Almond Bread

Time moves on.

Lives change.

It is inevitable.

In the blink of an eye Christmas is with us again.

Christmas time seems to bring with it more memory clouds that most other months of the year. Im not sure whether its because I realise another year has past me by or whether it’s a time when family traditions are bought back to life.

countryhorizons_mumsheightwallcombinedwithwreath

Our Christmas tree still has marks of my children growing, ornaments lovingly made at preschool and school still adorn the tree. Their childhood stockings are laid beside the tree, now in readiness for their home comings soon.

 

A visit to my childhood home is filled with many memories and now a touch of emptiness. The same Christmas door wreath welcomes all visitors, family and friends. The heights of the grandchildren and their pets, marked along the door jam remind us of the years, evoking glimpses of the past and stories starting with “remember when…”.

 

We are guaranteed these remain the same. It is with some comfort that I know this.

And Mum’s Almond Bread.

It heralds Christmas.

countryhorizons_almondbreadsliced

I have never attempted to bake it, and I haven’t for this article. I am not sure I can fold the love of a grandmother’s hug into the loaf as much as my mum can.

But I can share the recipe with you.

There are a few steps and you need to plan ahead to allow the loaf to cool for a few days.

countryhorizons_almondbreadloaf2
The loaf, allow 2 days for it to cool

But it is so worth it!

It also makes a great gift, wrapped and sealed with a Christmas bow.

 

ALMOND BREAD

3 egg whites                      1 cup plain flour

½ cup castor sugar          125 grams whole unblanched almonds

and then….

Beat egg whites until soft peaks form.

Then gradually add sugar, beat until dissolved.

Fold in sifted flour, then almonds. (I think this is where the grandmother love is added too!)

Spoon into greased 20cm x 10cm loaf tin

Bake in moderate oven 30-40 minutes

Cool. Wrap in foil & set aside for 2 days.

Using a very sharp knife cut into wafer thin slices

Place slices on oven trays and bake in a slow oven for 45 minutes, or until lightly toasted and crisp.

Store in an air tight container.

TIP: My mum adds extra almonds, as she likes the slices packed full. The recipe may work with pistachios too?

countryhorizons_almondbreadchristmaspackage

You are welcome 😊

And happy christmas

 

WASH

DSC04347

She stands at the sink overlooking the rice fields as the panicle, packed with grain sweep in a cooler morning breeze. The sun starts to colour the sky.

It had been a long night for her.

Her youngest had twisted in pain, his arms wrapped across his stomach, his eyes as big as saucers brimming with tears begged her to make it stop. Yet another night of little sleep for the family as his cries perforated the night in between short moments of fitful sleep.

The number of sleepless nights were becoming too many. Her family could not survive much longer. Her husband could not continue to work long hours in the field with little sleep.

She spied the pamphlet on the floor. It was stained with mud that had been carried into the house on little feet as they had darted outside in the rain to go to the toilet. She hoped they went a distance from the house, but she could hardly reprimand given the amount of rain that fell last night. She will check that later.

For now, she just needed to recharge.

And think.

As her tea brews she can hear the thump of coconuts falling outside. Husband is picking a few for her to take into the market. She wipes the pamphlet and slowly turns it over in her hands, looking with envy at the picture of a woman standing outside a freshly finished brick building. She recalls what the man from SAMIC told them.

“We can offer you a loan to build an outside toilet and install a water filter to give you clean water as well. It would cost you about $30-50 US dollars a month to repay. It will be a declining loan. The money is offered under the WASH program, to help provide water and sanitation. You could be the first in your village.”

Could they earn enough from the sale of the coconuts and rice to repay this and keep the family? She could take the buggy and find rubbish to sell if they needed more money. Her eldest was nearly old enough to help too.

Her breath stops suddenly as she contemplates her children getting sicker. Too many in the district had died already from stomach complaints. They say it’s the bad water and no toilets that is doing it. They had no money for hospitals, yet it seemed only a matter of time before one of her brood fell too sick to recover.

DSC04345

There is yelling from below as the chickens scatter. The cow is off its chain again. She puts her dreaming aside and heads downstairs to save the animals from her husband. The lack of sleep is showing itself already. Its going to be a long day. Not the day to try to talk about a new toilet.

 

6 weeks later:

It is so shiny! The water so clean you can see the bottom of the tub. There was even enough money to install a path so there will be no mud being tramped across the rugs inside.

She is now running late to market as the neighbours called in to view this new building, quiz  husband on the cost. Some even wanted to give it try, it has created quite an interest. The people from SAMIC have become quite busy now.

Her smile is one of relief. Her children are better, she sleeps at night. They all have renewed energy to face each day.

A small building can make a big difference to a family in Cambodia.DSC04329

She climbs on the bike beside her husband. Today she is making her first repayment at the SAMIC office. As her children run ahead on the path, with energy levels tripled she knows she has made the right decision.

Maybe she will ask her husband if she can learn to read soon. A better world awaits her and the children, with a little help. She nods at the Spirits as the bike weaves to market, her smile beaming in the midday sun.DSC04353

 

**Inspired by experiences while travelling in Cambodia with Good Return and Xplore.  If you wish to know more, especially the WASH program also see SAMIC.

All photos are my own

Local Volunteers

flickr_SheilaSund_17022017

Volunteer numbers in small country communities is declining. Many clubs have folded as there are not enough people to fill not only executive positions but to come along and be part of the Club, including fundraisers, events and activities. This is a trend across Australia as a whole.

Volunteers can still be found, quietly working within communities. I have come across such people, in my own backyard.

While visiting my mum – who is recently widowed – I enjoyed the company of two astonishing local ladies who regularly check on mum just to make sure all is OK. They live just up the road, but if you are looking for them you will rarely find them at home. You will find them helping others in the local community.

justuptheroad
Just up the road…main entrance to Curlewis

They might be keeping an elderly person company or gently coaching another to take a few steps after an operation, organising a vehicle for a family so they can drive to town for food and appointments or feeding someone else chooks and ducks while they are in hospital. Our community might be small but there is always someone needing assistance. This mother and daughter seem to know who and seem to know when.

Glenda is a trained nurse. Up until a few years ago she had her own business where she would visit people in their homes and care for them. Her daughter Phoebe jokes when we talk about this. Her mum always went over and above what was needed to be done and there were many days she stayed with the client or did that little extra, making her late home for dinner or to help with homework. For Glenda, it wasn’t a 9-5 job.

I asked Glenda “Why do you do it? What motivates you to help people” thinking this was an easy question. She hesitates, sits back in her chair and ponders her answer. “People need help and I can help them. I work with them so we achieve something together. It’s teamwork and gives them back confidence. One small achievement for them helps take away a lot of self-doubt”

There are also other wonderful people supporting this community. A few years ago the local church surveyed the community by door knocking on the 120 residences and asking what people thought the community needed. Not surprising the biggest issue was something for the youth to do. Curlewis is about 17km from its larger country centre Gunnedah, situated in north west NSW about 5 hours inland of Sydney. While many of the youth travel to Gunnedah for high school there are very little other activities to fill their time outside those hours.

Youth drop in

What started as Kids Club through a church has grown. Phoebe and her sister Crystal, with the help of others could see the youth needed not just an activity or two in school holidays but a regular place to go, to mix with others in a safe environment.  With the help of others in the community they have established the Curlewis Youth Drop In Centre. The church has provided them with a building that is decorated with lounges, bean bags and provides a welcoming space one a week.

Over a quiet cup of tea we reflected on why there are less youth offering to volunteer in the community, or regional NSW as a whole. Phoebe has observed that the more willing volunteers are young adults who have lived away from the community and returned or have experienced a life elsewhere. We wondered whether these see the community from a different angle and appreciate the positive aspects rather than being caught in the monotony of their own world. It can be easy to lose perspective and get caught up in the day to day micro happenings of a small town. Becoming independent and living with other cultures and strangers can help people appreciate their own community and potentially bring back newly learned skills and confidence. It will be a challenge to break this cycle. The Youth Drop In Centre is doing this in its own small way.

Each week the centre has 20-30 youth attend. At first the number of adults that came along to help were the same ones that started the centre. Over time others became interested, just helping prepare food or work in the background. Now there is a roster to share the load. The adults enjoy the banter with the youth and vice versa. The young love hearing stories from the elderly volunteers. It’s a win-win.

Many articles highlight the value of volunteering for young people. It looks good on a resume and can help get a scholarship. It also builds teamwork and organisation skills, supervisory or communication skills and confidence with working people outside their home environment.

As a parting question I asked Glenda how does she feel when she has helped someone? What is it like when she sees a glimmer of hope in their eyes and a smile of achievement beaming back at her?

I was expecting emotive words like warm, happy, joyful, proud or delighted. Instead she couldn’t respond; the question was too hard to answer.

Why? Glenda volunteers her time to help others. That is all. No self-gain, no feeding a personal need, no recognition required. The sign of a truly wonderful person who Gives.

 

**Article originally written and published for The Australia Times GIVE Magazine. Publishing here to celebrate International Volunteers Day

First Steps

countryhorizons_cambodia_nightcityskylinewithsunset

It took me some time to decide. I wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone every now and then but not sure this was for me. I had visions of being thrown in a foreign jail, not able to tell family and friends where I was. But maybe I just watched way too many movies.

The country had been a war zone in my lifetime. I have small recollections of learning about the events of the 1970s at school, even raising money to help the poor of the region.

But I said OK, lets do this!

YOLO …   (and I can feel my daughter rolling her eyes…50 year olds should not use YOLO she would be saying)

Off I go – to gain the fourth passport stamp of my life.

As the waters of Singapore came into view from the airplane window I contemplated the Australian bloodshed that had occurred decades before as World War 2 knocked on our door and annihilated the land now beneath me.

As a teenager I was fascinated by the World Wars. I watched countless TV series about prisoners in Changi Prisoner of War camp, of women who were captured by the Japanese in 1942 and of course Pearl Harbour and Gallipoli.

As the plane makes it final flight into the modern Singapore I’m taken back to a school assignment interview with a friend of my father who has been a prisoner in Changi and survived. He didn’t tell me much at the time and at 14 I was a little naïve to ask for the detail. As none of my family have a history of service in the wars, these were my only experiences of the bloody battles that ravaged southern Asia last century.

The city beneath me and modern airport, complete with indoor gardens was a stark contrast to what my imagination conjured of Singapore. I celebrated my first footsteps in Asia with a Singapore Sling – it seemed fitting and absolutely glorious after the eight-hour flight.

And then onto our destination, Cambodia.

My senses exploded as we exited the airport at Phomn Penh.

Lights from a herd of motorbikes galloped towards us, another line jostled beside trying to sneak past. The air was filled with a peal of horn blasts swirling in with the dust of the evening skyline.

The streets were a coalescent of old with new. A stooped woman slowly wipes the street dirt from a table covered in a plastic faded cloth, beckoning diners to take a seat while next door an elderly man sat on a broken chair minding bric-a-brac that covers every available corner of the shop in the hope a shopper sees a bargain or a necessity.

Youngsters kick an empty drink bottle dispersing other litter and discarded food across the street. A toddler wearing only baggy torn shorts watches, his face a flummox of his day with specks of food, tears and mucus staining his cheeks and running down his bare chest.

A car tries to reverse from an American clothing store, the security guard holding up traffic to allow the driver to enter the continual flow. A troupe of tuk tuks hang near a club, ready to barter for a ride in the hope of making a meagre wage from Saturday night tourists to finish early and maybe rest tomorrow.

Overhead I spy 3 storey buildings inclining on each other, seemingly built as an afterthought for family expansion. Spirit houses protect the occupants, the ornate gold coating catching the last of the sunlight, the fruit offerings keeping the spirits peaceful.

The streets are framed by a spaghetti of electrical wires looping around leaning poles and mixing with neon lights and dilapidated signage, a mix of local chirography and western advertising.

Our driver paints the political and social landscape for us as we bump and thrust through the city traffic. The herd continues to stream by, some laden with 3 or 4 passengers, even a baby slumped asleep over the handle bars. Others tow a small trailer packed with goods from vegetables, building materials to sorted rubbish. We learn there is a market for the rubbish – one person’s trash another’s treasure that can put food on the family table.

We hear the story of our driver’s family, a story we will hear retold by many we meet. The loss of family members in the 1970s, a country pillaged and ravaged through history, a people exploited with their spirit tattered yet unbroken.

Unfinished highways funded by other countries loom in the twilight, while displaced sleep in hovels in its shadows. Our car bounces along unloved roads and past the contrasting grandeur of others.

The grit of this city is smattering on us, our eyes seeing what our minds are not comprehending.

Our ears are hearing the chaos of existence yet our hearts will listen to the silence of oppression.

We steel ourselves for the days ahead. We step into the night, into the city.

2343

countryhorizons_bvmarketsroadsigntotownIt is normally a sleepy little village. Its 180 odd residents living a quiet life tucked under the shadows of the southern Liverpool Plains mountain ranges, at the very beginnings of the Mooki River that will weave its way across the plains to Gunnedah. The bustle of school traffic, children’s laughter in playground and the toll of the bell are the only sounds that would break the quiet air during the day.

I know at least one day of the year when the population of Blackville would more than triple.

I witnessed it last Sunday.

The annual Blackville Arts and Market Day.

The road from Curlewis to Blackville was picturesque as the remarkable realm of the Liverpool Plains shone in the morning sun. A carpet of green crops, fading yellow canola and fallowed black clay rolled out in front of us, a band of hazy blue of the mountain ranges bordered the panorama. Pockets of trees lined paddocks, cattle and sheep enjoyed their morning feed as, across the plains farming families finished their morning chores.

Blackville is not really on the way to somewhere or the way from anywhere. It is about a 40 minute drive from Quirindi to the north-west and Merriwa to the south, as the crow flies. I recall my dad used to refer to the Blackville area as “gods own country” – if there was a hint of rain in the skies Blackville seems to always get it.

We rounded the final bend and were greeted by ‘road closed’ signs just past the town signage. There are few places that can close off the main thoroughfare of town for markets. Blackville can, and did.

Smiling faces of the local committee greeted us, the hospitality of rural Australia evident in the air.

Welcome to Blackville.

The stall owners stood behind their wares, a sense of pride as they happily showcased their goods. From watercolour paintings, jewellery of many shapes and material, fashion, wood crafts, hand dyed scarves, straw bags, metal ornaments, clay homewares, photography, home furnishings, local produce from the plains and the tastiest honey I have had for some time. It was an exciting array of goodies.

The homemade lime and coconut cake was delectable with my morning coffee, enjoyed in the spring sun with a wisp of a breeze keeping the heat at bay. We watched younger ones tuck into fairy floss, washed down with a frozen cup of pure delight as a duet played gentle music to entertain.

Ahh this is how Sunday should be!

After our fill of tastes and a bag full of goodies we set off on a different route home. I am a bit like my father in that I try to never travel the same road twice on a road trip. We circled back to Spring Ridge and a pit stop at the local Royal Hotel. The residents of Spring Ridge wont go hungry while ever they have the burgers at the Royal!

One cant help but relax snuggled in this country.

Sunday road trip.

Family, spring, fresh air.

Living a dream.

 

 

Some great stalls that were there:

Food River Station – produce and gift ware profiling the great Liverpool Plains

Wattle Tree Love – lovely hand dyed scarves

Colourful bags and baskets

Buzz Honey – The best honey for a long time – Phone 0429 074 520

or head to the Blackville Arts and Markets Facebook page for more information.

The whale kingdom

countryhorizons_tonga_sunset

Malo le’ le’…again. I promised I would return and I did. I fell in love with the contagious smiles and welcoming embrace of the Kingdom of Tonga last year and I do believe I left a piece of my heart drifting gently through the cerulean waters of this island paradise.

A few weeks back I journeyed again to connect and renew, if only for a short time.

The capital city Nukualofa maybe a bit more bustling, the western influences maybe slowly creeping into its veins but once you voyage to one of the outer islands the slow-paced bustle is left far far behind and you are vortexed into a postcard. The waters, every shade of blue, turquoise and aqua are as deep as forever. The sun warmed our winter weary bodies as we were resuscitated by the dashes of island breeze that fluttered in the air.

A small boat ferried us to our island escape on Kapa, just a stone throw from the main island of Vava’u, where our host welcomed us with a warmth we had grown to expect from this Kingdom. One cannot help but just relax and fall into an island way of living, the clocks are few, the technology connections to the outside world intermittent, the call of the ocean mesmerising.

As a new day was heralded with a postcard sunrise we packed way too many belongings for a day on the water to search for the regal majesties of the ocean – the humpback whales. I am an ‘in case packer’ – I packed a large backpack for the day, in case we got wet, in case we needed some food, in case we needed an extra battery, in case the boat broke down and we necountryhorizons_tonga_reefresort_sunriseeded to spend a night on the water, in case, in case, in case. And of course, used very little of it!

On the whale tour boat (Beluga Diving) we met travellers from the across the globe, all with a similar wish.

The Japanese ladies were kitted with the iPhone in water proof pouches hung around the neck. If you ever wondered if these work – they do! We dived, we snorkelled, we were in and out of the boat and the iPhone survived brilliantly.

The Intense Italian was so concentrated and really dominated the personality of the boat. He was equipped with large DLSR cameras – one he spent more time keeping dry and free of salt spray than actually using, the other enclosed in a mammoth water proof case that took several people to lift back into boat each time.

And an Australian couple from Brisbane, Simon and Allison. Seasoned travellers who dive and snorkel regularly off the coast of the Queensland. It was good to have kin folk close by, even if I did feel a novice as this was the only second time I had worn snorkel gear.

Day One was a tad windy and the waters choppy. The calming island zephyr had decided to whip up enough to make the whales head to deeper, calmer waters. We spotted a few, jumped in to observe underwater when possible but the main act hadn’t read the script.

As we farewelled our whale-seeking-friends at the end of day, our skins parched by the island sun and wind we wished them safe travels, never believing we would see them again.

Until we met the boat the next day.

To our surprise and delight we were teamed again with the Japanese ladies and our Brisbane couple, small world sometimes. And I arrived with less ‘in case’ luggage – it was me, my snorkel gear and sunscreen today. I have to admit it was liberating.

The Intense Italian had been replaced by a young French Wanderer, travelling the world post doctorate before settling into the hum drum of mature living. Yes, a small amount of envy and a great amount of admiration for solo travelling women such as she.

What a magical day.

Within a short time of leaving shore we came across a mother and her new babe. Our Tongan guide was first in the water, establishing a relationship with her in a language that seems to cross between them in silence. We are just visitors to this timeless world of the Tongan people and their whales.

In groups of four we slid softly into the water and as quietly as possible swam close the mother and baby. I felt a bond to the resplendent mother of the blue ocean as she moved slowly, buoyed by the natural currents of the water. Her baby exuded an energy that all young seem to have as it ducked and weaved, from side to side, top to under. I could not help but relate to a time when my babes were young and rarely sat quietly in my lap!

As other travellers busily clicked their cameras and jockeyed to a position to make that ‘like-worthy’ shot I was happy to just be. The desire to capture for perpetuity can take away from just taking in the experience that is unfolding in front of you. I left that for others.

The serendipity of the moment hypnotised me. A lump rose in my throat, my mask fogged with tears unchecked, a soft choir of an ocean song echoed in my ears as I was suspended in the water magnetised and connected to this mother of the ocean. As our eyes met amongst the sunbeams dancing through the water I hope she could hear me say she was doing a great job with her babe and safe journey back to the cooler waters of the world.

And then is was over. We left the new family in peace, reminding ourselves we are purely observers to the main act and our time of theatre was over.

Malo. Thank you. My heart still stays, I will return again.

 

Footnotes and travel tips:

We stayed at the Reef Resort. I highly recommend this as a place to stay. It only has 5 cabins so only a few other guests at any one time. The Japanese coral gardens on your doorstep are wonderful to discover with snorkelling. Host, Herwig is very very helpful and a wonderful host. Hannes and Julia are top chefs – the food was amazing and they are always smiling and offering to help in any way.

Herwig booked our whale swim tours for us through Beluga Diving. Biggest tip is to book these well in advance of your travels. I did not realise this and nearly missed out! Book at least two days, preferable three. Cost is about 400TOP (= ~ 235 $AUS) per person per day.

We travelled to VaVau’ via Nukualofa but have since learnt that VaVau’ is an international airport and you can travel via Fiji. The flight times are a bit more reasonable via Fiji.

Half time oranges and Tee Vee Snacks

The crisp dark night took me back. The scent of the frost settling on the orange tree picked me up and gently eased me back into the old lounge with its well-used green chairs, open fire and stripe shag pile carpet.countryhorizons_oranges1

State of Origin football night was a family affair, complete with oranges at half time. After a hearty meal of meat and three veg the first of the children would get a seat on the lounge, the last spreading on the floor in front of the fire. Mum with her knitting and dad commanding the TV to watch the weather and then settle for the football. No remote control to flick through the stations – but we only had two channels to choose from so it wasn’t such a chore.

Out the front of the house was a prolific orange tree, the envy of many visitors and travellers. Every year we waited with patience for the first frost as the fruit always seemed to be sweeter once the bite of Jack Frost heralded in the winter air. We enjoyed fruit on tap for months.

At half time in the footy we were sent out in the bitter dark cold to grab a few oranges off the tree for our dessert. Mum would sit with a towel in her lap and lovingly peel the oranges to share as we settled in for the finish of the game. She had a knack of keeping the peel in one long length that snaked to her lap as she unwrapped nature’s vitamin C offering.

countryhorizons_peeledorange

 

No wifi, no checking social media status, no idea what our friends or other family were doing at that very moment. We didn’t care. We were engrossed in capturing the sweet juice as it slipped down our chins, savouring the sweet flavours that tingled our buds in the warmth of our family home and writing memories for later.

 

That warm family lounge sparks another jolt in the memory banks and one I still recall every time I see Tee Vee Snacks in the shopping aisle. To this day they are a special treat, almost a forbidden sweetness. My dad had a routine many years ago of buying the afternoon newspaper and a box of Tee Vee Snacks on his way home of an evening. For those who don’t know they are a plain crunchy biscuit, about bite size that has been dipped in dark chocolate. Just enough chocolate to satisfy the taste buds and allow you to think you haven’t been too naughty!CHN_0209_tvsnacks3

My dad would wait until we went off to bed before settling in to enjoy the quiet of the evening while reading his paper and savouring the Tee Vee Snack biscuits…except for the last few. I never knew whether he left them on purpose or he had his fill but there was always a few left. Left for my brothers and I to sneak in and find the next morning. We felt so secretive, whispering as we cautiously investigated the discarded box hiding amongst the well read pages of yesterdays news left beneath his chair.

Oh how naughty they tasted, eating the forbidden sweet biscuits while mum stirred the porridge over the wood stove in the kitchen. They were too special to crunch, you HAD to leave in your mouth until you sucked the dark chocolate away from the biscuit, making the  illicit discovery last for as long as possible. All while keeping watch to make sure we weren’t caught, though I’m sure they knew what we were doing!

Like all children I thought I knew it all. I appreciated the magical tastes of forbidden biscuit and chocolate and the sweetness of a freshly picked orange, peeled with love and enjoyed in family warmth. What more could there be?

It was then I was introduced to the ultimate sweet flavour sensation found in a packet. I am sure most have enjoyed a freckle at some time – those little round disc of heavenly chocolate sprinkled with 100 and 1000’s.

CHN_0246_rspfreckles

Have you ever tried combining them with a raspberry sweet?

Or sampled a raspberry – freckle sandwich?

It is superb. The crunch of the little coloured round pearls of pure sugar, the creaminess of the chocolate combined with the squishy flavour of the raspberry.

Gee Whillikers! A naughty explosion of heaven that dances on your tastebuds. Just try stopping at one.

You are welcome 🙂