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The Power of Reflection

9 Jul

When reflecting on our volunteer experiences, there is always something that stands out amongst our memories. They may be an encounter, an event that taught us a lesson in life, or even a chance experience. For me, however, it was something as simple as hearing the melodies of people’s voices. Singing in a pastime activity for Swazis and Africans in general.

By sharing stories, experiences, triumphs, learnings, and personal journeys, whilst being an overseas volunteer has allowed me to revisit my most cherished memories that would otherwise be locked away. It has allowed me to relive my successes, challenges and reflect and learn more from my retelling. Such a power that lies in reflecting, and indeed can be adapted to learn from all life’s experiences.

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a sanitised depiction

7 Jul

Merely watching the first 2 minutes of Luke Nguyen’s show persuades the viewer of the beauty of Vietnam.

I wish I could be as laid back and relaxed as Luke Nguyen is in Vietnam.

His exuberance, enthusiasm and the way he fully embraces and expresses his love for Vietnam seems genuine and is very believable. It’s probably because he is genuine. However, despite him jumping right into local food culture, the show depicts quite a sanitised version of Vietnam. Even the introductory montage (around 2 minutes into the above youtube video) has a pearly white glow.

Whereas, when one is aware and confronted by the social and political climate in Vietnam, it’s difficult to let go, relax and be enchanted by ‘charming’ Vietnam. It is difficult to be creative in your work and be proactive and positive in your outlook every day.

A friend recommended a recently published book to me. Vietnam, Rising Dragon, explores the complex and fascinating period in which Vietnam is developing in, and goes beyond the deceptive tourism campaign. I read the excerpt and was sold.

It is exactly the book I need to read upon returning to Australia after being living and volunteering in Vietnam for a year. It will undoubtedly help me make sense of what I experienced.

In Vietnam, whenever I found the answer to one question, ten more would pop up in my head. This book will help me find the answers that have been floating in my head ever since.

Maybe then, I could return to Vietnam and be as laid back as Luke Nguyen.

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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10 words

4 Jul

The volunteer organisation in Australia wanted us to do 10 weekly words, 10 words about anything – the work, health, emotions, whatever. I thought this was a great idea because I knew I’d be writing anyway, just no with any structure.

By the end of the first week, I was: “hardened, weakened, sorting, welcomed, consumed, disgusted, delighted, appreciative, adapting, energised”.

It developed into: “active, new friends, busy, spontaneous, self righteous, purge, frustrated, fulfilled, air, consumer”

And concluded with: “solid, future, grateful, unrealistic, excited, sound, wings, ongoing, reality, peace”.

It was a quick snapshot of the week, an insight into what might have been going on inside as well. But funnily enough as it went on  I started to resent having to do it! In hindsight I’m glad I had to do it, it kind of pinpoints how I was digesting things (in all senses of the word), and allows me to unblur the 12 or so weeks we were there and better understand the things that happened and how I responded.

 

 

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 Semi-Frustrated Volunteer

20 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

Only a few hills, meadows and valleys till our destination

The frustrated volunteer

19 Jun

My experience was different in many respects to that of the average Aussie. It is hard to confess, but I find it hard to relate to the feelings of guilt or resentment that I’ve seen are common among international volunteers. I lived most of my life in Bogota (Colombia, not ‘Africa’, as my girlfriend once thought… she’s almost as bad in geography as me) and the truth is that for anyone to be able to live there, you have to get used to all the cruel realities that seem so foreign to the regular Australian. Every day, you go out, you catch an incredibly crowded bus with people coming out of the windows (similar to the Jeepney or the Indian bus), you see a few families in starving horse-and-carts carrying recycling stuff, and face two or three random beggars or quasi-beggars that open your door or give you directions to park your car (that you never need) or wash your windows (usually the day after you’ve actually washed it!). This is why when I went to Hanoi to volunteer, I didn’t feel shocked (well, just a bit with that swarm of zigzaging motorbikes). I actually felt a bit relieved… I felt like I was in a homely and warm place, after a year and a half of studying in Sydney, a city with nice and open people, but sometimes a bit cold, self-conscious and extra-polite.

And beyond the culture, what I actually struggled with was with the idea of ‘volunteering’ itself. I just never felt fully convinced of what I was doing. I could see in other people very strong emotions and commitments, stubborn attitudes that would be screaming to everyone: “I want to do something, I want to make a difference, I must fulfill the role of the volunteer… so much, that I cannot afford any time to think. Doubting the very idea of volunteering would be a sacrilege”. In this sense, I found very illuminating the post “What’s the point?“. At many times, I thought that only I was thinking about it, and I wondered if it was all to the fact that I grew up with poverty as my neighbor.

I still struggle with the idea of volunteering. So much, that I decided to write a whole thesis about it (well, it’s not just about that, but it’s where everything for me started). And at the beginning I thought my feeling was also the one of resentment. I thought for a while I was one of those blaming the West (by the way, I only fully realized until I studied in Australia that ‘South America’ — as Latin America, including Central America, is called around this side of the planet — is not really “Western”). But with time I’ve noticed that I don’t really feel resentment… how could I? I lived my own childhood with a 24/7 maid (it’s not like in Australia though, it’s a lot more affordable), I had the privilege of a good life, of a good education, a privilege that only a few get in Colombia, and just as similar to the privilege that Australians (or at least most of them) are born with. How can anyone seriously be mad at “privilege”, at what we could just simply call “luck”?

Thus, after a while I learned to recognize my true feeling: frustration. The question that subtly but constantly goes through my head, over and over, is: why things have to look like this? Why is everyone so comfortable with taking “luck” as it is? Why, if we all know it’s wrong, can’t we find a rational way to organize our societies that does not entail the cruelty of insane inequality and chronic scarcity?? “Luck” frustrates me, and it does so because it is so senseless… there is no way to explain it without realizing that there is no appropriatte answer for it, without realizing that the answer is really in our hands, is not laying around there, wandering somewhere in the world. And I knew well before going to volunteer, that I would not find the answer in Vietnam, nor elsewhere. The answer always follows me around, one step behind, slipping through my hands.

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?

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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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.

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