Q: What do Antarctica, Russia, Vietnam and Cambodia all have in common?
A: All four countries have been visited by the lovely Giselle.
Bitten by the travel bug and infected with academic genius, Giselle’s been sent to both Antarctica and Russia on geography scholarships, and visited Vietnam and Cambodia as part of a volunteer program with World Challenge. Talk about worldly.
I chatted to the down-to-earth seventeen-year old on her travels, have a read below.
- Could you explain your volunteer work?
Our volunteer project was in a small centre in Battambang called PTD (I think it stood for Peu Tuek Dong, but don’t quote me). A few years back it used to be a women’s refuge for victims of domestic abuse but they lost funding so now there are just a few women left living there, growing mushrooms to sell at the markets, while the main part of the centre is a primary school. I say primary school but you’d be lucky to find a child over fourteen there, as most have to work or beg to help their families. When you aren’t sure how you’ll get your next few meals, going to school to learn Khmer, basic maths and English doesn’t seem very important. Our job was to teach the kids some English greetings and feelings, and play with them during our breaks from shifting rubble and mixing cement to start building brick walls for a new mushroom-growing shed.
- What was the most memorable moment of the trip?
Another aspect of our trip was the trekking phase, which we completed in Dalat, Vietnam. We probably averaged 8km a day over mountainous terrain with a 6-7kg pack for four days straight. Was it difficult? Yes. On the fifth day of trekking, we’d made it through first rainforest/jungle, then open woodland, huge pine forests, farmland and finally were back in jungle/woodland type terrain on Dalat’s tallest mountain, Lang Bian (about 60m shorter than Mt Koscuiszko). Finally reaching the top and just looking out at this breathtakingly stunning view of the entire city was unbelievably amazing. We only had about 5min to enjoy the view but I’d done it: I’d climbed a mountain.
- How did you cope with the change in lifestyle for the month you were there?
There’s absolutely no doubt that Australia and South East Asia are quite the opposite. There’s the obvious developed vs developing, democratic vs communist differences, but you can’t go there with the opinion or prevailing belief that your country is better. I think there are some things Australians could learn from the Cambodian people. They’re so extremely friendly; people shout out hello to you as you pass in your tuktuk and children run through the street with barely anything on and yet still look so happy. They make the best of their lot.
More superficially, the food was quite different: sweet bread loaves, lots of rice and basic vegetables, fruit after every meal. We couldn’t drink the local water without getting sick. Strong coffee. Everything is extremely cheap.
The biggest culture shock was visiting a huge stone monument dedicated to the Khmer Rouge genocide of the late seventies. Our guide showed it to us so casually. His entire family had been murdered under this regime and he was standing here in front of this stone block depicting all the horrific war crimes (people’s fingernails pulled out, joined in a line with stakes through their hands, women stolen and raped, skulls of some of the dead at the top in a glass case) and he was so…. casual. Like, yes it had happened, it was part of his history, they forgave and moved on. That shocked me. I made it around the entire monument and read all the inscriptions where there were English translations. I got to the end and these women smiled at me and offered to show me inside their little museum and I fucking broke down. Crouched on the ground, wracking sobs. As a young Australian I have never had to deal with war. It’s something you learn about in history at school and see on the news in other countries, happening to other people. That was a shock.
- What was the Russian food experience like?
One word: Urgh. Breakfast would be dense bread, thick oatmeal, warm milk, cold cut, poor-grade meat and some sort of weird cottage cheese that I pretended was yoghurt. I was told I wasn’t allowed to eat the rye bread because it was for men, and women ate the softer white bread. I was a little offended that my gender defined which bread I ate. Desserts were sweet breads, watermelon and tea. Mango, bananas and berries nowhere to be seen so I bought pears imported from Brazil. There was/is a fresh produce trading ban, I don’t know if it’s still in place, but Russia wouldn’t import produce from Europe because of the whole Ukraine thing. I struggled a lot living on Russian food for three weeks.
- Describe the architecture you found:
I spent much of the three days I was there taking photos of buildings, all probably four stories with those big windows you see in European Christmas stories. They looked old in style but so grand and beautiful. The best part was the colours brightening up the street, yellow against a peachy red with white painted windows. Absolutely beautiful. Each major Russian city has a Kremlin, which translates to fortress. They seem very proud of them but it was a little boring, grey stone walls protecting a group of cathedrals. They were important in earlier Russian history to protect the cities from sieges, apparently. Then there were the cathedrals: massive domes and elaborate religious murals inside in gold and shimmery tones. Russians are Orthodox Catholic so they take their cathedrals very seriously. My favourite had a tiny winding staircase to the top where there was a small concrete walkway around the edge of the bell right at the top. I like being up high like that. Mountains, bell towers… It all makes me feel very alive.
- How did you feel visiting a Communist country?
The fact that I was visiting a communist country was a lot more apparent in Russia than Vietnam or Cambodia. One of the first things I saw entering the Moscow were these multi-level concrete blocks. Real Soviet Union stuff. At least ten stories, blank and bleak, tiny windows, no balconies or decorations, all identical. Buildings like those were a huge slap in the face to individualism.
The other major thing was everyone’s abnormal (to me) obsession with war. Admittedly I am sort of a greenie so I’m really not into violence, but our guides talked about war like it was this huge victory. Their leaders were so great because they started massive wars with other countries and stole their land. Creating wars, even if they killed people, made their leaders powerful and influential. War was good, a thing to be celebrated. Even now they find glory in taking war matters into their own hands.
A slightly humorous aspect of the communism was that while it is not technically illegal to be gay, it is illegal to spread homosexual propaganda. I was having a discussion with Nick from The Netherlands, and he was asking me about Australia’s general view on marriage equality. His country was one of the first and he couldn’t understand how such a developed nation like ourselves can still be so far behind. As I was sharing my opinion and support I realised with a little pleasure that I was breaking Russian laws. If I lived in Russia I would be abused and assaulted for walking down the street holding hands with a girl. Kiss her and I could probably be arrested.
During her plane ride over the whimsical continent, Giselle very kindly wrote me a letter detailing what she saw and how she felt. With her permission, I’ve typed up a very short extract from it:
“It took us four and a half hours to reach Antarctica. The first thing we saw was sea ice, and of course because it’s summer most of it was partially melted, leaving a mosaic of crystal white ice set amongst a bright royal blue background. It was absolutely beautiful Kayla – so much so that I spent five minutes grinning like an idiot because I caught a glimpse of this bold, vast expanse of ice through the window.”