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Koalas and Connectedness

Editor’s Note: Gail Wainman and her husband Glenn joined Friendship Force Victoria and Vancouver Island in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada about four years ago shortly after the club was first formed. Gail nows serves as president of the club. A Global Journey to Myanmar in 2016 was their first experience with FFI and they were hooked. They have also hosted ambassadors from England, Mexico, Australia, Japan, and France. In 2017, their club went to Australia and was home-hosted by three clubs and day-hosted by two more as they journeyed across the country. Gail wrote this story about her memorable experiences.

This is a story about koalas and connectedness.

Nine months ago I found myself standing in a nature reserve just outside of Adelaide, Australia in a gum tree forest. Looking up high into the branches searching for koalas, I reflected on how I had arrived here. This was when I realized that being here was all about “connectedness.”

Fisherman on Inle Lake in Myanmar

Two years earlier we had been on a Friendship Force trip to Myanmar. This trip was really just an add-on to a 16-day land and riverboat cruise we had signed up for so my husband could photograph the sacred temples of Vietnam and Cambodia. My thought was that it was a long way to fly for just 16 days, so I looked on the Friendship Force International website and found a 13-day guided trip around Myanmar. On our arrival in Yangon, we learned that our travelling group comprised of four Canadians, two Americans, three Russians, six Australians, and our Burmese guide. We all bonded over amazing food, cheap beer, a better understanding of Buddhism and, of course, the camaraderie formed over new bathroom experiences.

Olly and his grandma Annette from FF Tamworth on the local circular train in Yangon

We got to know 13-year-old Olly from Adelaide, Australia. Imagine a six-foot-tall, hundred-pound, shy young man traveling with his grandmother and aunt and 13 other adults. He was not a happy camper! The food freaked him out, so he ate mostly plain rice. This was his first time in a developing nation (and mine too). So as a group, we rallied around him, and my husband and I particularly bonded with him. By the end of the trip he had really blossomed (as was his grandmother’s hope) and he even gave a thank you speech at our farewell dinner. Fast forward to nine months ago.

Our local Friendship Force group had planned a four-week Journey to Australia this past fall. My husband and I flew a week before the official Journey began and spent a week in Sydney adjusting to our new surroundings and time zone. Olly’s grandmother Annette took the time to drive into downtown Sydney and spend the day with us showing us how to get around on the Opal bus system and pointing out the highlights of our area. The next day we took the train to Olly’s Aunt Anna’s where Gramma Annette picked us up so we could spent a lovely day with the family.

When our group got to Adelaide, where Olly is from, Olly’s parents insisted on meeting us and entertaining us. The first evening they picked us up and made us dinner in their home. The following morning, they allowed Olly to skip school and they took us out for the day which included wine tasting and oh – koala spotting!

So far that’s three of the 14 people we met on our Myanmar trip. Later, on the Australia trip we met up with fellow Myanmar traveller Jane in the farming community of Murray Bridge. The theme of our week in Murray Bridge was animal husbandry. If there’s anything you’d like to know about sheep farming – just ask me!

Next month we are going to a FFI Western Canadian Regional Conference in Calgary and the other Canadian couple we met on our Myanmar trip live near Calgary and have invited us to stay with them.

Teresa, one of the Americans, was recently in Victoria and she came to our place for dinner and a chinwag. Marie, the other American, recently emailed us and asked us if we would like to join her on a FF trip this coming fall, but, alas we have already signed up for a trip to Kenya.

And while we were being home-hosted in Perth, Australia, we met a couple from Belgium who had joined our group. And they are arriving with their club in Victoria in October to be home hosted by our club!

But wait – there’s more!

After a long hike into the countryside of Myanmar, ambassadors were treated to a home cooked meal by the family of one of the local farmers

When we joined 90 other Friendship Force members from around the world on the “Festival at Sea” transatlantic cruise in May, we were sitting in the dining room and the woman at the table beside us kept staring at me. She then said, “You look familiar – I think I know you!” I asked her where she was from and she said Adelaide. I looked long and hard at her and asked, “Was I at your beach house for lunch in November?” and she said “Yes!”

My big “A-ha!” moment came to me recently when I compared the FFI Myanmar trip to the five-star land and river boat cruise. Two years later, I could not tell you a single name of the other 125 passengers we cruised with, nor have we kept in touch with any of them. Two years after the Myanmar trip, I can still recite the name of each person on the trip and have remained in touch with most of them.

For me, travelling and hosting with Friendship Force, is all about those cherished memories and lasting connections with friends from around the world.

Gail Wainman, President of Friendship Force Victoria and Vancouver Island in Victoria, British Columbia

A woman in an open market during a big boat festival in the village of Nyaungshwe, the portal town to Inle Lake, Myanmar