I ticked off an item on my bucket list when I went whale watching a few weekends ago, and I had such a fantastic time that I thought I’d write a quick blog post about it. It was the best outdoor adventure we’ve had in Sydney so far – though Wollongong came close and I’m pumped about going to Waterfall this weekend (more blog posts coming soon!).
We moved to Sydney last year in late October, which is the tail end of whale watching season – meaning we missed out (FYI the whale watching season runs from May to November). I had no idea that whale watching was so affordable: I bought tickets on Groupon and it cost us $35 each (down from $80 each) for the three hours we spent at sea.
As we lined up to get on the boat at Darling Harbour, one of the staff from Go Whale Watching warned us that the sea conditions were rough that day and that we could come back another time if we weren’t up for it.
“I’m not joking – it’s really rough out there. But it’s not unsafe,” he said merrily.
Sherpa and I looked at each other nervously but decided to press ahead – we’d managed to have it together enough on a Sunday morning to make it there on time and didn’t want to risk not being able to repeat that… I do wonder how many people end up in flat-out dangerous situations for really banal reasons.
Anyway, we took a seat on the upper deck and cruised out under Sydney Harbour Bridge. We were given a safety talk, the main point of which seemed to be to hang on to something with at least one hand at all times. ‘All times,’ repeated the dismembered voice through the loudspeakers.
As soon as we left the harbour and hit the seas, the boat started rocking like a mechanical bull. It was nuts! As I held onto a pole so hard that my knuckles turned white, a passenger opposite looked at me and said, ‘This is crazy.’ I didn’t see him again after that because he went down to the ‘puke chamber’ (the indoor section), which is where most of the passengers sadly ended up. Sherpa and I were one of the few who didn’t get seasick. I don’t know why but I was so grateful.
I was terrified of falling into the freezing Tasman Sea but I stopped being such a chicken when we saw our first whale (which was only about 30 minutes into the trip). It was so beautiful, huge and exciting that I remembered the reason why I was on the boat. I was also reassured by the female staff member who told me that her husband was steering the ship and that she wouldn’t go out to sea with anyone else (I’d been bleating about not being able to see the life jackets – she told me they were downstairs).
We also caught sight of a mother and baby that splish-splashed quite close to us for a couple of hours as they swam together side by side. I now know that humpback whales are the most fun whales – they have the best moves. Fortunately, those are the ones that you can see in Sydney.
Just to give an indication of how rough the seas were that day – for about an hour, no one took photos. Like, no one. Even though the photo opps were crazy amazing. We needed to hold on with both hands! In the incessant selfie culture that we live in these days, I think that speaks volumes about how much our boat was rocking and rolling. A massive wave would come towards us and everyone would titter, ‘Ooooooh’ and then squeal as we came thumping down the other side of it. I’m pretty sure that we had unusually wild weather that day and it wouldn’t normally be an issue (and voyages are cancelled if the weather is really bad). And when I got used to it and realised we weren’t going to capsize, it was a massive rush and I sort of loved it.
Go Whale Watching offers a money-back guarantee if you don’t see any whales. I was sold as soon as I read that bit of their sales pitch on Groupon. We didn’t see any whales breaching (ie flipping up in the air) near us, though I did see a couple breach further out in the distance. The thing to remember, as our captain pointed out as we passed by Taronga Zoo, is that you’re seeing animals in the wild, and animals in the wild can’t be summoned to appear or to hang around and do tricks. That may sound obvious but when you’re really hyped about seeing whales, it will prevent you muttering stuff under your breath that makes you sound like a crazy lady, i.e. ‘Dumb whales’.
My photos aren’t that spectacular (I was holding on, remember), so I asked Go Whale Watching if I could publish pics from their Facebook page of other journeys, which they have kindly allowed me to do. Don’t worry, this post isn’t sponsored – I just wanted to tell you how amazing it is to see whales in Sydney and to urge you do it before they leave us behind on their amazing 5,000 kilometre journey north.
The Darcy Street Project is a social enterprise in Parramatta that has taught 450 people from disadvantaged backgrounds the fine art of making great coffee and how to land that all-important first job in hospitality.
John Cafferatta has loved coffee since he was a student working in restaurants and cafes to support himself. He was able to combine his passion with his profession as a vocational trainer when he set up the Sydney Coffee Academy during his decade-long stint at TAFE. He also took on a few roles in the private sector and was contracted to teach small business planning to prison inmates and later, at-risk youth in Hawkesbury. He told The Point Magazine that one day it dawned on him that while there were plenty of opportunities for vocational training, far fewer existed for something just as vital – work experience.
“My students kept saying to me, ‘I asked for a job down the road and they said I need experience.’ Almost ten times out of ten a café owner will say to someone who asks for a job, ‘Can you make me a coffee?’ They’ll get the job instantly if they can.”
“I’d had a really rough few years that I was getting over… I’d had a really abrupt move back to Sydney, suffered a whole lot of health problems and my dad, who I was caring for, passed away. I was sort of at that lost point. It’s done wonders for me, being at the Darcy Street Project.”
– Anita Luck
Cafferatta felt that existing training programs “rushed students out the door” before they had time to build up enough confidence, which he believes only comes after making 500 cups of coffee. He also found himself doing so much training that he started to lose touch with an industry he loved. Cafferatta resolved to set up a social enterprise that would provide an open-door policy to its trainees: they would be welcome to return to the Darcy Street Project to hone their coffee-making skills as often as they wished after completing an initial two-day course.
Now in its third year of business, the Darcy Street Project recently started a program that involves Kenyan, Sudanese and Ethiopian refugees roasting the imported coffee and selling it in Sydney, with the proceeds being sent back to their families or used to fund youth programs in Sydney. John said he is keen to extend the project to include other refugee communities in Sydney, such as the Iraqi and Afghan community.
Many of the trainees at the Darcy Street Project are refugees or newly arrived migrants, with referrals coming in from migrant centres, community colleges and local councils.
Anita Luck, 45, heard about the Darcy Street Project through Evolve, a community-housing provider in Werrington. She spent two weeks last year learning barista skills and after returning to the Darcy Street Project once a week for several months, now works there part-time.
“I was sort of doing nothing before I started,” she said.
“I’d had a really rough few years that I was getting over. Even on the day the course started I was in a mass panic about whether I could turn up. I’d had a really abrupt move back to Sydney, suffered a whole lot of health problems and my dad, who I was caring for, passed away. I was sort of at that lost point. It’s done wonders for me, being at the Darcy Street Project.”
Selim Unutmaz, 22, got involved with the social enterprise last year when he was still at university. He now works full-time as a journalist but continues to open the cafe on weekends. He has helped Cafferatta train students, many of whom he said had no exposure to coffee and like him, were very short on confidence in the beginning.
“A lot of people who came in for training were new to the world of work in Australia. Beyond learning barista skills, they also learnt about Sydney’s café culture. I have been overseas and saw the work environment of other countries. For example, in Turkey, where my family is from, people are very relaxed when it comes to work. Australia’s work culture is much more hands-on,” he said.
Trainees are also provided with help in updating their CVs, along with preparing for interviews and developing life skills such as being on time and taking initiative. The social enterprise also introduces trainees to local businesses, including the Coffee Emporium and Soul Origin.
However, John isn’t content to simply continue doing what he’s already doing. He is currently in talks with registered training organisations and local councils about setting up smaller versions of the café in the likes of Blacktown and Fairfield, as well as offering training in the back-of-house trade of roasting.
His next move is importing a solar-powered coffee cart from Sweden. He wants to link it up with Parramatta’s soup kitchen, which gives out 36,000 lunches to homeless people every year.
With a sparkle in his eye, he pulled out his phone to calculate how many students could receive training if he were able to convince enough companies to provide corporate sponsorships.
“It would be a win-win,” he said, beaming.
The Darcy Street Project is located at City Centre Carpark Shop 4, 4/71 George Street, Parramatta. For more information, visit the Darcy Street Project’s website
Sun’s Burmese Kitchen is a homely, understated affair that sits within a line of shops in Blacktown, western Sydney. Its red and yellow walls are dotted with huge photographs of Yangon’s glittering Shwedagon Pagoda, the ancient temples of Bagan and, like any proper Burmese establishment, a portrait of its iconic democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
The restaurant owner Sunny Myint Aungis a quiet man of few words, but the pride he takes in serving up authentic Burmese cuisine five thousand miles away from Myanmar is evident.
“In Burma, there is a very famous dish called dan bauk [the Burmese version of biryani]. I met a Burmese chef in Bangkok who gave me his dan bauk recipe and taught me how to make it. So our dan bauk here is really special.”
Sunny is able to source all the ingredients he needs from a warehouse that supplies products of Myanmar origin, such as lapet thoke, a delicious tea leaf salad that’s used to relieve fatigue.
Sunny was already well-known in western Sydney’s Burmese community before he opened his restaurant in 2012. He was a regular fixture at community events, and cooked for large crowds at the local church.
“The Burmese community comes to the restaurant for meals and sometimes they bring their new friends, so that they can try Burmese food. And they like it, so they come again.”
Sunny opened his first restaurant in 1998, but was ultimately forced to close the business due to being unable to make a decent profit margin in the face of high overheads.
“Rents are so high – there’s a lot of hardships for small businesses,” he said.
He spent a decade working at a bakery before trying his hand at the restaurant business once again. He has set up a team comprising his Filipina wife Lyn, and their 23-year-old son.
“This is a family business – my, wife, son and I are hard-working and we started slowly, slowly,” he explained.
Sunny’s story of leaving Myanmar is unusual for its lack of drama. He left at the age of 30 to work as a sea merchant, rather than fleeing political unrest or persecution as many of his compatriots did during the eighties and following decades. He spent a decade sailing around the world and lived in Hong Kong, Singapore and Papua New Guinea before settling in Australia with his parents and his wife.
Sunny’s preoccupations are the same as any small business owner in Australia: keeping his business healthy. When asked if he follows events in Myanmar, including the historic general elections of 2015 he said, “I’m really out of touch. I’ve only been back twice and I have no family left in my home town of Mawlamyine. My son’s been once and he doesn’t want to go again.”
When I told Sunny that I lived in Myanmar for four-and-a-half years, he didn’t seem particularly curious to hear about it. In that respect, he also struck me as unusual, as most Burmese will fire a volley of questions, wanting to know the parts of the country outside Yangon I’d visited, whether I could speak Burmese and what I made of the country’s politics. It wasn’t until at least 30 minutes into our meeting, when I was busy taking photos of the restaurant, that he turned to me and said, “How is Myanmar these days?”
“Not much different,” I replied.
He paused for a second and said, “It is different. It’s better than before.”
Sunny was right. Myanmar has undoubtedly entered a new era, one where students and monks are no longer shot dead in the streets and people can speak freely about their leader, Aung San Suu Kyi – rather than speaking in whispers due to fear of arrest by military intelligence. I arrived in Myanmar in 2012, two years after Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest, where she’d spent a total of 16 years. Its government in 2012 was quasi-civilian, but many people still lived in fear. When I joined The Myanmar Times, its co-founder Sonny Swe was still serving what would be an eight-year sentence for breaching harsh censorship laws. These same laws were abolished later that year and Sonny was released, along with hundreds of other political prisoners, in a government amnesty in April 2013. I went with a large group of newspaper staff to meet him at Yangon Airport, where he’d been flown from a remote prison in Shan State. It was a joyous, tearful reunion.
Other noticeable changes included making SIM cards affordable, giving people access to mobile phones and the internet for the first time. In 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, took part in by-elections (and won their seats by a landslide). However the real test for Myanmar came in November 2015, when general elections were scheduled to take place. If held successfully, they would end half a century of military rule.
At the time I was working as senior consultant editor for the state-run newspaper, The Global New Light of Myanmar. The opportunity arose when a two-year partnership between it and Japan’s Kyodo News came to an end and they were seeking to keep a couple of foreign editors on the news desk. After a 20-minute explanation of the newspaper’s desire to become more “people focused” and being quizzed about my background for less than 10 minutes, I was asked if I could start work that same evening.
The newspaper had recently become a joint venture between the Ministry of Information and a little-known investor and was trying hard to improve its image. During the decades of junta rule it was a truly nasty rag. Aung San Suu Kyi was never mentioned by name, but crude sexual cartoons of her appeared regularly – she was depicted as being a whorish puppet of the West. The newspaper had drastically toned down its propaganda while maintaining something of a stranglehold on breaking news, because it received military and government announcements first via the state-run Myanmar News Agency. In the lead up to the election, Aung San Suu Kyi had said she would privatize Myanmar’s state-owned media – a promise she failed to keep.
I got a lot of flak from my fellow journalists when I started working for a newspaper that was nicknamed ‘The Dim Light of Myanmar’ and ‘The New Lies of Myanmar’. Some were a little more encouraging – as the editor of Democratic Voice of Burma wryly remarked on my Facebook wall, “Maybe they’ll publish today’s weather instead of yesterday’s.”
One of my colleagues was a highly intelligent, politically-minded, father-of-one, who’d worked there for more than a decade. When I asked him how he felt about having to translate the really nasty editorials and propaganda, he said, “I also teach English and I know that most teachers used the New Light as supplementary materials. There were other books and things in the market but they were expensive. I’d say to them, ‘Don’t listen to the content – just take the language.”
In the lead up to the election, the whisperings of my colleagues started to worry me. Some were adamant that a coup was looming while others had theories about the government trying to provoke the public to take to the streets so as to be able to indefinitely postpone the elections. They were justifiably untrusting; the most recent multiparty elections were held back in 1990, when Aung San Suu Kyi’s landslide victory had been overturned by the military.
When I entered the newsroom that historic Sunday after the vote had taken place, colleagues proudly showed me their ink-stained pinkies and told me they’d lined up to cast their votes as early as 4am – just to ensure that they wouldn’t miss the chance to vote if lines were long. For many it was the first time in their lives they’d ever voted.
We rushed over to the newsroom’s TV to watch vote cards being counted, with cheers emerging onscreen and off when a vote went to the new government. It was clear that a landslide was taking place. We cracked open a bottle of Mandalay Rum and toasted the NLD’s emblem. “To the peacock!” we cheered. It seemed as though Myanmar had finally begun a brighter chapter as I penned the next day’s headline, ‘Dawn of a new era.’
In March, it will be a year since the NLD took office. However, progress in making reforms has been slow. Aung San Suu Kyi, who is constitutionally barred from being president but is the nation’s de facto leader, has kept the media at arm’s length and according to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2017, the human rights situation in Myanmar hasn’t seen significant improvement, and in some ways is even worse.
The NLD released 200 political prisoners when it first entered office, however issues of concern to HRW include the lack of protection of free speech and the worsening situation for Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State. There has also been heightened conflict between the Burma Army and several ethnic armed groups, despite the signing of a nationwide ceasefire agreement in October 2015.
However while the government’s performance has been weaker than expected, Sunny was right in appreciating the changes that have taken place, and that people, including myself, may be too quick to forget how far Myanmar has come. It’s also difficult not to be optimistic about the future when one thinks about the people of Myanmar. Before leaving Sun’s Burmese Kitchen, I ordered dan bauk for my husband and my absolute favourite Burmese dish, Shan tomato salad, as take-away for that evening’s dinner. When Sunny smilingly gave me the food parcels and insisted they were a gift, I was again reminded how kind, warm and generous the Burmese are. Virtually every day that I lived in Myanmar, I was touched by an act of kindness, whether by a taxi driver or someone I knew. It came as no surprise to me when the 2016 Giving Index again ranked Myanmar the world’s most generous country (with Australia coming in at third). It’s hard not to feel optimistic about a nation of people so inclined to kindness, despite the many obstacles that remain.