I thought dysentery was something that only happened in Oregon Trail.

Reckless. I’m not Hannah Horvath. Hell, Hannah Horvath didn’t even exist at this point, and I’m doing something she would do. How were we supposed to know that when you enter Thailand by foot, your visa is only good for 2 weeks, but by air it’s good for a month? I mean, shouldn’t that be posted somewhere? So we’ve just spent 5 glorious days on an island off the coast of Ranong and we’ve got to pick our next destination. Before that, we need to renew our visas so we don’t end up like Claire Danes in Brokedown Palace with cockroaches crawling in our ears. Gross. We get off our water taxi, and park ourselves at the cafe on the dock while we figure out where the boats are that take us to Myanmar to renew our Thai visas. We make mention of this to our server and then next thing we know, there’s a man with a truck and a mustachio asking us if we need to renew our visas. Does anyone know where this guy came from?

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Anywho, we haggle our price and he puts our bags in his truck. I guess we’re going to Myanmar before we catch a bus to Phuket . We arrive at the dock and he tells us to leave our bags in the truck. I’m already a bit nervous. I mean, we could totally turn into Claire Danes at any moment. He shuttles us through the line to exit Thailand and when we ask where our bags are, he points at a boat. How did they get there?? WHO’S BEEN TOUCHING MY BAG!?

Ok…. It’s ooookaaay. We get on the boat and begin making our way through the checkpoints to Burma/Myanmar. “Give me your passport,” says the Captain’s assistant when we arrive at the first checkpoint. “Excuse me?” “I need your passport to show to the people inside.” This is when I realized it would be a long time before I told my mother this story. Watching the man like a hawk, I reluctantly hand him my beautiful Canadian passport. He goes inside, comes back a few minutes later and puts all 3 of our passports in his front shirt pocket. I’m not happy about this situation.

Check point two and three seem to go smoothly, but I’m still not thrilled about not being in possession of my passport. We arrive in Burma and go to Immigration to pay our visa fee and have our passports stamped. It takes all of 15 minutes and we start making our way back to the boat. I don’t think I mentioned it’s now been at least 6 hours since our last meal and we’re STARVING!!! This lovely Burmese woman walks by with a tray and says “Samosas! Vegetarian Samosas!” I’m in!! A taste of home, vegetarian, delicious! We overpay and get back on the boat, rationing out the 4 samosas amongst the three of us. I must say, I’m feeling pretty good about life since being in possession of my passport again and being fed.

We arrive in Thailand and are re-admitted, no problem. Mustachio has unloaded the boat and put our bags back in his truck (one assumes. Again, I saw no evidence of this but my bag was in his truck when we got back in), and we’re off to the bus station. My tummy is not feeling amazing, but it’s to be expected seeing as all we’ve had to eat are these samosas.

Fast forward 24 hours and all 3 of us are suddenly staying very close to the bathroom. Apparently, street food is not as safe in Myanmar as it is in Thailand BUT WE HAVE OUR PASSPORTS! And no one even resembles Claire Danes.

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Keeping left.

ImageI’m having the strangest moment right now. You know that scene in “Girls” when Hannah goes back home and she’s getting ready to go to that party and she’s reminding herself that she is interesting?  She says something like “Of course I’m interesting, I’m from New York!”  Well I’m having one of those moments right now.  For some odd reason, I’m feeling slightly insecure walking around this Auckland suburb called Ponsonby. Don’t get me wrong, I totally dig it here, but there’s something about getting out of a city and just exploring “nature’s wonders” that really alters perspective.

It’s been a whirlwind of a trip. I mean I made a bloody excel spreadsheet to manage the chaos I created for myself.  Thirteen days and 2000 kilometres later, saying I’m a bit exhausted would be an understatement.  It took everything in me to get myself off my bed this afternoon, but there was no way I was going to let my last night on this glorious island be spent on a faded Hawaiian print bedspread surrounded by newbies and foreigners. I wanted to be amongst the common folk, so naturally I have found the most hipster bar in all of Auckland to round off my journey.  And what a journey it has been!

I could spend hours describing the spectacular things I saw starting with rapids, Jurassic Park, scaling hilltops, stunning/solitary black sand beaches, torrential rains accompanied by gale force winds, and coming face to face with a life that existed easily 3000 years before my parents even considered bringing me into this world.  This is all before I even went to the end of the world and greeted the Maori point of departure from this life.

And now that it’s all said and done I must say my favourite part of this has been the connections I’ve made. Mind you, that’s always my favourite part!  Some of my best friends live millions of miles away from me, but the excitement lies in the new adventures we’ll embark on together.  I suppose the best part of meeting travellers is always having and excuse to travel.

Voter apathay

Some days I become overwhelmed with inspiration. Today is one of those days. Having spent the last 6 months in a country that fully believes in compulsory voting, I having been finding it difficult to meet people who are sufficiently inspired by politics.  They are required to care.  Some make the effort, become educated, and go to the polls. But some I have met commit the age-old folly of voting the way their parents do as they know no better, or worse, they care no less.

Today I watched a film about the 2008 Presidential elections in Ghana and so much of it reminded me of Timor Leste.  The pressure, however, was so much greater in Ghana to have a successful election, not just for the people, but for the continent of Africa as a whole.  The risk of being characterised as Kenya or Zimbabwe was far too great.  But beyond the actual process, a few concepts struck me.  A journalist was being interviewed and he raised the question that if a country votes for one party in an election and votes for another in the next, is there really any value in democracy if the government changes and the country still struggles in poverty?

Is there value in democracy if going to the ballot box does not yield results?  If society is not growing or progressing, what is the value of government?  What IS the role of government in that case, if democracy does not result in accountability? Is voting not just another exercise to create a facade of legitimacy?  Is the institution of government not just another facet of capitalism producing benefits only for itself and those who participate in “government?”  If politicians don’t respect the rule of law, why is a population expected to do so and at what point do you call that society anarchy?

I have no answers for these questions, but I will continue to explore them.  One thing I know for certain is that democracy is something we privileged take for granted.  We were lucky enough to come from societies that built legitimacy into the system and had leaders in the early days who respected the rule of law.  Our governments may be flawed, but we have access to food, health care, and education.  Ghana hasn’t fared so well, nor has Timor Leste.

Hope.

I’ve been thinking about hope a lot lately.  It’s not a concept I fully understand.  For me, hope tends to be something I mostly associate with the opposite sex. Hoping for something or someone.  Sometimes it’s even the hope for something I cannot have like being able to wake up to Johnny Depp from Chocolat bringing me breakfast in bed.  One can hope right??

Often we cling to hope only because our realities are so different.  But I feel like my hopes vary so drastically from the hopes of most.  My hopes often stem from desires, but for others, hope is vision.  What they hope for is not something they don’t have because of their limitations, but in spite of them.  What a strange concept.  As a realist, hope seems absolutely ridiculous to me.  It is not tangible and may never even become a reality.  And yet we all find ourselves hoping.  I hope one day to meet someone who will love me and grow old with me. I suspect my parents have a similar hope, but more along the lines of securing my well-being.  There is no evidence that this will actualize, but I still hope as not hoping makes me face the alternative of perma-spinsterhood and a home full of cats.

In Timor-Leste, hope is something that has actualized.  After 25 years of brutality and 400 years of colonization prior to that, the hope they held in their hearts, their hope for change and a new life came to be.  I know I sound like I’m romanticizing all of this, but despite my nervousness, I was completely overwhelmed by the people of Timor Leste and their tenacity.  There is an innate desire for growth and development right down to the smallest village.  There is respect for the democratic process, even if flaws are recognized.  In fact, they are encouraged to be acknowledged as to better the process. And even though the hope for independence has actualized, hope has not disappeared altogether.  There is hope for a stronger, healthier, Timor Leste.  These are realistic hopes.  Achievable hopes.  Perhaps that is something that we can hope for – the ability to grasp our surroundings and choose to make them better.  In the end, perhaps what we should be hoping for is vision.

E-day is the new D-day.

I’m not going to lie to you. Elections can be pretty boring. I mean, think about it. Many countries have a first past the post system which means 50%-1 votes are useless. Or worse, you live in the US where the electoral college dilutes your vote even further. So you get to the polls and there’s a line. Your employer has given you the legally allotted 3 hrs to vote but you’ve got dinner to make or it’s snowing or raining or you left for work late in the morning so you couldn’t avoid the evening rush at 645pm. All the candidates on the ballot suck and you drop your ballot in the box never to know what will come of it, and really who cares? I mean all the candidates say the same thing anyway and Lord knows they will be singing a different tune once they are in office. Why do we even waste our time?
Election day in Timor Leste is not too different from Election day in Canada except maybe people give a shit. In East Timor, I arrived at the polls at 6am, much like I do in Canada when working an election, but in Timor I was not the first. By 615am, there were about 25 people in line ready to vote. Polls don’t open until 7am. By 8 am 100 people had voted and there were easily another 100 in line. By noon, a majority of voters had cast their votes and election officials spent the next 3 hours finding ways to amuse themselves before the count. Timorese law dictates that the elderly can jump the queue but there was no need for queue jumping – it was the elderly who got there first. It was the elderly who survived 25 years of slaughter by Indonesian hands and hold this privilege dearly. And perhaps this is what makes our elections so boring and Timorese elections so exciting – in Canada voting is a right. In Timor, it is a privilege. Closing time is when things get really exciting. Suddenly, the calm and sparse voting area has accumulated a crowd. Transparency is something the electoral commission in Timor has taken seriously, so unlike Canada, anyone is welcome to watch the counting of the ballots. I had decided to watch the count happen at a station where 1124 ballots had been cast, which is an 80% voter turnout rate by the way. And when there are 13 candidates on an 14×11 sheet of paper, marked by jabbing a nail through your candidate of choice, and every single ballot must be read out whether valid, null, cancelled, or blank, and there is no electricity, the count can take a while. In my case, it took 6 hours. Needless to say, dinner was not something I got to enjoy on election day. But like I said before, election day in Timor is not too different than election day in Canada. In fact, election day in Timor was as free and fair as our elections, from what I could tell. People were happy to vote, understood the value, and were not afraid to do so as secrecy of the vote is something that is held in equally high regard. In Timor, elections are serious business. You don’t lose a majority of your middle aged population to waste it on laziness and indifference. 70% of the population is under 25 years age and at 80% voter turnout, there is no time to waste in building a great country. Timor Leste is making damn sure of that.

The bees knees

I am absolutely buzzing. Today was phenomenal. I met a man from Mozambique named Miracle. I learned extensively how a polling station should function and what laws exist to enable that. I met an undercover cop who watches for people carrying concealed weapons and invited me to his home should I ever be in The neighbourhood. I’ve had countless children smile at me. I’ve learned the importance of preserving the portuguese language. I saw a little boy stand on the back seat of a car, door open, facing out, taking a wee. I was called a 10 by a dirty but sweet old man.I witnessed a parade of supporters head to a rally and in doing so stop traffic for multiple hours. This is a country that wants change and I am beyond ecstatic to help them do it!!!

Is it wrong that all I want to do is dip my finger in the indelible ink?

In less than 20 hours I’m going to be on a plane.  This is not unusual for me. I’ve been on many flights and been to a number of destinations.  But for the first time – ever – I’m nervous.  Every now and then I get this wave of nausea reminding me of what is about to happen.  In less than 20 hours I’m going to be checking an item off my bucket list. I’m going to be in the 5th newest country to date. Timor-Leste.  In this case, the destination is not what I’m going for, but the opportunity to be part of a nation’s history.  For 25 bloody years, the East Timorese were occupied by Indonesia and in 2002 they were granted independence after a referendum on sovereignty.  On March 17, 2012, the Timorese will be holding their third election to date and I’m lucky enough to be part of it.  I am going to be joining a group of Australians as election observers and over the next 8 days, I’m going to witness how a new country runs an election.

For those of you who know me, this is the big leagues.  I’ve been wanting to do this for YEARS, but I’m still nervous. I’m not afraid of the potential violence (which is very much a possibility seeing as there was violence after their last election-a fact I conveniently neglected to tell my mother). I’m not afraid of the people or the language barrier, of which the former are supposed to be wonderful and the latter is latin based and therefore familiar to me. I’m not afraid of the lack of roads which have recently deteriorated into quagmires because of all the rain.  Lord knows I like creating my own paths anyway. I’m afraid of much more minute things.  This is the first time I’ve been anywhere by myself.  Moreover, I’m nervous about what happens next.  What happens when this is all over? How do I use this experience and where do I let it take me? What if it turns out that democracy is a big sham and my entire belief in the world crumbles around me?  Ok, that might be a little melodramatic, but I am about to embark on a milestone in my life, no matter the result.  So perhaps this post is just a friendly reminder to myself, if no one else, that I have created every milestone in my life up to this date, and this, like all the others before, is just that – a milestone.  It is not the pinnacle of my life, and though I may not know what direction I’m heading in next, I’m going to soak up the next eight epic days of my life.  I’m depending on all of you to make sure I do that!

I touch down in a little over 24 hours from now.  Check back in a couple of days. You might find something good!