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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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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.

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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Lucia

7 Jun

We never really know how lucky we have got it until we open our eyes and see other people’s stories. One of the moments that will never leave me is the afternoon I spent with Peru’s Challenge on a social house visit.

Her name is Lucia and she has four children. From the rural village of Puma Marca, she has overcome adversity and is a testimony of the successful work that Peru’s Challenge is doing in Cusco.

She ate infected pork meat which led to her developing a brain cyst. Despite her obvious deteriorating condition, she was unable to see a proper doctor due to monetary constraints which is an unfortunate commonality in Puma Marca. However, when she began to lose her motor abilities she went to see a local doctor but he missed the cyst because he did not have the adequate tools to see what was really wrong. Peru’s Challenge intervened and paid for a proper visit to a hospital because at that point, she could hardly walk or remember her children. That is when they found that she had a cyst. Peru’s Challenge scheduled her in for an operation at their cost. It cost them a few thousand but it was successful because after a week, she was able to move better and start constructing some coherence in her sentences. After two weeks, she was able to remember one of her children.

All the while, Peru’s Challenge faced opposition from the village because Lucia’s husband was depressed because they kept Lucia in the hospital for so long. He thought that they were taking her away. The women in the village gossiped about Peru’s Challenge, saying that they were doing Lucia wrong. However, Iris (the social worker) mediated and set the bar straight and told them of Lucia’s situation. She said that Peru’s Challenge was helping her and her family. It was necessary that they step in because Lucia was not receiving adequate care on her own. Unfortunately, she was discriminated against because she is a rural lady and the disparity between rural and city folk is still great. Without the support of Peru’s Challenge, she would not have received the care that she got.

After seeing the work that Peru’s Challenge did in Lucia, the village grew to respect the NGO greatly. Lucia is significantly improving. She can remember two more of her kids and her husband’s depression is getting better. Peru’s Challenge have also started teaching the family about hygiene and cleanliness in the house. They have built them rooms and a pig pen.

Remembering this story brings tears to my eyes because I saw her. I met Lucia and I saw the state of her house and her family. I felt her old hands grip mine as she looked into my eyes and smiled. She was real. I cannot take for granted the work that local NGO’s do because they are effective. I have so much love and respect for Jane and Selvy who are in the midst of people’s struggle and poverty, helping them in whatever way they can.

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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 (!)

In memory of a friend. A fellow lover of the Baha’i Faith. A humanitarian. A volunteer like us all.

4 Jun

His name was Mbuso Dlamini, pronounced em-bu-so.

He was one of my first friends I made in Swaziland. Each occasion I had with him, he was smiling and welcoming. He was a ‘home front pioneer’- he served as a human resource person within his own country, actively spreading the glad-tidings of the Revelation of Baha’u’llah, the Founder of the Baha’i Faith to his fellow men, and selflessly engaged in the spiritual, social and intellectual developments of his society. A true source of encouragement and inspiration to myself being an international pioneer.

Mbuso attempting a mid-air pose

He died at 23. The cause was never fully determined. But it was obvious, he was drugged by the evil workings of a family member by the help of a witch doctor with the use of mutti (as defined in my previous post ‘Outdated Practices-the Ugly Side’, a mixture of really whatever the witch doctor feels!).

I remember waking up to a heart-wrenching cry from my best friend, Isaac. He had just received a phone call informing him that Mbuso had died. Isaac was also a home front pioneer who lived with Mbuso engaging in the same community building activities.

What happened was Mbuso’s estranged uncle took him to see a witch doctor together. Naturally, Mbuso felt no harm in accompanying his uncle. There, Mbuso was told to drink some mutti with God knows what was added. The next couple days he went missing. On the third day he was confirmed dead. What friends and family of Mbuso believe is that the uncle was persuaded to believe that if he sacrificed his nephew (or any family member for that matter) he could get rich quick! One of many reasons people engage in harmful practices. A somewhat common practice, similar to albino body parts. He obviously had wrong intentions as he wasn’t to be seen after Mbuso’s sickness and consequent death. Had he cared, or did not know the mutti was poisonous he would have contacted his sister (Mbuso’smother) and offer condolences, let alone attend the funeral. Instead he fled back to South Africa to pursue his prize.

His funeral was the first I’ve ever attended. The lives he touched were evident in the faces of the friends and family in the room. He brought together people of diverse religions and backgrounds. His service to humanity was appreciated by all.

Isaac (L) and Mbuso (R) sharing the Baha'i Faith at a local store

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A sad, but common story. What I learnt was that family extends beyond blood. We were connected spiritually. We shared a deeper, more sincere, true and appreciable bond that I don’t even share with some blood related family members. It is because of this connection that I can travel anywhere in the world and have a family member, something I’ve experienced in Israel, Africa, America, all over Australia, even in Singapore.

I wish this small caption of his humble and inspiring life, for myself and many others in Swaziland, can be appreciated by you all-active agents of change engaged in the upliftment of mankind. His service to humanity resemble much of what we all have and continue to be part of.
As Baha’is we believe true life is the life of the soul. May his soul progress in the spiritual worlds of God.

Pangs of Jealousy

1 Jun


This is my 10th blog on this thing. What have I learned? Do I feel more resolved because of this? In short, lots and yes. I am starting to realise that perspective is everything in development and beyond. It is the reason why volunteers are effective. My experience was both humbling and rewarding. Writing and publishing about my time in Peru has caused me to seriously reflect about what I want the world to know about them and what I did. Of course, in doing so, I hope that others would want to volunteer with Peru’s Challenge one day but I think the reason why I love blogging about it so much is for me. To retrieve my experiences from my brain to something tangible provides a sense of closure. It reminds me that my experience was real.

PACE are sending a new Macquarie Uni group to volunteer at Peru’s Challenge this July. I am really happy for the new volunteers because their lives are going to be changed forever and they are going to have the time of their lives just like me only a few months ago. But in all honesty, I am jealous of the experience they are going to have. I am jealous that they get to see my favourite kids, Cynthia and Doris. I am jealous they get to live in the house that I lived in, surrounded by lush mountains. I am jealous they get to work with Jane and Selvy, the NGO founders, and I am jealous because it’s not me this time around. I know that it should never be about me, but I have realised that those kids mean more to me than I can imagine and they have done more for me, more than I could have ever done for them. Just being around them makes me want to be that little bit better.

The thing I fear the most right now is that the kids will forget us. Or worse, replace us with the new group. I hope they don’t. But if they do, then I pray that all the future volunteers would love these kids the way that they deserve. I hope that these kids would squeal in delight while playing with the new group. I hope that they latch onto the new guys like they did with us. They deserve big brothers and sisters who will lift them up and spin them around. They deserve piggy back rides and hand clap games. They are kids. Sometimes they are forced to grow up a bit faster because they are obliged to look after the family and complete a tonne of chores, but in their heart of hearts, they are just kids.

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.

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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