A bit of traffic

I’ve been warned about how bad traffic is in Nairobi, but its was quite hard to fathom what it’s really like until you’ve had to experience it first hand.

First comes the rain. This is never a good sign for the commuter. When the heavens open up, Nairobi comes to a stop.

The plan was to travel across town for a welcome dinner with the other volunteers already stationed here. It was 4pm, when we watched helplessly as the drops of water hammered down onto our roof. It wasnt till 6pm till the vehicles arrived to pick us up.

The first thing we noticed as we hit the road was the flooding. The street was a torrent of brown water gushing out from overflowing open canal drains near the footpaths. This is when gumboots would come in handy, a kiddies puddle paradise for grown ups, who didn’t look like they were quite as excited water. Ahead of us, three vehicles had already collided and that didn’t help us move anywhere soon. After a few aggressive manuevers onto oncoming traffic our car finally arrived at the mainroad. We inched forward meter by meter, each move being a victory of sorts.

It seemed that in the midst of frustration, the industrious Kenyan makes the most opportunity out of a captive audience. Men wander around to each vehicle in the slow traffic, flogging everything from apples, nuts, pillows, Scrabble board games, dvds, statues of rhinos and even inflatable Miffy pool toys. One can do all their shopping out of their car window, like a drive through plaza where the merchandise come to you. We used them to practise our Swahili, especially the word ‘harpana’ (no). By the roadside, lines of Kenyans stood helplessly stranded at the matatu (the Kenyan version of a mini-bus) stand, desperately trying to get home on the overcrowded vehicles.

We attempted to take a short cut but eventually came to a stand still. On the radio, a program called ‘Busted!’ was being streamed, where frustrated partners expose their cheating spouses live on air to the rest of Nairobi. We listened on as a hapless woman was trapped into admitting that she didn’t know who the father to her baby was. To relieve our boredom, we started a series of car games. After trying to name different types of chocolate bars, African countries, human organs and beer, we moved on to a competition on who can bring the most items to a picnic. By 9.30pm, our vehicle had only moved a few meters, so we turned off the engine, got out of the car and made our own party by dancing and singing on the streets along to the hits of Tina Turner, Lionel Richie and Kci and Jojo blasting out of the car radio to the bemusement of onlookers. Love ballads from the 90’s are big in Kenya, I dont know why, but its seems like the city is locked into a perpetual world of Richard Mercer’s Love Song Dedications.

Besides gaining a healthy appreciation of ‘African time’, I also observed how different driving is on Nairobi roads. Whereas in Sydney, we would be locked into our cars like a sanctuary from the world outside, Kenyan have their windows down to chat to fellow commuters and passer bys on the street to get news of the situation ahead, to ask to be let in, or scream at not being let in. Verbal communication plays a much greater role on roads full of pot holes, water, and where lanes have no meaning.

So, after passing out a few times in awkward positions and being unable to goto the bathroom (I was glad I hadn’t had a drink before the the ride unlike the other volunteers), somehow we eventually made it to the restaurant at 11pm, closing time.

Total distance: 8.7km, Total time taken: 5 hours

Touch Down in Kenya

After so many months of anticipation, I’ve finally arrived in Nairobi. And it’s great to finally be here!

As you may already know, I’ve never had a special affinity with airports so it didnt surprise me even in Sydney, I was ‘randomly’ subjected to a explosives test and pat down before boarding. I haven’t figured out quite what is so suspicious looking about me but it seems to happen without fail everytime I’m at an airport, even now without the dreads. At least this time, I was complemented for my fashion choices by the security girl swabbing my clothes down. It’s probably some ego reinforcement trick she has mastered to soften the humiliation. But it doesn’t bother me too much, I’ve learned accept and just go along with my fate.

Hence, on arrival to Nairobi it was no exception. Our flight had been already been delayed for a few hours from Dubai and everyone was pretty sleep deprived and tired and were dying to hit a bed. As we touched down, the plane shuddered as it descended into a lush green city blanketed by dark clouds seething with rain. Taking in the majesty of the vast plains gave me a sense of excitement for the adventure ahead. Stepping out, the airport itself was humble, peppered with dark ruby tiles, a coat of deep green and yellow paint on its walls and dark grey carpets. It looked like a dilapilated mall thats had its day, awaiting its next facelift that just never came. I hadn’t seen a single Ak-47 yet so I was quietly optimistic.

After surving the questions from the stern-faced officer in the immigration line and then triumphantly picking up my luggage which was still in one piece, I carted my belongings towards the customs officers for my final test. But then suddenly, I was interrupted. Two men dressed in blue came over to chat and asked to see my passport. They were very friendly and polite, told me not to worry as they were policemen indicated by their badge. They welcomed me to kenya and said they just wanted to examine my baggage. So I nervously followed them down a narrow corridor into a small room round the back.

As I opened my suitcase onto the bare examination table, while they politely questioned me on my plans. The tone and attitude was more conversational rather than interrogative and we even joked about some items in the suitcase while they played with some of my koala souvieners. In fact they didn’t seem all that interested in what I had brought along and tried to make me as comfortable as possible.

Finally as I was closing up my suitcase, one of them asked with a smile “Do you have something for me?” while rubbing his thumb and fingers together in a circular manner. Somehow, I already had a feeling this was coming, so I feigned ignorance and just smiled nervously. A lady came into the room and seeing my dumbfoundedness, clarified the situation in more detailed terms, ‘Its raining outside, can you give them something to get coffee?’. Again I just laughed and continued to load my suitcases back onto the trolley. Clearly, my mention of being here to volunteer for an international anti-corruption body didnt seem to register with them.

They gave me back my passport and got me to sign their book and telling me to add a remark in one of the columns. I just wrote “No comment”, seemingly to their dismay (no idea what they had expected me to write!). They pressed a few more times in a non-hostile manner about whether I had something to give them (maybe they were just particularly fond of the koala plushies I brought along) while I continued to smile awkwardly. Eventually they saw that they weren’t getting far with my stupidity and let me go, even helping to load my luggage back as I struggled to get it through the door in my rush to get the hell out of there as quickly as possible.

Breathing a sigh of relief, I pushed my trolley out.There was still the last customs check to get through, where an unhappy looking man rifled through my luggage, his tone of questioning contrasted greatly with the friendly service I had just received. In fact I’ve probably never had better service at an airport before! When I eventually came out to rejoin the rest of the volunteers, I surprised them with the news of my first cultural awakening in Nairobi.

Off to more adventures!

Burma – Part 1

A mysterious land of Golden Pagodas

As some of you know, I quit my job and run away to Burma … and now I’m back … writing about the experience (the Burma part that is). As I’m not Burmese, what I hear about this country seems to come mainly the news events that surround it and this often makes it seem like a scary place to visit, however the reality couldn’t be further from the truth.

Flying into Yangon airport, overlooking its vast fields and flowing deltas I could play “count the pagodas” as these golden cone pyramids appeared out from the green and wet landscape. Coming from freezing Sydney the first thing that hit me was the sweltering humidity and then soon after the torrential monsoon rain. You can say it’s also a Theravadin Buddhist’s utopia, where saffron robed monks walk barefoot through the markets and villages for alms round in the mornings and with temples abound every few blocks. It was quite a fascinating place for me, coming from a country where Buddhism is a kind of edgy side culture or a novel recreational pursuit to find myself somewhere where its revered, lived, breathed and celebrated by everyone, where monastic communities are supported, Dhamma is understood, and meditation is practiced.

Burma feels like a country frozen in time, like stepping out a tardis after being transported back 30 – 40 years. In Yangoon, an old taxi took us down town, through its wide streets we drove past trishaws and lorries jammed with people some hanging on off the back. We wizzed past brightly colored colonialesque buildings full of squatters while men and women walk down on the road in their tradition longyi (they are very comfortable btw) and leather sandals. With many foreign companies refusing to invest in the country, Burma’s economic isolation has also saved it from commercialised glow of neon McDonalds, Pepsi and Vodafone signboards. However, the industrialist aspirations of its people are not hampered in their imitation equivalents with soda brands like “Crusher Orange” instead of Fanta and creams promising to give your skin “less yellowish complexion”. You can always hear Delta Goodrem “inspired” hits belting out across the fields with their own Burmese lyrics on the radio… and they also absolutely adore Avril Lavigne (don’t ask me why).

In Bagan, we were able to witness an ancient capital lying in ruins. Our horse cart took us to some of the thousands of pink pagodas, stone stupas and temples centuries old which dotted the horizon near by the Irradawray river. Walking into these monuments you are met with the same grandiosity of a European Cathedral with 4 sublime Buddhas facing the four directions. However, as a “rich foreigner” your ability to appreciate the awe and majesty of timeless civilisations is always somehow hampered by persistent badgering of touts and self appointed tour guide come souvenir sellers hoping you would buy wares after giving you useful but unrequested factual details about the place. We found ourselves being chased down the block by a boy no more than 10 years old, selling postcards, while screaming after us “Today no very good business, you buy you make me very happy!” (it’s seems to be the same lines they all use). However, the human side of their people also soon came through when we found the lock our bicycle hopelessly stuck. While we contemplated the possibility of being stranded in the middle of this timeless but incredibly barren place, the touts and souvenir children soon gathered around, and after some unsuccessful attempts at opening it they called out to an old man in a house nearby and broke it open a screwdriver, without us having to buy a single bracelet or painting in return.

A few times we found ourselves in a “food centre”, being the only people who didn’t speak the language, it was both fun and frustrating to be hungry and struggling to communicate which of the strange but delicious looking dishes we wanted to eat. And oh yes, one more thing, the Shwedagon Pagoda. It’s a pretty special place which I think rivals the Taj Mahal. A massive monument in the middle of Yangoon, apparently containing the hairs of the Buddha, with its a glorious history of invasions, wars, folklore, something that I think everyone should see at least once in their lives. More on Burma soon….

On the train

Before I had to rush back from India, I had quite a few posts I’ve been wanted to publish, but due to the limited access to the internet I didn’t really get a chance over there. Here are some posts Ive save up. This entry was originally about 4 pages long, I had to cut back on the anedotes =)

Faridabad, Feb 1

Well its not really an Indian experience till I used the public transport system of the locals and to confront any underlying aversion I might still have for I needed to know what it was like to negotiate the system on my own like a local, so I decided to goto Delhi on the train for the weekend to check out its arts and culture scene.

As I approach Faridabad train station, I notice a line of men outside the booking office so I go and stand there as well. As the line progresses ahead, the men behind me heckle and shove me forward, closely touching me. I realise why as I got to the beginning of the line, as everyone tries to push in. They say something in an angry tone, like “move faster”, as the train pulls up to the station. It is jammed packed with men hailing from the doors, jumping off as other people scramble across the tracks to catch it. As I get to the front of the line, the man tells me that the next train is at 1.00pm making realise I just missed it and why everyone behind me was angry. The line suddenly was gone and I had an hour and half to kill before the train arrived.

Noticing the walking overpass above the platform, it amused me that no-one was using it so instead I walked across the tracks casually like a local but this still produced a lot of stares and glares. I think Ive begun to master the technique of countering their silent intimidation. Everytime someone would gave me a death stare I would simply smile back. But it needs to be a full smile, which you commit to with the entirety of your being from the heart, because anything shy of this will just produce an awkward half luscered response. So I kept smiling in my defence and I received one back from a man on the platform. “Where you from?”, he asked. We got talking and I found out he was a local in the printing business. I took his lead in squeezing onto the approaching train. As people rushed to jump off, everyone simultaneously pushed to get in through the narrow doorway, like this was their last chance to leave forever. Maybe it was, with a train every one and a half hours. It felt great just to get onto the train.
Our conversations went on. “Tell me about Australia”, he asked.
“We have lots of cows as well, except we eat them”, I responded. We talked about the beaches the languages, the cricket, our families, and movies.
The train was excruciatingly slow and kept stopping for no apparent reason so people started jumping off onto the tracks to see what was going as we swatted down by the carriage door with the locals. What I found strange was in the carriage of maybe 200 people there were only about 2 women. The carriage was blue with a tinge of green, and maybe you could describe it as “rustic”, but not in a romanticised Bohemian way but in its so dirty way. Dust black fans adorned the roof and while men played cards noisily on the crowded seats. The doors always remained wide open for people to hang on and jump off whenever. Hawkers jumped on the train flogging everything from cakes to magic balm as we arrived at every station. It was an anti-climax when we got to New Delhi, as it not an official sophisticated grand central station but just another series of platforms of the Indian railway. Hundreds of people sleeping on top of their goods donned the platforms waiting for their trip back home. Instead of walking off onto the platform Suh decided it was easier just jump onto the tracks instead and we walked past syringes and homeless families under the platform bridges.

In Delhi, after haggling with both auto and bicycle rickshaw drivers, and then getting confused with buses totally in Hindi, I was ecstatic when I finally entered the Nehru memorial grounds. It was already quarter past 3 and I had started my journey at 10. It was the most peaceful place Ive encountered so far in Delhi, with young muslims in their colorful clothing singing songs for some activity, peacocks roaming the lawn and flowers donning the grounds. It strangely didn’t really feel like India at all being was so immaculately clean and tidy. The museum itself showed photos of Nehru growing up in Cambridge, quotes from his writing, his correspondence with his daughter, Indiria, his movement in the first national congress. The house preserved his residence as it was during Nehru’s life and you can see his study, his enormous library of books in many languages, his costumes, the eloquent speeches he gave, his gifts from international leaders and then most sombrely his death bed. At the end of it, I felt like I knew him a little bit more as a human being, but yet not really all that much more about what he did.

Having spent so much time in transit I decided to stay the night in Delhi. Paharaganj is described as “seedy” and “drug infested” in the Lonely Planet, however walking down the main bazaar, it certainly didn’t feel that way at all. Instead, I found myself in the India that I had thought I was coming to. It was like I had entered a massive tree of life store except a lot more chaotic, dirty (although arguably it was a lot cleaner than other places) and way more awesome. Draped on the shops were those hippy clown pants which I’ve never actually seen any actual Indians wear (they seem to prefer psuedo western jeans), colorful bags, insense stands, and karma sutra books. I was also no longer the stranger in these lands, as the streets were filled with hippy travellers from afar. .

As much as I wanted to peruse the streets I was tired and hungry and needed to find my hotel. Avoiding the spruikers trying to lure me into their store or hotels, I found my way to the Guest house recommended in LP. Little did I know when I asked how much, I actually needed to bargain for it. Without giving me a straight answer they showed me a brand new flashy room with flat panel TV and gave me a starting price of much more than I was prepared to pay, and after some bargaining we couldnt agree so I walked to another Guest house named after a Hindu God. Going by this, I naively thought they would never rip me off, but little chance of that here. He said there was one room available but it was being “fixed up” at the moment. I managed to talk him down to 450 but he tried to sneakily change it back to 500 when I went to pay for it. Hilariously, when I got into my room I chuckled as in the middle was a circular bed with aromatic lighting and a flat screen tv. Fully not what I needed.

After spending the next day at the national museum and negotiating aggressively with more rickshaw drivers (I could talk about this forever but it would take too much space), I found my way back to New Delhi station and was confronted again with lines of Indians men pushing their way to get a ticket except this time with a much bigger crowd. I tried to ask the various “assistance” queues about where the hell I was supposed to go, but I mainly encountered men yelling to go on one of the other lines in Hindi. After trying to shove like a local, I managed to purchase a ticket for 3 rupies but from there I was at a loss on what to do with it. I gave up queuing up at another assistance line and as I walked up to the station, I managed to make out over the intercom, Faridabad, platform 10 leaving now. Jolted into action, I pushed through the crowd till I reached the platform, jumped and swung onto a railing on to the departing train as it left the platform.

Proud of my achievement, I went to sit down in an ailse of the almost empty carriage to be greated with death stares from old Indian women. My smile manoeuvre did not work this time, and an old lady yelled something to me in India. I tried to indicate that I did not understand and failed miserably, but luckily a young girl offered to translate and explain I had gotten on to the Lady’s compartment. While it kinda explained why there men on the tracks gave me more scolds as the train passed, I guess I didnt have any choice but to change carriages at the next station.

The mens compartment was alot more crowded, and as much as I could try to pass off as a local, an young Indian student, Pradeep with his mates started chatting to me being always curious of foreigners. He spoke perfect English, even thought he had never left the country as all school work is based in the English language. When I asked about my recent hostile encounter, he told me that you could get bashed in being in the womens compartment, as young men are not supposed to travel there alone, and conservative minded folks obviously don’t like it. Some other pieces of wisdom he shared with me saying “India is like the moon, looking beautiful from a distance, but you do not see its true face until you approach it closer”. Pointing at a grey haired old man with a distinctive mark on his forehead wrapped in white cloths. “Do you know who he is?”, Pradeep asked. “Umm.. a Sadhu?”, I said. “No, he is a condemned man. They are not spiritual, they ask for your money and go back to get drunk”. “Are they all like that?”. “Most of them, India is full of corruption”.

At this point I finally reached my station and hopped off onto the platform with the locals, happy that I survived my public transport trip on my own.

Deported

Ive kinda stopped blogging for a while, im not sure why, I think I just get lazy when there’s an abundance of internet rather than a lack of it.

However, yes things have been happening, but not always the most pleasant. I made a dash back to India last week hoping to continue my volunteer activities in Nagpur as well as a trip to Shimla, listen to HHDL’s teachings in Dharamshala and a retreat in Bodhgaya. It had all been exciting plans full steam ahead.

I arrived in Delhi, Indira Gandhi International airport after hours of average plane food with stopovers in both Dubai and Bangkok, tired but relieved I was finally smelling that familiar ashen air again. As I lined up to be processed by Customs, I took the queue that seemed be working at double speed. When it finally came to my turn, I readied myself for a routine stamping of the pages while I struggled to resemble my passport photo as much as possible (yes I do actually have to try). The man behind the counter did the face checking but then paused and started flicking through stamps on my visa.

“You are not supposed to be here. We will send you back today”, he said. I stood there taken a back, not really quite comprehending what he just said or what was about to happened.

He said something about a rule which meant I was not supposed to to come back so early. I was shuttled in a small room where I was questioned about my travel plans while a supervisor spoke on the phone to someone in Hindi. My attempts to reason were met with nonchalance or silence and without much of an explanation, some Emirates staff came and had me follow them rush through the airport security and boarding gates onto a waiting plane back to Dubai. In the ensuing chaos they made me sign some sort of deportation form, answer more questions but I stopped short of boarding the plane and demanded to get my passport back. This caused more rushing around till they found the Immigration officer again and I was ushered onto the plane with my passport in the safekeeping of the Emirates staff. Later, an air hostess came over on the plane to apologise for what happened and told me it would be sorted out when I get to Dubai. High expectations there!

However, my arrival at Dubai was less than exciting, where I was taken through the airport and told to wait outside a small room that looked more like a fire exit than the security office. As I waited I used the free wifi to figure out World Takewando Federation had just happened, and realised that the Indian officials had come up with this new visa rule only about a month ago and I had definitely not been its first victim.

Eventually a security officer met me in the corridor, and I argued with him about the situation. We weren’t getting anywhere so he took me through more corridors resembling fire escape and into what looked like a computer lab. There I spoke to another officer, probably higher up the chain and he told me about the numerous cases of oblivious people being sent back due to the new changes. Protests about the situation were met with denial and blaming Indian officials of lack of information on the new policy changes

Waiting with some other deportees for my boarding pass back I had a conversation in broken Hindi to a Bangladeshi man who had travelled with a fake Visa. At least I had this opportunity to relive our historic origins when convicts arrived in Sydney.

In all, 55 hours in transit, 8 movies, 6 meals and 1 hour in India.

(Ive subsequently filed a complaint with Emirates about what happened)