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.
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!!!
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!
Two years ago, almost to the day. There are about 10 people in my apartment and there’s anxiety. It’s the last day of the Vancouver Winter Olympics and we’ve been waiting YEARS for this day. It’s game day. As a Canadian, I can honestly say that my life stops for hockey. During the playoffs, Canucks’ jerseys are the only appropriate attire and this day was no different. Sporting my “I Raincloud Vancouver” (rather than “I Heart Vancouver”) shirt and everyone else dressed in red and white, the tension in the room is palatable. We’re down to the wire and we’re tied. We CANNOT give up the gold on home ice, and in our hometown no less! And then there’s the moment. This moment will be replayed as one of Canada’s proudest moments until the end of time. Our golden boy – our star who did absolutely NOTHING to contribute to the Canadian Olympic Hockey Team for 2010 – Sidney Crosby finds himself in the most opportunistic position and just pops that puck into the back of the USA net to win us the gold medal. There’s a YouTube video that came out just after the Olympics that year.It was taken from a boat out in False Creek and it was a view of the city.The point wasn’t to watch, it was to listen. What you would hear was the sound of the entire city erupting when that goal was scored. It was magical. More magical than Harry Potter catching his first snitch .I was part of that crowd. I was part of that eruption. I was Vancouver. Even more, I was Canada.
The concept of sports and athleticism has always fascinated me. I could never understand how people would get so wrapped up in the physical. What about all those people who are ridiculously intelligent? We don’t hold an international event every four years to celebrate MENSA, do we?
But I have to say that there is something to be said for what sport does for a community. My favourite memories of Vancouver involve hockey in some way. It’s the one thing that truly unites us. We can all put our cultural and socio-economic differences aside and be part of a team. So perhaps in the end sports do make sense. It encourages comaraderie not only amongst players, but amongst spectators alike. The rules can be taught to everyone down to lowest common denominator which is more than can be said for MENSA.
This being the case, I have made, what I think, is an interesting observation about Melbourne. There are lots of sports teams here (not the observation, Genius) – cricket, soccer, tennis, AFL, rugby – but there doesn’t seem to be that same energy as there is in Vancouver on a big game day. There doesn’t seem to be as much vested in it, but simply the enjoyment of sport itself. The appreciation of athleticism. It’s not at all bad. It’s quite remarkable, in fact. But it makes me wonder – what does bring this city together? What makes people proud to call themselves Melburnian? Or perhaps we just haven’t had a big game day yet and the best is yet to come.
My mum always said India would be different. She would say how wonderful it was to feel part of something or to feel like you belong somewhere. I would always nod as if I understood, but in the end, I had no idea what it felt like to not belong. That’s the brilliant advantage of being Canadian. Don’t tell her I said this, but my mum was right. India was different. It was a strangely personal experience that I thought was going to turn out quite differently. It’s been hard for me to write about what it was like because I don’t know how to explain it. Despite being teased my whole life for being a coconut, I felt more at home in India than I have anywhere else in my life. But I won’t bore you with the details of my feelings. Gross. I will say, though, it has greatly impacted my world view, and I sometimes wonder if all this will normalize. Being in Australia at the moment hasn’t really helped either.
Australia – It’s like America and Canada all smooshed into one! It’s a wonderfully multi-cultural, but surprisingly racially segregated (by choice – no Jim Crow here) place where I can’t say things like, “It’s cuz I’m brown, isn’t it?” because apparently, it is because I’m brown. Having been here for a month, I have to say, Melbourne has a beautiful charm. A friend keeps comparing this city to Montreal, and though I have vehemently disagreed in the past, I’m starting to see her p.o.v. Aside from the early bedtime, Melbourne is quite artsy. And the colonial architecture is quite gorgeous. We got shortchanged, Vancity. The city is full of great (and expensive…if you’re still unemployed as I am) eateries, and charming watering holes. There’s always somewhere new to go, and thus no need to go anywhere twice. Considering how far away Australia is from…well everything, it’s wonderful to see Melbourne’s appreciation for authenticity. Mind you, the poutine still needs some work. But in the end, this is not Canada, and I must say, I’ve never appreciated our “salad bowl” approach to multiculturalism until now. But I can’t blame Australia for my malaise. Only India can take the credit for that, a country that changes the lives of all who visit. Indian or not.
I’ve had a few stressful drives in my life and this was definitely on the list. I’m jammed into a jeep with 11 other people barreling down the mountain side from Darjeeling. This is not a ride for those who get car sick. But we’re ok. We arrive in Siliguri well in time to catch out train to Kolkata. But how to get to the train station? Timed perfectly, as usual, a motor rickshaw pulls up.
“20 rupees (40 cents)”
Shit. He just drove off. I guess 20 is a fair price. And so we start walking in the direction of the station, but one of my friend’s has found a cycle rickshaw who will take us for 20 rupees total. We can’t fit all on one rickshaw and once again, as if they can sense it, a 2nd rickshaw pulls up.
“Whole rickshaw to the train station 20 rupees?”
He bobbles his head.
“He bobbled his head.”
“What does that mean??”
“I think it means yes. Let’s go.”
“Does it though? I mean it looks like yes and no…”
We pile into both rickshaws, backpacks and all, and begin what turns out to be a very long and uncomfortable 20 minute cycle rickshaw ride to NJP Junction. We dismount awkwardly.
“200 rupees ($4).”
“Did he just say 200 rps? is he out of his mind?”
“That fucking bobble head.”
And so the argument begins. You said 20. But that was to the market. We took you to the station. Yes, we only wanted to go to the station. We never said market.
And now crowd is forming. Suddenly there are 10 people standing around us. In India, disputes are a type of sport. Everyone puts their 2 cents worth in and in this case, many had an opinion.
We offer both drivers 50 rupees ($1). They’ve dropped their fee to 100 rps, but even then, it’s highway robbery. The spectators have also begun to chime in agreeing with us. The fact of the matter is, you can’t agree to 20 and then ask for 200. “Give them each 50 and walk away” We thank the spectators and start heading inside, but oddly enough the crowd doesn’t dissipate. There’s a moral issue on the table. How do we treat tourists? For many, tourists are viewed as rich so what’s the big deal if you extort them a little? It’s only a couple of dollars to them. But like everything else it’s relative. My supposed wealth has to last me quite a long time and it’s not being replenished. But after visiting Kolkata, our state of poverty and wealth is astronomically different in comparison. 3000 people live in the city landfill. They spend their days digging thru the mounds of trash searching for the ever valuable plastic. If they are lucky, they’ll find the thicker variety which will yield them a higher selling price. In a small village on an island in the Bay of Bengal, women in saris drag nets behind them during the cooler hours searching for baby shrimp. They empty their nets into bowls and watch for movement as the shrimp are thread-like and barely visible.One lady brought over a bowl and showed us the shrimp. She only had two. Each will only earn her 2 rupees a piece and those took her an hour to catch. Four rupees per hour. 7 cents. If she collects a full kilo, she will get 150 rupees. IF.
In the end, can you blame them for trying to get a little extra? It’s not right, but if God forgot about you, would you care about right and wrong?
I’m sure many of you have heard me make a comment about me being brown. It’s practically my tag line. I’m of the mind that I would rather embrace our differences than mute them or brush them under the rug. But back home, my offhand comments are often shocking. While traveling, however, race is something that is ever prevalent and must be acknowledged in order to understand how you’re being perceived.
Where do you come from? A question even us Vancouverites ask when we meet tourists. My answer is always Canada. But no one ever believes me.
Where do you really come from?
No really. I come from Canada. In fact, in Morocco, the immigration agent wouldn’t stamp my passport with my exit visa until I told him where my father was born! The perception of North America is that everyone is white. If you’re of colour, you are an immigrant regardless of the fact that immigration is beyond its first generation.
For myself, I’ve come to terms with this commentary. It’s no longer unusual. In the end it’s about perceptions. And also, it can be about taking advantages. I am traveling with two white girls and in Cambodia both, one more than the other, received quite a bit of unwanted attention. But I barely got a second glance. In fact, in Battambang, we were at the market for our cooking class and a whole gaggle of older women started pointing at me and talking to each other. I asked our instructor what they were saying and he said they think I look part Cambodian, part European, and part Indian. At least they got one part right.
In Morocco I was quite popular mainly because Bollywood is huge there. In Thailand I again get overlooked and in Tanzania there are so many gujaratis, there was no fascination in me. If anything, my race has been a blessing when traveling because it allows me to go by unnoticed. I can explore without being harassed too much and I don’t feel like I need to cover up further or alter my behaviour. For a change, I’m the majority and it’s kind of nice!