My First Marathon – The Finish

If this is the first time you have joined my story, you might want to start from Part One. Continuing on….

The race route took us back down St Kilda Road but in the opposite direction, retracing the steps I had so easily cantered down just an hour before, however now I was laboriously pushing one lumbering foot one after the other. I watched hopelessly as the 3hr 50 minute pacer passed me, my legs unable to heed the call to keep up. My body was yelling at me to stop, “Why are you continuing to run, aren’t my protestations loud enough for you?”, yet I ordered it to keep going.  

I’ve got to do this. I had to keep going.

This was my final battle cry and all I had left in me. The pain overwhelmed me every time my reluctant feet hit the hard cement. But perhaps if I could just focus on one thing…. the rhythm of my feet as it hit the ground. I will try to block off everything else.

My gaze narrowed to what was directly in front of me to help me I endure this endless torture. I cried out a more few times at the pain but it was in vain. Realising the futility of using my already spent energy in this way, I silently and stoically soldiered on.  

Being lost in my own myopic agony for so long, I had also failed to notice the scene of the race had changed. Emerging out from my zone, I looked around and noticed runners around me looked different. They were wearing different bibs, red ones. Mine was green. Red was for the half marathon, I was in the full one. They also seemed less tortured.

Had I accidentally missed a sign for my turn? Where was the rest of the group? At this point I started panicking. How do I get back into my race? How far behind am I now?

I looked around for anyone who could help but all I saw was just the mass of tired bobbing heads doggedly moving forward. I spotted a volunteer to the side and frantically pointed at my bib. Sensing my confusion, he yelled “Keep going!”

I now realised the organisers had merged both the half and full marathon race together and now we were all mixed in, running together towards the same finish line. So as instructed, I kept going. 

Further along, I saw paramedics attending to a runner who had collapsed by the side of the road. The distance. the heat and the exhaustion was overwhelming.

Just like in the Sydney Half Marathon, the route teases us with a glimpse of the MCG where the finish line located, but then takes us on a massive detour around the Royal Botanical Gardens away from the end.

I was now aware I was actually running a distance I’ve never pushed myself beyond. “Only 7kms to go!” I tried to say encouragingly to myself, while at the same time deliberately trying to ignore the pummeling of the other 35km I had just traversed.

In my delirium, I could see how, on any other day, the Royal Botanical Gardens would be a incredibly beautify place for a leisurely jog. Today, however it was the bloodied battlefield between my ragged legs and the elusive finish line and my only weapon to get through this was my dogged determination. Faltering runners around me stopped to walk, zombies plodding ahead, while others continued to be propelled forward by some ungodly force found somehow beyond the bottom of their empty energy barrel.

“Keep Running, Justin!” A volunteer shouted in encouragement. Confused as to how they knew me, I realised my name was also on my bib. It was a nice touch. “Keep Running!” I screamed back in my delirium, “Do not give up!”, “Do not give up!” I echoed. These fighting words were all I have now, as I counted down each kilometer to go at a time. 

As we ran past Federation Square, the cheers of supporters growing louder in intensity, anticipating the finish to come. The excitement seemed to inject some final bursts of unknown power into runners around me, a feat I was unable to replicate, while others took to walking, unable to take no more. I kept my pace, it was all I could muster now. Into the final kilometer, as the route turned towards the MCG, louder and louder the cheers grew, the excitement was palpable.

A surreal mix of euphoria coupled with complete exhaustion continued to propelled me forward. My finishing time was no longer important, I just needed to get to the end. My dazed eyes scanned for the finish line. Where does this end? I could not find it. All I could see was we were all heading …. oh, we were all actually running into the MCG. 

The stadium opened up before us. Roaring crowds lined the seats, a booming voice over the loudspeakers announcing our entrance. It was glorious!

The final lap was in the stadium itself. The finishing arches were visible up ahead. “C’mon!” A fellow runner yelled in encouragement, “C’mon! Let’s do it!”, I yelled back. Fatigue, pain, and exhaustion had all left me in that moment. 

I crossed the line.

Time stood still as I ran through those arches. The accumulation of all my sweat, tears and blood. I had completed a marathon in Melbourne.

Final Thoughts

My official recorded time was 3:55:49. Seeing the result had surprised even myself. Despite being in deathly crying pain the further I ran, it seemed my body had still maintained a very decent pace and never relented even up to the end.

Unfortunately, due to the challenges of COVID-19, the Melbourne marathon will not take place this year (a virtual online event is being held instead). However, hopefully this will be the first of many more running challenges I undertake in the future and who knows where I will be running to next.

When I achieved my first goal of running a half marathon in under two hours, I never imagined I would be able to do the same with twice the distance. Being my first marathon as well, it is amazing what we can achieve with determination, focus and a clear objective. This was something I knew, I’d be able to take with me in all aspects of life. Without sounding too clique, but whenever I find myself challenged or in a place of self doubt, I always am reminded of my first marathon. Nothing quite compares to that experience. 

I’m also honored to know that on the same weekend, Eluid Kipoge broke the what is known as the impossible barrier, a sub 2-hr marathon, a task no human was supposed to accomplish. I am re inspired on what consistent effort coupled with persistent diligent can achieve when you have a goal in sight and focused energy to reach it.

In Kipoge’s own words “No human is limited”

My First Marathon – Part Four

The Race

I was hit with the majestic realisation that I was finally running my first marathon. 

After months of hard training, my moment had come as I joined shoulder to shoulder with fellow runners, a massive wave of bobbing heads and heaving bodies, our feet together unsettling the cool morning dew, spilling into the empty Melbourne streets behind the shadows of the rising sun. It was incredibly inspiring to know, despite being from all walks of life, men and women, young and old, we had all been dedicatedly training our minds and bodies for this very moment.

As we came down St Kilda Rd, I noticed a few portaloos had been setup along the way. A few anxious runners who, like me, had missed out on getting to the toilet before the race began, tried to get in but realised the organisers hadn’t yet unlocked them. Unabashedly, they then proceeded to relieve themselves by the road side. I wasn’t prepared to commit such an indignity to such a beautiful city, so I continued to hold on. 

I remembered the advice to hold back in the beginning, so I kept my cadence at an easy pace. However, it was not long before I found myself passing the 4 hour pacer as we were coming out of the MCG. After 10 km, as we rounded the corner into Albert park, I soon caught up with the 3h 50min pacer, who was a marathoning veteran in his 50s. Although I didn’t feel I was overexerting myself, when I checked my pace I was surprised to find it was 5:06, which was pretty fast for me. I figured any headway I make now would only payoff towards the end when I would be tired and slow, so I continued to cruise along at this pace while enjoying the sight of ducks waddling in the lake along the route. After finally catching sight of a public restroom, I took my chance and went for it. By the time I managed to rejoin the race, I had lost sight of the pacer and had some catching up to do. I also started feeling a mild pinching sensation arising at the back my left calf. Cautious that the discomfort could progress into a bigger problem as the race progressed, I tried to apply some plaster on it. Unfortunately it seemed to make it even worse, so I had to quickly remove it again and continued on with the race.

Exiting the park and coming down St Kilda Road towards Port Melbourne, I still at a comfortable pace, it felt amazing taking in the view of the road lined on both sides with the encouragement of cheering crowds spurring us forward. The scent of the sea was in the air as we rounded the corner to Beaconsfield Parade along the shoreline. Running beside me was also the Incredible Hulk. I don’t mean a metaphorically beefy guy or even someone wearing a Hulk T-shirt, but here was actually a man who was dressed from head to toe in a neon green novelty Hulk suit, complete with fake green muscles, face mask, Hulk feet and everything. Now normally this would seem quite amusing, but he also happened to be blazing fast (well, I guess he’s the Hulk after all), it really was quite impressive given how hot it must be under the weight of his costume. Everywhere we’d go,I’d hear calls of “Go Hulk!!!” from the crowd. 

At 16kms in, I soon caught up with the 3h 50m pacer again and after staying with him a little, I picked up my pace a little and continued to pass them. Beaconsfield Parade seemed to go on forever, a never ending, completely straight and flat stretch. When I finally thought we come to the the end, we merely turned around to go back the other way. Normally at the 20km mark in my training, I’d start feeling tired and slow, but here I now felt I was truly and comfortably in my element. It felt like the time to hold back was over and I should really start pushing myself. Donning my headphones, downing a energy gel and and taking a gulp of water at the next drink station, I was ready to go. I blasted off, blazing past other runners, leaving them in my dust. It felt incredible to be finally running free!

My new found enthusiasm, unfortunately, did not quite last as long as I had imagined. After gaining on other runners for a few more kilometres, like a leaking balloon, I slowly found my energy slowly being sapped away under the weight of the beating sun, now high overhead, while the dull aches and pains in my legs also started to call out louder for my attention. By kilometer 28, the tables had really started to turn, as runners I had gleefully zoomed passed before were now easily overtaking me again and I was really beginning to struggle, regretting the surge I had performed earlier. The Hulk had long left me in the dust and I was growing ever more frustrated I could not muster the energy to keep up as I helplessly let others pass me left and right. The only redeeming thing I could do now, was to try to ignore the ever louder screams of pain in my legs and just to keep going. At kilometer 30, any trace of that feeling you get that running is so much fun had completely disappeared. The pinching sensation that was in left calf I had felt earlier in the race was barely even noticeable compared to crashing crescendo of pulsating pain tearing through my whole body as I continued to lift one foot after another. 

It was now a question of whether I could survive through this.

My First Marathon – Part Three


I had arrived. One day before my race, I landed in Melbourne.

It was time for the best part of my training: mandatory carb loading. Since I was staying in Footscray I was also pleasantly surprised to discover the streets were a thriving hub of African communities. I soon found myself gorging at a Ethiopian buffet and relishing the divine aroma of traditional Ethiopian coffee. Even though I was supposed to avoid too much caffeine so I could sleep later at night, I really couldn’t help myself as I poured one cup after another. I even bought extra servings of Injera bread to take back home for additional carb loading. I chatted with cafe owner who told me how his brother was also doing the marathon and how Ethiopia was home to the most legendary runners in the world.

Later that day, I also struck up a conversation with a lady in Federation Square who had been a veteran of three marathons. She offered me some sagely advice: the race doesn’t start until kilometer thirty. This juncture is when the real test of all my training will begin. The mistake many people make is to use up all your energy by going hard too early, because it only going to be much harder later, she warned. I thanked her for the much needed wisdom for my upcoming challenge.

At dinner I diligently scoffed down extra servings of rice with my meal. Despite all my efforts for an early night, I didn’t get to bed until 10.30pm.

Waking up at 5am the next morning, I ready to go. Before the trip I had spent time meticulously preparing my pre-race drink, carrying it all the way from Sydney. In my mad rush to get out of the house, as I was forcing down toast with one hand and bananas in the other, I had inadvertently forgotten my drink on the kitchen bench, already prepared but sadly undrunk. There was not much I could do as I couldn’t be late for the first train.

With the race starting at 7am, the earliest train available didn’t arrive at Flinders Street station until 6.17am. After 20 minute walk just to get to the Melbourne Cricket Ground, where the race was held, I had to find my way through confusing and long snaking lines to drop off my bag. When someone yelled out that the race was about to begin, I literally ran out of the bag drop area and raced down (yes a pun) another half kilometer to get the start-line. The gun had just gone off. Melbournians had started running. There was no time for that last minute bathroom break.

The race had begun!

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


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!

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.