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When Words Fail

5 Jul

Sometimes words aren’t enough. Sometimes, they are too much. Lately I’ve been finding it hard to get the balance right. So. I’ll just let the pictures do the talking.

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5 Jul

A memorable  part of being an overseas volunteer is enjoying the nature and gifts of the country where serving. In my case, this meant the renowned African wildlife.  Witnessing the magic of animals being in their own natural environment, rather than being confined in a torturous zoo for the public’s amusement gave a feeling of freedom and an acknowledgement that I was entering ‘their territory’ and playing by ‘their rules’. I was shown this by being charged by a fully grown African elephant! Probably one of the most scariest moments of my life!

Moments before being charged...I was driving!!

Still leaves me speechless

Something that also got my heart pumping was my personal encounter with lion cubs. The feeling of being up close and personal with my favourite animal was breathtaking! Feelings of nerves and excitement were expressed by shivering from head to toe. I could have spent all day here being at one with one of the most feared animals.

Just as personal was the crocodile that migrated to the dam in the back yard of my uncle’s farm. My cousin and I named him Steve. He was shy and would need encouraging to come out and play.

These experiences and encounters till this day remain a highlight in my overseas experiences. A must for all. The majestic views that a painter will envy, and a photographer sigh for in vain, the freedom of the wildlife and abundance of flora, untouched natural beauty stretching up to 350 km North to South (at Kruger National Park, South Africa), are but a few reasons what makes Africa unique.

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The place for “us” and “them”

1 Jul

I begun reading Sarah Wilson’s article in the Sunday Life with my usual assumptions, the leggy size 8 with a Colgate grin has her own photo taking up more space on the page than her writing itself. This week’s article is titled, “This week I … confront my own racism”, I begun reading what I thought to be the “anti racist” realization of a superficial Sydneyite. The text is framed around the categorisation of us and them. Our culture and that of the other. The article concludes with a statement that we should view “those people” with a sense of inclusion, to allow them to be one of us. A statement relying on binary thinking, lacking an acknowledgement of the limitations of forcing segregation.

This idea of us and them worries me, thinking about the group I fall into, the same as Sarah Wilson?! And Pauline Hanson!!

I liked to think while I was teaching in India I was being included, actually I was being included.

However after reading the Reed Dance-Culture at its Finest ,  I remembered the photo below.

I keep it for comedy value. I look ridiculous. But the local women did not. The traditional costume was fitting in every way and they could wear it with a sense of pride for the culture it represents, that they are upholding. But I was foreign, not one of them. I learned through this picture that I have a respect for what I am not, but I do not have a respect for exclusion based on generalisations. I’d never have felt the warmth and inclusion from local people if I had lived my time trying to be one of them. See photo above for how “foregin” I’d have felt for 6 months.


26 Jun

This photo was taken at an event this week in celebration of National Refugee Week. The first thing I thought of was all of us and the work we are engaged in.

Keeping in mind our personal journeys and collective ideals, let’s put together our own acrostic poem of the word “ETHNOPEEPS” that can be used as a backdrop and representation of our efforts!

Ill begin with:

Enlightened educators


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 🙂

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?

Reflections and two wheels

8 Jun

India. Vellore.

Tonight I hear the breeze for the first time, it is cool and mild and reminds me of a Sydney summer evening, it sifts through the heavy leaves and it could lull me to sleep but I hear echoes of song and bus horns and eerie chanting, backed by the thorough yet monotonous sweeping of pavement with straw brooms. The breeze carries with it delights and surprises of the open drains; rotten egg tonight, quietly slips in through our window, and settles around me like affectionate, sleepy cat.

I rode on the back of motorbikes (something I wasn’t meant to do, knowing too well  I probably would take that risk), embracing the moment and my relentless affiliation for two wheels and having something between my legs. Gripping my laptop under my arm, wrapped in my shawl, flowing clothes taking on a loose unchoreographed dance of their own, threatening to reveal parts culturally unacceptable such as calf or neckline – not enough hands to hold on and control the fabric, I surrender to the clever fingers of the wind and smile and see hurtling buses and crawling ox, projectile auto-rickshaws and slightly cautious scooters balancing the family of four, slow motion cyclists and focussed women in a sunset smear of saris, sidestepping to avoid the lazy cows and hungry goats making their home on the medium strip. The second time on the bike I sat with a 20 L barrel of water between me and Mal, it was evening and he rode carefully but that was about as much as I can recall – you can tell a lot about a man by how he rides a motorbike, and I was too focussed on holding the water between my thighs and holding myself to the bike that I paid little to no attention as to how he rode, only that we got there with no near misses.

I find the people immensely respectful, I was anticipating that I would have a problem with the men and get frustrated with being stared at, made comments at, or even followed – such as my experience in Singapore’s Little India. But nothing of the sort has happened; It has been lovely, the women are beautiful and if you smile and wobble your head a little they beam back at you. The men glance and look away and may glance back, but it doesn’t feel threatening, I don’t feel unwelcome, I don’t in any way feel unsafe. I love covering up, shawls and scarves and long clothes, there’s something feminine and powerful (!) about it. What is revealed somehow carries so much more significance (holy crap there’s my elbow! My forearm! My ankle!)

[to be continued. that’s enough for one post]

Memories and Hard Lessons

3 Jun

Sitting out here in the tree house, with the sounds of the creek below me and the laughter of the boys washing over me, I can convince myself that I am in paradise. I am surrounded by palm trees, coconut trees and the greenest grass I have seen in a long time. The tree house is rickety. Some of the other volunteers and I entertain thoughts of sleeping out here one night but decide against it as we would be overrun by mosquitoes.

R__ climbs one of the coconut trees; hugging it, he scoots his way up faster than is humanly possible. He disappears for a while, hidden amongst the dense foliage of the tree top. Then, coconuts begin to fall and the other boys scurry around, gathering them up and bringing them to us. They aren’t supposed to do this, the trees are off limits to them, but there is nothing we can do to stop them. I never fear for them. They know what they are doing.

G__ cracks the coconuts open with a big knife and jokingly threatens me with it when I take a photo. The “old” coconuts are filled with a fizzy milk and hard, dry flesh. The “young” coconuts are liquid free but the flesh is moist and slimy. Us volunteers like the “old” coconuts; the boys, the “young” ones. They are divided amongst us and we all eat our fill.

M__ holds a spider in his hand. I ask him if it’s poisonous and he says yes. He tells me that he’s ripped off most of its legs so it won’t bite and offers me the chance to hold it. I don’t believe him about it being safe but I hold it all the same. It scurries across my hand. It tickles. I feel oddly brave.

Inevitably, the UNO cards come out. They always do. Cheating is a necessity. D__ is here. He appears to be getting along well with the other boys now. This makes me happier than I could ever say. He’ll be just fine, I know. I think. I hope.

I sit back and laugh when I am teased for having the same coloured eyes as my blue t-shirt. I can’t really argue with them because it’s true.

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My memory falters. What happened next? I cannot recall. It’s like this now. Memories that I thought would stick with me forever are beginning to fade. I wish they wouldn’t. It’s these intimate little moments that I want to remember for the rest of my life. I can still recall the tingling on my tongue after downing the coconut milk. But. Where did we go after those lazy hours in the tree house? What happened to the spider?

And what has happened to the boys since we left? I’m not sure about R__ and M__. But they were capable, mature. I’m sure they’re fine. G__ is in rehab for his glue-sniffing addiction. D__ is back in Manila with his unstable family; one of his older sisters was killed in a hit and run incident about a year ago.

I tried to convince myself that I was in paradise. I never was. None of the boys were at the Bahay Tuluyan centre because they wanted to be. They were there because they had no other option. They came from places stricken by poverty. They came from families who abused them or simply did not have the means to care for them properly. Paradise does not exist for these boys.

This was a hard lesson to learn. But necessary. Despite this, any memory that I have of my time with the BT boys is cherished. And every time something fades, I feel the loss. Deeply.

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.

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