I’ve wanted to visit Borneo for years to see orang-utans in the wild. Like many people, I’ve felt strongly that we need to do something about the palm oil production and deforestation that is destroying their habitat and leaving many of them injured or orphaned (not to mention all the other species now extinct or endangered).
I searched online for orang-utan volunteering projects and was excited to find one that allows children to participate, since many volunteering opportunities are only open to adults. The social enterprise we volunteered with is APE Malaysia (Animal Projects and Environmental Education), and having just spent the Easter school holidays having an AMAZING time in Borneo, I’m keen to share our experience.
We arrived with a little trepidation having never participated in an organised trip like this before. (Our previous volunteering trip which involved teaching English to children in Cambodia was done on our own schedule and we booked all our own accommodation and meals.) We were advised that we wouldn’t have access to wifi, shops, or hot water and that all meals would be eaten in the villagers’ homes. Annabelle can be a fussy eater so I was imagining her living on boiled rice for the week!
We spent our first project night in a traditional Bornean longhouse, which was a stark contrast to the Hyatt Regency Kinabalu. We shared a dormitory with the English family joining us on this project – a mum, dad and twin boys the same age as Annabelle. The toilets and showers were shared not only with other travellers from all parts of the world, but all the resident bugs and critters of the jungle!
There was a nice community feel at the longhouse though. Really, it was just like camping! There were several families with young children all passing through on their way to the same destinations we would be heading to (Sepilok where the wildlife sanctuaries are, and Sukau village on the river). I overhead lots of chatter over breakfast about people’s plans for the day.
We met our project co-ordinators, Mark and Sumira for dinner. Mark has worked with APE for the past nine years and is a passionate and knowledgeable conservationist. Sumira joined APE in 2016, and spends much of her time working in the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC). She loves children and was a fantastic support during our week together.
The next morning we were up and away to our jungle destination of Sukau via a supermarket stop for any last minute purchases (snacks for fussy kids and footy socks to deter leeches in the jungle!)
First things first – our B&B on the river had air-conditioned rooms, ceiling fans, hot water showers and wifi in the café. The café also had free flowing coffee and tea all day and a beautiful view of the river. The food was great and included a mix of Malay and western options. So our minds were put at ease about those things immediately. It felt like luxury compared to what we were expecting.
When volunteering groups come through, they rotate through different B&Bs in the area to spread the income around various local businesses. I think we got the best one as it’s been upgraded over the years with more tourists bringing income to the area.
As soon as we arrived, we saw dozens of long-tailed macaques chasing each other through the trees, which made us feel like we’d definitely arrived in the jungle. Later, we took a boat trip along the river for wildlife spotting. Of course everyone wants to see pygmy elephants or orang-utans but there are never any guarantees, so I tried not to get my hopes up. We couldn’t have been more excited to spot a male orang-utan (very hard to get a good picture) and a whole herd of pygmy elephants who put on a show for us when we were the last boat on the river after all the others had headed back for dinner. It felt like they waited especially for us. (Later in our trip, I overhead other tourists saying they’d been up and down the river four times and not an elephant in sight so we definitely got lucky!)
Our job was to plant trees in sections of the forest that have previously been cleared by logging. In 2006, the ‘corridor of life‘ was officially gazetted as a conservation area and is now protected from further logging or agriculture. We learned that orang-utans naturally move through the forest canopy, and it’s not natural for them to come to the ground. When sections of forest are cleared there is no longer a continuous canopy for them to move through. By replanting trees in cleared areas, sections of forest will eventually be reconnected, allowing the great apes easy passage through the jungle.
Being a kid-friendly project, we had two quite modest goals: The first was to use machetes to clear away weeds and grasses strangling some 70-80 new saplings planted three months ago. (10yr olds with machetes!! But it was all very safe.) The second was to plant 36 trees in a nearby section of forest.
Our days started with breakfast at 6am so we would get to the project site early enough to beat the heat of the day. It was hot, humid and reasonably strenuous work but the tasks were manageable and the working hours relatively short. As adults we all felt we could have done more, but I think the kids were happy with just the two days required to achieve our goals! When jungle time was over, it was game time on their various ipads and phones.
In our free time, we were treated to various cultural experiences. We learned about traditional music, dancing and crafts in the home of local villagers. Plenty of neighbours came along to join in the dancing and I think the party continued long after we had left.
We also ate most meals in the home of a local family, and I’m happy to report that even my fussy Annabelle raved about the food. SFC (‘Sukau Fried Chicken’) was a winner with the kids! All of these activities help to provide some income to the villagers and get them on board with supporting eco-tourism along the river.
We visited Gomantong Cave and learned about the harvesting of swiftlet birds nests for use in Chinese medicine. At dusk, we observed birds of prey swooping for their dinner when thousands of bats exit the caves. It seemed that everywhere we went, an orang-utan was waiting to greet us. There was plenty to keep the bird-watchers entertained too.
We trekked in the muddy jungle and took another wildlife spotting boat trip. Mark was able to answer any question about the jungle and its inhabitants, the palm oil industry, and Sabah’s conservation policy. Both Mark and Sumira constantly astounded us with their ability to spot a well hidden creature in the trees from a distance in a fast-moving boat! All up, we saw six of the ten primates that reside in the area, as well as various snakes, lizards, birds and of course the lovely pygmy elephants.
Always, the scenery was stunning.
On our last project day we visited Sepilok. This is where you can get up close to the animals at the Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre and Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre. We also took a walk through the Rainforest Discovery Centre before having a lovely farewell lunch and saying goodbye to our friends.
Annabelle and I chose to stay on in Sepilok for another day so that we could independently visit the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary. It’s actually part of a privately owned palm oil plantation, but the owner discovered a living community of proboscis monkeys in part of the forest. To protect the monkeys, he had the area declared a conservation area. He now charges tourists a fee to view them when they come down to be fed. Proboscis monkeys are unique to Borneo and this is the best place to see them up close.
In summary, we had a fantastic experience. The information and safety briefings were thorough and our project coordinators were brilliant. Everything was well-organised and our schedule ran perfectly to time so there was never any stress. Seeing the elephants and orang-utans in their natural habitat was a dream come true for me. Annabelle declared that she loved it too. I think all the kids had a great time together.
How to book
APE Malaysia has several volunteering opportunities which you can see on their website. (I don’t get anything for recommending them.)
If you’re in Australia, Mark suggests booking through Barbara Katsifolis, a Melbourne based travel agent specialising in responsible tourism and herself a frequent visitor to Borneo. Barbara recently participated in a 2-week volunteering trip to the Sun Bear Centre so she’s familiar with APE and their work. She wrote a blog about her experience which you can read here.
(Sun Bears are on my list now!!) You can find her on Facebook HERE or her contact details are: email@example.com or phone 0408 360 890.
Happy travels!READ MORE
I’m writing this from a traditional longhouse in Malaysian Borneo where my daughter and I are spending the night. I have limited internet and am using this opportunity to let anyone know who might be looking for me that I’ll be non-contactable for the next week.
We will be trekking into the jungle, which is the natural habitat of orangutans, pygmy elephants, gibbons, sunbears and other amazing creatures. and volunteering on a project supporting the reforestation of the wildlife corridor.
I’ll be back in the land of wifi and connectivity next weekend and back at home/work on Wednesday 19th April.
I look forward to sharing pictures and stories of our adventure when we return.READ MORE
I can’t believe it is less than a week until Christmas and the new year is literally around the corner. How did that happen?
It feels like this year has flown by, but actually when I look back at where I was in January, I’m amazed at how much my life has changed in less than a year. Back then I was panic-stricken that our house hadn’t sold and worried we might not be able to make our much anticipated tree-change. Today I write this from our beautiful acreage property, surrounded by many rescued animals and 15 minutes from the most beautiful beaches in the world.
This whole experience has taught me a lot of important lessons about trusting and letting go. It’s also reaffirmed that we all have the power to create what we want in life.
So it’s a bit like… deciding what you want and then, paradoxically, letting go of your expectations.
Letting go of expectations is the hardest part for me (I’ve got a bit of control freak in me just like you) but it really is the only way to keep your sanity. You have to know what you want, but not hold on too tightly to what you think you need to happen, how it is to happen and when it needs to happen. It really is about letting the universe take care of the details, as unscientific as that may sound.
I would love to share with you a quick story about how this has happened for me very recently…
When we moved here, I decided that I wanted to work from home as much as possible. I also wanted to expand my reach so I could connect with more people in more places, rather than being limited by time and geography. And I wanted to write… on this blog, maybe an e-course, and ultimately the book I’ve been talking about for years.
I decided I knew exactly how this would go.
I would get back into the coaching work I love so much because I can do it by Skype. By replacing some of my clinical hours with coaching hours, I could work from home (win) and on the other days I’d be free to write. I’d develop that online course to expand my reach and then I’d take that course material and put it into a book. Perfect.
Now let me tell you what actually happened:
I invested in a business mentor to teach me about using Facebook to attract coaching clients. I spent many hours putting together a FREE course called “Crappy to Happy” so that people could get to know who I am and what I do. I told everyone I was available for coaching. Crappy to Happy was a huge success! This was all going to plan! I waited for coaching clients to start booking me up.
And I waited. hmmmm….
Oh don’t get me wrong, I did get coaching clients but just not as many as I’d expected.
But meanwhile, something else happened.
I got an out-of-the-blue email from someone asking if she could pay me to write articles and course content for her digital platform. I’m sorry, what?
To work from home.
And then when I was in Cambodia just recently, I got a message from an old friend saying she’d seen my Crappy to Happy course and would like me to deliver it as a workshop in her very large organisation. At corporate rates. And run some mindfulness courses while I’m at it. And also do some coaching!
Meanwhile, I just happened to see that there would be a writer’s workshop in Brisbane offering a publishing prize for attendees. Long story short, the Crappy to Happy book proposal is now at Hay House and in the running for a publishing contract.
As if all that wasn’t enough, last week I was invited to write some meditations for a new online health and fitness program that’s being released by an Aussie celebrity in the new year.
I did not expect any of that. But it’s proven to me again that I can have what I want if I just let go of my expectations about how it’s going to show up in my life.
And so can you.
So what is it that YOU want, my friend? The new year is fast approaching and now is the time to set your intentions.
I actually just wrote a blog post about creating a Vision Board to give substance to your goals. I’m really enjoying creating mine and you might find that to be a fun and inspiring holiday activity too. Please do check out the post!READ MORE
After a weekend in Siem Reap, we’ve been in Kampot just over a week and today is our last full day here before commencing our journey home tomorrow. We’ve had an amazing time here and met wonderful people. I wanted to give a little summary of our experience volunteering here in Cambodia:
Annabelle (my 9yr old daughter) and I came here to volunteer with the Buddhist Library Cambodia Project (BLCP). The project provides water tanks to schools, dental services, English and computer classes, and ‘non-formal’ classes where children who are poor (financially and academically) receive extra help to bring them up to standard so they can attend regular classes. The project also has a mobile library which visits rural schools.
Our main ‘job’ here was to assist English classes, mostly helping students with their pronunciation as even the teachers have difficulty with some words, themselves having learned English from Khmer teachers. We’ve also helped by marking English papers, spent a day with the mobile library and provided donations of clothing and school supplies directly to the poorest children.
There is one school located in the middle of salt fields where the poorest children attend for half a day before a bus picks them up to take them to a government school. Their parents work in the salt fields so that they can live in houses owned by the salt field owners but during the rainy season there is no work for them. We visited the school and provided clothing we’d brought from Australia.
Later, we went to a local bookstore and bought enough school supplies for the whole salt fields school and extras for the mobile library and some of the non-formal classes. We delivered the school supplies yesterday.
The mobile library visits each rural school only once each month and the children are so excited to have books, games and puzzles to play with. These public schools sometimes don’t have a library or have a very limited selection of books. There are no playgrounds and really very basic facilities. Most now have water tanks so that children have clean water to drink, courtesy of the BLCP.
Tonight we will attend our regular English classes for the last time (three classes – 4.30, 5.30 and 6.30pm) before heading home tomorrow.
I’ve learned a little more about this country in our short time here and while I’m certainly no Cambodia expert I know that 35 years after the Khmer Rouge were toppled, these students still rely very heavily on the generosity of foreigners for the things we expect our government to provide. The education and healthcare services here are of a very poor standard. Almost half the population live in extreme poverty and corruption is rife. Sare was telling me that just last week a pregnant woman presented to hospital with abdominal pain and was turned away because she couldn’t afford a medical bill (many services come at an ‘under the table’ cost). Shortly after, she gave birth on a bridge in the middle of the city.
Here in Kampot, all the adults I’ve spoken to work two jobs to support a family and there is no pension when they retire. When I say two jobs, I mean a 10hr shift in a hotel, 6 days per week, as well as 3hrs in a government job in the mornings; or a full-time teaching job in a public school plus 3hrs every night teaching English… just to get by.
We sleep in a pleasant guesthouse with hot running water and air-conditioning for $25 per night while 50 metres down the road, whole families sleep under corrugated iron sheets in a kind of slum village on a piece of unused land.
I don’t know what else to say except that we will leave here wiser, more generous and more grateful.READ MORE
In just over a week I’ve had 400 people sign up to my Crappy to Happy 7-day email course. It seems there are plenty of people who are keen to get the low down on how to be happier! (update: now almost 2000 people have signed up!)
There’s one thing I deliberately left out of the email series and the reason is that I honestly thought it was so obvious as to be unnecessary. But then I realised that sometimes, even for me, it’s the most simple truths – the things we know only too well – that we need to be reminded of, and that can make the biggest difference in our lives.
I had this realisation last week when I was having my own crappy day. I’m not a person who necessarily battles with chronic depression but I’ve been depressed, and I still have what I call ‘dark days’. You might have them too. To me these are the days when it feels like a black cloud has descended over my head and is following me wherever I go. It doesn’t matter how bright and sunny the real day is, my world feels heavy, uninspired and a bit pointless.
I’m fortunate to have enough perspective to know those days will pass. Bad days don’t last forever. (That perspective, by the way, is one of the things I’ve gained from learning mindfulness but that’s not the tip I wanted to share.)
When I had my dark day last week, I commenced my usual trek down the path of unhelpful self-criticism, unfounded fears, certain knowledge that everything really is crappy, not wanting to do what’s expected of me, not wanting to answer my phone or return calls; in fact wanting to do nothing except go back to bed until I could magic up an island holiday, a gazillion dollars and a life of no responsibility. Perhaps you’ve felt that way too at times? And then I remembered…
Gratitude is the golden key to the door of happiness.
On even my worst days, I can think of many, many things to be grateful for – things I could easily take for granted but they should never be taken for granted. At the most basic level, I have running water, electricity, plenty of food and a roof over my head. I hit the jackpot being born into a free, democratic, developed country. And if that doesn’t all put me in the top tier of the world’s luckiest people, I also have my health, family, friends, and a job I love (even when I don’t feel like doing the boring bits). The list goes on and on to the point of being almost embarrassing.
So I walked outside into the sunshine, looked around at my abundant life, felt the warm breeze on my skin and allowed every cell in my body to be infused with feelings of gratitude. Even on the darkest days, it’s gratitude that has the power to let in just enough light to start moving your mind and mood in a more hopeful, positive direction. And don’t just take my word for it. Research indicates clear associations between gratitude and wellbeing, better relationships and better health. If you’re having a crappy day or just want to find new ways to boost your happiness, here are some great ways to grow your gratitude:
- Take a moment (like I did) to review all the good things in your own life and connect with a deep sense of appreciation for what you have. I don’t mean tick off the boxes like a shopping list but really breathe in those feelings of gratefulness until they fill you up and make you feel truly, utterly, astoundingly blessed.
- Keep a gratitude journal. You don’t have to write in it daily but regular, thoughtfully considered entries are good (by which I mean try not to robotically list the same three things every day).
- Send thank you notes to people who have helped you out. The combination of gratitude and kindness is a powerful antidote to misery.
- Change ‘have’ to ‘get’. For example, instead of saying “I have to go to work”, say “I get to go to work” or “I get to go to school/university”. Instead of “I have to pay bills”, “I get to pay bills”. Instead of “I have to clean the house”, “I get to clean my house”. Seriously. You get to earn a living, further your education, have somewhere to live and have instant daily access to all the creature comforts of modern life. It’s insane.
Why not try it? What do you get to do today that you can be grateful for?READ MORE
This year, I attended the annual Happiness and Its Causes conference for the second time.
2015 marked the 10yr anniversary of this hugely popular annual event and so it was set to be quite a party at Luna Park! The conference usually attracts some of the biggest names – researchers, authors, and storytellers – in the fields of happiness and positive psychology, and is usually a great source of information and inspiration.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama normally attends every second year to coincide with the Dalai Lama in Australia tour, so his presence this year (his 80th birthday year!) drew a huge crowd. I’ve been fortunate to see His Holiness twice now, and both times have been so inspired by his wisdom, compassion and his incredibly infectious laugh.
I decided I’d do a quick wrap up of the highlights from the conference and then later I’ll do separate posts to expand more on some of the presentations I liked best. So if you weren’t there, it doesn’t matter because I took notes for you!
So here goes, and I’ll try to keep it brief:
Because of my interest in Buddhist psychology and mindfulness, I was particularly interested to see Barbara Fredrickson, Ruby Wax, and several others who referred to the benefits of mindfulness in the workplace.
Barbara is a Professor of Psychology whose interests are in emotions and positive psychology. What I did not know, and what I was fascinated to learn, is that her research has found that people who practice Loving Kindness meditation (anyone who has done my courses will know what this is) demonstrate changes at the cellular level which reflect reduced likelihood of inflammation in the body and therefore reduced likelihood of disease. That’s my quick layperson non-scientific summary – and I’ll expand more later. But seriously.. WOW! Scientific data which demonstrates that kindness = not just feeling good, but actually being physically healthier.
Ruby Wax is best known as a comedienne and actress (and did you know she was a writer for Absolutely Fabulous? I did not know that!). With a long history of mental illness, Ruby decided 7yrs ago to actively seek out a treatment to prevent relapse and came across Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy. She went on to complete a Masters degree in MBCT from Oxford University and this year was awarded an OBE for her services to mental health. Ruby’s presentation was of course funny, honest, and insightful and I, for one, as a practitioner of mindfulness and teacher of MBCT, was thrilled to see the word being spread!
I was excited to see Gretchen Rubin in the line-up this year, since I’ve started reading both her New York Times bestselling The Happiness Project and her new book about habits called Better than Before. Yes, I’ve started reading both books at once because, unlike Gretchen, who describes herself as highly organised and self-disciplined, I am neither of those things. I do not seem to have the capacity to finish reading one book before picking up another, but it’s something I’m working on.
I introduced myself to Gretchen and asked her to sign my copy of her book. I told her I’m working on my own Happiness book and suggested that she and I have coffee next time I’m in her hometown of NYC. At that point, she surprisingly did not back away slowly and motion for security, but she wished me well with my book and even recommended to me a book for writers (which I have swiftly ordered from Amazon because Gretchen Rubin personally recommended it to me!) AND THEN she said she’ll see me in NYC!
Yes you will, Gretchen. Yes you will!
Other highlights included the amazing Lior (I didn’t even get a photo as I was too busy being in awe) and the story of his collaboration with composer Nigel Westlake and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Lior sang Avinu Malkeinu live with no accompaniment (spine-tingling) and then we heard the story of Lior and Nigel’s journey together to create ‘Compassion’, a seven song orchestra.
I’ve included this link to the final, full orchestral version of Avinu Malkeinu for your viewing and listening pleasure.
Then there were the ‘ordinary’ but incredibly inspiring people who had overcome diversity and trekked across the Himalayas, sailed across oceans, rewired their brains following a stroke and tumour respectively. There were teachers doing amazing things in schools to help children learn the value of positive psychology, first-hand experiences and taking risks (no cotton wool!), and connecting with other kids globally using internet technology.
Truly an amazing line up of speakers.
And finally, a personal highlight for me was being interviewed for an upcoming documentary on Happiness! It was a great experience even if I do end up on the cutting room floor, which is very likely. It gave me an opportunity to reflect on and consolidate my own ideas about the causes of happiness, and I was heartened to hear my own thoughts reflected in the presentations of leading thinkers and researchers from around the world.
I think that’s enough for now! I’ve included lots of links so you can check out anything that might interest you, and later I’ll post some more info about the really interesting stuff.READ MORE
This post is a more of a personal communication than a typical blog post but it seems a good way to get the message out.
My husband and I have recently made a decision to sell our house in Brisbane and pursue our dream of living on an acreage block. We’ve talked about it for many years but have always found it to be far more logical and sensible to live in the city where we can easily commute to our respective jobs. The idea has never gone away though – and so late last year, when we stumbled upon the perfect place for us in the Sunshine Coast hinterland, we decided there really is never a good time to make these kinds of major life changes – so why not now?
Some of you know that I’m quite passionate about animal welfare, and so for a long time I’ve wanted to live in the country and provide a little sanctuary for rescued animals. I’ve also envisioned that this place would have space for me to create a meditation hall/retreat space where I can run mindfulness workshops and courses. The place we have found is an 11 acre block so it’s certainly big enough for us to keep animals, and as a bonus it already has a fully self-contained cabin with 3-bay shed which I hope to be able to convert for use as a meditation hall and workshop space, or perhaps even to provide short-stay accommodation as a writer’s or artist’s retreat.
What this means for my psychology practice is that I will continue to work from my office in Ashgrove on Tuesdays and Wednesdays only. Over the coming months my goal will be to build a client base on the Sunshine Coast. I am running my Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy course on Tuesday nights in Brisbane commencing February 3rd but I’m not sure for how much longer I’ll be able to travel to Brisbane to run an evening course so if you’re considering doing the course, I’d encourage you to register for this one.
I am currently looking for a space to see individual clients on the Sunshine Coast for a couple of days each week and will also be looking for a space to run courses and workshops until I can hopefully create my own space. I’ll keep you posted via my Facebook Page or my Newsletter when those details are all confirmed. By all means, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you know of a place that might work for me!
I’m also still confirming dates for the next Introduction to Mindfulness workshop and plan to run this both in Brisbane and on the Sunshine Coast in late February or early March. Again, stay tuned either by Facebook or by subscribing to my Newsletter.
I look forward to keeping you updated on the progress of our semi-rural sea change, and my availability for individual appointments on the sunny Sunshine Coast.READ MORE
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