Archive | May, 2011

What more. could you want?

31 May

We all know the phrase “A picture is worth a thousand words” and I think these photos of a local supermarket in Tamil Nadu say it all!

Good old consumerism eh?

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Pop quiz time!

30 May

Q. What do you do when you return from your volunteering experience overseas?

A. Bore your friends and family with endless stories of your wild adventures and amazing interactions with the locals.

B. Go back to your office job and muse over that hazy, distant dream.

C. Reflect on your amazing experiences and use them as a launch pad for your journeys back home.

D. Become disillusioned and promptly leave the country, bound for more traveling adventures.

I did all of the above, and permutations of combinations in between as well.

As a ‘returned volunteer’, you’re a piece of the puzzle that doesn’t fit. You generally have to find a spot to fit in, or carve your own spot. I prefer the latter.

Thinking about different worlds, and how people live in such different worlds sometimes does my head in. Sometimes I see the cleaners in my office block, and I remember the maid I had in Vietnam and the wonderful relationship I developed with her.

Some of you out there are understandably thinking, ‘You exploitative pig!’, in response to the fact I had a maid. Sure, I initially was against it. However, it’s a legitimate and respectable occupation, and if I can pay her rather generously for her services, and help her put her daughter through tertiary education (very rare for girls in Vietnam), then I’ll happily do it.

There’s a guy who comes around and waters the many plants in my office block, and tends to them, by wiping them of dust etc. He comes around once every fortnight. I have a bit of a chat with him whenever he’s around. He’s really nice and I’d like to do that job or something like that at one stage in my life. Or a window cleaner of buildings. It’ll be like rock climbing each day. How fun! These individuals have jobs which are a bit out of the ordinary (as compared to office workers).

It reminds me of being a jigsaw piece that doesn’t quite fit.

I recently moved to a new division, new branch, new team in my organisation. Everyone is nice, but I can tell they find it a bit difficult to suss me out. They aren’t sure where or how I fit in the work environment. I need to carve out my own space.

For me, I’m comfortable being an unfitting jigsaw piece. It’s liberating. I have the freedom to dream, to be creative, to determine my own journey. I attribute my older brother and sister as key shapers of this ‘philosophy’.

At the beginning of my final year in high school, they painted a painting for me for my birthday in February. It depicted a hand pushing aside long grass to reveal the sandy shores of a beach with blue, blue sky extending upwards. The words “Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail” were stretched across the top of the painting.


It was such a strong message of encouragement from both of them, particularly as I was being pressured to embark on certain paths at that point in time. I wasn’t very confident at that point in time either. So that gift was such a force in my final year of high school. I ended up choosing a path in university that I’m very happy with. That message still resonates with me, and was definitely pivotal in my decision to leave Sydney (and family and friends) to volunteer in Vietnam for a year. To leave physical comfort and lack of fulfilment, for physical discomfort and much-needed life-changing and self-shaping experiences and wonderful challenges and opportunities along the way.

Being an unfitting jigsaw piece suits me fine. It’s much more interesting for me that way.

The Loo and the Shower. Signs of comfort?

28 May

I don’t mean to mope but…. Delhi belly in 5 degree weather, spending a good part of the day hovering over this loo was not a

Loo With a View“.

We sure did spent some time together. Concrete walls. Concrete floor. No windows. A light when the solar panels were charged (not often). It was a lonely place. I am a convert to the toilet squat, I really is a good “poo position”. But ….  not with Delhi Belly. Holding the squat position for more than a minute, the thighs burn, the feet cramp up, the Western body can’t handle it.

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And the shower, no hot water. No heating here. No warmed cement. No warmed water.

Girls washed in this room communally (clothes stayed on, it was too cold). The girls had long hair they flicked over their heads and let the tap water flow down the back of their neck, follow the wave of their hair, to drop off into a bucket on the floor. A friend ran shampoo through it, rinsed it off, then wrapped it up in a towel.

So my hair got washed once a week. The rest had to wait for 6 months until I got my hair cut on the way home in Delhi and asked if they had a bathroom. They did, with a hot shower! I washed for the first time in a long time, used the provided hand (body) soap  and dried off with the hand towel. The hairdresser gave me an inquisitive look, 15 mins on the toilet?… and I gave him a smug look of achievement. The best shower of my life.

The Golden Van

28 May

This formidable beast rode up mountains, sped over rigid terrain and fit all of us in there like packed sardines. I miss it. I am not a huge one for hugs and personal space invasion; I like wide-open spaces and a good arms length (or two) from me and the next person. So being squished in this car with everyone, everyday was hugely overwhelming but something that I grew to love despite the stench of some people after a days work on site – a mixture of sweat, dried mud and wet grass.

The kids chasing our van down, yelling "stay stay don't go"

This old bus became our friend. One day we got into a little crash with it coming back from the school. The route back consisted of a narrow and windy dirt track populated with potholes. It was a thrill, though sometimes genuinely scary. The car that we hit was a little white one akin to a really outdated Toyota Corolla but still not as flash, but it miraculously still fit people eight in it. The car’s front window prominently displayed “Dios Es Amor” upon the top, meaning “God is love” in Spanish. It was really awkward crashing into a car declaring that.

It felt like a wild adventure atop a monstrous mountain. Imagine it now, a huge golden van colliding with a tinsy winsy car and both were left dangling millimetres of the mountain’s edge. It wasn’t that dramatic, no one was hurt thankfully and neither car was too damaged surprisingly, given the size differences. Our car ride that however, only got more exciting as two people in it were close to getting sick. They were infested with salmonella and you could imagine why everyone (except for me woo!) got so sick being cramped in close proximity of each other, always. Everyone was breathing in each others’ diseases and their bodies were unable to fight it due to the high altitude. I don’t know why I didn’t get sick, I must be super human or something, or maybe I just played in too much mud and filth when I was a kid and I’m now immune to everything. Moral of the story – eat things off the floor, you’ll be stronger for it.

Look at us, cuddled up nice and close

Drivin' the beast (well pretending to)

Combinations of the extremes

27 May

This happened to a friend of a friend of mine. I quote him directly:

What I would have given for a fully functioning stomach! How much it impacted my volunteer work, how much I underestimated it, how much I rejoiced in the ‘normal’ flow of bodily goods (or bads).

I have never experienced such gut pain, such inability to go and incapacity to stop, and incompetence to know when either might happen.

“How are you feeling today?” Directly translated into: have you gone today? no.

“Are you coming into the office today?” directly meant: can you leave the vicinity of the toilet? no.

I would slump slouch and lug a few days food around (!): how could something that was so simple and previously unconsidered and essentially taboo be dictating my every move? MY EVERY MOVE? And be the topic of multiple conversations? with multiple different people? This went of for the whole time. The whole summer. Nearly every morning I woke, wondering if I would be blessed with the good fortune of…

Overall, it stretched to the extremes (more painful than having a baby), and combinations  of the extremes. Christmas day had me crying unable to get to lunch, unable to leave the hotel room for fear of .. (!)

India tore my tummy apart, I have never experienced such a rainbow of events. What I learnt from all this? be grateful that things work normally! Never take the flow for granted.

(my poor friend)

Christmas Hack …

25 May

Triple J Hack – Christmas Island Volunteers

Did anyone hear Hack on Triple J yesterday evening? I got into my car after coming out of the gym and heard the words “Christmas Island”, “ALIV” and “detention”, and had intense flashback moments to working in the detention centre on Christmas Island in January this year.

Have a listen – it’s really interesting. Start at about 5:25 if you’re short of time!

Mass distraction

23 May

I realise I’ve been lacking my weapons of mass distraction while I’ve been over here, only one book one book that I gave my soul to (yes it was shantaram – THE book anyone says to read if youre going, and the most common book in hostels.being red in cafes – ) but that’s the brilliant part of it, it was brilliant, it heightened my experience and when I wasn’t justifying what I was doing there or feeling tired from hours on bus, I was reading – it made the hours ease glide and took the edge off dust up the nose.

The point is I wanted to read, and if it wasn’t reading it was meditating, and as much as it enhanced by experience it also served as an escapism  tool a means by which I would not be there, I was no where, I was in the book, or in my breath(?) – it helped me cope. Cope with what exactly? another entry for that.

But I realising it wasn’t coping as much as it was switching off the systems. Cheating a bit. Lessening the impact of powerful India. It was, after all the whole summer break, a part of me wanted to embrace that uni down time and it was hard to not feel ‘guilty’ for that.

Loo With a View

23 May

I came across this picture and it reminded me of our coffee meeting we had where Pru, myself and some of the friends shared our memorable toilet experiences while serving!

loo with a relaxing view

my cousin enjoying the facilities 🙂

This ‘romantic’ loo was taken at a private safari lodge I stayed in while doing a bit of travel in South Africa.

I don’t think I have ever been more excited and keen to pay a visit to the bathroom!

However it was short-lived and back to the classic loo, drop toilet, hole in the ground, whatever you want to call it.

loo with a not so pleasant view!

The Volunteer Position and its Realities

23 May

I am pleased to introduce our new guest blogger Lyn Drummond, who is sharing today an apart from her article Volunteering in Chuuk, Micronesia. Lyn is a journalist who has also worked in public affairs with overseas Australian embassies in Brussels and Budapest.  She completed her Masters in International Relations degree at Macquarie University in December, 2010.  She has worked on two volunteer assigments, in Chuuk, Micronesia, in 2002 and in Hanoi, Vietnam in 2010 with a group from Macquarie University.

I went to Chuuk, one of the four administrative divisions of the Federated States of Micronesia in the South Pacific Ocean, to work as a volunteer. I had been offered the 3-month contract through an aid agency which places business volunteers mainly in Asia and North and South Pacific countries for short term assignments lasting from a few weeks to a maximum of six months. I took three months leave without pay from my job and set off.  I settled into a small but comfortable room at the Truk Stop. Next door was the “office” where I worked, occupied by my client, who slept there, one or two staff, and me.

Resources scarcely existed. My employer had a laptop which she loaned me while she went overseas for five weeks, leaving me to figure out what she actually wanted me to do. Not quite what I expected from the job description which specified that all necessary resources would be provided for my work, including a computer and a client who would be present.

Back in Sydney, the job had sounded intriguing. It included training Chuukese women in public relations, holding relevant workshops, producing a newsletter, and initiating various gender awareness campaigns. The reality was quite different. I was led to believe my employer was a women’s network, but in fact it was only one woman who was campaigning to get into Federal politics

Upon her return from various trips my employer’s views about my role constantly changed. Ultimately I had no idea what was required. I could have returned to Australia immediately as the resource criteria had not been met, particularly after a vicious cyclone devastated the island a few weeks into my arrival, causing landslides which flattened many flimsy homes and killed hundreds, including some of my client’s relatives.

The aid agency asked me if I would consider returning to Australia, but I was challenged and involved by then, and wanted to stay. An imminent threat of cholera almost changed my mind but luckily the disease held off. I helped with cyclone relief work, delivering food supplies to the stricken islanders who had pitched tents beside the rubble of their homes, or where they used to stand—now buried under the landslides.

I returned to Australia from Chuuk sad that I had not completed the extent of the work I had hoped, but with potent memories of friendships, a greater understanding of my own and other’s fallibilities, and memories of the special excitement of unexpectedly finding things which meant so little back home—like baked beans and coconut cakes.

P.S. Lyn’s recently published book “Where to Go For a Seven-year Cycle” will be launched at Gleebooks on Saturday 25th of June at 3:30 pm.

Where to Go For a 7 year Cycle is a philosophical, often off the main tourist beat travel book based on the author Lyn Drummond’s seven years travel experiences working mainly in Central and Eastern Europe. The book’s title is based on a Jung philosophy that 7 years of our lives represent a particular cycle and she has just completed such a cycle.

I walked higher than the clouds

23 May

For my whole life, one of my distant dreams has been to visit one of the famed Seven Wonders of the World – Machu Picchu. Never did I imagine that I would be able to tick it off my proverbial bucket list so soon. We started out our journey to the ancient ruins with a very long bus and train ride, leaving home at 6am and arriving just after lunch into Machu Picchu town, Agua Calientes. The town was small and surrounded by mountains and a thundering river flowing behind it. After we checked in, everyone was starving and dispersed around the costly town looking for lunch. Afterward, an endeavour to shop and explore the new place filled us all expectantly. Unfortunately, everyone was disappointed. Everything = touristically overpriced.

We enjoyed our day by cafe crawling and playing truth or dare. Then it was dinner then it was bed time because we had to catch the bus at 4:45am. When the early early morning hit, it was still dark and soon time for us to rush to breakfast and embark on our exciting journey. Thankfully we arrived early enough because the line to catch a bus was loooong. When we arrived at Machu Picchu, it was cold and raining with mist everywhere therefore it was difficult to see anything, but the allure of mysteriousness was enticing.

We arrived at the Waynapicchu (the big mountain everyone sees in all the pictures) gate at 7am. The hike started out simple, flat ground with lush sights around us and the weather was still cold. Twenty metres later, the terrain suddenly changed from flat to Incan flat, which is UP. And the rest of the hour long hike, remained that way – vertical. It was a difficult hike, part of me wanted to die at various points but I persevered the rain, cold and heat and eventually made it to the top of the mountain. If there is anything that mountains have taught me is not to underestimate them.

Victory upon reaching the top could not have been sweeter. It was as if God had rewarded me by opening up the clouds and blowing away the mists as our sights were clear. From the top, we could see the Incan ruins, rich verdancy and a stunning rainbow. We were higher than the clouds and it felt good. The accomplishment of the hike and the mere reality of being there was overwhelming. I needed to stop and sit and look around me and smile because that moment was real and will stay with me forever.

On that mountain we took copious amounts of photographs which boasted our location. We were after all at Machu Picchu. Later that day, we explored the ruins with our tour guide, learning the ways of the Incan from building to family and their sacrifices. Then we walked to the Incan Bridge passing chilled out llamas on the way. It was an exhausting day but one of the most rewarding and finest moments of my life and I would not have changed a thing.

It was crazy to compare the breathtaking sights of Machu Picchu that was swarming with tourists and the quiet village of Quilla Huata. I am glad to have experienced both the beauty of Peru and the reality of its country.

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