Archive | June, 2011

The Joys of Teaching

22 Jun

 

Me: “Bhut (brother) its not travel teaching unless theres walking involved!” (AND LOTS OF IT)

Isaac: “yea your right, bhuti. Maybe one day in the future it wil be car teaching!”

Probably one of my most fondest memories…walking all day in the middle of summer to meet old friends, acquaintances, and new faces to share with them ways of establishing a more healthy and unified community life. May I add-a great way to get in shape and lose any unwanted kg’s!

Sacrifice?

 

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The Semi-Frustrated Volunteer

20 Jun

Spending nine months in Africa stirred an array of emotions-many positive, many enlightening and many frustrating. In many respects I could easily express concepts and beliefs whilst volunteering than I could not normally here. The reason for this is that most people here don’t have time for certain matters. In Swaziland, as well as most of the places that the rest of us volunteered to, we could stop and genuinely chat with strangers, neighbours, villagers etc, for hours on end. People were welcoming as many of us have learnt. Because of this it allowed me to express and directly share my beliefs with others. It allowed us both to learn, develop and appreciate the harmony and consistency of our (wrongly perceived) different beliefs. I shared the principles of the Baha’i Faith with families, city-dwellers, rural people, Priests, Pastors, teachers-people of all walks of life. With the backdrop of community building and unfolding peace and unity this was easy to achieve. Here in Sydney in everyday life is another story. How can people not want such ideals? Because of many people’s reluctance to give time, I find it sometimes difficult to express my most cherished thoughts and beliefs. I am constantly let down at some peoples lack of concern, indifference, and biased opinions. Despite this, I happily welcome the challenge and strive to detach myself from such negativities-easier said than done!

On a humanitarian point of view, the level of poverty, widespread corruption and disease was not something I could express every day whilst in Swaziland-this I feel is easier to voice here in Sydney. There I was living amongst it. Friends and families who I stayed with or constantly engaged with were affected by both poverty and disease-HIV/AIDS. How do you express your feelings of anger, embarrassment of ‘Western’ countries’ lack of concern, the luck (as Carlos would put it) that I have without offending them? What frustrated me the most, and continues to do so, is my helplessness in the matter. How can I contribute to the betterment of these peoples’ lives? I have a money tin sitting in my room with no idea what to do with the collection? I know I want to donate it back to others, but it’s petty.

I’ve come to understand that the most effective way I can contribute to such injustices is to raise awareness of the situation our fellow human beings are living in. To help enlighten others. To help inspire others to make a difference. Imagine everyone arose to make a difference-the changes would be infinite! If only people were to understand the TRUE meaning of sacrifice-giving up something of lesser value for something of higher value, rather than the widespread belief of giving up something of higher value for something of lesser value. The purpose of sacrifice is to better others and not focus the attention on ourselves, right? If so, then the former definition of sacrifice obviously makes more sense.

under barbed-wire fencing to share with 'neighbours' (kilometre or so away) ways in which to improve community and individual life.

Living away from home, learning to be self dependent, crossing over, under and through barb-wired fences, walking for hours in the heat of the Africa sun, are but a few examples of how my friends in Swaziland sacrifice their time (lesser value) to create a more united and better society (higher value).

Only a few hills, meadows and valleys till our destination

11 things I learnt as an overseas volunteer:

20 Jun
  1. Stopping a meeting midway to go eat ice cream is perfectly normal.
  2. So is stopping to go and sing karaoke.
  3. The definition of being ‘professional’ is highly subjective.
  4. Work plan? What work plan?
  5. Many of my workmates were more technologically-literate than I was.
  6. It’s all about relationships and how you connect with others. Using a distant, formal, business-like manner won’t get you anywhere. Whereas, being warm and familiar will.
  7. Rubber-band or elastic-band time is the time that everyone abides by. Thus, a 9am start can mean 11am.
  8. Also, a 7.30am start is normal. Get used to it.
  9. You feel like a hypocrite compared to the local volunteers, who give up so much more than you do.
  10. You don’t make as big a difference as you thought you would initially. The complexities and dynamics of the world of aid and the development industry can quickly overcome any individual efforts.
  11. Letting loose at karaoke with a good bunch of friends is a great way to get over the fact that you’re not making that much of a difference.

Humans in an ant heap

20 Jun

One of the main projects I was working on during my year volunteering was to build up the network of environmental clubs and movements around Vietnam together. This seemed like not too much of an ask considering that the Internet connection is faster there than in Australia.

Young Vietnamese are commonly on Facebook, Yahoo Messenger and on their mobile phones texting. I’m talking about young Vietnamese who are educated and have access to computers, not those who live in the rural regions.

So I thought that connecting the enviro clubs in the major cities was fairly easy if I set up some blogs, online forums, a central portal website and a Facebook page.

Wrong.

Face-to-face interaction is key to building up strong, active networks. Thus, the organisation arranged many workshops and a large forum with international NGO funding to gather forty key enviro youth from around Vietnam to network and share ideas.

Online communication can only supplement relationships which are grounded in face-to-face contact.

And so it is here in Australia as well. Meetings are important, and emails can assist to distribute meeting minutes. Email exchanges can’t replace physically meeting in the same room to thrash out ideas, discussions and make decisions together.

Tertiary education by distance is simply not the way to go. Getting the on-campus university experience is still the common and preferred manner of going about one’s tertiary education. By merely sitting amongst one’s contemporaries and mixing with other bright young minds is critical. It also involves debating, challenging each other, getting your ideas put to the test and testing others’.

Lectures, tutorials, group work.

All face-to-face interaction which is conducive to rigorous learning. We all know that there’s increasing use of online learning tools.

”But a few decades of high technology can’t trump millions of years of evolution,” Glaeser says. ”Our species learns primarily from the aural, visual and olfactory clues given off by our fellow humans. The internet is a wonderful tool, but it works best when combined with knowledge gained face to face, as the concentrations of internet entrepreneurs in Bangalore and Silicon Valley would attest.”

That was taken from an article written recently by an eminent Australian economist, Ross Gittins, who explores the allure of cities and how they make sense economically for many people. He reviews the urban economist, Edward Glaeser’s new book.

“”Cities enable collaboration, especially the joint production of knowledge that is mankind’s most important creation. Ideas flow readily from person to person in the dense corridors of Bangalore or London, and people are willing to put up with high urban prices just to be around talented people, some of whose knowledge will rub off.”

Cities magnify humanity’s strengths. Because humans learn so much from other humans, we learn more when there are more people around us. Urban density creates a constant flow of new information that comes from observing others’ successes and failures. Cities make it easier to watch, listen and learn.”

In Vietnam, the urban-rural divide is very clear and the wealth is ultra-concentrated in cities. Apart from the greater focus by governmental funds, foreign aid and commercial hubs, people live live like sardines side by side and top of each other. The dynamics and rapidity of the flows of information, business and trade is incredible.

The rural communities are literally left in the dust.

post warp

20 Jun

He asked me today why I went, I found myself mentally flicking back through posts rather than memories to recall the justifications.

What effect is this having on our journey and experience?

Arise and Serve!

15 Jun

While watching last night’s news I was surprised to see Princess Sikhanyiso Dlamini, the eldest daughter of the King of Swaziland, being featured. She was proudly showing off her new apartment in Sydney which she will call home, for this year at least while furthering studies at Sydney uni.

After passing the excitement of seeing little known Swaziland on the news, I was overcome by a feeling of sadness and eventually anger. Reason being-where does all the royalty’s money come from and how justly is it spent? This question, I feel, can be and should be asked by all of us to the countries where we served in! Yeah, AUSAID, USAID, various NGO’s, UN bodies etc like to boast how much they help fight poverty, disease and the like in ‘third-world’ or ‘developing countries’, but that is as far as their concern (not all, but many) goes. Are they truly concerned about the development and difficulties at the grassroots? Reflecting on their approach to just throwing millions of dollars annually at the leaders of such countries would suggest otherwise.

In the case of Swaziland, for example, I can guarantee that this money does not filter down to the grassroots and rather stays in the pockets of those with power at the top. This too, can be argued for many African countries, nay worldwide. Corruption, politics, money and greed can be seen as a vicious cycle of destruction. What saddened and angered me the most is that Swaziland has a HIV prevalence rate of about 33-49%. That is ridiculous! How many ethnopeeps are there of us? 23? That means about 7 of us are HIV positive and no doubt ALL of us know someone personally living with the disease and very likely have had direct family members already die of it! Hearing such stories of my friends who I grew to love, having grown up with no parents because they died of the disease, having to look after their siblings, rely on wider family for support and further burdening them, became a common story. It was rare to meet someone who had not been directly affected by the disease. Now tell me, are aid organisations doing enough? Do they really care?

The leaders amass stupendous sums of wealth and waste it on material pursuits rather than the betterment of mankind and the progress of the human race. That is where the money goes. This sad reality reminds me of a quotation that I reflect on, it reads:

“All men have been created to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization”.

Were it not for simple yet profound guidance we have before us, such as the above, human beings would be left to their own devices and undoubtedly would fail. Changes are happening though. Slowly but surely. How can anyone disagree? We were all and are part of this change by the service we have provided to the advancement of humanity, right? If one were to disagree, why sit idly and argue and wait for change. Do something about it! Arise and serve!

Our efforts today will lay the foundations for their futures

Nothing in life is more rewarding than seeing the smiles you can put on someone else's faces 🙂

Sour Taste

14 Jun

So you’re volunteering away, everything is going well and you are having the time of your life.  But as more time passes and you look a bit harder, the rosie hue through the volunteer’s glasses begins to change.  It’s a typical come down.  You are all hyped to be in a foreign country and doing something new and exciting, but gradually this wears off and with more time, comes more opportunity for things to go wrong.

An event I sometimes wonder about, didn’t effect me directly but definitely effected my experience.  Two other volunteers were making a documentary about volunteering in South America.  Their main piece of equipment was a video camera and they had been making there way across the continent for the last 6 months, volunteering at various places along the way.  They were pretty discreet with their filming, mostly just about the volunteers and animals whilst they are out in jungle of the park.

We lived in a share house near the park, with about 4 bedrooms and 2 people per bedroom.  There was a lock on the front door, but we were kind of out of town, and it’s a share-house, and whilst you always mention security, no-one is ever sure who is the last to go to bed, so sometimes it doesn’t get locked.  Some people had locks on their doors as well, but these two guys didn’t.  They did however chain the video camera to their bed with a sizeable metal wire and padlock.  We awoke one night to the shouts of “Wake up! Check your stuff! We’ve been robbed!”.

Someone had come in during the middle of the night, gone straight to there room whilst they were sleeping, cut the wire and made a get-away.  No-one knows if the front door was locked or not.  But nothing else in the house was missing.

This was, needless to say, pretty upsetting for the two guys.  They had lost there purpose for the trip and all the material they had filmed in the park (they had backed-up there earlier material). Here were two guys set upon highlighting the benefits of volunteering, and someone stole their tool to spread the message.

The called the police which were about as helpful as you would expect of the Bolivian police.  The two guys searched the local town, scouring through shops and market stalls, looking for their camera.  They even considered going to the bigger towns nearby where there might be more of a market for it.  The never found it.

The obvious finger points to someone in the park, either another volunteer or a local who helped out around the place.  Thus, the few bad apples leave a sour taste in everyone’s mouth.  The volunteer community is small and word passes fast.

This definitely affected them, questioning what they were doing here, and it also affected me.  Was our work appreciated?  How are we viewed by the locals?  Are we this mysterious white beast from Hollywood or some music video?   Or is this just a few bad apples?

What I want to know is, was it need or greed that drove the thief?

Puma Facts:

4)  One single puma will normally have a territory of at least 1 square kilometre.  We had 8 pumas in a park less than 1 sq km.

the Reed Dance-Culture at its Finest

11 Jun

How many wives do you have? King Mswati III has about 14 or so. Impressive? Nahh. His old man had over 90!! Now that’s impressive (for some, at least). But don’t worry, King Mswati still has time to catch up, and he did so last year and probably is around about now!

Each year there is a cultural celebration in Swaziland where the King chooses a new wife. The event is called the Reed Dance. Maidens from all over the Kingdom arrive (by army truck loads) to one of the King’s residences. Here they stay for a week and partake of celebrations and activities. During this time they ALL go out and collect reeds from the rivers. These reeds are then presented to the King as a gift. In short, the King chooses a wife, or two or however he feels, in return. Last year the King had over 80 000 ‘maidens’ to choose from!!! The reason why I emphasise maiden is because I had seen the decay of promiscuity in Swaziland. A friend once said to me, “when living in the rural areas there’s nothing to do but have sex, there are no community activities, no sports, no tv etc, what else do you do for fun?”

Horizon-horizon full of maidens to choose from!

Interestingly, most of the girls I met (educated or not, from the city or rural areas) would have loved to be chosen as a wife and live the life of seclusion. Reason being they would have unlimited shopping funds, and their families would prosper. There were, however, some who had outlived this practice and disagreed with its degrading attitude towards women.

Seeing as I love immersing myself within any culture I come across, I boldly decided to dress myself with the traditional Swazi attire! By doing so, I was immediately transformed to a celebrity! A white guy dressed as a traditional Swazi=instant fame and attention. I even got interviewed for a local tv station covering the event. EVERYONE wanted a photo with ‘that white guy’. I even had a chat with one of the princes. I got so tongue tied that he abused me! I think I had offended him by dressing in his way.

traditional Swazi attire with animal skin around waist ('majobo')

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Perhaps the most amazing experience I had was capturing this awesome photo of the King as he walked by me. It was as if he stopped and posed for me while I took the shot.

I guess the main reason I captured such a shot was because the King was amused to see a white guy (apart from my cousin who I persuaded for so long) dressed like him!

Fuffin’ About

11 Jun

The dark side of volunteering… with people.

Fuffin’ about.

A term coined by my esteemed Peruvian colleague, John. He describes it as aimlessly wandering around or sitting around in a group wanting to do something but no one is deciding anything and everyone is waiting for everyone. This process of fuffin’ about was the genesis of many (fleeting) arguments and (temporary) divisions. The group was generally amicable, we were a family but towards the end, I think everyone just wanted to do their own thing when they wanted. It was almost an impossible task to organise dinner for the group when we went into town because some were vegetarians, some only ate meat, some wanted to get wild and some just liked milkshakes. It was a messy ordeal waiting for the group so often times we dispersed according to our taste buds and preferences. It was easier that way, navigating 18 other people was a task unworthy of the best of us.

I don’t know why we stressed so much about where we were going because we all ended at the McDonald’s in the town square. Funny, everything always end with Maccas. Virtually every country has the golden arches, from the hidden mountains of Peru to the bustling nightlife of Sydney, everything always ends up with fried chicken.


I love, no need a good dose of personal space and time. Being around 18 other humans was overwhelming sometimes, loved it and would not change a thing but sometimes, often times, I needed to be alone. I would cope with this by journalling, the one place I could be entirely honest and uninhibited with my feelings. I could not imagine doing that trip without each and every single person that I did it with. Having them enhanced it for me and watered down the post travel depression when I came home because I knew that I would see them again and a lot. And in all honesty, I did not get sick of anyone while I was volunteering. I acknowledged our differences but I was never weary of anyone.

Did you ever tire of the people that you were with?
How did you cope?
Or did you travel alone? What was that like?

Getting ready for the last month of the “race”

10 Jun

What a month! So full of emotions and bold writing, breath-taking stories, videos and even music. Well, last Saturday some of the Ethnosense bloggers had the opportunity to meet again for a second Cafe Chat and celebrate this period of intense blogging. We got together that night (incredibly, because with this insane winter, really, you have to think it twice before going out) and we had a rather chocolaty (?) chat in the city.

We talked about many of the issues that have been raised in the blog like, for example, the issue of refugees and detention centres. The perception was that it just feels very different to volunteer abroad than to work somewhere “nearby” like, say, with asylum seekers within Australia. “It’s because you don’t get to leave it behind” said panapestimio. Clearly, it has to make a difference.

In general, it was nice to have a nice hot chocolate, warm up and refresh batteries for the month that lies ahead. After all, this will be the last month of intensive blogging for the Young Ethnographers Project. One of the questions that we talked about during that night was: “and what’s going to happen with the blog after this project?”. Well, the idea is to continue using this platform as an open space for alternative travelers and international volunteers to reflect on their cultural experiences.

A few weeks ago, Ethnosense was featured in the betterplace-lab where I had the chance to explain a bit more what the concept behind this blog is in a post titled: “Ethnosense: an experimental blog for an experimental crowd“. I think that post gives quite a few hints about the future of Ethnosense. In any case, I suspect that the Young Ethnographers will keep blogging no matter what (“it becomes addictive!” I’ve heard them say), and that more and more returned volunteers will get involved. But I’ll leave the details of how that’s going to work for another post.

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