Visiting Villa Kitty

Villa Kitty kid's drawing
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When my beloved cat Sophie recently escaped, I postponed the departure date for my sabbatical trip to Southeast Asia – and seriously considered cancelling it altogether. I didn’t feel right leaving with her still out there somewhere, and certainly couldn’t imagine enjoying a vacation.

When Sophie joyously returned home, I went ahead and took the trip, only having to delay my departure by a few days. One of the things I’m so grateful I still got to do was visit Villa Kitty.

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When I was planning the Bali portion of my trip, I knew I wanted to try to get off the beaten tourist path a bit. Beaches and waterfalls and temples are lovely, but what do I really care about most? Animals are high on the list. And of course, more specifically, cats.

Tabby basking in the sun

In the process of researching photo tours, I learned about Villa Kitty, an Ubud cat rescue founded by Elizabeth Henzell. Reading about their work struck a chord, so I wrote to Elizabeth, who graciously invited me to spend some time volunteering. While the rescue pays staff like vets and animal technicians, there’s never enough time to cuddle and play with all the cats and kittens, to help heal and socialize. That’s where volunteers come in.

Elizabeth Henzell, founder of Villa Kitty

Elizabeth Henzell, founder of Villa Kitty

When I got to Villa Kitty, Elizabeth welcomed me warmly. The whole operation blew me away – a huge serpentine maze of brightly coloured corridors and open spaces full of cats and kittens playing, sleeping, curled together in cages, quarantine rooms, and play areas, depending on their age and health status. The place is currently bursting at the seams, housing 300 cats, but the space is well organized and efficiently run.

Molly Parr Isolation ward

People walk into Villa Kitty with tiny kittens found in gutters, ditches, and river banks; cats who are injured, orphaned, or abandoned; and every other heartbreaking scenario you can think of. Staff bottle-feed the littlest ones, perform free sterilizations for the community, and continually spread the word about caring for cats responsibly. They place kitties in foster homes and find adoptive homes for as many as possible.

One-eyed cat in cage

I wish I’d had more time to spend with all these cuties, but I know I’ll return if I’m ever in Bali again. And if you’re a cat lover who finds yourself in Ubud, your cuddles are needed at Villa Kitty – so don’t hesitate to reach out!

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Visit Villa Kitty on the web, Instagram, or Facebook.

White and tabby kitty meowing in cage

Pasar Ubud

smoke-filled back room
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When I was planning a sabbatical trip to Southeast Asia, I looked around to see if there might be any photography-related excursions along my route. I stumbled across a morning market photo tour in Ubud, Bali, that sounded intriguing. As it turned out, not only did the person offering these tours run them on a donation basis – with money going toward local animal charities – Mark Chaves is also a WordPress developer with a site hosted on WordPress.com! It seemed meant to be, so I signed up for a tour and hoped for clear weather.

When Mark asked ahead of time what kind of photography I’d like to focus on, I mentioned that I’d like to get better at street photography, but tend to feel shy about taking photos of people. He said this was a common problem, and that he’d compile some tips in a blog post. Within a few weeks he made good on his promise, and I found the post about how to approach “making” photos in public places extremely helpful, even inspiring: Strangers Are Friends We Haven’t Met Yet. I vowed to put into practice what I learned.

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It was my last day in Bali and I met Mark at 7am outside the bustling Pasar Ubud. While I’m far from a morning person, I knew it would be worth it!

Mark seemed to intimately know every nook and cranny of the market, pointing out details and interactions I never would have noticed on my own. He encouraged me to take lots of photos quickly, which helped me avoid overthinking and capture more spontaneous shots. He knew many of the regulars working the market, and made people smile when he asked if it was OK for me to take photos. We even stopped to greet some of the resident stray dogs and feed them the treats he’d brought along in a small plastic container.

Mark feeds a local stray dog

I’m so glad Google led me to Mark’s site that fateful day. It was a memorable experience, and I love the photos that resulted.

Sabbatical, Part I

Peyto Lake
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The last month has been an unusual time. I’m on sabbatical from my job at Automattic, an amazing benefit offered once you’ve worked there for at least five years. The sabbatical is no-strings-attached, so in these three months I can do whatever I want. What it’s allowed me to do is start to discover who I am without work, a state I’m getting more used to, more quickly, than I thought I would.

And who is this non-working person? Someone who’s restored by being in nature – particularly mountains and forests. Who values long conversations with old and new friends, beyond the superficial. Who thrives on art of all kinds – both the appreciation and creation of it. And who can even remember how to use the manual settings on a camera with enough repetition.

I’ve given up hope of doing anywhere close to even half the things I had optimistically put on my “sabbatical projects” list. Between two major trips – highlights from the first below – and regular heat waves that inspire nothing more than hibernation in cool air, it certainly won’t be a time of massive productivity, but you know what? I think I’m OK with that.

Saskatoon

I’d never been to this smaller Canadian city before, but I can see the appeal of everything on a smaller scale, while still having access to good restaurants and some arts and culture. Loved catching up with my good friends Jeff & Rachel and their kids here.

Edmonton

Edmonton, you impressed me with your vibrancy and funkiness! My friends Sarah & Elliott kindly hosted me, and introduced me to some of their favourite spots for brunching, shopping, and hiking. We also explored a few new attractions together, like riding on a restored Japanese car on the adorable and quirky High Level Bridge Streetcar line. I think their sweet doggo Munroe even remembered me from when they lived in Montreal. (At least that’s what I like to tell myself.) I also had dinner with three of my Edmonton-based colleagues – an enjoyable perk of travelling while working for a distributed company is that I have people to potentially meet up with all over the world.

Hinton

On the drive from Edmonton to Jasper lies a small mountain town called Hinton. And that’s where I stopped to meet up with Paul, a friend from elementary school, who now happens to live there! It’s a strange series of events that led us to reconnect, but we had a good time reminiscing over Mexican food and walking along one of the town’s claims to fame: the Beaver Boardwalk, where we abided by the signs like obedient Canadians and did not break the dams. (Who would do this?)

Jasper & Banff

I explored gorgeous Jasper and Banff National Parks for a couple of days, getting my fill of beautiful mountain landscapes. Wildlife abounds, and I saw plenty of bears, elk, mountain goats, and big-horned sheep, with the elusive coyote, osprey, and bald eagles also making appearances.

Let’s start with the big-horned sheep because they’re adorable and fascinating and grotesque in their moulting:

And a cross-section of other creatures:

Everywhere I went, the surroundings were breathtaking:

I went on an unforgettable adventure on the Columbia Icefield at the Athabasca Glacier:

And I even got a quick taste of Calgary before heading to the airport – including its spectacular new downtown library – thanks to my friend Sarah’s lovely father David:

I would return to any of these places in a heartbeat. Thanks to everyone who helped make my time out west so memorable.

 

Incredible Inle

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Tucked away in Myanmar’s Shan State, Inle Lake is a whole world on water. From houses to restaurants to monasteries, buildings are constructed on stilts, directly over the freshwater lake. Produce grows hydroponically on “floating gardens.” A market rotates among five communities situated around the 116 square-kilometre (44.9 square-mile) lake, bringing with it necessities like produce and dry goods, a barber shop, and even dental services, complete with a foot-powered drill. (Check out photos from the market in my earlier post.)

Boats transport everything and everyone; I never got used to their noisy diesel engines, and wondered if the residents of this area ever did. It was a contrast of old and new: satellite dishes proliferated and cell-phone reception was great, yet I saw laundry being done by hand and few windows seemed to have any panes. Men with traditional fishing foot oars and wooden baskets were apparently strategically stationed especially for tourist photo-ops, although “real” fishing is still done, with slightly more modern gear.

I took a couple of videos to make sure I remembered the sound and feel of moving along Inle’s waterways.

Pindaya Cave

Before hopping a boat to Inle Lake, we explored the huge nearby limestone cave at Pindaya. Packed with thousands of images of the Buddha, we were told it’s one of the few places in Myanmar where women are allowed to add squares of gold leaf to the Buddha figures.

Making Things

We watched demonstrations of lotus-fibre weaving, along with the making of cheroots (a type of open-ended cigar), mulberry paper, parasols, and silver jewellery. Touristy? Absolutely. But the crafts were gorgeous and made great gifts – and who am I kidding, I have a weakness for beautiful scarves.

(Mostly) Monastery Cats and Dogs

I never got used to seeing so many stray cats and dogs everywhere I went in Myanmar. At least the ones we saw at some of the monasteries appeared to be cared for.

I was seriously tempted to come home with a number of these furry cuties. I settled for photos instead.

This is the third and final post about my fall 2017 trip to Myanmar. Missed the others? Here’s one focussing on food and markets, and another about my adventures in Mandalay, Bagan, and Yangon.

More Myanmar Memories

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I never would have thought of visiting Myanmar (Burma) if my friend Alex hadn’t raved about her first trip there. The place really made an impression on her, and her photos were stunning. So when we were planning a trip to Thailand last fall and she suggested tacking on some time in Myanmar, I said “Why not?”

Myanmar is the first place I’ve experienced legit culture shock, but after a few days I adjusted, more or less. Though its sights and sounds were so utterly unfamiliar, I never once felt unwelcome or uncomfortable. I arrived in the country expecting to find little Internet, cell phone connectivity, or acceptance of credit cards – but was proven wrong on all counts. (Things had changed quite a bit on the technology front since Alex had been there.) My tourist SIM card was a better deal than I have here in Canada!

While my last post about the trip focussed on its markets and food, this one collects some of my other images from Mandalay, Bagan, and Yangon. Our time on Inle Lake was an experience unto itself, and with 600 photos to go through, it’ll get its own post.

Mandalay

We didn’t spend much time in Mandalay, and it poured rain. Our hotel was an entirely analogue world replete with 1970s decor, and felt like stepping back in time – not necessarily in a bad way. We watched gold leaf being made by hand and visited Kuthodaw Pagoda, home to “the world’s largest book,” consisting of 729 marble slabs inscribed with text, each housed in its own kyauksa gu (stone-inscription caves). It was a marvel to see, even in the rain.

Bagan

From Mandalay, we had a very leisurely boat ride up the Irrawaddy River to Bagan, which took all day. The route of this boat ride is also the main reason I opted to take the recommended anti-malaria meds – fortunately, no side effects.

The ancient city of Bagan boasts a unique landscape, dotted with the remains of 2,200 Buddhist temples and pagodas. We explored many of them, and I will confess I started to feel a certain pagoda fatigue after a while. But boy, did they make for some gorgeous vistas.

 

Yangon

You may be more familiar with the old colonial name for this city, Rangoon. Myanmar’s largest city and former capital, Yangon is a bustling metropolis – a complete contrast to Bagan, where horse and carriage was a common mode of transport, and cars went about 20 km/hr due to poor road conditions. Crossing the street in Yangon was terrifying, so I would grab my petite guide’s hand without hesitation and fully put my trust in her ability to get us safely and expertly to the other side. I have no idea how she did it.

Myanmar Markets and Meals

tea leaf salad
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I’ve finally dived back into the photos from my trip to Myanmar and Thailand last fall. In this post, I’ll be focussing on the food and markets of Myanmar.

Mandalay

We arrived in Mandalay via Bangkok, and the second-largest city in Myanmar gave me my first taste of Burmese food. It was here that I first noticed a beautiful quality to the light, and here that I first tried Myanmar’s famous tea-leaf salad. Verdict: unique.

Bagan

On the boat from Mandalay to Bagan, we happened to run into another Canadian. I asked what she’d be doing in Bagan, and she told me about a cooking class she’d arranged via Facebook. It was called Pennywort Cooking Class, and May, the owner/chef/teacher puts part of the proceeds toward a community library run out of her house. I was intrigued. Since my travelling companion Alex and I had some upcoming free time, we decided to look into the cooking class.

Am I ever glad we ended up doing this. Accompanying May to her local (tourist-free) market and then walking over to her home to cook up a feast with all the fresh ingredients we’d just bought was a highlight of the entire trip. The meal was full of herbs and vegetables I’d never tried before, including tamarind leaves, wing beans, pennywort, and custard apples.

The Market

The Class

The Library at May’s House

When I asked if the library had opening hours, May said that technically it did, but she’s never turned anyone away no matter when they showed up.

Inle Lake

A unique set of communities live on this lake in Myanmar’s Shan State, in stilted houses only accessible by boat. We had the opportunity to take another cooking class here, but this time in very different, more formal context: a resort chef guided us through making some local dishes, including delicious chunks of shan tofu – made from split-pea and chickpea flours, instead of soy.

Later on during our stay, we visited Thaung To market, part of Inle Lake’s rotating five-day market system. We arrived early since it closed at 9am, and I spotted no other tourists. What an incredible experience. Apart from all the cellphones, I felt like I’d gone back in time. I forced myself to take photos of people — which I’m usually too shy to do — and I’m glad I did.

Lastly, I’ll leave you with two more things I ate in Myanmar: one I’d love to have again, and one that I did not enjoy. I’ll let you guess which is which.

Theam on the Big Island

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As Montréal got pummeled with the first big snowstorm of the season a couple of weeks back, I was incredibly lucky to be on the Big Island of Hawaii with my team, where two of my colleagues live. (Did I mention incredibly lucky — I try never to take for granted any of the amazing travel opportunities I have, especially warm ones in the winter.)

Despite coming down with a cold, I had a memorable time with my colleagues, full of amazing views and communal breakfasts. Here are a few visual highlights — like my fellow Canadian theme-team member, Laurel, I do feel the need to apologize for the volume of sunset shots. It was impossible to restrain myself. There are worse sins, right?