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The Oneness of Mankind

26 Jun

Last Tuesday I attended a community building event that revolved around Indigenous peoples and their struggles. The attendance was minimal, but the learning unlimited. Though I took a different approach and stance to one of the guest speaker’s views (an Indigenous activst), I still felt positive afterwards.

His retrospective attitudes and beliefs were backwards, harmful, prejudiced to all races but his own, and in essence tried to fight fire with fire. Today, this won’t achieve any real change. Rather than leaving disheartened, I left feeling further enlightened to the need of humanity’s best interests-the upliftment of the ‘human race’ rather than the exaltation of any one race or culture.

Taking a prospective approach to such injustices is a far more effective method. This is summed up perfectly in the following counsel of Baha’u’llah:

Every age hath its own problem, and every soul its particular aspiration. The remedy the world needeth in its present-day afflictions can never be the same as that which a subsequent age may require. Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and centre your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements.

The status of a volunteer: The Mesiah, the bringer of treasures, teacher of knowledge, who looks more like Shakira than any other person in the village. A reflection on the inflated ego of a volunteer.

13 May

I turned up at Sidhbari Hostel with only a bag of things. I knew I was going to live with the people, connect with the third world, and prove we don’t need the material goods in the western world we so aspire not only to own, but to be known we own. I wanted to live amongst the locals. With modest intentions did not take my fancy things (no laptop, not high heels, no jewellery). Despite this I was welcomed with great vigour, not only as a volunteer teacher, but also as an English speaking white girl with an Ipod.

My ipod soon became a star attraction. The children came from an isolated area in North Western India, that can be accessed only by yak during the snowy winter months, through which there is no phone line or electricity. But they knew how to work an ipod. 

A boy asked if he could borrow my headphones for the day. I assumed he’d borrowed a music player from someone. Later in the day walking through the village I saw him wearing them. I asked what he was listening to, the end of the cord in his pocket. He pulled the end of the cord out with a grin, nothing attached.

The first two weeks I was in Sidhbari people would run from their homes with children wanting me to hold them for photos and for the kids to show off their English language. They wanted me to tell them their children are smart, healthy and fat.

I was invited to every event. Never before (or since) have I made a room silent on entering. It was assumed I could dance like “Shakira”, (I got some funny looks when I did bust my moves at the many weddings I attended, I proved the theory wrong; not all white girls can dance like Shakira). I had become a celebrity based on the colour of my skin, and all that was associated with it, and I didn’t mind.

Some Indian men took the friendliness too far. I’d sit on an empty bus and the first three men to get on sardined up beside me to look directly at my chest. The first Hindi words I learned were to tell them what I’d rather they do (Ill write about Hindi/English swear words another time).

Despite this, the friendliness I received from people made my time in India easier and more warm than I’d have ever got without the beautiful people. By the time I was leaving I knew which families to stop by and say hello if I was hungry (the food at the hostel was meagre), who made the best chai, who had cute kids to play with while I had time during the day, who would help me tanslate Hindi and more so, I made close friends, who I’ll never forget.There were days I wanted to walk home without holding babies or discuss children’s progress through their English text book, but this wasn’t often, usually when I had another dose of Delhi Belly. 

But now I’m back in Sydney I miss the attention, I’m only another white girl in the village. I walk home from the bus, saying the usual civilities to neighbours, no toothless Indian women with a body shape like the samosas she is thrusting at me. I am again back to being only another white Anglo girl, in a white neighbourhood. My ipod impresses no one at all. 

Watching the Other Volunteers

9 May

While I was at the centre, a group from Denmark started a 6 month volunteer session that was part of their requirements for their degree. By the end if their volunteer time they were required to put together a presentation to the leaders at the centre which would demonstrate some things they could see which could be improved and how they could go about this. As an anthropology student, it was obvious that I was going to have a problem with this as I felt the assignment was deeply ethnocentric and unnecessarily encouraged a cultural relativist attitude.

One of the girls from the group was put with my class for a little while. While I had purposely gone into my volunteer experience with an open mind (probably a little TOO open minded) she clearly had not and had a lot of trouble at the centre. She often complained to me about the way the teachers at the centre occasionally gave the kids a light smack on the behind if they continued misbehaving. She even confided in me that several of the children were sporting bad bruises and we should complain. These “bruises” were clearly birthmarks but she was adamant that child abuse was occurring. Also she and several of the other students were totally disgusted by what they saw as disgraceful hygiene levels at the centre. Never mind that while they were from a country which has amazing services and technology we were now working in a third world country. They also regularly complained about the country in general and often didn’t show up to work as they were too distressed by the whole experience. I was often outraged by their attitudes and found myself avoiding spending time with them, as I found they looked at me with a mixture of confusion and pity.

I often wonder how they dealt with their experience when they got home. While I feel I had the time of my life and would jump at the chance to go again, I sense they wont share these feelings. I wonder how much they were prepared for their trip back at home and why they had agreed to go in the first place. Honestly, I really felt sorry for them and their close-minded attitude that ruined an experience so many others would have really enjoyed

Live the high life! Be a volunteer!

1 May

On the volunteer program I joined up to, the program’s organisers said quite frankly that the professional experience gained by us will be greater than what we contribute to the organisations we work with overseas. Of course we have valuable skills, a unique perspective and the desire to do good. However, it takes more than that to make a lasting difference.

So the organisers said that for us, the experience will be fantastic and invaluable. Try your best in the circumstances you’re in, and be happy with that. Some of us were on 6 month, 9 month and 12 month assignments. These were considered short-term assignments, as some people work in the development industry for over 10 years.

Two articles were provided as links in one of the recent posts, no brainer, all gut-ter. I agree with most of the points made in both articles. We don’t lose too much by volunteering. It’s fantastic for our careers, sense of self, understanding of others and how the world works, and contributes a lot to the development of us being individual thinkers. Many people go through university being taught how to think inside prescribed frameworks. With overseas volunteering, we can take a step back and think about things through different angles.

It was also definitely a no brainer for me too. I knew I wanted to take this opportunity to work on climate change education with young adults, in an emerging space globally and in the developing world. I was curious as to the young ‘green movements’ that were forming in Vietnam, and I wanted to get in on the action! It was hard convincing my parents that it was a good career move, but in the end, I made my decision regardless and jetted off over the horizon!


Youth setting up their exhibit at the "Hanoi & The Environment" exhibition

A response to Honey Ants and Chip Packets

29 Apr

Palm Valley - the kids call this place Puerta nemo (it means Nemo rock)

They say you can never really go somewhere
you always leave part of yourself here
Have you ever been to Central Australia?
I think that’s a place
that left itself
somewhere long ago,
before the new people brought themselves there
and tried to make it
part of here
They shouldn’t really call
it Australia up there.
Not if they call it Australia
down here.
It is this country’s heart,
but we have cut it off from the rest of the body
it beats now
only for its soul
and the spirits that still
sit and sing
in the sand.
It still beats. But now, and for such a long time
it beats alone

like a bone that has split amongst the sand
It has lost what keeps it all together
and keeps it together
with us.

some white people
in black suits
might not think so…
but they might not
what they think they know
and might not i
white as any other you’d find
but not one to pretend
I can take a place away from its heart
and just put its heart
back in.

I remember when I first returned from Ntaria, the plane ride home was one of the scariest experiences of my life. I had spent 3 months in Ntaria, only going into Alice Springs for about 1 hour every 2 weeks for food, because as Im sure you know (and we should probably talk about on this blog) the food available in supermarkets in remote communities in Central Aus is ridiculously expensive and horribly bad quality.

But I remember the plane ride home vividly. As we flew back over Sydney, and I saw all the houses and built up buildings so close together. As I swooped over the highways and city streets. As we glided over residential pools and excessive excuses of money spent and wasted on luxuries for personal use…I wanted to turn the plane around

I was so scared to be back in a society like this. I had grown old in Ntaria and was an old man flying into a different universe. I so craved the taste of dry open red dirt flung against my lips and flies against my eyes.

I never felt like that before. In all the places I had travelled, I had never been so ashamed to return home.

Delights and Dilemmas – the Journey Begins!

27 Apr

Having just returned from my third visit to Curtin Immigration Detention Centre in remote WA, the delights and dilemmas of cultural convergence are fresh in my mind. In my final year of a Development Studies and Culture Change degree (a rather exotic name for a fairly generic Arts course) this idea of cross-cultural interaction still perplexes me.

I first entered the volunteer world as wary gap-year student, searching for that ‘life-changing-career-deciding’ package deal. It presented itself as a 3 month stint in Vietnam working with young children – fine, perfect, that’ll do. Four years on, and several cross-cultural experiences later, I’ve realised that those life changes and career decisions do not come as instant revelations but emerge as an ongoing, internal dialogue.

After travelling extensively both as a volunteer and tourist I can happily say that every new place challenges me in different ways, alters my aspirations, and undoubtedly adds confusion to my life! And I wouldn’t have it any other way. While returning to ‘normality’ is inevitable it is surprising how often a fleeting sight, sound or smell can transport you back to those funny, temporary worlds and reveal a tasty morsel of insight…

Is it possible to ever come “back”?

9 Apr

Reading the posts there seems to be a common theme about how life changing our experiences were. And how difficult this type of change and can be.

I went to India to teach in a hostel for 6 months. I spent the the first month lonely and homesick but then found a home and people I came love immeasurably. My time was so rich in experience, I’ve never laughed or cried nearly so much as I managed in those 6 months. I look back on memories thick in those unexpected events that really did shake me up massively, but that I would not choose to avoid at any cost.

I was teaching an all boys class one day at a nearby hostel and heard my name being screamed from the next room. The principal’s niece was having a baby in the next room, and I as the only woman in the building!

I don’t know how to deliver a baby!? But I’m a woman!!

One man ran to village to find a woman (every woman knows how to deliver a baby) while the mother screamed and I held her hand praying that a lady from the village arrives before I see the baby’s head.

Throughout the delivery I could hear the principal, a monk, chanting prayers with the students outside. The sound of the children’s chants reverberating inside the isolated concrete building at the base of the Himalayas while a beautiful baby boy was born  is so awesome it is unexplainable.

Later the same day I opened the paper to a daily section. Children found alone on the street have pictures of their faces lined up in boxes with any details about the child listed underneath, though normally none are known. These children are almost all new-born girls, often dumped in plastic bag into rubbish tips or the side of the street. I cried and stared writing a letter home to tell my parents. Though I quickly realised while doing this, that sometimes there was nothing worse to do, to tell people at home the truth.

Telling this story I feel numb with compassion and sadness for the situation, yet I can’t wait to go back. I came home from India more homesick than when I left. Telling friends about my time there I tend to tell them about the Taj Mahal, the food and Bollywood movies, but what I’m thinking about is something very different. As bec4890 expressed in her post Will people ever understand? I’m left feeling quite the same, people will never understand, but then again I never really tried.

On coming back to Aus I did my best to enjoy going out to the city to dance and drink too much, hearing about friends and their relationship troubles and discussing the best cut of jeans to wear to uni, but I missed India so much and as much as I wished I cared about these topics, I didn’t.

I have been back in Aus for 3 years and traveled back to India once to see friends and students and the little baby boy and his mum who are both doing so well.

I feel I have moved back now, and do consider the best cut of jeans to wear to uni, but I know I am not totally “back”.  I can’t help but interpret my world with some Buddhist Indian values, contrasting the two worlds in my head. I hope more than anything that I never forget the amazing things I experienced, and that those in India do not forget me either.

Life in Happy Ignorance

7 Apr

In an earlier blog Bec posted this question: Will people ever understand?

It made me think because I did experience something very similar. People don’t seem to get it, but before I got home something happened that made me a little more prepared. Sorry for this ridiculously long blog, I got kind of caught by writing. Enjoy reading 🙂

It’s already two years ago when I worked as a volunteer in Guatemala. While being there I kept in touch with my friends and one of them managed to get a medical internship at Harvard. So I decided to go to Continental Airlines to see if I could change my return flight to Amsterdam and make a stop-over in Boston. I could.

Two days before I left Guatemala I ran into some friends who were talking to a local NGO person. I forgot his name, but he invited us to have a look at the project he was working on in Guatemala City. Earlier I denied an invite to visit a mental hospital, because after people told me about the horrible living conditions. After all you wouldn’t go to help, but more like going to the zoo to have a look at the rare ‘monkeys’. But this guy said it was really important to have westerners visit, because one: it would raise the status of the project and two: we could carry the message out, so I decided to tag along.

The project was bizarre. I lived in Guatemala for almost three months, travelled across the country, had seen poor people, bad living conditions, but nothing like this. The project is called Safe Passage and tries to create a ‘passage’ to a better world for the people who live on Guatemala City’s garbage dump. A place where you as a foreigner shouldn’t go and are actually not allowed to go by government edict. Funny thing is that what is promoted as the least safe place of Guatemala is in reality the safest place to be, since the only white people that go there are there to help and seen as such. What’s the point if robbing if the people you rob are there to give you help (and money) anyways?

These people, mostly Maya’s, live and work on the dump by collecting Coca-Cola-cans or going in to prostitution. The going rates are something like this: $0.10 – $0.50 for a day of can-collecting (government working license not included) and around $0.50 for the sale of your body (condoms not included). Housing is for free, since you live on the dump, but food isn’t, so most people end up eating what comes out of the garbage trucks. The trick is to put lemon on it, the acid kills the most harmful bacteria. These people are stuck in a so-called poverty trap, no skills to get a job, discrimination against an ethnic minority and no money to start any business themselves. Safe Passage is there trying to help them with schooling and setting up jewelry business, but the amount of people living on the dump is increasing rather than decreasing.

A day later I flew out of the country. And there I was, walking around in a goatskin jacket, long hair and a beard. I couldn’t feel less at home between Boston’s skyscrapers. Sipping a beer in some Irish pub while waiting for my friend my eyes got drawn to a television which screened a turkey-bowling competition somewhere in the States, it’s almost Christmas you know? I remember how much it upset me, are people really that ignorant of ‘their others’ a bit more South? What’s that message of Christmas again?

And that was Boston in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis which put thousands of people out of work and on the street. And here I am writing this story, because you know, I might win an I-pad! That I-pad is hell of a lot more relevant to my life than Guatemala City dump’s residents. I probably haven’t thought about them for a year, they got out of sight, but somewhere I know, they are still there. It’s the same with all the people I told this story, they will laugh, it probably is a funny story, but what does it say about us? After feeling pity for a minute or five, listening to your story, everybody continues life in the comfort zone of happy ignorance. You’re five minutes fame are over, welcome back, life goes on. And really, before you know it, you will start caring more about an I-pad than about those people far away who would have to work for 200 years to be able to afford one. Safe Passage made a short movie about the only things these people have: a history, a life and hope: La Pluma.

After my ‘trip’ I spent a couple of sundays putting a photo-book together, somewhere in it are these two pictures. Can you see the difference? No, I mean really? Do you understand?

Will people ever understand?

6 Apr

This is a question I think about every day. Will people ever understand?

I had the most amazing and life changing experience and yet I feel like no one except those who were with me, really understand. I tell all the stories and show all the pictures. I know they’re interested because they’re my family and friends and I went on a “holiday”. But I just feel like they don’t understand the impact it had on me. I try to explain but they still can’t see it. I was surprised how upset I got the other day because I was changing my desktop picture to a photo of the class I taught in India and my finacee said “why are you putting their picture up, they probably don’t even remember who you are”. He was having a joke which is not unusual for him but the comment really upset me. I think because it made me think…well, what if they don’t remember me? Just because the experience had such an impact on me, doesn’t mean it had the same effect on them. I think it was this that upset me more than the comment.

My new life

Needless to say, I got over being upset and I did make the (above) photo my desktop picture. I think I realised that, it doesn’t matter if the kids don’t remember me, the photo is my acknowledgment of the impact they had on me.

Well thats my first little rant. Hope I didn’t bore you all.

Do any of you feel the same way? Do any of you have experience with people not understanding? Can anyone say that yes one day they will understand?

Keep smiling


Discoveries of self

6 Apr

What does it mean to “belong”,

do you need to have been their long?

What if the place where you were born and raised,

Only felt like it were a passing phase?

Could you still discover your true belonging,

Or would you be forever longing?

Does one even need to belong to a particular place,

Or can it simply be a familiar face?

Can you belong to a point in time,

Or even only within your own mind?

To belong do you need to be that same,

Like everyone else, not just in name?

What does it mean to belong?

After struggling my way through the previous 18 months of being a square peg in a round hole, I was happy to be leaving Australia. Not that my rejection of Australian culture was the sole reason I decided to become an overseas volunteer, but the search for something more meaningful than a commodified culture of people sleepwalking through life, the culture of my “home”, was an urgent need. The opportunity to immerse myself in a different culture, to give and to receive from something new, seemed too good to pass up.

Although I didn’t really know what I was looking for, I found it in Fiji and the Pacific. Cultures of solidarity, of community, of extended families where cousins become brothers and sisters and friends becomes cousins. Cultures where “where are you from” is more important than “what do you do” (And even then, the importance isnt because of establishing oneself in a vertical relationship with other through a hierarchy of village and towns, but rather establishing where one fits horizontally, with the possibility of being related to the other person, or knowing whether one should playfully joke with their “tauvu”). A culture where “I belong, therefore I am” was the motto, rather than “I have”, or “I consume, therefore I am”. I immediately let myself be drawn in, to be warmly embraced in something I didnt know, but something that felt like “home”.

However I also had another identity that I willingly accepted upon undertaking this journey – that of an Australian volunteer. Not quite an expat, obviously not a local. But somewhere in between, thanks to the volunteer label, which meant we possibly cared a bit more than the expats. It was a label I was happy to wear, because without it I wouldn’t have been there. But gee it wore thin, very quickly.  It was the push and pull of it – the pull of the beautiful new culture in which I was immersed, combined with the push of having to deal with the same old conversations about the best places to go to the beach, the best hotels, and the like…I couldn’t escape the fact that “Australia” came with the tag of “Australian volunteer”. I found myself not playing by the rules, whether they be unspoken social rules or overt volunteer policies (but thats a story for another time).

And so it was that I continued to be drawn towards another culture, other ways of being, other ways of seeing and organizing the world and relating with others. Yet I was still an outsider, the “other”. To see the passion of Pacific cultures, and desperately wanting to be a part of that, but still being on the outer. I remember having one Fijian activist look me square in the eye and with a mix of the history of anti-colonial struggle and the love of Pacific pride on her breath ask me what I could possibly know about inequality and struggle coming from my privileged white Australian background.  Maybe I could only ever be the outsider, face pressed up against the glass looking in, but never to be invited inside. Or maybe the spirit of Pasifika could reside within me, journey with me back to Australia to provide new colour to my “home”?

I was to find out the latter sooner that expected. December 5th, 2006; Fiji’s 4th coup. My phone rang, and I thought my friend was calling just to ask me out to lunch. “We have to go to Nadi. We’re being evacuated”, she said. My head was spinning with a mix of thoughts and emotions – “Why do we have to leave our friends and colleagues?” I wondered.  “Ah, my activist friend was right about the privilege white Australian after all.  When the going gets tough, the privileged get going. Shit. I will be Melbourne tomorrow!” Being in Melbourne I felt like an alien. I couldn’t look people in the eye. I felt like a book that had been put back on the wrong shelf. I was no longer a square pegs trying to fit in round holes because the holes had disappeared altogether. How could I feel this way about being “home”? Surely “home” would comfort me during this difficult situation. I couldn’t deal with it. Two weeks after being evacuated I bought a ticket and went back to Fiji. And I will never forget the overwhelming feeling that drenched me when I walked through the front door to where I was staying in Fiji – “I am home”.

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