Thursday, September 24, 2009

What is more important than being really really ridiculously good-looking?

How do you do it? You are likely one of the majority of people on this earth who spends most of your time living in one location, at the same job, seeing the same people, eating the same foods, and laughing at jokes so similar to the ones made the week before.

I am back in NY for less than two weeks, have yet to recover my energy from my recent travels and am already searching cheap flights to anywhere, literally anywhere.

I spoke with a friend recently, who travels more than I, who cautioned me. He said that having the experiences I have already by my age means I am doomed to never live a normal life. I don't know if I would consider living an unusual life being doomed, but I think he has a point.

Glancing through facebook photos - always the best way to discover what someone is like - I realised I have pictures of me with Asians, pictures of me with Africans, pictures of me with Latins, pictures from all over the world. Each of those pictures connects me to a period of growth; the first time I saw a baby whose eyes were glazed over from malnutrition, the first time I realised that in most places of the world poverty is insurmountable (due to lack of education, disease, lack of jobs, etc). The first time I saw a woman with leprosy begging and I was horrified in case she reached out and touched me, and horrified at myself for not stopping to see if I could help her in any way. The first time I met hundreds of teenage girls who had all been raped multiple times since a young age. The first time I met a doctor who abused his patients, yet he was their only hope.

There have been other firsts as well, the first time I gave a speech to hundreds of Nigerians, and was terrified and my hands shook. I began my speech with a rhetorical question, which the entire audience answered. I realised my speech needed more audience involvement and changed it on the spot, adding to my fear.

When I return to New York, to a comfortable life where I have every opportunity and option in my daily life and my future I am so grateful to have been born and educated in the west. I am always torn between enjoying my salad, Ultimate tournaments and visiting with friends and the desire I have deep inside to return to these other places and find some way to offer what I've received to more people.

When I think of all the ways my dreams set me apart from a normal life I wonder if I can change my dreams, and I have to remind myself why my dreams are different. When I
remember the people I've met who have changed my dreams I am so grateful I have been given the opportunity to help them, and the knowledge they exist. I'm taking improvisation classes, surely if I ever need to I can act out a normal life. In the meantime, I am grateful that my dreams match my experiences unlike people who have dreams of a normal life with no way of ever achieving it.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A Day in the Life of...

There is no such thing. Each day is different, although I've almost enjoyed returning to some semblance of routine in NY. Monday was my first full day at a desk since mid-June. It felt weird. I was working at warp speed trying to get everything done before I had to run off to my next flight or some important meeting, and every 30 minutes would remind myself that I have no plans to travel for at least another month and could actually focus on projects that are not urgent and yet important.

Since returning, there are so many projects I knew I couldn't do while travelling and had pushed so far to the back of my mind I'd forgotten of their existence. Suddenly they've all come tumbling forth again and I'm struggling to prioritise amongst all the mountains of work I'm suddenly confronted with.

I also thought, since no one knows I'm back, that my first week would be relatively calm. Instead I've been singly to triply-booked each night this week. All events I couldn't skip out on; the opening of the UN General Assembly,  a friend's birthday party, etc.

I've been enjoying waking up before 8am and before my alarm clock goes off. I can't chalk it up to jetlag as I really didn't struggle with it after my first couple days in Thailand. It seems my body hits a certain level of exhaustion or day-time uncertainty and then quite obediently sleeps when I tell it to and wakes up when forced to, regardless of day/night time.

I miss travelling, having each day be a surprise and opportunity to meet new people, eat new foods and learn something new about another culture just doesn't seem to get old. Returning to a culture I'm comfortable with allows me to look at it through the eyes of other cultures and also to realise that as open as I may be I have certain paradigms that continue to effect my thought processes and solutions to world problems. There are absolutely values to some paradigms I possess, and other experiences and solutions I simply won't generate because of my background.

Today, I missed a meeting by calculating a time-zone difference wrong. I've received emails from almost every continent. I've learned about some famous people from another country who I never would have discovered on my own and I've brought people together in a search for information. 

This evening, I will attend a UN reception along with some of our interns currently in NY from different parts of the world.  I will then go grocery shopping since I am down to a few cans of food and ramen noodles - that's what happens when I haven't shopped since April.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Kwaheri Nairobi

In 4 hours I leave WYA Africa, so sad! I'll miss scuma wiki (spinach) and Kenyan tea at all hours of the day. Thankfully I was served less matoke (deep fried banana) this trip, so my bum is less large than it otherwise would have been.

Yesterday evening Caroline and her husband, Nick, took all the WYA staff and interns out for Chinese food.  En route we nearly bumped fenders with one of the Matatus (public buses) as they stop randomly whenever anyone wishes to get off. Caroline was so annoyed she rolled down the window to shout at the driver, at the height of her annoyance she shouted "Go Home!" We all cracked up! Go home? Apparently she was concerned he was driving badly as he was low on sleep and thought he should take a rest and be with his family for the safety of other drivers...

Upon arrival at the restaurant there was a foosball table.  Nick and Bissy played Irene and me.  We won, but Nick had the most enthusiasm. We attempted to stop the game for a good 10 minutes, and every time we started to walk away he'd drop the ball and try to score on us. Once dinner was over and we were all leaving he resumed his post for another game!

We had our first chance to all be together and share stories. Irene and I talked of our recent travels and Nick shared the boys' adventures. I was quite impressed as the taxi driver who took us decided to just stay and wait for us to finish rather than going back to his post and returning for us. So Caroline and Nick fed him also - that's dignity!

Today was a no-power day. I packed for a couple hours, then took a freezing cold shower before Irene and I joined Mr. Beauttah for a farewell lunch. Completed offline work this afternoon and now the power's back on! I'm off now to meet with Irene and Hezbon to discuss final details before I head to the airport to catch my 2am flight. That's the hour you get when you fly Turkish Airlines for half the cost of any other airline :)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Maasai Cattle in Nairobi

Kenya is currently suffering from a drought and Kenya's power is hydroelectric. There is power rationing 3 days/week on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, there is no power between 6am and 6pm. Different parts of Nairobi have power rationing on different days. 

As a result of the drought, the Maasai grazing grounds are dried up, so the cattle now wander throughout the city in search of grass and food. It's quite a sight to see Maasai herders and cattle on Nairobi city streets and side roads.

Speaking of animals... Irene, Bissy and I today took a safari tour through Nairobi's National Park. Apart from the huge fee difference for foreigners and Kenyans ($40 vs $5) the visit was lovely. We woke at 5 to be sure we could be at the park when it opened at 6 to catch the animal's early morning activities.

Although the animals are most active in the morning the wardens don't arrive till after 8 nor does the bookshop, which is the only place maps are available, open till later.  So we headed off into the park with our driver, who thankfully had been there before.  We saw a few giraffe and zebra in the distance and one, lone wildebeest.  Then we came across a small herd of greater kudu. They were a bit skittish though we tried our best to get some nice shots, then Irene saw it. Far off in the distance, between two bushes, was a golden brown spot, a lion! It took the rest of us another few moments before we could spot him, and we tried to get pictures of him. He slunk off into the bushes so we drove on. 
We became good at spotting giraffes, no pun intended, or is it... and also saw springboks, gazelle, and later on an ostrich.  The ostrich was running a distance from us across a stream.  We drove along in the same direction and crossed the bridge to get closer.  We were especially hopeful as a number of deer were also running - we hoped from a lion.

The poor ostrich chose to walk on the road in front of us for a good 300 meters.  He seemed bothered that we were following him, but unlike he, we had to stay on the road. He finally veered toward the stream and we left him.  As we returned on the same path, he was also returning from the river and perhaps rather annoyed to encounter us again.
We saw two giraffes fighting.  All those pictures in National Geographic where giraffes have their necks entwined in what appears to be a romantic embrace are misleading - that's how they fight. They twist their necks around each other and then bump with the top of their head either the neck or the body.  It's actually adorable to watch.
At one point we thought we saw a herd of wildebeest in the distance, upon closer inspection it was  a forest of slightly scattered very low bushes.  We drove through it and discovered the jackpot of 4 legged grazing animals. Dozens of zebra herds, greater kudus, springboks, gazelles and even some wildebeest. It seems the wildebeest only gather together for their migration as most were wandering off by themselves in random parts of the park. That was also when we saw our warthog.

I saw the grasses bending coming towards us and could just make out a brown coloured shape. I was convinced it was a lion, until his upright tail, snout and tusks appeared. He was trotting along at quite the pace and seemed so businesslike.  Apparently Pumba is short for pumbavo which means stupid in Swahili. Poor Pumba, at least he had a nice singing voice.
Once through that patch of land we discovered Ostrich central, they were all off by themselves and could easily be mistaken for trees in the distance with their necks down eating. Just brown and black bumps on the horizon.

By then we'd been driving for a few hours and were encountering fewer wildlife.  We were about to leave the park when some rangers drove by and said there was a lion spotted nearby. We turned and headed in that direction but saw no sign of the lion. Apparently no one informed him that when you live in a national park, your job is to be observed by tourists...

Just as we arrived to the gate of the park, we saw two baboons in the road ahead of us. Unlike all the other animals we had encountered, they seemed content to remain there. One baboon ran off and returned a moment later with some food, for the baby we hadn't noticed until then cuddled into his mother's fur. They sat and ate and played in the middle of the road, until another vehicle drove past. They then came and ran behind our vehicle watching.  Although Irene was adamant we shouldn't feed them as they can get vicious when angry, I couldn't resist. I threw an orange peel out the window, and the mother dove for it then ran off. We then realised they were only the forefront of an entire (herd? flock?) of baboons. There were mothers with babies, teenagers and adults. There was even the macho one of the group who was much larger than the others and barked at us before moving on.
We then visited a nearby elephant orphanage.  The elephants are so tiny and wrinkled like ancient old men, I managed to reach out and pat the trunk of one, who then grabbed my hand with the edge of his trunk and tried to eat it - cute! Once the elephants were gone, a baby Rhino came out for a bit. He had the most hilarious gallop and a great deal of personality to fit into his small hide. They're trying to raise him as wild as possible to release him into the park someday as Rhinos are nearly extinct here.

Such a beautiful day, we came back and napped a bit at the WYA office and are heading out in a few hours for a dinner with Caroline's family and all the interns to see me off tomorrow.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Painted Cow Dung

Irene and I are back in Kigali, by this time in our travels it is our second home after Nairobi. Our? I've decided by this point I either have homes all over the world, or I am homeless, I think the first option sounds better.

We had a successful seminar with students in Goma. They were greatly impressed by Irene's talk on Peace and Good Governance, and especially that one so young as she knew so much. They had many questions for her. They were also interested in my presentation on HIV/AIDS and I think it was the first time for them to understand the disease beyond the catch phrase of abstinence, fidelity and condoms - signs are all over the place! There was one young mother in the room who was initially quite upset to hear about HIV being passed from mother to child and then appeared greatly relieved to hear of ways to pre-empt that.

I think I mentioned previously that Goma has high rates of TB, it also has incredibly high rates of HIV infection. I hope that my presentation didn't hurt anyone as I'm sure they all know someone affected. It was difficult to convey anything as they all speak French so I had a translator, whose English was good but it is a tough topic to hear and translate all in one go. Irene and I both reworded many phrases and many witty comments were lost :)

The one thing Irene and I can't get over and are both determined to somehow return and empower the youth to fix is the prevalence of rape. The one woman who spoke up during the seminar mentioned the frequency of rape, and even the men all discussed security and peace as being their number one problem. We both wanted more time to hear the stories of the women there. The things we noted as excellent points were that in the WYA core group of 4, there are two women. We also noticed that none of the men had a problem listening to two women speak and asking us questions. I think they all feel overwhelmed by the situation and haven't received leadership training to address it.

We raced across the Goma/Gisenyi border then took motorcycle taxis to catch our bus 1 minute before it departed. The roads are terrible and I was grateful we were going slow as I'd been given a helmet without a visor or strap, I had to keep shaking my head to keep it on as my hands were busy holding my purse and me on. The bus ride back, 45 minutes in the two backseats cleared out and we both slept for a couple hours. I think it is impossible to appreciate how great our spines are at keeping our heads from rattling until your head is rested directly on a seat. So many times I flew a few inches into the air or had to open my mouth to prevent my teeth from clacking. The closer we got to Kigali, the easier it was to sleep.

Today was a delicious day; we slept in and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast before embarking on our day. Irene wanted to see the Genocide Memorial this trip, and we booked our flight for Sunday to give us a day to complete all our errands. Of course, this day happens to be a national holiday. The memorial is closed. I'd hoped to get some shopping done - half the stores are closed. One opened for us, and we then found a market that is also open.

We stopped at one booth where the woman had some great items, she is a phenomenal businesswoman. She is part of a cooperative where youth, elderly and women do beading, basketry, farming, etc and she sells their stuff. Thanks to that, she was a very tough bargainer, continuously reminding us of the women who benefit from the sales.

My favourite part of her shop was artwork made of painted cowdung! She showed them to us, and we smelled it, and she said tons of people buy it... as Irene put it, that is really entrepreneurship: taking what you have and adding value! She agreed to a picture of her with her cowdung artwork, on the condition that I send it to her so she can use it for marketing. Irene then bought a necklace and earring set and was told to pose with it on, holding another necklace with more in the background for her also to use... I am so impressed by her. She also insisted that I find her more markets as she assumes I have more access than she does.

We'll head back to our Kigali home in a few minutes before departing tomorrow. Our flight leaves at 11, and the Memorial opens at 8. Assuming we're both able to rouse ourselves from bed on time we'll make one last effort to visit.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Wireless in Goma, DRC

Irene and I are sitting outside a supermarket in downtown Goma, DRC where they have wireless. Goma is the city in Northeastern DRC with rebel generals outside and frequent bouts of conflict. It is is home to some of the highest rates, worldwide, of TB and AIDS. They also have a live volcano which periodically engulfs the town.

We are visiting some WYA members here who have arranged for us to speak to a group of University students about peace, good governance and HIV/AIDS. These members really want to spread WYA's message of dignity to more youth, and especially students. We discovered last night that there have been 3000 reported rapes this year since January, as one small indicator of the difficulties faced by youth in this area.

I last visited Goma in February, 2007. At that time we drove over roads composed half of dirt and half of hardened volcanic lava. The roads were incredibly bumpy and the town was in recovery. I was looking forward this visit to seeing what improvements have been made. None. The roads are, if anything, worse and the town looks the same as it did previously.

Coming from Rwanda where it takes only a few months to notice improved roads, more businesses, etc. the contrast is stark. As Irene keeps saying, it demonstrates the incredible importance of leadership within the country. She also keeps suggesting that Kagame take turns as President of each country in East and Central Africa once he finishes in Rwanda.

We spent the last couple days in Rwanda also meeting with members and hopefully we'll have a WYA club at KIST university to work alongside our members at NUR. Alain also arranged for us to speak on Umucyo radio about WYA, the English language radio for Rwanda.

In Rwanda, there are few reminders that it is still emerging from devastation and poverty. One reminder is that you cannot book on their national airline without going in person to the office and paying. There are also few places in Rwanda that accept AmEx or Mastercard, only VISA. As I don't have VISA, I ended up spending the last of my American and Rwandan money to book the flight, paying exorbitant Mastercard fees to get some more out, and thankfully had just enough left for Irene and I to cover our visa fees at the DRC border.

We've been taking the motorcycle taxis each day to get into town and back to where we're staying at night as it is a bit far from the downtown. We'd been lucky to have competent drivers on each of our trips, until the night before we left. I got onto the back of the motorcycle and felt he was going much too fast, but decided to remain quiet rather than get him angry. I finally spoke up when he swerved and nearly hit Irene's motorcycle, then swerved again and nearly hit a car. I asked him to please drive slowly. He would speed up whenever we could, even when we were headed for stopped traffic, then he would stop abruptly and swerve continuously to find an opening. The only reason I remained on is I was concerned if I got off sooner than the destination that he might get angry and I didnt want an argument with him alone at night in Kigali.

Thankfully we arrived safely and also discovered a nearby bus stop to take in the future. For now I must jet, we are off to speak to the youth of Goma. This keyboard is also written in English but set to French so I have had to guess at many keys here...

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Bujumbura

Monday morning I had yet another 5am wake up call as Irene and I boarded our 8am flight from Nairobi to Bujumbura. We arrived to discover it is a solid 10 degrees warmer than Nairobi and I had packed completely wrong :p We were met by two WYA members, one who had attended the DDD conference in Nairobi, and driven to the Amahoro youth club. Amahoro means peace in Burundi.

We had a great meeting with the club members, then went for lunch nearby. The club is next door to a hair saloon - coiffure - and the stylists were outside eating lunch. They insisted I join them for lunch so I sat and had some kassava paste with soup and tiny fish, whole! The kassava is really sticky and I was already nauseous from beginning my anti-malaria medication that morning. I focused on so many happy memories to swallow it and remain smiling. They then insisted I go for another one, I'd managed to avoid the small fish up until this point. One of the women then picked one up and motioned for me to do the same. I tried to find the smallest one I could, but still got one which stared back at me while I held onto it's tail. I ate it, thankfully the bones were so small they didn't crunch. I smiled and thanked them for their hospitality. They wanted me to finish the whole meal with them, but I told them I absolutely could not as Irene and some club members were waiting for me.

Thankfully the food we went to eat was matoke (fried bananas), and some stews with which I am more familiar. We then went to the house where we were staying for the night, after booking our bus ticket leaving for Kigali the next morning. We stayed at a little house, about 20 minutes outside of Bujumbura with two bedrooms. One of the guys gave up his bedroom for us and they all shared a room together. We had a 30 minute nap as we were exhausted before heading back into town.

Bujumbura is a little town, and takes maybe 15 minutes to drive from one side to the other, with traffic. Within a few hours of walking, we'd seen most of the sights and were somewhat familiar with the geography. They took us to a little crafts store where we got a few items. We'd understood we would go into town for supper, so neither Irene nor I had snacked before we left.

By the time we got back to where we were staying it was 930 and we hadn't eaten since 1pm. My stomach was eating itself from the pills and even Irene was in dire need of food. We were planning to bust out protein bars and bread in our room, but the tv was in our room and our hosts decided they wanted to hang out with us. They all lounged on the bed, chatting and finally around 10pm we were served some food.

The uncomfortable part of the trip was they were all asking if I were married, engaged, had a boyfriend, when I said no to all three they were horrified and one spent nearly an hour telling me I had to reproduce so I could have beautiful children. I attempted to say beautiful children depends on a number of factors but he wasn't dissuaded from his quest. It's amazing how they all love blonde hair and white skin - Irene and I were discussing the next day all the whitening creams, hair extensions, etc. that people use to attempt to make themselves more fair, and the huge need there is for people to see beauty around them rather than some colonialist version they're currently accepting.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Nairobi

To keep both Irene and myself alive, we spent the past two days in Nairobi resting before we embark on our travels through Burundi, DRC and Rwanda next week. A number of participants from Nigeria, Rwanda and Ghana stayed with WYA and one participant from Sierra Leone arrived after it ended so was thankfully still able to meet some of our other members and discuss issues. I've used this time to attempt to catch up on some emails, I discovered a restaurant near the Africa office with wifi and have yet to be kicked out :p since the office internet isn't working.  I'll leave the password with Irene for future use!

The jerseys I had donated from 5Ultimate are still stuck in customs.  We've been making daily trips/phone calls/emails to try and get them out, yet each time the requirements change - from an email to an email addressed to a different person, to an import form, etc.  At this rate we could have flown them hot air balloon and they would have arrived sooner...

I was so annoyed that the participants didn't get jerseys, after all the work I'd done to get them donated and the generosity of 5ultimate to donate 100 for the conference.  Thankfully, Mr. Beauttah knows a school in Nairobi where 90% of the students are from Kibera slum, Nairobi's (and possible Africa's) largest slum.  So those kids will get to benefit from DHL's unprofessionalism, and the jerseys will still go to a good cause.  On the bright side, the participants did each get a disc to take home, so they can continue to promote good governance through sports.

Yesterday, I went to the Maasai market on my own as Irene had other errands.  Of course, I was greeted by numerous people willing to "bargain" for me, and receive a lovely sum for themselves in the process.  I've learned that the minute you shake hands or exchange names they become 1000X more persistent in attempting to sell you or not letting you leave, so I refused until I was interested in a person's goods.  A few of the "negotiators" tracked me down even in the market and accused me of rudeness for not shaking hands.  I attempted to explain to one guy that the minute I shook his hand he would never leave me alone and I wished to bargain on my own.  The woman running the stall cracked up when I said that and then helped me to shoo him away. She then also gave me a reasonable price to start bargaining from as I obviously knew how the market worked.

My favourite purchase from yesterday, which I absolutely had to buy, are covers for pots to keep flies away. The edges have a lovely beaded fringe and the material is... mosquito netting! As I bargained the woman down she appeared outraged as she was telling me of all the work it took and she had to buy the materials - buy?  I don't think she buys her materials.

It reminded me of a story I heard where an aid agency was distributing mosquito netting within a region and couldn't understand why the malaria rates were not dropping - until they investigated and realised the girls were hoarding the mosquito netting to make their wedding dresses.  So they gave the mosquito netting to the men instead, yet still the rates didn't decrease.  They investigated and discovering the men were using the mosquito netting as fishing nets. The lesson learned? Never under-estimate the creativity of those you are trying to help.

Friday, August 7, 2009

WYA Africa DDD

WYA Africa finished it's Decade of Dignity and Development Conference entitled Peace: Our Responsibility for Integral Development yesterday. The conference was a great success and we had participants from Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, DRC, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Nigeria and Ghana, we even had one participant from Sierra Leone arrive today - a bit late but he still gets to meet some of the others.

The speakers were all very interesting, and all focused on the responsibility of the participants to take these ideas back to their countries and make them a reality rather than blaming leaders or waiting for others to take the lead. The participants asked tough questions, and there was a real sense of urgency and importance behind each participant and their thoughts. They are all passionate about developing Africa and bringing their countries to be key players at the international level and want to begin working towards that goal now.

What was most incredible is the huge responsibility each one has willingly taken on himself. As the participants spoke with each other they discussed plans to be presidents of their countries someday, to be Africa's leading entrepreneurs, and to rid their countries of corruption through whatever field they are engaged in. When I think of what other youth are engaged in, and the conversations they are having I just hope that these youth are given the opportunities to make their dreams reality - as they certainly have the talents and desires to do so.

The second day of the conference we had a cultural night. A children's choir performed for us, all the children are from a nearby slum and were selected on the basis of musical talent - they initially came for the food and have since perfomed in South Korea and also at the UN. They also perfomed some traditional Kenyan songs and dances for us and were so adorable. Hezbon's sister sings in the choir so they are clearly a talented family!

The next performance was a troupe of dancers and acrobats also from a nearby slum. The dancers were great and the acrobats were incredible. I'm still in shock when I think of what they did. They performed pyramids, handstands, and other structures off each other for the longest time. They did flips, one swallowed fire, just amazing... What was really most remarkable was the duration of time. They did things I've seen in pictures before, but repeatedly! I kept thinking surely it was over, that they must be exhausted and the show continued. The other thing that was so remarkable was the floor they performed on was slippery and they had no safety anything - they would run and jump onto each other's shoulders and into the arms of someone already on top of another person. If they fell, that would be it. I hope someday they become world famous - they have as much talent as some of the performers in Cirque de Soleil.

I also had one Ultimate player join me from Kampala, Uganda to teach Ultimate to the participants. We did two sessions in the afternoons after the conference and finished with a game the final day. Each of the participants received a frisbee to take home with them, and most of them are quite addicted to the game. We've already heard from one participant who had to leave early and didn't take a disc that he misses playing and is wondering how he can get a disc. Many others are excited to return home and either join an existing team or start one of their own :)

What was most exciting was to see the mastery of the game. The first game we played was full chaos with people running around, double teaming and messy throws. By the final game, they were calling their own fouls, arbitrating the game themselves, marking each other and had some flow. We even had a few participants who truly understood Spirit of the Game and Good Governance who would call fouls on themselves as they felt it was necessary.

We had lunch with a few remaining participants today, and some are staying at the WYA office. The conversations they are having are so inspiring. Last night, a few were speaking of how they dream that someday all world leaders, entrepreneurs and people in positions of power will be WYA Alumni, and another seconded that someday in the future every single young person will be a member of WYA and learning how to live and treat others with dignity. They were also discussing their countries' pasts, inclusive of democracy, genocide, conflict, etc and discussing how the way forward consisted of each leader, but more importantly each youth learning about dignity and transforming their countries from that perspective. WYA and Africa have a great future together, I am excited to see what each of these people will do even within the next few years!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Drama at the airport

The check in line at the airport extended halfway through the departure hall.  I waited an hour to get my turn to check in.  I'd checked the weight requirements earlier in the day and had been so excited to see that they'd increased the weight limit to 30kg.  I packed a box full of all my presents and books I'd finished reading to hit 29, practically perfect :)

However, apparently it is 30kg/bag everywhere in the world EXCEPT Africa - yet another example of Africa being shafted... For Africa it is 30kg - 1 bag! So, instead of being 16 kg under, I was 14 kg over. I asked the check in lady for the excess baggage cost and was told 750 PHP - approximately 15 USD.  Not something I wanted to pay, but I really had no option.  I went to pay it and was told it was $700 USD!!!!!

So, I asked what other options I had, if I could bring my carry-on suitcase on board with me as one extra hand luggage, or ask another passenger to carry a few books for me, etc.  The manager just told me my only option was to get off the flight and fly the next day or pay the $700.  I told her neither was an option so we needed to find some other way.

To compress the next two hours of my life.  I spoke with two managers who repeated over and over and over that I had to get off the flight or pay the $700.  According to them, there was no phone the airline had which I could use, there was no baggage storage place, there was no other way to send luggage except for their way, and I am an idiot for assuming on an international flight that I'm allowed to check two pieces of luggage... especially when the airlines is Emirates which advertised online for increasing baggage allowance to 30kg and is not a budget airline.  I should have assumed that it was 30kg total which is a fraction of what even most budget airlines offer!

Spoke is really putting it rather politely, they yelled.  I began by asking lots of questions, then became firm that they must have a phone, baggage storage and options because every other airport in the world does, then resorted to crying and finally gave up and went to use a payphone to call Erika and ask if she could pick up my box.

Magically, as soon as they had won they had a phone which I could use, baggage storage to leave my box in, there were options to send it cargo which is much cheaper, etc!

I left my box there, didn't sign anything, and sprinted towards the gate.  I was the last passenger in the airport and everyone there kept telling me to run as I made my way towards the gate, apparently even the cleaning people knew of my plight. 

I was crying as I got on board and had already vowed never to fly Emirates again despite all previous positive experiences.  The moment I stepped on board all the crew were so kind.  They made me sit down right by them, brought me water, a face towel, juice.  

Throughout the entire flight they kept checking up on me to ensure I was ok. The crew from business class brought me their snacks, mango juice and even a towel shaped like a duck with a red ribbon around it's neck.

I told the crew why I was so upset, and one of them said he wished he'd been there as he could have taken some of my weight for me.  I'd asked the manager earlier if I could request a passenger who was under weight to carry some of my books or something and was told that would put me in prison. So yeah, two hours of lying, yelling managers and now I need to pay to get my luggage back to the USA - thank you jerks!

So, now I just need to track down the two managers and do my best to get them demoted, fired or in intensive re-training courses.  

Leaving Manila...

The last few days in the Philippines were so delightful. Ren and I visited the province of Bataan with the vice mayor who had attended the WYAAP DDD.  He was a great tour guide and we visited a turtle hatchery, sadly the baby turtles weren't hatching at the time.  We also visited a monument to remember the soldiers who fought the Japanese and also died along a "death march" after finally surrendering.  Pretty horrible reminder of the faith placed in the US, and how the Philippines was abandoned for a few years until the US needed a battleground on which to fight the Japanese.

Saturday I slept in, had breakfast with Erika then went shopping in Greenhills, the pearl market and local crafts market to spend every last penny of my life savings - literally.  Ren and I had one final meeting with a professor from the Ateneo university.  He's one of those ADHD geniuses involved in everything.  Our meeting was successful as he really loved what WYA does. Then we went for dinner with Erika and Michelle, we were so loud and it was so good to catch up with Michelle especially as I hadn't seen her yet.

Sunday I went for my last day of Ultimate and my jersey was there! I played a game with the girls, took team photos and had to leave.  The guy whose cleats I'd been borrowing had a game at the same time as my team and I couldn't find anyone else to lend me cleat so played barefoot.  The ground was super muddy and squishy and I was sliding everywhere.  We also took a picture together and the whole team was teasing him about our love and that he should come to the USA with me...

Lunch with Er's family, packing, dinner with Michelle and then it was time to leave.  Erika drove me to the airport and a whole new adventure began.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Snake alley...

Chinese and Japanese breakfast buffet was such a beautiful start to day 2.  I combined my breakfast with glorious coffee before heading out to meetings.  Each meeting offered tea or cake of some variety alongside the discussion of what our organisations did and possible ways of partnership.  At lunch, I was exhausted and drank all the Oolong tea I could.  By the first meeting of the afternoon, I went to pass my business card and realised my hands were shaking from all the caffeine and exhaustion.

We had two afternoon meetings, and then went to a famous tea house where we were interviewed for a prominent journal.  The tea master helped us to choose a tea and then performed the whole tea ceremony for us.  I had never before realised that there should be separate cups for smelling the tea and drinking the tea, as tea should be an experience enjoyed by as many senses as possible.  We had a quick dinner before we headed out for our final event of the day.

One of the organisations, Vision Youth Action, had organised a conference for us of 160 youth.  We had 2 hours to present and also for Q&A.  The questions were great, the facilitator prefaced her question by announcing that she intended to apply for Asia Pacific's summer camp next May.

We then went to visit Taiwan's famous 24 hour bookstore.  It is a beautiful, old bookstore and at 10pm was packed.  Apparently it's busiest time is between 3 and 6am as many youth meet there after clubbing to continue hanging out or to wait for the Metro to open at 6am.

The night before we had visited Longshan Temple.  It is a beautiful, old Buddhist temple with the main Buddha representative of mercy.  In the back were numerous gods to which people pray for wisdom, a large family, health, etcetera. We went afterwards to the nearby night market which is famous for it's - snakes!

Snake soup is a delicacy here; apparently quite good for the skin and also for the... man. There were also turtles to be had.  Turtle blood is supposed to be good for a cold or flu, and turtle meat for the... man. The turtles were fewer although we  did see a tray of dead turtles, de-shelled waiting to be cooked.  There were tons of snakes though.  Small snakes, large white pythons, some alone some in groups of a dozen or so.  What was somewhat sad was their food was kept nearby.  We saw cages of white rats, and even some white bunnies for the larger snakes.  I'm not sure why the food has to be white.  I didn't eat the snakes or turtles.

I did eat: shark's fin, shark's fin skin, bamboo mushroom, jellyfish, starfish, eel, eggs from a deep sea fish, and more... I also ate cold chicken that looked uncooked chopped through the skin, bones etc to be eaten with chopsticks.  I managed to eat less of that by pretending I couldn't get any more with chopsticks :p

Our final day we had one more meeting, then spoke to the Chinese Taipei Pacific Economic Cooperation Committee conference that was taking place.  We again had a great reception from the youth and I think Ren will have a lot of work to do! We then met up with some members of Taiwan's top fencing team for supper at the Panorama restaurant of Taipei 101.  We ate on the 85th floor and could see the farthest reaches of Taipei into the mountains.  

We returned to the hotel for our last night "wallowing in luxury" as has been so eloquently stated by one of WYA's board members, before we packed up all the soaps, slippers and other free items and headed back to Manila today.

I'm staying with Erika now, the first director of WYAAP and we're about to head out for a massage soon - woop woop!

Eating dream bubbles in Taipei!

Whew, the last week has been amazing. I need a book to encompass it all, and obviously haven't had the internet to tell about it. I'll begin by briefly recapping the WYAAP DDD conference. Huge success! The participants were all amazing, and after the certificates were given out and Ren had officially closed the conference they took the initiative to speak up, each one, and share their own experiences. It was amazing to hear of the friendships formed, and generosity of individual participants to others. They had bonded in a powerful way and I think most of them will remain involved with WYA and close to each other. Saturday we toured Tagaytay's volcano surrounded by a lake. The lake is the sunken volcano so you could say it is a lake within a volcano within a lake within a volcano. The days of the conference had been beautiful and sunny, the minute we arrived to the volcano it started to rain and once we had finished touring the volcano the day was sunny again. Regardless, I think I got some beautiful pictures - to be uploaded soon :)

Sunday, I played Ultimate again. The girls, over the course of one week, had improved so much. Especially the captain is an ultimate sponge. Anything I had done the last week she was already doing on Sunday. The pressure was on to perform well and only teach good habits. This is the rainy season, hence only a chilly 30+Celsius. I am definitely the only one on the field finding the temperatures and humidity difficult to play in. Thankfully by game two we had some light monsoon rains and I was able to start running a little closer to my usual speed and energy. We won both our games :) very exciting compared to the prior week's 3 losses. I also had a great time on defence as I got to poach in the back of the field and was able to knock down most throws thanks to my (rather substantial) height advantage.

Monday, Ren and I met for another 5am rendezvous to catch our flight to Taiwan. We were met at the airport by two members of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and taken to our hotel. We stayed at the Howard Plaza Hotel - one of the nicest in Taipei as VIPs!!! We were each given our own room, with welcoming fruit basket, personalized stationery, L'Occitane bath products and the beautiful white bathrobes (as seen on tv/chick flick movies). We only had 20 minutes to soak it all in before we ate lunch downstairs with one of our two guides for our trip at one of the amazing hotel restaurants. Lunch was delicious and for desert we ate almond tofu. It is amazing! I will attempt to describe it...

You know those dreams you have where you are flying? Imagine that in the midst of this dream a large, fluffy bubble appears before you, you float towards the bubble and slowly take a big bite out of it. The bubble melts apart in your mouth leaving a delicious almond flavour behind. You continue to float on and feel yourself drawn towards the creamy bubbles floating in the distance to continue enjoying such a flavour.

In the afternoon we met with a research and youth empowerment organisation then with one of the ministers in MOFA to discuss WYA. For dinner, the NGO vice chair organised for CEO's of some of Taiwan's top NGO's to meet with us. He ended the meal by singing a song for us in 4 languages, he even had the music on his phone to demonstrate his karaoke prowess. Then, he demanded that each of us sing a song from our own cultures in return. Ren sang a Filipino love song, and I sang a Swahili song I remembered.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

WYAAP Decade of Dignity and Development Conference!

Today is day 2 of WYA Asia Pacific's Decade of Dignity and Development conference celebrating WYA's 10 years of existence with the specific theme of Good Governance and Marginalisation. There are 35 participants from the Philippines, Hong Kong, China, Vietnam, Indonesia and Brazil.  Speakers are from India, the Philippines, Taiwan and Indonesia. The conference venue is a center a few hours outside of Manila near a famous volcano within a lake - Taal volcano.  

It is a beautiful area and a beautiful center. The facilities are incredible; nice rooms, sound system, lounge area, great food and even a videoke room.  Most of the participants took advantage of the videoke lounge last night! They're really great, as Ren said, they're so quiet during the conferences and then very active and spontaneous participants during team dynamic activities. It truly is an Asian conference as English is not the first language to a single participant yet it is the working language of everyone here.  So we have participants communicating with English they are uncertain about with other participants who are also uncomfortable speaking English - yet they're all soaking in the information and becoming friends.

The speakers come from a variety of backgrounds.  We had a representative from Gawad Kalinga, Ashoka, a woman from Mindanao speaking about her organisation which promotes peace, professors on various topics, a humanitarian and even someone presenting on sustainable (and profitable) sanitation projects for the destitute poor, among others. The schedule is online if you're curious... The speaker for sanitation has an incredible organisation called Sulabh International which utilizes technology to provide clean and energy efficient toilets to poor communities and also offers jobs to former women scavengers in the process.  They've instituted training opportunities and rehabilitation programs for the women to move into society.

Yesterday evening we had a bonfire and played some games.  The penalty for losing the game was that one participant had to bum-spell World Youth Alliance  - in cursive! Very entertaining... and another participant sang "Heal the World" disco style while periodically attempting to moonwalk - it was the only Michael Jackson signature move he could think of...

Tonight we had a cultural night and showed the videos each region prepared for WYA's 10th Anniversary.  One of Gabby's friends is a professional singer and performed a number of traditional Filipino songs, musicals, broadway and even opera for us.  She has a beautiful voice.  Ren was MCing the night.  We've discussed that she doesn't find herself funny, even though she is incapable of speaking without cracking whole crowds up.  Later in the evening, as she spoke of what motivates her and Des to keep working at the most difficult times, which are the youth who are working alongside and the ones we still need to reach out to, she choked up.  She signalled to Des to help, but only choked up more with her partner at her side. I stole the mic for a few moments to allow her to recover.

It was powerful for all the participants to see someone they all admire, and who is so upbeat have an emotional moment about what all this means to her.  Many of them left the center speaking about how strong of an impact it made on them.

We have one and a half days left, I hope the conference continues to be as successful as it is so far!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Cebu

Yet another 5am departure... yesterday we flew to Cebu.  There is a great group of WYA committee members there who arranged for us to speak at two different universities and also to visit a Gawad Kalinga site.

We arrived around 8 and stopped by McDonalds for breakfast.  I've eaten more McDonalds here in Asia than I have in the past few years in New York! The breakfast options here come with rice, aside from the usual egg McMuffin. Upon arrival at the airport I learned that Ferdinand Magellan was killed there by the reigning chief of the time, Lapu-Lapu.  We visited the site where Magellan planted a cross years ago in commemoration of baptising 400 of the indigenous people. 

For lunch I ate my first sisig.  Sisig is a dish made of pork meat, specifically the face of the pig.  Apparently they carve the skin off the pig's face, boil the face, chop it into pieces and fry it.  This particular dish also came with pig's liver.  Despite the lovely description and I'm sure how appetising it sounds I wasn't a huge fan and needed help from the others to finish it.

Gawad Kalinga is an organisation which works to transform slums into communities and empowers those living in poverty to improve their lives.  Late afternoon we stopped by one community on the outskirts of Cebu.  We were supposed to receive a brief tour of the site and meet some of the key people there.  We did, I also got distracted by an absolutely gorgeously fat baby and spent most of my time there playing with it, speaking with the mom and some other adults and being stared at by the kids. 

Whenever I'm in situations of poverty time soars by.  I want to get to know each person; to help the adults care for their families, to help the kids and youth reach their dreams, and to ensure the babies are nourished and played with so they can grow to their full potential. Just as we were becoming comfortable chatting I was dragged away as we had to catch our flight.

En route to the airport we stopped for some traditional Cebuanese bbq and another mango shake - I just can't get enough!!! We also took some pictures at the main mall and Ren cracked up at what she called my "acrobatics" in attempting to get a good shot.

Today, I slept in till 9am! Longest sleep I've had in weeks and met Cathy for brunch.  I had an entire day to catch up with Cathy and relax.  To celebrate I took a jeepney back to Des' place, two actually, and then walked quite a distance after my stop as I probably hadn't got on the right ones in the first place.  Today has been beautiful.  Tomorrow is yet another 5am departure as we meet the DDD participants early and drive together to our conference venue.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Ultimate Frisbee Tournament in Manila!!!

Yesterday, during WYA AP's General Assembly I met a WYA member and former intern who plays Ultimate here in Manila. There was a tournament today in the South and I joined her team! The tournament is ongoing for the next few Sundays leading up to the start of Monsoon League in mid-August. The team is composed of players who've started within the last few weeks to few months, making me the Ultimate Ancient on the team.

We played 3 games, with a one hour break between each game. There is a guy's team also as part of their club and we would alternate field time with the guys. It worked perfectly as we would cheer for them, then they would cheer for us. It also worked perfectly as I didn't bring any cleats, and one of the guys had cleats my size! So his cleats played six games, while we each played 3, and by the end of game 2 we were sharing foot sweat and the cleats were pretty gross!

This is the rainy season here, meaning the temperature is mild by Manila standards but still in the 30's (Celsius) plus humidity. I also haven't played Ultimate since early May and am wickedly out of shape/fat after a few weeks of eating Asian food. Thankfully I did have experience to comepensate for my heat/fitness drawbacks. During the warmup they decided that I would be handler. As that is a position I am always trying to get better at, I happily obliged. The games were fun, the girls on the team have great spirit, acknowledge that they're playing to gain experience and were so happy to have me playing with them. The first game we played we had a few competitive points although we lost by a rather large amount. The second game we played, the girls had poor spirit. They would double team, stall count fast, and not give disc space - then call foul on me if I touched them. Even if we were both 10 feet away from the disc... They were obviously also a new team, but not one with such great spirit as my team. The final game we played the defending champs for Manila and the girls were good. It was great to play against a team with flow, great throws and solid defence. A bit discouraging as the game ended in 20 minutes with a score of 11 - 0 but I will admit I made enough mistakes on my own that I wasn't a huge asset to the team to compensate for any lack of experience or skill.

One of the guys from the team then drove me to WYA AP's office for a meeting this evening to finalise plans for the Decade of Dignity and Development Conference which begins on Wednesday. He even invited me to join Tuesday evening for practice for a different team which is apparently much more competitive, so I may :)

Tomorrow, Ren and I travel to Cebu, just for the day and meet with WYA members there.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Scuba Diving in Batangas

430am Des drove me to the bus.  After a 2 hour bus ride I switched to a jeepney for 30 minutes and then a tricycle.  Tricycles are basically motorcycles with a little box sidecar.  I ducked inside the tricycle - made for Filipino sized people, and had to sit with my bum slid to the edge of the seat, my knees tucked to my chin and my head alternating from one side to the other to prevent concussions for the next 30 minutes.  I arrived to Aquaventure by 830 ready for an exciting day of diving ahead.

Turned out, the guy who had promised to make all the arrangements hadn't even told them I was arriving. Long story short - thanks to his (lying? forgetfulness?) I ended up paying double what I'd expected to pay! I was so upset. The first day I ended up going out alone in my own boat with a guide.  The boats are like really long, wooden canoes with outriggers.  Apparently they never sink as they're made of wood.  So if you get swamped by a wave, you just end up sitting in water up to your waist until rescued.  

As it is typhoon season here, there was rain pretty continuously and some rather large waves.  I went for my first dive around 11am, the guys take care of all your equipment for you - it's rather an easy way to dive :) The boat sat about 5 meters out from shore so it wouldn't break on the rocks and we waded out between waves to get onto the boat.  Thankfully the water is warm. The waves on the way out made for an exciting ride as we'd ride a wave to the top and then plunge straight into the trough before heading up the next one.  The outriggers are brilliant as they balance the boat to prevent tipping or we'd have capsized a few meters away from shore.  The divesite was in a little cove so the waves were much smaller. The water was a bit churned up and there wasn't much sun, but the diving was still incredible.
I saw two sea turtles - apparently in the Philippines they don't like getting their shells scratched the way they do in Australia, so with the second turtle I rubbed his shell a bit and then held on for the ride! I also saw baracudas, tons of sea cucumbers - I was tempted to take on back onto the boat for supper - and all of Nemo's fish friends.  There was a huge circle of Jack fish, the fish on Finding Nemo who make the shapes for Dori, I watched for a long while hoping they'd perform for me but I guess I don't speak Jack well enough... My guide also captured Nemo from his anemone home and tried to pass him to me, but Nemo is amazingly quick and I coudn't get him.  I was nervous to catch him myself as I knew anemone's are poisonous but apparently it doesn't hurt humans.  I touched the anemone trying to capture him myself and it jumps out to stick to my hands, but doesn't hurt, it's mostly just startling.

Apparently the Philippines, and Batangas specifically, has some of the highest marine biodiversity in the world and I believe it.  There were so many more fish, nudibranchs and other marine species than at the Great Barrier Reef!

I spent the afternoon sleeping as the waves were too high for more dives, then chatted late into the night with a family that was staying there and one of the dive instructors.  The next day, two guys showed up for diving so I was able to share a boat with them which drastically reduced my costs. The waves were even higher than the day before combined with heavy rains.  I had to face into the rains and see where we were going or I would have fallen out of the boat.  My eyes hurt so much that I eventually put on my mask, as did another guy, and we joked that we should get all our gear on in case we fell out so we were prepared.

The divesite was beautiful!  My dive buddy was like a kid in a candy store; touching, poking and playing with everything he saw.  We saw a couple moray eels and in a rock next to them I also found a white moray eel with brown spots.  We saw the biggest lion fish I've ever seen, maybe a foot around with fins fully extended, and also a squid. There was one anemone growing out of what looked like a green pudgy vase and when we poked it, it was like a silky fabric rather than a rigid coral. We saw some really large, purple nudibranchs that were a couple inches long with bright yellow horns. I also saw one fish with a large eye spot painted on it's tail fin and teeny real eyes, it is the first one of those I've ever seen diving. One thing we saw, and thankfully didn't touch was a fire urchin.  There were a couple that were round on top, had purple spikes coming out in ridges and yellow spikes around it's bottom.  We were curious and tried to get it to move but thankfully had the sense not to touch it! I even saw a sea cucumber eating for the first time, it moved so slowly over the coral and extended teeny little fins from underneath it to eat bits from on top of the coral by moving it's fins back underneath it.

Between dives we anchored in a little cove and went snorkelling as we couldn't get enough of the water!  On the way back, the waves were with us which made for a much smoother ride, and the boat man was excellent.  He would idle the motor until a really large wave came then rev it up so we would surf the wave for quite a ways, then catch the next one.  It was incredibly cool surfing a wave in a boat.

Diving wasn't nearly long enough, my first dive I ran out of air rather quickly but by my fourth dive I was able to maintain neutral buoyancy, turn and swim more sharply and conserve air much better.  If I hadn't been cheated by who I thought would help me, I would try to sneak in another day of diving, but my funds are dry... Thankfully the family I met at the resort was driving back to Manila the same afternoon I was and gave me a lift.  It was so nice, as otherwise I would have had to walk along the road until I encountered a tricycle - which could have been a few hours!

Today WYA AP had a General Assembly with about 20 members and many intern and staff alumni.  It was my first opportunity to see many of my friends in the Philippines.  I spoke about WYA's understanding of dignity and the projects going on in the regions.  Ren added in a twist for Q&A and put me in the hot seat where they could ask anything - her suggestion was about my love life... they asked about how I came to understand dignity and also about how they could get more involved.  Thankfully they didn't ask about my love life, although as a few jokingly referred to it, and it is a short answer, I told them.  None!

Some of the old interns joined us for lunch then I spent the afternoon with Tam catching up. So good! We were both able to chat about where our passions have brought us in life, and the difficulty in explaining to people who haven't shared our experiences or have chosen a corporate life.  Our afternoon finished at Jollibee with a phenomenal merchandising idea - to be revealed only when ready... orders will be accepted :)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Funky Foods

Yesterday evening Ren and I had two meeting scheduled for the same ice cream place.  Both meetings went elsewhere after the initial contact.  The first, we sat outside nearby and chatted.  The setting was lovely, a teeny breeze, hot, surrounded by bushes and flowers.  For our second meeting, the guy wants WYA to speak at a conference in a few months and drove us to where the proposed venue is. He brought us inside to wander around, it's quite a nice location except freezing!  I don't understand it, all these people are supposed to be from tropical countries and used to the heat.  Instead, they all like their air temperature so cold that I could happily bundle up under a few blankets attempting to stay warm.

We went to a nearby outdoor food market, a wet market, meaning the food is fresh. The first item I saw on the menu, after squid, was frog!  I pointed it out thinking they would share my joy at seeing a menu listing 4 ways to cook frog, instead they ordered it for me.  I then pointed out the sea cucumber options thinking surely they would see the humour in that, and also ended up having that ordered for me to taste.  I was so nervous! Especially for the sea cucumber as my only prior exposure to it was scuba diving in Australia and it feels like it's made of styrofoam...
The frog legs were actually pretty good, I ate a few.  They taste a bit like chicken, but with the consistency of crab meat - they're much softer than chicken.  Sea cucumber tastes like unflavoured jello.  It's pretty tasteless and has a similar consistency to jello - not bad, although the appearance is like mushroom on the inside and spotted, lumpy, or striped on the outside so I didn't eat as much sea cucumber as I did frog's legs.

 
Apparently it is said that the Chinese eat everything that flies - except for airplanes, and everything with 4 legs - except for the table. After supper, as were discussing varieties of food in different places they told me about the Century Egg. The century egg is preserved in different acids and vinegars for 100 days, and then consumed. Apparently it's a delicacy.  The egg after 100 days is black. The yolk looks like bird droppings, and the white looks like black rum jello shooters :p

I ate half the egg, before I felt nauseous and had to stop.  The taste isn't so bad, but the texture and appearance are horrible and I excused myself as it was my third unusual food I'd eaten that night, so felt less obligated to finish it.
Today we had a few more meetings, flew back to Manila, and I've just finalised plans for scuba diving a few hours south of Manila tomorrow.  I'll be away from internet for the next few days - don't miss me (my writing) anymore than you miss my physical presence :)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Singapore :)

Saturday night Ren and I flew to Manila.  I spent Sunday with Des' family.  We went to lunch together, it's a family tradition which they allowed me to crash... and in good Filipino hospitality style they absolutely stuffed me!  Even hours later for supper I was full - proof that I was really stuffed.  We spent the afternoon, between meals, wandering through the Greenhills mall shopping at the pearl market.  Thankfully I was able to bargain and didn't get slapped once!  It really restored my faith in bargaining. I had the true Pinoy experience of visiting 3 malls in one day; one for lunch, one in the afternoon and one for supper.  As Des put it "malling is their favourite past-time"  a good indicator being that the noun is now an adjective.

Early Monday morning Ren and I flew to Singapore.  We are staying outside of the downtown area, and far from the shopping malls - hence off the tourist map.  Our one skill so far is a remarkable ability to get lost, despite the clarity of Singapore's transit system. We went for lunch at a street food place nearby and had plans to wander Orchard Road which is apparently famous for its - drum roll please - malls! I've had a bit of a cold over the past week though, and as much as I do love shopping :p I spent the afternoon sleeping.  Best nap ever! I drooled ;)

We had a meeting with some students at the National University of Singapore last night.  We were told our meeting location was close to NUS, we thought we were across the street from NUS as there is a big sign across the street from us and we're staying in student housing.  Apparently we're by the NUS law campus - as our bus ride was a good 20 minutes even if we hadn't got lost...

Today we met with the National Youth Achievement Award program and the National Youth Council.  Both organisations were very receptive to WYA's work and mission and eager to put us in touch with the youth they work with.  I definitely think we can begin to have a presence here.  Especially as Singapore is a wealthy, ageing country so they especially wish to encourage everything youth there would be great support for any young people who wanted to start WYA up here.

This evening we have a couple more meetings with different students and youth groups, and tomorrow we meet with the Muslim and Buddhist youth groups; in different meetings.  Ren is absolutely crazy, she takes pictures of everywhere we go, everything we eat, and is in 90% of her pictures.  She's started taking some pictures with me in it, as she can't understand what the purpose of taking a picture is, if you're not in the picture - unless it's of the food which you're about to eat or have just eaten.  We've been polling people of various nationalities and it seems to be a western/asian conflict in picture taking philosophy.

Singapore is really beautiful!  Flying in, the water was so clear and aqua I just wanted to go swimming.  The weather here is nice too, hotter than Hong Kong and Manila but not as hot as Bangkok.  Bangkok has been, by far, the hottest place I've visited so far.  Since I also stayed there sharing a non air-conditioned washroom, dorm and transportation every other place I visit seems cold.  Transportation is air-conditioned, buildings are air-conditioned and my room in each place has been air-conditioned.  Ren is finding the heat much hotter than me, and we compromised last night on the air-conditioning as I wanted it at a cozy 29 Celsius and she wanted it at a maximum of 25 Celsius.

Friday, July 10, 2009

购物!食物! Shopping! Food!

Our hostel is located in Causeway Bay, also the heartland of shopping for all of Hong Kong.  Hong Kong has shopping everywhere. Shopping is entertainment, relaxation, necessity, socialising, envy and basically what there is to do in Hong Kong.  Eating is the break between shopping and the fuel to continue. I read through a tourist guide; in the Heritage section was a listing for a "new" heritage site.  The site of some old building, but now when you go there is a shopping mall! You can view all of Hong Kong from the "Peak" shopping mall included, and I discovered this evening that City University of Hong Kong has a shopping mall attached to it.  Imagine - you're shopping for new shoes, wander into the next room and are stuck in the middle of a history class!
The stores are amazing.  Most of them are the expensive western stores.  There is Swarovski, Banana Republic, Longchamps and then Asian stores scattered amongst.  I have a few new favorites like Giordano and Bossini which sell very cool clothes.  Happiness is all the rage, with brands like smileyworld and slogans like Cheer You Up on the clothes.  As one explanatory brochure put it; with the global financial crisis, and H1N1 virus "You're down and you can't take it anymore? Don't be... cheery designs... to really pump up the volume of positive energy." Love it - you're depressed? Come shop!

Today we had a meeting with Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups.  The woman we met was quite impressive, she had a very clear passion for youth and a great understanding of the struggles and opportunities for Hong Kong youth.  We had an inkling that she was impressive and discovered later on some of her many accomplishments.  I look forward to working with her, and she was excited to work with us.
We then met with two youth for supper who will be flying to the Philippines for the Asia Pacific Decade of Dignity and Development Conference in a week.  They also were quite interesting and we were able to learn about their culture and will continue the discussion in Tagaytay. We trusted them to order for us and enjoyed some delicious authentic Chinese food as a result - so good... mmm, I could go back right now and eat it all over again!  We had fried race cakes, chicken and flour skin (with sesame sauce and tasted SO much better than it sounds) Szichuan style noodles (with peanut sauce), dim sum, and drunken chicken (soaked in Chinese wine), with bean curd puffs for dessert.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

pictures now in :)



Hong Kong!

Yesterday I went for one last session of Thai stretching - it seems so long ago.  I bumped into some of my fellow massage students - took a few more pictures with them, and then waited for 30 minutes alone at the dock to catch a boat back.  Normally the water taxis go every 15 minutes and there are crowds, but apparently at 930am all the businesspeople are at work and no tourists are awake yet.

I flew Emirates to Hong Kong.  I love emirates, it is one of the few airlines where they still have good food, offer blankets and a large selection of movies.  I nearly got through Slumdog millionaire before landing - only about 20 minutes left.

I arrived at the airport picked up some tourist maps to help find my way to the hostel and changed my money.  Ren had sent me the cost of the buses which were either 21 or 41 dollars.  I'd been thinking it was super expensive until I remembered the exchange rate is 7 HKG to 1 USD.  I got off the bus and ended up wandering in a large circle attempting to find the hostel.  I was a few blocks away and asked a guy for help.  He didn't speak much English but was incredibly kind.  He walked with me for 15 minutes, left me at a corner at one point to ask for directions, called the hostel, waited with me until the hostel owner came for me, and then gave me some lychees he had as he left!

Ren and I went for supper nearby - rice and pork, followed by an ice cream crepe while wandering around.  All of Hong Kong is shops and food.  "As seen on tv..." the buildings are incredibly tall, the ground floors have everything from Swarovski to Club Monaco to Giordano to little boutiques that sell the latest in shoe, clothing, jewelery and hair fashions. Sprinkled liberally between are restaurants and dessert places. Most of the stores have glittery or electric signs which make all the streets light up at night - coupled with intensive air-conditioning and open doors, even walking outside isn't so bad as there is so much residual air-conditioning in the streets.

Today we had a meeting with youth from the Hong Kong Climate Change Coalition.  Three officers of the group met with us and we had a great discussion with them about what WYA is, our position on responsible stewardship and possibilities to work together.  They really liked the idea of dignity, and incorporating it into their work on climate change - environment with the person at the center.  We then went for a 4 hour lunch with the two guys as the girl had to catch an afternoon flight to Australia.
It was great, our conversations ranged from photography styles; do you like to be in the photo or not while travelling, to discussions of global poverty, it's implications and what needs to be done in addressing it.  We finally left, took a bus back and are relaxing in our room before we go out for - you'll never guess...

... more food! (I knew you'd never guess, so I'm telling you!)

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Asala - Dharma Day

This morning I woke up early to try and make it to Wat Pho temple for their 8am stretching session.  I just missed a boat so only arrived for the final few stretches and to receive green tea :)  On the way into Wat Pho, I ran into my massage instructor who was surprised to see me, and at the class was one of the girls I'd learned massage with also there.  Then, as I was leaving I bumped into another guy who'd been studying at Wat Pho but in a different course - Bangkok suddenly felt small!

Today is a holiday in Thailand.  It commemorates the day when Buddha emerged from two months of fasting in which he had discovered the middle way and preached it to the the other monks.  The middle way is the philosophy that goodness comes not from pure ascetisim, nor from full allowance of sensuality but from a middle ground between the two. At this time Buddha also presented the 4 truths, the fourth of which is the 8 ways to live a good life. 
It so happens that this festival also marks the start of the rainy season which lasts about two months.  Apparently Buddha asked his monks to not wander throughout the countryside during this time, as traditionally it was when the farmers worked their fields, to prevent the monks from trampling the crops. Now, the monks remain within the temple during this time - only emerging to beg for food.  It is also customary that men become monks at some point in their life and many boys do so during this time.  It is a time when the monks really focus on prayer and study.
The temple of Wat Pho and Wat Arun were packed today, not just with the usual tourists, but also with Thai people bringing gifts and performing ceremonies.  By the time I reached Wat Arun mid-afternoon I was so tired I sat near to the activities the monks had set up and watched.  They were so kind and made an effort to include me, bringing me water and explaining the activities to me.  One tradition is to write your name and wish on a piece of wax, then dip it into a pot already full of melted wax.  You then take a dipper and put a few spoonfuls of the wax into a tall cylindrical container.  This then cools to become the large candles in the temples.  The monk explained to me that Buddhists write what they will do over the next few months, kind of a new year's resolution.  There are also tiles you can write on which then go on the roofs of the temples as they need more tiles.
There is one temple where it is customary to bring a candle, a white flower (don't know what it's called) and incense and to walk around it praying.  People were doing that all day, and in the evening when the monsoon rains started up they continued to walk around - some even without umbrellas!

Between Wat Pho and Wat Arun I visited Pratunam market to buy gifts.  From all my research it seemed to be the cheapest market in Bangkok where even wholesale buyers go for good deals.  The prices quoted to me were so ridiculously high, and people would not go down.  I walked away from so many stalls as they refused to drop their prices at all.  In one place, the woman quoted the most outrageously high price for little wallets and when I asked her for a discount she asked me what my price was - so I quoted a ridiculously low price back to her.  She went berserk!  She started screaming at me calling me crazy "You crazy! that crazy price! you crazy!" and slapped me!!! My first instinct was to punch her in the mouth and break her teeth, my second was to bring in the police for assault.  

Since I promote human dignity, I couldn't in good conscience punch her - even though I think it would have been good for her. Knowing, and having experienced that the police here are corrupt, I had to accept option two would be useless and possibly detrimental to me. So, I stared at her and quite sternly told her not to touch me. Then I walked away while she continued to scream at me.  There were lots of beautiful items in the stalls in that row, but I couldn't stop at any of the places I was so embarrassed.  

After that, I was too nervous to bargain - I've never been slapped while attempting to bargain before and was quite shaken up. What was saddest of all, was that the prices I managed to bargain down to - after a lot of effort on my part in each place - when I returned to Wat Pho, those were the same prices labeled on the streets, and the women lowered their prices much more reasonably even from that.  I don't think I'll ever return to that market again...

I did have a couple nice experiences at the market.  I was starving and discovered the food places where those working the stalls eat.  The woman didn't speak any English so I ordered by making animal sounds and she would point to different items and make animal sounds.  The food was delicious and quite cheap.  Then I found a man selling Thai desserts with his family behind him, he also didn't speak any English, so I started saying Thai numbers so he could tell me the price in Thai.  He and his family got so excited they started rattling off sentences and invited me to eat with them.  Since numbers, hello and thank you are all I know, I thanked them for their invitation and left.

I then returned to Wat Pho this evening to catch the festivities by night. There are hallways with dozens of Buddha statues lined against the wall.  Many people had set up mats, and were settling in for the night, I wasn't able to figure out what that was for. I really like the Wat Pho area.  It is the place I know best in Bangkok - but it seems every time I leave that area I get massively lost, meet crazy or corrupt people or otherwise have some unpleasant experience. 
On the holiday commemorating Buddha first preaching about the righteous way, I've met both people who live it and people who demonstrate why it is needed...

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Wat Po Chetawan Thai massage therapist!

That's me - it's official! I received my certificate yesterday.  We had a practical exam where we massaged another student, but it was someone from the other class which definitely put the pressure on.  Thankfully the guy I massaged was very nice, I forgot a couple steps and he positioned his body to remind me :)  I did the same for him though, so it all worked out in the end! You all know what your birthday gifts will be from now on, and be grateful.  A full Thai massage takes 1.5 - 2 hours.  At a spa you would be paying a LOT!
I also invested in massage pants - the pants traditionally worn in Thailand and still worn by Thai massage therapists.  They are loose, comfy, light, and very brightly patterned!  I wore them around all day yesterday and a few people working at street stands smiled or demonstrated that they approved of my clothing choice.  A few of them just laughed at me.  I fully intend to wear them for giving massages, I'm not sure I'll have the courage to wear them publicly outside of Thailand though :)

To celebrate I had supper with the guy in my class near his hostel at Khao San road.  I hadn't realised how lucky my desire to save money had made me.  I booked my hostel as it is the cheapest I could find in Bangkok at 130 baht/night (~$4 USD). It is in the business district of Bangkok and there are no other hostels nearby.  I've really been able to eat genuine Thai food off the streets and see Bangkok the way the Thais do. At Khao San road, it's like the Vegas or Times Square of Bangkok.  There are hostels everywhere, and all the massage places, food stands, clothing stalls, etcetera cater to the tourists. Everything is in English, everyone speaks English. The only Thais I saw worked there... It was good to see that - it's the famous backpacker hangout and obviously has incredible night life, and then so nice to return to my hostel in a neighbourhood that shuts down at night and is full of life during the day.

Today and tomorrow are holidays here.  They are to celebrate the start of the rainy season and the last days the monks wander around freely.  During the monsoon season it is a time of prayer for them, and they leave the temples only to beg food. Apparently it used to be customary for every boy to become a monk for a period of time, and often they would join the monks at the temples during this time so that the country would all celebrate.  At least in Bangkok that is no longer the case, I've heard it is still common practice in rural areas.
Although I love the food here, I've also had some uncomfortable experiences.  Two days ago, I ate lunch with my classmates near to our school.  I ordered bamboo chicken, which was delicious and very spicy.  Three bites into the meal my face was red, I had to suck in air between bites to prevent my mouth from burning up. Halfway through I couldn't continue and asked the woman for some extra rice to soothe my mouth.  It helped a bit, then another woman came over and dumped some juice over my rice which looked like pork drippings.  It was delicious, very sweet, and worked beautifully.  I've now discovered that sweet counters spicy and was able to finish my meal thanks to her help.
Later, I bought some samosas at the side of the road for a snack.  I bit into one, and wasn't quite sure what the taste was.  I got halfway through before I was able to identify the meat - tongue, fat, entrails, etcetera.  So gross!  Thankfully I'd also purchased lychees so I ate a dozen of them to get rid of the taste. I also ate pad thai and said yes to seafood in it - assuming of course that it would be shrimp.  There was one shrimp, there was also quite a bit of calamari - with the heads still attached! I've never eaten squid before with the dude looking at me as I munched through his delicious body.  There were also tiny little orange shrimps throughout - shells and all.  They're actually quite flavourful, I ate one on its own and the taste was really strong, but mixed with the noodle they're quite good.