The Eternal City

20130904_031826

We left Switzeland behind with both bags and people a bit heavier for the numerous kgs of cheese contained within and set off to explore the Eternal City – Rome.

We were generously hosted by Fr. John at the Marist International Theologate which provided a perfect base for setting forth exploring the streets and Churches of Rome. Fr. John was our guide and in line with true Roman priorities, brought us home to a delicious lunch each day.

20130904_181317

I’ve dreamt of going to Rome for years, and friends are always surprised that I’ve never before made it there on my travels, but I hadn’t quite counted on the particular way we experienced Rome, through the eyes of our two and half year old Felicity. For example in the Church of John Lateran, explaining the 12 statues that flank the main body of the chuch…F:”Who is that one?” A:”Thats Peter, Jesus’s friend. He was a fisherman” F:”Why is he here?” A:”He’s here because he was a good friend of Jesus… look what he has in his hands”. F:”KEYS! Were they keys to Jesus’ house?” A:”…ah..yes. I guess so”

San Pietro

We’d usually spend the mornings our and about together, return for lunch and I’d often set out again for an afternoon trip leaving Nuala to rest. One such trip took Felicity and myself to St. Mary Major.

Felicity playing in the "little houses"

Taking the train to “Collosseo” was as surreal as taking a train to Giza to see the Pyramids. The sight of it coming up out of the subway was stunning!

Look, no people!

Feliciy loved the Colosseum though some of the explanations of what transpired within had to be creatively adjusted to suit her definition of ‘pounce’ which to her means what her soft-toy animals to while playing with eachother…The secret tunnels for the animals to hide

F:”What are those places for?” A:”er.. those were for the animals to hide.” F: Did the animals pounce on eachother and the people?” A:”thats right”. F:”And then what happened?” A:”Then, when it was lunchtime, everyone had something to eat” F:”After lunch did they all have gelato?” A:”er…maybe… if their mama or dada said they could…”

Afternoon Gelato

Gelato after a hard afterno0n’s exploring the Roman Forum or another amazing church became standard issue for adventures with dada.

Sheepy and Felicity at the end of the Forum

Apparently Sheepy’s favourite part was the Forum… perhaps he knew the grizzly truth about the Collosseum. We left the best for last spending the morning of our last day exploring St. Peter’s Basilica. Finally making it to the Vatican at a time of great expectation and hope, brought by Pope Francis felt so much like coming home despite never having been there before. Vatican

The last night in Rome happened to be the night Pope Francis called a vigil of prayer for peace in Syria, as the US considered a military strike. I couldn’t resist attending and probably stayed a few hours too long that was sinsible given our departure from Rome the following day.

 

Switzerland

Nuala’s navigating and Andrew’s driving on the right (wrong) side of the road eventually got us to Zetzikon – fairly much the opposite of Singapore! We spent three days enjoying the hospitality of Roland, Ursula and Muriel – eating delicious cheese, salami and bread and going for long quiet walks in the countryside to meet all the various neighbourhood farm animals.

20130820_224800

20130821_213256

A day trip to Stein-an-Rhine was majestically peaceful

20130822_153802

Next stop was Leistal to see the Waldhausers – Stefan, Karen and the twins Livia and Rocco. Andrew went ahead with Felicity while Nuala spent a night in Zurich to catch up with Sabrina and Sven. It was the first of many more dada-daughter adventures to come! The kids were all due on the same date – 05 Jan 2011 so they’re close enough in age to be simultaneously delightful and devilish to eachother and the parents.

20130825_004250

20130826_185430

Naturally visiting one’s former boss is not without it’s risks. “Ok Andrew – today we’ll be improving the sand pit that I hastily built so that it’s actually good. And so that the cat’s don’t get in”. A few hours later…

20130826_225457

After cleaning the windows of Stefan’s neighbors (for an un-disclosed fee that I’ve yet to see any share of) it was time to resume the holiday by visting Felicity’s cousin Carter and his parents in Laussane.

20130830_194955

It was lovely to explore the city of Lausanne and surrounds with John, Holly and Carter – planning a day with two kids’ needs was good practice for the months ahead.

20130901_003728

Unbeknownst to most of us, Dad had secretly plotted a vist to Europe while we were in Lausanne. Felicity and I went off to the playground and returned with Dad – all the way from Australia! Once we got over the shock it was onto grandfatherly duties.

Thi20130902_185558

It was during our visit that Carter began trying out solid food. So Felicity was happy to share some of her favourite combinations with him. Watermellon and Hummus anyone? Carter rightfully looks terrified.

20130902_195643

There was plenty of sharing of toys and telling of stories – the cousins really did get along well. By the end of August, once we’d had our fill of Salami, Bread and Cheese, it was time to return the rental car… and the cousin.

20130902_201653

 

European Adventure

With our second bundle of joy arriving at the end of the year, a European Summer adventure to see some old friends was is order – a nice break from the hectic schedule of working life in Singapore.Felicity was a fantastic traveller and either entertained herself or slept her way from Singapore to Doha.

 

First experience of in-flight entertainemnt

Economy class flat bed

5 hours sleep at a hotel in Doha worked wonders, and we’re all set for the next leg to Zurich

Ready for round 2

Graduation

Back in 2009, a few folk here in Ranong dreamed that Burmese migrants here, cut off from almost every aspect of the modern world, could get a university qualification. It was just a dream. Seeing the Australian Catholic University (ACU)’s Thai-Burma border refugee programme in action in the north of Thailand, gave this dream some hope of fulfillment.

ACU provides students from Myanmar who have been displaced from their country, and therefore excluded from any opportunity for higher education, the opportunity to gain an ACU diploma.  Courses are taught by professors from Universities in Australia, the USA and Canada – usually through various online learning tools, but sometimes in person in Ranong.  The invitation to be the on-site tutors for this programme that brought us back to Ranong in 2010.

It seems like ages ago, we arrived here – just the two of us with the third one safely stowed in Nuala’s belly. Our students we excited, nervous and apprehensive.

It seems like a limetime ago (indeed it was almost Felicity’s whole lifetime ago!) that we were just starting out- and now here we all were, getting all dressed up for graduation!

Though several of the students are actually older than us, we did feel a bit like proud parents getting ready to accompany our little charges on that final step out of our care. Filled with joy and pride, of course but with a hint of sadness and a twinge of relief that there weren’t any calamities on our watch!

With a cohort of professors from ACU in Sydney leading the way, we gleefully joined the ranks of the ‘important people’ on stage. I’m pretty sure that I, with my lowly single undergrad degree, am the least qualified person to have ever been clad in the regal garb of university academic staff.

The highlight for most of the 200-strong crowd in attendance was, unsurprisingly, my speech. I used this final opportunity to lecture the students on the significance of their achievement by using an analogy they could all understand – a building. I reminded them that while their Diploma was the foundation for their families’ and communities’ future, the strength of the foundation came from the ground on which it was built – their values, their culture, their faith.

For me, however, the highlight was unquestionably the graduate speech delivered powerfully by Francis.  He spoke with a wonderfully strong and simple gratefulness for the gift of education he had received. He talked of his determination to use his skills, talents and energy to serve the young people of Burma. Most striking of all, he spoke like a man who had learnt so much, that he realized how much he still has to learn and was excited about it.

As joyful and satisfying as it was to see our students graduate and make their plans for their next few steps in life, it was just a bit sad to see our motley gang scatter down the various paths they have chosen. We’re not sure about our own plans for the new year, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we see our old students again back in Burma or beyond.

A building project!

Marist Mission Ranong or MMR as it’s usually called, has been around for a few years now. Those who have been following this blog, will know something about our basic education, community building, HIV/AIDS and now tertiary education programmes. From the most precarious of beginnings – a couple of Marists turning up on a bus following rumours and whispers of silent suffering – through tumultuous and dangerous growth pains we are now a somewhat stable wee mission here on the Thai-Burma border. Some, most notably the founding director Fr. John Larsen, might say that stability is a weakness. It is by existing in the same precarious position in society as the most vulnerable migrants that we can truly relate to them, be present with them and minister to them. Others might argue that stability is the consequence of competence and the precursor for solid partnerships and authentic dependability.

For years, we struggled to find facilities for rapidly evolving programmes, that responded to the ever increasing needs we were discovering. An old apartment for a classroom, a former brothel for a house, an old factory for a community centre; the disused upper room for a Kindergarten. Each new facility was a huge blessing because despite what it was not, it was a space to gather, learn, help and befriend.

Through all these years, we’ve all dreamed of having a place to call our own – a centre where we would be safe. Somewhere the kids would be safe, and could play, where people could walk from their houses or take the local public jeeps, somewhere we could have a simple shelter for AIDS patients driven from their homes, somewhere where each of us – Burmese, Thai, Italian, Filipino or Kiwi – could call home in Ranong.

With most dreams, you usually need an engineer and a pile of money if you actually want to realise them. So it was in our case. After years of dreaming and talking, we finally decided to buy some land and look for money to build a building.

Since I was naturally the right person for be in charge of all things building related, I took on several new roles – Project Manager, Property Expert, Project Engineer, Architect, Site planner, Programme Manager, Chief Fundraiser and Financial Manager. I set about working out what our requirements actually are and will be in 10-15 years time – from there how much space we needed for everything and from there how big a site we needed. Once a small football field was included, I calculated we needed at least 2,400m².

In January we purchased a plot of land 3,200m². Then we got round to planning our spaces and designing our building.

Fortunately I’ve had the priviledge of working with some of the finest building professionals Wellington has to offer and that experience gave me the confidence to do this on my own. Now while it might have seemed that I found those endless discussions about ceilings, solar shading, daylight penetration, thermal mass, acoustic insulation, stair widths, landings, roof drainage, space connectivity, security perimeters, pedestrian flow, toilet door locations, cost escalation, flooding risk and goods access (to name a few) a bit boring, I was actually surreptitiously paying attention and squirreling away useful bits of advice in case I found myself in my current predicament.

If it is true that a little knowledge is dangerous, then this building could be a giant hazard… with my name on it.

But never fear, I only did the space planning and left the structural design to a local professional firm. It may be comforting (or not) to know that the engineer in charge actually has a day job as a local government building inspector, but moonlights as an independent structural engineer/designer. I wonder if he gets round to inspecting those buildings he’s supposed to…

Anyway with the design done, we tendered it to three builders and fortunately we were filled with confidence by the one with the lowest price. The current state of affairs is we have a draft contract with staged completion targets and matching payment installments. We’ve secured roughly 75% of the funding we need, but we’re still short of some €50,000.

Now, as those of you in NZ reach for your cheque book or the phone number of a generous corporate sponsor, you may want to hold fire for a little while. Nuala is working on an application for charitable status with the NZ Charities Commission. If this is successful, we will be able to issue receipts for your donations that are then tax-deductible.

It’s been an surreal journey to date – from the calculations on space and area at the very beginning, through to looking a detailed plans and contracts now. We’ve got the crucial hurdle of finding the rest of the money (we’re working on a number of options) before we can celebrate  the first massive milestone – signing the contract.

I’ll end by saying that in all seriousness, if you do want to contribute in any way – donate a classroom, a toilet, the roof, the rainwater tanks, the lights whatever, do get in touch. I’m sure it will be possible and I’m absolutely sure it will be appreciated.

Red pill, blue pill

Those of us for whom The Matrix was a formative movie will clearly remember the stark choice presented to Neo by Morpheus. Take the blue

pill and you go to sleep and believe whatever you want to believe. Take the red pill and you find out how far from reality the life you lead actually is.

This image in many ways captures the essence of experience of going back to NZ and Australia on a holiday for Christmas. (Ok – it’s been a while, and we’ve been pretty busy doing some interesting things – see the upcoming post for more details).

We’d been in Ranong for over a year by the time we left and we really did feel exhausted. We were tired of struggling with language, not being understood, having to suspect all other road users of being suicidal, having to battle with stray dogs, having to massacre mosquitoes before they did the same to us, not know when the water in our taps would stop or when some of our friends would be beaten or arrested. It was time for a blue pill.  Our trip to NZ and OZ was like returning to a favorite dream. We saw our friends and family, we had running water, we spoke to strangers and they understood us, we had carpet under our feet, we drank the tap water, we had no bureaucratic battles, we walked to the park(!!), we used the park, and people followed the traffic rules.

While being back in NZ was blissful, getting there was about as traumatic as Neo’s journey. Having your mind unplugged from the matrix and then having your body flushed down a sewer only to be retrieved by a giant mechanical claw and then skewered with a thousand needles is similar to taking our little 9 month old explorer on the two-day journey from Ranong to Auckland. A six hour drive, a night in a hotel, an immigration crisis, holding up the plane, sprinting for said plane, 7 hours in an airport and and then a 10 hour flight was simply too much for the curious little mind that wanted to explore everything. There were of course moments of delight mixed in with long periods of despair and desperation as we found out that it IS possible for a child to scream for 7 and a half hours of a 10 hour flight.

At about this point, comparisons with the Matrix end. While Neo’s blue pill would have led him to work in an IT firm (ewww…) ours led us into the waiting arms of hospitality – to name just a few: Linda and Dave Devaney, Cath and Phil in Auckland, Michael and Susanna VanGulik in Wellington, Dan and Rebekah Siave in Wellington, the McKeevers in Hastings (including loan of the car!), Karen in Auckland and the Moraeses in Sydney

Note: Those of you living in Australia, NZ or other developed countries, please don’t go taking pills (red or otherwise, literally or not) for the sake of it! I’m not saying your life is not real to you. This blog is only an expression of our experience.

Like any post-modern movie, the Matrix does not offer any moral commentary on which choice of pill is right. For us, when it was time to return to Ranong, we were certainly ready to take the red pill -to return (at least for a while) to a life that is closer to the reality of life for most people on earth. Life without footpaths, lawns, friends who speak your language, running water, road rules, sensible bureaucracy and basic legal protections  is just normal for most earthlings. Many people who reacted to our stories of  life here seemed to think that this was  a heroic hardship to endure, but it’s no more than a few small steps alongside the poor, vulnerable, ordinary, or in other words, majority of people, which as Marist Missionaries, is at the core of what we’re called to.

My stay-at-home Dada

Dada doesn’t like lawyers. He doesn’t believe in the UN and thinks Democracy is overrated. So Mama and Dada decided that it was better for mama to tutor the new course “International law and Human Rights”. This meant that Dada looked after me all day for about 10 days, and then half day for the next six weeks.

It was nice to spend some time with Dada – here are some of the special things about my stay-at-home dada:

  • Dada and I do a lot of counting – he always teaches me to start from zero because it’s a very important number. He says Asians first discovered zero a long time ago and Europeans didn’t know about zero for a long time untill the Arabs taught them about it. He says I’m part Asian and I live in Asia so I should know about zero.

Dada lets me share his clothes

  • Dada and I do flying exercises together. I lie on his shins and he does ‘crunches’. It looks difficult but dada says he needs to do them or his tum will look like his dada’s.
 

Teddy loves going to the park

  • Dada teaches me how to ride an elephant. Dada is the elephant and I’m the mahoot. Dada says to hold onto his hand but I’m the mahoot and I know that the elephant goes faster if I pull the ears or the hair.
  • Dada and I also explore mama’s tomato plants. He lets me pull the leaves and play with them but we have to clean up before mama comes home or we’ll be in trouble.

Bucket bath to cool down

  • If I’m good during the week, then dada gives me a few fingers of beer. He dips his pinky in beer and I get to slurp it off! Yummy. It’s OK but I can’t wait to taste NZ beer.

Do I have something on my face?

  • Recently, after dada puts me down for my nap he disappears into the next apartment and when I wake up, he’s covered in sawdust. He says he’s building me a place to play, but he tells other people it’s something called a ‘jail’.
  • My dada often takes me dancing. We do spins, leaps and even dips. It’s a lot of fun but dada say’s he’s tired and we have to stop if I blurt on him.

The playpen that Dada built

Basically dada and I have lots of fun together. I have lots of fun and Dada has lots of fun. Sometimes dada has so much fun that he gets tired. Then he wants to have a nap. After he puts me down for a nap he quickly does all the chores that mama sets for him.

Dada stops me falling off the toilet

One day dada decided that he would have a nap too. He went to sleep and slept and slept and slept. He didn’t wake up when it was time for me to get up. He didn’t wake up when it was time for me to have some mama-milk from my cup. He didn’t wake up when it was time to take me to mama for a feed. He didn’t wake up when mama phoned him to see where he was… the first time, the second time or any of the next 5 times.

Mama and dada doing the sign for 'cow'

When I woke up after my big big sleep, I called out to dada and he came. He looked a bit sleepy. Then he looked at the watch and his phone and he got that look on his face when he’s in trouble with mama. Mama  rushed home when there was no response from dada and was happy to see us both, but she gave dada one of those looks that she never gives me… I don’t know what it means.

A message for my dada

It’s fun having dada around so much – I think he likes it too. But he often says that he can only be a good dada because mama is such a good mama and a great wife.

Finally, I have to say…. GO THE ALL BLACKS! We watched the matches in a local Australian pub. At first I would clap when I saw lots of running, but then dada taught me to clap then the ones in black are running and no one can stop them!

Go the ABs!