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Wildlife

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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Glimpses of Unadulterated Beauty

27 Jun


I watched as her cracked hands skilfully weaved the rainbow rug. She smiled a toothless smile as she absently delighted in this menial, repetitive task.

I heard their squeals as they chased the chickens back in the coop. “Amiga, amiga mira mira!”

I realised that every pound of his hammer on the foundation of the classroom was breathed with purpose.

I saw her carry her baby brother on her nine year old back as she gathered her family’s meal.

A patch of sky reflected in the puddle of the ground.

I stopped.

Like a torrent of water gushing over my head, it all made sense.

They delight in the little things.

With an enchanting simplicity, their joy captivated me and marked my life forever.

Cheers to fond memories!

26 Jun

7pm. Bar. Melbourne Airport.

I had flown into Melbourne with my team from work to attend a conference we had organised over the preceding few months.

There was half an hour before the flight back to Canberra.

We decided to celebrate the success of the conference with a drink.

 

Jake said he’d get the first round. Tracy ordered a G&T. When I heard “G&T”, my eyes lit up and I told him that I wanted one too. The weather had been particularly cool for autumn, and a gin and tonic was far from what one should drink in colder weather. However, when Tracy said those words, I was hit with nostalgia.

 

Back in Hanoi, after a hard day’s work at the NGO, I would come home. And my housemate and fellow volunteer would fix me an ice cold G&T, with a slice of lime. He concocted them so well. We would then sprawl on the couch talking about our respective days, the challenges, the quirks, the triumphs, the small wins, the things we loved. It was great downtime, chatting to someone who knows what I’m going through, despite both of us working in quite different working environments. Also, he was a white male and I’m Viet kieu, so they treated us differently.

Nevertheless, those chats in the cool, tiled house in Hanoi, away from the humidity, heat and dust, with a G&T in our hands, are moments I cherish.

So hearing someone in Australia say “G&T” brought fond memories to my mind.

And when I had it in my hand, sipping on it in Melbourne Airport, I mentioned to my workmates that G&Ts now remind me of Hanoi.

Tracy said it reminded her of her travels through South America.

Bec shared about how the beer she was drinking reminded her of backpacking in London.

 

All three of us held our drinks – the links to places and unique experiences.

 

Cheers to fond memories!

 

* Names have been changed to protect identities.

Sebastian, Inequality and Good People

23 Jun

On Thursday February 3, I went on my first and only house visit to Pumamarca in the Cusco region. That afternoon I met a fourteen year old boy, Sebastian, who possessed the kindest and purest heart that I have ever met. He has suffered a lot in his life and is heavily malnourished due to poverty. His mother is a severe alcoholic, who in her states of delirium sells the family’s only source of revenue such as a cow for S./5 (approx. $1.80). Sebastian is then forced to go into town to buy another one for 50x the price with money that they do not have. His father is currently in hospital as a result of being hit in the head by a bull. He has younger brothers that he has to look after as well as the livestock. Despite all this and then some, he is hopeful that things can better for him and his family and he still clings onto his dreams. He has a bright personality and humble heart. As we were speaking to his mum, we heard him up the mountain while herding the bulls, singing joyfully. Meeting Sebastian and this house visit remains to this day the best day of my life.

The lives of people in poverty are so far removed from the minds of us in the western world. Sure, we can empathise because it is not fair that people should suffer and an indignant anger is a natural response but what of it if nothing were practically implemented? We should be compelled to care more and be moved to DO something greater then our feelings and emotions dictate otherwise we are wafting to and fro in a haze of emptiness. That’s why I love Peru’s Challenge, because they are practical and are respected in the Cusco region. The work that they undertake has a goal of sustainability which is crucial in development yet the concept of sustainability is often made redundant in favour of instantaneous change which is ephemeral. Change can be immediately tangible but it’s success is in its longevity and sustainability. Empowering local communities, families and individuals is the best way to implement change and aid.

Another hurdle that the natives of Quilla Huata and Pumamarca must face is the discrimination between rural and city folk. There is still a great disparity between those from the city and the indigenous people and this inequality makes it difficult to complete an education as most of the secondary schools are situated in the cities, which makes it almost impossible for the children from Quilla Huata and Pumamarca to attend as the costs of transport is so high. Often times, families favour their children to make handicrafts to sell to tourists instead of completing their education. Or the children would be working on the things they should sell in class therefore their attention and efforts are divided. I heard of one story where a bright young boy in Pumamarca was aspiring to be a politician in Peru and had the intelligence and charisma to go far, however his family demanded that he stay home and care for the livestock. I have no doubt that these unfortunate occurrences are common.

Despite these negative realities, I have seen for myself that the future of Quilla Huata and Pumamarca is bright because people are starting to understand how important education and community is. Furthermore, the children and families are eager to learn and give back to the community. I can name a plethora of stories that I heard about the community members going out of their way in their strengths and efforts to give back to each other and Peru’s Challenge. One story that has stuck with me is when a family’s house was completely ruined and unlivable due to flooding. Peru’s Challenge intervened and built a new house for the family who was already undergoing extreme domestic hardship. As a result of Peru’s Challenge’s benevolence, Christian, a fourteen year old boy contributes his strength to building classrooms, walls and other people’s houses. He shows up on the work site ardent and committed to help those who are less fortunate. For someone so young to understand pure generosity completely blows my mind and challenges me to live better and kinder.

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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?

 

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!

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]

The Thrill of Hearing Life Stories

6 Jun

I love this song. He sings with such an energy, power and excitement asking for stories about experience. I don’t know what Jonathan Boulet was thinking when he wrote it, but I think of all the people I have met, and want to meet. And the stories they have to tell.

While overseas, volunteering and living in India I met a man, Tashi, he was a Tibetan refugee, teaching English in Buddhist monastery and he wrote beautiful poetry. We met up to drink tea every now and then, he helped me plan classes. One day he said goodbye, and that I’d probably never see him again. He was beginning a walk across the Himalayas to Tibet that night. He trafficked information between the Tibetan Governments; in exile and in Tibet.

A close friend I met in India, Yanzom, was studying  12th grade at the hostel where I lived. She came from an isolated village in the mountains in North Eastern India, and had moved to attend school. She would often come into my room to sit and chat and read, we would often read the same books then talk about them. One day, talking about her family, she told me her mother had given birth to 12 children, 6 of whom had survived to this day due to malnutrition and lack of medical services. Now she aspires to be a doctor.

I was driving past a glacier with a friend, Delek, he pointed up the glacier and said, “My brother died there, he fell down a crevasse, he still lies at the bottom”. He’d never before mentioned having a brother.

On returning to Australia I became involved in the Tibetan community in Dee Why, Sydney. I met a man, Lobsang, who was once the Education Minister of Tibet, but was forced to leave by the Chinese Government. He now holds an (un) official role as a leader in the Tibetan community, and stacks the fridges in Coles, Dee Why.

I have also become involved with the EthnoSense blog and have the pleasure to not only read, but more so, meet up with my fellow bloggers to hear their amazing, inspirational stories, told by people who looked like any other stranger until we started talking.

There was a time when I did not think much about strangers. They were exactly that, strange to me. I had never thought about what stories a woman serving me in a supermarket or a boy next to me on the bus might have. I now relish in the opportunities to share stories, learning my greatest lessons from the experiences of “the little man”. It is greatly humbling to know that no one can be taken on face value.

Aprovecharlo

5 Jun

Following a long weekend (5 buses, 14 hours… epically challenging toilet situations), I was especially fried but knew there was a special event in the park that I could go to – that a friend’s friend would look after me if I went.

I was about to message and say ‘too hard too tired’ then a little voice went off and said WHAT ARE YOU DOING! You are alive and full limbed and with a functioning mind and in INDIA- get out there.

Wonderfully enough, it was a most memorable evening – I walked around the park with a minister, had armed security guards, met some other officials, got photographed, front row seats for the show, and made the local paper the next day.

I loved how things worked out like that in India – nearly consistently surprised me.

Stirring the pongal

Random, wonderful and a solid reminder of not being complacent. That it is nearly always worth it to get off your ass (!)

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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