Thursday, 23 July 2015

giant galapagos tortoise (not to scale)


Team Ecuador 2015 are off for the summer.  You can read about our trip preparations here; this is a volunteering project we're doing with Girlguiding and as a team leader I've been planning and preparing for this trip for abour 18 months now.  And it's finally here.

And we were all ready except for one thing.  No team mascot.  It was decided early on that it should be a Giant Galapagos Tortoise, as even though we aren't visiting the islands themselves, the tortoise has huge historical significance, and they're really lovely creatures!  But where should we get one?  Who should be responsible for looking after it?  Who would get to name it.

The debate went on.  And so unbeknownst to the team, I decided that we would each have our own mini mascot.  I found a knitting pattern for a little tortoise from Mochimochi Land (it's part of the pets collection here) and I picked up some sturdy cotton yarn. For two weeks, whenever I commuted or got on a tube or had to wait for a bus, out came my needles, the green cotton and the pattern and the little creatures gradually grew.


Meet the team of mascots!  One little giant Galapagos tortoise for each team member.  Everyone can name their own, and they won't take up valuble luggage space.  But they look a bit tumbled about here don't they?

Come on lads, line up!


That's better.  And to make sure that they were definitely Girlguiding members, I gave each of them a World Guiding Trefoil to wear proudly on their tummies.  Which they cheerfully modelled.  They are very well behaved little pets.


So now we are ready, and our little friends are ready.  I'm sure they will appear in many a photo, and as long as we're careful not to lose them (because they are very little for giant tortoises) I think they will come back with lots of stories to tell.



Their navigation skills are up-to-par as well - they must be homing tortoises.  


And this is my little friend.  I've called her Tiny.



I think the team of Tortoises is pretty excited about their upcoming adventure.  But not as excited as the team themselves - hello adventure!

Kisses xxx

P.S. Eeek! Exciting!

Thursday, 9 July 2015

one photo and twenty words


Travel is so inspiring; I've had incredible adventures this year, and I'm so excited for the summer. World: here I come!

Kisses xxx

P.S. One Photo and Twenty words is hosted by the lovely Abi over at Creating Paper Dreams.  Stop by for more pictures and stories.

Monday, 6 July 2015

high tea of highgate


It's lovely to indulge in a spot of tea and cake, and during May, I spent a lovely morning whiling away the hours with friends at High Tea of Highgate.  Safe to say I will be going again for three reasons: 1) They have a wide-ranging selection of delicious tea, 2) They have delicious cake, and 3) It is pretty and a lovely place to take pictures.



I'm always drawn in by the mismatched vintage china look, and no matter how many places serve their tea this way, it's always extremely attractive.  We sat in the window and watched the world go by and nattered away, and it was lovely to have a little sprig of blooms nodding along.



I had a very tasty slice of carrot cake, and enjoyed no less than 3 pots of tea ranging from Russian Caravan to a flavoured, summery Earl Grey through to a delectable, marzipan-inflected, almond tea.  I'm all about the black tea served with milk, but their selection was huge and between us, we got to sample quite the number!  So if you're ever passing through this area of North London, I can highly recommend High Tea of Highgate.


Kisses xxx

P.S. It's finally summer!  Season of tea and cake and Pimm's and Guide camp and travelling and photography and blogging and every good thing!

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Girlguiding International: Ecuador 2015


About a year ago in spring 2014, I attended the Girlguiding region leader selection for International projects.  It wasn’t the first time I had been, but in previous years, I had been a member of the team running the day, and making the selection.  This time, I was there with the aim of being selected and hoping that I would be lucky.



Fortune was indeed on my side and I was really excited to be asked to be one of two leaders on my first choice project, at the helm of a team of ten 18-26 year old participants.  This might sound like an unusual age-group to take on a trip as every single member of the team is an adult. But actually I think it’s important to provide opportunities for this group: for students and young professionals, for women who have the potential to be the future leaders and who will gain a massive amount of experience from the project. And I know their own units will benefit from the experiences their leaders have, and the girls’ meetings will be enriched. I love that Girlguiding places such importance of the development of its leaders as well as the girls.

Most intriguing of all, the 18-26 project is the one that begins with a completely blank canvas: we can go where we like and do what we like (within reason!) and we have been able to design a project that each member of the team believes has value and into which each person has had input.





A year later, and we have only a couple of months to go until our international project begins. And what a year it’s been! It’s not all been plain sailing: the finances are pretty complicated, booking a tangled series of flights proved a challenge, and then the airline cancelled our reservation because our funds didn’t transfer in time. Of course they didn’t: it was a Sunday. Oh, and they wanted an extra £100 to rebook them. EACH.
We are fundraising the costs for our trip, and to add another £1000 to the budget wasn’t something I was keen to do.
Of course when all this happened, I was abroad in a different time zone, up at 2:00am with 4 hours to contact each member of the team and find out if they would be able to move their lives/ jobs/ exam results/family to accommodate slightly different flight times.
The team are brilliant of course; they shuffled things round, and all is well. We have flights, and we didn't have to pay any extra.







The project we’ve put together is in Ecuador, South America.  We are heading out there at the end of July to spend a couple of weeks volunteering in a community called Las Tolas. Las Tolas is a rural settlement in the Cloud Forest which aims to be self-sustaining, and relies on the support of volunteers to assist on farms, promote local business and work on conservation projects.  Deforestation is a significant problem in Ecuador (which has one of the highest rates of deforestation in South America), but the people of Las Tolas demonstrate that through education and careful planning, communities can exist in support of the land, and thrive. We will be staying with local families and we are very much looking forward to experiencing the Ecuadorian culture, as well as contributing to the development of a community. 

We will be helping to carry out the daily running of the farms (I have been promised that I can learn to milk a cow!), clearing and maintaining forest pathways, working in the plant nursery which produces essential crops and trying our hand at any projects the community is currently running.







For our remaining time in Ecuador, we hope to experience some of the landscapes and sights of the country; we will have a couple of days to acclimatise in the capital city of Quito before our project, and once we've completed our volunteering, we are going to spend a few days in Puerto Lopez.  Puerto Lopez is a small town on the coast, and we hope to be able to observe some of Ecuador's incredible wildlife.  Ecuador is one of only 17 countries in the world described as 'biodiverse' which means there is a huge range of different plant and animal species.  We are hoping to spot whales off the coast, and encounter a variety of creatures as we visit the Isla de la Plata, a small island affectionately known as the Poor Man's Galapagos. 

We intend to pack lots of excitement into the few free days we have at the end of the project, and we're excited about the prospect of zip-lining over the forest canopy in the Cloud forest, and relaxing in natural thermal pools in the volcanic mountains outside Quito.

We have also been in contact with the Ecuadorian Girl Scouts to arrange a meeting! We’re particularly excited for this part of our trip as it’s what makes Guiding International trips really special. I love sharing and swapping Guiding stories, ideas and traditions, and I am always struck by how amazing it is to travel half way around the world into a completely different culture and still find women doing the same thing you do.

Plus we might be able to swap some badges!

As an end to our project, we will pay a visit to the Equator and we have decided to each renew our promise.  It seemed like a lovely and meaningful way to round off what I'm sure will be an amazing adventure.



So I have high hopes for our trip, and it’s been a real pleasure working with the team and getting to know them. Together we have prepared an itinerary, hiked through the night in fluorescent-pink neckers, stuck post-it notes with Spanish vocabulary on everything, eaten a phenomenal number of biscuits (they help the planning process), assessed risks, designed a badge and activity pack for our units, battled through fundraising tasks and finances and all in all, come through still smiling. And I think we have a selfie to document every step of the process so far, thanks to Rachel's well-timed acquisition of a selfie stick!
I can't wait to see what this adventure will bring!

Kisses xxx
 
P.S. I am still fundraising the money, and if are able to, or interested in supporting this project, I am collecting donations through my just givingpage here.

P.P.S. We are selling badges too – if you’re interested in purchasing a set (or even just one!) send me an email to kirsty dot merran at googlemail dot com and I can send you the free activity pack and further information.

P.P.P.S. This blog post is part of an ongoing series all about the wonderful world of Girlguiding.  You can find out more in some of the posts below:



Monday, 8 June 2015

Becoming a Queen's Guide: Girlguiding


A year after I joined my Guide unit, I was looking for a new challenge, and ways to get more involved with the Girlguiding. Browsing around on the internet, I discovered the Queen's Guide award, and decided to give it a shot.

To achieve your Queen's Guide Award, you need to demonstrate that you have completed a range of tasks which focus on participation in Girlguiding, and meeting personal challenge. That includes service within Guiding both locally and on a wider level, developing a skill, contributing to your community, completing outdoor challenges and taking part in residential events.  And it's a lot of work.

I loved working on my Queen's Guide Award.  My friend Laura and I started the award at the same time, so we were able to support one another, and we had the advice and Guidance of a mentor.  Initially, it seems like a huge amount of work to complete, but the very first thing all potential Queen's Guides are advised to do is to plan out what they're going to do and when it will all fit together. 

In order to gain the award, I worked on a photography project, I helped to run district events, I earned my residential licence so I am qualified to lead Guiding holidays, I got involved with international Guiding and I took part in a nationwide project to evaluate the program for Guiding. This involved my first ever phone conferences, a trip to the London Girlguiding headquarters, and lots of visits to local units to get their feedback.

It was totally worth it.  I loved doing it, and I would never have thought to complete my residential licence or take part in an international selection without the motivation and inspiration of the Queen's Guide Award.  It encouraged me to try new things, and I credit the Queen's Guide programme with introducing me to International Guiding!

I have now completed the award, and over Easter I was invited to attend an official presentation at the House of Commons. My Mum came with me, and we had a brilliant day. It was lovely to poke around inside the House of Commons, and I’m not going to deny that there was a little thrill in arriving at security, presenting our Girlguiding invitations, and being hustled inside.





 We spent a little time admiring the exterior, and then entered Westminster Hall.  It’s an incredibly grand surrounding, and I liked the sense of occasion.  We then proceeded through to the Central Lobby.  Anything less like a lobby can scarcely be imagined. ‘Oppulant Gallery’ would prove a more apt name, but we progressed undaunted anyway.




The presentation took place in the Members’ Dining Room.  It was a lovely venue, and we enjoyed a House of Commons cuppa in a House of Commons cup and saucer. We also nibbled some House of Commons nibbles, and then nibbled some more of them because they were delicious. Although the spring rolls (my favourite) prompted the double-dip debate.  Is it OK to dip in the sauce, have a bite and then go back for a second dip? Obviously with the other, none-chewed end of the spring roll, but is it acceptable?

I think yes, undoubtedly.

We had some time to mingle and chat before the presentations which was very enjoyable; I ran into a few other leaders whom I have met before through GOLD and I also met Gill Slocombe, the Chief Guide which was pretty exciting. She was lovely to chat to, and of course I happened upon her just when I had decided that I could probably solve the double-dip conundrum by fitting a whole spring roll in my mouth at once.
Really classy Kirsty, well done. 


There were around 40 of us from all across the UK receiving our awards that day. It was a great feeling to be presented with my award from the Chief Guide, and it represented the culmination of a huge project which I have enjoyed enormously.

In between presentations, we heard from an award holder from a previous presentation who talked about the things the award had lead her on to, and from one of the women receiving her award that day who talked about the challenges she’d faced due to her disability. We also heard from Lucy Holmes, who started the No More Page 3 campaign. It was wonderful to hear about the campaign from Lucy, as it's a cause which Girlguiding stands squarely behind. She told us of some of the difficulties she'd experienced with the campaign, and she was a brilliant speaker; inspiring and engaging. 
Plus she posed for photos. I got overexcited.



Her message was one I could relate to: as members of Girlguiding, we have power.  Power to stand up for what we believe in, power to say no to things that are not right, and we literally have the power to change your world.  All you've got to do is try.

On our way out, we perused the gift shop, which proved to be sadly lacking in badges to sew onto a camp blanket. That's quite the fail, Westminster. But my Mum treated me to a fabric logo magnet.  From which I can detach the magnet, so that it is simply a fabric emblem.  Or, in fact, a badge. Camp blanket here I come!

Kisses xxx

P.S. You can work towards your Queen's Guide Award if you're a member of the Senior Section; more information here.

P.P.S. This blog post is part of a series on Girlguiding, and you can find links to some of the other posts below:


Friday, 5 June 2015

Going for GOLD in Cambodia: Girlguiding


When I got back from my Girlguiding GOLD project in Armenia, all I could think was that I needed to this again.  And so when I was asked if I would be interested in leading the GOLD project in Cambodia the following year, I accepted straight away without hesitation.
 
Never underestimate the power of a girl with a backpack, a sturdy pair of shoes and a promise.

I had a briefing at Pax Lodge in London with the leaders of the other teams.  There were 8 of us, all GOLDies from previous years, all excited to be leading, and a bit nervous about taking on the responsibility.  Between us we would be running projects in Cambodia, Armenia, The Gambia, Malawi, Tanzania, Latvia, Guyana and Sri Lanka. We would each be teamed with 5 new recruits, and challenged with the task of turning them into the ultimate international Guiding team, capable of running training sessions, leading projects and representing Girlguiding to other associations across the globe.

No problem, of course. Thankfully, we had a lot of help and support from the GOLD coordinator, and valuable advice from the leaders of previous years.


And so preparations began in earnest.  We held briefing weekends for our team members and Team Cambodia 2013 bonded instantly.  After staying up chatting into the wee small hours on the first night we met, I knew we were going to be great.

The team proved themselves again and again, planning training sessions and activities, putting together resources and raising funds, and working towards our project aims.  We were going to be spending our first week in Cambodia working with leaders; some new and some experienced; some in their teens and some more mature, and all committed to GGAC: the Girl Guide Association of Cambodia.  We were then going to spend the next fortnight visiting two different areas of the country to work with girls, teaching them English and running activities for them.


By the time we set off, we were prepared.  The women at GGAC had kindly agreed to let us stay at their headquarters, and had set up a room for us to use.  We met with the Commissioner when we arrived, and went through our plans.  With a few changes here and there, some carefully prepared training sessions were instantly scrapped, new ones were bolted together we were ready to dig out our resources, and meet the leaders for the first few days.

My team were absolutely amazing.  They were so enthusiastic and creative: in the photo above, Libby is running a session on friendship and building relationships within Guide units.  The "pond of friendship" she is using to demonstrate a simple activity is our laundry bowl, pressed into service at the last minute!

We loved staying at GGAC and we were warmly welcomed and well looked after.  We mainly cooked for ourselves and we had some curious meals of ingredients we hadn't been able to translate when out food shopping. Grass jelly juice anyone?  But occasionally, some of the GGAC volunteers would be cooking too, and they always let us try the delicious food they rustled up.


As we progressed into our second week, we set off into rural communities and got to meet and work with some of the girls.  We were expecting large groups, but were delighted to have over sixty girls attend some sessions!  It's a bit of a challenge adapting your session to satisfy girls aged between 3 and 15 years old, but we managed to include everyone and I think they had fun!  We hoped to pass on some of our games and activities to their leaders too, and once the girls got used to seeing us, they would wave, and laugh and ask for songs they liked and games they enjoyed.

While we didn't speak the same language, games are universal. Anyone can get the hang of a parachute pretty quickly, and when you're laughing and dancing along to a song, it doesn't really matter if you don't know the words.



We experienced lots of different environments during our activity sessions.  There was the day when we went exploring during our beautifully sunny lunch break, and a monkey stole our lunch out of our hands.  There was the day when it poured down, monsoon rain drenching the yard, and the girls all went home for the rest of the day.  Apparently that's normal practice, but we were a bit wet and bemused!  There was the classroom with the enormous spider. I am ashamed to say we squealed and overreacted a bit out of surprise, but one of the leaders dealt with it, gravely explaining that it was "very dangerous".  Yikes.  And there were sessions with no classroom at all, where shade was provided by the palm trees, chickens pecked around our feet, and tiny, scrawny dogs got underfoot.



During our final week in Cambodia, a local family accommodated us while we were doing the activity sessions, and we were immersed in the Cambodian way of life.  They took us out rice picking one morning, and giggled at our ineptitude.  Fair enough - we did a pretty poor job - but it's back-breaking work and they do it for hours at a time.  We tried loads of traditional food, as being near the coast, locals pop to the market each morning to see what's available from the fishing boats. They also picked coconuts from the trees for us, and taught us how to hack into them with an axe. One afternoon we were taken on a walk; the area was lush and beautiful, and we tramped cheerfully through the grass laughing with the villagers.  And then they laughed at us when they brought us to a waterfall and told us to jump in.
 
Our clothes dried out reasonably quickly on the walk back.

We took part in a promise ceremony during which lots of local girls were enrolled as members of GGAC. Making her promise is an important moment in the life of any Guide, as that's when you become a full member, and promise to do your best to live up to the ideals of Guiding. It was a beautiful setting, outside with the girls proudly arrayed in their uniform from the youngest members, called Dragonflies, up to the oldest Guides.  One of the girls translated for us, and it was a bit of a surprise when I heard her explain that the Commissioner was telling everyone that I was going to make a speech.

So I did.  I have no idea how it was translated. But it was incredibly special to be part of a promise ceremony thousands of miles from home, and watch girls become part of a movement to which we all belong.
 
On our final night, the local villagers held a little festival where everyone gathered around a campfire and roasted some pumpkin-like vegetables and danced.  We learned some traditional Khmer moves, and mixed in a bit of 90s disco; the flames flickered in the dark and land crabs hurried out of their burrows and scuttled around.



At the end of the 3 weeks, we were exhausted.  The heat and humidity takes its toll if you're not used to it, and it was an effort replacing all the salt we were sweating out, and staying hydrated.  Still, never go anywhere without some Dioralyte: it might not taste nice, but it will perk everybody up in time to play Duck Duck Goose with some lively 6-year-olds who aren't the least bit bothered by the fact that it's over 30 degrees and you could wring the air out like a sponge.

The girls we met were so happy, so full of life, and so grateful for our time that we were sorry to leave.  We had a ceremony at GGAC headquarters before our flight, attended by the Princess who is the Patron of GGAC, and we knew we would miss the friends we had made.  I have so many stories and memories of good times and challenges that I could write and write and write and still have more to share.  

Projects like this always highlight the fact that wherever you are in the world, girls are girls. and it doesn't matter if you're in the UK or in rural Cambodia. I have never received better hospitality or a kinder welome from strangers anywhere.  It was a real privilege to live and work with these wonderful women.



Back in the UK, we debriefed and wished the next Team Cambodia luck as they took over the project to continue its development for the next year. But three reunions in, there's no chance of me losing touch with my wonderful team; they quickly became true, close friends who made the whole experience magical.  Here's to the next one, and to more international adventures!

Kisses xxx

P.S. This post is part of a series all about Girlguiding.  If you want to find out more, head to any of the posts linked below!

This is what Girlguiding means to me

My Life as a Guide Leader

Camping with the Guides

GOLD: Going International with Girlguiding

Camping in Armenia

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Camping in Armenia: Girlguiding


During our time in Armenia, we attended the national annual Guide camp. It was pretty much our favourite week of the whole GOLD project (you can read about the Armenia GOLD project here). Guiding is still growing in Armenia, and so the people you can see in the picture above represents about half of the total number of campers.  Some of the girls came with older brothers to look after them, and altogether we made a cheery bunch.


We were met by a bus in the centre of the capital city, Yerevan.  Eventually, after a couple of hours wait, because that's just the way things roll. We all crammed in and set off across the country, occasionally stopping to pick up more people, and we finally stopped abruptly at the end of a track simply because the somewhat dilapidated bus couldn't go any further.

It turned out to be one of the most beautiful places I have ever camped.  We were truly in the middle of nowhere, and while that means no facilities, it also means stunning landscape, soaring mountains and complete, open freedom.

I say no facilities: there might not have been a toilet or running water, but somehow the campers had managed to rig up a sound system for playing disco music all day, and a mobile phone charging station that was nailed to a tree and covered with a plastic bag in case of rain.

If you did need to spend a penny, as my grandma would say, you could nip under the tarpaulin they'd erected and pee in a whole in the ground.  Admittedly it would have been nicer if wasps didn't hang out under the tarp with you, but at least we had charged phones.


We spent our mornings in all sorts of activities; one morning we trudged up and down the mountainside collecting wood from an enormous fallen tree.  We used about a quarter of what we collected in the end, but the exercise will have done us good. We learned how to make a solar cooker from a cardboard box.  A man travelled out to camp specially to teach us that, but the girl who was translating for us gave up after a while in disgust, explaining "he's just going on about how great he is, it's really boring, you don't want to know".

Nobody managed to make a successful solar cooker.

Our afternoons were spent losing in impromptu volleyball tournaments, and our evenings were spent dancing until we had no more breath, when we would grab a hot drink and huddle round the camp fire as the temperature dropped, singing, laughing at one another's attempts to vault the language barrier, and enjoying our time together.


The girls we met were so incredibly welcoming and affectionate.  They would seek out our company and make sure we were included; they taught us games and we shared some we knew, and they showed us how to write short phrases in the flowing, Armenian script.  It didn't matter that we didn't speak the same language; we got on like a house on fire.

I came away from camp feeling that there was a lot we could learn about camping from the Armenian Guides: how to manage with limited resources, how a ball and a net can instantly bond a group of people into a team, and how if you try and win a fancy dress competition for your team by wearing a ground sheet and some twigs and calling yourself jungle lady, you will never live it down.

They called me Jungle Lady for the rest of camp.

I did win though, and I think the team appreciated the effort.





One afternoon we had a visit from the larger, and considerably better funded scouts, and we visited their camp for an evening.  It's difficult for the Guides to compete, and sadly they find it difficult to get members when compared the scouts who have government funding, fancy uniforms and swish, highly equipped camp-sites. 

But NUGGGS (Nattional Union of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts in Armenia) support themselves independently of the government, hold by their own ideals and ethics, and champion the cause of girls.  Watching them instigate a flashmob at the scout camp, with all the girls joining in, leaping up from the audience, singing and dancing with laughter and exuberance, was a really inspiring moment. As they dragged us into the fray, it was plain that they have just as much potential and quite possibly more fun than their counterparts.


We experienced uninterrupted, glorious sunshine on camp. Of course on the last night, the heavens opened, the rain was torrential, there was a thunderstorm so loud we couldn't even shout across to each other in adjacent tents, and we had to bring our backpacks into the sleeping compartment with us.  It was the only bit of our tent which remained dry. The little porch was somewhat lacking in integrity and our bags were just absorbing the flow of water as it cascaded over our flimsy groundsheet.

We fared better than most.  In the morning we discovered that most of the Armenian campers' tents had completely flooded as they weren't really built to withstand rain. British tents pretty much expect to get rained on.  Anyway, they had run from the field and taken shelter in an abandoned former soviet concrete building that just happened to be lying about.

We spent our final morning unpegging tents, and literally pouring the water out of them. And trying to mime that when they get back to Yerevan, they need to lay the tents out to dry.

I will never forget this incredible week, or the friends I made; the warmth with which we were welcomed and the beauty of the mountains.

Kirsty xxx

P.S. If you want to find out more about GOLD, you can find more information at the Girlguiding website here.

P.P.S. This post is part of a little series I'm doing about my experiences with Girlguiding - you can read some of the others by following the links below:

This is what Girlguiding means to me

My Life as a Guide Leader

Camping with the Guides

Going International with Girlguiding