Volunteering in China

We’ve been back from Europe now for over 2 months. We’ve been keeping busy, as always, but the last few months have seen some new activities and events added to our lives.

Warning: this post has a lot of cute animals in it! Photo courtesy of Evgeny Bakhchev.

I had a weird little lightbulb moment near the beginning of March, when I realized I might be able to combine 2 very important aspects of my life to create something good.

That’s how my weightloss challenge was born.

I pitched the idea to a few friends who quickly jumped on board. I expected maybe 20 people to get involved

In the end, we had 136 contestants in about 15 different cities

Businesses started contacting me as well to sponsor the event. I was able to collect nearly 400 prizes ranging from vouchers to wine to free meals!!

The idea was simple. Contestants paid 100rmb ($20 Canadian) to enter the challenge. I would spend two months leading a positive and encouraging group. We’d donate any money raised to a couple of animal shelters.

The idea quickly grew with the addition of all the extra prizes. I realized I could motivate people throughout the month by setting up mini challenges to keep contestants active.

Of course, all of this ended up being a whole lot of work for me. Every day, I get between 25 and 50 challenges to enter into my giant Excel sheet. On Tuesdays, contestants weigh in, so we can stay accountable to our goals, and then on Wednesdays, I draw names for mini prizes based on whatever goals I set for the week.

Some of my own challenge logs. I participated too!!
I’ve been excelling in the steps challenge. I find going to the gym to be much harder to fit into my schedule, but I’ve been trying to walk everywhere
When I am at the gym, I’ve been obsessed with the stair machine. It’s difficult and I’ve been getting stronger and stronger as I climb flight after flight

We also held a “Dogathon” to raise money forvthe shelters. There were 2 main cities involved in the Charity Challenge, so contestants in each city planned a giant walk for dogs and their owners. Similar to the Charity challenge itself, participants paid a small fee to join in, and all proceeds went to the animals.

Glory Goh, a teacher here in Suzhou, did most of the planning for the dogathon. She did an incredible job.
I got several of my students to come down and help with raffles and games
We had more than 100 people join in and we’ll definitely be doing it again next year!!
Some of the dogs who joined in. Sheila, the sheep dog, is one of my favorite dogs in Suzhou! She was adopted by Glory; the main planner of the dogathon

With the success of the challenge and the dogathon, I decided to take things one step further, and to begin organizing volunteer trips to the SAPA shelter, which is home to more than 1000 dogs and cats.

The flyer I made to get people involved in the trip. In total we had 16 people come with us that day, including 4 students.

The trip was incredible. The SAPA is a noisy, smelly and magical place. The animals there are quite well cared for and mostly very friendly. You get the feeling while you’re there, that you are the best thing that has happened to those dogs all week. And that’s a nice feeling.

The cats were quite pleased too!

We had a very talented photographer join us on that first trip, and he did such an incredible job of capturing the beauty and sadness of that shelter.

This beautiful mastiff easily weighs 40kgs (80+ pounds). She’s enormous and will never find a home in China because she’s an illegal breed. Her home will be the shelter until someone can adopt her from abroad. Photo courtesy of Evgeny Bakhchev.
Most of the dogs are mixed breeds. They are mostly friendly but some are quite shy. Photo courtesy of Evgeny Bakhchev.
1000 dogs is not something I can really explain. It’s something you have to see, hear and smell to properly understand. Photo Courtesy of Evgeny Bakhchev
Most of the dogs are in large cages with 20 or so other dogs. Some of them are kept separate though, due to surgeries or aggression. Some dogs were badly abused or used for fighting. Those dogs crush my heart with sadness. Photo courtesy of Evgeny Bakhchev
There are very few puppies at the shelter, surprisingly enough. They’re clearly doing something right. My guess is that they have a vet doing spaying a neutering. Photo courtesy of Evgeny Bakhchev

Everyone there left a part of their hearts behind. There were 2 animals that really stood out to me. One was a small male dog with a scar around his snout. He likely had his mouth wired shut by an abuser. He is the sweetest little dog but SO afraid of people. It took me 20 minutes of sitting there with him before he finally had the bravery to come over to me. He melted into my lap as soon as I touched him. It was like he had been waiting forever for a bit of affection.

Some dogs never really come around. They just stare at you sadly while you clean their cage. I make sure to talk to them nicely while I mop, but they run away as soon as I get too close

I dubbed my little black sweetheart “Wiggle Bum” because of the way he wiggled back and forth for 20 minutes trying to decide whether or not to come see me. You can see him in the video below. It’s not the best video, but it gives you an idea of what the shelter is like. He was also much less scared when I was there the second time. I wonder if he remembered me and remembered that I was kind to him.

The other animal that I really fell for was a beautiful, blind ginger cat. He was SO affectionate and so darn sweet. My friend Kim spent most of her time at SAPA cuddled up with him. I made sure to get lots of pictures of him and later that night, I made a flyer to try and find him an adopter, or at least to raise funds to get him healthy.

I called him Oliver, after Oliver & Company (the Disney movie)

No one was able to foster him, but a lot of people donated, so Dave and I had him moved from the shelter to our vet, where he was quarantined for a week and treated for mites, fleas, ear fungus, a sinus infection and a few other little problems.

Oliver at the vet. He looked pretty happy to be on vacation from the noisy shelter

Now, he’s staying with us and learning how to be a good house cat. He’s sweet as ever and becoming so incredibly confident!

We found out later than he was born at SAPA. His mother arrived there very malnourished and pregnant. She and Oliver’s brother both died within a year at SAPA. Oliver survived for 2.5 years!!
One of his eyes had to be removed a while back. His remaining eye doesn’t have an outer eyelid. He will need ointment for the rest of his life but is mostly fine
I spend a lot of time with him … Just watching him navigate around. He’s such an adventurous little spirit and he never seems to run out of affection to give. He’s absolutely wonderful

Since my first trip to the shelter, I’ve organized a group that people can join if they want to volunteer but don’t really know what to do or where to go. I organize buses to and from the SAPA and bring up to 25 people at a time. I’m going tomorrow again and I can’t wait!!

The group of volunteers that came down to SAPA with me on Thursday this week. It’s a holiday here in Suzhou, so I decided to make good use of the time!

Next week, the Charity challenge ends. In total, we’ve raised more than 40,000rmb ($8000 Canadian) and lost more than 225kgs (about 500 pounds) in weight!!! I’d call that a success!!!!

The challenge is nearly over, but the mission will continue!!!

If you’re reading this and wondering how you can help, drop me a line in the comments section!

Evgeny Bakhchev, our talented photographer, also put together a beautiful video about our visit, with the help of his lovely wife, Daria. Enjoy!!

Day 25: Walking

We’ve been back in China for a few days now, and the new term is underway, but I still wanted to write about our last day of holidays. It was, after all, one of our best days in Spain!

Poe is happy to have us home!

I scheduled one day in Madrid for the end of our trip for shopping, but as it turned out, we didn’t have much shopping to do, so we went sight seeing instead.

A part of the Berlin Wall

My favourite way to see a city is on foot. You see so much more than you would if you were driving around. There are so many little things to notice when you’re up close and personal with a city.

This building was behind a bunch of other buildings and I loved the lion.

Dave and I considered a few places for our final day. There are so many art galleries, museums and Historical buildings to explore in Madrid, but we really wanted to be outside, enjoying the sun!

That sky!!

Suzhou is either polluted or rainy in winter, so we wanted to take advantage of the sun and clean air as much as we could before leaving Europe.

We went through from a different area of the park and saw some new things. We also saw some old things from a new angle, which is always important!

We also walked our way through dinner, stopping at several of our favorite Tapas Bars.

We found ourselves back at Claxon for more pork belly!
Across the street there is a tapas bar that is more than 100 years old! They make wicked Spanish omelettes and their mushroom caps were great too!

By the end of the day, we had taken nearly 30,000 steps, but had seen so much more of the city. I wouldn’t change a single thing about the way we spent Valentine’s Day! It was truely a Dave and Marie sort of way to celebrate!

Such a romantic spot!

I’m back in Suzhou now. The pollution has been bad enough the last few days that my eyes are itchy and watering. At least the rain stopped…

Now I’m working on a new idea that synergizes two of my biggest passions in life: Staying healthy enough that I can continue doing awesome things and helping animals in need!
We have 43 contestants so far! Can’t wait to see how many more sign up this week!!

I’ll be back soon with some more in depth posts about our travels. I’ll be writing about:

– Madrid City and all its sights

– Segovia, Avila & Toledo: City Walls, Castles & Cathedrals!

– Our Tri-Country Roadtrip

– Poland

Stay tuned!!

Day 24: Flights

With budget airlines charging so much for luggage, Dave and I opted to pack light and save all of our shopping for the way home (international flights get better luggage allowances).

Ryan Air: too cheap in include a pocket for you to keep your stuff in during flights…

To make that happen, I scheduled a “bonus day” in Madrid after Poland, which worked out really well because we LOVED Madrid! It also meant we got to divide our flights home to make our travel days easier.

I did use our travel time well… Making posters for a couple of puppies that need homes

On this trip, we had the following flights:

– Shanghai to Paris (12 hours)

– Paris to Madrid (2 hours)

– Madrid to Barcelona (1 hour)

– Barcelona to Warsaw (3 hours)

– Warsaw to Lisbon (4 hours)

– Lisbon to Madrid (1 hour)

– Madrid to Paris (2 hours)

– Paris to Shanghai (12 hours)

That’s 37 hours of flying. When you add in layovers, we easily spent 2 full days of our holiday in airports. I Actually much prefer taking the train when possible, but flights save so much time that it’s often a no-brainer.

Our airport Facebook posts are My least favorite selfies lol. Dave always makes me, but I always look tired and cranky. This one was at least for a short flight so it wasn’t too bad

Still, flight days are useful… I often spend the time catching up with my journal, or writing up post cards. I also read. This year I reread The Diary of a Young Girl, while we were on our way to Poland. I feel like it was a good way to set the mood for some of the things we saw there.

Sometimes our post cards arrive in Canada before we make it back to China!

All of this is to say that flights and travel days are a necessary part of traveling the world.

I am grateful that we missed the bulk of the Chinese New Year Travellers! I’ve been in stations and airports this busy…. It is not a fun time!

My last post will be up soon!

Day 23: Zakopane; ZakoPAIN!

Krakow is an amazing city, so we decided to spend most of our time in Poland there. We’d also read about plenty of little day trips you can take from Krakow, so we knew we wouldn’t have difficulty filling the time.

History, architecture, food….Krakow has it all!!

For our last day in Poland, we knew we wanted to do a day trip, but we were torn between two very appealing options.

Zalipie is about an hour and a half from Krakow. The town is full of beautifully painted houses. The artwork is all done by women in traditional Polish fashion.
Zakopane is a a resort village about 2 hours from Krakow. It’s known for winter sports and hot springs

We loved the idea of spending our last day in Poland relaxing a bit, so after a lot of hemming and hawing, we decided to drive the 2 hours to Zakopane, where there are several thermal spas to enjoy.

Termi Bukowina has several saunas, different temperature baths and waterslides too.

When we set out in the morning, it had already started snowing, but being from Winnipeg, that didn’t exactly phase us. It DID worry a lot of other drivers though, and the result was a whole lot of slow moving traffic. Our two hour drive became a 3 hour drive.

It was a beautiful 3 hour drive!

When we finally arrived, we realized the town was a terrible place to try and drive in the snow. The roads are quite narrow and confusing, and there was NOWHERE to park. Finding a restaurant away from the congested city center proved to be difficult as well.

I was busy trying to help Dave navigate down the main streets, so I didn’t get pictures of the traffic, but it was bumper to bumper all the way through the town. Everyone was just crawling along

We finally found some lunch, and then head to Termy Bukowina. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out so well… On top of the place being an absolute zoo, they don’t rent towels and expected guests to buy towels in the gift shop for $15 Canadian each, instead.

Picture about 100 kids running around this place along with a whole lot of annoyed looking adults

We tried one other (smaller) hot spring, but that one was just as packed. So…. We ate some cake and drank some coffee and then drove the 2 hours back to Krakow (traffic wasn’t bad on the way back!).

I did get to see the wood cottages though! Unfortunately, the mountains surrounding Zakopane were hidden in the falling snow so we didn’t get to see that either

So that’s how we spent our last day in Poland …

On the bright side, I did manage to mail our postcards while we were there, so if you get a postcard from Poland from us, we drove 5 hours to get those to ya!!!!

I’m just going to have to come back to Poland some day to see Zalipie!

Day 22: History

Like most Canadians my age, I studied World War 2 in highschool. I learned how the war started, and about the Holocaust. We watched Schindler’s List, and discussed Canada’s role in defeating the Nazis. From a distant, removed place, I understood The Second World War.

Standing in a gas chamber is far less removed

Of course, being in Warsaw and Krakow has given me a whole new understanding of what actually happened in Poland. Visiting Auschwitz is one of the ways that we learned about Poland’s history, but our education didn’t end there.

At Auschwitz, I saw how the Nazis dehumanized the Jews in order to justify killing them… But there’s so much more to understand.

When I learned that Oscar Schindler’s factory had been turned into a museum, I knew it had to be part of our itinerary in Poland. There, we learned about what it was like living in Krakow from 1939 to 1945.

We also learned more about Oscar Schindler and his list

The museum does an excellent job of helping people understand how it felt to be in Krakow during WW2. There were various points in the museum where you could listen to people’s stories with headphones. There were lots of really neat displays as well, often having audio, to help visitors connect with what they were seeing.

While you walked through the section about the Nazi invasion in 1939, audio played with the sounds of air raid alarms and bullets. The display in this picture was about political prisoners who were arrested for disagreeing with the Nazi regime. You could hear whispering inside the “prison”. It was eerie.

The museum focused heavily on the history of the Krakow Ghetto, and I found it very informative. Honestly, I always just thought of the ghettos as “holding cells” before Jews were shipped to concentration camps, but they were more than that.

They were one of the first steps in the Nazi’s plan to dehumanize the Jewish population.

The ghetto was originally set up as a zone where all Jewish residents in Warsaw HAD to go. The Nazis claimed that Jews carried diseases and to protect the Nazi and Polish residents of Krakow, they needed to be quarantined.

The famous movie director, Roman Polanski, was a resident of the Krakow Ghetto

Jews weren’t allowed leaving the area without permission. During Passover, while Jews were celebrating, the Nazis erected a wall around the ghetto, closing the people in.

Walking through this section of the museum made me feel claustrophobic… I have a feeling that was done on purpose

Everything the Nazis did was step by step. When they arrived in Poland, they began spreading propoganda about how happy the Polish were to have them running the country. They claimed that Adolf Hitler was well loved by the people.

Shops were ordered to display pictures of Hitler.
The Nazi flag was hung all over the city to remind people who was in charge.

Then, they moved Jews into specific areas of the city. Next, they put up walls and forbid Jews to leave. Suddenly, they were in prison. Eventually supplies started running out and then the hunger started and guards became more abusive. Finally, the ghetto was liquidated and all of its inhabitants were sent to death camps nearby.

Many people were killed during the evacuation of the ghettos. The Gestapo had guns to deal with anyone who was making things difficult for them

Of course, anyone who didn’t obey with these simple rules was at risk of being thrown into prison. Anyone who tried to resist the Nazi regime was simply killed. There was a section of pictures taken during this time. Most of them were pictures of people had been killed during the weekly public hangings. In many of them, you can see executed prisoners in the background, with smiling SS soldiers in the foreground.

News articles were also displayed all around the museum. This giant contraption is a historical way to view archived newspaper clippings

Ultimately, by the time the gassing began at Auschwitz, many of the people who were willing to fight the Nazis had already been killed. Most of the people who survived the early years were terrified. Of course, there were a few brave people who fought the regime by saving Jews, or even joining the underground resistence and assassinating top Nazi leaders.

Oscar Schindler saved 1200 Jews by hiring them in his factory. There, they were given adequate food and safer working conditions. If they had been left in the camps, they would have endured starvation, beatings from the SS guards and probably death.

I highly recommend this museum. It was a great way to learn more about Krakow’s history. I know I left with a much better understanding of how things escalated during the war. I also left with a better understanding of how people fought the Nazis from within Krakow.

Schindler’s desk. This is where he worked out the details of saving 1200 Jews.

Dave and I walked down to where the Jewish Ghetto of Krakow was set up, and saw the remaining bits of wall. They were left up as a reminder of the past, and in an effort to prevent these things from happening again in the future.

Our time in Europe is coming to an end. I’ll be back soon with a post about our final day in Poland.

Day 21: Darkness

Our world has seen a lot of darkness. In Poland, we’re reminded of a particularly horrific time in history: World War 2 and The Holocaust.

Although Warsaw is an old city, the buildings are all relatively new. That’s because the majority of the city was destroyed during the second world war

Just outside of Krakow, one of the darkest pieces of our history remains standing, as a reminder of the past.

The entrance to Auschwitz. The sign means “Work Sets You Free”

As much as I dreaded my visit to Auschwitz, I knew I had to go. One of my main goals of traveling is to better understand the world, and you cannot understand Poland, or even Europe, without understanding what happened here from 1939-1945.

Canisters of Zyclon B; used to exterminate millions of innocent people

Today was hard. We saw things that will probably haunt my dreams for some time. We saw children’s shoes, human hair, gas chambers and crematoriums. We saw the faces of so many people that were murdered by racists who hated them simply because they were the wrong religion.

Dave standing in front of a display of children’s shoes. The children who wore these shoes were gassed and burned. This is only a fraction of the shoes that walked into Auschwitz.

But still…. It was important that I go. I can’t say that I now understand the Nazi’s quest to exterminate all Jews from Europe. I also can’t say I can even begin to grasp just how many people died in concentration camps. But there is one thing that I do better understand after visiting Auschwitz.

The Wall where countless people were shot to death in the early days of the camp. This was done before they had found more effective means of killing prisoners.

I understand that the Nazis did everything they could to dehumanize their victims.

They fenced their prisoners in…like cattle.

They took away their prisoners’ identities. They shaved their heads. They took away all their belongings. They separated families and isolated people. Then, they removed every trace of their prisoners’ existence when they were no longer useful to the Nazi plan.

The crematorium in Auschwitz Camp 1. This one could cremate about 350 bodies a day. In Auschwitz Birkenau (Camp2), they had 4 crematoriums to deal with more than 1 million murders that happened there.

Everything in Auschwitz was industrialized. The way prisoners were fed, killed, cleaned, murdered and burned was all done in such a way that there was no humanity in it. The prisoners who were strong enough to work wasted away with starvation so that they were hardly even recognizable as people.

There was no such thing as privacy in the camps. This is where prisoners used the toilet.

In some ways, Auschwitz was easier for me to handle than The Killing Fields of Cambodia. In Cambodia, you had to be careful not to step on the bones of victims. The Nazis aim was to erase all traces of their crimes through cremation.

If they hadn’t been such diligent with their paperwork, there would be no record of these people’s deaths at all. There are rows and rows of these inmate intake pictures from the early days of the camp. Each has a name, a country of origin, a birth date and a death date. Some also include occupation.

Now, Auschwitz has gone from a death camp to a museum, where people go to learn from the past. Of course, a big part of that is done by giving the victims back their identities. All throughout our 4 hours at the camps, we were reminded again and again of the very thing that the Nazis worked hard to make people forget: These prisoners were human beings. Not vermin to be eliminated with pesticides. Not criminals with no right to life. PEOPLE, with families, plans and dreams.

This display shows hundreds of photos of victims before the war began. They are seen with their friends and family, celebrating holidays and enjoying life. They all had hopes and plans for their future.

Auschwitz serves as a reminder of the danger there is in dehumanizing people based on their race, religion or culture. Nazis weren’t a generation of people who were simply born “bad”. They simply lived in a time where they were manipulated into believing that Jews were not equally human and therefore did not have an equal right to life.

Although many Nazis fled and never saw justice for their crimes, the camp commandant Rudolf Hoss was hanged right in Auschwitz, in 1947. The platform where his sentence was carried out is still there now.

As the Holocaust becomes a more distant part of our past, the importance of Auschwitz increases. At the entrance of the camp, we are reminded:

You are reminded why you are there within your first few minutes at Camp 1

A few more pictures from today:

A demolished crematorium in Camp 2. The Nazis destroyed it shortly before the liberation of Auschwitz, to try and hide their crimes
3 photos taken secretly while the camp was still operational. The first was of women being chased into the gas chambers. The second and third were of Nazi’s burning bodies near a fence. You can see that same fence behind the pictures. It was an eerie display
Guard towers are found all around the camp
A sanitizer for when lice became too big of a problem. Prisoners were forced to wait, naked and freezing, while their uniforms were cleaned. They also had to take disinfecting showers.
The room where prisoners waited for their sanitized clothes to be returned to them. They often waited hours
One of the gas chambers. I couldn’t bring myself to stay in there any longer than I had to. My photo is slightly blurry because I didn’t stop to take it. I just kept walking into the next room, which brought new horrors…
Another shot of the crematorium in Camp 1
Prosthetic limbs left behind by people who were gassed upon arrival. People with handicaps were not able to work, and therefore were not worthy of life
This is a tangled mass of glasses left behind by victims who no longer needed them
Ashes of victims
One of the many blocks in Camp 1

Day 20: Cooking Classes

Dave and I share a love of perogies, so naturally, they were one of the first things we ate when we arrived in Poland.

Unlike in Canada, the Polish fill their perogies with a variety of things. They have potato and cottage cheese, like in Manitoba, but they also have mushroom & cabbage, lentil and even other meats. They are simply delicious!!!

A classmate preparing cheese and potato perogies. We also made cabbage and mushroom (my favourites!!)

As I’ve mentioned in the past, Dave and I really enjoy taking classes when we travel. In Indonesia last year, we learn how to make jewelry out of both coconut shells and silver. This year, we learned how to make perogies.

Dave, flattening the dough for perfect, delicate perogies

We booked an “experience” through Air BNB, with a local lady named Marta. There were several other people offering classes through the site, but Marta’s was most appealing because she uses fresh and home grown ingredients. She’s also very clearly passionate about food

Marta is an excellent teacher!

It turns out Air BNB is just a very small part of what Marta does. Her passion for cooking and eating local food led her to create a website called Eataway, which hooks tourists up with local people who want to make a bit of money by feeding tourists authentic food.

Our class made some pretty amateur perogies, but as the day continued we got better. In the last row, the second from last one is mine. I’m quite proud of it!

It’s become a very popular website, and I encourage anyone who travels to check the site. They are set up all over the world, so if you’re on the road, and want to try some local food, check them out here!

Rose Marmalade was “injected” into our donuts

The class was so much fun! There were 8 of us there with Marta. She taught us how to make both Perogies and Pączki (Polish donuts). She also made us the best cheesecake I’ve ever had in my life!!!

She also poured salted caramel all over it. It was delightfully light and fresh tasting!

It really pays off taking classes on holiday. You meet great people, learn about culture and local life AND you support small businesses (instead of big tourist traps). I recommend Eataway to anyone travelling foodies!

Our Pączki
Making the Pączki
Beet root soup is delicious! And it has dumplings in it!!

One last glimpse into our day of fun. Apparently, to properly make Pączki, a bit of violence is involved. Watch as our classmate Tobias, “punches” the dough into submission!