journal

My First Marathon – Part Two

Continuing on from Part One, here’s the next part written in my Covid self confinement

The Training

Months went by and my half marathon achievement was all but a distant memory. My marathon plans long forgotten.

One day my colleagues suggested we go for a light run after work. Having not trained for a very long time, after barely 8km I was already struggling, slow and out of breath. Somehow my left knee just did not feel right. When they asked me how many weeks until my marathon, it hit me. I had only 8 weeks left. To put that into perspective, 3 months is generally the advised minimum time one needs to train for a marathon. Matt, my colleague and a veteran of 3 marathons, told me how he used to run 30km every weekend for his training before the race. And here I was, barely surviving a 8km run. This was the wake up call I needed, because there was no way in hell I was about to do 42km. 

My training started that weekend. I decided to go for just a short jog around the neighbourhood because my left knee complained anytime I tried to go any further. As I drew close to the end of my run, I felt my foot catch an uneven part of the pavement. I stumbled and with my legs too weak to stabilise myself, it turned in a fall and I was propelled headfirst into the hot morning asphalt. I found myself on the ground in a strewn heap, momentarily dazed, my glasses nowhere to be seen. A crowd of old ladies started to gather around me, the inspecting the curiosity that had interrupted their morning stroll. As the pain finally began to emerge, I picked both myself and my pride off the pavement and apologetically signaled to the crowd that I was OK. I inspected the damage. There was a massive bloody gash on shoulder, a bruised face, my hand and wrist were torn with blood. ‘Well, at least my legs are still ok’, I assured myself. That’s all I needed to still run, right?

Bruised but unfazed, my training continued as I started adding more distance to my runs. I was still woefully slow, but I could see my pace gradually improving as I was surviving for longer. My regime of after work home runs begun again and the challenge now was trying to find creative ways to extend them further. I found myself running in the dark through unlit park pathways, chased by a phantasmagoria of awaiting murderers spurring me on faster. Not wishing for an encore performance of my fall, I also had to keep a keen eye on uneven surfaces in the dark. For inspiration, I listened to audio books by Haruki Murakami, Meb Keflezighi, and David Goggins. I remember, exhausted after one training run, when I finally managed to achieve the distance of a half marathon, 21kms, I thought, wow, do I seriously need to be able run that entire distance again? Every extra step I had to take was already associated with an exponential amplification of stabbing pain in my legs. It was also in that moment that I could really start to respect the distance of a full marathon, whereas before 42kms was merely an abstract number in my head.

Along with the training came the inevitable injuries. The pain in my left knee never actually went away as I had hoped. How far I could last was limited to the point when my knee would feel like it was detaching itself from its ligaments, whereby I would need to limp the rest of the way home. When I finally saw my physio, she questioned the efficacy (and sanity) of my masochistic tendencies. It also seemed that as a result of this injury, the right side of body had also been overcompensating for the imbalance and was now too tight. To untangle all the knots I never knew existed, she put me through brutal massage I had ever experienced, then strapped my leg with k-tape and sent me on my way.

About one month out from my marathon, the Sydney Running Festival was in town and even though I wasn’t a participant, I had planned on cheering my enthusiastic running friend Harshi at the finish line. It was also a training weekend so I needed to work out a plan for where and how I could still get in my runs in. Then an idea occurred to me. The festival’s finish line was at the Sydney Opera House, why don’t I just make my commute there on foot? No, I didn’t exactly live close by, it was around 28kms away I worked out using Google maps. Although the idea might have also seemed a bit crazy, sanity didn’t seem to be a restraining factor at this point in time, everything had just become a new challenge. So on the day, with my body still adjusting to being wrenched out of bed (these events seemed to always start painfully early), I laced up my Asics and hit the dew covered pavement. Between the rhythm of steady breaths, it was fascinating to be able to clearly see in the vista of the rising sun, the paths that I normally ran in the dark of night home from work. It didn’t take long for the sun to start aggressively wear me down and my enthusiasm start to wane as I traversed distances previously unencountered.

Battered by the time I finally arrived in the CBD, I also realised all the roads had been closed off for the marathon. Watching the competitive runners pass by and unsure how I was going to proceed to the Opera House, it occurred to me the most direct route there was lined with markers and cheering onlookers on both sides. As I slipped seamlessly unnoticed into the race, my energy suddenly lifted and the fatigue that had pulled me down moments ago all but dissipated. Shoulder to shoulder with fellow runners, my battle was no longer a solitary struggle, but one of solidarity with all of us striving and perspiring together against this Sunday morning asphalt. Over the overpass that had been especially built over Hyde Park, I felt faster and stronger, as I powered through corners and overtook other runners with ease. 

That morning, as I met Harshi at the finish line (and no, I didn’t run through it), in the midst of a sea of other runners, I came appreciate what our shared experience meant to us. An experience in which words are too impoverished to describe, yet can be more easily understood with your running shoes on. It’s in the meditative rhythm of the body, bearing witness to the clear present experience unintruded by the disruptive thoughts of a stressful day.  It’s in the catharsis of searing pain from your screaming quads as you are compelled to explode into another step forward. It’s in the fits of euphoria as you hurtle down the hill after every last speck of energy was spent ascending it.  It’s in knowing that any obstacle, no matter how seemingly insurmountable, will eventually crumble, if we can just keep our attention, not on the raging monster ahead of us, but on the humble work of putting just one more foot in front of the other. This is why we run.  

As the race drew nearer, more injuries came and went. I had a fight with a stationary bin as I was running towards it. The bin won and I was left with a bloodied gash on left arm. A blister had formed on my toe, and I had to keep applying Vaseline before each run to keep it down. I had now perfected my pre-run routine involving strapping my left knee with k-tape to keep it in place and stocking up on energy gels to use along the route. 

My goal was to achieve a finishing time within 4 hours and 15 minutes. Although coming in under four hours would have made it a nice round number, that would be trying to achieve my sub two hour half marathon time back to back on my first full marathon. Realistically, given the pace I was doing on my training runs, there was no way I was even going to be close. In fact, just aiming to finish the race would be epic achievement in itself.

During a grueling 28 km running through scenic Kiama, my wife followed me along on her bike as we took in the breathtaking splendour of the Woonora river. Towards the end of the run, my right calf felt like it was being stabbed every time I put another step forward. In between my long distance runs, I also mixed in more intense interval training and performed lunge and box jumps to condition my legs. I needed to tread a fine line between being fit enough to survive the distance and pushing my body too hard and causing injury to my already stressed body. The longest training run I did was 35 km, where I had maxed out the number detours I could find on my route home. By the end of it, my legs were basically made of lead, as I struggled to lift one after another and wincing through the pain as I put the next one down.

On my final training run a week before the race, I felt like I was an old man, I was slow and my feet ached all the way, wearied from all the training. I now just needed to rest and let my body recover for the final day. 

My First Marathon – Part One

Hello. 

It has been a very long time since I have posted anything here. No good excuses really. I just haven’t. 

But since there also aren’t any actual readers here, its all good. The force is still in balance.

Last year, I wrote in my own personal journal about running my first marathon. It was a remarkable experience for me, so I wanted to document my journey. Then I thought, hey, this could be something nice to put on my blog. Soon, it became really long and was also just some badly written ramblings on a page. So, I did the only sensible thing in this situation, procrastinate. Finally, after some of cleaning up, I decided it might work better as a series of blog posts. 


So here’s goes. Hope you (my non existent reader) like it!

The Beginning

I still remember when it all began. I was running late. Like really late. Our meeting was all the way across campus. There was only one way make it. Panting and wheezing on what was actually a very short sprint, I realised, ok, all those burgers had taken a worrying toll on me. I was really unfit. 

Ever since then, I took up running, first as ‘eye of the tiger’ moment, but as I enjoyed it more, it became my go to for my relaxation. There was no better way to live than going for some fresh air, exploring my surroundings while breaking a sweat. 


A few years ago, I had the opportunity to run the SMH Half Marathon. On my first attempt, I finished in 2hrs and 1 minute. Next year, I thought, I’m gonna really put in effort and finish under 2 hours. 


The next year my time was 2:05. Not quite what I had hoped for, but I also hadn’t ‘put in the effort’ I rationalised. Then the next year after that my time was 2:10. Alarmed with my gradual decline, I resolved it was the moment for some of that ‘eye of the tiger’ again. I’m really gonna get this 2 hour mark next time. For the first time, I had a goal and I wanted to meet it. 


As the race approached, I started my training with regular runs, mostly after work, gradually increasing my distance while maintaining or increasing my pace. However, it wasn’t always easy to squeeze in the time to keep my routine up. Then I had an idea: why don’t I simply run home from work. Two birds: I’d get my training in and I will arrive home. At first this seemed a bit cray cray, I didn’t exactly live close by and my normal train commute would take around an hour door to door. But what did I have to lose? After mapping out a route and leaving all my belongings at the office, I braced myself and took to the streets. 


My first attempt was hard, hobbling through the dark, I was exhausted, spent, yet it also felt fantastic when I wobbled through the door at home through the pain all on my own two legs. It felt like a momentous achievement, if I could do that, what couldn’t I do? Yet despite the distance, I was still pretty slow. I knew, if I was going to make sub 2hrs, I really needed to up my training and push myself even harder. Over the next few weeks, I continued to run home once a week, pushing as fast as I could and I could see my time slightly improving with every run. I mixed in some interval runs to increase my power and I felt confident that if I could keep this momentum up, I may just reach my goal this year. 


On race day, with my stomach full of guilt free carbs, I was ready. Huddled at the start line, with my running friend Harshi, we took in the buzzing energy of our fellow runners. The gun went off and so were we. As I heard our feet rhythmically hitting the asphalt disrupting the morning dew, I felt it was such a joy and privilege to be there. The cold air, however, was not kind to my asthmatic lungs, unaccustomed to such an early start, I had to take a few extra squeezes of my puffer as we twisted round the corner towards the Rocks. Around 5kms in, on the overpass towards Pyrmont, with the splendid view of sunlit Darling Harbour glittering to my right, I felt I had finally found my rhythm. 


I knew the route well, the same every year, but this time it was also different, I pushed myself unrelentingly through every corner, incline and step with a fierce vigor towards my goal. As we climbed the hill past the observatory, the slope was the source of my exhaustion and pain. Yet somehow, this also fueled my fire further. In a cruel joke only the organisers could find amusing, as the end approaches and you are wanting nothing more but for it all to be over, the route directs you past the finish line, with its cheering crowds and all, but does not let you cross it. It then redirects you to do a full lap of the Royal Botanical Gardens before letting you circle back. The last few kilometers were just hell. When I finally reached the finish line in an exhausted bliss, I looked at my time: 1 hr 53 minutes. I had beaten my goal by an entire 7 minutes! I was stoked.


After munching on some free fruit that was offered for recovery, a thought welled up. If I could do this, what else could I achieve. Whats next, I thought? “It’s time you did a full marathon”, Harshi, said to me as we stretched out our beaten legs on the grass. I had just been thinking the same thing… 


In the following months, the warmth of Autumn slowly faded along with exuberance of my half marathon achievement. The chilly weather provided me the perfect cover to lazily rug up under my safe blankets and ignore the cruel pavement. My wife had a spare flight ticket we needed to use. Having once romanticised about the idea of a destination marathon, I considered how awesome it would be to see a city and run a marathon while doing so, like some sort of masochistic tourist. I googled upcoming marathons around the country and they were all too soon or far into the future. I found one in Hobart sponsored by Cadbury and wondered what sort of disconcerting relationship they must have in place. The next one I found was in Melbourne, who would be hosting their marathon in October, perfect.

With my tickets booked, Melbourne, here I come. 

I will try and get theses posts up every few weeks, so stay tuned for the rest!

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)

Slum school

Faridbad

I’ve finally landed in my placement and started at the slum school in Faridbad. It is run by a Christian pastor, Rakesh who is passionate about his work.

On my first day, I was given a tour of the place in the fog, but since it was a public holiday there was no class. Walking into the slum was like being transported to another world, only a block down there were brick houses, markets and street hawkers. The conditions in the slum really felt impoverised, half built mud huts and rubbish salvaged plastic and tin sheets covering their thatched roofs, still donning the advertised logos of their former life. Cows, goats, chickens, pigs and dogs freely roamed around the dirt yards eating garbage. Pastor Rakesh introduced me to the “school”. It was just an small open area, no blackboards or walls for that matter…it was basically the yard. In a disused half hut were wooden writing benches that had been donated, enough to sit lots more kids but it was being damaged as there was no roof to cover them. Plastic sheeting would not cost very much, but there just was not enough funds. We went around the slum and Rahesh found and introduced me to some the children. It was not quite the sad look I’ve seen in the world vision commercials but more of a nervous “Who is this stranger?” bepuzzled expression that donned their faces. However, when I smiled, they smiled back shyly and then ran to hide behind papa.

The next morning at 10am, I had my first day of teaching. The kids, about six to ten years old came to setup the tables. They even found me and Debbie, a fellow volunteer, some chairs to sit on. The rest of the kids arrived, shivering in the cold and stood up when I was introduced by Rahesh as “Something something Justin something something Australia something” and they all clapped. He then took me to the senior students not more than ten years old and who stood up and chanted “Good morning, sir” in unison. Rakesh annouced something to them in Hindi, indicated to me and left.

I gulped. No one had told me what I was supposed to do, I had no clue what was going on. The boy in the front row handed me his book. “The cow is white. It gives me milk” he had neatly writen between the red and blue markings of the pages. He started spelling out each of the words and reading it out aloud. “Err..Hang on, I’ll be right back” I said awkwardly, before I rushed off to ask what I was supposed to be doing. “Check Homework” Rakesh said. “Oh right … of course”, so I went back and started sitting with each kid to see what they had done, slowly going through their work. After I was done with the last kid I went up to Debbie and asked, “Umm what do I do now?”, “Give more homework!” At the time there really wasnt a sylabyss so I had to make up stuff on the spot. I got them to write out shapes, colors, days of the week, animals and anything else I could come up with. They were all at different levels so it was hard to figure out what was going on. Finally school ended with oral recitation of the alphabet, times tables and nursery rhymes in Hindi. I felt as though the kids really knew more than us.

The day after I thought I’ll try something less of a challenge and took on the nursery class. Boy was I wrong, these kids had just learnt to write their ABCs and 123s. I started with a little girl, reciting the ABCs from her homework spending time on each letter till she could recite it better. Ten students later, a million screams of “Sir-Ji! Sir-Ji!” (I believe Ji was supposed to be a title of respect), kids coming up to me with more undecipherable Hindi, confusion over maths vs english, homework vs classwork, which lines and how many lines to write between, eventually drove me insane and I just wanted the whole thing done with. I could make out when they wanted toilet, but most of the time I had no idea what they were saying with their pleading voices and expectant gazes. Some of the kids could barely write, so I would have to hold their hand with their pencil and make dot to dot pictures to join the alphabet letters together.

All the while goats bleated in the yard, chickens ran around, a strange odour smelling distinctly similar to ganja filled the air. Other times other pantless kids came to watch or run around with a big wheel and a crowd of people would gather.

Pastor Rakesh was very strict, carrying around a big stick and all the kids were completely terrified of him … maybe we were here to balance the scariness out. When we had “sport”, which were more like games, the little kids became their giggly selves again. Debbie’s explanation of how to play “red-light, green-light” didnt quite translate well into Hindi, but the kids still seemed to enjoy the lost in translation version of the game. Afterwoods Me and Debbie went with Rakesh to the market and we donated a blackboard to the school which didnt really have anything at all.

I had never really taught before nor had I ever thought I was ever a particularly good teacher. Im sure I’ll get used to this eventually and warm up to the kids as they are all so adorable but so far the whole experience a little confusing..but I’m sure it will turn out to be a more enlightening one later

Dharamshala

11.17am McLeod Ganj, (Dharamshalla)
As I walked out of Manju-Ka-Tilla yesterday trying to avoid the beggar lady carrying her child that wouldn’t leave me alone (might’ve had something to do with my confusion in trying to understand what she was saying being mistaken for compassion) I was approached by a driver who said he could take me to the Australian Embassy (I had to sort out troubles with my credit card). Driving through the crazy traffic again, I got to glimpse Delhi in the day and the poverty is much more striking. I also learnt many insights from my Punjabi driver through his broken English about his Sikh Guru’s special miraculous healing powers, how one of them was maytred with his throat slit by the Muslims who didnt like his religion, how driving in Delhi is actually very “orderly” comparatively as it is the state capital, and how police in Delhi are very friendly “You just give them 10 or 20 rupies and they say “You go now””. However he was unable to articulate answers to my more naive curiourioties “Why do police here  carry machine guns?”. We drove past some kids holding signs “Staying in your lane is good” – apparently its road safety week. It was also amazing to see the industrialisness of everyone everywhere where hawkers will just walk amongst the traffic and try to flog you everything from newspapers, fruit to feather dusters.  “What happens in a accident?” I ask. “Everyone comes and helps, take to hospital”, My driver replies. “What about the damage?” “We compromise how much agree”, “Do you always agree?” “Always”, “What about police?”, “No, no police”.

The Australian embassy itself was a fortress with 4 m high walls, surrounded by security checkpoints and large menacing No parking or Standing signs greeting anyone who approached, essentially meaning my driver couldn’t get in. However, by flashing my Australian passport, they let me in through the security complex. Above the fortress was a poster with smiling Australians promoting multi-cultralism , while outside Indians queued on a dirty road outside for Visa processing behind green bars. Inside the embassy itself, I met some fellow Australians, from the Gold Coast. They had just had a baby boy (who is technically Indian since he had just been born here a month ago) trying to sort out his citizenship. “Why is everything in Australia so difficult” the father said, “In India, anything can be done, as long as you have the right amount money”.

At night, I boarded the Potala bus to Dharamsala. Racing through the dark streets to the mountains, it was cold… very cold, but I managed to sleep through most of the interruptions, with hawkers coming on our bus trying, as I watched cows eating rubbish by the roadside. At about 8am we reached McLeod Ganj, passing some picturestue valleys like just out of a postcard. Kashmiri men rushed up to the bus, being extra helpful in trying to assist us in our luggage. I asked a monk if he knew the way to the post office, but he was unable to understand my English. Not knowing the way while trying to carry three large packs, I thought, what the hell and took one of the men on their offer. He carried my bags up to the postoffice, but we couldnt find the way to my guest house, so he asked one of the other locals, who told us that the Hotel was closed and he could take us to a much nicer one. I insisted and (as dorky as it was) took out my Lonely Planet and pointed. With sudden change of mind, he said he misheard and and pointed to the right way.  The room was much nicer than the previous night, with a view of the street and mountain and had what I had been eagerly looking forward to… a hot shower. It was too late when I realised that “hot water” advertised actually meant 5 minutes of lukewarm water, but at least it woke me up.  Credit card is still stuffed after spending the last 3 hours on the phone with them just then, Tried to upload a picture of my view, but doesnt seem like the computer likes me either.. o well.. on to Tsuglagkhang (HH Dalai Lama’s residence) after this.

Delhi – first impressions

12.30 PM Manju-Ka-tilla, Delhi

Hooray! Im finally here! Arrived in India last night. It was a pretty surreal experience. The first thing that hit me was the air. Even, at the airport a thick haze hung over the air, smelling like dried embers of a burnt fire. Initially, was concerned about myasthma, but it doesn’t seem to be much of an problem. After retrieving my luggage, I was then stopped for my passport by armed officers (policemen maybe?) carrying submachine guns and was greeted by my driver, Ramu as I came out. He was carrying a sign with my name but it wasn’t a smiling face, maybe he was as nervous as I was. As we walked out, an armed guard with an AK-47 stopped my driver and demanded something in Hindi, Ramu said the hotel I was staying at and scrambled for some documents. Eventually they let us pass… I guess he was on my side then in case Ramu had decided to kidnap me =). We walked through the car park, and stopped in front of a concrete block, which seemed to work as a Hindu Shrine. The first thing I noticed about his car was that the windscreen was cracked, there sat a Hindu god on his dashboard illuminated by LEDs changing color slowly, and a fire extinguisher sat on the window pane. When he started the engine, hindi music blasted through his sound system.

As much as Ive heard about Indian driving, its nothing until you experience it. Think of it like dodgem cars all going in relatively the same direction… except not hitting each other. The concept of staying in the same lane doesnt seem to exist here, I wonder why they even have lanes here (I did smirk as we passed a sign saying “Stay in your lane, Violations will be penalised”). As I held on for dear life, weaving in between rickshaws, trucks, bicycles and rickshaws Ramu seemed to ease up, maybe cos he left the airport. He smiled and we chatted but we didnt get very deep due to the language. There is alot of dirt well… everywhere. Along the roads, there are mounds of dirt just piled up, like everywhere is just a big unfinished construction site.

View from car on night of arrivalView from car on night of arrival

I was pretty tired by the time we reached the Guest house, it would be 5am Australian time. Ramu took a leak by the road, before he took me into the Tibetan Refugee community, Manju-Ka-Tilla. Before I knew it, a boy came and grabbed my luggage up to the room. He turned on the TV for me, and eagerly awaited a tip. I paniced as I had no change, so I gave him 100 rupies . The room was quite …well basic. Nothing was really clean, there were dark stains on the pillow, sheets, walls and even the towels. The bathroom was also underwhelming, no hot water (although the hot water tap was there), a toilet that didnt flush, and no toilet paper. Taking a shower wasnt really the something I was keen on, especially with tempretures of 7 degrees here. Nor could I brush my teeth as I didnt get a chance to pick up any bottled water. But really I guess I was glad to have somewhere to stay for the night.

Morning came, and I ate at the Restaurant downstairs, and chatted with the people there and alot of safron robes. Everyone seemed to think I came from Japan… so I had to explain I was from Australia, but Chinese, etc. They were all very friendly and I picked up some Tibetan words for the day. I went downstairs to confirm my hotel for tomorrow and as my agent typed stuff into the computer, I thought she mustve been entering stuff into some booking system, but it turned out she was on msn to her counterpart in Dharamshala. It seemed that Wizard Mastercard had just blocked my card, I will have to goto the embassy to get that sorted. Time now to go exploring! What am I doing here in an internet cafe anyway…

Multifaith extremism

I’ve just gotten back from the Parliament of World Religions, a massive gathering of people from all faiths and religions with more than 5000 delegates and speakers. After spending 7 days down in Melbourne I thought I needed some time to reflect on the experience.

Overall it was a great experience. With so many important leaders coming together to talk about how to solve the worlds problems of poverty, climate change and peace, no doubt the world would be changed even in a little way. Every timeslot had about 20 things happening concurrently so it was a true struggle to pick out the one you wanted to goto the most.

The sessions which had the most effect on me were actually the indigenous sessions.  Wisdom was found in Chief Oren Lyon’s presence. When someone asked whether there was separation between church and state with the Native Americans, he responded by saying “There is no church or and no state. There is only a state of being. There is no religion, it is a way of life.” Makes us think about how we practice religion these days, as something we might do on a Sunday, or when we sit down to meditate, or prostrating to the Buddha. Religions these days have been separated out into institutions, when once before it was lived and breathed, not as something called religion, but embedded into everyone’s values system, and were constantly connected with the spirit of the earth. What I found quite touching was the way indigenous people related to the land. Consciously or unconsciously we have a tendancy to view indigenous peoples of our contry as primative: incarcerated and intoxicated, or dressed in their loin clothes dancing. It makes us feel safer and superiour knowing that we are the “civilisated” ones looking after the “primatives”. Little do we recognise the wisdom that these people posses. They have been the custodians of this land for 60,000 years, making them the oldest people on this earth. Western civilisation on this continent of a little more than 200 years doesnt even raise a blimp. The land to them is sacred. The spirit is in this land, their spirits, our spirits. The laws of the land are contained in their song and stories, and they have knowledge passed on from generation to generation. Yet when the colonisers came, their knowledge culture and heritage was systematically wiped out… and we continue to rape what is sacred to them today.

I had always wondered what the point of all this multifaith stuff was about. Maybe it makes sense to have it in Israel, areas of conflict, or even between Muslims and Christians in Australia, but Buddhists? After speaking to Petr, one of the PWR organisers earlier this year about it, he did make a good point.  Religion is something people tend to keep private, we practice it ourselves, but day to day we are actually live these values which also manifests into real consequences in society, so until the day we start understanding each other openly in dialogue. You can think of it as insurance…. don’t apply it when its too late.