Monday, January 24, 2011

Goodbye my friend; Khoda Hafez Doostiman

Tomorrow I'm leaving for Spain for a year. It's surreal, it hasn't hit me, I don't believe it at all. I've started saying goodbye but it still hasn't sunk in. People keep asking me if I'm excited and I don't know what to say, honestly. I am but my mentality has changed so much lately and I think I'm still trying to reconcile all that I've learned through my experience with the asylum seekers I met in Darwin with the life I was leading beforehand. I'm trying to piece together the fact that I'm leaving for a year to a place that will change everything, again.

I have big plans but a lot of the time they seem too big to start with something so little. They are daunting, looming. I know it will be beyond anything I have experienced thus far and maybe that's why I'm a little scared. To be completely honest, I'm shaking in my boots. I'm resisting the change because I know I will be different, everything will be different; I don't want to give in.

That's another thing I've learned after coming back, is that you can't stagnate, you have to move forward. You can't press pause and you can't rewind, you can't even make things go in slow motion. Life goes on with or without you and the best you can do is carry on. I'm a sucker for nostalgia, a stick for memories and recaps of 'glory days'. I make videos and look at photos over and over, I write about it and re-read what I've written, I go over and over things in my head.

Not having made any predictions or resolutions about this year so far, I think the only one I want to have is going forward, making things happen, shaking it up. I've been pretty stable last year, things had been slowing down and now everything seems to be zooming past at a rate I can't keep up. I've been clinging to the past, even to the recent present because the future seems to hard, too murky and unknown.

One of the many, invaluable life lessons I've learned in Darwin is you make what you want of it. You're given what you've got and there are 2 ways about it, both of which depend on you. It would be an insult to the people I've met, those sincere and kind friends, to waste my time on self-pity or anxiety. To live in a way which honours the wonderful memories we had, the silly jokes and the dedication to laughter that came with everything we did.

Once again, this one is for them. Moving on, pushing forward, fighting the dark, murky side of life and committing to seeing every funny thing, every little one of life's absurdities and jokes. Walking into the big great unknown with a smile on my face and the look of laughter playing on my face. 

Monday, January 17, 2011

Lessons learned in Darwin: Part 2 (Unlearning everything I ever thought about strangers)

source: Champagne & sequins

To strangers you do not smile, you do not wave, you do not ask questions and you do not - ever - look them in the eye. You don't know them and they don't know you, hence why you're strangers. There's an assumption that that's the way it has been and should be. 

They could be dangerous, they could be weirdos, you have no idea who they are and again the question begs to be asked 'why would you anyway?'. With the risk of sounding a little dramatic, it's one of the poverties of modern life the way we view strangers. 

'In Darwin' (yes, here we go...!) nobody was strange and certainly they were not strangers in the way I viewed them. I walked into the place with the feeling that the distance between me and these people I had not met yet was to be bridged surprisingly easily, surprisingly fast. The formula was exceptionally easy and something I want to share with you.

It goes like this: smile, laugh and smile some more. Sing, dance and laugh some more. Smile, dance and sing at once. Smile, laugh and smile some more. Listen, care and remember. 

Everything I can ever remember being taught about strangers was wrong. At least, it did not apply here, to this situation. I wasn't scared if people didn't wave back or return my smile, I wasn't self conscious about making my first impression based on the clothes I was wearing or the way my hair fell (super baggy clothes borrowed from my brothers closet & hair either in piggy tails or up in a big sumo-wrestler-style bun). I didn't stop my wave half way through thinking someone had forgotten who I was or look the other way when somebody was walking past. 

When you travel, at least I have heard, there is some of this among travellers. This easy bond, this fluid openness. Some people, like my brother, are born without the fear of talking to strangers - they have the confidence to follow their curiosity and genuine interest in people whose lives they do not know. For me, I've always been tentative, nervous, loitering at the door trying to make up my mind whether to say hello.

With acquaintances even I second guess myself, should I say hello? Oh they've already seen me now I have to, but they're with somebody else.. Should I? It's this inane relationship as much about ourselves as about other people. We let our own insecure, shy or hermit selves get in our own way of breaking down barriers that really shouldn't be there in the first place.

I always cringed at the saying, 'Strangers are friends you haven't met yet' but nowhere was this more true than my experience in Darwin. I've come back to Sydney wanting to smile at people on trains and wave hello, I've wanted to ask people how their days have been, where are they from, what their names are, how old they are and what they're interested in. I've wanted to give people hi-fives and clap when they get something right, I've crossed over.

The secret is that 'Stranger Danger' doesn't apply in most situations when you're an adult. If you're a functioning adult there's no reason you have to renounce the ease with which you made friends when you were a child - colourblind and over peanut butter sandwiches and swing-sets.

Here's hoping I take some of this away with me to Spain, obviously with some alterations to accommodate for not being robbed and trying to be street smart. The balance between gauging the situation and overcoming barriers to strangers will be tricky, but if the friendships I made in Darwin are anything to go by it's definitely worth a try.

Edit: Here's a video I stumbled across on the Queensland floods, volunteers & the value of strangers

Saturday, January 15, 2011

From Darwin, with love

When words can't explain it properly. Everything we did on our days off, unfortunately no clips of the people we met inside the detention centre but pretty much everything else.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The highs and lows of post travel depression - 5 things to look out for

Coming back from any trip overseas or travel even just within your own country changes you and for better or worse when you come back you will be different. Whether it's a gap year, a two week vacation, a summer camp or volunteer work, you leave one person and come back another. Personally this has happened to me every time I've come back from travel, with a different mindset and mild depression when the old reality sinks in. Having come back from Darwin, an experience I believe everybody that can do, should, I've decided this post-travel depression is a serious affliction and needs to be addressed! Here are 5 things to look out for, tell tale signs you have post-travel-depression...

1. You begin every sentence with 'When I was in...' or 'In ..<place of travel>..'. You relate everything back to your travels, whether it be the weather, an anecdote and especially things with obscure or tenuous connections (Example: Your friend is eating talking about lunch, 'When I was in Darwin we had lunch with...' Example 2: Your friend is talking about the weather, 'When I was in Darwin it was so hot, and the weather was... etc.') Your friends will quickly tire of your stories, roll their eyes, sigh and the once polite listening will turn into them telling you off about always talking about *said place you had been*.

2. Only the people who went with you will understand, you quickly turn to them on skype, on facebook, on the phone, via email reliving the stories over and over without getting sick of them. Your conversations revolve around point number 1 and you all compete to tell the stories over and over, they never get tired and you end up in tears or laughing or both.

3. You continue on with the things you used to do while you were overseas. Whether it's phrases you picked up in South America or international drinking rules you used to play in a hostel in Europe - they've become second nature and you carry them on in everyday life (the supermarket, at dinner, at home with family or friends). You become confused when people don't share your enthusiasm which leads back to point 1 when you are trying to explain your actions to people because 'When I was in....'.

4. You avoid shopping centres, movies and snub everything that previously seemed normal and socially acceptable. You feel out of place doing things you used to, like buying clothes and watching TV for hours or sleeping on a bed (as opposed to a hammock, sleeping bag, the floor, a street in Italy etc.).

5. You begin planning your next big epic adventure, however ridiculous and unrealistic. You will go back, you will go somewhere new, you will go and go and keep on going. The travel bug has bit you, hard. You are now a hopeless case and must surrender to your higher calling of being awesome on an international scale.

It's difficult treading the line between the world that has just been shown to you and the world you used to know. For me it's always been a struggle to maintain the mindset and mentality that I've gained from being overseas. Whether it's the value of simplicity or the absolute clarity that comes with knowing exactly what matters in life. Readjusting to everyday life is when what you thought you knew and would know forever can get muddled, cluttered and blurry. It can get swept up with bills to pay and friends relationship issues, with cleaning up and house chores, with university assignments and the millions of things that made up your life pre-travel. 

The important thing is balance, being able to reconcile who you were pre-travel with who you are post-travel and not alienating either of them. It's easy to become irritated or even hostile towards things you can no longer see as part of your frame of mind; things that used to seem so big can seem so small and petty. As one of the managers I worked with said it's important to remember not everybody else has had the experience you have had - something to keep in mind so as not to alienate yourself from your friends. There's often the danger of believing your mind has been opened so wide that it can too easily snap shut when it comes to things that were always there. 

Going to Darwin has toughened me up, with goodbyes and with having to readjust. It's put going to Spain in perspective and given me more purpose than I know what to do with. Coming back I'm trying to keep busy, to plan, to reflect and to redraw where to from here. (To infinity... and beyond!!)

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Lessons learned in Darwin: Part 1 (It's not about you)


It's not about you. 

These four words have been the mantra of my month in Darwin. It's been the guiding philosophy behind the work of all the volunteers I have met and the work we were doing. The phrase, which is in such contradiction to the self-fulfilment and "me" generation that we're supposed to be, was something that was one of the best and surprisingly easiest lessons I've ever learned.

Volunteering in a detention centre and working with refugees and asylum seekers automatically made it not about us. As volunteers, we weren't there to feel good about ourselves (although of course we all had an incredible experience), we were there to make other people feel good and to make that our priority. If we were tired from less than six hours of sleep, if we were hungry because we didn't have enough time to eat lunch or if we were feeling a little fatigued from three sessions of yoga we all - for lack of a better expression - sucked it up and remembered it wasn't about us. It would have been easy to make it about us, but having done that most of our lives, for 2-4 weeks we would be making it completely and so whole-heartedly about the people in the detention centres whose stories we couldn't begin to understand and whose resilience was overwhelming. It was one of the most liberating realisations of my life.

It's not that the idea was new, the saying 'do unto others as you would have done to you' has been around for centuries and is common to all the major religions, but the phrase 'It's not about you' hits the mark. It's catchy, cheeky and more succinct. It's an order, a mantra and the first lesson I learned in Darwin.

Carrying on from that, we were there to make the clients happy - to make them smile, laugh and enjoy themselves in the programs we were running. For some clients this was no mean feat while for others I had never felt so funny in my entire life. Making it about somebody else filled me with more purpose than I knew what to do with. It was the True North of a compass, the unwavering standard of measurement.

This lesson ties in with the quote that's been in the back of my mind the last couple of months 'who are you to stand in the way of this work?' It's a question that put to rest all the insecurities I had, jilting them sharply into perspective and giving me motivation to move beyond them. The fear of being rejected socially went out the window, fear of talking to strangers, fear of people laughing at me and mocking me were virtually non-existent. In fact, people laughing and mocking us was one of the aims and main conversation starters in making it not about us, and all about them. (I'm mulling over a post in my mind about 5 ways to make friends and it's got a lot to do with being silly so keep an eye out for that :)

As long as we were making the client laugh and smile we were doing what we were meant to do. Especially if it was at our own expense. Being able to leave our inhibitions and pride at the door and picking up the ability to make fun of ourselves, be child-like and completely at the service of somebody else was liberating. It's funny how giving so much to somebody else you end up getting ten fold back from yourself.. while it may appear self-less, in the end the 'return on investment' is exponential.

The 'It's not about you' phrase came in handy too when saying goodbye, when the innate human desire to be adored and valued kicked in. It was natural to have the clients say that would miss us and remember us, to become close with clients but the reality of the work was that it wasn't about us, even then. When we became old volunteers and our last week grabbed us firmly by the hand, leading us to the door, it was our job to usher in the new volunteers and send the limelight their way. As much as we wanted to be remembered it was our job to make sure we were replaceable - which I'm more than happy to say we were. Seeing the clients with the new volunteers smiling and laughing was comforting. As heart-breaking as it was and still is to know I may never see these people again, these people whose friendship means the world, it was always about happy goodbyes, positive talk and reaching out to as many clients as possible.

It's a lesson that I hope I will continue to practise, remembering just how valuable it is for other people. The second part of it is that at the end of the day, making it about somebody else is more rewarding than if you made it about yourself in the first place. It comes full circle and whatever you give you get back in buckets, truckloads and massive showering thunderstorms.

This experience has left an indelible impression on who I am now and who I want to be. It's been the best possible foundation for my year away in Spain which is now only 2 weeks away. It's given me tougher skin and a direction in life that is now becoming clearer and clearer. I haven't made any new years resolutions but I guess my first one starting now is this first lesson I've learned, making it about other people - who are so much more reliable, incredible and worth it than if I made it about myself. A belated new years toast dedication to all of the people who it was about this Christmas and New Years - the intelligent, kind, resilient and awe-inspiring refugees, asylum-seekers, volunteers and everybody I met in Darwin - this one's for you.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Friends and farewells in Darwin...

Time has passed too quickly. I am not ready to say goodbye to Darwin - a month seems too short a time for so much to have changed. Volunteering in this detention centre and being able to meet refugees and asylum seekers first hand has broken my heart and built it up more times that I could count. I have learned so much here, about myself and about the lives, stories and humanity of people from parts of the world I have never been and know next to nothing about.

I haven't been able to write for fear of not doing it justice, of not fully or adequately communicating all that I've seen, felt and done here in the last month. This will be a quick post but one I think can summarise the way I feel about the people I've met here who have been nothing short of incredible. These people who came by boat, who risked their lives simply to live and whose friendship I know I will value for the rest of my life. I will not forget the friends I have made, true friends - that I may never see again, that I will never forget.

I'm sitting on a beanbag out on the verandah watching the rain and waiting for the thunderstorm that has been brewing all morning. I've said farewell but only in words and tears - I don't think I realise that I'm leaving for good. 

I have so much respect and appreciation for who these people are, their stories and them allowing me to make them laugh, to smile with me, to teach me phrases in their language and let me in. At the same time my emotions are battered and bruised from sudden bouts of sorrow and shock. 

On my last day an incredible person that I had met stood on a stairwell above me as I said that I was leaving and spoke words from my favourite book 'The Prophet' by Kahlil Gibran. They stood above me and said, 'Go not yet away from us.'

These words that I recognised and knew so well, spoken by somebody who a month ago had been a complete stranger and so quickly turned into a friend summarises the mix of emotions I have felt being here and doing this volunteer work. As my own words fail me I'd like to turn to Kahlil Gibran, whose words can only nearly do my friends justice.

"Friendship" - extract from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, published by William Heinemann Ltd: London in 1984 (first published 1926)

"And a youth said, Speak to us of Friendship.
And he answered, saying:
Your friend is your needs answered.

He is your field which you sow with love and reap with thanksgiving.
And he is your board and your fireside.
For you come to him with your hunger, and you seek him for peace.
When your friend speaks his mind you fear not the "nay" in your own mind, nor do you withhold the "ay".
And when he is silent your heart ceases not to listen to his heart;
For without words, in friendship, all thoughts, all desires, all expectations are born and shared, with joy that is unclaimed.
When you part from your friend, you grieve not;

For that which you love most in him may be clearer in his absence, as the mountain to the climber is clearer from the plain.
And let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit.

For love that seeks aught but the disclosure of its own mystery is not love but a net cast forth: and only the unprofitable is caught.
And let your best be for your friend.
If he must know the ebb of your tide, let him know the flood also.
For what is your friend that you should seek him with hours to kill?
Seek him always with hours to live.
For it is his to fill your need, but not your emptiness.
And in the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures.
For in the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed."