethora of material goods yet a spiritual void?  To “have” or “not to have”…that is the question!

Ombi

Dedication: For South America and its people – you are my second homeland!  Thanks for the great love and passion you have instilled in me.  Knowing you has changed my life…forever!

What am I reading?
Conversations with Tariq Ali  – Speaking of Empire and Resistance, by Tariq Ali and David Barsamian

“Before we work on artificial intelligence, why don’t we work on natural stupidity?” – Steve Polyak
 

The art of being humble!

L to R: Dino (my Dad), Ida and Ombi

As part of my work at Inclusive Leisure Victoria (ILV), which does policy and advocacy work around the inclusion of people with a disability in the recreation and sport sectors, I attended a meeting yesterday at YDAS, or Youth Disability Advocacy Service.  I know, the acronym is a bit of a clanger, but the work they do is amazing.  The first few lines on their home page state:

“The Youth Disability Advocacy Service (YDAS) is raising voices, expanding choices and creating change for young people with disabilities in Victoria, Australia.

YDAS works alongside young people with disabilities between the ages of 12 and 25 to raise awareness of their rights and to support them to achieve what they want.”

L to R: Effie (my “Greek mum”), Ombi & Vicky

What was I doing and who attended the meeting? May I begin by saying that Dr George Teleporos, who is the coordinator of YDAS, runs monthly Saturday meetings with a group of young people to discuss a range of issues which may affect them.   Last year, before I began work at ILV, my organisation did some work with the YMCA around people with disabilities and positive body image, culminating in some posters which showed a range of people doing exercise that sat a tad outside the size 8, hot body image!  YDAS wanted to take this a little further and ask the youth (with disabilities) themselves how THEY want to see youth/ people with disabilities depicted and portrayed!  Thus, I was invited to come and speak to “the group”, and what a dynamic bunch they  were!  This is where I have to ensure that I don’t sound patronising, but as I walked into the room, surrounded by 15-some people with disabilities ranging from deafness to cerebral palsy, and including a couple of people who couldn’t talk, and have to tap out what they want to say on a keyboard, I suddenly felt very overwhelmed, and  could feel a lump rising in my throat.  I rode that wave, and sat and listened to them talk for a while!

Quite frankly, I was blown away!  Blown away by their passion, drive and determination to make a difference!  Blown away by their heartfelt desires to try and make a change in a society which is often so very black and white.  Some spoke through an Auslan interpreter, others tapped on a keyboard, others spoke very slowly but very deliberately, but ALL made a point and ALL were heard.  I sat back and listened to them talk about sexuality and sex, and decision making and caring versus support.  I heard various people explain how they were not often seen as sexual beings due to their disability, but how in essence they were just like “everybody else” in their needs and desires. And as I sat there ( I clearly hadn’t spoken yet!) I felt a mix of admiration, inspiration and humility!  These youths were banding together to chat about issues, in order to change their lives in a positive way, and for the better!

Vicky and Ombi

I have always been very open-minded about disability, especially having worked in the area on and off  for most of my working life, as well as having grown up around my “Greek family” and my “sister” Vicky who is in a wheelchair and has cerebral palsy.  My family and Vicky’s family lived only doors apart, so Vicky was always a part of my world, as was the rest of her family, of course. When I was studying at La Trobe, I also went on to work part time at a few leisure centres where I taught youth from special schools how to swim, and then later I worked for many years in some CRUs (Community Residential Units) as a recreation officer/ carer for people with intellectual disabilities.  So, people other than “normal” have always been a part of my world and experiences.  They have also helped me think outside the box, which I generally think I am pretty decent at doing anyway.  They have taught me an incredible amount, and many have been a huge source of inspiration.

Ombi and Effie

Inspiration…why inspiration?  The reasons are many, but I will go back to the group at YDAS yesterday.  In the face of adversity, in a world where they are not seen as “normal”, they STILL push through the barriers and try and elicit change.  Why is this so amazing?  Because Mr Joe and Ms Susie Average does no such similar thing.  The “Averages” plod along in their lives, with nothing really to worry about, but no real desire to make a change.  And these are the very people who usually whinge about their lives!  May I remind you that most of us have NOTHING to whinge about!  What…you have put on half a kilo?  Or, the hairdresser put the wrong shade of red in your hair!  Worse still, the shop down the road didn’t have the shoes you wanted in your size!  It’s all about perspective and relativity.  I know, but all of this regularly seems banal to me, and was especially so yesterday, when I saw a group of people who despite their “disabilities” were out to make a difference.

Dino, Ida & Alex

What I saw in this group of people yesterday was the ability, not the disability; the desire and drive to make a change and simply have a sit back and “cop it sweet” attitude; I saw what people could do rather than what they couldn’t…and I felt very, very, very humbled!  These are the people and situations that help shape my life, my world and my dreams! My dreams of a better and more equitable society! 

I am often told that I am “too radical”, that I can’t make a difference, and that other individuals can’t either.  I will not and can not believe that, and will spend the rest of my life trying to make a difference.  In that group yesterday, I saw a bit, well actually a lot, of me…and I felt at home.

Together, we can change the world…although I admit, it’s going to take a little more time!

Ombi

Effie, Ombi & Vicky

Dedication:  This is for my “sister” Vicky.  Thanks for being a part of my world and experiences.  I love you lots.

What am I reading? 
The Final Call, In search of the true cost of our holidays by Leo Hickman (finished)
The Media We Deserve – David Salter

We must become the change we want to see” – Mahatma Gandhi

Going, going, gone…the sequel!

Alex and I at Jarrod’s 21st, April

You may recall, only a couple of blogs back, another blog entitled, “2009…Going, going…gone!”  Well, only a few months on, it’s not just 2009 that seems to have gone, but what is soon to become a sizable chunk of our money…as after months and months of searching, Alex and I FINALLY bought a town house!  After “seriously” taking up looking from November last year, we found out how truly time -consuming the quest for  a home could be, including attending auctions that would go ridiculously and obscenely above the reserve.  Weekdays seemed to be spent looking FOR properties, and Saturdays looking AT them, which really didn’t leave much time to do much else.  The rest of the story will soon follow.


Buddhist Temple at Yuroke

Fed up of house-hunting, I’d read that there was a Buddhist Festival at a Buddhist Temple in Yuroke, just under 30 kilometres away from the CBD.  Alex and I went with Linda, and had a really relaxing Sunday afternoon.  It was lovely to just stroll around the gardens, breathe some fresh air, look through the market stalls and simply forget about all the things that usually consume our brain space.  It truly was just what we all needed!

Matt and Alex at our local Vietnamese restaurant

We’d been trying to catch up forever with our friends Matt and Mae, and their two little cuties, Freya and Nayte, so we organised to go to one of our local Vietnamese haunts in Preston…good food and good company…what more can one ask for!  Again, it was lovely to just hang around, take it easy, and catch up on the latest happenings.

Auntie Rina (R) and her friend Concetta (L)

My mum’s oldest sister, Rina, lives quite close to both where I live and work, and I try and visit her as often as I can.  Auntie Rina is now 88, and I must say that if I look like that at her age, I will be stoked…well…if I make it to her age!  I love going to visit, as she always has some story or tale of her life experience to impart.  She has had a rather colourful life, but let’s face it, with 88 years behind you, there would surely have to be tales to tell!  With a life that started near Naples, in Italy, and ended up with her travelling to Australia after the second world war, Auntie Rina has often kept me entertained with her anecdotes.  I often feel saddened when I hear of people dismissing the elderly…we have so much to learn from them, and their life experiences are meritable…if people would only realise this.  They should be the building blocks of our society, as in essence, and with any luck, we will have learnt from them, making us the people we will one day become.  I often look at those who have no respect for their elders, and wonder what their level of respect for themselves, and in general, is!


The three “novias”: L to R: Linda, Karen and Ombi
Esther Williams eat your heart out!  With Karen at Peninsula Springs in Rye

Before Karen and Jesus had come back from overseas, we decided that we’d have a “novias” weekend away ( girls’ weekend away).  I must say, Karen, Linda and I had a blast in Sorrento.  It was just the girls… eating, chatting, chatting, chatting, chatting, oh, and runs on the beach, going for walks and visiting the Peninsula Hot Springs in Rye.  It was an opportunity for us to gas bag to our hearts content, and believe me the three of us have a combined gas bagging prowess that is beyond belief.  The boys (Alex and Jesus, Karen’s husband), have recently devised a “hands up system” for when the three of us are together, as otherwise it’s pandemonium.  Did the boys come?  The poor fellows wouldn’t have got a word in edge wise! Or any wise, for that matter! It was great to be able to take the time out to do this, as the three of us truly are three peas in a pod.  Whatever brought us together will now keep us together, as we have formed a friendship and bond which although cliched, can only be described as special!

Congrats Jo!  Munching on pizza.  L to R: Alex, Jesus, Jo Karen

Speaking of special friendships, you have often heard me chat about our other most special friends, Jo and Richard de Meester (www.thedemeesters.blogspot.com).  I want to congratulate you Jo on your new job at Alphington Grammar School.  I am sure that they will love you as much there as at every other place you have worked at.  Who doesn’t love you Jo!?  Needless to say, a celebration was in store…so we all lobbed over to the de Meesters and had celebratory pizza.

The Garcias L to R: Sisters Esther and Rita, and mum, Aida

In April, Rita also visited from Dubai.  Yes, Rita too is special, but she is more like my sister than a friend.  I have known Rita since we met in Year 7 at Santa Maria College in Northcote, and I have since long been the “fourth Garcia sister”.  Did they adopt me?  I adopted myself… a long time ago!  Whenever Reet’s in town, her mum and dad’s house (who I consider my family) becomes my local hangout!  And time is never enough.  You know how much I love, and miss you Reet!  Whilst she was down we also went to visit her father-in-law, Harry, whom I also have grown very fond of.  Harry is an articulate and intelligent man, and we have had many an interesting conversation.  We talk a lot about books, as it’s a shared passion.  Most of you know that I am a voracious reader, and culture vulture.  The problem is that I never have enough time to read all that I want to…I do give it a pretty good shot though!

L to R: Andrew, Ombi, Alessandra (Anita’s daughter) and Anita, at the fundraiser

I may be stepping backwards now, but I think it was in late March that we had a fundraiser for my friend Phil West’s foundation, Renew the Spirit, which I help out with from time to time.  The organisation helps to heal the hearts of child survivors of war and terrorism.  I was the master of ceremonies for the night, which had a Colombian food and dance focus.  It was a both a fun and profitable night, and I was also able to catch up with my good friends Andrew and Anita, whom I had not seen in ages.

L to R: (back) Margi, Marion, Fran, moi, Clare, and front, Pauline with Fran’s baby Kieran  & Mel

April also saw a reunion with my “old mob of mates” from Santa Maria College; Margi, Marion, Clare, Melinda, Frances and Pauline.  We all see each other from time to time, but it had been ages since I saw Pauline.  Nothing had changed!  That same night I had my cousin, Jarrod’s, 21st.  It was held at the Kew Boathouse…a black tie affair, and with jazz musicians, it was a night enjoyed by all.

Ombi and Dino with Ida

Most of you would also recall that I worked for years at an organisation called CAST (Community Accommodation Support Team), which is now called Northern Support Services, looking after people with an intellectual disability.  I am still  in touch with many of them, especially with Ida, who I still have over for coffee or dinner.  We recently had her over for bowl of pasta, which she loves!

L to R: Ombi, Rosie, Bel, Tara, Emma and Em

Another reunion, of a different kind in May…with Bel of Mundo Maya, and some of the other girls I met through the Cuban Dance Academy, when I was going to salsa classes a few years back.  Well, I actually met Em in Ecuador…but that is another long story! (read: not now, or add on a few more paragraphs!)  Rosie and I co-compered Cubamemucho in September last year…we had a good laugh then, and we had a good laugh on our catch up.  It was actually a great night, with laughter abounding!


The wild men of Borneo, aka (L to R) Alex, Mick and Jesus

Finally it was Easter, once again!  Hadn’t we just had Christmas!?  Alex and I once again (last year was our first time) went camping near Glenrowan.  Latin Camping Abancay has been going for more than 25 years now, and it basically consists of a bunch (quite a big bunch!) of both Latinos and their family and friends.  It’s a few fun filled days of camping on Freddy’s land, whilst spending the days chilling out and the nights entertained by Latin bands, music and shows.  I am not sure who provided the better entertainment…the entertainers or the entertained!  Mick Benham, you are a crack up, and personally you get my vote as “Entertainer of the Weekend”! Our group was a bit of a United Nations.  Not only did we have a number of people from various Latin American countries, but we also had a mix of other nationalities from

Master Chef  Matt with apprentices, L to R: Sophie, Kasha & Freya

Malaysian, to New Zealand.  Matt (originally from New Zealand) proved to us in his second year running that not only is the host with the most, but the chef with the best!  Your food rocks Matt!  This weekend away was yet ANOTHER opportunity for the girls to gas bag shamelessly! 

Going, going, gone!

Back to going, going, gone… on the 9th April we attended…yet another auction! I had been to the gym (yep, still go regularly) in the morning, followed by two open house inspections and a visit to Rita at her parents’ house.  We still had “the auction” to go to, but besides throwing my cheque book in my bag, I had low, if no expectations, and wasn’t really holding much hope.  As I mentioned prior, watching houses go way above their reserve had been quite normal in recent months.  I nonchalantly placed a few random bids, and to our surprise, after placing a bid that for us was definitely going to be as high as we would go…we won!  I was stunned and gob-smacked!  I know that it’s hard to believe, but YES, me, gob-smacked!  As I stood there in my gym shorts, and looking totally dishevelled (who had a shower…I was only about to view yet ANOTHER auction which we would have no hope of winning, right?), it started to sink in…we were now home owners! OMG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!   We went into the house where we proceeded to sign the contract, and even meet the owner.  Now, all the “stuff” (paperwork, looking for a mortgage etc) that goes with buying a new house is a (continuing) chapter unto itself!  Are we excited that we have a new house?  yes, but…much more excited that we do not have to look for one anymore!

Hasta la vista…babies!  With Amanda and Al

Amanda and Al’s farewell…yes, the “little girl next door” and her boyfriend  Al (Alister) are off around the world for ten months or so.  I remember when the Leveridges moved in next door and Amanda was a cute little six month old baby…she is still cute, but now she’s in her early twenties, and about to do something that is very close to my heart…travel.  Am I jealous…of course I am…I always am when others travel…in a good way, of course!  Lizzie and Gary (her parents) had a little get together next door.  It was a fun night.  I kept looking at both Al and Amanda and thinking about how much this trip is about to change their lives.  They are both forward and progressive thinkers, and I know that this will shape who they are about to become!  I will be following you all the way guys!

Ombi


Dedication:  First of all to my beautiful “sister” Rita;  thanks for being a special  and wonderful part of my life.  I will always be here for you, as you have been for me!  Secondly, to Amanda and Al:  May you be safe and protected on every step of your journey.  I will be with you every step of the way.  I am so proud of both of you!  Alex and I are here whenever and however you need us!

What am I reading?
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (just read)
Adams vs. God, The Rematch by Phillip Adams (just read)
The Final Call, In search of the true cost of our holidays by Leo Hickman (currently reading)

Having a gelato at Fritz, with James (L) and Ben.
Maccas = crap. It’s a bit like 2 + 2 = 4!!!
Those dancing feet (Latin camping) belong to Mick and Jesus!  Guess whose are whose!
Este es para mi cunada Karen en Ecuador:  Estoy baillando con mi amiga Karen en el camping Latino…Que Verch!!!

“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends” – Maya Angelou


Me and my spunk!
Ombi and some hot Mamita Rica! aka Jesus

Jarrod’s 21st.; Jarrod with “Nonna”, Uncle Dino and Ombi

Summarise, shmumarise!

Can someone PLEASE tell me how we got to the 8th March 2010? I’ve missed something, haven’t I? There’s another way…there HAS to be another way for time to have gone by this quickly! Somebody, somewhere, is not telling me something! What’s happening? I have been saying for weeks that I need to write another blog, that I need to update what has been happening, and as I read the last blog (posted in the first days of this year), I also noticed my promise to write more in the new year, otherwise it would be too difficult to summarise. Well, summarise, shmumerise, here I am nearly 10 weeks down the track, and yes, I will have to summarise!

Labour Day! Yes, it’s taken a public holiday for me to be able to “find the time” to sit down and tap away, but thus far, it’s been quite an eventful year, to say the least. On the 4th of January my mum’s first cousin Giovanni, affectionately known as “Giovannino”, flew here from Las Vegas (where he lives) to spend three weeks with the family, staying with my mum’s oldest sister, Rina, with whom he grew up with in Italy. My auntie is 87, and whilst in very good form, I am sure the visit shaved another 10 years off her life. As anyone that knows us would know, my auntie’s house was a hub of activity for the entire three weeks that Giovannino was here, with family around and visiting and family dinners happening virtually around the clock. The “activities”, however, did not stop there, and so there were lots of outings, day trips, invitations to visit other friends and the like. As my auntie Rina only lives literally minutes from where I work, I popped in as often as I could. I first met Giovannino as an early 2o- something on my first overseas trip to the USA in Las Vegas. We forged a very strong bond and have remained close ever since.

Only days after Giovannino arrived, we had Moz and Marie’s wedding. Moz is Auntie Rina’s son (and my cousin). They have lived in Mildura for years. It was a beautiful day and perfect weather for the outdoors ceremony which was held at the Darebin Parklands in Fairfield, followed by select close family and friends back at my auntie’s house. It was a small and intimate affair, with lots of love and laughter; a day enjoyed by all! Marie and Moz’s honeymoon was a one-nighter in a hotel close by, followed by the next three weeks at my auntie’s with Giovannino.

I had actually just had almost two weeks off from work, and Giovannino arrived on the day that I went back to work, so I was not able to take much time off. Having said that, between all of the relatives, we did lots of different things with him ,and he was able to visit or revisit several places, as he has been here several times before. One day, along with my Dad and Alex, we went to Phillip Island…to be honest, it had been a while since I had been there too. It was a fun and relaxing day, and we revisited all the must-see sights and things to do. I packed a picnic lunch, which we had in San Remo, before going across to the island. On another occasion, Giovannino took a big group of us to Brunetti’s for coffee, and sfogliatelle. You don’t know what sfogliatelle are? You have got to try them, an amazing sweet from Naples. I must confess that I virtually “od’d” on them when I was there a couple of years back…and probably the time before that as well! Giovannino owns a company in Las Vegas called Italcream, which produces and wholesales “made from scratch” Italian ice-cream; it’s certainly some of the best that I have tasted.

The three weeks went by all too quickly, with me taking a day off just before Giovannino went back to the USA, just hanging out with him and helping him to do some souvenir shopping. It was really nice to just chill out and shoot the breeze. And really, just as soon as he had appeared, he disappeared! This is the way of the world, people come into it, and then go out of it, like water ebbing in and out, and then there are only the memories…until the next time!

Early February it was Miss Linda’s birthday (one of my “partners in crime”…more later), which she had at hers (and my) favorite Thai restaurant, Thaila Thai. There’s only one thing better than great food…food that’s great… and cheap! How can you go wrong with an $18.00 banquet, whereby you can order more food until you have had enough? Couple this with good company and it’s a recipe for success. After our meal, a few of us went to a bar across the road, where we spent a few more hours. It was a terrific night, as any night with Linda always is!

Giovannino left the day after Australia Day. I must say, we are pretty lucky here…we do get lots of public holidays! Alex was suitably impressed when he first came here (which by the way will be 10 years this year!) It was almost February, and I had something else to look forward to…Karen and Jesus were coming back from Ecuador, after a year of travelling Ecuador and South America. Was I jealous! OF COURSE! Despite my incessant travelling, I am always jealous of others travelling…in a nice way, of course! A little bit of background info: I had only known Karen and Jesus for six months before they left, and I met them through my “novia” Linda who manages Inka Marka (whom I had actually only known for a few weeks before I met Karen and Jesus!) Karen is Australian and her husband Ecuadorian. Basically, Linda, Karen and I became inseparable, and even whilst travelling the three of us were in constant contact. We all became so close that Alex nicknamed Linda my “novia” or fiancee…and when Karen came back, he dubbed her my “other novia”. It’s true, we are as thick as thieves!

Linda and I were soooooo excited, I don’t think we even gave them a chance to breathe, and we were on their doorstep! Well, Karen’s brother’s family’s doorstep! They arrived on a Sunday and were picked up by Karen’s brother Michael…back at the family home, we got a call from Karen…OF COURSE we could make it over for a BBQ!!! Alex, Linda and I went together, and our excitement was uncontainable! When Linda and I saw Karen, we started screaming and doing the group hug thing…it was such a marvellous reunion! For me Linda and Karen represent two soul mates, and I know that our friendship will be forever. It took merely minutes, and it felt like they’d never left. What’s worse than an Ombi who doesn’t shut up? An Ombi/ Linda? Karen group who doesn’t shut up! Boy can we talk, I think we surprised even ourselves! Oh yes, we managed to shove in some food between the infrequent gulps of air that we were forced to take whilst speaking non-stop! The boys didn’t get a word in edge-ways…or any ways for that matter! Needless to say, the weeks since Karen and Jesus have come back, have been filled with frequent catch ups and dinners…there’s a lot to catch up on. Some of these catch ups have included a welcome back BBQ in a park in Richmond, and a wonderful dinner at our friends Richard and Jo’s house…fun, friendship, and food! Does it get any better than this?

It suddenly dawned on me sometime that Malaysia, Sarawak and the Rainforest Festival really weren’t all that far away. We are going for two weeks in July and will also visit Brunei (the country), and Penang. How much can you pack into two weeks? Just watch us!

I have now been working at Inclusive Leisure Victoria (ILV) for four and a half months, and am really getting into the groove. As the manager, my role is around policy and advocacy for the inclusion of people with a disability in the sport and recreation sector. It’s funny how I have gone full circle, and am back working in the disability field. I must admit that making a difference in the lives of others gives me a huge sense of achievement and satisfaction. My indicator of success is seeing others successful! Alex continues to work at Melbourne University, in the Law School. His “computer boffinry” never ceases to amaze me, but being a “techno-slexic” that isn’t too hard to do! We are also back on the “hunt for a home” to buy, but that whole saga is rather depressing, as prices seem to increase by the week. When I find myself asking where time goes, I also need to consider that I spend my weeks looking for houses, and my Saturdays going from one inspection to the next, as well as auctions. I have been left mortified on a number of occasions, as I have watched the bidding go above and beyond the reserve. Just to give you an idea, last Saturday we went to the auction of an apartment in Coburg whose reserve was 450 thousand, but which sold for 551! How depressing! For those of you who have done it, I am sure that you would understand both how time and emotionally consuming this process is! OK, off the whinge bandwagon.

Whilst writing this blog, I quickly checked my email account, and watched a short film (not quite six minutes) that Linda sent me. It made me cry! It very much ties into compassion and humility, and made me think how very lucky I am to be healthy, alive and well, and that indeed I have nothing to whinge about. I am so thankful that Alex and I have compassion and that we genuinely believe that the little things we do, both personally and metaphorically, can make a difference to the people around us. A “small” act can have such a “profound” effect. Please make the time to watch this short film, called “The Story of a Sign”.

So, there are some highlights from the last week, or two, or three or…my only promise this time is that…there will be no more promises! Well, at least until I can work out HOW and WHY one day rolls into the next, and how one week becomes two, then three and then four. If I am indeed missing out, or if I have not been enlightened, I welcome your letting me know…exactly where all “that” time goes! Until the next blog, I bid you all farewell.

Dedication: This one is for my two “novias” and “partners in crime”, Linda and Karen. If there were EVER three peas in a pod, we are it! It has been such an absolute pleasure to meet you both, to laugh with you, and to share my persona and self with you. You take me back to the child within, the lover of excitement, connectedness, and adventure. “Blood sisters foreva!”

“Time gets away faster each day so enjoy it, it won’t come back “ – Verka


Photos: 1.- Ombi and Alex at Marie and Moz’s wedding. 2.- Giovannino and Auntie Rina. 3.- Congratulations! Moz and Marie tie the knot! 4.- Giovanni enjoys a “traditional” beer at San Remo. 5.- The gang at Brunetti’s. 6.- Ombi and Linda at Thaila Thai on Linda’s birthday. 7.- At Auntie Iride and Sonya’s place, tucking into some good old fashion “roba buona”! (Italian food) 8.- Welcome home! Ombi, Linda and Karen, (“the partners in crime”) at Karen’s sister’s brother’s house on the day of their return. 9.- L to R: Jesus, Jo, Alex and Ombi at Karen and Jesus’ welcome back BBQ (another one!) 10 – L to R: Hwa, Madame Geisha..oops Jesus, and Alex at a dinner at Hwa’s house. 11- Another gathering with some very special friends at Jamo’s house. L to R (bottom):Ombi, “my friend Kelly Jones” and Leeanne (Jamo). L to R (top): Zoe and Julie. 12.- Ombi and Nayte (Nathaniel) at Linda’s birthday. 13.- Heard of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” ? Well, this has got to be “Gossiping at Hwa’s”! Ombi, Linda, Karen and Kirrily gettin’ right into it! 14.- Dad, Giovannino and Alex at The Nobbies, Phillip Island. 15.- Mali Zeta Kihi Jones – Kel’s daughter. How cute! 16.- Sonya, Giovannino and Aunty Iride. 17.-Teah Precious Aroha Jones – Mali’s big sister, and equally cute 18.- At a cafe in the city: Moz, Ombi, Giovanninio and my nephew James, in the front. 19.- L to R: Bianca and Linda…second cousins who look like sisters! (Bianca is Moz’s daughter, and Linda is our first cousin) 20.- Family united – The Brady Bunch, oops the wedding party! From L to R: Bianca and Jarrod (Moz’s kids) and Rebecca, Raechel and Claire (Marie’s girls), and…Moz and Marie!

2009…Going, going…gone!

What a year 2009 has been! It saw me wrap up my time at Vision Australia, where I was working as a Business Development Manager, travel to Ecuador and the USA to visit Alex’s family, share the loss of loved ones in Samoa where we spent Christmas in 2008, and start a new job. That, of course, is not to mention all the socialising and my involvement in co-compering Cubamemucho (a Cuban dance, show and workshop extravaganza), in September. So many things have been going…and the year is now gone!

So, now, I sit and reflect on the past six months or so. The last blog we published was around our “Window into Latin America” slideshow fundraiser It was an excellent night and we were able to raise over $1000.00 for the Renew the Spirit Foundation. We had hoped for 30 or 40 people, but got well over 60. Our very dear friend Richard deMeester (www.thedemeessters.blogspot.com), after recently having returned from ten months of travelling with his beautiful wife (and equally dear friend and talented photographer), assisted in putting together a slideshow on Latin America. Between Alex and Richard, they did a fabulous job. We held the fundraiser in November, in the studio of the Cuban Dance Academy (Thanks Christina), and it was clearly a great success. Having said that, anything that is able to assist and help others is always a success, in my eyes. I cannot begin to describe the enormous sense of satisfaction both Alex and I derive from the knowledge that others have been helped. On so many levels, we believe that what goes around comes around.

Globally, 2009 was a year of many natural disasters, probably starting off with our very own bushfires in Victoria, but something very close to home for Alex and I was the Samoan tsunami disaster, a few months back. It was exactly a year ago that we not only spent Christmas in Samoa, but specifically on Lalomanu Beach, which was one of the worst affected areas on the small Pacific island country. The first thing I did when I found out what had happened was contact my friend Tina whom I met when I was in Samoa. She is a very close friend of and known to many people who live in Lalomanu (she is a New Zealander but spends a lot of time in Samoa), and this was her response:

“Hey Ombi, not good news. Here’s an update pasted from an email to another friend, sorry for that, but hard to keep up with everyone. Love and light to you guys for your thoughts for our beloved family xxx

‘As you already know, the devastation is heartbreaking. Tai and Sili are both in the hospital, and Tai had surgery last night for her injuries. They are both going to be okay. Tai lost her little baby boy, 11 months old. Mepa lost her eldest daughter, Moanalei, 8 yrs old.”

I was heartbroken; these were people that we had spent Christmas with only months ago. Tina went on to say that she and her partner Greg were going to fly to Samoa and try and help out with things, including raising some money to help out. It’s amazing how “putting out the word” helped raise a decent amount of funds. Tina and Greg have a blog, www.tinadesuza.blogspot.com, where they have documented and written a lot about what occurred. Tina has thanked all of those who donated , and I would like to do the same; thank my friends who not only donated money, but who also sent messages of encouragement and support. The following is what my special friend Kelly Jones had to say:

“So that you can more clearly understand how petty I currently feel, my biggest problems in the last week have been:

• Where to hang the new mirror and are the hooks strong enough to hold it;
• What to cook for a small party we had on Saturday night;
• How do I deal with preschoolers discussing somewhat adult concepts
• How to get the %^# report done for work that I have been avoiding for 2 weeks now;
• Is mersyndol or nurafen plus better for sinusitis?
• How do you get teenagers to be more considerate of your social life?
• What is the true meaning of life? (This one is an ongoing discussion).

That’s it, that’s all I got”.

Thanks Kel, there’s nothing like perspective!

In September, I also helped out with and co-compered Cubamemucho, a three day Cuban dance and workshop extravaganza. Alex was also involved, doing various things to help out. This event saw Cuban artists unite, and show Melbourne what the world of salsa and dance is really all about! It was hosted at Melbourne’s Forum Theatre, by Christina of the Cuban Dance Academy. During three days, a number of workshops were conducted at the Victorian College of the Arts, where the various artists taught everything from salsa, to merengue to reggaeton. The participants loved it! Nighttimes were at the Forum Theatre, and included salsa competitions, national salsa bands and floor shows by the Cuban artists. Three fun packed but full on days and nights….enjoyed by all!

As the year ticked away, I continued to search for work, and on my birthday (14th October) I was rewarded with a job. I had gone for a few jobs, even getting second interviews for a few. The job I finally did get was as the manager of an organisation called Inclusive Leisure Victoria, which does policy and advocacy work on a state wide level, around the inclusion of people with disabilities in the recreation and leisure sectors. I have now been there for a little over two months, and am really enjoying it. I get to go out and about do a lot of networking, which is right up my alley. In addition, it’s in Northcote and literally two minutes from home. I should be walking, as so many people have told me, but I do use my car for work, so I mostly don’t (walk that is).

I continue to keep fit and go to the gym most days. Whilst not the gym junkie I used to be years ago (some people would debate this), I still take my health and fitness seriously! No use waking up at 50 and trying to find the “miracle cure”! A little bit every day is my motto!

What happened next…Christmas and its over-commercialisation descended upon us like a bull to a red rag! I must say that I was a bit overwhelmed, if not repulsed, by the over-the-top commercialism of the whole event. People seem to have forgotten what it’s all about. I do understand and respect those who are Christian and choose to celebrate what is for them, the true meaning of this occasion. There are also many who celebrate the tradition and want to spend time with their loved ones. What does my head in, however, is the sickening consumerism that so many succumb to! Ridiculously expensive gifts, maxing out credit cards buying things that we cannot afford, trying to keep up with the Jones’…and the list goes on!

A couple of weeks before Christmas, Alex and I spent a few days at another special friend’s beach house in Rye. Laurice and I have been friends since our Santa Maria College high school days. Laurice, her partner Laurie and Alex and I had a great few days down there…just before the Christmas crowds. Apart from going to the Peninsula Hot Springs, and “chilling out” in hot water, so to speak, all we did was laze around, eat, go for walks and relax! Whilst down there, we also visited Harry, who is my friend Rita’s father-in-law. Harry spends his weeks in Melbourne and weekends in Rosebud.

We had a lovely Christmas this year, spent at my brother’s house, along with my sister-in-law Karen, nephew James, Karen’s mum (Anne), her partner Tony, dad Alan, and her nephew Jason and partner Jenny. It was a low key affair, spent with loved ones, and we all had a great afternoon. Later we visited some aunts, and then we went on next door to Skippy and Lizzie’s.

My brother and his family took off on Boxing Day, and they will be spending two weeks in Rye. Alex and I went to visit for a couple of days and had a blast. The weather was perfect; nice and hot as I like it…we relaxed, ate, chilled and went to the beach. We also went for a few walks, and I a run. I can just see it, we will be back at work in no time at all.

We spent the few days before the new year simply taking it easy. New Year’s Eve was equally as relaxing. Alex and I went out for a Vietnamese meal with Dad, and later Alex and I went to Esther’s house (Esther Garcia, now Finocchiaro), where she was having a small gathering. As you may remember my very special friend Rita (Garcia) is more like my sister (she is currently living in Dubai with her family), and I have long sice been the adopted “fourth” Garcia girl. Maribel (Esther and Rita’s older sister) and Emma, her gorgeous daughter, were also down from Brisbane, where they live. So, it was a bit like a family reunion….but, you were DEFINITELY missing Reet! The idea was that Alex and I were later to meet Linda, and Richard and Jo in Linda’s apartment in Port Melbourne, but the skies opened up and there was an alluvial downpour…normally, I would whinge, but Melbourne is so desparate for rain! The lights went out in Esther’s house, and the lightning was pretty full on…so after a few phone calls, we decided to stay put!

5, 4, 3, 2, 1…Happy New Year! Hugs all around,
including Alex telling me that it was the best decade of his life! (We got together in mid 1999).

So, here we are in 2010, and I cannot but keep asking myself, “Where did the last 10 years go?”
I remember so very clearly living in Ecuador in 1999, and counting down the months and then the days to the new millennium! So, another decade just bit the dust!

My promise to myself is to write more often in the New Year, as it’s so hard to “summarise” when you let so many months slip by. I have not mentioned my dear friend Rita and her family having come on a couple of occasions this year from Dubai where they live, and my friend Maria’s 50th, just last week. Then of course, there was Kobie, Liz and Daniel’s visit from the USA in October. They came for Kobie’s sister’s wedding, as did her mum, Maggie and partner Matt. All of these people mean so much to me and are truly special… but the list could go on and on.

I want to finish this off by saying that I feel honoured to have so many special people in my life, and you all know who you are. 2010 not only saw current friendships made more solid, but also saw new ones flourish; Rachela and Havanah, we welcome you. May 2010 bring every one of you much health, happiness and joy, surrounded by those whom you love, and who love you right back! 2009…Going, going…gone!

But…we already have lots to look forward to, including another visit from our dear friends Yuko and Nashville San from Japan, who will come to visit us again in June, as well as having booked a trip to Sarawak, Malaysia, in July…

…2010…here we come!!!

Ombi

Dedication 1: For all of those affected in the tsunami in Samoa, and especially Tai and her family. Not because Tai was the only one to suffer, but because we personally met her.

Tai, our wish to you, Sili and your known and loved ones is that you may find peace and tranquillity in 2010. We will never forget your strength of spirit, and the hospitality you showed us on Christmas Day 2008. We are glad that we were able to give something back to you, and hope it has helped to rebuild your lives in even a small way. Tai, you will always remain in our hearts.

Dedication 2: For my husband, partner, best friend, soul mate and love of my life, Alex. You bring peace to my heart, and joy to my soul. Thank you for your unwavering and constant love, support and passion. You are a truly special and unique human being, and I feel honoured to have you in my life. I adore and admire you, and your character makes me proud to be around you. If what goes around comes around, you have nothing but amazing things to look forward to! Thanks for helping make me who I am today. I am a better person for having you in my life, and you have taught me more than you could ever imagine. I will always be here for you as you have been for me.

“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.” – Mohandas K. Gandhi.

(Photos: 1.- Ombi and Alex cooking “patacones” (fried plantains), an Ecuadorian speciality. 2.- With Jo and Richard at the Victoria Market, night market. 3.-Memories – Lalomanu Beach, Samoa, Christmas 2008, before the tsunami. 4.- The beautiful Tai, strumming her guitar, Christmas Eve, 2008. 5.- Alessia and Seo, teaching and struttin’ their stuff at one of the Cubamemucho workshops. 6. – Ida opening up her Christmas present (I have known Ida for over 20 years and used to work in the house in which she lives). 7.- Ombi and Brandon (Brandon works at the gym I go to, and he invited us over for what can only be described as a veritable banquet! 8.- Harry Adams, Ombi and Alex at Harry’s house in Rye. 9.- James (my nephew) with Nanny Anne and Nonno Dino. 10.- At Rye beach with James, Fulvio (brother) and sister-in-law, Karen. 11.- With my “sisters”, Esther on the left and Maribel on the right – the only one missing is Rita, who lives in Dubai. The Garcia Clan adopted me years ago! 12.- Havanah. 13.- Happy 50th Birthday Maria Brancolino. 14.- Moi and Alex! 15.- Dad and Gerry O’Connor, a very special family friend who lives in Yea. 16.- Ombi doing acrobatics at Rye beach. 17.- L to R: Linda, Ombi, Richard and Jo, the world travellers, having dinner at Linda’s house. 18.- Ombi with Maggie and Matt. 19.- Alex and Carmela Carey ( I used to work with Carmela at Vision Australia). 20.- L to R: Kobie, Alex and Liz, with Daniel in the front.)