A Traveller's Tale - India, Africa and Old Chairman Mao

Friday, Nov 28, 2008 at 18:03

takenbyaliens (Life Member)

Over the years I have been privileged to have traveled to many countries. Below are some tales of my travels. I founded and ran an organisation that held annual international school age sports events and so there are a few references to schools and education but mainly it's about the sorts of things that happened to me. I hope you enjoy it......they are in no particular order....



In seven days……..

It’s Tuesday ( I know this I keep saying to myself )…..and I’m in Beijing. The brain is mush and the body is flogged. 70+ hours ago I woke up in Calgary and I’ve had about eight hours sleep since then and traveled half way around the world and then some…( I know you will wonder what I was doing in Calgary….wait till you see our music event in 2007/8 ).

[ misty fade with harp music here as we drift back in time….]

Saturday….in the final week I will cover close on 40000klms in flights, as much as I have already done in the previous seven weeks. The prospect of what lays ahead ensures an early wake up just after 5.00am. At 10am it’s freezing…3c and snow is predicted for later today and I hope I am out before it. Calgary to Vancouver is about an hour and a half and longer is spent in the airport beforehand going through the endless security checks in operation in North America. US Immigration kicks in at Vancouver and endless hoops get jumped through…..my passport gives me up…why have I been in Malaysia and why am I heading back there…and go there so often ( because I fly Malaysia Airlines and to get anywhere you have to go through KL!! ), who did I meet there, where am I going after Malaysia…..folks, you can see the fear in the eyes…everyone is a potential terrorist…every question no matter how probing must be answered or you go nowhere…fingerprints from left and right forefinger, smile ( no don’t!!! ) for the camera and finally one gets to collect and resubmit the bags checked through from Calgary to Kuala Lumpur as these days no bag gets into US airspace without it being personally deposited and X-rayed…no locks allowed now unless you want to wait around for the X-ray exam ( which is down in the bowels of the terminal and to wait would mean even more time twiddling thumbs ). Wait some more before the flight takes off ( CAD6.19 !! for a dry turkey roll that serves as a late lunch… ‘Buy on Board’ is the spin doctors term for no free food on Air Canada anymore! ).

Hit Los Angeles at 5.51pm ( exactly on schedule to the minute so tight is the scheduling of landing slots at LA airport…if you miss it you can go around in circles for a while waiting for someone else to miss so your plane can grab his !! ). I cannot check in till 9.40pm as the flight goes at 1.40am Sunday. Great time to fly!! I am feeling foul as the antibiotics for the flu I have been battling for the past four days are so powerful that they make you feel sick in the hour before food can be eaten after taking them. Yankees are playing the Red Sox so sit down in McDonalds with my gourmet dinner ( crispy chicken burger USD 3.99 and a Bud light ) and watch the Yankees thrash the Sox 19 – 6. Check in and get to go to the Malaysia Lounge...most airport lounges in LAX have no showers so into the washroom for a face splash, another layer of deodorant and a change of shirt! I run into the guy who was my school captain back in the 60’s!!!

Sunday even before sparrows….somehow I am lucky enough to be randomly chosen for a search by security as I get to the gate for boarding. I have to demonstrate that my computer and mobile phones ( having lost one once in Korea I now carry a spare ) actually work which causes some problem as the spare has a South African SIM card and of course does not work until I swap cards answering the questions as to why I have a foreign SIM card etc……fear in the eyes again! I end up volunteering my hat and sock sizes…they don’t see the joke at all! The flight is full and again what luck…an ‘on the rocks’ Jack Daniels drinking good ol’boy American oil company executive is my seating companion for the 14 hour flight to Taiwan. Having once had the pleasure of a 2 a.m. ‘bath’ at the hands of a similar, I ‘watch my back’ as he drinks and watches movies ( with his light being the only one on in the cabin ! ) for the duration. Needless to say I am the worse for wear when we hit Taipei. An hour and a half on the ground and we set off again for the three and a half hour skip to Kuala Lumpur. Unfortunately my ‘companion’ is going there too…with his newly purchased Taiwan duty free bottles of Jack ( I figure it’s just in case he drinks the plane dry in the next three and a half hours ). Ah…KL…perpetual sweat box…the heat and humidity assault you as you leave the plane. It is 12.15pm Monday and I have a twelve hour layover until my flight to Beijing at 12.30am Tuesday morning. With a criterion of over 12 hours between valid connecting flights, I have qualified for a free hotel room by 15 minutes! …..I have my first shower for 40 hours….some simple pleasures provide ecstasy. Unfortunately my attempts to sleep are fruitless.

Tuesday…the flight load to Beijing is not as tight and I have managed to get the seat next to me ‘blocked’…no traveling companion this time! However this is not a flyer friendly flight. Take off at 12.30am….pretty rough weather and we hit a lot of ‘holes in the road’….by the time they give you a snack etc and clear it all away it is 2.15am. Lights go out only to go on again for breakfast around 4.00am. It is Ramadan and the many Muslims on the flight must have finished eating before imsak ( daybreak ) so we all do.

We hit the deck at Beijing at 6.15am…its 11c and brisk. I get to the Hotel. There is something about the reservation procedure that Chinese hotels do not seem to grasp. You and I know that ‘reserving’ means that they should hold the room you book…for you! It is not just an indication that you are coming! Alas…they appreciate my ‘situation’ but all of the rooms in the category I have booked are occupied already! Face now must be saved….would I be prepared to accept an upgrade?.…entering into the spirit of reconciliation and in order to save maximum face for them, I concede that I would indeed be prepared to accept the best room in the Hotel ….and the deal is done. I get the five times the price executive suite for the price of my normal room….everyone is happy and everyone is happy that everyone is happy. The day passes in a blur punctuated by phone calls as we try to organize contractual documentation to come from Brisbane to Beijing and a mid afternoon meeting. Dinner time…I go for the cheap option and get room service. Dinner arrives and the wok fried vegetables have had to be replaced as I am highly allergic to capsicum ( the aftermath of a bug picked up 5 years ago in South Africa ). I get a plate full of wok fried onions to accompany the grilled chicken!!!! Ah well, I’ll drink the wine that comes with the suite….Chinese wine ( anybody else had Great Wall?? )….had better… but at this stage……………

Wednesday/Thursday I struggle through the next two days of my Beijing itinerary, the body not adapting to the new time zone which is 12 hours different…night is now day and vice versa so 4 hours sleep per night is the norm. Despite a few issues along the way, in just under 8 months of work ( which is quick in Chinese terms ) I am able to finally walk away with a definitive contract for our education venture in Beijing. As well, the new sister event ( China Stars ) set to begin in August 2005 in Beijing, is now being marketed throughout the UK and our Chinese partners will deliver what will be a premium Asia Pacific event over the next five years.

I am able to get out into the area around the hotel during late Tuesday afternoon. Unfortunately my camera is not on board when I see the uniformed official fly swat operator ( uniforms are big…give the person a job and a uniform seems to be the go ) or the fleet of Domino Pizza delivery bicycles. Neither does it capture the sign for ‘The Office of the Leading Group of the Government of the Municipality of Beijing for the Collection of Data for the National Economic Census’ or the ‘Beijing Goodfull Photography Enterprise’….nor ‘China Contemporary New Style Car Rental Company’ or even the ‘Most Excellent Bun Bakery’, the ‘Beautiful Most Respected Watch Company’ or the ‘Italian Kangaroo Quality Leathergoods Shop’ with its logo that looks suspiciously like the Qantas red rat.

My two other evenings in Beijing are taken up with dinners. These ‘eating meetings’ as I call them, are very important in China. Whilst much business is conducted in formal meetings, generally the personal relationships are cemented during these events. As a host on the first night, the choice of dishes must reflect the respect I have for my guests and I must ensure that there is food left as running out of food is something to be avoided. ( Also, as a guest, and no matter how hungry you are, one would ensure that not all was eaten as it would embarrass the host . ) The balance of hot and cold dishes, of vegetable and a variety of meat ( chicken, beef, pork ) and seafood dishes is important so I spend some time prior to the event selecting what will be served. Peking duck is a signature dish and so it gets chosen as the centre piece of the dinner. I defer to my guests and offer them the split head with its delicacies of tongue and brains. In comparison to eating at an Australian restaurant, the evening is very cheap as food is inexpensive in China.

My final official engagement is as guest at a dinner with the people from the other one of our partners in Beijing. Cold pickled jellyfish and garlic ( a ‘must have’ dish at the particular restaurant ), braised beef tongue and vegetables, camphor wood smoked duck breast with fragrant tea leaves, wok fried goose head and web ( passed on that ), honeycomb tripe and of course Peking Duck….and a beer to help it all go down. Actually a darn good meal!

Friday…A final meeting and then head to the airport at 12.30pm. I have been given a brilliant bottle of wine and have made a fatal mistake...I try to take it on in my hand luggage. This cannot be done I am told by the very officious customs officer...they cannot tell what is in the bottle. My argument that I can buy wine 20 metres away fails “ Chinese regulations forbid...”...so does the fact that had I put it in my checked luggage it would have been OK...but how, I ask, would you have known what was in it??...”Chinese regulations forbid.....” We go around in circles but alas I have to surrender it. It joins, under her counter, an array of other fine wines and spirits sacrificed by other poor suckers...so I go back to the counter, knowing that it will probably end up on someone else’s table, I empty the bottle into the nearby bin. And by the way, I was not the first to do so...some petty satisfaction at least! Arrive at 11.00pm in Kuala Lumpur.

Saturday... my 53rd day on the road ( South Africa, UK and Ireland, Canada, China ). Check in at the airport at 7.00am…. A few hours wait before boarding and another 8+ hours on a totally full plane to get home. Touch down around 7.00pm... “ Finally...” I say, as there is always a sense of great relief as I realise that after such a marathon I have made it home again safe and sound.

It will take me a few days to readjust the body clock as I have zipped in and out of so many time zones in the past six days. I will, as usual, wake up in the night wondering just which hotel room I am in..........



The Weary Traveler and the Indian enigma……….

I am on a midnight Friday flight from Dar Es Salaam heading back to Mumbai. I arrived in Tanzania late afternoon Wednesday and after cleverly selecting the slowest line at immigration lost a kilo in the 34C non air-conditioned arrival hall. Three planes arrived at once ( what luck hey? ) and I somehow managed to be the absolute last one through!

So what is he doing in Dar Es Salaam I hear you ask? I set off with the intention of meeting Filbert Bayi ( do a Google search – hint.. World record holder ) of the National Olympic Committee/ Commonwealth Games Committee and the presidents of the national netball ( coincidently Anna Bayi, Filbert’s wife ) and soccer. In the end not only did I do that but ended up meeting the President of Tanzania, H.E. President Papa Benjamin Mkapa at the inauguration of the Filbert Bayi Secondary School some 50klms up country in Kibaha. Thursday turned out to be a 12hr day in temperatures of 35+C. No air-conditioning folks and no breeze either…and if it is possible to have 99% humidity without rain then that’s what it was!!! Could not eat the food either…damm but it looked good!!! The First Lady, H.E. Mama Anne Mkapa also just happens to be the Patron of Tanzania Netball…so the fix is in! We will see Tanzanian teams in the future. And by the way, if you don’t think the World is small…I watched the Brumbies play the Blue Bulls – live in Dar Es Salaam this morning before my final meeting ( at which, as a parting gift I receive a complete Masai outfit ….for my wife ).

I will get into Mumbai at around 0300 Saturday and by the time I get to the Hotel it will be around 0430. I will again see one of the most confronting cities in the World. Without a word of a lie there will be at least 2% of Mumbai’s population sleeping on the footpaths or in the open…..Mumbai has a population of 13 million so I will let you figure that out. I am glad I leave for Delhi early on Sunday morning because I truly find Mumbai almost too much for me.

And so to Delhi where I have 10 schools to visit in four days….it may not sound like much but traveling time in India is more than one would expect…..it took five hours the other day to go to a meeting and back in Mumbai. OK, so we did rear end a three wheeler tuk-tuk on the way which did stop us for all of five minutes as we explained that my sitting in the back seat meant I had no control over the driving of the car and I would not be paying ‘compensation’ to the tuk-tuk driver! Significantly however the Mumbai meeting was with a Dr A F Pinto ( another Google search readers ) who runs 76 schools, around 200000 students and 8000 teachers. The schools I am visiting in Delhi are part of this group. We will see Indian teams in the future!

I am sure you have all read or heard somewhere that India is a land of contrasts. For those who have not been here I would say that that statement falls far short of the mark. India is eclectic!!

It is intriguing and infuriating at the same time….incredibly rich and the unbelievably poor…..spiritual yet unashamedly pragmatic…..compassionate yet intolerant….lax yet officious……unfettered yet enslaved…..at the cutting edge yet caught in the past….

Whilst history is important for any country, India seems somehow entrapped in its past. It is a country where the British Raj has been replaced by an Indian one…where the rich believe that the poor are such because of karma and that “that’s just the way it is”. It drowns in bureaucracy with regulations and forms for almost everything, many of which are either written in such convoluted language or are contradictory.

Ah yes, the language. It is still possible in India ‘to do the needful’…this could range from getting one’s shoes polished to having flowers arranged …and anything in between!! ‘Fructitude’ gets used instead of ‘bearing fruit’, ‘out of station’ instead of ‘out of the office’, ‘out station’ instead of ‘branch office’…and of course ‘nativity certificate’. And it is the land of acronyms…from just the front page of the Indian Times this morning…BSE, BMC, MLA, CM, BSNL, BJP, UGDP, PCC, TOI, CII, FBT, GDP, MEA, PM, JMM, MTNL, TDSAT, RIC, ADC, DoT, FM, LJP, FID, NIIT…you get the picture.

Couples get into heavy petting on the ocean facing boardwalk yet a Pakistani actress who kissed someone on-screen has just been deported. Hindi films contain the most sexually provocative visuals yet on-screen kissing is taboo…the camera always fades away just as……

{ The in flight Hindi movie has just begun ( I am flying Air India after all ) and everyone puts on the headphones. I have already seen it on the way in…..half the plane ( including me??! ) were wiping tears away….it’s just the ‘spontaneous’ singing and dancing you have to get used to…try one, it’s fun! }

Whist Bangalore swarms with tuk-tuks, Mumbai is alive with yellow top taxis. They are old and worn…repaired and held together by what I don’t know but nevertheless loved by their live - in owners ( truly ) who spend much time trying to polish off the paint! Favourite trick? Wear the tyres and then re-cut the tread, then the next time retread, then re-cut and so on! Taxis ( and in fact all cars, buses and trucks in India ) go faster the more the horn gets sounded…this of course means the slower you go the more noise that gets made. There is also, it seems, some form of competition for the loudest.

Indian IT companies ( the Indian silicon valley is Bangalore ) are at the forefront with seemingly limitless graduates being turned out on the employment market…multi nationals, ever the sharks, have a feeding frenzy as graduates are desperate for jobs and willing to work for low salaries.

I once read that there are more millionaires in India than people in Australia. This would not surprise me as the lifestyle demands an extraordinary degree of entrepreneurship from the lowliest shoe cleaner or rag picker ( who by the way recycle 15% of Mumbai waste ) to the loftiest businessman. If there is an angle an Indian will find it, if there is a deal an Indian will close it, if there is any money to be made an Indian will make it!!

Consequently the envelope gets stretched. Oft times there is scant regard for a range of safeguards that we take for granted. There is currently great concern here about food adulteration….little stuff like ground up bricks in the chilli powder, machine oil in the cooking oil, flour in milk powder, vegetables, especially of the pickled variety, coloured with carcinogenic and banned dyes…the list of confirmed occurrences was extensive.

Also consequently, much business runs on an ad hoc basis. Whilst this means minimal levels of planning it also creates an advantage…Indian firms can and do react quickly to new concepts and ideas. On many occasions however the company infrastructure is lacking.

In fact, the reality is that the country’s infrastructure is burdened and crumbling under the incredible press of humanity. There was an article in the paper the other day that says that by 2010 India will have the world’s biggest population. This issue above all else is India’s challenge. Whilst fertility is high, infantile death remains staggering. Literacy rates, particularly among females, are low and lag well behind places like China and Sri Lanka. The poverty of millions is crushing and their living conditions are indescribable. I do not photograph this as all they have is some dignity and I cannot bring myself to remove that one element of humanity….

Don’t ask me about Indian politics…I still cannot figure it out yet. There are parties but it seems that one can join and exit at will, make and break alliances at the drop of a hat and …it’s totally confusing…and even the Indians will tell you there always seems to be a whiff of corruption around somewhere. It must be the only country I have visited so far where convicted multi murderers are not only allowed to run for Parliament ( from in jail ) but they get elected!! Go figure! Of course, the cynical would say that the problem with democracies the world over is that politicians always get elected!!

Now don’t think for the moment that I dislike India ( or any country for that matter )…quite the opposite. It is just that one needs to view things from a different perspective…put away cultural hegemony. It is not a western country...never has been and never will be. It will always be different…unique…and that’s how it should be…that is the beauty of the World and the challenge for us as educators is to make sure our boys understand this.

After all, what would an Indian visitor think about Australia? Now have a think about that!!



An African Odessey
From Africa:

Well it’s just 1 hour away from the start of the Rugby World Cup and South Africa is a nation possessed! Is there anyone else in this event?? It would appear that they will win in a walkover!! I bite my tongue…what about the Kiwis, Les Blues…and the Wallabies???? We shall indeed see over the next few weeks.

Yes, South Africa…a blend of the new and the traditional. Let me exemplify. On Monday two women teachers in KwaZulu Natal were burnt to death on their school oval for bewitching the senior students. This was, of course, an attempt by the teachers to ensure students got lower grades in their exams. You may very well say that this was students who had done no work trying to blame in advance the teachers. Well, the parliamentary member of the education portfolio had this view… “ Many people make mistakes with witchcraft claims but that does not mean they should be killed. These women could have been innocent”. You see several cases of bewitching had been reported in the province in recent years and similar burnings had taken place last year. Teachers were even using witchcraft against each other to ensure their students got better results!.

Example two. The other night I took a group of senior rugby officials out to dinner. Sitting next to me was…I will call him Neville. Now Neville expounded to me his ( Zulu ) view of manhood etc. A man could have many wives as long as they could be afforded…this is the traditional view ( and the King of the Zulus is up to about 15 and counting ). “Ah” said I jokingly, “and how many do you have?” “ Oh five” said Neville. Neville has indeed five houses occupied with wives and children whom he sees on a rotational basis…every five weeks he sees each wife for a week. Neville is no macho guy…in fact he is far from it but you see, it is his ‘right’ and ‘duty’ as a man to do this. Now I do need to say that this is not common amongst the people I know here…in fact my Pastor friend ( and member of the SARU Council ) sitting next to him was quite surprised to hear this news for the first time as were my other guests ( who thought they knew Neville!!! ). However, it was accepted as this was acceptable practice within Zulu culture and no one was judgemental ( just amazed at this little guy sitting next to me!! ). ( I just hope Neville was not relying upon any of the 12.5 million faulty Zalatex condoms that had been released onto unsuspecting people after a hefty bribe had been paid to get them through the quality assurance checks at the SA Bureau of Standards. )

Before this dinner I had attended a function to launch the talent ID week and carnival at the Sharks and to signal the departure of an Under 14 rugby team to tour France ( all black and coloured boys and 2 girls – yep they play with the boys!! ). I was surprised when I ended up getting announced at the function as the special guest and was then presented to the audience. The Sports Minister detailed how I had given a young Zulu boy a scholarship to my school and how he was the first ever person to get one. I remember going around 8 years ago with the guy who is the Manager of Transformation, visiting all the private schools in KwaZulu Natal trying to convince them to give scholarships to black and coloured kids with talent. They were not interested. Things have certainly changed. Last year 30 boys got scholarships to those very schools, and 36 the year before!

As usual, I have not been able to escape my normal range of disasters. On arrival at the hotel, after two successive midnight flights, I managed to lock the keys of the Mercedes in the boot. ( Yes I know, how stupid am I? ) Try getting someone to come out to you at 8.00am on a Sunday morning! The first room I was put in was an oven…simply because the air conditioning did not work. “ Ah yes, we had to move the previous guest out”. “ Doh, why did you put me in there then??” And then came the mystery midnight visitor.

One thing you don’t want here is a room ‘visitor’. I can remember the first time I was about to come here and being told by the then CEO of Brisbane Marketing how they had been robbed in the very hotel that I was about to stay in. Well nine years on I had someone through the door at midnight! Very, very, frightening. I yelled! LOUD! “Housekeeping” was the reply followed by a very quick exit. Interestingly no record of the use of any known hotel key could be found when the door lock was interrogated ( high tech stuff here )…or so the hotel said. Could they explain it? No. Happy boy??? Not at all.

Well it is nearly two weeks since I wrote that first bit and much has happened. It has indeed been hectic. The day after the dinner with Neville I set off for a quick clip through KwaZulu Natal…well not all of it but after 600 klms and four appointments many klms apart added in, the 13 hour day ‘on the road’ was a killer. That night I got hit with the ‘bug’ for the first time. I think the hotel is jinxed as it has happened here before. Needless to say it was also a day I had to fly! Two noroflacin and several Imodium later I managed to get onto the plane to Cape Town. Unpleasant to say the least.

Like all SA cities Cape town is one of contrasts. On the one hand the ‘haves’, the other hand the ‘have nots’. The schools I visit reflect this. Bridge House has 500 students, entirely funded by fees and donations, with a staff student ratio better than my school. Immaculate grounds set in the country with views to the mountains…idyllic one would say. Reddam House is the school for the yuppie children. Oh so proper too. On the other hand Princeton High is in the middle of Mitchell’s Plain…barbed wire, armed security, 1000 students and less than 30 staff! Gangs, guns and ganja! And so it is for Proteus High in Atlantis. And many other schools. However there are glimmers of hope and some wonderful people working to change things. Princeton’s principal is actually on secondment….he is a Mr Fixit. He is actually the principal of Spine Road High also on the Plains. His contribution?….a magnificent sports centre/hall big enough to play tennis in and then some….meeting rooms, offices, resource centre, gymnasium, stage. It is huge! And all funded by selling copy paper! Container loads of it that he imported from China and sold at twice what he paid but still way under the going rate around town. Over 3,000,000 Rands worth of paper! What a guy! Riyaadh Najaar take a bow!

Many schools, many meetings and many klms. A second bout of the bug, much, much worse than the first just five days before lays me lower than low for a day and causes shifting and rescheduling of meetings…even busier as a result.

Tears everywhere at the presentation of my gift of 30000 Rand worth of instruments to Heathfield High. The kids were stunned…well everyone was really. A braai ( BBQ ) with them the next night turns out to be simply wonderful….they relive the excitement of the tour and their parents bask in the knowledge that they have done something special for their kids. ( oh and of course we watch the Boks on the TV...a very late night indeed makes for a wary return journey through some dicey areas at night! ). And suddenly the days have gone.

So the Boks have demolished England at the Rugby World Cup and in the Twenty20 Cricket World Cup too. Joy around the country. They will win everything! Bring on the dog sled race to the North Pole!!

Quite frankly I was a bit leery of this Twenty20 game. I was lucky enough ( or is that unlucky ) to be at the game Australia v Zimbabwe and we were woeful….but it seemed like there was a big bit of luck or lack of everywhere. Punter gave the team heaps and they came out two days later and simply were superb against the Poms. Like the Aussie team, I finally figured out how the game should be played. And yes, if you watched the game that was indeed me right in front of Malcolm Speed, Chairman of the ICC in the President’s box…great seats courtesy of a friend who is the President of Cricket South Africa. He and I have a little project going.

It is 4 a.m. and I am in the air yet again heading to Beijing for China Stars. The Japanese man opposite has undertaken a program of callisthenics during the night. I was tempted to strangle him but realised that he would have thought it was another way to exercise. Less than 2 hrs sleep and breakfast is slightly early. It is Ramadan and the many Islamic people must eat before Imsak ( the time for the start of fasting for the day ). Someone dropped a shoe in with the meat and it ended up on my plate. It defies cutting, bashing and probably burning so how can I eat it???

1500 klms to go to Kuala Lumpur…arriving at 0630. I will need to get forty winks ( thirty will have to do actually ) as I have a meeting at the Australian International School at 1000 and back on a plane at 0030 for Beijing, another 6+ hrs in the air and then head into more meetings. Two straight overnight flights flogs you. Ah yes, the circus is back on the road!



Of Schools, elephants and the old Delhi belly….

It’s 1700 and I am sitting here in Delhi airport…well sort of. I fly for Singapore just after 2300 and I have had to check out of my hotel at 1600…Indian efficiency dictates I cannot enter the terminal until 2000…so I have 3 hours sitting in the Visitor’s Lounge across the road ( at a cost of 25 rupees ).

Delhi has been a non stop exercise. The Chairman of the Ryan International Schools organized the week for me and I have to say for that I was grateful. Delhi is huge and is more confusing than a maze. Districts are named but after that areas are split up into colonies…or enclaves…or sectors…or pockets… or any combination of them. Without my driver and a senior administrative officer provided by the organization I would not have found any of the schools.

I met with eight Heads…all women. Very few men teach ( and mostly only physical education ) and thus there are very few male Heads. India is a very male centric society and with teachers being paid poorly ( sound familiar???? ) it is believed that they cannot be the breadwinner/head of the household etc and be a teacher. This situation is justified in many ways but each of them is based on the cultural paradigm in which Indians live. The teachers share the philosophy of their Chairman and the Heads are truly focused on bettering their students.
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The Ryan Schools are big…up to 4500 students with teacher: student ratios as high as 1:40 in some grades. All the schools cater for Montessori to Standard XII….huge buildings on what even we would consider to be a small campus. Despite India’s reputation for leadership in IT, computer: student ratio averaged 1:100. However, worst of all is the examination system in place from yr 6 to yr 12. All schools ( except those doing IB ) are tied into the system. Huge parental and student expectations result in teaching for assessment…remember those days? By the way, all but one Head ( of the 4500 school ) still teach one class and one even coordinates a subject area…I don’t envy them their job. Only the one big school had a designated deputy but all had coordinators of Montessori, Primary and Secondary sections and HODs.

One of the campuses is the site for Ryan’s own teacher training College qualifying up to BEd level. The building will soon be finished and potential teachers will crowd the halls…the Chairman’s philosophy will underpin the courses naturally. One of the other reasons for this venture is that many non Ryan teachers ( due to poor salaries ) spend much time tutoring students out of hours…it is believed by some that perhaps there is a deliberate shortfall in the necessary knowledge presented in class time. ( As a matter of interest, in the Mumbai public schools, all teachers are compelled for no extra pay to give extra tutoring to students. The session for the morning students runs from 0530 – 0700 and for the afternoon students from 1730 – 1900…they have two shifts of students and teachers. )

I have been met by brass bands and flute bands, performed tree planting ceremonies, treated to Tae Kwon Do demonstrations, cultural performances…received around 25 dozen flowers ( no exaggeration trust me ), garlands and sundry gifts ( including a nice collection of Hindi and Punjabi CDs ). Despite pre warning regarding my inability to eat curries etc every school served up spreads with just about everything I could not eat. Promises that ‘this one has nothing in it’ were believed…only to discover that ‘nothing’ meant only half as much chilli as normal.

My nagging doubts about food provenance gained credibility when by Thursday morning I had come down with the dreaded ‘involuntary weight loss program’ ( sometimes known as Delhi Belly )…and still the schools kept feeding me despite my protestations of illness. This was a difficult day. Thursday night saw me ‘go the bomb’…800mg norfloxacin and Imodium. Instant death to bugs!!

There are images of India that one finds hard to forget…

The abject poverty of so many is the foremost. There are 200M households in India ( this I think does not include blue tarp black plastic tents, but it may ) but only 40M have sanitation. I guess the inhabitants of other 160M households were among those I saw using rubbish pits, gardens, streams or other green bodies of water….the site chosen was not influenced by the presence of hundreds of other people, main roads or indeed anything. Children wander the streets begging at traffic lights…lots of them work carrying the dirt that their mother and father dig up. Some make gravel….they literally start with big rocks and break them down to 5/10 cent piece size…how daunting must it be to start on a truckload of rocks! Many have permanent disabilities from birth…having a child when you are this poor and are borderline starving is a difficult process. For so many there is no childhood and indeed they face a life of continuing deprivation and hardship.

The cows on the roads…Delhi swarms with unowned ( i.e. feral ) cows…they sit or stand on the traffic islands or even worse, on the road. They will not move. My driver ( whose favourite driving tool was the horn ) was a distant relative of Michael Schumacher but even he was not able to predict the swinging horned head that removed our left rear view mirror….or for that matter the tuk – tuk into the rear ( yep, got another one! ).

The variety of transport…carts drawn by cows, water buffalo, donkeys and camels, three wheeler motorized tuk-tuks ( did you know that it is possible to fit 11 people in a tuk-tuk?? I’ve seen it! ), bicycle rickshaws carrying people and absolutely huge loads of goods of all descriptions, overloaded buses, trains, trucks ( including truck chasses on their way to the body building factory with people sitting all down the frame )…and finally the elephants…yep, middle of Delhi…I’ve got the photos.

The diversity of the population….turbaned Sikhs ( every Sikh is a Singh but not every Singh is a Sikh ), veiled Muslims, sareed Hindus and then some who hailed from I know not where. Women wearing more gold than you can poke a stick at ( India is the World’s largest consumer of gold and I can believe it )…the busy trade in food offerings outside the temples during the Shivratri festival ( last Tuesday ) and the gold trimmed cloth used to drape the statues.

The bustling streets, shops and markets…most people, having no refrigeration, have to shop daily. The sculptured piles of hand shaped dried cow dung patties still used by many to cook and thus contributing to the heavy Delhi smog….cooking in the open you ask?? Absolutely! The blue tarp and black plastic dwellings fill every available space…as well, big ( and small ) infrastructure projects attract the itinerant workers who set up ‘home’ next to where they work. All these people cook on open fires on the ground outside the tent/structure.

The world’s biggest dump ( ? ) with literally thousands of crows flying overhead and hundreds of people scavenging below. The Delhi fish and chicken markets are just next door! Let me know if you want the address.

The wonderful Hinglish spoken by many and the ‘interesting’ spelling on signs…as well as the wonderful names of shops or companies…the lights that get turned on when you enter a shop…the monkeys and baboons wandering around in the park, or better still, those owned by the entrepreneur who has taught them to dance for tourist photographers ( for a fee of course )…

So I am about to go. Should I buy that wonderful gift…”Barbie Doll…the essence of India”?? Think I’ll settle for the Jacobs Creek ( cheaper here than home!!?? )…

And so that was India…



The Nine Day Sprint….

Sunday 24 April….. I am four days into this trip and I already know definitely that this will be a 9 day sprint…..I have been away since the midnight flight to Kuala Lumpur last Wednesday night…straight off the plane and a quick shower before getting on another one for Beijing to arrive in Beijing at 1700hrs Brisbane time Thursday (1500 Beijing)…17 hrs and a dinner yet to attend and this on the first day!

Dinner was at a famous Beijing noodle restaurant “Lao Beijing Zhajiangmian Guan”. To say it buzzed is well below it…it roared! The waiters ran, chanted, laughed and cajoled, clapped, slid, shouted and jumped….likewise the hundreds of hungry patrons. I decided that night that everyone there must not have eaten that day…put away food!!! I simply ran out of space…but I watched an elderly couple match me and then go some! We ( two people ) went braised pork belly accompanied by lotus sautéed in sugar. Then followed the bok choy and mushroom and also the thinly sliced crumbed beef dish. Having thought this was the end I ate my ludagun ( sweet black bean roll ) and delicious it was too! Then…a mixing bowl full of noodles appeared with assorted accompaniments …sorry folks but three mouthfuls pulled me up! As usual, my Chinese companion had ordered so much food……An after dinner walk helped restore some equanimity to the body.

Friday was meeting day with our Chinese sports partners about our Beijing event and the long term proposals and strategies for the introduction of other sports. That night I hosted the Official Dinner signifying the exchange of contracts for the delivery of English language courses. I could give you another food story but to keep it short….I had selected the Fangshan Imperial Restaurant overlooking Tiananmen Square for the Dinner. It is a very famous restaurant serving Qing Dynasty Imperial food and it did not let us down. Simply superb food in a wonderful setting was supported by much ganbei-ing, small but important speeches and the cementing of what all present hoped will be a meaningful and fruitful relationship for both parties and the students of the respective schools.

Our chief guest has just been elected to a very high position and is in much demand….she in fact went from our dinner to another one that had been organized in the same restaurant for her convenience. Whilst the dinner itself was not long it was tiring as the level of attention and the need to address Chinese protocols and customs keeps one on your toes all night. Crashed into bed at around 2230 knowing that Saturday would begin for me at 0500 as it was Bacui School Open Day and we were one of the main acts…….

The hotel where I stay in Beijing is a very popular venue for conference delegates and the like…this time it was the main hotel for the Johnny Walker Classic. Golfers and Johnny Walker special clients were everywhere and this had a number of consequences. My neighbour for instance entertained a ‘love you long time’ lady for a number of hours…I suspect the higher the price the louder the noise! ( This happened one night on the last trip too but at least this time there was no interconnecting door for them to perform upon! ) Of more significance for me however was the fact that my travelling partner was unable to get a room at the same hotel and so each out and in bound trip meant collecting people at two venues some 25 minutes apart. Being the scholar and gentleman that I am ( we are a dying race! ) I was picked up first and dropped off last….which meant earlier rising and later crash to bed.

My 0700 pickup arrived as usual right on time and so Saturday began. The auditorium soon filled up as all of the parents of prospective new students arrived…..primary through to senior secondary. Whilst our initial group of students is at yr 10 level, the Headmaster Mr. Qiu wanted us to speak to all parents…sowing the seeds for future intakes. Our presentation went over very well and when we went to our special information booth we faced an ongoing queue of people interested not only in the course but, of great surprise to us, greatly interested in sending their children to our school in Brisbane from as early as year seven!

Getting back to the hotel I watched a P.E. session for staff during which they got well and truly flogged…the men in ran around the car park at the same constant fast clip for the best part of an hour whilst the women, dressed in red coat and white trousers performed an hour of calisthenics and double time marching the likes I have not seen since some Nazi party film clips. Brother, these guys were fit!

By the time we had had dinner on Saturday night ( the 115, 074,691st peeking duck at the oldest peeking duck restaurant…1864…in Beijing ) the lure of an early night ( before 2300 ! ) was enhanced by the thought of the 0500 Sunday awakening to get out of the hotel for my flight to Dalian which is on the western coast north of North Korea. Sure enough at 0700 my translator arrived and off we set……

I have just finished a long briefing session with the translator, going over the documents and ensuring she has a complete understanding of the task at hand and my desired outcomes. There is much to discover….situations in China are never what they seem to be….it is like an onion with many layers that need to be peeled off delicately…or one gets burned!

Thursday 28 April …..Dalian was a blur of meetings and school visits to talk to principals and teachers about a project we are considering establishing with Griffith University. Monday and Tuesday nights end around 0100/0200 as we compare Chinese translations of documents to our English versions and I revise proposals following the disclosure under questioning of a whole series of previously unknown but suspected relationships and conditions. We discover the local Invisible Rule (ie what the bribe is ). I get little sleep before venturing back into the fray. An acquaintance of mine arrives in Dalian…a well known Australian Chinese identity who is a major shareholder in the hotel in which we are staying. We have a good laugh over lunch between our meetings and as staff fall over her to be of assistance. ‘I have a weakness for jewelry’ she says…’I couldn’t tell!!’ says I … she is wearing what I reckon is well over a $1M worth of diamonds! She is a wonderful lady and gives several million dollars each year to charities both in Australia and China.………I get under three hours sleep on Tuesday night as again I get noisy neighbours…two gentlemen this time begin entertaining two ladies just as I get into bed at 0230…I call the hotel security but it takes them a half an hour to sort out the situation. Spoilsport?? You bet!! Up at 0545 on Wednesday before a final meeting where I tell the Chinese guys to stuff their under the table payment up their collective you know whats….get involved in this and you are forever in their clutches!!! Fly back to Beijing to tie up some loose ends.

And so to today, Thursday 28th…and what a day! Another early morning as I had a very special appointment. I was collected this morning and taken in the big black car to Mao Zedong’s Mausoleum on Tiananmen Square. Driving across the square and through the side entrance I was met by the senior military officer. ‘Not bad’ says I as I make the pleasantries…. ‘hen gao xing jian dao ni’ ( nice to meet you ) only to be whisked from the side entrance around to the front….where are the crowds?? Looking down I see the 8000 people per hour stopped by security. ‘Are you not open yet?’ asks my translator. ‘We have stopped everyone coming in for your privacy’ says the army guy !! Cameras in the Mausoleum are an absolute no-no…but I am actually invited and allowed to take some pics so obviously the general gets in at least one of them. I get the whole place for at least five to ten minutes…the time around a thousand other visitors take to go past the incredibly well preserved body of Mao. ‘Head of State stuff!’ says the translator. ‘Better’ thinks I…’they would have hangers on everywhere…this is just me!’ The General must have read my thoughts and tells me the exact same thing. Then it’s upstairs for a special reception and tea with the Deputy Director and others and then off to a guided tour of the galleries tracing the lives and achievements of the leaders of China since the revolution. The army guy parts the crowd like Moses at the Red Sea. I am told I am the only westerner so far for about a year that has had anything like these privileges. I get given a bag full of Mao souvenirs on my departure and head back to the Hotel to set off for the airport.

Friday 29 April…Got in to KL at 2330 last night ( 40 mins late….usual late exit out of Beijing ! ) and don’t get to bed until well after midnight. Yet another early rise ( 0545 ) and then onto this plane for Brisbane and will get home late tonight…..I’ve managed under 18 hours sleep since last Monday morning and I am absolutely flogged….shot duck….oh yeah, it’s the high life guys!…..this one has simply been the most exhausting I’ve ever done and for the first time woke up this morning and wondered…….

According to modern astronomers, space is finite..a very comforting thought particularly for people who can never remember where they left things
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