Friday, 22 February 2013

Some Days

Today I decided to be brave and took a walk outside on my own.  For safety Ethiopia is pretty good especially during daylight and around urban places. Yet I was still nervous and took the sunshine outside my window as encouragement to go explore. Though I didn't walk for very long I ran into the two things I am most afraid of, stray dogs and forward men.

The reason I dislike stray dogs is pretty self-explanatory, they are usually not trained and carry diseases. When I was in Laos I distinctly remember being barked at by a gang of stray dogs and if the hotel I was staying at wasn't only a stone throws away, I’m pretty sure they would have overtaken me. So you can say I have a healthy fear of wild dogs and like to keep my distance from them.

As for forward people, that was a lesson I've learned over time. There is a distinction to be made between being pleasantly forward and being overly forward. A pleasantly forward guy will be honest and a bit charming. They tend to have a carefree attitude and will act within the socially acceptable limits. An overly forward man will usually hug you too much, flatter you too often, and basically be constantly intruding on your personal space.

I don’t want to give the impression that all Ethiopians are forward, because they’re not, and are actually very kind.Every once and a while though, you will run into one who isn't, and especially in my case where I don’t know the rules of conduct and probably have ignorantly ignored prior advances. This of course means you must be more blunt and grab the person you are advancing on. Thankfully it all happened very quickly and it wasn't meant in harshness, more in the way that a child will try and get your attention after being constantly overlooked.  I was already a bit strung out so I decided to end my walk.

 I've noticed that in the first few days of being in a foreign country, even little tasks become energy draining. I got back from my walk breathing hard as if I had ran a mile. I chatted with the front desk girl and told her my incident; she just laughed and told me to brush it off. I then figured no one will understand me, English speaking or not, and went to my room for some solitude.

I have learned one important lesson from all this though, the sunshine lies!

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Where There's a Demand

I like airports a lot.

I find it interesting that you can have all the amenities you could need within one giant complex. I figure it’s similar to being on a giant cruise ship on the Pacific, with the exception that if you balk there is zero chance of you being thrown overboard.

 One neat thing about the London Heathrow Airport is they have a piano at the departure gates, just past gate 25, that has written on in “play me” in a dozen languages.  I was tempted to dapple out a few notes but there was a twelve year-old kid enjoying himself, and I didn't feel like fighting for playing time.As well, I was rushing to catch my next flight to Addis Ababa. My memory of Addis seems to be wrapped up in the smell of the country, because as soon as I breathe it in all the memories come flooding back.

The last time I've traveled to Ethiopia was over three years ago. I always seem to travel for the same purpose but the reasoning behind it changes. Whenever someone asks are you travelling for “business or pleasure” I’m unsure on how to reply. Volunteering is not always a pleasure, and it seems to have turned into a business. Young adults everywhere are travelling to help others. As with most things if there is a demand then the supply will increase.

It’s common to judge others for if there travelling for the “right reasons” especially if you have ever been in a developmental class. In fact being in a developmental class at University turns you right off from helping others, I wouldn't recommend it. The best you can do is find out what’s behind your motivation in going, and then continue forward as if the world doesn't exist.   

Of course you should always find a valid organization to go with, one that knows what it’s doing, and has a good track record but many will do. So what’s the key clincher? I think many fall into a group before analyzing what it is they are actually doing, It’s only after being involved for a while that one may lift up their head and ask questions. To determine whether an organization is worth being involved in I think there are a few steps you could take.

1.      Check out past history- what have they been involved in? What sort of projects have they finished and what was the timeline for it.

2.      Size- A bigger organization, though better established, might have more overhead cost. So it’s always good to know where they’re headquartered and where they operate.

3.      Money Management- A legitimate organization should be open about costs and what percentage of it is used for where. It’s rare that a 100% of money donated goes directly to the source unless they have some type of benefactor or government assistance.

4.      Sustainable Projects- It’s always good to be a little bit critical at first, ask what is it they are doing and are they filling a need or creating one. One of the saddest effects is when harm is actually done through thoughtless or a misunderstanding of what is needed.

5.      Culture Sensitivity- This is a huge factor me. Is the organization all foreign operated?  In what way are the local people playing a part and is their room for improvement. Completely passing a project to others isn’t always the best idea. As in any country there are good and bad people and where money is involved there is always the temptation to use money for personal gain. What I think is important is that local people are in positions of responsibilities that are recognized and have authority. The language barrier can be hard at first but once that is passed and you’re able to find others with the same goal as yours then the ability to benefit others is increased tenfold.

Now these are not the 5 Laws of choosing the perfect organization, they are what first come to my mind in determining whether to involve myself in a group. I also think much can be said to organizations that combine with others. Charities should not turn into a hierarchy, or pit themselves against others. I think it’s a good thing that we’re not all passionate about the same thing, that way every aspect will get covered because for one person, or group, dealing with all the ills of society at one time is a terrible feat. By everyone doing their own part and joining together, we can create a greater impact.

I have to say that though the reasoning behind why I volunteer seems to evolve and change, the focus is always the same which is at its core people helping people. In what form that takes, or in what country is completely up to you.     

Friday, 15 February 2013

First Class

I have yet to travel first class in an airplane. I figure I will be a lot like my Dad in that way, and the only opportunity I will take is if I’m so sick and dehydrated they think I’m a goner.

Now I don’t harbor a particular grudge against those that do fly high, but I know for me I would never book it. That being said, I appreciate the little things in life, like being able to lay down on an 8 hour flight, and this time I did! I know what you’re thinking, I saved someone’s life and out of indebtedness they (being the person I saved, and entire airline staff) moved me ahead. 

No such luck.
 Though I did contemplate becoming a physician just so I could be needed in a scenario like that, something much less dramatic happened.

There were hardly any people on my Calgary to London flight so we were able to sit wherever we liked. I was able to grab a middle row all to myself the whole time hoping that no one would claim a seat near me, or that the stewardess would ask to see my seat number, because frankly I find them intimidating even with their pleasant smiles. 

Once the airplane took off my heart was set at ease and I was able to enjoy a full flight, stretched out. Thanks to the measurements of my body, I’m able to comfortably lie down across three rows of seats and pretend I’m in a queen sized bed. At first I wasn't sure if that was even allowed, but I was so tired that I took the chance of getting caught.

 The real tug of war came into play when I had to decide between sleep and movies. The highlight of air travel is being able to watch as many movies in a row as you like, and not get in heck for it, because really, what else are you going to do? I usually don’t even know the length of an air trip because I measure it in the amount of shows I can watch continuously. Yet I know how important sleep is, one of those basic necessities of health, and took the fortuitous change in seating assignment as a sign that I should get as much of it as possible. So I indulged, wrapped my blanket around me, stretched my legs out, and quickly fell asleep to the sound of soft classical music.  

When I awoke from my beauty sleep we were preparing to land in London. I languidly got up and settled myself into the upright position. My feet didn't tingle and my legs weren't numb! Self-satisfied, I sat waiting for landing thinking of ways that this could happen again. I determined that from now on I should always take advantage of crowd less planes, and to always have my CPR  certificate on me, just in case.      

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Harbin the Finale

On the last leg of our trip we went to the International Ice & Snow Festival. Harbin is famous for its ice festival which consists of gigantic buildings made from blocks of ice that you can walk over and under. All of them have lights within which give it a luminous other worldly glow.

I was already half-frozen before arriving, and after standing in line for 30 minutes I was a complete goner. I was at the point where nothing interested me, since I couldn't take my mind off the fact I couldn't feel my feet, and was wondering how they kept on moving without me.

Thankfully my friends felt the same and we stopped at a beverage shop to get hot drinks. Because I didn't want to pay an outrageous sum for hot chocolate, I ended up just sitting beside the others, trying to inconspicuously revive my feet and fingers. After about twenty minutes I felt human again, and we went out to enjoy the ice sculptures.

The evening after that point ended up being really good.

 We ran around taking pictures, marveling at buildings, and generally trying not to fall down. There were slides in lots of the structures so of course we had to go on every one, twice. By sliding down on my side I ended up getting snow down my shoe and within five minutes, it was as if I had a dead leg. My right foot was so cold it didn't even hurt, and it made an odd thumping noise when I walked on it so I felt like a pirate.

After the Ice show we went to see the Saint Sophia Cathedral. Remember how I said Harbin has a lot of Russian influence? Well I think Sophia’s cathedral epitomizes that. It’s a former Russian Orthodox Church towering in the middle of a Chinese city. I thought it was beautiful, especially at night with all the lights shining and with classical music softly playing in the background.

I love visiting churches and seeing how they’re built and all the details that go into them. The same goes for Monasteries and Temples. They all seem to signify the devotion of people who practice the religion, and a rare outer showing of something so personal.

Across from the cathedral was a restaurant where we had a delicious meal. It wasn't at this restaurant, but at a similar setting during the trip, where I accidentally became the focus of attention.

 What happened was at the beginning of the meal I had put my heavy backpack onto the back of my chair instead of the ground, I was halfway through dinner without anything happening, and was blissfully unaware of the impending danger this would caused.  At one point, most likely going for thirds because greed will always get you in the end, I stood up to take from a plate slightly out of my reach. As I did this my chair started to slowly tip backwards...

I finished piling my bowl of rice with food, and just as I went to sit down the entire chair toppled over. Everyone burst out laughing, and the waiters didn't know whether to help me or just stare.

Now I’d realized something was slightly off, but couldn't put my finger on it until I found myself under the table. Of course no one at my table tried to warn me, and it all happened within a minute. One moment I was there, and the next I had disappeared, probably looking for a pot of gold. I at least take solace in the fact that they said they’d never seen such a graceful fall before; I have my moments.   

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Harbin Part 2

Once arriving in Harbin we lodged at, what I thought to be, a pretty nice hotel. I was even special enough to get my own room, mostly because I didn’t know any other girls going on the trip. There are times when having guy friends is a letdown, but this wasn’t one of them.
Thanks to my selective friendships I was given my own room and a lot of privacy. I really didn’t know what to do with myself; I’m not one to go jumping on beds, so I contented myself by taking up all the drawers and closet space with my things. The first place we went to had an ice toboggan slide, and polar bear swimming. I opted out of the swimming in -30 Celsius weather, but I did go on the slide! The good part is I beat my partner by at least a mile; the slide was by no means 5280 feet long, but I think that’s how hurt his pride was. The bad part was my eyelashes kept freezing together making it hard to see, I literally had mini icicles hanging off them.
As we walked over to the swimming part I found a large chunk of ice on the ground. I thought it would make the perfect skateboard and practiced skating across the ground. I coerced my friends into trying it, and if I do say so, they are mighty clumsy. We decided to stop before someone twisted their ankle and then proceeded to kick it to each other, which in fact was more likely to hurt my ankle since it was a big chunk of ice. Still waiting for the swimming spectacular, we built some houses out of sheets of ice and then destroyed them. Finally the show began and it was very interesting. All the swimmers I swear were over 40 and a good amount of them were Russians. There was one older lady who after making her dive would run around the perimeter of the pool shouting and shaking hands. I couldn’t make out what she was saying but it was entertaining to watch. She would then hunch over, suddenly feeling the cold, and tip toe back to the pool ready to jump in again. They dived, and flipped, for about 30 minutes and then all headed back to the changing rooms, we then realized the show was over. As we headed to our next destination we practiced using the same words, with the high octave used by the daring Old Russian woman. Thinking back, perhaps we shouldn’t of since there’s a good chance she was swearing at us and we wouldn’t have had a clue. I’m pretty positive that happens quite a lot to foreigners.
The next place we went to was Heilongjiang Northeast Tiger Forest Park (龙江东北虎林园). It was started as one of the first breeding parks for the endangered Siberian tiger. It had only eight to start with and now its numbers are pushing 800. They do have a few other animals, but really the tigers are the main attraction. We were loaded onto to small caged vehicles, similar to ones I imagine they use for safaris in Kenya, and driven around to see them up close. There were many gates and security towers we passed through as we got deeper, and deeper, into the enclosure. Then just as we rounded the bend we saw 10 of them right smack-dab in front of us. 
They are gorgeous animals, with thick rusty-red fur.  They wear their stripes as elaborate trimmings, and their faces are distinguished by white markings, which go down the neck and under the belly. Though alert, they hardly moved and would just stare back at you lazily. When they did decide to move they took slow, deliberate steps, and seemed on the whole unfazed. The same way you become hypnotized by looking at a fire you become mesmerized looking into a tigers a face.

The other animals we saw were all singly caged with limited space.  They surprisingly were all warm climate animals, and what sticks out most in my memory is the black leopard and lion. There were was nothing inside their pens, just a sloping cement floor and walls; it was just long enough for them to pace a few steps back and forth.  The Lion was roaring something fierce, and would go on its back legs scraping at the metal door with its forepaws trying to unlock its only exit. Some thought it was funny, but I found it disheartening.
 Later on, as part of the Parks special feature, and ways to profit off them, you are given the chance to purchase live animals to be given to the tigers to eat. I hear a whole cow costs 1,000 Yuan but a chicken is less about 20-50 Yuan. One of the members of our group bought a chicken. He first teased the tigers by dangling it above their heads, and running side to side. Eventually he threw it towards the eagerly awaiting tigers. I had a split second to decide if this was something I wanted to see, and turned my back.
 Why did I turn? It’s a law of nature that predators eat prey, and I’m not queasy by the sight of blood. I think the reason was more than not watching it happen, I didn’t want to participate. If you could only imagine the atmosphere a general aversion, but curiosity to know what would happen. Some outright reproached the idea while others huddled around closer to watch. Many of us had been to Zoos/Parks and knew this wouldn’t be allowed to happen anywhere else. It’s reminiscent of the Gladiator’s or Freak Shows in the 80’s. It seems people are very willing to watch cruel things in the name of entertainment. Even today we have TV shows like that, but much of it is watered down and voluntary.
 Overall I wasn’t very impressed. Parks and Zoos in my mind are places where you can admire and learn more about animals you never knew existed. You usually leave with a better understanding and respect for them. To have it turned into a joke, an area to pester and irritate, leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It made me much more appreciative of Canadian Zoo’s. I’ve been to the one in Calgary, and Vancouver and it’s a whole different feel. The animal enclosures are wide and modified to their living conditions. There’s suitable fencing and constant reminders to not harass the animals. In a strange way it’s almost made me an animal lover except for the fact that I don’t want a dog, or a cat, or even a fish. I can admire them just fine, but living with one is entirely. I could probably do with a turtle though, that’s about my speed.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Harbin Part 1

In preparations for Harbin I went winter clothes shopping. Since my skills at bargaining are relatively weak, I went with my friends for support. What usually happens is I stand idly by while they cut the price down to a tenth or twentieth of the original price, and once they are about to close the deal I step in and ask for two. This tends to work out really good for me since the friend I go with has a sense of style and I don’t; I inadvertently become well dressed and at the same time pay less.

The only time there is a hitch is if the seller realizes I’m part of the group and can understand Chinese. Suddenly my sympathies are appealed to and I’m a goner. I try to act emotionless, or outraged, and neither work very well. I usually end up blushing terribly (strictly in a figurative sense) and try running away. Thankfully there weren't too many times when this happened, so I was able to buy all my winter clothes without having to run a marathon.

Once at my dorm I had the task of packing for my four day trip. I've yet to learn the art of packing lightly so this is always a tricky decision for me. I start with the necessities and then expand into What If mode. What if there is a giant accident and I've forgotten to bring my First Aid kit, with Band-Aids and alcohol rub, to save the day?  What if the hotel has s hot tub and I didn't bring my swimsuit? What if I have ten hours to kill and I left my eBook charger behind? Oh-no! These are very much life and death situations you see, so no wonder I chronically over pack.

On the day of, feeling a bit self-conscious, I invited my friend to come take a look and see if I packed too much. He then proceeded to start taking items out of my bag. For some reason the need for two pairs of winter shoes and coats went over his head. I tried to explain the Law of Layering but I hit a road bump when it came to illustrating the uses of two pairs of boots; I then very painfully had to re-pack everything.

Finally satisfied, we headed out to catch the bus that caught the train which quavered and jolted us all inside her. We caught the train instead of a plane; I don’t know why we didn't just fly!  perhaps too high?