This blog starts with yet another pathetic apology forÂ the blog-less life I have been leading for a few weeks. Its not that nothing interesting is happening in my life or in Australia (quite the opposite in fact!). It’s just that this new job is incredibly, insanely busy and I’ve been taking time to find my feet pretty much at the expense of just about every other aspect of my life. The good news is that the hard work is paying off – I’m told I’m doing well and, as a result, my residency application (which the company are sponsoring – a considerable burden for them) is being submitted on 2nd April. So maybe, in the not-too-distant future, I will be officially allowed to remain here fore ever. Which would be perfect.
Before, I fill you all in on the big adventure that was my recent trip to India for Opportunity International, a few highlights from the past weeks in Australia merit a mention. Sydney literally went ballistic with excitement when the 2 biggest cruise liners: Queen Mary and the QE2 rocked up on 21st February for a few hours and a few days respectively. Not only was it an excuse for everyone to take time out of their busy lives to go and gawp at these huge hunks of metal, it was also another excuse to send another $4m worth of fireworks off. I am realising how fond Sydney is of giant firework displays! Inexplicably, every road around the City (including the one across the bridge) ground to a halt with the pressure of people trying to drive to vantage points. It all felt a bit OTT for a city built largely around a harbour andÂ to which big boats are not unusual visitors. Similar chaos is predicted for this weekend when the Harbour Bridge, the Coathanger, celebrates its 75th birthday. There are to be more fireworks, a lightshow and the bridge is closed to traffic all day so that hundreds of people can walk across it in celebration. As a hard-working taxpayer I could think of a million ways the public coffers could be used to improve public services and provide for the nation’s welfare. However, what do I know? – am just a stupid pom after all.
On the subject of ‘poms’, we finally found our cricketing form in the one-day series and whipped the nation’s collective butt quite convincingly. This led to an immediate questioning of Brett Lee’s form and Ricky Ponting’s captaincy (it seems no failure is permitted here at all) which was very enjoyable to ths particualr pom who had grown heartily tired of the constant post-Ashes disaster jibes. According to Marilla, there was some complication with the Kiwis – Graeme was forced to consider supporting England rather than his Home nation (you have no idea of the pain involved with this) as an England victory was the only way to ensure an Aussie exit from the series. So great is his hatred of all teams sporting and Aussie that I believe he was actually persuaded to go as far as shouting with the Barmy Army. However, I would have liked to see this to be certain that it occured.
Summer is coming to an end and is officially one of the worst on record. The temperature highs of last year were not achieved and we had (apparently) more than a fair share of rubbish, rainy days. As a Brit, I thought it was a pretty decent summer but then we’re establishing a trend that I know nothing about these things! I’m waking up to a distinctly ‘nippy’ feel each day now and have even been forced into a turtle neck this week. Not long until Easter and the end of Daylight Savings and more confusion (for Mum!) about time diffferences. There is also an election looming with all forms of press and media cheerfully predicting the end of John Howard’s time as PM. It would be good to have a ‘hot’ PM, as in Blair’s early days but I don’t suppose Kevin Rudd really qualifies as ‘hot’. I don’t have to vote this time, which is good news for the recycling bin at home. Next time I will need to pay attention to all the usual canvassing.
On a personal note, when I’ve had any time at all in recent weeks, I’ve mainly been hanging out with friends, watching movies, singing and working hard supporting activities at church. Renee and I had a fab girls weekend away on the Central Coast (about an hour north of Sydney) just relaxing by the sea and chatting. Both of usÂ desperately needed the break. Renee has decided to move to the UK for a while (why? WHY?) and is heading there for a fortnight’s holiday this weekend during which time she will also be job-hunting. Life is all change again it seems.
Ok. So everyone has been asking about India. What can I say? It was INCREDIBLE.Â In theÂ week beforeÂ I left, I could happily have withdrawn from the wholeÂ thing. Â I was petrified, exhausted and less-than-motivated by the thought of a ‘walk for want’. I am so relieved that I had no opportunity to escape. First, I have been privileged to travel and bond with some of the most awesome women that I’ve ever met. Each one of the 22 trekkers had a story, a life experience that really was a tribute to survival skills and character. Working together to achieve a common goal, there was no time for barriers or boundaries and everyone opened up freely to each other, sharing their story, weaknesses and fears. It was impossible not to have utter admiration for my fellow trekkers and to love them for their honesty and generosity. I have been the beneficiary of some incredible mentoring and advice and have learned heaps about myself as a person andÂ a team player. Completing the emotional & physical challenge of the trek has left me stronger and more determined. It has been an awesome experience.
In the beginning, it just seemed to take forever to get to the start line: the Sydney contingent of the trek team met at the Green Frog next to the Singapore Airlines check-in desk on the Tuesday morning at 9.30am. In Singapore, we picked up the Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth & Adelaide teams. By the time we arrived at our hotel in Downtown Chennai, it was 12.30am local time, we had been travelling for almost 20 hours. We were hot, tired, nervous, grumpyÂ and ready for a long soak and sleep. Sadly, we were woken at 4.30am by an alarm call to ensure we were back at the airport in time to catch a 6.45am flight to Cochi in Kerala. The actual process of checking in for a domestic Indian flight leaves a lot to be desired. Its about as chaotic as a process can be – lots of shouting, arm-waving, people telling you not to take your eye off your bags for a second… then whisking them out of your sight and pushing you away if you try to follow. Approximately 32 people were trying to take charge and organise us and, in the end, we had to queue-jump at security which was just great for the Aussie women and scarily unnerving for me who, being a well-behaved Brit, just does not do that kind of thing even under strict instructions from a man holding a big rifle. The list of ‘forbidden’ hand baggage items gave us a flavour of the country we had arrived in. Not only were all the usual suspects listed: guns, knives, needles, gels etc. but apparently we also have to fear the most astonishing list of weapons, musical instruments and chickens (!). In the end, security was a breeze – we were all wearing our VIP lei’s that we’d been given on arrival in Chennai the night before so they assumed we were all celebrities. Believe me, this was a miracle for most of us who had our stashes of handwash gel and medicines in our hand luggage and feared having them confiscated. One girl – Natasha I think (who has stunning model looks) – was asked for her autograph!
After arrival in Cochi, we drove for hours through rural India to Alleppey where we spent the night in a beautiful riverside hotel. Mum would have had a fit – to actually get to the hotel involved a journey on a canal-style boat a few hundred metres through coconut groves and past fishing huts. Once we’d checked in, we were taken (by ‘holey’ punt!) to our bedrooms. After a quick shower and a very late lunch, we were treated to a large kayak ride through the pretty backwaters as the sun set. Jokes about piranas and jellyfish aside, this wasÂ heaps of fun. After a candlelit dinner and a raid on the local craft shop (complete with handsome shop assistant who wanted, predictably, to marry all of us), we settled into bed early as local wildlife serenaded us to sleep. The next day involved another ridiculously early wake-up call, taking an inexplicably long period of time to get back to our coach, the wild excitement of seeing an elephant heading to a temple to assist with some building work (22 Aussie chicks leapt out with cameras at this point and terrified the locals), learning to find the best possible loo spot in any town/village/forested area, too many discussions about bodily functions – we commented it was a bit like being 3 years old again – everyone was obssessed by how often you ‘went’ and ‘what it was like when you did’ YUCK, a very very very long winding bus journey up into the mountains and through spectacular tea plantations to Munnar in a bus that seemed to be resisting the journey and smelled increasingly like it was planning to explode as we progressed. Finally, as the sun started to set again, we arrived at the amazingly beautiful Tall Trees resort for our last night of luxury (meaning hot water and sanitation) before the impending trek began. How we had taken almost an entire day to travel merely 160kms I had no idea at the time. Now, however, I understand the concept of ‘IST’ Indian Standard Time! Everything takes much longer than it should – everything.
That night, we enjoyed multiple showers, ate like Kings in an incredible restaurant with a glass roof and revelled in the beautiful surroundings. This particular hotel is highly-rated and is (according to Lonely Planet) ‘a popular spot for honeymooners’.Â I am definitely returning one day as it is one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to. Interestingly, there were a lot of couples there but of the Elderly ‘Jolly Hockey Sticks’ British variety. Lots of well-to-do wives barking over dinner at their deaf husbands – one actually yelled in response ‘I am NOT deaf!’ when it was absolutely clear that he was!Â (Marilla , Lucy – does this sound familiar?….) One very sweet old (almost blind) man to whom I had been chatting askedÂ how my husband or lover could bear to be parted from me while I participated in the trek – I toyed with the wicked idea of pretending to be a lesbian but thought better of it when I realised the nearest hospital with a coronary unit was probably 3 days away.
Before bed we were given a full briefing on what to expect from the trek – it would be gruelling, we must do our stretches each night and morning, we will take it slow/have many breaks & pauses, the scenery will be incredible, make sure you apply sunscreen and mossie repellent, drink 3 litres of water a day – MINIMUM, keep positive – 90% of the battle is in the mind …. Â expect to have fun (!!!!). 10 hours later, we all stood, fully-kitted, camel-baks loaded, walking-poles at the ready, outside reception and READY to go. The first hour was a dodgy jeep ride into the Middle of Nowhere where we were dumped unceremoniously into a field and welcomed by a the Ground Crew. And so it began.
I won’t detail everything from each day – you can’t capture the whole experience – but we walked and walked and walked up and down through the most spectacular scenery: jungle, forest, open plains, bush, up mountains, through villages andÂ tea plantations (a childhood dream fulfilled to see tea pickers and a tea factory). The campsites were varied. The first night we were on a plain (in a wind tunnel – no sleep, inexplicable need to visit bathroom ALL night due to biting cold), then inÂ forests and finally, an incredible spot right at the top of a mountain and above the clouds. It literally felt like we were sleeping at the gate of heaven. Our crew set up camp – with 2-man bed tents, a huge dining tent, shower cubicles (meaning you stand on a wooden crate and pour scalding water over your head from a bucket – actually very effective), 3 long-drops (one with Western Toilet seat – WOOHOO!!!!) and a kitchen tent. Each night we built a huge camp fire which was the focal point for revelry, singing, dancing, story-telling and kept away monsters… sorry, local wildlife. Our hero was Youssef, the chef from Kashmir who somehow managed to produce the most incredible food several times a day. For vegetarians, it was a gourmet experience after Australia’s intolerance for non-carnivores. Each morning, we were woken by the sunlight and a cup of tea in bed which the lovelyÂ crew brought for us (result: who needs husbands?!).
There was much adventure though: our doctor, who had never trekked in his life, became sick after the first day and stayed back at camp tending those of us who became weak or injured; we were seriously and scarily lost on day 2 in the rainforest and, arrived back in camp in the dark after finally reaching a village and being assured we were only 1km and 10 mins from camp to discover we were actually 6kms, 3 steep hillsides, 1.5 hours and several thousand leeches away .. grrrrr!!; we had a blood-curdling experience one night when a leopard arrived in the campsite just after lights out, sniffed out several tents before disappearing back into the forestÂ – not one lady ventured alone to the loo that night; our jeeps were a little past their best in terms of maintenance and one day, on a brief trip out of camp, the driver lost control for 5 seconds as we headed down a mountain road. I felt I would die with the sound of Mum saying ‘Careful!’ ringing in my ears; for four hours, I sat onÂ a bus roof (it could only fit most of us on the inside) as it wound its way up a mountainside to Bodi. At a checkpoint, the police said we should not be up there but that it would be ok if we got down, walked round the corner and got back up again; our leader had a fall on the final day and seriously injured herself (including a broken wrist) – she then had her own Â special Indian Hospital adventure complete with resetting bones without anaesthetic; there were injuries/sicknesses/mutinies; we experienced Indian Standard Tim (take the estimated timeframe and multiply by 2), Indian Standard Kilometres (take the distance you are told you will trek and multiply by 6) and local concepts of ‘the truth’. After a week, we finally made a very exhausted arrival at our final checkpoint!Â Â In terms of wildlife, we saw a lot of elephant pooh but no elephants – a day ahead of us according to the elephant-pooh experts. We saw monkeys and incredible birds (during the hour when we stopped talking). The villages we passed through were fascinating and in one I had the honour of naming a baby with a Christian name. I suggested Samuel (‘Sam’) which we had to write down – they were thrilled – andÂ then we allÂ burst into tears which scared them. Rural poverty is not as confronting as the poverty we saw later in the slums in Chennai but the schools really helped us to understand the challenges. The children were so excited to see us, play cricket, sing songs and have their photos taken (they were obsessed with our cameras) but invariably their uniforms were almost rags and the school had so few resources. Amazingly, literacy rates are 100% in Kerala. When in the UK we blame lack of resources for poor education, this example does raise a few questions. As we left, the children asked for chocolate – clearly, they do not understand women. 22 of us, trekking, no men, no alcohol. If there had been chocolate, it would have been devoured long before we got to the schools!
On arrival in Madurai at the end of the trek, we literally leapt into the bath. It was the best bath of my life – hot, scented and very long. After a visit to the town and the famous temple, we enjoyed a group ‘celebration’ dinner in the hotel restaurant and fell into bed before yet another 4.30am alarm call to enable us to catch a train to Chennai. The highlight of the journey was the henna-tattoo painting sessions which we indulged ourselves with and exploring the toilet facilities – a hole opening straight onto the track. 6 hours later, we were checked into our hotel, given 30 mins to freshen up before being bussed to Spencer Plaza and told to shop for a traditional sari or salwar and be back at a restaurant for a formal welcome dinner at 6.30pm. Madness – a new reality TV show could be made out of the ensuing chaos ‘Ready, Steady, Shop’. For the next 3 days, we were participants in the celebrations for International Women’s Day, visiting the expo and cultural celebrations on the day itself (wearing our newly-purchased local dress complete with ‘bling’ and ‘bindis’), spending many hours with the Trust banks and projects in the communities being supported by Opportunity International, talking to the women receiving micro-finance, listening to their stories and helping out in any way that we could. This was an extremely challenging time for all of us – these women are used to existing on less than US$1 a day and to a gruelling way of life. As they spoke about the changes in their lives as a result of the help they were receiving, their joy and excitement was infectious. They were delighted that now they could fund their childrens’ education and provide more than 1 meal a day. It was humbling when I thought about how easily I complain about my own struggles. Particularly poignant, was the obvious evidence of domestic violence and the work that many agencies are doing to help the women in India (and Asia) realise that this is not something that is acceptable. It was heart-breaking stuff – I actually witnessed one incident and was shocked that no-one, not even the woman herself, reacted to the husband’s outburst. It is just so normal.
On the last day, many of us spent time with our interpreters and their families seeing the City and shopping in local bazaars. For my group, our interpreter Ladha was a true angel in that place. She and her family are also very poor by our standards, yet they run local community projects and give so much of the very little they have to the people around them. We have decided as a group to support their project on a long-term basis. Their generosity to us was incredible. To say that we left ‘changed’ is perhaps a cliche. I think for most of us, the trip more confirmed thoughts we are already having about the directions we want our lives to take and the work we want to do. I’m not sure that I will stay in the corporate world for years to come and it was good to start to have some tangible thoughts as to what the alternatives would be. As a gift, Opportunity gave each of us David Bussau’s (one of the founders)Â biography written by Philippa Tyndale who is in Opportunity’s staff. His story, from orphan in NZ to the internationally-respected development consultant that he is today, is amazing. A life spent tirelessly serving others. He has acheived so much.
Arriving back I was met by the lovely and wonderfulÂ Liz (hooray!!!) whose prayers had kept me going and whoÂ gave me aÂ HUGE hug and made my everyday real world a happy place to come home to. Work has been hideously busy this week but I will take time out this weekend to reflect on all I’ve seen and put together a plan. A HUGE thank you to all of you who sponsored me – as a team we raised over $60,000 and there is more coming in now. I can assure you that your money is being very well stewarded and that the women in India are experiencing changed lives as a result of Opportunity’s work. They asked us to thank you too.
There’s more to tell as I remember it all but that’s it for now. Love you all loads xxxxxxxxx