Approaching the end

So here I am, in the final days of my travels. When the number of days until I return home almost equals the number of months I’ve already been away.

Upon hearing how close I am to the end of such an epic trip, fellow travellers inevitably follow up with the same question: “so, how do you feel about going home?”.

It’s a question I haven’t yet figured out the answer to. I brush it off with a vague “oh, you know, excited, but I wish I could stay here (wherever “here” is) a bit longer”. Which is true – I am looking forward to being home. Or, to be more precise, I’m looking forward to being back in my home. It’s strange, but one of the things I’ve missed most while away is my house. My sunny backyard, my veggie patch and the chooks. Riding my bike through the quiet Northcote streets. Cooking dinner for friends and housemates, drinking wine on my front porch. So yes, I’m looking forward to going ‘home’.

On the other hand, I don’t feel finished with this trip. My three months working in Thailand was like pushing the re-set button; 12 days is a ridiculously short ‘holiday’ to finish on, it should be more like another six months. After being on the road for nine months, 12 days seems like nothing, like it will pass in the blink of an eye. It is barely enough time to find a quiet beach or out of the way mountain village and start to settle in to holiday vibe.

Yet 12 days is all I have left, as I’m beckoned home by my increasingly negative bank balance and a welcome, much needed job tutoring at Uni during semester 1.

So, a ‘holiday’ it is. I’m writing this from a cafe in Ubud, Bali, where I had planned to pass some days relaxing with a view over rice paddies, doing yoga, exploring the beautiful landscape around. Yet, as is my style, I’ve decided to change my plans and move on, to the Gili islands for some sun, beach, and yes, maybe even some yoga. Sounds like a nice holiday to me. And although this trip may be drawing to a close, as I commented on a recent facebook status, “a traveller’s journey never ends”. I get the feeling that this “get it out of my system” trip has done just the opposite. But, until my next adventure, I plan to make the most of the precious days I have left.

**Edit** I’m posting this from magical Gili Air – I’ve found my paradise



Travelling IFSA throughout the Asia Pacific

Looking back, as one is inclined to do in these early days of a new year, 2013 was a pretty big year for me.

I handed in my Masters thesis, thus bringing to an end seven long years of university study. I packed up my room in my lovely little Northcote home, and flew overseas to begin the trip of a lifetime. But I can now say, without hesitation, that one of the biggest, most lifechanging things that happened to me last year, was getting involved with IFSA.

I wrote about my first IFSA experience – taking part in IFSS in Spain – in my Feeling the IFSA Spirit post back in September. Even then, I don’t think I had any idea how much this one event would change the direction of my year to come.

After five months of travel, planned in detail as I’d never done before, the month of November on my calendar was left wonderfully open. I had ideas of heading to the Gili Islands, or back to Pulau Weh to dive. Maybe do a yoga retreat somewhere. But in the end, IFSA took me places I had never even dreamed of.

On the last day of IFSS, the FAO Liaison Officer told me about an opportunity to attend the 25th Session of the FAO Asia-Pacific Forestry Commission in New Zealand in November. This biannual meeting – a major international and inter-governmental forum to address key forest management and policy issues throughout the region – would be attended by Ministers, UN staff, academics and NGOs from around the world, and through IFSA’s partnership with the FAO there was funding for two IFSA students to attend. A few days later, I sat down at my computer in the leafy courtyard of my hostel in Granada, and wrote my application. Then, one month later, I received the reply:

Dear Sarah, I’m very pleased to inform you that your application to attend the APFC has been approved by our Selection Committee.

And so, I was heading to New Zealand!


There isn’t enough room in a simple blog post to express what an amazing and inspiring week this was (and, for any IFSA people reading this, there is my official report covering all the details). There were the two days of pre-session workshops, where participants actively discussed and brainstormed issues such as forest landscape restoration, forestry education, and mainstreaming gender into forest policy.

There were the four days of the official session, filled with high level presentations and forums on pressing topics such as forest governance, trade and legislation, and climate change mitigation.


And then, like at IFSS, there was everything outside the official schedule that for me, as a student and young forester, were invaluable in making connections, and in beginning to find my place in this professional world. As much as I hate the term ‘networking’, I came away from this event with so many new contacts, and so many new ideas, for both myself and for IFSA as a whole.


And then it was over, and time to make my way back to Singapore. I still had a few weeks until I had to start work in Thailand, and, as I said, Indonesia had always been on the cards…

CIFOR, the organisation I’m IFSA liaison officer with, is based in Bogor, Java. During IFSS, I had met a few students from IFSA IPB, a University based in the same city. And so, to Java, to continue my journey with IFSA.

I contacted my IPB friends, and we arranged for me to come to Bogor to visit, just for a few days. After checking into my student dorm I hopped on the back of one of their scooters, and we rode across the giant campus to meet their IFSA group.

I don’t know what I’d expected – maybe to see the few familiar faces from IFSS, maybe meet their IFSA president – but I certainly hadn’t expected this:


Their entire student group, maybe fifty students, had turned up to welcome me. We spent an evening playing icebreaker games, holding forestry discussion groups, and trading IFSA stories. Coming from Australia, where our IFSA student membership could probably be counted on one hand, it was incredibly inspiring to see how active their group is. Apart from this impressive turn out, they run regular English language discussion groups, and an ‘IFSA goes to the village’ program, where they hold environmental education classes for local school children. For the next few days I felt like part of this (not so) little IFSA family. They took me out for dinner and for tours of the botanical gardens, and drove me to CIFOR, where I had a productive day of meetings with their DDG, an old professor from Australia. So once again, to IFSA IPB, I say thank you, you are welcome in Australia any time.

Suddenly, it was time to move on again, and make my way to Thailand to begin my season of projects with ISV. I was originally supposed to start a project on November 25th, but when that got cancelled I suddenly found myself with a week to kill in Bangkok.

During the first workshop at the APFC, I was introduced to Dr Tint Lwin Thaung, Director of RECOFTC. Throughout my Masters I had a focus on participatory forest governance and social forestry, and as a regional capacity building centre for community forestry, RECOFTC has always been on my radar. I knew that they were holding their Third Regional Forum on People and Forests in Bangkok the two days after I would fly in, and, after mentioning this to Dr Thaung, I found myself with an invite to attend, to represent IFSA and to hopefully build an awareness of community forestry throughout our network. And so it was that I suddenly found myself thrown into the midst of an inspiring group of RECOFTC staff, government ministers and civil society organisations, all come together to workshop action plans for community forestry in their countries.



In stark contrast to the formal format of the APFC, this forum was a facilitated workshop; in contrast to a dark conference hall, we sat around circular tables in a bright room, surrounded by whiteboards, sticky notes and markers which we used to brainstorm issues, challenges, and future directions. I contributed where I could, but mostly I sat back and observed, taking it all in, and talking to as many people as I could. Apparently this was a new format – a trial run maybe – and it would be interesting to hear feedback from officials as to how they think it went. But personally, I see great potential in this style of approach. As the youth forum at the recent Global Landscapes Forum (an event which I helped coordinate an IFSA delegation to) reflects, there is increasing interest in engaging youth in these international forums and processes. Perhaps this sort of interactive and informal style of workshop is what is needed to actively involve youth in these events, to move beyond the traditional presenter-question style of formal conferences.


So yes, it’s been a big year. And, while my time in Asia is slowly coming to and end – barely six weeks to go – this work will continue. From co-coordinating a youth forum at the upcoming Forests Asia conference, to continuing to work on building an IFSA presence back home, this next year is already building up to be another big one. Bring on 2014!

Settling in/moving on

You know you’ve been away for a long time when you begin to feel nostalgic for earlier days of a trip that is not yet over. Throughout these past few weeks there have been moments when I’ve caught myself looking back over the past six months, missing and reminiscing. The cosy stone villa high up in the Umbrian hills, with its view out over endless olive groves and and villages below. Morning coffee on my brother’s London rooftop, the white terrace houses of Finsbury Park that reminded me so much of home. Staying up late through the endless twilight of Scandinavian summer; settling in to bed early with a pot of sweet Ceylon tea and a book in my cottage in the Sri Lankan hill country.

In these moments, I think a part of me wished I was back in Europe. But then I came to Chiang Mai.

I’ve been here almost two weeks – longer than I’ve spent in any single place since I left Melbourne over six months ago. And, were it not for work starting on Thursday, I think it’s the kind of place I could get stuck.

Today passed like most days. I woke up late, and had a scratch breakfast in my guesthouse room- rye bread, hunted down in a supermarket outside town, and tiny, sweet bananas, bought in a giant bunch from a roadside stall for less than 50c. I caught up on some emails and IFSA work in the bustling common area downstairs, then headed out for a morning coffee at Bird’s Nest Cafe – freshly ground and spiced with cloves, cinnamon and star anise.

I stumbled across this beautiful little cafe on one of my afternoon wanders, and it has become a favourite. On Saturday morning I treated myself to one of their epic vegetarian breakfasts, and passed the rest of the day curled up with a book, chatting to fellow travellers who passed through. Today I took my coffee upstairs to the mezzanine of low wooden tables, cushions on the ground, and a sole hammock, which I took over for the next few hours, finishing Breath by Tim Winton, which I had picked up second hand only yesterday afternoon.

Alexis, an American girl I met in my hostel in Granada, had just arrived in Chiang Mai to begin work as an English teacher. She came and met me for lunch and we swapped travel stories, marvelling at how two people can meet and make a connection while travelling, then, due to the wonders of Facebook, cross paths again months later on the other side of the world.

If it seems like my time in Chiang Mai has revolved around food, that’s not far from the truth. Of all the many countries I’ve travelled through, Thailand has the best food of any by far (particularly for vegetarians), and of everywhere I’ve been in Thailand, Chiang Mai tops the lot. From $1 plates of pad thai or fiery papaya salad, served on plastic plates and eaten while perched on plastic stools by a tiny street stall, to feasts of curries, brown rice, or tofu salads from one of the many organic vegetarian cafes.

To balance all that food, I’ve been relishing in the ability to walk here – being able to wander the relatively quiet streets without fear of being mown down by a bus or tuk tuk hurtling past. I’ve been doing yoga – hatha flow, with a wonderful French instructor called Pierre, in the peaceful Namo Studio in the north east of the Old Town. And, apart from a night or two out with fellow backpackers, I’ve been having early nights, trying to get into a regular sleep pattern in preparation for work on Thursday.


I started this post yesterday – Thursday is now tomorrow, my time in Chiang Mai is quickly coming to an end. Tomorrow I drive up to Chiang Rai province with my boss, to take over the last few days of a project. So today is a rush of tying up loose ends, familiarising myself with student names and project details, hunting down a stationary shop for discussion materials, and sorting out my visa run flights. Ticking off my to do list!

Still, when I can do half of this while curled up with a coffee on a cushion in a little cafe, it’s not too bad.

Halfway across the world, and back again

I logged onto my wordpress account recently, and saw the date of my last post glaring back at me: October 26th, almost than a month ago.

The last time I let such a time pass between posts was during IFSS, when my three weeks in Spain marked the gap between London and Berlin.

This time, looking at my photos and words from my last post, it feels like an age has passed since that time, like my three weeks in Sri Lanka were a whole ‘nother world, another trip apart from my cosy guesthouse in Chiang Mai where I am writing this now.

From quiet Mirissa to the tourist beat of Unawatuna, where Clare and I passed three nights and four days in a blur of finding (and fighting for) a beautiful blue shack above a bar on the beach, falling in with a group of English guys who worked anti-pirate security on high risk shipping runs, drinking beer and going for midnight swims in the warm tropical sea, and seeing more sunrises than I had in the past month.

From Sri Lanka, and my farewell to Clare, I caught a plane to Singapore, where the clean streets, quiet hostel, and perfectly functioning public transport were a stark but welcome contrast to the relentless noise, chaos, and stares that follow and surround you in Sri Lanka. Then from Singapore, the leg of my trip that, when outlined to fellow travellers, had never failed to produce a confused stare and a series of questions: New Zealand, and the Asia Pacific Forestry Commission in Rotorua. This trip deserves (and hopefully will be, when I get around to it!) a post of its own – as does the sneaky stop-over in Melbourne on my way back to Singapore, and the subsequent week in Java, Indonesia.

But for now I’ll jump forward, to Thailand – the beginning of the final stage of my nine month adventure. I’m here to lead a series of student volunteer projects, with a company I worked a season for in Australia last year. My first project was supposed to start tomorrow, and I was supposed to have spent the last week in Chiang Mai for training. Instead, my first project was cancelled, and I found myself with a week to kill in Bangkok.

I have a sort of love hate relationship with that city. Like most Asian cities, it can come as a shock; the noise, pollution, traffic and general chaos can be overwhelming. That was my experience the first time I went to Bangkok, back in 2009, and it was less than 24 hours before I was headed north on a bus to Chiang Mai.

And yet there are things I love about Bangkok too: the cheap and delicious food, the wonderful shopping,the easiness of it all, as a city used to hordes of tourists.

After six days in the city, my love hate relationship had been even more (ill)defined.

Arriving at Don Mueang airport, I realised it was not the main airport I was familiar with, and that I had no idea how to get into town and my hostel. Then felt a sense of relief and gratitude when I was directed by a friendly security guard to the bus stand up the road, and approached by a series of concerned locals eager to help me find my way.

On my second morning, running late for a workshop on the other side of town, I reached a peak of frustration when almost no taxis would pick me up due to traffic, and those that would – along with the tuk tuk drivers I approached – wanted to charge a small fortune to do so. Then I found a bus that travelled my exact route, and one that was free (that’s right, free!) at that.

After three nights in Khao San area, I realised I couldn’t take the crowds of drunk tourists and heckling touts anymore. So I found a beautiful boutique hostel near Victory Monument, an area full of cheap street food and bustling, local night markets.

Still, after six days, I was more than ready to leave the (big) city, and to jump on a plane heading north.

I’m in Chiang Mai for the next two weeks, being put up by the volunteer company in exchange for a few days a week helping out in the office. I’m currently staying in a beautiful, bustling guesthouse – the same guesthouse I stayed in all those years ago. Tomorrow I’m moving further west to be closer to the office, and then I’ll settle in for my stay. I can already feel the chaos of Bangkok slipping away, with the honking traffic jams replaced by the odd scooter rushing past, the drunken mess of Khao San replaced by a chilled backpacker vibe, and the high rises replaced by the low buildings and leafy streets of the old town.

Not a bad place to get stuck for two more weeks.

Lazy days at Mirissa beach

This last week I’ve been doing a whole lot of not much.

After ten days hiking around the hill country, it was time to make my way south to the coast, to meet my friend Clare who was flying in from Copenhagen. Like me, she is slowly making her way homeward after months travelling Europe.

We’re staying in a lovely guesthouse, a short wander back from Mirissa beach. We’ve got a private room in a small building off to the side of a large garden and communal space which, after the secludedness of my hill country guest houses, has been great for meeting other travellers.

Upside to being away from the beach: no endless honking of horns and rumbling of busses along the beach road destroying our relaxed vibe.

Downside: walking the dark, quiet roads back to our guesthouse each night, keeping eyes ahead and pace brisk as we pass sleeping dogs and loiterers on the bridge (don’t worry mum, it’s perfectly safe….).

I’ve been here six days, Clare five, and time is passing in that slowly paced but disappearing way that it does when you find yourself losing track of the days. We get up late (some later than others), sit around drinking our morning coffee in the garden, go for a late breakfast/early lunch, then head to the beach.

The ocean is pretty rough here – shallow water but high, crashing waves that churn you into the sandy bottom if you’re not prepared. Jumping and diving through the waves is the extent of our exercise here. The sun sets early, maybe 6pm, and every evening all the bars along the beach set up little tables in the sand, each lit with a flickering candle, and serve fresh fish and seafood, the catches all on display for you to choose from. I *may* have switched to flexitarian here.

It’s the kind of place you can easily get stuck. We meant to leave today…but instead we will stay until tomorrow, then head west to Unawatuna. The plan was to go diving there but, based on what we’ve seen and heard, the conditions aren’t right and the diving isn’t exceptional anyway, so my suspicion is that it will be more of the same. Which suits me just fine.

I also haven’t taken my camera out once, so here are some instagram photos (from Polhena beach, and an epic Sri Lankan breakfast) for your viewing pleasure:


Smiling at strangers

On all of my wanderings, along the roads and through the countryside high up in the hill country, I’ve felt a little like the Pied Piper, my western appearance and swinging camera the pipe drawing out groups of children from the surrounding villages.

The braver (more precocious) ones come chasing after me, keen to practise their English (a rapid fire of Hello miss what is your name what is your father’s name what is your country????). Others huddle back in groups, pointing and giggling, or walk past, flashing a smile and ‘hello!’, and laughing in delight when I do the same in reply.

And, like it’s a phrase, a series of questions or desires they’ve been taught, they all ask for the same, in the same order: Pen? Candy? Money? Not having any pens on me (and I heard they sell them anyway – not that I begrudge them for this early entrepreneurism) nor candy (not that I’d give this out), and not wanting to hand out money, they move on to the next question: photo?

A word of warning: take one photo, be prepared to get stuck taking twenty. Some parents wrote down their addresses for me – I have already printed and mailed a few photos to one address guessed from a semi-indecipherable scrawl in my notepad. But in general, they just want to pose for photos. I have never seen such delight in children’s faces upon seeing their own image coming up on my DSLR screen.

Here are some of the beautiful faces I have managed to capture during these past few days.


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Their smiles and joy are infectious.

I have begun to smile and say hello to everyone I pass. Initially it was just in response to a ‘hello miss!’ or a wave out a window, but now, it’s just instinct. It feels natural. Back home, it’s easy to get stuck in the ‘head down, don’t interact’ bubble; if you said hello to everyone you passed people might think you were a bit loopy.

But here, when you know that every smile you give will be returned, magnified in the beaming, gappy, betel-nut-red stained smile of an old woman, or the excited smile of a child; when you see gruff men’s faces transformed into a welcoming grin, why would you not?

Going solo

I’m writing this post as I sit reclined in a plastic chair outside my guest house room above the town of Ella, in the Sri Lankan hill country. I arrived this afternoon, and I barely had time for a quick wander of the town street, and a buffalo curd and honey at a local restaurant, before the rain set in. I’ve been incredibly lucky with the weather so far – sunshine and hot weather everyday – but the initial odd sprinkle of rain has started to become a regular afternoon or night time downpour. Perhaps the October monsoon change has finally hit.

I have spent the past hours here sitting on my covered balcony with a cup of tea, chatting to my neighbouring traveller (a fellow forester as it turned out), doing laundry, catching up on emails, and, when the rain finally ceased, walking back down the hill to the same restaurant for a dinner of kottu rotti and vegetables, with mango juice on the side.

I have been in Sri Lanka for barely ten days, and yet I already feel a change of pace, and a sense of relaxation setting in. I was supposed to be travelling with a friend Clare, but she decided to stay longer in Europe, so now we are meeting in a few days, on a beach somewhere down south.

Looking back, these ten days of solo time may have been just what I needed.

After spending my first night in the little beach town of Negombo, I jumped on a rickety local bus and headed inland to Kandy, in the hill country. Going against my normal Asia way of travelling, which is to turn up in a town and head for a recommended guest house, or just wander until I find something suitable, this time I booked in advance – albeit only that morning. I found an amazing looking room in an upmarket ‘home stay’ in the hills above Kandy, and, while blowing my (perhaps overly optimistic) budget for a few days, it turned out to be the best place to start my trip.

I ended up spending four nights there, enjoying my luxury room and my view over the Kandyan hills, and settling into the pattern that has defined my last 8 days in Sri Lanka: getting up early, eating a home cooked Sri Lankan breakfast of rotti and coconut sambal, or string hoppers, curry and fruit; going for a hike through the hills or a walk into town; wandering through the surrounding countryside or catching a local bus out to a certain site; coming ‘home’ for an afternoon nap, then another epic feast of rice, curry and fruit. Taking a book and a cup of tea up to my room each evening, and going to bed before 11pm.

So passed these first four days in Kandy. I spent a day following a ‘temple loop’, a ~10km walk between three temples around Kandy, passing through villages and rice paddy farmland.


On my last morning there I got up at the ungodly hour (for a backpacker at least) of 6.30am, and went with Pathi, the father/guesthouse owner, and his friend on a ‘one hour walk’ (three hour hike) up through the hills and tea plantations, passing tea pickers and local villagers out for a walk, and dodging honking tuk tuks on our way back down.

Pathi and his family made me feel so welcome in their home, but after four days it was time to move on, to Haputale, higher up in the hill country.

One piece of advice I was given for Sri Lanka was to ‘take trains, LOTS of trains’. And so I did, buying a second class ticket for less than $5 for the 6 hour train ride from Kandy to Haputale, a window seat so I could take in the views. And what a view it was! After a few hours, the train noticeably climbed higher and higher, and the distances between stops became greater and greater until we were in the vast, wild looking landscape of the Horton Plains National Park.


Passing through the isolated train station of Ohiya, and looking up at the tall, silvery gums shrouded in the oncoming mist, it was almost like driving through Victoria’s central highlands on a misty winter’s day.

I arrived in Haputale as darkness had just fallen, and was met by the son of my next guest house’s owner. After piling my luggage into the back of his tuk tuk,  we drove at high speed up out of town, to my little cottage where I would be spending the next four days.

Nothing could have prepared me for the view I awoke to the next morning – my cottage, perched on the edge of a steep hill, looked out over nothing but mountains, hills covered in tea plantations, and the jagged Eagle Rock above which eagles were seen soaring every day.

I could have stayed there for weeks. Each day I felt more and more at home in my basic little cottage. While I had enjoyed a little luxury in Kandy, I realised that this was really all I need – a bed, a shower, a roof over my head, good food, and to be surrounded by an incredible landscape such as this.

Every morning I got up early and, after breakfast, set off on a hike. I walked up the road away from town, passing tea fields dotted with the green and white bags slung over the tea pickers’ backs as they toiled all day in the heat, just so we can have our morning cup of Ceylon tea.


I caught the local bus up towards Lipton’s seat, where Sir Thomas Lipton himself sat as he admired the landscape he had been instrumental in transforming into what it is today, then hiked the 16km back down, stopping for a tour of a tea factory, and, at each village, to chat and take photos with the swarms of children who came racing out after me.


And, one morning, I walked down through the tea fields below my cottage then climbed up the steep hill to Eagle Rock, where I sat for an hour or more on a smooth rock beneath an old gum tree, a precipitous drop below and a breathtaking view in front, just sitting, letting my thoughts wander, relaxed in the way you can only be when you have nothing you need to do, and nowhere else you’d rather be.


Of course, I was never truly alone for long. Whether it be the couple I joined heading up to Lipton’s seat, or my guest house family in Haputale who I chatted away with every evening, and who invited me to join their extended family for a feast to celebrate Hadji, there was always someone to talk to and share my days with.

However, these days travelling solo have reminded me of how much I also need my time alone. Sitting in front of my bungalow, hiking through forests and tea fields, walking kilometres each day, it has been a chance to clear my head, some much needed time to myself. And I’ve finally been able to justify carrying my hiking boots around Europe for four months.