The Dalai Lama is right on: altruism rocks

I should try to sleep but I can’t. It’s 4 AM Vancouver time (where I am now), 6 PM Jakarta time (where I was), and 7 AM Montreal time (where I will be). The plane leaving Hong Kong was delayed an hour on the runway so that shortened my connection time here in Vancouver, already tight at two hours. Waiting for my bag at the luggage belt, a creeping sensation that I was about to miss my connecting flight began to sink in. It took one hour for me to retrieve my bag, and I was one of the first.

I ran and ran. Through the doors, handing my declaration card to the customs officer, running down an almost-empty corridor, yelling at the two people walking ahead of me, imploring them to move because there was no stopping me. They said the flight would be not leave until 4:50, and it was 4:48. Times like this reminded me that work trips whack the energy out of me and I was breathless by the time I reached the gate. The plane was just backing up and leaving. I just wanted to be home.

I took the shuttle bus to the hotel with three women about my age complaining about the challenges of travelling through Europe with their children, but how delightful Switzerland was at this time of year. Somehow I just can’t relate. Nor do I ever want to.

Reinvigorated by one of the few hot showers I’ve had in the past week, I ventured outside and simply walked until fatigue set in. During trips like this, it’s so easy to feel grateful for the life I have when I return home. We really do have it easy in Canada. As I walked down the boulevard I got to thinking about the book I’m reading, “Becoming Enlightened” by the Dalai Lama (as I wrote previously, not the usual stuff of my bookshelf). He says that the true path to enlightenment resides in altruism. As he writes, you should “engage in altruistic practices so you can achieve an all-knowing state that will enable you to help others on a vast scale.” Maybe it’s easy for the DL, but for the average person the “vast scale” is not so obvious, at least not to me. But maybe the “vast scale” is not meant to imply that we try to affect as many people as we can, but rather that we make sure our actions are altruistic towards those whose lives we touch, however few people this may be.

I have to admit the Dalai Lama’s got more than a few good points to make. But I have to hold off on believing I will be reincarnated. He’s also managed to surprise me with this little gem on page 79. It’s about practicing meditation effectively and not simply giving the outward appearance of doing it: “In Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, a person who was walking along came upon a fellow who was sitting in meditation. He asked the fellow, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘I am meditating patience,’ was the response. So the man said, ‘Then eat shit!’ the meditator lashed back, ‘You eat shit!’ The meditator could not even withstand a little teasing.”

As I end this trip and so dearly look forward to coming home, I am left with countless acts of kindness from people I’ve met, and I think I will most fondly remember Pak Luswi, whose limited English and my even poorer bahasa Indonesia made our conversations sparingly minimal. Pak Luswi greeted Steve and I at the airport in Yogyakarta and made sure that my colleagues and I were well taken care of. From driving us around the city, to providing me with coffee, Lux soap, water and a dental kit on the first day, to having my jeans washed and ironed (pleat down the middle, something I haven’t had done in about 15 years), Pak Luswi’s kindness left me feeling safe and welcome in an unknown city. Terima kasih, thank you, Pak Luswi, hopefully I can become more like you.

Travel interludes: Skip human rights for a moment and talk about weird restaurants and colourful airplane seats

A few people have recently told me how envious they are of the job I have. I get to travel, meet people from around the world, listen to their stories of inspiration about protecting the rights of others. All well and true, however there is a downside to frequent traveling, and I thought I’d step out of the usual “blog voice” of human rights and focus on the travel aspect. (All right, I may mention one or two things about human rights along the way.) For ease of reading, I made a bullet list of the highlights and lowlights of the past 68 hours since leaving my point of departure, Montreal, and arriving at my destination, Jakarta, a full 27 hours late. The bullet points are actually for my benefit because it’s impossible to think straight at this point.

  1. Canada is one big country. Flying from Montreal to Vancouver takes as much time as a transatlantic flight. Air Canada’s new policy is to make the economy-class happy traveller purchase a meal if they want to. The airline does, however, offer free water and soft drinks for the time being.  So after five and a half hours I was at the other end of the country, on my way to Hong Kong.
  2. I arrived in Vancouver, a city still aglow and over-merchandised from the Olympics, at 10:30 at night (or 1:30 the next morning according to my internal clock). The connecting flight was at 2 AM. So with almost 4 hours to kill, I was lucky enough to smooch off my colleague’s Elite status and sit with a bunch of white men in the lounge, almost all of them fingering their BlackBerrys or talking to each other about things which they find important. Perhaps that should be “thumbing” their BlackBerrys.
  3. Close to 2 AM local time, off to the gate for boarding and the unenviable 13-hour flight. By two o’clock the Air Canada employee announces to the crowd (the only ones left at the airport by then) that there was going to be a five minute delay. Then it became 15 minutes. Then 45 minutes. Then I dozed off, woken by the announcement that the flight was cancelled.
  4. Trek back what seemed a half-kilometre to retrieve our bags, wait in line to get hotel rooms, take a shuttle to the hotel and sleep a sound 3 hours before getting up and going back to the airport for the rescheduled 11:30 AM flight. In passing, thank you Air Canada for putting me up at the hotel. But do me a favour: don’t insult me by giving me a breakfast voucher for 6,67$ for a restaurant where pancakes cost 15$ and a coffee is 4,50$. I settled on a diminutive “baker’s basket” of 3 pastries which seemed small enough to ingest in one bite each.
  5. Yay another trip to the airport and we were finally off at about noon. I was fortunate enough to have a good seat and not be next to someone smelly, sick, or morbidly obese. I have experienced all these types of seat-neighbour in the past and it makes for an unpleasant journey.
  6. Arrival in Hong Kong more than half a day later at a time when “now” is actually “tomorrow” and my arrival in Jakarta will not be “tomorrow” but “the day after.” Whatever time it was didn’t matter because a half dozen other Jakarta-bound passengers and I missed our connecting flight, so it was off to another hotel for the night, followed by a 6:15 AM departure for the airport. And no, it would not be a direct flight. Wouldn’t even be one plane.
  7. The hotel was nicer than the last one but I still had to pay an exorbitant fee to access WiFi. Why? This isn’t the 90s anymore!
  8. I can’t figure Hong Kong out. It’s a beautiful city. I Googled “human rights violations Hong Kong” to see what I could find and I was hard pressed to find any NGOs working on human rights. One NGO does focus on human rights, and issues that seem most prevalent (or at least the ones they are focusing on) are related to police brutality. I was pleased to find out that the government incorporated the articles of the ICCPR and the ICESCR into what they call “Basic Law.”
  9. Food is most unusual in HK, as are some of the restaurants. In my visitor’s kit my colleague handed me, she pointed out the “Modern Toilet” restaurant (see photo above). So says the ad: “We introduce toilet into dining, an idea of ‘Food+Toilet’ concept breaking the traditional way of dining. Chairs are made from toilet bowls. Food is served in mini toilet bowls, bath tubs, washing basins and urinals! Enjoy your meal in a toilet!” Not likely.
  10. At the airport the next morning (I mean, the 27th), happy Malaysian Airlines staff helped to check us in. My colleague and I were dying for a coffee, and our only options at that time of the day was to wait in line at Starbucks, wait in line at Burger King, or go straight to the “American muffin” restaurant. The muffin place was next to Popeye’s, which was playing a classic cartoon from the 40s on a TV by the cash. Stroll on down a little to the right and you get the Disney Store. Don’t forget to check the in-flight magazine where you can buy your kid some “Mickey Mouse eau de toilette.” We sat next to a man wolfing down a burger and gulping down a beer.
  11. Check through security and it was time to wait. Finally got on the plane – which was not going to Jakarta, it was headed for Kuala Lampur – and I gasped in horror at the seats.  Apart from being wide enough to comfortably sit a 10 year-old child and no one bigger, the seats were upholstered in uncoordinated arrays of blue, green, and red. Lined up one after another, I felt as though I were in a giant Pez-dispensing unit. Thankfully the flight was not full.
  12. Arrival in KL meant another dash to the connecting flight, which was packed and just as Pez-like. Two hours spent motionless except for the awkward movement of cutting my chicken. Try to imagine a T-rex cutting his meal with his useless teeny arms; that’s me trying to eat.
  13. Unlike Hong Kong, there are apparently plenty of human rights issues in Malaysia. At least that’s according to the Straits Times, which had a front page story on corruption by civil servants (see photo, not the toilet one).
  14. Arrival in Jakarta provided a short-lived moment of joy, since we apparently arrived at the same time as the rest of Asia, or at least another three flights. We waited in line for our visas for over half an hour. Then we had to wait for immigration, and as usual I chose the BAD LANE.

Nothing bad has happened since then. We met some of our participants and I’m excited to start the workshop tomorrow. Despite what some may think, this journey was one of the most amusing I’ve had in a long while, because something different happened. Granted, I could do with more comfort in the airplane seats, but I’ll take a nugget of wisdom from the Dalai Lama. In his book “Becoming Enlightened” which I brought with me (footnote here: this is not the type of book I typically read), he states that we should all “recognize our fortunate situation.” Thanks for reminding me.