3

Farewell North Shore, Oahu…

Last Thursday when I placed our order for 2 cheese pizzas at the Wicked Hi pizza stand, the lady taking our order smiled at me and said “I love that your family comes here every week.” I smiled back and replied “yeah, but sadly this is our last week coming here. After 6 incredible months in Oahu we head back to the mainland end of this month”…

As I walked away a wave of emotions washed over me. This was the first time it actually hit me that our time here is almost up.

While I’m excited to be going back to our beautiful home in Marin and can’t wait to catch up with all of our friends, I know that I’m truly going to miss living on the North Shore of Oahu.

Here’s my compilation of the top 10 things I’ll miss most:

1. Perfect weather every day
Having lived in a range of climates, I can definitively say that I love warm weather the best. I know some people need to have their seasons, but for me, warm and sunny every day is perfection. And that’s what you get living in Hawaii. Now, admittedly we did have a handful of rain drenched days during the winter, but for the most part, every day here over the last 6 months has been ~27 degrees celsius (~81 Fahrenheit) and sunny. Can’t be beat!

2. Thursday evening pizza picnic at Waimea Valley Farmer’s Market
One lovely weekly ritual for the family was to visit the Waimea Valley Farmer’s Market every Thursday afternoon and having a picnic in the lush surroundings. We’d bring a bottle of red wine (thank you wine club membership at Haleiwa Bottle Shop!) and a picnic mat, and then we’d go order from the food vendors in the market. Our favorite (as you may have picked up from the intro) was Wicked Hi’s sourdough pizza’s (a must have for the kids), but Christine and I also branched out to indulge on pasta, burgers or poke salads depending on our mood.

But what I loved most about these weekly picnics wasn’t just the food, but the beautiful atmosphere. Waimea Valley is a breathtaking setting with lush greenery and giant trees. And the sight of children coming together to play tag, hide and seek or climb trees is truly special.

3. Finishing work by 3pm
I’m not going to lie but the 3 hour time difference between Hawaii and SF was tough at times, particularly with 5am board meetings. But on the flip side, it also meant that I was done with meetings most days by 2pm and could switch off not much past 3pm. It really allowed us to have two parts of our day: working and playing. It really made life feel much more balanced.

4. Finding mangoes on our morning walks
Early in our stay, Christine and I saw a sign that said: “Watch out for falling mangoes.” We looked up at this tall tree that didn’t appear to have mangoes and we asked each other “Is this a joke? Do mangoes really grow on tall trees like this? I thought they grew on bushes…”. Well, fast forward a couple of months and while on our morning walk not far from our house we stumbled upon a half eaten mango on the ground that a wild chicken was pecking at. I didn’t think much of it at first, until I noticed a second and then a third mango on the ground. I looked up, and lo and behold it turns out mangoes do in fact grow on tall trees!

Mango tree! (Look closely!)

Best thing about having mango trees near your house….. free mangoes!! (so long as you can get to them before the chickens peck at them first!).

5. Sushi in “town”
It’s funny how every place you go, there are references for various other places as “the city” or “town.” On Oahu, Honolulu is “town.” And while I’m glad we chose to live outside of “town” to get more of a low key, chilled setting while living in Hawaii, I’m also glad we had access to Honolulu given the number of amazing world class restaurants there (a major advantage of Oahu vs. other islands). But if there’s one cuisine that Honolulu really excels in, it would have to be sushi. No doubt a result of the large Japanese population and Japanese connections, there are a number of outstanding sushi restaurants and izakaya’s. Our favorites: Sushi Izakaya Gaku, Sushi ii, Izakaya Torae Torae, and @sushi. All wonderful! We also wanted to try Sushi Sho and Sushi Sasabune but couldn’t find a time. Next time!

6. Hiro Dreams of Sushi!
On the topic of AMAZING sushi, we’d be remiss if we didn’t give a shout out to a wonderful sushi chef who came to our place not once, not twice, but three times (!!) during our stay, Chef Atsuhiro (“Hiro”) Kajita. We got introduced to Hiro through our very good friend Molly Goshorn when Molly, Joshua and their family came to stay with us. Turns our Molly went to high school with Hiro and he has since become a world class sushi chef living on Oahu. Molly and Josh gifted us an evening with Hiro when they stayed with us and we were hooked! Can’t recommend Hiro more highly!

7. Date night with help from Auntie Jay
Our many sushi date nights in Honolulu would not have been possible were in not for Auntie Jay. Auntie Jay is a wonderful lady and grandmother who lived in Waialua not far from our home. Once we discovered her, it became an almost weekly ritual to drop the kids off with her on a Saturday afternoon so that Christine and I could have a date night. What’s best is that the kids always looked forward to visiting Auntie Jay’s and getting to watch movies and playing with so many toys!

8. Our North Shore friends
Christine wrote a post on Ka Hana Pono, our kids’ preschool (which in itself deserves to be in my top 10 things I’ll miss), but one of the amazing side benefits of the preschool was the community of parents we got to know. It was a wonderful mixed crowd of people who’ve lived on Oahu for many years, to people staying for a few months like us. We will miss you all!

9. Watching the world’s best surfers on Pipeline
I remember when I was 11 years old that I had a friend who surfed called Barney, and he told me of the hallowed beaches of Waimea Bay and Pipeline, where the world’s best surfers went to prove themselves. Incredible that almost 3 decades later I would be living on this very spot, learning from the locals about the incredible intricacies (and dangers) of surfing Pipeline and witness first hand the spectacular perfect barrels of the break. A great documentary we watched that really captures the place is Momentum Generation (and another great cheesy movie that kind of captures it too is North Shore). Christine and I had countless evenings sitting on our lanai with a glass of wine, awestruck by the surfers at Pipeline. When we arrived we found out we were neighbors with pro surfer, Jadson Andre, and it was a thrill to watch him surf. We also often saw world famous surfer and Pipeline resident Jamie O’Brien shredding it on our doorstep. And we even got a glimpse of Kelly Slater out there one day too.

On topic of celebrity sightings, Christine often bumped into Jack Johnson riding his kids to Sunset Elementary on her morning runs! How cool is that?!

10. Living by the beach
Saving the absolute best to last, I’m truly going to miss living on a beach. I grew up in Sydney and lived my entire childhood and early adulthood only a stone’s throw away from the beach, but living right on the beach just can’t be beat. From hearing the thunderous winter waves from our bed at night, to the numerous quick dips in the ocean between work meetings, to the many hours we spent mesmerized looking out at the pacific horizon, the experience living here for the past 6 months has been nothing short of magical. I very much hope to make living by a beach a bigger part of our lives in the future!

4

Hula Hoop Retreat in Bali

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Friends reunion at the hula hoop retreat

Why hula hooping? One could say it all started about 9 months ago in Ibiza, a Spanish island in the mediterranean sea. It was my bachelorette weekend. Teeba, one of my close friends, had organised an incredible three days. And one of the agenda points was a hula hooping session! Back then Teeba, herself a talented hooper already, was toying with the idea of starting her own hoop company in Dubai (by now her company Flowground is a successful hoop enterprise in the Middle East!). We girls were curious to see what it was all about and Teeba was excited to test her hula hoop teaching concept with us. We ended up hooping to music on the beach during sunset. I loved the whole session. It’s like your long forgotten inner child suddenly appears. It wants to play. It wants to learn. It wants to move. Not only was the session fun and a good workout, to me it was also a form of dance. I was hooked. The next important milestone was Teeba’s wedding present to me one month later: a collapsible hoop that I could take with me on our world travels. Over the next few months I kept practicing some basic moves. I got better at it, but to be honest, my discipline faded a bit given other activities that were on Christian’s and my agenda. So when I heard about the one week intensive hula hoop retreat that my girlfriends planned to attend in Bali it seemed like a once in a lifetime opportunity. When would I ever get the opportunity again to spend one week with my best friends, fully immersing myself in the art of hooping. If not during our year off, when then? So Christian, being the incredibly supportive husband he is, and I embarked on a 40-hour journey from Brazil to Bali – and in the process throwing all of our intended travel plans in South America and Africa overboard.

Fast forward to March 2015 and here we are in Bali at the Sacred Circularities hula hooping retreat. Hooping means a lot of different things to different people, so instead of summarising my experience alone I thought it might be more interesting to learn about our individual journeys. Hear directly from Teeba, Pato, Shilpa, Christian (yes, he signed up last minute to the retreat too!) and myself on what it was like.

TEEBA

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Teeba, the chief hoop fairy of Flowground

A WEEK long Hula hoop Retreat. Sacred Circularities. Bali. My Hoop idols. My 3 closest friends (and CSW joining in last minute). A Hoop Community.

I think my brain was going to pop. I probably spent every possible (non-working) moment before the retreat day dreaming about sacred circularities, and probably drooling in the process. I just knew what to expect. It was going to be one of the best weeks of my life, no doubt: full of amazing experiences, lots of learning, and fun times with my closest friends & hoop community. An added bonus: I have never been to Bali before and been dreaming of going there for years, plus I haven’t had a vacation and barely any weekends off in 6 months as I have been so swamped with work.

Ahhhh!!! I felt like I was a kid going into a candy store for the very first time!

What I did not take into consideration is the theme of SCBali 2015, which was the year of realization. I mean… what could that possibly mean?

We start of the retreat on the wrong road literally, winding through rice fields, to arrive 30 minutes late to the opening circle, but once we get there, I feel the presence of that moment and the power of the opening circle as we all introduce ourselves and set our intentions. My intention was to really get to know & indulge in the community. I have always been someone that suffers from what they, and especially Basel [Teeba’s husband] calls “high expectations”, but my experience was just on par, including but not limited to:

  1. Insane workshops of balances, wobbles, and scorpions…
  2. Learning… to breathe, send balls of light, finally getting the chest roll, drill twins, and killer combos all the while injuring a toe (a minor injury is a given lol)
  3. Deep thought… and deep laughter moments at workshops, room balcony, bathrooms, lunches, you name it
  4. Amazing performances; and a learning to not chicken out next time and do one of my own
  5. Awakening physical moments of HoopYogini and awakening mindful moments at in-depths of my hoop idols
  6. Bonding with my closest friends, with hoopers all over the world and reuniting with a Canadian family that I never knew before
  7. Bonding with the wildlife: seeing an insect (forgot its name) dance with Caterina, and a snail eating a coconut in slooooo moooo
  8. Private sessions including a mind-opening business coaching by Jocelyn and a flow coaching by Caterina where we develop my own move based on my own flow.

Yet, there was still something off for me. I always remember professor Kaplan saying: Happiness = Reality – Expectations. It’s not that I wasn’t happy but there was something that was clearly off for me.

I had my realisation at my shamanic healing session with Malaika. I chose to do the healing due to my gastric issues, but came out of it with much more. I go into the session and pull a card called “Goddess of the Earth”, which indicates the need for grounding, and another one “Core Healing”, which I guess is self explanatory.

Funny enough, Malaika explains it very clearly in the closing circle as well. It’s as if she read my mind. I have been always the type of person who experiences new things and indulges in experiences, and cannot wait to share it with the world. I have invited 4 of my closest friends who have never really experienced the hoop and its community to join me at the retreat, and expected them to come with the same expectations that I had, which left me very ungrounded for most of the experience. Little did I know, that my lesson was, not only for this experience but for many in the past and in the future, that just being present, while allowing others to experience their own path and go through their own process, will rub off on them and the goodness will spread on its own. And it did.

To my friends, and to the community: we all came in as individuals, with different intentions & expectations… from separate environments, separates lifestyles, separate mindsets, separate communities… completely different lives all together. Yet we all bonded in this one place through each other. Through this process we were able to understand each other more, and understand ourselves more. And we came out as ONE.

At closing circle, Caterina approaches me and tells me that she has been thinking of the move that we developed together and what the intention should be behind it: grounding. With disbelief, I smile at her, share my own realizations, and tell her that my move is now officially called: Goddess of the earth. A move that I always flow with, ground myself with and will always remind me of this experience.

I end with a quote that Jaguar Mary shared “Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own Myth” – Rumi. Now I know what the year of realization means… and especially for me, and for those around me. Thank YOU for being part of my realization.

Hoop love,
Teeba Alkhudairi
Chief Hoop Fairy

PATO

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Pato

Sacred circularities… I didn’t know what to expect when I signed up for the retreat in Bali but I knew that I would have the opportunity to spend quality time with the friends I love so much so I was up for the adventure. And it was an adventure…partying under the stars until my body had no more energy, getting lost on rice crop fields whilst laughing and hardly seeing what we were walking on, meeting people from all over the world who dance sooooo freely and beautifully with their hoop partners, feeling my body exhausted after full days of concentration and learning, having quality talks with “the birds” [reference to our group of friends] in the balcony, yummy food, amazing massages … it felt like another world in the world….a world where people dance, teach each other, smile, laugh, where there is time to meditate, to feel free, to recharge….!

I hope the inspiration I got will stay with me to drive me to practice and practice until I can also be one with my hoop. I hope there will be more of this yearly experiences that help me see the many worlds there are in this world.

SHILPA

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Teeba introduced us to the hula hoop quite a few months ago but just like most things I do, I went through phases – couple of weeks where I would really practice and try to dance with it and then long “dry patches” where work/ travel/ general impatience would take over. As a result, I went into our hoop retreat in Bali completely unprepared – like a student that had only read the 1st chapter of a 500 chapter book. Plus all the meditation, healing and spiritual bonding stuff sounded weird to me.

I have always loved Bali but being there with my three HBS “soul sisters” would be an entirely special experience altogether. So even though I knew I was quite out of my comfort zone and my element, I decided on day 1 to let go of my cynicism and just go with the flow.

The entire week and experience blew my mind – it was so much more amazing than I had ever imagined it could be. In addition to spending quality time with some of my closest friends in the magical place that is Ubud, I discovered a whole new community. A community of people that are the most creative, collaborative and friendly people one can meet. I saw beautifully flowing hoop dance by teachers and students alike. I stumbled my way laughing through workshops and drills, realizing that even though I was learning only 10% of what was being taught, that was already double of what I knew before. I connected with myself and the spiritual world through deep, meaningful meditation sessions and I danced, laughed and ate with both old and new friends. This trip was something else and I could not have had better companions for the journey!

CHRISTIAN

Learning new tricks

Learning new tricks

When Christine decided she wanted to do the retreat, it crossed my mind that maybe I should join her, but I quickly decided not to because hooping isn’t really my thing. However last minute I had a change of heart. I figured that if there’s ever a time to push myself out of my comfort zone and try new things, now is the time as we take a year off to travel and broaden our horizons. And I can say emphatically, I’m so happy with my decision.

My first day at the retreat was very intimidating. Watching the other hoopers around me felt like they could be a Cirque du Soleil troupe and I felt like a fraud being in the same retreat as them. However, each of the other participants couldn’t have been more welcoming to me, helping me to learn the most basic of moves while they learned to perfect some of the trickiest of moves. Throughout the week, I was inspired by each of them and often mesmerised at the fluidity of their hooping.

What’s wonderful about hooping is that, like many other sports and games, one can get into a state of flow and feel an intense sense of happiness as they do it. I’m glad to have discovered this and excited to be hooping.

CHRISTINE

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Myself

When I reflected on the retreat the following words came to my mind: intimated, encouraged, inspired and connected. Here is why.

Intimidated, at first. Encouraged, later. Imagine you find yourself among 30+ people. You know how to keep the hoop on your hip and have a few select tricks in your box. But everyone around you seems to be a professional and puts on an incredible show. Was I at the right workshop? Maybe this was a bit out of my league? My fear, however, was short-lived. Not only did our teachers structure the sessions so that beginners could follow but the whole community was incredibly supportive. Many times during the sessions and at the hoop jams did fellow hoopers, unpromptedly, approach me and offer their guidance and support. It was during many of those interactions when I had my “aha” moments, finally getting the gist of a new trick!

Inspired. One of my personal goals for the retreat week was to continue my journey of “connecting with myself”. Now, admittedly, that sounds a bit esoteric so let me explain. I feel as we go through life we develop a certain picture of “who we are” and “who we are not”. And as part of that we are put into specific boxes, by others but mainly by yourselves. You might think you are the “responsible one, always in control”, “the ambitious one, always focused on career”, “the creative one”, “the adventurous one”, “the worrying one”, and so on. Having had a break from our life in San Francisco, I kept thinking about my own mental picture of myself. Are there any hidden sides that I never explored due to other priorities? What about personal traits that were more pronounced when I was younger that I neglected over time? And that’s where hooping comes into the picture. Every time I hoop I forget the world around me. I am just focused on the movement. In a way, it is meditative, a state of flow. The more I hooped the more I realised how much I love dance. I always liked dancing but I never realised what role it could or should play in my life. When I hoop dance I let go of all my worries and tensions. And with that comes a lot of energy. It’s a release and a recharge at the same time. The other thing that surprised me was how creative one can be with the hoop. Hooping is a way of self expression. Each participant at the retreat had their very own style. Sure, a lot of the tricks are similar, but the way people move is truly unique. Hooping lets your personality and temperament shine through. There are energetic hoopers, graceful and soft hoopers, acrobatic hoopers. It was incredibly inspiring to watch my fellow hoopers and the sheer amount of talent. It felt to me that there is no right and wrong. Hooping encourages you to explore who you are. And with that I got more confident in my own self expression, not worrying about what others might think about me. It’s a very liberating feeling.

Connected, with my friends and the hoop community. One of the highlights of the retreat was spending time with my close friends Teeba, Pato and Shilpa. Being spread across the world, every opportunity for us to connect is special. It was a first for all of us, however, to attend a retreat together. And going through this experience we got to know each other from yet another angel which was very special. The other big revelation for me was the hoop community itself: a diverse set of people with different backgrounds and outlooks on life. Yet, the hoop created an invisible bond. I could have not imagined that this community of warm and loving people would play such an important role on my own personal journey.

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Our Sacred Circularities Group!

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A special thank you goes to:

  • Teeba (Flowground) for introducing me to the hoop, teaching me how to use it and continuously inspiring me to continue this journey.
  • Jaguar Mary and the entire Sacred Circularities team for organising an outstanding program.
  • Our hoop dance teachers Babz Robinson, Caterina Suttin, and Tiana Zoumer for being awesome and incredibly inspiring! You girls rock!
  • All the other amazing teachers who helped create a meaningful experience from further hoop tricks, meditation, yoga, HoopYogini to 5 Elements dance.
  • The SC community for sharing your tips & tricks, laughing a lot, being playful and above all, for sharing your personal experiences.
2

Blissful Bali

Enjoying the view at the Bulgari Hotel, Bali

Enjoying the view at the Bulgari Hotel, Bali

If I were to use one word to summarise our 2.5 week stay in Bali, it would be “bliss.” Pure, utter, serene, “bliss.” The Balinese are friendly, happy and peaceful people; the tropical island landscape is stunning; the accommodations are luxurious; the food is delicious; massages are fantastic and incredible cheap; and then add to this mix, getting to spend time with some of our closest friends, it was clear that our stay was going to be an amazing few weeks.

You’ll recall that we hadn’t originally planned to cut to come back to Asia, however our plans changed after Christine was lured here by a hula hooping retreat (Christine will write about this separately). So we made the 40 hour journey from Rio to Bali, the longest haul either of us had ever done. We arrived into Bali 4-days before the hula hoop retreat and joined our good friends Teeba and Basel at our villa in Seminyak, Bali. I don’t know which was better, getting to see Teeba and Basel, who we hadn’t seen since Tomorrowland last July, or getting introduced to the amazing accommodation they had booked for us with our own private infinity pool, tropical garden and luxurious bedrooms (of course the answer is getting to see Teeba and Basel :)).

Arrival drinks in Bali

Arrival drinks in Bali

Basel and our beautiful villa tree

Basel and our beautiful villa tree

For the next four days, we made full use of the villa, while also taking time to go explore the island. We saw one of the most spectacular sunsets from Uluwatu, where a 11th century temple is perched on the edge of a cliff face looking south over the Pacific ocean. We also got to explore some of the jungles and canyons of the island as we abseiled down waterfalls and jumped into waterholes during our canyoning day trip. And on the final evening when Shilpa and Pato arrived, we partied the night away at one of Bali’s many beach clubs.

Chilling at the Bulgari Hotel, Bali

Chilling at the Bulgari Hotel, Bali

Cliffs at Uluwatu

Cliffs at Uluwatu

Uluwatu Temple

Uluwatu Temple

Sunset fire dance at Uluwatu Temple

Sunset fire dance at Uluwatu Temple

Basel and friend at Uluwatu Temple

Basel and friend at Uluwatu Temple

Shilpa chilling at the villa

Shilpa chilling at the villa

Hula hooping at the villa

Hula hooping at the villa

Cuddle puddle

Cuddle puddle

At the end of the four days, the girls made their way to Ubud for their hula hooping retreat while Basel and I headed off to scuba dive at Tulamben for a day and a night. It was my first night dive experience which was pretty cool. It’s kind of eery down below when you can only see along the tunnel of light projected by your torch. And also cool to see plankton glow like stars as you kick your fins.

Suiting up for scuba

Suiting up for scuba

Christian and Basel scuba diving at Tulamben Bay, Bali

Christian and Basel scuba diving at Tulamben Bay, Bali

ahem... how did that photo get in there?...

ahem… how did that photo get in there?…

After diving, Basel had to leave to return back to work, which left me at a loose end. Initially, I thought I would just take it easy and just chill in Ubud by myself. But at the last minute I was inspired to go join the girls in the hula hooping retreat and see what all the fuss was about. As I said, Christine’s going to write a separate update on the retreat so I don’t want to steal her thunder, other than to say that personally for me it was an amazing experience.

After the retreat was over, we decided to hang out in Ubud for 5 more days. Of all the places I’ve visited in Bali, Ubud is by far my favourite. While it isn’t on the beach, it nonetheless has incredible natural beauty mixed with a very peaceful vibe. It also has many great places to eat and grab a coffee, as well as a number of fantastic massage places, so it wasn’t hard to fill in the time here. One of our favourite things to do in Ubud was just roam around the lush green rice paddies.

Rice paddies near Ubud

Rice fields near Ubud

Rice paddy

Rice fields

Ubud

Ubud

On our final day we left Ubud to make our way to Balangan beach and enjoy one of our wedding gifts: surf lesson in Bali (thanks Lara and Greg!). After the lesson was over, we sat by the water, drinking our Bintang beers not wanting to leave. While our upcoming adventures in Japan excited us, it was tough to say goodbye to such incredible bliss…

1

Living like Sydney-siders

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One of the main reasons Christian and I decided to stay in Australia for two months was to spend more time with family and friends. Over the last 5 years while we’ve lived in San Francisco, we’ve typically only had time to see our families once per year, alternating Christmases in Sydney or Vienna. This year, we got to spend over a month in Vienna leading up to our wedding which was particularly nice. So adding two full months in Aussie-Land felt like the icing on the cake. Luckily, my sister and her family live in Australia as well and I was especially looking forward to spend time with my two little nephews (Jayden, 3.5 years; Lukas, 18 months) and, vice versa, for them to see their auntie for more than the occasional quick visit. I guess with kids it’s particularly apparent how quickly time passes and how much can happen in just a few months. I constantly had the feeling that I was missing out on some important parts of their childhood. Apart from squeezing in a short Outback adventure we ended up splitting the remainder of the time between Christian’s family in Sydney and my sister’s family in Austinmer. Reconnecting with Christian’s friends from high-school, university and college (i.e., Aussie terminology for student housing) was the other highlight. Our schedule was packed with fun activities from beach picnics, to leisurely lunches, kayaking, hiking, cricket and basketball games and many fun dinners. Not only did I get to know an incredible group of people, I also got a better sense for Sydney-siders, what they do, how they live and what they value in life. At times I felt like being at home in this city, not just a visitor passing by. We did not foresee that we would have such a hard time leaving as our time was up, almost feeling homesick. Here is why:

Enjoying food heaven with great company:

  • Exploring Sydney’s restaurant scene: New restaurants are spreading through Sydney like mushrooms which reminded me a lot about San Francisco. Lots of different concepts with a good mix of Australian/Western and Asian influences. Some of my favourites included Nomad (creative modern Australian dishes, fun & lively atmosphere), Porteno (Argentinian influenced, incredible grilled meats!), Ripples (perfect for lunch in the sun with stunning views of Sydney) and Mamak & Hawker (authentic Malaysian street food brought to Sydney by Christian’s university friend Alan Au). But let’s not forget dessert. There is one spot in Sydney that everyone tells you to go to for real gelato: Gelato Messina. Lines are long but the creative flavour combinations justify the wait. Heaven for ice cream lovers.

  • Indulging in delicious, home-cooked meals:
    • Our travels through Malaysia and China introduced me to the vast array of delicious Asian foods. And our culinary journey continued in Sydney where Christian’s dad Vincent cooked up some traditional Malaysian recipes. I tasted my first “real” congee for breakfast (rice porridge with a variety of condiments prepared the way that Christian’s grandfather grew up with), Rojak (exotic fruit salad with tofu, bean sprouts and prawn paste), and Char Kuey Teow (fried rice noodles).

  • On another occasion Jason, one of Christian’s university friends and true food lover, invited us over for a home-cooked meal. Little did we know that he was preparing a multi-course Korean dinner. Delicious! I’m ready to incorporate some of those Asian flavours into our recipe book.

  • Another treat was an invitation to Sophie’s (one of Christian’s university friends) for lunch together with Lara. Nothing beats good meatballs and a glass of champagne for a leisurely lunch while getting to catch up and play with the kids.

  • A special highlight was catching up with my host family from 14 years ago. Back then I came to Australia for the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. As part of the experience our group (the Olympic Youth Camp) was split up and assigned to host families for only 3 days. I was lucky to be assigned to the McGrath family in Bowral. A connection that we maintained up until now! An afternoon of good conversations and lots of laughter accompanied by delicious Aussie BBQ and wine.

  • Expanding our healthy food horizon: As a bonus of living with my sister, we also got a full immersion into “very healthy” cooking. Christian and I would consider ourselves to eat fairly healthy but my sister, who has a PhD in Nutritional Sciences, took our knowledge to the next level. She has an endless list of easy-to-cook wholesome meals with healthy, local ingredients. I rediscovered home-cooked warm breakfasts that are nutritional yet easy to digest (cooked millet with chia seed puree, fresh berries and some almonds was my personal favourite), how to prepare simple yet tasty dishes (homemade frittata, hand-rolled sushi, freshly made spelt pizza) and how to prepare some healthy desserts (e.g., raw “no cheese” cheesecake, carob balls made out of dates and nuts – no sugar or dairy added). I left Sydney with a long list of healthy eating resolutions. Travelling through Southern Chile and the Antarctic in the past few weeks, I’ve already had to compromise. It’s hard to avoid the omnipresence of white wheat bread here. Well, options are limited at the end of the world 🙂 But the plan is to pick up my resolution when we are back in the real world.

  • Enjoying a 7-course NYE dinner with friends: New Years Eve in Sydney can get crowded out on the streets. So we met up with a small group of friends and enjoyed a home-cooked 7-course dinner with wine pairing! Dishes on the menu included some Australian classics like ocean trout (looks like salmon but tastes MUCH better), barramundi and lamb cutlets. To top off the evening we enjoyed a good glass of champagne while watching Sydney’s spectacular fireworks.

  • Exploring new wine bars & remodelled pubs: Back in the day, it was hard to get a liquor license in Sydney. So typically only larger establishments were able to get a license to sell alcohol on-premise. Just recently, laws have changed to allow smaller establishments to serve alcohol. As a consequence a variety of wine bars have opened throughout the city and are becoming a new meeting point. The added benefit is that the increased competition forced the old establishments to revamp their image resulting in creatively renovated old pub buildings. The perfect mix of old and new! One of those places is Coogee Pavilion on Coogee beach – an old pub turned party parlour which combines a lively bar scene with a restaurant and a game area (life-size jenga and scrabble!). We ended up there twice with Christian’s university friends, on both occasions having a fantastic time.

  • Tasting outstanding coffee: Nothing beats Australian flat whites. Australia has a well renowned barista culture, true coffee artists, that prepare your order to perfection. The consistency of coffee throughout the country is quite incredible.

Taking advantage of Sydney’s beach & outdoor lifestyle: Sydney is unique in that it combines the urban with the beach lifestyle. The city centre smoothly merges with suburban neighbourhoods at beautiful sandy beaches. I can see why people here strive for a good work-life balance. It does make one happy to get up to the rising sun and go for a run on the beach feeling the wind on your skin and hearing the roaring ocean just a few feet away. It’s pretty invigorating to be amongst such a healthy and energetic group of people. My admiration goes especially to all the ocean swimmers out there. Doing 1k+ morning swims in the open water (many of them are legitimate races) is the ultimate level of fitness! On the weekends, the ocean walk hugging the coast from Bondi all the way down to Coogee is bustling with people. One of our outdoor Sydney highlights was a picnic with friends at Tamarama and hiking in the Blue Mountains.

Spending 24 hours alone with my sister: Living on different continents for 10+ years, I couldn’t remember when I had spent a solid number of hours alone just with my sister. Therefore, I took the opportunity to get away and kidnapped my sis to a small town called Kiama just south of Austinmer. Spending a full 24 hours together and having no time pressure for our conversations felt like a rare luxury. I realised that it’s not only family time by itself that matters, it’s also the one-on-one time with your loved ones that enables us to strengthen our bonds and truly understand each other.

Getting a crash course in bringing up kids: We got the full immersion into the life of a young family, living with my sister, Bobby and their kids. I learned how to change diapers; discovered that kids need an endless amount of food; got reminded about children’s endless imagination which caused a daily dose of healthy laughter; witnessed some unique moments (Jayden fearlessly mastering his first swim lessons, Lukas learning to catch a ball – just to name a few examples); noticed that kids are really smart and that you need to be careful what you say because they understand more than you think!; realised that there is no real “off-time” with kids; and how important it is for parents to work as a team and become the most patient people in the world. I must admit that I have a new appreciation for what it means to be a parent, and how much joy those little beings can bring to your life.

Losing ourselves in long conversations over lovely family dinners: Many of our evenings we were reminiscing about the past, discussing our current challenges, and getting excited about future ambitions. Ultimately, our conversations were a reminder that we all grapple with the same questions. What are our priorities? What are we optimising for? What makes us truly happy and how does that change over time? Our stay in Australia reminded me that a big portion of my happiness is linked to spending time with the people I love. I recently read an article about the connection of time and happiness which probably summarises my feelings the best: “Spending time with people you love doing the things you love is the best road to happiness.”. Also offers some good guiding principles for how to be more happy in our professional life!

SPECIAL THANKS: We are so privileged to have stayed with so many of our friends and family while in Sydney to save us on having to fork out on hotels. For this we send a big thank you (in no particular order) to:
* Jason To
* Bill & Veronica Marriott
* Lara Ette & Greg Kaspar
* Jen Davies
* Vincent Wong and Judy Grey
* Bobby Cheema and Verena Raschke-Cheema
2

5 decisions that helped make our wedding so special

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Christian and I are still dreaming about our wedding day four months ago. It feels like it was yesterday. I guess everyone feels that way, especially after re-playing in our heads the most special, fun and silly moments a gazillion times in the immediate post wedding days. What surprised Christian and me the most, however, was that we did enjoy every single minute of our big day. No lie. You always hear stories about “there will be moments that stress you out”, “you will miss parts of the wedding”, “it goes by too fast”, and “it’s hard to be truly present”. Yet, somehow, we had managed to enjoy every moment. Sounds a bit esoteric and unreal, I know. It actually surprised both of us as well because we wouldn’t claim we are specifically good at being zen and in the moment. So we reflected on specific decisions that helped us shape this unique day, enjoy it to the fullest and be truly present. Here is what we came up with:

1. We wrote our own ceremony and had our best friends marry us: Very early on, Christian and I knew that we wanted our wedding to be as personal as possible. We didn’t want a person we don’t know recite a text that we can’t relate to. So we made two decisions. First, we wrote our own ceremony. And second, we wanted our best friends to officiate the wedding. To get started, we brainstormed what we’d like the ceremony to be: traditional (at least for certain elements like the entrance of the bride), inspirational, emotional, personal but also a bit lighthearted and fun (with certain elements of surprise for us). We also wanted our family and friends to play an active role. I read through various blogs and stitched together a first draft that we iterated on together and with our two friends. Austrian law posed a minor challenge. You need an official registrar to marry you (friends can’t do that like in the US). Our creative solution was to integrate the registrar into our ceremony, limiting the offical part to the “must have’s” only. Our friends practically led 90% of the ceremony but we’d still be able to get officially married. It was a magical 45 minutes. Some highlights included: having my cousin perform the processional and recessional music on classical guitar; standing next to our best friends “at the altar”, and hearing them talk about the meaning of marriage and surprise us with thoughts from the wedding party about us as individuals and as a couple; personally thanking our parents for everything they did for us in our lives; having two married couples come upfront to give us practical advise about marriage; singing a Beach Boys group song together; saying our own personal vows; and jointly laughing over funny (and wise!) Whinnie the Poo quotes. I’m so glad we invested time in the crafting our own ceremony. The process itself was very fulfilling and it made the ceremony more meaningful and memorable.

2. We started the day separately and only saw each other “at the altar”: The idea of not spending the pre-wedding night and morning together always sounded very romantic. When it came down to practicalities, however, I preferred to take our wedding photos before the actual ceremony so that we could extend our time with guests during the cocktail hour. But Christian wasn’t very fond of this idea. So we went with the traditional path. I’m so glad we did as it made the ceremony even more special. I stayed in the hotel the night before the wedding. Christian stayed in our Vienna apartment. When I woke up, I couldn’t wait to read a personal note from Christian. We both gave each other a short letter the day before. It was early in the morning, the sun was rising, it was quiet. And here I was reading some lovely words from my husband-to-be. It was very special to have this moment to myself, being able to enjoy the serenity of it. Funnily enough, we both told each other in our letters to “enjoy every moment of our special day and be present” and “not bother about little things”. I would think about those words throughout the day and the mental framing made a real difference. Also, having some alone time in the morning with my mum, my siblings and two of my best friends created a special bond. Christian had a similar experience, spending the morning with his best friends. All together the morning created an exciting anticipation for the ceremony. And there is nothing more special (and emotional) than walking down the aisle, seeing your husband-to-be for the first time (and vice versa).

3. We made our first dance a bigger, joint project: Every Viennese Ball needs a Viennese Waltz. We needed to step up our dance routine (or develop one in the first place 🙂 ). Instead of doing a quick choreography we decided to go all in and properly learn how to waltz. Not only did we want to enjoy our first dance but also truly immerse ourselves in the classical ball part of our wedding. So we signed up for 10 dance lessons at Val Cunningham’s Dance Loft in San Francisco. What started as a tactical, goal-oriented venture turned into a really enjoyable process of learning a life skill together. And learning how to waltz was like couples therapy. Personalities shine through, moods impact your dancing. Luckily, Val is a great teacher – a therapist and dance instructor in one! It was a great learning experience about us as individuals and as a couple. And besides learning a new skill, we morphed our weekly dance lessons into proper date nights (that we protected from work committments). Being ambitious and a bit nerdy, we kept up the dance practice after the lessons were over. While we improved the dancing, we also kept telling ourselves that the main point is to have fun at our first dance. So we made the pact to call each other out and make each other smile if we’d get too serious or nervous. And that turned out to be key for our first dance. Knowing myself (I’m not a big fan of performing in front of crowds), I thought I’d contemplate about the dance all day long and get all nervous. But it was just the opposite. I didn’t even think about it for a second until it was about to happen. And I think there were two reasons for it. First, we were pretty relaxed because we knew from our practice runs that we could not only pull it off but also really enjoy it. And second, we also used our little, personal hints throughout which made it even more fun. I was so “in the zone” that I didn’t even notice anyone else. It was a magical few minutes.

4. We got a wedding planner (highly recommended, especially for a destination wedding): Not being from the US (where wedding planners are very common), Christian and I never thought of engaging a wedding planner. Besides it not being in our cultural make-up, it seemed an unnecessary expense. Plus, we both are good at organizing stuff so it seemed unnecessary from an organizational standpoint as well. Two months into the wedding planning things were coming along nicely, albeit slowly. The time difference between Vienna (our wedding location) and San Francisco (where we lived at that time) made coordinating with vendors incredibly cumbersome. Plus, the more we got down to the details of our “Viennese Ball” theme, the more we missed some practical and tailored advice. So we eventually decided to go for a wedding planner. We picked “Hochzeitshummel“, a well established company in Vienna, and worked directly with the owner Susanne. It might have been the best wedding related decision we made. Besides tapping into Susanne’s vast vendor network and getting additional creative advice, it was her deep experience that helped reassure our decisions and put our minds at ease. Working with us in the months leading up to the wedding she was on top of all the logistical details. We bascially just needed to sign off on decisions. More time for us to spend with family and enjoy the pre-wedding weeks to the fullest! Another key part was the day-of coordination. If we wouldn’t have taken a wedding planner, we would have definitely booked a “day-of coordinator”. For one, we didn’t want to ask a family member or friend to take on such a big task but rather have them fully enjoy the wedding and party with us. Plus, having someone professional do what they are trained to do put our minds completely at ease. We fully trusted Susanne to execute on our plan and troubleshoot where necessary. During our wedding day, Christian and I didn’t think a minute about the time or the next agenda point. Rather, we were just living in the moment, relying on Susanne to tell us what came next 🙂

5. We made a conscious decision to “be present”: Prior to our wedding, we kept asking married couples about their wedding day. Any advice they had for us thinking back to their own celebration? Almost everyone told us “You will get dragged into so many different directions. Try to take a step back, a few minutes, to take everything in because it will go by so fast”. “Don’t worry about the details.” That was some interesting food for thought. Especially for us, as we are both somewhat perfectionists and want things to go according to plan. So in the weeks leading up to the wedding we kept talking about how to be present. And we found that there is really no magical recipe. It’s all about our mental state. While we would do our best in the planning phase, we decided to not think about the execution anymore once the wedding festivities started on Friday (and left everything to our wedding planner). It was a pact. And we stuck to it. We both included a little “be present” reminder in our personal Saturday morning letters to each other. We both reminded ourselves during the ceremony (e.g., to look out over the crowd acknowledging all the people that came a long way to celebrate with us). We snuck away right after dinner for a short 5 minutes stroll around the premises to take a step back and reflect on what was happening. We had our little code words during our first dance to make each other laugh and have fun. All in all, I was really surprised by how well our “pact” worked. In the end it was all about managing expectations. I’m glad we took the advice from others on this point and consciously thought about being present beforehand.

Every wedding is such a unique celebration. There is a lot of advice out there on all the “should’s” and “should not’s”. In the end, it’s all about personal preferences and what matters to you. If I would pick only one takeaway from our wedding, it’d be to “be present and enjoy the moment”. To that end, do any preparation and engage anyone who will help you “be present” on your wedding day, and you will no doubt enjoy this special day to the fullest.

*** Special acknowledgements to all the people that helped make this day special:

  • Wedding planner: Susanne Hummel & Team from Hochzeitshummel  
  • Hair and Make-up: Stefanie Lichtenberger from Mist Stockholm 
  • Photography: Endre from Birta Photography 
  • Flowers & Decoration: Dagmar Mair from Blumenagentur 
  • Classical Orchestra: Barbara Helfgott and Rondo Vienna 
  • DJ: Axel Becker from Becker Events 
  • Dance classes: Val Cunningham from the Dance Loft in San Francisco 
  • Classical guitar during ceremony: Gudrun Otten
  • Registrar: Tanja Reifbaeck from Standesamt Moedling
  • Our “co-officiants”: Shilpa Jhunjhunwala & Paul Davison
  • Contributions during ceremony: Molly & Joshua Goshorn, Verena Raschke-Cheema & Bobby Cheema
  • Carrying of veil: Teeba Alkhudairi
  • MCs: Bobby Cheema and Martin Raschke
  • Speeches: Andreas Raschke, Vincent Wong, Shilpa Jhunjhunwala, Verena Raschke-Cheema & Martin Raschke, Paul Davison, Michelle Zatlyn, Teeba Alkhudairi & Patricia Otero
  • GoPro & Drone Video Footage: Basel Dahleh, Dan Abramson and Jamie Sutherland
  • Photobooth: David Abramson (software), Martin Raschke (design & set up)
  • And last but not least: our families and all our guests for making this an unforgettable day!
4

Wong family roots

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Wong family portrait. Back row (L to R): My grandmother and grandfather. Front row (L to R): Aunty Dorene, Uncle James, Aunty Lilian and my father

After spending 3 weeks traveling in China, it struck me that despite my Chinese heritage (i.e. the “Wong” in Sutherland-Wong), I don’t know much about who my Chinese ancestors were or why they left China. Today, all of my known extended family live outside of China in Australia, Malaysia and Singapore. While recently reconnecting with my Wong relatives in Singapore and Malaysia, I did a bit of investigation into my family history to find out more on this topic. What I learned was that a combination of major historical events along with adherence to a particular set of values have ultimately defined the path of the Wong family over the last 100 years.

From China to Malaysia

In Christine’s post on the history of China, she wrote about a particularly dark period in China’s history during the first half of the 20th century as China underwent a revolution from imperialism to a republic. It was a turbulent period as the Kuomintang and Communist Party (CCP) vied for leadership of China, until Mao and the CCP emerged victorious in 1949 (and even then, China would endure many difficult years ahead). During these years there was a mass exodus of Chinese away from China. Among them were the parents of my grandmother and grandfather (father’s side) who moved from China to Malaysia in search of a better life. It’s fascinating to think it was this period of turmoil in China that triggered a series of events that would one day lead to me being born in Australia.

My Grandmother and her parents (the Lee’s)

My grandmother is my sole living grandparent, at 91 years of age. Despite her body now being quite frail, her mind is sharp and her appetite surprisingly large for a woman who weighs less than 40kg and eats with false teeth. I try to visit my grandmother in Malaysia every few years. While she has grown frailer with each time I’ve seen her, it feels little else changes between visits. The smell of her place is always the same; a mix of incense from the Buddhist shrine at the front of her house along with the smell of cooked rice from her kitchen. And each time the smell immediately brings me back to memories of previous visits. The same photos on the walls; a couple of old family portraits along with the university graduation pictures of all of her children and grandchildren. The only updates happen when new graduation photos are added. The choice of photos offer an insight how highly my grandmother values education and family. Our relationship is good but admittedly not that deep. Language is a big barrier between us really getting to know each other; I regrettably don’t speak any Cantonese and her English is limited. However, I know she appreciates my visits and having family around.

Coming to the story of my grandmother’s family, her maiden family name is Lee (which is why my middle name is Lee). When her father, great grandfather Lee, arrived in Malaysia, he started out as a so-called “coolie” (effectively a servant labourer for the British colonists). One of the big industries in Malaysia at the time was tin. Malaysia is rich in tin resources, a valuable commodity to package tea that was being traded through Malaysia’s ports. From what my grandmother tells me, her father made a very positive impression on an English tin merchant. In her words “when the Englishman would leave his valuables out, my father would come and clean the room but not take any of the valuables. That was a sign for the Englishman that he could trust my father.” This trust seems to have led the English merchant to put great grandfather Lee in charge of a number of tin mines, ultimately making him a very rich and powerful man.

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Family heirloom – piece of tin from my great grandfather’s mine passed down from my great grandfather to my grandmother to my uncle.

As my grandmother tells me this story, it is clear that she also intends to instil in me the importance of honesty and hard work – and her belief that they inevitably lead to good things. As for great grandfather Lee, what does a rich and powerful man do in Malaysia in the early 1900’s? Well, from what I understand, one way a man expressed his power and wealth in those days was by the size of his family. In the case of great grandfather Lee, he ended up with 4 wives and around 18 children. My grandmother was the daughter of his 3rd wife (who interestingly was the sister of the 2nd wife who had passed away during child birth). Today, she is the oldest surviving member of her family.

My Grandfather and his parents (the Wong’s)
My grandfather’s side is the originator of the Wong family name. I only have a vague recollection of my grandfather from when I was around 3 years old. He unfortunately passed away not long after that. I remember him being a big man (but I guess everyone looks big when you’re 3). Looking back at old photos, he does strike me as a big and imposing man. Most of my knowledge about my grandfather comes from the stories that my dad has told me. One of my favourite ones is that my grandfather would bring home 2 whole fishes to be cooked for dinner. One fish was for him. The other was for the rest of the family to share. So as you can see, my grandfather was quite the patriarch.

As for my grandfather’s parents, they also migrated from China to Malaysia in the early 1900’s. My great grandfather had 5 sons and a daughter. After his first wife passed away he married a second time. From what I hear, the daughter from the first marriage was shunned by his second wife and so not a lot is known as to what happened to her. My great grandfather was said to be a shrewd business man and merchant. He invested in real estate, rubber estates and tin mines. Similar to my grandmother’s family, my grandfather’s parents highly valued hard work to the point where they didn’t make much time to spend with their children or grandchildren. They ultimately believed that the rewards earned from hard work (i.e providing a large inheritance) would make up for the lack of participation in day-to-day life. When my great grandfather passed away in his eighties, my grandfather took over from him and ran the family business.

My Grandparents and their family

My grandparents came together as an arranged marriage. Although I didn’t delve into details with grandmother on how the marriage worked, it seemed to have worked well enough for it to survive until my grandfather’s death. They raised a family of two sons and two daughters in the small town of Kampar, Malaysia. They had a modest life. Not necessarily poor but also not rich. Given this, it says a lot that my grandparents invested in sending my father, the eldest child, to Australia when he was 17 for his final years of high school and then university. No doubt that would have been an expensive thing to do for a modest Malaysian family. They clearly valued education and believed in investing in their children. Despite intentions for my dad to return, he never did and settled in Australia. My dad tells me that Australia offered him a quality of life and freedom he couldn’t get back in Malaysia. I think this is both a reflection of the differences in lifestyles between Australia and Malaysia, and a reflection of my father’s desire to define his own path without the constraints of a strong patriarchal figure. Similarly, his brother, James, was given the opportunity to study medicine in Australia and afterwards settled in Singapore with his family. While my uncle was studying, his older sister, Aunty Dorene, helped support him by sending him money from what she earned as a nurse. This again illustrates how highly valued supporting family is in my family. I’m also reminded of this each time I visit my Uncle James in Singapore. My uncle and his wife, Aunty Theresa, are always incredibly generous to me and find a way to celebrate my visit. One of the highlights of our recent stay in Singapore was attending a big family dinner with the relatives of my uncle, the relatives of his wife and some close family friends.

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Extended family dinner in Singapore

As for my two aunties, Aunty Dorene and Aunty Lilian, they both have remained in Malaysia. Admittedly, it sounds like the opportunities that were given to the brothers (my father and uncle) were not necessarily also made available to the daughters. I think this was a matter of practicality that my grandparents couldn’t afford 4 overseas educations but also probably due to old cultural sexism between the importance of male vs. female education. Today my aunties, along with my grandmother, live in the town of Ipoh, not far from the smaller town of Kampar where they grew up. Aunty Dorene lives with my grandmother and cares for her. Aunty Lilian lives with her husband, Uncle Steven, and their son, Joe. Each works as cook. Funnily enough, my cousin works at an Australian restaurant in Ipoh (?!). My aunty and uncle run a hawker food stand making delicious dumplings and noodles (wonton mee).

So there you have it, the story of the “Wong” side of my family: troubles in China led to a migration to Malaysia in search of opportunity; the value of honesty and hard work led to opportunity being realised; and the value of investing in education and supporting family led my father to Australia where he would one day meet my mum and I would one day be born. No doubt, when we get back to Australia in November I’ll be quizzing my mum to find out more on the “Sutherland” story. Stay tuned.

3

Making new friends

IMG_3492 (Small) One of the goals of our year-long trip is to get to know people around the world and hear their stories. Turns out that Cappadocia was a great place in that regard. We had booked a day-long tour to visit some of the main sights in the area (called the “Green Tour” that hits the Derinkuyu Underground City, Ihlara Canyon and the Selime Monstery). Upon boarding our mini-bus outside of our B&B, the Rose Valley Guesthouse, we saw a couple jump in right after us. After only five minutes on the bus, the guy turned around and asked where we are from. Turns out he, Greg, is from Australia, born in the same district of Sydney as Christian, studied opera singing and will get married this December at the same church that Christian’s parents got married at. What are the odds! Only after a few minutes of chatting, I knew we would get well along with the two of them. Hannah, who is originally from the UK but has been living in Australia for the past seven years, works in social media marketing. Greg is a teacher. Both seemed easy going, cracked jokes, shared their own stories about life and were really interested in what we were up to. What I initially expected to be a rather touristy and theory-packed day (in general, I’m not a big fan of group tours) turned out to be really fun and interesting. Not only was the tour much better than I thought (thanks to our upbeat tour guide Dennis who shared many stories about Turkey’s history and culture but also made an effort to introduce the whole group to each other) but sharing this experience with others and making personal connections made a real difference.

Even without making concrete plans to meet up again (that said, the four of us were living in the same B&B), life had another encounter planned for us! The same day after dinner in the village, Christian and I were passing a little restaurant (well, one could say it was more of a cave/barn) I saw someone waving in the corner of my eye. I almost ignored it, thinking some local wanted to lure us in for dinner or to sell us some other goods. Fortunately I did take a closer look, as it was Greg sitting there with Hannah! What was intended as a quick hello, turned into a true Turkish cultural experience. Ali, the owner of the place called “The World of Kebab” couldn’t speak much English. But turns out he had spent 30 years of his life in Germany so we were able to communicate in German (plus, Greg, who’s really into languages, speaks German as well). Ali had returned to Cavusin (the little town we stayed in next to Goreme) about five years ago. While he was ready to move back to Turkey and be closer to his family after three decades in Germany, it sounded like he was still trying to re-integrate in his little village. Having grown up in a small town myself, I can see how hard it must be to come back to a place with a well-knit community where everyone has grown up with each other. That said, Ali seemed to focus on the positive side of things. He proudly showed us how he had built a baglama (also called saz), a Turkish guitar. And a few minutes later there we were: listening to his guitar play and singing, passing around a drum so that all of us could showcase our musical talents. Curious to learn what Ali had planned with his restaurant, he showed us two adjacent cave rooms that he was renovating (formerly used as stables for animals). Not only was he going to redo both rooms by himself, he also decorated them with his own wall paintings and sculptures. It struck me that Ali was (and probably needed to be) completely self-sufficient to make his dream come true. Very inspiring to see him with such energy and enthusiasm as he was building out his small business! At the end of this special evening, we took our “running into each other” destiny in our own hands and Greg, Hannah and we decided to meet up again for a sunset dinner picnic the next day (yay, I love picnics!)

The next day we met Greg and Hannah at 6pm and assembled the last delicatessen for our picnic feast. Turns out we came up with a good spread of nuts and dried fruit, local cheese, some bread, savory pancakes (think ‘wrap’), a chicken sandwich and, of course, some local red wine. A short, steep ascent later, we were on top of the “old city” of Cavusin (ancient caves that were built into the stone walls of the hill). It was a beautiful and fun evening, enjoying a great conversation over local food while watching the sunset. We learned that Greg and Hannah just got engaged (one week after our wedding!) and are about to move to Hong Kong to “try something new” (where we may try to meet up again when we visit our friend Shilpa in September). Lots of our conversation centered on learning languages. It’s really fascinating. The topic of language learning and how to best go about it keeps coming up on our journey. So does Duolingo, an online language learning app, which seems to already have gained widespread use around the globe. If you are interested in learning a new language, stay tuned. Christian will soon write a blog post on his insights while learning German.

Cappadocia, thanks for introducing us to Greg, Hannah and Ali. I felt like I got to know the more personal side of the little village of Cavusin and made friends that we’ll hopefully meet again on our journey around the world.

3

Tomorrowland: Boom, Belgium, 2014

untitled%2520%25281%2520of%25201%2529-375 (Small)I can only recall a handful of times in my life where I’ve experienced a kind of sensory overload that has made me feel like I’ve been transported to another world (previous occasions would probably be my trip to Kolkata in 2006 and Burning Man in 2011). But that is what I felt at the Tomorrowland music festival in Belgium last week. It was another world.

In normal circumstances, Christine and I probably wouldn’t have signed up to fly to a 3-day long music festival in Belgium. Generally we prefer to spend our precious few vacation days doing romantic trips together more akin to our Sardinian honeymoon. But now that we’ve embarked on a one-year long around the world trip, when our close friends Teeba and Basel suggested we join them for Tomorrowland this year, we found ourselves saying “why not?!”

Quick background on Tomorrowland for the non-initiated (which included me as of a few months ago) is that it is one of the world’s largest (if not “the largest”) electronic dance music festivals, with 180,000 attendees. Established in 2005 by a couple of Belgian party dudes, it quickly grew from 10,000 people coming to a one day event to 180,000 people coming to a festival that spanned 3-days. Each year they sell out within a couple of hours (or sometimes only minutes) of making the tickets available. Part of the attraction is the ability for the event to attract the entire lineup of the world’s most well-known DJs (think Above and Beyond, Paul Van Dyk, Tiesto, Moby etc.). However, I’d be selling Tomorrowland short to say it is all about the lineup, because it really is much more than that. The setup of the stages, the art installations and chill-out areas are beyond anything I’ve ever seen at a music festival before. The best way I can think of describing it is to say is that it felt like Disneyland for adults (with apologies to my friend Jaime who I know would cry out “Disneyland is for adults” if he were to read this…). There’s a YouTube clip of the 2012 Tomorrowland festival that captures the spirit well that has had over 115 million views! Worth checking out.

In case that clip made no sense to you, let me explain what we got up to. Having finished our honeymoon in Sardinia, Christine and I flew to Lisbon to meet our friends Teeba, Basel, Shilpa and Jessica, along with our new friend, Rahul, who Shilpa had brought along from Singapore. While it may have been a more direct flight to go straight from Sardinia to Brussels (near where Tomorrowland is located) the reason we went to Lisbon was so that we could take the special Tomorroland chartered flight out of Lisbon (they set up several of these out of many cities from Europe. Lisbon was the only one we could tickets to).

The party plane lived up to it’s expectations. Shortly after take-off, the window shades were lowered, the cabin lights turned off, beer trolleys came out and dance music was turned on. What ensued was a dance rave at 30,000 feet. When we landed in Brussels 2.5 hours later, we all were not sure where the time went.

From Brussels we were transferred to the aptly named town of Boom where Tomorrowland is located. We commented to each other that we expected that the residents of this small town must hate having their home invaded every year by so many people. However, we were pleasantly surprised to see locals coming out of their homes as our buses passed by to smile and wave to us, many also waving the distinctive Tomorrowland flags. Later in the festival I had the chance to meet a local and asked her what people really thought. While she said not everyone was thrilled with the event, that many people did embrace it and that the organizers invested a lot in winning over the locals, including giving them free day passes to come to the event.

After the short 30 minute bus ride, we arrived at the location on Thursday evening. While the majority of attendees stay at a location outside of Boom (e.g. in a hotel in Brussels), about a third of people stay onsite at Tomorrowland in the camp grounds called Dreamville. In our case, we opted for an upgrade and stayed in the Dreamlodges in Dreamville. They were described as pre-built tents, but in the end way exceeded our expectations. Having been diverted away from the masses that went to set up their own tents at the camp grounds, we arrived at the check-in counter of what felt like a tropical island resort. We were then guided to our cute canvas tiki tents where two flowers awaited us laid upon the mattress of our comfortable beds. Having expected to be somewhat roughing it in tents, I was very pleased to know I’d have a bed I could look forward to return to each day! (TOMORROWLAND TIP: splurge a bit and do the Dreamlodges. They’re worth every penny).

Later that evening they had a welcome event for everyone staying at Dreamville (which in itself was a bigger concert than many I’ve been to before), however we decided to not go too big this night knowing that we had some big days ahead. Also, the performance of the DJs was not as good this evening. Too much unnecessary chatter coming from the DJs which kind of interrupted the flow. Fortunately the performances at the actual festival were all much better!

After a refreshing nights sleep, we awoke to the hum of dance beat sounds in the distance. Tomorrowland was officially beginning. We continued to feel convinced that we had made the right call to do the Dreamlodges when we saw the breakfast buffet (once again more akin to what you’d see at a luxury resort than at a dance festival) and this feeling was yet again reaffirmed when our tickets allowed us to skip the lines at the entrance to the festival.

Once inside Tommorrowland, we were all taken aback as to the sheer enormity of the place and the attention to detail of the organizers in creating an environment that truly felt out of this world. I will try to describe it here but no doubt will not do it justice. The festival is inside a park that covers about a 1 squared km space. Scattered throughout the park are 13 stages, each with its own theme. Between the stages are lakes, paths, bridges, food stands, chill out areas, rides and some of the most incredible installations you’ll ever see. Much of it felt like it was shaped around an Alice in Wonderland theme with big brightly colored toadstools, big mirrors and even a couple of DJs who looked liked Mad Hatters (more on these guys later). There were hedge mazes, installations of scores of Barbie dolls attached to long-stemmed flowers, bridges with hundreds of thousands of messages inscribed on the wooden slats (attendees were asked to send their messages prior to the event), light shows beaming across water installations, a massive ferris wheel that looked in proportion to the London Eye… Added to these sights, you had the sounds of the world’s best DJs coming at you from all angles along with the incredible energy of the 180,000 strong crowd. What was also amazing about the crowd was the incredible international representation. I read that more nationalities were represented at Tomorrowland than the 2012 Olympics. And it felt that way with the sheer number of flags people had brought it. And I was proud to see that, as usual, Australia was well represented (in fact, other than Belgium, I think I saw more Australian flags than any other nationality. Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!).

Over the course of the 3 days, the group of us (Basel, Teeba, Shilpa, Rahul, Ardy, Jacques, Jessica, Pato, Eyal, Tamara, Rawan, Rasha, Christine and I) wandered from stage to stage, danced, smiled, laughed and generally soaked up the experience. Too many highlights for me to mention in a single blog post, but if I were to choose one, it would be what occurred on Saturday evening mid way through the festival. After spending several hours in a dark tent dancing to trance music, the group emerged for a wander around the grounds and stumbled across the Grand Theater stage, which we were to later christen as “Happy Land.” The stage was one of the smaller ones at the festival, situated on a platform in the middle of the lake. The DJs playing were called Bart & Baker. None of us had ever heard of these guys and they looked a couple of decades older than any of the other DJs playing at the festival. But they were fun. Really fun. And as I alluded to before, these were the guys kind of dressed up like Mad Hatters. The tunes they played were kind of like a mix of Loony Tunes cartoons, upbeat jazz and electronic dance music. Across from the stage was a small chillout area (also on a platform on the lake). A few of the group peeled off to this area to dance. What then ensued was somewhat of a dance off (or perhaps a better way to describe it was “follow the other side”) where people would dance funny moves from one platform and the people from the other platform would copy. So much fun. It kept us entertained for hours :).untitled%2520%25281%2520of%25201%2529-368 (Small)

Some other notable highlights from the 3-days to mention were being introduced to Nervo, two DJ sisters from Australia (I’ve clearly been away from home too long), participating in the 8-hour marathon trance session with Markus Schulz followed by Paul Van Dyk, and getting to see my favorite DJs right now, Above and Beyond, on main stage (although the downside of mainstage was that they probably didn’t take as many risks as they would have had they been on a smaller stage).

Fast forwarding to the end of day 3, on Sunday evening at 11:30pm (30 minutes before the official close of the event) Christine and I sneaked away from Tomorrowland and made our way back to the bar at our Dreamlodge. We arrived minutes before the beginning of July 28th, my birthday. Since everyone else was celebrating the final few moments of Tomorrowland, we had the bar to ourselves which gave Christine the opportunity to collect 34 candles from all of the other bar tables to make me a mini birthday celebration for me. That along with a nice drop of red wine was how my 34th year began :).

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The next day, we stumbled out of bed early at 7am to make our flight to from Brussels to Lisbon. For the first time in days we had some heavy rain (we heard they use sound canons at Tomorrowland to keep the storms away…) which appropriately matched the mood we felt as we dragged our heavy legs to the bus and bid farewell to the little town of Boom. We imagined the residents must have let out a sigh of relief to have their town back. Similarly, we felt relief to be returning to “normal” life in the real world. Tomorrowland exceeded my wildest expectations. A friend asked me at the event if I’d do it again. While I couldn’t imagine mustering up the energy to do it again next week (or even next month), in a year’s time (or in several years) I can definitely imagine coming back.

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SPECIAL THANKS to Jessica Postiglione for providing most of the photos for this post!