Friday, December 31, 2010

The Journey 6

We had special days too! Sports Day, a Christmas party, and an outing to the nearby town of Lava!

Outing to Lava
Initially, we planned to trek all the way to Lava. In fact, this would be the same route that the children of Kolakham Village would have to take if they choose to continue their education after Year 4.

Then we found out - the trek would take AT LEAST 3 hours one way!

Uhrm... Not much of a holiday for the youths!

So the volunteers discussed, and some of the volunteers felt so sorry for the youths, they offered to put up the cost of hiring jeeps just so the youths would not have to make a 6 hour trek on their supposedly-day off!

Luckily we had enough INR left over that the volunteers didn't have to cough up from their own pockets!

So come the day of the outing, the youths and adult volunteers piled into jeeps and began .... a slow, winding, very, very TURBULENT ride up the mountains... to Lava village!

Along the way, we passed the forests where we were told the red panda and barking deer lived. But we were warned not to venture in alone as big, black, fierce and hungry bears also lived in the forests!

The temperature dropped even further as we slowly climbed to the very peak of the mountain.

Our first stop was a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. The view was breathtaking, as the monastery overlooked the mountain peaks in the distance.

We went inside, and the youths hammed it up with the statues and took lots and lots of pictures :>.


[Blame for the loss was eventually narrowed down to the B&T Law Firm, and is pending investigation of all video and photographic evidence.... The case is still ongoing at press time...]

An elderly man came into the monastery and showed us a delicious snack - honeycomb covered with sesame seeds - for just 5 rupees. One taste, and he was surrounded by team members clamouring for more!

We walked further into town where the youths were shown the weekly bazaar, and after being told precisely the time of lunch and where to meet, the youths (and adults!) were set loose to shop, shop, shop!

The weekly bazaar was filled with people haggling over clothes, shoes, bags, vegetables, fish, meat... anything you could want to buy at very cheap prices! The area where the bazaar was held was so tightly packed, it was hard to move in groups... most of the time we had to squeeze sideways through packed alleyways with market sellers' tarps spread on the ground on our left and right... the din of busy shoppers and sellers calling us to buy from them filling our ears.

Some of the adults were busy finding gloves, socks and foodstuffs for the children of Kolakham Village. The youths were busy finding bargains!

The boys came back with headgear that had cost them about SGD$1!

But Nina was eventually crowned Queen of Bargains when she came back and proudly displayed bags full of her wares... shoes that she had bargained down from SGD$15 to for SGD$10, for example!

Until, that is, Bhaskar, our guide, casually picked up the shoes and pointed out the actual price on the price tag... which was about 60 rupees cheaper... :>

We had a lunch of noodles and dumplings, but the youths declared the food at the chalet much more yummy-licious than the food at the restaurant up in Lava and we had to have a competition to finish up the dumplings.

After lunch everyone quickly bought snacks like chocolate and biscuits from the restaurant's counter and then climbed back into the jeep. Tired and happy, most of us dozed off on the ride back... it had been a wonderful day!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Journey 5

After our sweaty 'cool-downs' (some of the Team insisted they were 'warm-downs' as we would be shivering from the cool mountain air) it would be bath-time.

The adult volunteers would beg the youths to bathe as quickly as possible so that the adults could bathe after in time for dinner... to which the youths sweetly acquiesced and bathed lickety-split so that the adults had plenty of time for their own bath-time... yeah, right!! We wish! Adults were lucky if we had 45 mins for all of us to bathe!

To be fair to the youths, bath-time was quite a chore as iron pails had to be lugged up stone steps to a metal 'tong' that stood in the courtyard with a wood-fire burning under it all day long. The pails would be filled by the helpful staff of the lodge, and then hauled to the individual dorm bathrooms.

To save the hot water, we all bathed together-gether - one pail of hot water mixed up with cool made enough for two people usually. It was the only way to get hot water baths as the electric heater in the bathroom usually was out along with the electricity.

The boys saved a freezing cold bath for the last night of their stay when they crammed 7 people into the boys' bathroom, but that's another story... ;>

After the adults marathon showers, we would hurry the youths back to the dining room (amazingly, youths canNOT get dressed in the time that it takes for adults to bathe!) and hop over the doorstep before the Discipline Mistress could catch us late.

Dinner at 6:30p.m., and the menu would be carefully written on the wall for our reference each day, so our tummies would be growling by the time it was served. The boys agreed to wait for all of us to go at least one round before taking a second helping, so Tank would wait until he was the last person, and triumphantly take TWO helpings of dinner at one go!

After dinner and clearing up, the adult volunteers would lead a debrief of the day's activities, running through what had been done in the various areas - primary, pre-primary and infrastructure.

A short stretching break, and then would be a time of sharing...

Every other day, the adults would facilitate a sharing based on a topic... These were special moments as the youths openly shared thoughts and dreams and wishes and life-experiences... and the adults shared too!

Thomas facilitated a time of examining what we wanted to see during Expedition, why and how we were going to achieve it. The room was quiet as he shared his own story of growing in confidence and self-belief... and his dream to see the youths, too, grow in this area during Expedition.

Another session examined how we saw each other as leaders... what were the strengths and what were the weaknesses? The youths honestly fed-back to one another, and to the adults!, the areas to grow and to improve and the areas to acclaim and to praise in each. I was not at this session as I was taking care of Nuraini with a super-high temperature :>, but I received my feedback card from the boys in my team. I cherish it <3

David and I did a session on CHANGE - how had we changed during the Expedition and what were we going to bring back after the Expedition? I will never forget seeing the eager sparkle in the youths' eyes to share as they took turns to tell us how they had grown as leaders during the Expedition, and what their plans were to bring those changes back to their futures.

Shufen and Wendy did a session on culture, and so clever - they got us to sit in the centre in a circle of chairs! Otherwise we were dopey by that stage of the Expedition from the decreasing temperatures and late nights! The ladies asked the youths what were the differences they had seen between the people of Singapore and the people in Kolakham?

The youths shared how they had seen contentment in the people's faces, the simplicity there... some wanted to stay on in Kolakham and not return to Singapore! ... And some shared how they were thankful for things that we took for granted back home - electricity, public transport, schools!

Serene had a thought-provoking statement... she shared that she wondered if the people in Kolakham were truly contented, or if they, too, longed for the better life that we represented. She reminded us that Bhaskar, our guide, had told us that the population in the village was decreasing as the youths would leave the village in search of jobs and a better life.

Calvin and Sophia led a session that had all of us break into groups and share about the lowest point of our lives. In the quiet security of our assigned small groups, with promises to keep whatever was shared private, youths and adults opened up to share about painful moments in our pasts and how we had grown from those moments to where we were today.

Adults had a glimpse into the struggles that our youths faced - stories that broke our hearts but which showed us too, the resilience, the strengths to overcome of the youths of EA.

And the youths had the chance to see into the lives of the adults :>... to know that we, too, had gone through tough times to become stronger, and to give and love and be there for those coming along the journey behind us.

Tears flowing freely... voices faltering and growing stronger... we shared. And grew bonds of love and trust that will last a lifetime.

After the sharing times would be free time! By then it would be about 9:30 p.m. - insanely early in Singapore, but not in the frosty mountains of India! And certainly not with the electricity off (usually!) and shivering in our winter gear in the unheated dining room!

The youths would troop off to the boys' room for youths debriefing (a meeting they initiated to which adults were strictly not invited!) and the adults would stumble down to the girls cottage for adults debriefing... which normally lasted not longer than maybe two and a half hours... *grin*

These 'free-times' were fully used... The dorm next to us had a 'Ladies Night' with the youths and adults - the youths loved it! ... There were appreciation cards to get ready and the youths would bundle themselves in their sleeping bags and jackets to design 50+ thank you cards for donors ... And some of the youths would be sitting outside on the garden benches looking up at the clear night sky hoping to see shooting stars!

By midnight, almost everyone would be cosily snuggled into their thick caterpillar-like sleeping bags, off to Dreamland... knowing that tomorrow would be another beautiful day with exciting possibilities awaiting - to share together!

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Journey 4

Kolbung Primary School comprises a single wooden building perched on the edge of the side of the mountain. Inside, there are no walls dividing the room. All seven classes sit together on wobbly benches and tables, squeezing tight to make room.

Some of the benches are so low, the students prop two benches, one on top of the other, to get the bench to the right height. This, of course, at the high risk of toppling over!

As soon as we arrive, little faces start popping out from all over the compound. The children look Chinese/ Tibetan/ Mongolian/ Korean... anything but Indian! And each little face has a big, wide smile to greet us.

Our team will descend to the play/ meeting area (a big sandy lot) and put our bags at the side.

Then it's a quick briefing time as our four buddy groups - EA, SSBD, Bandito and Happy - are assigned to do either Primary School, Pre-Primary School or Infrastructure.

Oh, and one person gets to do Kitchen Duty if they wish!

10a.m., the buddy groups climb back up towards the school building (for Primary School), tug the littles to the playground (for Pre-Primary) or march off to get gloves and paraphenalia for Infrastructure.

What did we teach? Oh... anything and everything! Balloon-sculpting, Origami, English, Math, Shapes, Colours, Numbers, Dog and Bone, Skipping rope, Sign Language, Duck Duck Goose... even Scissors, Paper, Stone!

The biggest surprise was the day we tried to teach the kids 5 Stones... and found out that not only were they better than we were at the game, they had variations that we did not have! I guess it's an international game!

The youths picked up a good smattering of Nepalese, but whatever language they spoke it didn't matter, as the kids adored our youths!

Bob looked like a Christmas tree with kids dangling off his arm, back and neck as Christmas decorations!

Azhari's little girl, Kritika, was so attached to him, she would hold his hand and drag him round and round the playground every day.

Effa was always surrounded by at least 3 kids chattering away happily to her.

And Nuraini would perch on the pile of logs for infra at the side of the playground, patiently feeding the tinies as they opened their little mouths wide for the next spoonful of rice at lunch.

12:30p.m. is the kids' lunchtime, and they would let us know that it was lunchtime by racing to get their lunchboxes as soon as they knew it was time to eat. Because the families in this mountain region are very poor and live so far away, the government entices the kids to school by providing a free lunch for the kids.

The children will patiently line up outside the kitchen - a tiny wood building with a huge wok/ pot cooking over a wood fire located right in the middle of the floor - and collect their food in their own plates.

The amounts of food the children ate has to be seen to be believed... we were all shocked! Even the champion eaters amongst us could not compare with the mountain of rice that the kindergarten children could eat!

Our youths would scatter all over the playground and feed the tinier kids their lunch. When they had to stop though, the kids would pick up their own spoons and keep going! We couldn't stop gawking some days as the rice disappeared into tummies that appeared too small to contain it!

After lunch, lessons would continue for a short while more. Infrastructure would be busy at work digging ditches, carrying piles of wood and other building materials up the side of the mountain, painting wood.

By 2:30 p.m., the kids would come pouring out of the classroom and the playground to meet in the sandy lot. Hands tightly clasped in a prayer position, they would close their eyes, and sing a beautiful prayer song at the top of their voices.

With a loud 'Namaste', the song would end, and the children would wave cheery goodbyes with their beautiful smiles before starting the long treks back to their homes.

All the four buddy groups would gather, drink tea provided by the kitchen, and laugh and chat about what we'd done before packing up to leave.

Then... a long, long, LONG tramp back UP the mountain! Everyone would be panting and struggling as we made our way along the same path we had just taken down, except with a steep gradient upwards this time.

This was the point when Shufen would cheer us all up by telling us "We're reaching already! Around the next corner!"... like, long before we would reach the camp!

Phi Fern would try to get us to sing a song, but as it's kinda hard to sing and pant at the same time, only the fittest would join in!

And the Team would encourage each other up by asking eg., "Bellah, okay?" and Bellah would reply, "All right! Tank okay?" and so on and so forth until EVERYONE had asked 'Okay' and answered 'All right'!

Sweetest of all were our guardian angels! Little ones! The children from the Primary School often met us on the way and would wait for us to catch up with them, much to our shame! They would stop when we would, and stare at us with puzzled expressions as we gasped for air. They never moved until we were ready to.

When they reached their houses, the children would wave goodbye and disappear inside, no doubt to tell their parents about the strangely unfit visitors from Singapore!

The last lap was the best, as we would be able to see the girls' bedroom chalet in the high distance, often with somebody's CampVision t-shirt drying outside! We'd haul our heavy bodies up the last slope and slap high-fives as we finally reached the driveway.

Inside, we had to do cool-downs, and suppress snorts of laughter as Bob always tried to crack us up at this time. It is really hard to cool down cramped muscles and laugh at the same time, seriously!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Journey 3

Every day's routine seemed to slip like beads on a string... uniform, and yet different in colour, flavour, texture.

Everyday, my dorm mates moaned as I woke them up relentlessly at 5:45a.m. *grin*. A warning call would come at 6a.m. when reluctantly, the lie-a-beds would shiveringly unzip our cosy cocooon sleeping bags and wriggle off the beds.

Then would come a quick dash to the bathroom (girls being girls, we ALL shared the bathroom together-gether) and a speedy change of clothes, teeth chattering from the chill all the while.

By 6:45a.m., we MUST be in the dining room, for the Discipline Mistress (DM) aka Shufen would punish those who were late with washing-plates duty and carrying-water-for-DM duty!

Then we would have morning exercise by the Group incharge of Fun for the day - hup, two, three, four! Depending on which Group was leading, it could be strenuous or lax and lazy!

Usually we'd still have a few moments before breakfast, so next on the agenda would be a feedback session for the Youth In-Charge the day before. Hadi invariably gave the same feedback, "Flawless!" until we banned him from using the word!

Then a formal handover ceremony would take place between the Youth In-Charge from the day before and the Youth In-Charge for the day, with a photo-taking session as the Team Journal was solemnly handed over, complete with handshakes and cheesy photo-taking smiles.

Yummy breakfasts would follow next, and Tank especially seemed to be competing for World's Biggest Eater of Roti every meal. He couldn't beat slight Hadi though... for all his slim build, Hadi could comfortably pack 10 rotis into his skeletal frame.

Then the Team in charge of cleaning would start hassling everyone to pleeeeaassseeee finish eating so that they could finish the plate-washing in time. The rest of the group would disappear to individual dorms and toilets...

8a.m. sharp, we'd descend to the 'starting point' of our long trek. The Youth In-Charge would hustle us like so many unruly chicks into line, always starting with those who needed to set the pace first.

Then Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho, off we'd go! Down... down... down the mountain we'd trip... stumbling over rocks and hidden crevices... sliding down steep sandy slopes... losing and regaining our footing... ambling over the easy places... cursing the tough spots... scratches, bruises and an occassional stubbed toe!

But worse of all was the ... uhm... vast amounts of flatulence experienced by all the Expedition Agape members due to the vegetarian diet... Thus necessitating occassional breaks of gas. O... M... G!!!! The smell!!! Invariably somebody would have a sudden, painful urge to 'release wind' and sweetly apologise to all and sundry behind him or her. The mountains never stank so bad!

In between farts, the Team still found the energy to exchange lame jokes. Giggles would permeate the air as the youths and adult leaders competed with their best and exchanged barbs. Phi Fern had brought along a Book of Jokes on the Expedition, and every morning she would chirp, "I've got a new one!". The lame-ness of the joke could be gauged by how loud were the groans and howls of protest!

Along the way, there would often be one of the little kids passing us on the way to school. The kids would greet us with bright smiles, slap high-fives with the Team and then jump, hop and skip down the mountain, leaving the rest of us still panting on our trek and looking on in envy!

A tough 1.5 hours hike later, we would slide down the last steep slope and Kolbung School would appear in front of us.

The Journey 2

When we arrived at Bogdogra, we crammed ourselves into 5 jeeps. Then off we bounced down road!

The jeeps ran through dusty streets. I saw wooden houses on stilts to keep them far above the mud and filth below. The streets were chockablock with vehicles honking and swerving, and I was somewhat bemused to find us driving straight down the middle of a two-way lane facing other oncoming vehicles doing exactly the same thing.

Out into the countryside we went, and here we saw fields and fields of paddy ending in high mountains in the distance. We passed by many rivers, and we could see people, adults and children, working in the river, collecting things to put into their baskets.

The weather was cool, but it became steadily colder as we climbed. We stopped for a while at a little resthouse where the youths were fascinated by an enormous beehive just outside the window. After buying water and drinking tea (and letting the ill ones amongst us throw up in the washroom :>), we continued on our journey...

Now the roads grew steadily rougher and we bounced about like marbles in the jeeps! The roads were made of broken rocks, and even the jeeps squeaked and whined in protest.

At last, our poor youths' tummies gave out, and we had to stop to let three of them throw up in the grass. That was the point when the 'macho men' had to show off how little they could wear in the cold mountain air... Thomas won hands-down with just ONE t-shirt in below-10 degrees celsius!

We stopped just outside Neora Valley Jungle Camp and stumbled in. The first sight that greeted us was a lodge made out of warm wood and a stone foundation. It was so reminiscent of an expensive ski resort that it augured well for the rest of our stay.

We climbed up the stone steps to a beautiful wooden chalet with tables and chairs for dining in.

Our hosts had prepared two lovely surprises for us... one for the Team, and one just for Serene because it was her birthday!

For the Team, there were welcome drinks - unfortunately alcoholic, so the youths were forbidden from touching them. And our hosts put welcome scarves around our necks for blessings.

For Serene, there was a beautiful bouquet of flowers, a Happy Birthday message on the wall... and something which Lin Lin had secretly planned in email exchanges sent just after her recce trip to Neora Valley with Nicholas...

Lin Lin took Serene and Calvin down to the lodge that we had passed by and opened the door.... SURPRISE!!! It was a Honeymoon Cottage booked just for them and on the floor, a welcome message spelled out in flowers for Calvin and Serene.

But being the sweet couple that they are, they chose not to stay there anyway.

Chilled and longing to see our own rooms, we grabbed our bags and lugged them to our chalets. And wowwwwwww! The chalets were amazing!

They were so huge, they could have comfortably fit our team into two. Beds were downstairs and in the attic with three cushy winter sleeping bags laid out side by side. Everything was done in natural wood - the chairs, tables, even the lamp shades!

The rooms were chilly as there were no heaters though.... so we did not linger long. Pausing just long enough to pull out winter gear, we trooped towards the dining chalet.

Just outside the bedroom chalets were benches for us to sit... and we could see the twinkling lights of the houses spotting the mountains around us... and far more beautiful, the twinkling flurry of stars in the sky.

We had arrived!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Journey

I know everyone is waiting to hear about the trip... It's just that I'm feeling so 'blur' after the trip that it's hard for me to express it in words. Still... for all of you....

My journey started very early on the 6th of December, just after midnight, when David, Tank, Sharifah and myself bunked out at the airport to wait for our morning flight. Thomas was supposed to come over after packing more logistics for us, but he didn't arrive until way past 3a.m.!

Early in the a.m., Nicholas and Angel stopped by to wake us up for an early breakfast. Since the team was meeting at 6:30 a.m., we had to scarf all the food we could down our throats and quickly rush over to the check-in counter.

The members of the Team started arriving, along with loving well-wishers like Suan, Rena, Paul... all giving us their blessings and smiles to start our journey off.

The check-in desk was pretty horrified at the number of boxes and bags we had along with us.... each member of the Team complete with one suitcase/ backpack each AND an assigned bag from logistics! I remember the man at the desk protesting, "Miss! Your weight for luggage has exceeded..."!!

Luckily, they let us through without a fuss after we assured them that we were travelling as a group, and not ALL the bags were that heavy; it was just that we were checking in the heaviest first... ahem!

Families of the youths went off to have breakfast, and then we all congregated again to enter the boarding gate. Jermaine arrived just in time to wave a frantic goodbye from behind the other well-wishers, and I received an SMS from Ayu to say, "Oops! I just woke up!" and wishing all the best for the trip!

When we'd entered the boarding gate, we all sat on the floor in a circle. Each of us gave one word to say how we felt. The youths gave a lot of 'excited's! Nina was 'nervous' as this was her first time on a plane, and Farhan expressed 'sad' because Zhan Yang could not be with us.

Serene and Calvin quickly ran through the itinerary with us and then we boarded the plane. We sat three to a row, and the youths were anticipating the first lift-off. Nina was right behind me and I could hear her worried, nervous squeaks as she waited for take-off!

Once in the air, we hit rough turbulence only once and the 'aaahhhhhssss' and 'oooohhhhhsss' of the youths, I will never forget! It was definitely an experience to travel with them!

We were late arriving in Chennai, and before we landed, the adults warned the youths that we would have to make a mad dash through the airport. We hurried through immigration, only to have Farhan stopped!

We picked up our soggy bags, soaked with rain, and tried to get out of the international departure hall, but this time Razanoor could not exit because he had given his passport to Umi who had run to domestic departure with the earlier group! Whoops!

Razanoor slipped past the armed guards and the adults shielded him as everyone ran off to domestic departure as fast as we could. At domestic, the officials kept telling us, "M'am! Sir! You're going to miss your flight!"

Panic amongst the Team! Run and hop onto the transit bus, where we took turns counting team members "15...16...17... are we all here? No! Who's missing?!" Aiks! Bob this time for not having a carry-on board luggage tag!

Finally everyone was on the transit bus, all sweating and panting heavily despite the cool India air! Once on the plane we sat down and ... waited..... HEY!!! Thought they said we would miss the flight?! The plane took its own sweet time to leave anyway!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


I'm still feeling disoriented... It feels strange to be back in Malaysia and back in the office. Ayu assured me yesterday that she felt the same way when she got back from her Cambodia expedition, and that the feeling takes about a week to pass!

The past few days, especially after the youths told us they did not want to do education anymore, I've been asking often in my heart, Have we impacted the youths?

Even after all the warnings from C and S that there will be no visible results after the trip, I still want to know! I still want to see 'results'.

Paul yesterday asked me if the youths were able to share with me and open up? And I said yes, and he said that meant they trusted me.

But that isn't the point. I KNOW the youths can open up and share with me and that they trust me... but what about them? What has happened inside their hearts, their guts? Have they grown in confidence and strength? Have they received lessons of gratitude and fortitude? Have they developed compassion and have we modelled kindness and care?

Sending back the youths is incredibly painful because we know where the youths come from.... Families and backgrounds where there is pain and sadness and anger. It's not the best environment to 'go home' too.

Have we given them enough 'cushion' in terms of love and lessons of resilience so that they can stay strong and choose to reject negative influences? Can they pull themselves out of hopelessness to believe that their future can be different, the families they create will be different?

In my heart a hungry cry, "Did we make a difference? Did I make a difference? Was it worth it?"

Friday, December 3, 2010

Leaving tonight for Singapore...

Going off to Singapore tonight, and planning to bunk over at the airport on Sunday night with David and some of the youths...

Can't believe we're really going. Gosh.

Felt slightly deflated to think EA is almost over :>. It's not been an easy ride, but it's been amazing, nonetheless. It has been life-changing; I've grown so much and I have much more to give out now to the youths I meet than I had before I embarked on this wild ride.

I'm looking forward to spending more time with the youths, and sharing the trip with my friends in the Team. I don't know what it'll be like... travelling with teams hasn't been a good experience for me (as TOD'ites know only too well!)... I realise when I travel in teams just how much I need time and space alone to refresh and replenish and renew.

But we've been through so much already... I think each of us in the Team have each other's backs.... each one is supported by, or supports, another... Different team members click with different team members, and that's okay.

God grant me physical strength :>. I've been feeling really physically tired lately, goodness knows why, and it's going to be physically gruelling when we go up there.

I can't wait to see the youths in action :>. We'll be doing most of our planning up there, I think, on an ad hoc basis. It's different from the way I normally work, but it's been fun to see how the Team pulls together things at the last minute.

Okay, you can tell I'm rambling at this point... I'm just believing God that everything is going to be okay. Not perfect. But okay :>.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Come to Me

Matt 11:28-29 Come to Me all you who are weary and heavy-burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

It really hurts to know you've hurt someone... and this morning, I was just asking God to help me grow more loving and more caring...

And at the same time, resting my weary head on His shoulder because, around me, I see so many who need love and care and attention... and there is only so much I can give each individual person.

And this verse leapt out at me as I was reading God's Word... It was rhema word for me... That His yoke is never heavy, but will be light.