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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?

Outdated Practices-the Ugly Side.

2 Jun

So the general feeling is that wherever we went, we felt that the people and place was the most amazing. We felt that the culture was incredible and wished ‘why couldn’t people back home be like this?’ The humility, hospitality, true compassion and care, love, generosity etc that was given to us and that was practiced commonly. I often marvelled at this and tried to find one fault. For the first three months I thought I was living in paradise and that this could be a utopian society!

However, as the months went by, I began to see the ugly side. I began to see the effects poverty has on peoples actions. I began to see the outdated, dangerous and inhumane side of widespread practiced traditions and culture. I saw the injustices caused by politics and those with power (in Africa, this means money). At one stage I was pulled over and fined for driving with an expired Australian driver’s license. They don’t even have expiry dates on licenses in Swaziland/South Africa, yet I was booked for not flying back to Australia and renewing my license and flying all the way back just to drive! Truth was the cops just wanted money from a ‘rich white guy’. I gave them an equivalent to $5.

The most shocking aspect that affected me the most was the outrageous cultural practices conducted on albinos. Some reports suggest there are about 150000 albinos living in Tanzania, North of Swaziland. Naturally, there are many living in Swaziland also. I was blessed to befriend an albino lady, Precious, who I got to spend some time with her and her family. As Africans are still very superstitious and cultural, they still hold the belief that body parts of albinos are useful for voodoo, or traditional African witchcraft. Sadly, this belief is still held by ‘educated’ people-ministers, police, teachers-essentially everyone from each end of the social and intellectual spectrum. If police cannot solve a crime, they commonly resort to witch doctors to provide mutti (mixture of herbs etc) used to ‘help’ the case!

witch doctor I visited who gave us mutti mixed in this bowl-ingredients included various herbs and a feather from a rare bird that he wanted us to catch in the wild! Instead we bought it from the local market.

Talk about backwards! Anyway, back to mistreatment of albinos-about a month before I left Swaziland, I read in the paper that two infant siblings had been decapitated and killed. Shocking? Not as much as the next caption I read a week later: that these kids’ graves were dug up so that the rest of their body parts can be taken and used for mutti of various kinds. I even read reports that many political leaders in Africa (yes elected leaders) still practice this and hold to the belief that albino body parts can bring prosperity and success.

Precious, Nogubekezele, myself and Gugu

learning guitar by my friend Xolani (the 'X' is pronounced with a 'click' !!!

Shame. Outdated cultural and traditional practices. Disregard for humanity.

My thoughts now are: did anyone else experience the ugly side of where you served?

Despite this all, the practices of the minority did not in any way tarnish the reputation and love and respect I still hold for the majority. What I believe is that tradition and culture are positives, but are only useful and relevant today if they contribute to the society we live in now. Outdated practices should be left behind so that humanity can ascend higher and achieve more purposeful realities.

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)

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.

Oh, home! Let me come hooooome!

15 May

I moved to Canberra a few months back to start a new job. I’ve been riding my bike to work, and I ride my bike until I get home.

I really enjoy riding my bike. Back in Hanoi, I was seen as strange and backward because I preferred to ride my bike to riding a motorbike/motoped/scooter. I did eventually contributed to another motoped on the congested roads of Hanoi. And it was awesome. But I still maintained that riding a bike was also very awesome. In Hanoi, a motorbike is a status symbol. Riding a bike denoted poverty/being a student/being a street seller. I told my workmates (who were environmentally aware) that I chose to ride a bicycle to lower my carbon emissions. They still gave me confused looks.

Here in Canberra one morning, I was riding on my way to work and caught a bit of the song, Home, when passing by a cafe that was playing music out of its speakers. I really like that song. I especially like how passionate and in-the-moment the artists are when they perform that song. It’s evident they truly enjoy making the music and their words come from within.

So while I was riding and humming to that song, I thought about where home for me is, now that I’m living in Canberra. Is it home? Or is Sydney still home, considering I grew up there, and my family and old friends are there? Then I thought about the saying, “Home is where the heart is”. Where is my heart? Part of it is in Hanoi, where I volunteered for 12 months. Part of it is in Puku Cafe.

The friend I mentioned in my last post asked if I were to come back to visit Hanoi after I returned to Australia. I said that I really wanted to, depending on my finances and my circumstances. He said that one way to ensure I return to Hanoi was to leave something there with a friend. That’s what he did. He left some of his books and possessions with a friend in Sydney, to ensure he would return someday to visit.

It’s a nice thought.

Time and Team Work

22 Apr

In volunteer time, I think five weeks is really short. It took me about two weeks to really get used to the environment, altitude, culture, language, people, food and the work. Then when I finally felt settled, it was about time to be uprooted. My relationships started to deepen but there was always the ominous feeling of the end. I found it hard to get completely settled knowing I was going to leave so soon.

That being said, five weeks was still enough time to meet all of the children from Quilla Huata and learn their names and find out about their lives. Sometimes I wonder, “where did all the time go and were we actually effective?” It seemed like we did a lot but until I compared the before and after shots of what we built, did I realise just how much we had accomplished.

We built:

  • 2x perimeter security fences out of mud bricks

Wall #1 - before

We had to get down and dirty building those walls


Wall #1 - after

We are so proud of our wall!

Wall #2 - before

Wall #2 - after

  • 2x classrooms

Classroom #1 - before

Team work!!! 🙂

Classroom #1 - after

Classroom #2 - before

Classroom #2 - after

Classroom - before

Classroom - after

All the building was by all means a TEAM EFFORT

We also taught:

  • English
  • Sport
  • Dance
  • Art
  • Health
  • Hygiene

For the NGO, we:

  • Redesigned and built a whole new website
  • Wrote a social media plan
  • Wrote a marketing policy plan
  • Did house visits and wrote reports on families and how the NGO can help them better in the future

I loved working in a team and bonding with my friends through construction. We were all forced out of our comfort zones, there were up days and there were down days. There were days where only 6 of the 19 volunteers were on site because the rest were struck down with parasites and were cooped up in the hospital. There were days when all hands were on deck and there were days where we toiled in the blazing sun or the unrelenting rain. But in the end, we all got there together.

In retrospect, five weeks was a good amount of time. It was long enough to do something effective yet short enough that we did not have time to get so sick of each other.

How long did you volunteer for? Was it long enough? Were you over it at any point and genuinely contemplated leaving or actually left? How did you adjust to working in a team with strangers? How long did it take you to get settled in your country and volunteer position?

Expression through story.

20 Apr

I have understood that the way I cope and celebrate my achievements is to write a story about my experiences for others to read and to enjoy. This is a story about my experiences in Peru, it may be a touch long but I hope you enjoy it.

“Mas barrow, mas barrow, uno mas” was screamed across the worksite as I scooped water drenched mud into buckets that I was frequently passed to Selby who was standing knee deep in mud wearing a faded football jersey. The mud was used to make mud brick walls that will help support Indigenous Peruvians of Cusco. Hours pass. The hot sun beamed down and made sweat drip down the side of my cheek. I’d count down the minutes until it’s time to go back to the hotel and only images of smiling locals and the knowledge that it was for a good cause kept me going and motivated me to work harder. The trip was more than a holiday, it was a life changing experience.

Cusco is a city in south east Peru, near the Urubamba Valley of the Andes mountain range. The city has a population of 359000 and its altitude is around 3400m which make things even more difficult because of the lack of oxygen. Cusco was the site of the historic capital of the Inca Empire which still means a great deal for the Indigenous locals.

Out of 19 group members there were so many different nationalities all on the trip, Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese, Spanish, Filipino, Malaysian and Australians, However we all had the same thing in common, we were all from Macquarie University and we all had a passion for helping this community succeed. Pedro stood out to me in the group, his English was more broken than a shaded piece of glass, yet he still had the courage to go on an overseas trip with English speaking people because he was excited to impact this city.

Holding on tight, praying to God and sweating nervously, our budget domestic flight came in for landing. We made it to Cusco. Looking out the plane window I could see giant mountains ranges stretching far and wide, hills with the greenest of grass and mountains with crosses on the top of them. It was an unreal experience, one that you’d expect in the movies, not in real life. It looked hot outside with the sun brightly shining but I was wrong when we finally got out of the airport. We noticed altitude, more than the weather being cool, we could feel the effect of a low amount of oxygen.

“Man, I can hardly breathe”, Sam said as we were loading up our bags into the bus that came to pick us up in. I fully noticed the altitude on the first day when I was walking up the stairs to get to my bedroom, that was located on the top floor. You could hear me panting from the bottom.

Putting on my ten dollar op-shop pants, throwing on my daggy shirt and tying up my old sneakers meant I was ready for my first day of work at the village. “Beep Beep” we heard, meaning the bus is ready to take us after we strategically position ourselves in a tiny mini bus that we can’t believe we all fit into. It didn’t matter what we smelt like, because we were jammed packed together, all the smells would combine and you could blame in on the wildlife outside.

It’s a special moment meeting the community in which we would stay in for the next month. My expectations were met as my heart melted for the locals. The children were adorable as we were welcome with flowers and a traditional Peruvian song. We became connected to the locals as we were spending so much time with them. One of the men in the village smiled every time we said something which was warm and comforting even though he didn’t have many teeth and the teeth that he did have were yellow and crooked.

“Last one, help him” Selby said as the last brick is place into the wall. A week had past and the first project, the mud brick was completed. The 7-foot wall stretching 20 metres was standing as strong as rock and the village people were over excited. We were achieving in the village at a high frequency but the challenges to come were going to slow us down.

“Lucy, there’s something wrong with me” I said to my blonde headed team leader.

With the worried look in her face she knew that I am the next victim to the Salmonella bug that was rapidly spreading amongst the group. In an instance, she called the local doctor for the dreaded check up as I ran to the bathroom to a once clean toilet. The Peruvian doctor speaking no English shacked his head which was a sign that things aren’t good and I’ll be spending the week in a local hospital. This broke my heart because I was so excited to complete the work that was going on. I had travelled half the way across the world to lie in a bed but I knew it was the best thing for me in order to get well and not spread the illness to my team mates.

“Hello Michael… Thanks for calling” my mum answered in an over enthusiastic tone. Tears dripped down my cheek and fell from my chin as I was devastated to tell my mum the news that I was in hospital and the overwhelming feeling of speaking to my mum for the first time that year. I wouldn’t say I’m missing home, but as I was sitting ther starring into the ceiling, eating a bland mix of food, all I can think of is home, and how it would be nice to be in my own bed with mum walking up and down the stairs with lemonade and a bright smile.

Lying in bed, I swiftly flick between the BBC channel, CNN and ESPN, the only three English networks accessible. Being in hospital wasn’t too bad it was a great chance to get to know JD and Jen, two other members who were stuck in hospital with me. JD’s personality made me chuckle as one minute he’s flirting with the non English speaking nurses and the next he’s screaming profanities across the room.

“Fuck me, Fuck, I don’t eat vegetables” 23 year old JD screams across the room to show he’s opinion on the hospital food while Jen and I have a cheeky look on our face as we eat broccoli and continue our game of snap. I wasn’t getting any better but I was determined to get well so I could go back and finish the construction work. As a joke, I asked the nurse for more drugs to see if she would laugh, instantly she pumped a stack load of morphine into my arm and I realised how people can get addicted to it.

A loud applause echoed through the village as I got out of the bus the next week. It was my first day back at the worksite and it was our final week in the village. We worked harder than ever before to finish the work we had previously started.

“Your muscles are getting bigger” Pedro said to me in his broken English. I replied with a smile while I picked up another 4 bricks which made me realise the extent of the work.

At our farewell on our last day in Cusco, the principal of the school stood up and said “Thank you for all your hard work in completing two mud brick walls and completing a class room. We are very thankful and God bless you”. This was followed up by song and dance. The little children were so cute as they walked up to us individually giving us a large amount of flowers and a special card while throwing confetti on our heads in a way of appreciation.

As we pulled away in our mini bus, again tears ran down my face from the pure emotion of leaving the village for the last time, John immediately called me soft and a little girl before the next morning where he admitted that he was doing the same thing just with sunnies on.

Travel + Illness (an almost inevitable occurrence)

20 Apr

So, I should probably introduce myself before I get started. My name is Sandra and I happen to be enrolled in the degree which has the longest name of any at Macquarie University: Bachelor of Science with a Bachelor of Arts in Natural and Cultural Heritage and Museums. Quite the mouthful. Yet, of more interest, is the fact that my degree has very little to do with Development. I guess this information is neither here nor there, yet it gives a context to where I’m coming from.

Anyway, what I wanted to talk about in this post is my experiences with being sick while volunteering in the Philippines. During my 7 week stint there, I was not sick for approximately 2 weeks. The rest of my time was divided between catching a flu, then a cold and then a flu again. While this was, to put it lightly, annoying, I find myself being eternally thankful that I wasn’t plagued by internal parasites like some other volunteers I have spoken to.

The thing about being sick in a developing country is that – while you know you should go to see a doctor – it’s such an inconvenience to do so, that you put it off; constantly saying to yourself “it’s okay, it’s just a flu, it’ll go away, it’ll go away”. This is a stupid thing to do. I cannot stress this enough, do not do what I did! I found out the hard way that, whilst travelling, my body was no longer capable of kicking out the sicknesses that it was usually so adept at doing. I learned this when, in the middle of the night, I awoke to the nastiest ear ache I have ever had in my adult life.

The next morning I was ushered into a  Jeepney (after a bumpy ride on a tric) with my group’s in-country team leader. After a switchover to another Jeepney and then yet another tric ride, we arrived at the hospital closest to our base of operations (which was at the Bahay Tuluyan centre in San Antonio, Quezon). My memory fails me here as I cannot remember exactly how long it took for us to get there, but it must have been well over an hour. (For my own ailment, this was not such a big deal; but I often wonder what the local San Antonians do in the case of an emergency: how do they make a speedy trip to the hospital and what happens when that isn’t possible? These are questions that I find painfully hard to dwell on as I know that, ultimately, it was my relative wealth which enabled me to travel to the hospital in the first place, let alone dish out the cash for the required medications.)

Of my actual experience in the hospital, there is not much to tell. It was a speedy visit and I was there for no longer than half an hour. The hospital was clean enough, although it was a little dilapidated and I was struck by the fact that the hand washing sink had no roof over it. (This relative cleanliness is in contrast to my experiences with an airport clinic in Jordan where cigarette butts littered the floor.) The doctor who saw me took my temperature and my blood pressure but did not deem it necessary to look in my ears nor listen to my chest before declaring that I had both an ear and chest infection.

I have since come to the conclusion that my flu should not have had the chance to develop into two infections. Once I first started to have inklings that I was sick, I should have organised to see a doctor or at least taken the antibiotics that several team-mates offered me. I was stupid. But I was also lucky. Because my ailment was easy to get rid of and I was within relatively easy access of a doctor. Other travellers have surely not been so lucky.

So, fellow travellers, I want to hear your experiences with treating illnesses whilst abroad. What did you catch? How did you gain treatment? Did you have to be admitted to hospital? How long were you struck down for? Tell me all; my ears (or eyes) are wide open.

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