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Day 26: HCMC

Non-stop shopping and eating are the themes for today. After copious amounts of food and drink, we
are now back at our hotel and packing as I write.

We had a secret Santa presentation prior to packing. No better place than on the 12th floor of the
Sky Bar overlooking the skyline of Saigon. Lots of thought went into these presents, and it was a great way to finish such a wonderful month away.

Dinner was a little out of the ordinary. We reserved a little place called Noir. It's the number 1 rated
restaurant in HCMC, and for good reason. We wanted to give the students
something different from burgers, rice or noodles, and different is what we
received.

The Noir concept is built around iCARE values - it employs blind and visually impaired waiters and
waitresses. Dinner itself is served in a blacked out room, simulating the life
of a blind person and relying on other senses to communicate and enjoy dinner.
No phones or the like to distract from the conversation. It was unique and a
great way to finish off our expedition.

Prior to dinner, we got to practice for the real thing. The blindfolds were produced and some numbered
shapes.

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We began the difficult task of feeling our way around the shapes to ensure they agreed with the slot we
were placing them in.

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Eating in the dark was difficult in a number of ways. We were taught to use a place of reference to go
back to each time we wanted to eat or drink or even locate the cutlery. We
weren't informed of the menu until after the meal, meaning that you guess what
you're eating as you go. In total we tried 13 dishes including starters, mains
and desserts.

In a lot of ways the dinner sums up well the last 26 days. We've had new experiences, some lessons learned
and challenges presenting at unexpected times needing resilience and
adaptability.

There are so many wonderful things to reflect on - zip-lining, trekking, volunteering, exploring,
decision-making, challenges, extraordinary vistas, tubing, teaching, new foods,
shopping, floating markets, rice and more rice...most of all life long
friendships!

What ever the experiences, I can honestly say that you should be proud of these young people. I really
hope that they have a new found love of travel and respect for a world that is
very different from the one they knew before they left Australia.

We look forward to seeing you all again in just over a day!

All that we ask is that you arm yourselves with plenty of tissues and be sure that you haven't lost the art
of hugging!

Day 25: Mekong Delta - HCMC

A 11:00am pick-up from our hotel in the Mekong was swift and soon we were on our way to HCMC. It always
seems shorter on the way back, helped in our case by a superior VIP van (only 2
days old), less traffic (being a Sunday and no road works).

We've had quite a bit of traveling over the last few days and it was a welcome relief to have a few
hours to unpack and air out our things with the knowledge that the last two
nights would be spent at the same hotel we started at. For some, a light snooze
is easier to fit in whilst on the move.

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We had a lovely meal at a Mexican joint around the corner from our hotel in the backpacker area. There
has been a noticeable increase in the number of foreigners, given it is the
holiday period. It's great sitting outside in 26 degree heat watching the world
go by, something comforting about people watching from afar, taking in the
sights and smells!

One thing hasn't changed and unlikely to while motorbikes are the common denominator on the roads.
Dodging traffic is part of the experience whilst the confidence levels are
increasing, it's wise to be on your guard at all times.

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Wandering the lanes, visiting trinket and craft shops is part of the experience.

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The one thing to remember is that there are no surprises in HCMC and nothing really seems to be routine.
However, one noticeable trait that is common practice is sweeping around the
door or path directly adjacent to the shop in question.

Mobile food carts and street food is common place, you could certainly live off street food for under
$3 a day if that's your thing.

The one thing on the tip of everyone's tongue was whether Jarrod's sunglasses man would still be waiting
for him outside our hotel on the promise of a sale. We haven't spotted him yet,
however, the weather was cloudy and cooler than when we left. Tomorrow is
looking pretty ordinary weather wise, a band of thunderstorms is due overnight
and into tomorrow. We were hoping to visit the observation deck at the Texaco
building, will wait and see whether the forecast is accurate.

Tomorrow is a rest day, for most this is code for "shop til you drop". Tonight we did a secret
Santa, Ms Walkom and I wrote down names, folded the paper and each student and
teacher picked one. At this point, no one knows who has who. Will be
interesting to see who puts in some thought to a gift for their recipient given
all of the different options.

The excitement will no doubt build tomorrow as we look to enjoy the last night together after such an
amazing journey, more on this later!

Nicholas Sward

Day 23: Pakse to the Mekong Delta

We have left such good memories of Laos and are now nearing the final few
days of the expedition. Today we travelled all day! It began this morning with
a 7:00am breakfast and finished with dinner at 6:00pm in Can Tho (Mekong
Delta).

The flight was on time and uneventful, except for Cameron, who I was seated next
to. She knocked over her cup of water, meaning she had to sit in her seat
covered in water for over an hour.

Having collected our baggage we caught a minivan to Mien Tey bus station. We hired a
private minibus to take us to the Mekong. The first hour was fast and we looked
like we would be in Can Tho earlier than expected. However; travelling always
brings surprises. About half way we came across some road improvements which
meant grid lock for kilometres. After about 90 minutes, the traffic cleared and
we were on our way again. The only way to describe the driving in this part of
the world is to liken it to an old fashion pinball machine, lights, beeps and
lots of weaving between cars, trucks and mopeds.

What amazes us most is how there are not more accidents, however, we feel this could
be put down to the precision driving which comes from growing up in this world
where there are few rules and everyone seems to be in a hurry.

It was a culture shock landing in HCMC having spent the last 3 weeks in sleepy
Laos.

Tomorrow morning is the Floating Market tour. A 5:00am departure hasn't made us many
friends. At least tomorrow afternoon will be free time to recover from
a couple of high intensity days. We aim to be back in HCMC late Sunday
afternoon. Monday will be a shopping day/rest day before preparing for our
flight home on Tuesday, arriving in Adelaide on the 23rd Dec.

Nicholas Sward

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Day 21 and 22 - Tree Top Explorer

These past two days were everything that we had wished for. This
was to be our adventure phase of the expedition, however, it was full of
challenges, new experiences and the realisation that the human body has extreme
limits which can be tapped into when the need arises.

We began our adventure early Wednesday morning. We joined four
other participants, one Canadian (soon to be a professor), one German computer
engineer and an American couple who are both teachers at an International
School in Singapore. The journey from Pakse to our destination took two hours
in total, although the final 14 kilometres took an hour of this as the road was
bumpier than the Ashbourne Golf Club greens.

Our arrival saw the entire bus make a bee-line to the toilets, a
big sigh followed once the realisation set in that they were squat toilets.
Crisis over, the next step was to stock up on water, chocolate and anything
sugary that didn't weigh too much.

The first 45 minutes is pretty straight forward walking with a few hills thrown
in for good measure. Although we did have one obstacle which included a river.
This was our first opportunity to test our balance and ensure the harnesses we
were fitted in didn't cause too much abrasive action around the legs or
shoulders.

About an hour into the hike, we stopped for lunch.

Banana leaves became our table cloth and plate all in one, a
smorgasbord of traditional Lao Jeow (spicy dip), fish, vegetables, dried beef
(a little bit like our beef jerky), fish patties and fresh bananas, oh and
don't forget the sticky rice. A worthy spread of delicious food always gives
you hope and lifts not only your spirits but energy levels too.

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The final 30 minutes of walking was mostly, if not all down
hill, crossing through virgin forest and big bamboo sections which darkened the
track under the forest canopy. We weaved and meandered through the forest until
we came to a swinging bridge; the sort of bridge that makes the hairs stand up
on your neck, partly as a result of the views of the waterfall but also the
rickety nature of the design.

Soon we were clipped in and tested on our first zip-line. We all
carried mini walking sticks which were used as handbrakes to reduce the speed
as we approached the platform. Grace, Gabi and Joanna we little speed demons and
were often seen attempting many hand brake manoeuvres, some failed and other
times pulling up short of the platform.

With such a large group, there was plenty of rest between zips
as we vacated the platforms perched high in the canopy to make way for others. This
included lowering down through a small hole into the abyss below.

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The zip-lines varied in length, the shortest about 20m and the
longest of the day was nearly 300m.

I believe we did 8 in total on day 1. The entry into the tree
tops was by zip-line, followed by a 5 minute walk up purpose built wood
platform pathways which led to a restaurant area overlooking an amazing
waterfall.

The power and noise of the waterfall was very apparent. Jarrod
and I took a closer look, although the plan was to have a natural shower, all
we could manage was to dip our feet into the icy cold water, albeit very
refreshing!

Dinner was served about 30 minutes after arriving, chicken
curry, vegetables and rice were well received. With full stomachs and smiles in
the knowledge that we made it safely through our first challenge, we were
escorted to our tree house for the night. The only way in and out of the tree
house is by zip-line. This a truly a remarkable engineering accomplishment and
all credit to the locals who hand deliver all the materials.

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Each tree house is self-catered, including toilet, bedding (the most
comfortable mattress and pillow so far) and deck chairs! In our treehouse, we
spend a good hour or so sitting in the deck chairs enjoying some coke and
chocolates that were smuggled in without the knowledge of the girls who had
eaten their stock upon arrival.

We packed it in around 9pm. The thundering waterfall as a
backdrop was comforting, along with what we suspect were rats. I did get up in
the night to use the toilet and noticed a small rat casually searching out and
scraps that we may have left around, although it didn't take too much notice of
me and could have been mistaken for a pet rat.

Breakfast on day 2 was served at 8am. At about 8:45am we
positioned ourselves on the first zip-line platform - 13 more to go! These were
by far the longest (averaging 250m - 450m).

The feeling of flying through the canopy with views of the
canyon below (200m drop), waterfall and the pristine forest was exhilarating,
exciting and kept the adrenaline at a healthy level. In some cases we had to
cross over platforms using swinging bridges, other obstacles that make you
wonder whether you can complete the challenge and some long ladder climbs on
the high tensile wires. On a few occasions we had some uphill hiking to get to
more zip-lines.

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After our 14th zip-line for the morning, it was time to head back
for lunch. We enjoyed another good spread of food in preparation for the 30
minute uphill hike on steep ground. A good cardio workout was rewarded with the
next challenge, which for the majority of the group was their first experience
of a Via Ferrata!

The route took us 30m up on exposed rock face, despite the
knowledge that we were clipped into a safety wire, the challenge of the exposed
rock and constant clipping in and clipping out kept the mind and body acutely
focussed on hand and foot positioning at all times.

The initial 10 metre section is the most difficult despite being
the lower section. It is easy to lose focus and that's when the panic can set
in.

Despite this, all of the students managed to overcome their fear
of heights and the unknown to conquer this challenge, a truly inspiration
achievement, one that we are very proud of.

The final 2 hours was trekking out of what remained of the
valley, steep clay sections and a wonderful stop at the top of the waterfall
was a welcome treat.

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The final 45 minutes was relatively flat and a change from the
previous 90 minutes. At the end of the trek was a sense of achievement that
most of the group would have experienced a handful of times in their short
lives.

It was very empowering to see our young people work hard to
achieve such brilliant outcomes, something we hope they will embrace on their
return to their busy schedules in Australia. They are very fortunate to have
tried such a great challenge.

We have a travel day tomorrow, Pakse to Ho Chi Minh City
following onto the Mekong Delta (Can Tho). The adventure continues with a visit
to the Floating markets Cai Be and Cai Rang, sure to be something they will
treasure with the other unique experiences which seem to be accruing by the
day.

Nicholas Sward

DAY 20: Rest and Relaxation phase

Today was a travel day. Our pick up from our hotel in Vientiane
was 11:00am. Our flight was only delayed by 30 minutes which is pretty good for
SE Asia as connecting flights can be troublesome.

We arrived shortly after 5pm. It was a short drive into Pakse and
we were promptly dropped at our hotel. Our jaws literally dropped as this huge
Palace appeared before our eyes. The decor is simply stunning.

Our stomach is no longer groaning having sat down to a beautiful
dinner. It's amazing how tired you get when you really haven't been doing much
for a few days, just traveling, resting and eating.

Tomorrow will be a different story. We are all excited by the
prospect of challenging mountains and jungles of the Bolvean Plateau. I did
visit Green Discovery to confirm our arrival and agree a pick up from our hotel
at 8:30am. I've instructed the group to meet for breakfast at 7:00am. We
anticipate a long, tiring day - one full of adventure, sweat, maybe some tears
and guaranteed screams as we zip-line our way across valleys, the jungle canopy
and rivers. To cap it off we will sleep in a purpose built tree house which is
poised 10m above the ground!

Spirits are high as we head into our final week of the expedition,
it seems to have gone very quickly but we suspect a lot slower for the parents
and family at home!

We will post plenty of pics and stories of our adventure when we
return in two days. "It's a jungle out there and we're going to conquer
it as a group"!

Nicholas Sward

DAY 18

Today was the last chance to recharge before a busy week. Today we
did very little, other than a lot of walking. Ms Walkom, Jarrod and I visited
the bookshop which supplied the books to the Sae Lao Project. We discovered one
book that we desperately liked and needed a copy of. Now in our possession, it
will make its way into the Golden Grove Library for others to hopefully enjoy
as much as we do.

A number of students woke early to view the giving of the Alms,
however, only a couple made it out to witness this daily ritual. Hopefully
tomorrow we might have some earlier risers.

We get picked up at 11:30am from our hotel and transfer to Wattay
International Airport for our 14:30 flight to Pakse. Fingers crossed the plane
is on time – SE Asia is renowned for delayed flights. All going to plan, we
should be at our hotel in Pakse by 16:30.

Most students wandered around Vientiane this afternoon after
enjoying a nice lunch at a Cafe called Joma.

This evening we found a brilliant Indian/Pakistani curry house
which was worth the walk to get to. The owner was hands on, easy to see why the
restaurant has such good reviews on TripAdvisor.

The remainder of the evening has been spent at the Night Market
stocking up on a range of trinkets, clothing and fabrics – it is nearly
Christmas after all!

Time to get packing...next update from Pakse.

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DAY 17: Final day at Sae Lao Project

We have all come to the realisation that today is our last day at
Sae Lao Project. There are many emotions stirring within - like myself, I
suspect many of the group are feeling the same. We've filled our days with chores,
constructed many resources and even had a whinge about what we miss about
Australia. However, there is something mystical about this part of the world
and it's hard to pin down exactly what. It could be the friendliness and
generosity of the Lao people, or perhaps the beautiful vistas surrounding us or
even the early starts and chores. We cannot argue with any of the above, as you
all know, I only ever deal with the facts!

This morning we organised and participated in a soccer competition
at the local primary school. After a few warm up drills and stretching, the
first ball was kicked in the spirit of harmony. Predominantly, our students
made up the Sae Lao volunteer team. Jarrod dominated up front and created
several scoring chances with his competitiveness, at one point steam rolling
Cameron to beat her to the ball and scored! Gabi, Grace and Bec were like
Sherman tanks, nothing was getting through. Ye (our token Lao player) had a
blinder in goal. Cameron created a few good chances too, even managing to hip
and shoulder (fairly) a Lao lad. Interestingly, no one would come near her from
then on, so that tactic certainly advantaged us! Ms Walkom did a great job
providing pictures and video footage, however; the tournament was soured by the
lack of oranges at half-time.

The playing pitch would never have passed the pitch inspection in
any State or Territory in Australia except Tasmania. Avoiding the holes, bumps
and Cameron took as much skill as playing. In reflection, we were so lucky to
be invited to participate as we now have a new found respect for the game of
soccer and how local kids just love playing. Many rocked up in their best team
jersey which was usually covered in dirty as it doubles up as their daily
attire. Some had soccer boots, most, however, played in bare feet. These kids
continue to smile despite the obvious poverty.

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There were was something special about what just happened tonight
at dinner. I was only just speaking to the students about the ceremony we just
experienced, after all this expedition deals with real life experiences and
reflections on our learning as it happens.

The ceremony was my favourite part of the expedition so far. It
was authentic and more importantly it highlighted the strong bond between
Golden Grove High School and the people of Namthong Village. The authenticity
is something that we were hoping for but didn't expect, however; are thankful
for.

As I write this, I have 17 blessing bands tied on each of my
wrists. However, it's not about how many bands (blessings) you received, more
importantly how many knots get tied during the blessing. We were invited into
the kitchen where a small table was set up in readiness for the Elder to begin
his first blessing.

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On the table, prepared earlier, was pieces of chicken and eggs
which were to be sacrificed for us. The Elder then rolled up rice and added
either chicken sinew or egg to the rice and we were invited to eat. We were
instructed to place our hands on the table during the blessing, then one hand
out and one hand up. As leaders of the expedition, we were invited first to
receive the rice. I was lucky enough to try the sinew/tendon from the chicken
leg, washed down with Beer Lao which is placed in your open hand during the
blessing.

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At the conclusion of the blessing, you eat then scull the beer. On
my second blessing, I received a Pepsi instead of a beer, I pivoted to my right
and noticed Joanna half way through half a glass of Beer Lao. I pivoted the
other way and Cameron had already finished a Beer Lao...poor Jarrod was
disappointed that he missed out. Zoe, however, was offered several Beer Laos
which she declined, knowing that we have a 4 hour minivan ride tomorrow
morning. Bizarrely, at the end of the first blessing we were invited to eat a
sponge cake out of a yellow wrapper too.

Local men and women proceeded to add to the blessings given by the
Elders. We were then offered a smorgasbord of chicken feet, the national dish -
Laap accompanied by noodles and yes you guessed it, sticky rice.

At the conclusion of the ceremony, we received a further blessing (either
white or coloured cotton threads) to finish. Mamai (a well-respected local Lao
woman and pure legend) gave a short speech in Lao which was translated by Vix.
Her message was simple but straight from the heart. She stated how happy the
Sae Lao Project are with the computers and all of the hard work that Golden
Grove has provided over the course of the last fortnight. The learning these
will provide WILL transform education for the locals who receive free education
from Sae Lao.

Ms Walkom then got up and thanked Sae Lao and the local people for
having us and providing us with learning too. We then proceeded to show the
Elders around the Community Centre highlighting what work and resources we
provided during our stay. They were very interested in the new books we
purchased and of course equally impressed with the ICT set up!

A lot of us are finding it hard to go to bed as we are still on a
high from the festivities. Having travelled extensively, I would rate this
experience high up on the list of things to see or do.

DAY 16: Sae Lao Project

Groundhog day here, Cameron's alarm went off at exactly 5:00am in
unison with the roosters. We had two new comers to the morning swim ritual,
Gabi and Grace. I was very impressed with their dedication to the cause!

We completed most of what we set out to, the ICT suite is fully
functional and in position to secure the laptops. A sign sits proudly on the
side of the ICT table and says "Information Technology Centre donated by
Golden Grove High School, South Australia".

Since it is our last full day, we will be inviting students to
write a paragraph or two about their experiences so far, hope you enjoy their
accounts. Before I hand over, the students deserve all the kudos they have
received, they have all stepped up to the trials and tribulations in a
respectful manner typical of our iCARE mantra. Tomorrow we will be involved in
a soccer tournament at the local primary school in Nathong village which is
about a 5 minute walk away. We've been told that at 7pm tomorrow, the Elders
will visit and the celebrations will begin. That's it from me...over to the
students!

The thing I was most excited about coming to Sae Lao Project was
the teaching and seeing the students learn, however; also sharing a dormitory
with people i knew I was going to develop strong friendships with. Before we
left Australia i knew we were going to have an interesting time on this trip
and get along really well with everyone who was going, and so far I was right.
I'm so happy with the connections I have made with the other students on this
trip, and they're only getting better. I've also learned that I'm a strong
person and challenges are part of growing up...Cameron Sheppard Perry

Today Mr Sward and I finished creating the computer charging
station this project has taken us three days to finish, Miss Walkom, Joanna and
Cameron painted this project with the Australian flag on it. Also today zoe and
I made  by folding doors and placed them onto a bookshelf. so far on this
trip my most exciting park of this trip would have been to help the lao project
on creating new table's and chairs for the local kids creating these few extra
tables and chairs will allow more kids to come and learn engilsh. Jarrod MIlde

What an incredible journey we are all currently on. Experiencing
such a different culture and seeing how happy everyone here is when they have
so few material items has been such an eye opener. One highlight for me has
been meeting so many new people from different walks of life and getting a
glimpse into their experiences. Whether it be all these incredible people that
I have the honour of sharing this trip with, the travellers staying here at Sae
Lao or most importantly the people of Laos who have been so friendly and
welcoming towards us. Each and every one of these people have definitely had an
impact on me and I can only hope that this continues throughout the remainder
of the trip -Grace Thompson.

Some of us, especially me have thoroughly enjoyed their sleep.
Most of the group may be enjoying their 5:00 - 5:30 wake ups but boy oh boy
have I enjoyed my 6:50 wake ups. Keep in mind that this is 10 minutes before we
all have to meet in the restaurant. Oops! Sorry Mr Sward. Today I did managed
to join in on the fun and climb the mountain to see the cave! Only because it
was in the late afternoon meaning that I was fully awake by then, only just!
The hike was very challenging but it was the sort of challenge that we all
needed to brighten up the day that was filled with chores. Although we have a
lot of chores, it is such an amazing feeling knowing that we are contributing
to this project and leaving our mark. We are having such an amazing time here
and it's quite sad knowing that we will be leaving the project on Sunday but
exciting at the same time as there is much more exploring to do! - Joanna
Todorova

What an amazing trip it has been so far, tubing then hiking then
shopping then tubing again ( haha ), swimming, climbing and toyota jumping. It
has been a full on week filled with so many wonderful experiences for all of
us. The biggest highlight so far for me was teaching the students at Sae Lao,
English. They would always come in with a big smile on their faces eager to
learn after a long day of school. I would have to say it was also the most
rewarding experience as when the time came down to saying our good byes, I
remember a particular girl walking up to Grace and I, and hugging us tightly
and saying thank you. In my eyes I knew that we had made our mark. - Gabrielle
Douglas

So far this trip has been a wonderful experience even though we
have just past the halfway mark. Everything we have done so far has been a
highlight for me, but the best thing would have to be teaching the kids English
and seeing them have fun learning another language that isn't their own. It
also was a hard and stressful thing to do as we had to plan lots of activities
for the lessons to keep the kids entertained through the whole hour. The tubing
has also been a great experience since we don't get to do things like that back
at home. It was nice just to take a few hours out of our busy days just to
relax and have a great time together. Leaving Sae Lao Project is going to be
hard as I have enjoyed myself so much, but I won't miss the toilets, showers
and early mornings. I wasn't expecting to like it here as much as I have. - Bec
Goulter

Being just past the halfway mark, we have had so many incredible
experiences. The part i was most excited about when coming to Sae Lao was the
teaching, and that has been one of the most fulfilling experiences for me so
far. All the kids could get quite cheeky at times (such as joining my class by
giving me another students name), but overall they were so eager to learn and
seeing the happiness on their faces when they got the question right was really
rewarding. Both us students and the teachers on this trip have given so much to
develop this project, especially when working on stuff that benefits the kids
and the teaching area. Furthermore, knowing that we've helped make a difference
in their lives is a really rewarding experience overall.- Zoe Rix

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Nicholas Sward

DAY 15 Rest day - Vang Vieng

The alarms again sounded at 5.30am for the Blue lagoon dash but
not surprisingly no one stirred. Our last few days although enriched by generous
invitations and feasts with our new village friends have been hard yakka. Our
aim when we started planning for this trip, to build and set up an IT centre
was ambitious but is now a reality. We have built 2 extra computer tables and
nine chairs as well as a charging and storing, lockable bench (yet to be
painted) Jarrod and Mr Sward have displayed all that we want our students to
exhibit in terms of flexible and creative thinking, mostly because there are
few tools, lots of hard wood and anything to be found  is generally blunt
or lacking the vital element, like drill bits!.  They do have a new friend
at the local hardware stall who has made more money in the past few days than
all year I would think.  Alongside that are also the other projects on the
go that we have contributed to entailing digging mud out from the bottom of the
pond (Thanks Zoe), lugging rocks and bricks, gardening, cutting banana leaves
and rebuilding the fence that was bull-dosed to make way for the new road.
Jarrod has become an Ace negotiator, bartering his way to bargains for
everyone, the result a lot of very happy girls who rely on Jarrod to get
expensive goods at under half price!

Our efforts fundraising throughout the year resulted in a donation
of $2000 to the Lao Project. We are finding that in Laos Kip this goes a very
long way. So far, this money has provided them with new tools, more wood for
building tables and chairs, and $650 worth of class sets of readers in Laos and
English for the children. We have also set up a reading circle with a new mat
and 12 cushions to enhance the group reading experience . This will be a huge
benefit for them. We have also bought them soccer balls and volleyballs to
accompany the other sports equipment we bought with us. Some of this was sent
to Ye's village where we went for the Hmong feast to be used in their little
local school. Of course there was all of the other resource material we bought
last week. We still have a substantial amount left so shall speak to Victoria
about what else they need to enhance the learning.

Tonight involved deep and meaningful sessions with Mr Sward (Guru
Swami) catching up with each student to reflect on the expedition thus far.
Apart from his incessant exaggerations, provocations, towel slapping and
occasional snoring he does like to know what makes us all tick. Each student
met with him, had a chat and picked a buffalo leather bracelet that they would
like to present to one of their team  members in recognition of their
development. Each student created an award name and verbalised their reason. We
all then met in the Community Centre and each person presented their bracelet
and shared their appreciation of the person. This was a very moving, funny and
bonding exercise. iCARE at it's absolute best. We all agreed that we are indeed
fortunate to be involved in this and to be doing it together.

Guruswarmi account of the day:

Cameron, Joanna, Bec and Gabi  and I went tubing whilst
Jarrod, Zoe, Grace and Ms Walkom went shopping.

Cameron should be trying out for the Olympic diving team. Her
double twisting full pike with inverted tuck (3.2 diff) would have scored an
8.2 having fallen out of her tyre tube attempting to reach the muddy bank. She
assumed that she could touch the bottom!

Bec was in her natural environment, known to the group as the
"Whale Whisperer". The affiliation with this has come about through
the night time sleep talking which could have come straight out of a
Attenborough documentary on Orca whales. This has been a constant reminder of the
close proximity to each other and an indication of how well noise travels at
night time. There has been speculation amongst the group about whether Ms
Walkom has a whoopie cushion with her!

Gabi has found that jumping in photos is her calling. We've
nicknamed her "Oh what a feeling, Toyota!" The spin off of this is
some great shots. I'll post a few.

Joanna "Queen of the Nam Song" can sleep anywhere,
basking in the midday sun on her tyre tube. She is graceful and elegant.
Displayed in its entirety yesterday when she went through (not around) a big
tree branch hanging peacefully over the Nam Song. The constant screaming
reminded us of the 100m swimming heat at the 2000 Olympic Games featuring Eric
"the eel" Mossambani.

The 2 hour long tubing meant that I had to endure and partake in
lots of conversation, some of which was surprising. The best example of this
was a conversation overheard relating to whether they had been adding to the
water levels. This was quite surprising as I didn't think that would be
something our students would be capable of. Needless to add, I spent the
remaining 90 minutes at the front of the group as I didn't want to meet the
Humboldt current head on. I was later informed that it was a massive set up and
in fact I had been taken for a ride...

Today is our last full day working around Sae Lao Project. Further
updates and pictures to follow.

Jarrod and I spent the afternoon together. Check out the pics,
very happy!

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Day 14: Traditional Hmong BBQ

The first alarm sounded at 5am, despite their intention, Cameron
and crew didn't manage to pull it together in time to get to the Blue Lagoon
(which is a mammoth distance of 300m away).

Breakfast was pancakes, unfortunately Jarrod and I had unfinished
business - there isn't a Bunnings close by and we needed a few bits to complete
the ICT table. We completed the 10km round trip by foot for the third time in
two days and collected the last of our fittings and fixtures. However; we
couldn't resist detouring via Nathong Village to collect some candy for our
visit to the Hmong celebration. Jarrod and I have a strict policy of "try
before you buy", so we did! The sweets are very different here in Laos, it
was a bit hit and miss before we found a few we liked.

We had an abrupt and very rushed hurry up to attend the
celebration. Out of nowhere Ye appeared, in a very exited voice he pronounced
that we must come now, albeit 30 minutes early catching out a lot of the group
who were still getting ready. This also meant that Jarrod didn't get to visit
the Blue Lagoon either - we've given him a new nickname "Special K".
His routine is to the minute and keeps regular! All we need now is the red
dress!

We piled into the back of the trusty Daihaitsu truck, whilst Ms
Walkom had the VIP treatment. She was chauffeur driven by Ye on his moped, much
to the dislike of the rest of the group who were resigned to the fact that the
5km ride would be described by every word associated with unpleasant. We could
just make out the white knuckles on Ms Walkom's hands as she held Ye's stomach
tighter and tighter as he sped of.

We arrived a short time after Ms Walkom, who was already mingling
with the locals and taking selfies. There was one family member who took an
immediate interest in her. Shortly later we noticed a Beer Lao had been
forcefully handed to her. Thank goodness for the universal signal for sculling,
which luckily Ms Walkom was familiar with. Apparently, the locals had been
practising for several hours prior to our arrival.

We were escorted indoors, in a room about the size of an average
lounge room. In each corner and along each wall were five mosquito nets, which
also means five beds in Laos. It turns out that we were eating in their
kitchen, bedroom, lounge room and dining room all rolled into one. In one
corner was Ye's 75 year old Grandma having a lie down while over thirty other
Lao villagers made way for us. There was a lot of laughing, several selfies at
the request of the locals and the offering of Beer Lao which they are extremely
fond of. In the middle of the room was a spread of several dishes which we
couldn't work out whether they were beef, pork or rat! However; as is the
custom, sticky rice was in abundance. I think we have only seen one dish served
in Laos without rice and that was a breakfast prepared by GGHS!

We weren't sure whether we just dig in (which is usually done without
hesitation) or wait to be signalled. Some of the group noticed the big pots
outside. It was at the point that one of them suggested that we might be lured
into a Pigmy village and become the sacrificial "lambs". Another
member piped up and said "they don't have lamb in Laos", followed by
"it's ok, we have Jarrod to protect us anyway". We all felt instant
relief at this suggestion.

We sat around for over an hour eating and just taking in the
continuous laughter from the locals who presume were talking about us. Ms
Walkom again showed great leadership, highlighting how easy it is to communicate
without the need for language, lots of hand gestures ensued.

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We were later informed that Vix (the Sae Lao Project manager) had
never been to one of these celebrations despite being here for 2 years! What a
compliment for our group, despite the fact it was hard to communicate without
speaking the local dialect, the realisation that we have experienced something
special will hopefully resonate in due course.

Jarrod and I walked the 6km back to Sae Lao Project as the
"hardware" store was on the way. Again, an opportunity to stock up on
Lao sweets! About 1km from Sae Lao Project, Jarrod stepped on a rock which
penetrated through the rubber thong. Oh my god, did he put on a performance,
anyone would have thought he'd cut off a toe. I've never seen a potential
Australian Army recruit perform like a cut snake before, and probably never
will again. Turns out that it was ONLY a small scratch. His limping home will
stay with me forever, one kilometre of toe action in 35 degree heat - classic!

My arm pits were in struggleville early this morning, having
applied Aeroguard roll-on instead of the Nivea for men roll-on. Oh well, you
can never be too careful when mosquitos are concerned. As trip leader I justify
this decision by putting it down to good role-modelling and avoidance tactics
preached to the group at several of our preparation sessions.

Tomorrow we have a Buddha day which means more activities in Vang
Vieng. We'll discuss later exactly what the group would like to do, however;
tubing, kayaking and rock climbing are all on the table.

Meat is expensive here in Laos, therefore it's highly feasible
that we might end up somewhere for lunch which serves Mexican. The girls in
particular have had a craving for Nachos and we might be swayed into
frequenting an establishment that serves corn chips with salsa and melted
cheese.

In the unlikely event that we don't blog tomorrow, it is highly
likely that we have found a smorgasbord somewhere in town!

Nicholas Sward

Day 13: Snakes, rats and completed projects

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Today marks the end of the teaching phase of our time at Sae Lao
Project. Normally, Friday would have been the last teaching slot, however; the
majority of the students have a Hmong heritage. The Hmong celebrations begin
tomorrow and finish on Friday, therefore no teaching. We are very excited as we
have been invited to a local village to celebrate Hmong New Year with a local
family. We are looking forward to the spit roast and Hmong costumes tomorrow!

Saturday will signal our last full day at the Sae Lao Project. We
were informed last night that the local Elders would like to thank us for all
of our generosity and hard work by visiting us on Saturday night. We are very
privileged as this is not done very often with western volunteers, however it is
reserved as a ceremony for people going away, arriving, sick or dying, a new
baby or birthday time. We have been told that the Elders will perform a
traditional blessing called a Basii. During this, an Elder will give a blessing
- each of us will receive a piece of white string during the blessing. At the
conclusion of the blessing, we will be provided with food followed by a
hand-made wrist band. The wrist band is only to be worn for 3 days and then
should be removed. This is a symbol of good luck and the each bow that is tied
is an additional blessing!

You may have noticed the title of today. Jarrod was collecting
tools from the long-term residence when he came across Am with a live snake,
which was just about to become snake soup. The other snake had already been
prepared. Additional to this, there was a rat who has since been named Arnold,
purely for its size. Talk about a rat on steroids! Jarrod took a picture just
to prove that it was a rat as no one would have believed him otherwise. This
wasn't our only rat episode. Late last night one of the kittens thought it
would be a good idea to bring a rat into our dormitory area to gain some
recognition for his catch. Unfortunately, the cat managed to lose its grip and
the rat took advantage, wriggled free and managed to hide for a while begin the
bookcase, much to the horror of most of the girls who by this time were wide
awake.

That wasn't the only snake for the day. Shortly before lunch,
Joanna approached the group, if you can get whiter than a ghost then Joanna is
proof of this. She was entering the toilet when she noticed a long, thin snake
known as a Lycodon or "Wolf-snake". They are very common in Laos and
Thailand and thankfully non-venomous. Despite these facts, it would have given
anyone a fright. Funnily, many of the group who were previously pro-squat
toilets are now reconsidering their choice of toilet - having to swallow their
pride and join the darkside (us lads who regularly frequent the Blue Lagoon).

The days seem to be going quickly now that we are busy with the
construction projects aka tables and chairs. They look really good painted up
in traditional indigenous Australian designs.

Thanks must go to Ms Walkom who has taken a strong lead on this
(as the artist in residence), all of the girls who have taken time to provide
careful attention to detail, in return they receive colourful fingernails. Gabi
and Cameron turned half smurf following their morning session. Somehow Grace
painted without getting any paint on her hands or face, despite hours of
intense pressure as the result of painting with Zoe who is clearly suffering
from O.C.D. or being a perfectionist. Probably not the best decision to give
her thousands of dots which all need to be the same size in a particular order.
Adding to her woes, the paint brushes are difficult to control, just like
driving a challenger tank!

Jarrod and I continued on with the construction projects, the
tables were completed leaving the storage of the laptops as the priority. We
designed a unit which we feel will not only provide the appropriate level of
security, but also many features that will allow for charging the laptops
without removing them from the storage.

The group are currently teaching their last classes. I'm sure many
of them will miss the students under their direct supervison, however; I know
they won't be missing the hours of planning and preparation. Many now recognise
that teaching isn't just an 8:30am - 3:10pm profession!

The next few days will be very exciting for the group as we will
complete an overhaul of the Community Centre which is shaping up well.

Nicholas Sward

Day 12: Making Resources

Today was all about getting down and dirty...we had several
projects on the go, including building the tables and chairs, treating the wood
with termite protection (quite a problem here at the Sae Lao Project) and
painting the chairs.

Ms Walkom, Joanna and Gabi took a ride into town with Am and Vix
to collect more resources, they returned a few hours later loaded to the brim
with volleyballs, more paper, whiteboard erasers, new mats for the learning
environment and cushions for the reading area which has been established by
GGHS! Great job ladies!

There was a buzz around the group today, my gut feeling is that
the team is enjoying the creative roles that the new jobs entailed. Jarrod and I
spent most of the day cutting and nailing timber, Ms Walkom and Joanna dug deep
and took one for the team. Painting the chairs in black seemed like a good idea
at the time. Poor Joanna was distraught once she took a look at her black
finger nails!  Zoe and Grace took the easier option today and lacquered up the wood which was expertly cut up by two great
blokes.

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Gabi, Cameron and Bec supported each other to carry over the mud
bricks (by hand) to the new volunteer tree house in readiness for construction.

We all got very excited at lunch today, the cooks did fresh,
hand-made spaghetti! Yum, however; there could have been more of it.

The weather has been much cooler than our first few days, quite
comfortable to work in.

I've got to go now as I'm being over-run and attacked by loads of
bugs, which Cameron and Zoe are finding quite amusing...instructing the bugs to
attack me is not a good move when Karma is at the forefront of the Buddhist
culture!

Nick Sward

 

Day 11: No rest for the wicked!

Jarrod and Cameron followed their usual ritual of a 5:15am swim, despite
it being Sunday. Days of the week mean very little in place like this. We have
a routine which consists of swimming (for some), breakfast duties from 7am -
7:30am which includes feeding the pig and cleaning out the pen, cooking the
group breakfast, watering the garden, collecting the filtered water, turning
over the compost, cleaning the toilets and showers and sweeping the Community
Centre and restaurant. These duties are usually switched up each day and shared
among the group.

After breakfast, we divided up the remaining chores which included
making mud bricks, new chairs and tables for the teaching area, collecting pond
mud for the herb garden, turning over the compost and vanishing. Jarrod and I
took the lead on the cutting of timber for the chairs, ably supported by Ms
Walkom, Grace and Bec who applied termite protection and sanded the wood.
Jarrod qualified as the lead carpenter as he got a B grade in Woodwork. The
tools here are prehistoric, creativity is the key to working effectively with any
construction work. Instead of "pass me the Bosch", it's "hand me
the bamboo thing with the straight edge".

Zoe, Cameron and Joanna drew the short straw. They had no choice
in the matter as they were working with a volunteer named Robin. He is a Swiss
man on an Internship and won't take no for an answer. The beautiful pond became
the battle ground for our young students as Cameron braved the cold, leech
invested water all in the name of pond mud. Waist deep in the pond was no
laughing matter. It was Zoe to follow next, lapping up the chance to spend some
quality time with Zoe, who is a known associate in and out of school. Not to be
out done, Joanna joined the other two to make the three amigos, although Joanna
didn't break any records only entering the water to the height of her big toe!

Gabi ably assisted in the compost pit, recycled waste which is the
bio-friendly remnants of the squat toilets. The methane gas is collected in a
dome and used to support the heating and cooking requirements in the kitchen. A
real workhorse and not one to whinge about getting all the cushie jobs.

After such an eventful morning, I rewarded the group with a 9km
round trip hike to a local mountain. All of the group except Joanna, Cameron
and Ms Walkom chose this option, those instead choosing to remain at Sae Lao
Project to complete jobs.

Writing about this won't do it justice, however, I will try.

The initial walk takes about 30 minutes and passes through three
local villages. These are remote villages were old school customs still exist
and everything is done by hand. The laboring tasks are obvious to the eye,
makeshift tractors run by lawnmower engines, families pilled on the back
heading to the rice fields, chickens roaming the jungle, followed by a litter
of pigs. The women in the village sit patiently attempting to sell their
handwoven scarfs which are surprisingly cheap. Their huge weaving looms are
handmade using locally resourced materials and are often passed down the
generations. Granddaughters can be seen learning their craft too.

The hike began as a steep section and remained this way for 90% of
the 45 minute hike up. By this stage, the temperature was around the 35 degree
mark. The sweat was rolling down our faces as the pace slowed to a military
style affair, one step, one arm at a time.

Although there were few views on the way up, the untouched jungle
weaved its magic and reinforced how lucky we were to be in this wonderful
environment. The jungle canopy began to open up and we knew we were close to
the summit. We came across a fake summit with some excellent views. Grace was a
little disappointed as she truly believed we had reached the pinnacle of the
walk. A further 5 minutes and we had conquered this gem of a mountain. We took
it in turns making silly faces and admired the view. Jarrod immediately entered
into his Man vs Wild mode and started filing his nails with his Rambo knife to
impress the ladies.

We reflected on how lucky we were to have such great views and how
hard work pays off in the end. There was some further talk about how we would
love a Mars bar or even something really bad for your health like fast food.
With this conversation out of the system the focus was on how we could safely
descend. Jarrod put away his Rambo knife and we were on our way. 30 minutes later
we were at the entry to the walk and enjoying a cold ice tea or Pepsi.

We had been all cultured out and reverted to what we know best,
Western food, namely a sugar fix!

We returned the way we had come, inspired by Jarrod's act of
bravery and the vista that appears in any direction you care to look. As soon
as we arrived back at Sae Lao Project, we picked up where we had left off,
completing a few more clay bricks and chairs.

We have asked if we can purchase some more hammocks which are
"Silverback rated" to handle my extra muscle in the hope that there
won't be a repeat of the other day. Hopefully the local market might have
something I can try out.

Nicholas Sward

Day 10: Sae Lao Project

There is no teaching on the weekend, therefore were decided to
head into Vang Vieng to enjoy a well-deserved lunch feast. The weather was wet
and wild overnight and we awoke to lots more puddles. The ground near us is
clay based, hence lots of orange hands and legs. Zoe won this competition hands
down, she joined myself and Jarrod in returning our hired mountain bikes back
into Vang Vieng. We knew it would be slow going, with all of the bumps now
mini-lakes and the hard ground soft clay. However, Zoe had a blow out, not of
the tyre variety but her thong. She and Jarrod walked the final 3kms into Vang
Vieng, Zoe in bare feet and Jarrod acting as her knight in shining armour.
We usually take the short cut along the edge of the Nam Song and over
the bamboo bridge in order to avoid paying the 15 000 Kip toll. Much to our
disappointment, the overnight rain had caused the river to swell considerably,
cutting off our lifeline to the bamboo bridge. A solution was sought and we
managed to jump a bamboo fence and save the day. We joined our usual
thoroughfare to the next obstacle! We arrived to find the bamboo bridge was cut
off from the edge of the river, divided by about 5m of water about knee deep.
We crossed this section quickly and arrived in time to return the bikes. Zoe
was able to purchase $3 Havianas to replace her blow out.

We met with the rest of our team for lunch by the river. By this
stage the weather had cleared inviting super views of the surrounding limestone
karsts and Nam Song, and of course the WIFI was again a hit with the kidlets.

The remaining afternoon was spent looking around the shops, mostly
clothing, jewellery and shoes. A few of the group purchased some of the above
said items, with the addition of a couple of chocolate bars to aid their sugar
fix.

Jarrod, Bec, Zoe, myself and Ms Walkom appeared late at the Blue
Lagoon to enjoy a leisurely swim and customary laugh at the antics of the
Koreans who come in their droves to picnic and swim themselves.

With many of the volunteers now finished up, we cooked dinner
ourselves tonight. Grace, Gabi, Jarrod, Zoe and I were responsible for the
preparing and cooking of the potato fritters. Grace was extremely excited by
her expert chef skills, citing "this is my greatest accomplishment in life
so far". Gabi held the pole position on the frying pan and led from start
to finish. Zoe, Jarrod and I were the wingmen and women. Jarrod accidently
knocked over the pepper pot, shortly later he was spotted by Grace sniffing up
the pepper as he didn't want to waste it. This just goes to prove the caring
side of the guy, no waste, no mess.

Grace and Joanna took the lead last night, both would make
excellent reporters, keen to do anything to sell papers, including telling
fibs. Good on them for having a go. I 'm not that bothered as I know the
intelligence of our readers will be able to see through their stories. We spoke
about what would go on the blog and a mantra was created - "If it's not on
the blog, it never happened!" I guess they took this literally.

We were hoping to do the tubing again today, however; the river
was flowing way too fast and it would have been hard to catch up to Gabi, Bec
and Ms Walkom who like to lead from the front. Joanna on the other hand, will
always be found at the back impersonating a nodding dog!

Tomorrow we hope to climb one of the local limestone karsts. At
the top is a magnificent house which gives 360 degree panoramic views of the
area. Allegedly, the walk takes 45 minutes to reach the top, will feedback on
this benchmark tomorrow if we are lucky enough to get there.

We are almost halfway through our time at Sae Lao Project.
Reflecting with the students has been exciting and enlightening. They all
report that they respect the little things that they take for granted like tv,
phones, food, toilets, showers, their own bedroom. The project is designed to
be basic, with the simple life at the forefront of the experience. I hope this
isn't just rhetoric and they have all been inspired by the experience thus far.

Ms Walkom, Jarrod and I took a walk into the local village
yesterday evening. This experience was somewhat surreal, whole generations of
families sitting around eating together. The children always seem so happy, yet
they have so little, unlike many of our Australian counterparts. The children
are never alone,  hoards of them wander
around together, inventing and creating games that they can all play! It's sad
in one way as this seems to be an area of Australian society that has suffered
most from our progressiveness and fast paced lifestyles.

Nicholas Sward

Day 9: Grace and Joanna here to bust the myths reported by Mr Sward.

Today has been rather quiet in comparison to our other days over
here. We were all awoken early this morning to the sound of heavy rain pounding
on our tin roof. This was a nice change from our usual rooster awakening at
1am. Unfortunately the weather didn't excuse us from our daily chores but it
did stop us from washing our clothes which we desperately need to do. Today we
cleaned out the Community Centre, collected Banana leaves for cooking,
lacquered the long-term volunteering quarters, made more mud bricks and cleaned
the kitchen. Tomorrow and Sunday are rest days with no teaching, however; we
will need to do our morning chores.

After lunch some of us went down for a quick swim in the Blue
Lagoon whilst others took the opportunity to have a not so quick nap, namely
Joanna. Although we are all extremely exhausted from our disturbed sleep we all
have the motivation to push through our chores with the reward of tubing again
tomorrow within our reach.

Mr Sward has very much enjoyed using this blog to expose all the
embarrassing, exaggerated truths about each of us. For example, the spider that
was the size of a 50 cent coin only seemed that size to him as he was too far
away out of pure fear to come any closer to see the real size which was about
the size of our hands. His infatuation with Jarrod has obviously become as
clear to all you blog readers as it is to us here and yes we do find it strange
but entertaining as well.

Mr Sward likes to keep his own embarrassing truths secret like
when we went tubing and he got beached on a rock in the middle of the river and
struggled to get off for 15 seconds. Then he lost his bag of belongings and had
to try and swim his tube back to retrieve them. He is also a fan of taking naps
in the hammocks in the common area which becomes entertaining for the rest of
us, especially when his hammock suddenly drops from the poles as he likes to be
high off the ground as to rock himself to sleep, hence startling him awake.

Overall, we are all really enjoying the trip so far and we always
manage to have quite a few laughs throughout the day, no matter what the
situation is. We have already experienced so many new and exciting things and
there is only more to come, we can't wait!

There have been a number of extra volunteers here at the moment
which has meant that access to the WIFI has been difficult. With most of them
going over the next few days, hopefully this will make it easier for us to keep
in touch.

Day 8: Vang Vieng and Tubing

Today was Buddha Day. Although we still taught the students, we
had the morning free. It was a quick decision to go tubing. Jarrod and I rode
the 7km on the mountain bikes we hired yesterday. As we were ahead of the
group, who consequently were driven in by Tut-tut and arrived about an hour
after us, we scouted out some good tubing deals and enjoyed a cheeky fresh
mango juice while we waited. During this time, Jarrod asked lots of questions
and I gave sensible advice, mostly about how to shave effectively and stuff
like that.

As we had yet to enjoy any breakfast, this became another of our
jobs. We found a lovely joint which Mr Wilson and I had eaten at in January on
our risk assessment visit. Not sure whether the girls enjoyed their breakfast
or repeats of "Friends" in English more!

Cameron was again on fire...today she asked "are we going hot
water ballooning?". That was an easy question - "No", not sure
what hot water ballooning would be like but I'm sure it's not as safe as hot
air ballooning.

After breakfast we collected our big tyre tubes and were driven
about 6km out of Vang Vieng and dropped off by the Nam Song. Talk about going
back in time...as we entered the river bank, two giant water buffalo were
swimming only metres from the group, clearly enjoying the opportunity to escape
the afternoon sun. The daytime temperatures have reached in excess of 34
degrees each day, luckily today the humidity was low, making the cruise down
the mighty Nam Song relaxing and peaceful.

Lots of screams and cheers as the group set off into rapids which
were flowing fast on the outside. Only a few of us managed to get deep enough
to catch these from the start, however; it wasn't long before the group
gathered within talking distance again. The pace slowed in patches and it was
necessary to exert some force through the bicep and tricep, much to the dismay
of Joanna, Grace and Gabi who were more adept at sleeping! For Jarrod, it was
another opportunity to get his guns out and impress the ladies with his sound
technique. I had to wear my sunglasses, not to avoid the reflection of the
water but to admire Jarrod's technique too. It was all too much for Ms Walkom,
she bolted to the front and remained there to avoid having the same dilemma.

We used dry bags to keep the valuables in, these floated behind
the tubes, attached by some bungy cord.

Zoe and Cameron were back markers by choice, it was noted that
they were in the vicinity of Jarrod for 75% of the journey, although this will
be denied once they read the blog!

We've installed a GPS tracking device on Ms Walkom's sunglasses, I
think she's lost them and found them more times that she's eaten on this trip.

Jarrod and I continue to protest against "squat
toilets". This protest doesn't involve placards or violent protests,
instead we upped the Imodium dosages to avoid this experience. Jarrod has
proven to be very good at running to the Blue Lagoon, avoiding the toll by
using SAS tactics. This involves skirting the edge of the jungle, tip-toeing past
the ticket lady and entering and exiting unnoticed. Unfortunately, Jarrod
revealed today that he has been using the female toilets for the past 3 days.
If I wasn't there to direct this young man, he might have had a riot on our
hands from the Korean students who seem to come in their droves to enjoy this
picturesque location. Not sure who they would welcome Jarrod, however; I know
it wouldn't be pretty.

Signing out for now, tomorrow is back to normal duties. We enjoyed
the tubing so much that we are returning on Saturday to repeat it again.

Nicholas Sward

Day 7: Sae Lao Project

The students have been fully immersed in their planning for
lessons. Yesterday can only be described as a "watershed moment" for
GGHS students. They were absolutely amazing! It was a proud moment for myself and
Ms Walkom as we watched our students engaging in their teaching. Despite
their inexperience, they were passionate, enthusiastic and creative in their
pedagogy. The Lao students were getting so excited and engaged with the
learning that they were reminded to be a bit quieter! The student confidence
rose sharply as they directed the learning of the alphabet, word blends and
phrases. All of our students should be extremely proud of how they prepared and
carried out their lessons yesterday.

Ms Walkom did a quick trip into Vang Vieng today with Vix (The
Sae Lao project manager) to begin the process of purchasing resources from our
donated money. They returned armed with paper, scissors, pencils, art products,
extension cords and storage baskets.

Today was judgement day as we rolled out the 16 surface
devices in the ICT classes. The students were extremely excited as now they can
learn with a device each instead of 1 between 5.

Cameron was true to her word and was up at 5:15am, along with
Jarrod, Bec and myself, we ventured to the Blue Lagoon for our morning swim.
The water was inviting...once you were fully immersed. The days are warm,
however; the mornings are fresh with dew on the ground and temperatures under
10 degrees common place.

Cameron purchased some water for a very competitive price. She
couldn't wait to brag about how cheap she got it and let others know to shop
where she did. It wasn't until she went to open it and take her first mouth
full that she noticed that it had 5% written on it. She took a sniff and found
out that she had just bought vinegar!

This morning myself, Jarrod and Zoe went into Vang Vieng after
breakfast to hire mountain bikes. With all of this excellent food, we feel that
some exercise is in order!

Nicholas Sward

Day 6: Sae Lao Project

We woke early to the sound of roosters crowing and birds
singing...and someone on the upper floor stepping on a frog!

By 7am we were all at our meeting point to be assigned morning jobs.
The volunteers take it in turns cooking breakfast, cleaning the pigs, sweeping
the communal areas including the toilets, showers, community centre and
restaurant.

After breakfast, we get more jobs around the project which
included gardening, carting rocks for the herb garden and making mud bricks!

These jobs were complete by about 11am and with these completed
we were able to all head to the Blue Lagoon to enjoy a 30 minute swim and
relaxation by the wonderful water hole.

We had traditional Lao lunch, which includes the stable (rice)
dishes. The students are now with the Education manager (Claire) preparing for
their planning phase for today's lessons. They will hopefully get some more
time shortly to enjoy the cool waters of the Blue Lagoon before heading into
their next lesson at 3:45pm.

More pictures and updates to follow!

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Day 5: Vientiane - Sae Lao Project

We are so excited to finally be at the Sae Lao Project. We left
Vientiane at 8am, albeit a few minutes late as an unnamed student believed they
had lost their passport. What they didn't know is that I had already stumbled
across it, strategically placed under a cushion on the sofa. With this comes a
lesson learnt - don't trust the teachers!

The private minivan was a great option, inviting good conversation
and lots of laughter, mainly at the expense of Joanna who is very trusting of
what others say. The scenery changed dramatically about 2 hours out of
Vientiane, the road became steeper and the journey slower. With this, however,
came the most beautiful villages, busily going about their daily routines. We
started spotting wild buffalo, much to the amazement of several students who
were keen to capture a glimpse of their first buffalo! At this point, Joanna
began to get excited. Pointing at what clearly was a brown cow, claiming she
had spotted a buffalo. We still don't know how she came to this conclusion but
it did provide more entertainment as the group started pointing out the
Pyramids of Giza and Mount Everest to her. The word gullible comes to mind!

We arrived just after lunch and were transited to the Sae Lao
Project in the back of a working ute. The 7km trip was bumpy, however; the
scenery made up for all of the bumps and inconvenience of holding in your
stomach muscles and arching your back to avoid contact with the side of the
tray.

We were given a quick brief before getting stuck straight in to
the teaching. The first group arrives at 3:45pm each day. This session is
designed to be an introduction to English and involves lots of games. We used the
frisbees to encourage teamwork and trust - a great ice-breaker for our students
to prepare for their next class which they were able to teach in pairs. Our
students were amazing, Joanna chose to teach on her own, not one class but two.
We are very proud of her for opting to step out of her comfort zone!

The evening entertainment wasn't complete. At about 8:00pm there
were screams coming from the top floor (student sleeping area). Jarrod quickly
negotiated the 20 steps from the top floor and woke me up - "Sir, we have
a big problem". This sounded important so I gave this job to Ms Walkom.
Upon arriving at the bunk area, there were 6 girls and Jarrod all pointing to
the roof where a huntsman was happily going about its business. The girls were bunched
up behind Jarrod who happily took on the role of Superman to protect them from
this vicious, harmful situation. Unfortunately, this didn't happen, instead it
was Jarrod who was crouched in the foetal position behind the 6 girls crying
out for help! To rub salt into the wound, the spider resembled a 50c piece and
not the "plate-sized" monster depicted in the description to Ms
Walkom.

Nicholas Sward

Day Four - Vientiane - Cooking Class

Embracing a new cuisine is something that I really enjoy about
travelling, I have learnt a lot from trying new foods even if they are not very
palatable. It was so satisfying to see and hear the students enjoying the food
so much, some even put to bed their pre-conceived notion of what they
might find palatable and challenged this concept. We made several traditional
dishes following some interesting sights and smells at the morning market. We
saw everything from frogs, chicken feet to fish guts and even pink duck eggs!
The market was informative and gave perspective to everyday life as a Laotian.

The cooking course happened away from the market at a quaint
back garden of the cooking host - Nouk, who was inviting and friendly. Her
business is located on the Mekong River several kilometres from the centre of
Vientiane, overlooking the border with Thailand.

We prepared all of the fresh ingredients separately, however; we
ate as a group, sharing the delicious smorgasbord of gastronomic delights. My
personal favourite was the Lao Lap wrapped in Banana leaf. The traditional
method of cooking was explained and utilised, no cheating here folks with gas
or other methods, just good old-fashioned coals.

Sharing such an experience with students from GGHS was
delightful. We didn't stop laughing again today, Zoe declared that she has a
"neutral smile" therefore has been dubbed "Switzerland"
known for their fence sitting. Jarrod aka "Mildog" has been
invaluable, always there to clear up the girls scraps and be on hand to protect
them from any mozzies.

We stopped to book the VIP van for Vang Vieng on the way back
from the cooking course. We get picked up at 8am tomorrow morning and should
arrive in Vang Vieng just after 11:30am. The plan is to have an hour to look
around VV before being collected and transported to our home for the next two
weeks - the Sae Lao Project.

This afternoon was free time to pursue more sleep or
sightseeing. Several students chose to join me on a walking tour of Vientiane. We
saw lots of Wat's, monks and a massive statue of a King of Laos. As we
completed our little tour, we took time to sit down and reflect on the past
couple of days. The conversation is always full of laughs and not too much
serious discussion about school or whether Jarrod has a girlfriend.

We'll be taking it easy tonight, early to bed is the likely
scenario. I'm not sure how the wifi will cope tomorrow with our group, however;
I will attempt to write updates daily. I hope you're enjoying these, It's fantastic
to think that you have given your children such a brilliant opportunity!

Nicholas Sward

Day Three - HCMC to Vientiane

Today really does highlight how big Australia is. We travelled by
plane just 30 minutes and landed in the capital of Cambodia (Phnom Penh) to let
off some passengers. The transit was brief, only 20 minutes before boarding
again to complete the 1 hour flight to Vientiane.

The visa process has been smooth, however, Grace was the last
through customs at HCMC airport. Grace looked a little concerned as she stood
waiting for what seemed like an eternity, in reality it was only 5 or so
minutes. Not surprisingly uncommon when you are still using Amstrad computers
and Commodore 64's as your desktops.

The flight from HCMC was delayed 30 minutes. This gave us a chance
to sit around chatting as a group which was enlightening with lots of good
banter and laughter, mainly at the expense of Zoe as Cameron sent snap chats of
Zoe's "party" face. Not to be outdone, Zoe responded swiftly with a
Casper gag.

First impression of Vientiane, quiet, subdued with a hint of
charm. In vast contrast to HCMC as has been described before. We
arrived at night time, so shall hold off on a verdict until tomorrow when
we spend the morning at the market collecting fresh ingredients for our Laos
cooking session where students will prepare and cook a range of traditional
Laos food. The caveat is that we get to eat what is made, I'll be making a
b-line for anything cooked by Jarrod, that boy knows his food, more importantly
can eat like there's no tomorrow.

An early start seems to be the flavour at the moment. Tomorrow
morning we get a lie in as the pick up time is 8am. The location of the cooking
is well documented as one of the most amazing riverside sceneries along the whole
of the Mekong, cannot wait!

Closing in on 11pm here, must try to get some sleep. Stay tuned
for the next update,  bound to be on a full stomach!

Nicholas Sward

Day Two - HCMC

Good evening everyone. A busy day has come to an end. We started
early having met at 6:30am in the Skybar (for breakfast not beers).
Surprisingly, everyone was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Breakfast was filling,
the freshly cooked omelettes were a winner for most of us looking to play it
safe.

We were picked up promptly at 7:00am by Les Rives, the tour
company. The transfer to the river took about 10 minutes. The Saigon driving
technique still hadn't improved over night. We hopped aboard with excitement at
the proposition of a speedboat ride along the mighty Saigon River for 1 hour. A
spread of food, fruit and drinks awaited us as we sped forth towards the Cu Chi
tunnels. Luckily we had a fantastic guide (Nguyen) who used to work for Vietnam
Airlines and had a great command of the English language. With English no
longer a barrier, the students (and of course Ms Walkom) bombarded Nguyen with
a heap of questions to keep him on his toes. As promised, we arrived at Cu Chi
exactly 70 minutes after departing Saigon. One major advantage of this tour was
that we arrived before most other tour companies; with few tourists around,
less rushing about equaled greater benefits.

The tour itself dealt with many atrocities along with examples
of a very creative approach to waging war against an enemy which had many
technological advantages over the VC and NVA.

Every time a gun went off at the shooting range, the echo
bellowed out across the hill top. It was easy to imagine how it must have been
for both sides locked in gun battles.

We finished up at Cu Chi with a fantastic traditional lunch
spread including crumbed fish, seafood salad, spring rolls (yum), Pho, Chicken
salad and a selection of amazing local fruits which were in season. One request
we asked of the students was to try new foods. This was certainly the case with
even some of our pickier eaters raging war against new foods in an attempt to
impress each other.

We arrived in HCMC at 1pm. The company were kind enough to
transfer us directly to the War Remnants Museum. For many, this was a harrowing
experience. The museum is deliberately set up to shock, and this is exactly
what many saw in the vast array of pictures from the war, most, if not all
highlighting the atrocities that took place. War is ugly and this is summarised
beautifully by what we witnessed today.

Jarrod was in his element today, every second Vietnamese teenage
girl wanted a photo with him - we asked why and were told that his smooth,
moisturised skin was irresistible.

Cameron was at her usual best with lots of relevant questions
and the odd brain fade. At lunchtime she complained of losing $30, only for me
to notice that it was still in the same pocket, just slightly covered by the
fabric of her shirt.

Bec is Ms Organised, whilst Grace and Gabi just won't stop
smiling, even when it poured for 15 minutes!

Zoe and Joanna are the sensible students. Always on time and
ready to take on any challenge thrown at them.

We ate out tonight at a traditional Vietnamese BBQ restaurant
about a 15 minute walk from our hotel. Located on the 3rd floor, we ate like
Kings and Queens for a fraction of the price for a similar meal in Australia.
To top it off, directly below the restaurant is Fanny's, a famous ice-cream and
cake shop with a menu to die for!

It's been another busy day, however; the students and staff have
continued to enjoy each others' company and the sights, smells and sounds of a
city that won't rest. Please take time to view the photos on the blog site, a
sample of what we've experienced so far.

Take care, signing off.

Nicholas Sward

Day One

airportWe arrived safely to HCMC as scheduled. This city never stops,
as we all found on the drive into District 1 from the airport. The only
question that was repeatedly asked was "are there any road rules?".
Clearly not, as hundreds of mopeds (all carrying at least 2 people, some 4
people) weave around taxi's and minivans, organised chaos but it seems to work!

Also noticeable was the heat...a different heat than most of us
are used to. As one student described it - it's like walking into a sauna and
staying for 12 hours.

We checked into our hotel room before heading out to familiarise
ourselves with the location, which by the way, is perfect. All the group seem
happy with their rooms, the 6 girls are in triple rooms on the top floor. Not
far to walk for them in the morning with breakfast being served on the same
floor.

Tomorrow morning is an early start (7am), the Cu Chi Tunnel VIP
speedboat tour begins at 7:30am and finished around 1:30pm. More news to
follow, time to turn in for the night.

It's been non-stop giggling all the way from the airport to the
hotel, definitely have some tired members of the team.

Nicholas Sward