Sunday, 25 August 2013

Three weeks on...

Almost three weeks have charged by since our flights from Santiago Chile touched down at Kingsford- Smith Airport (I misspelled Kingsford-Smith when I was typing and my predictive text suggested  I try Kung-fu Airport. Too funny..) and we all got off planes, hauled bags off the luggage carousels and into cars and taxis and headed home to resume the lives we had placed on hold three weeks earlier. As I think I mentioned in one of my previous posts (I should reread what I write), I was one of the first through the customs check and my affable taxi driver was very happy to get a nice fare to Menai, even though he had no idea was it was when I first told him where I needed to get to. After typing my address into his GPS, (a taxi driver friend of mine reckons old-school cabbies cringe at the thought of needing to use a GPS), we were on our way on the M5, heading south. He asked me what music station I would like to listen to (I said I didn't mind); he asked if I would like some quiet time, seeing I had just got off a 15-hour flight (I said that I was happy to chat), and that was the last thing he said to me before swinging his very clean and quiet Silver Service taxi into my driveway. After stopping, he raced out of the drivers seat, got my bags out of the boot before carrying them right up to my veranda stairs. He got a nice tip.

A non-stop 15-hour flight when you are heading home is probably a better option than a journey with one or more stopovers, although it doesn't feel like that at the time. Some of the return flights from Santiago had stopovers in Auckland, and I think one flight a few additional detours on top of that. While it meant another period of two consecutive days with no sleep (my third in three weeks), it was good to get back as quickly as possible.

There were lots of mums and dads, and husbands and wives and grandparents and even school principals at the airport to greet their weary pilgrims. Some held aloft 'Welcome home' balloons and signs and chatted excitedly to each other as they waited for their loved ones to emerge. I only saw a few reunions before I headed off to the meet 'Sydney's most affable cabbie' but each one I saw was warm and emotional and moving. Clearly, the pilgrims had been missed.

I have had few opportunities to chat to fellow pilgrims about their reflections of their WYD adventure since arriving back home. I slept for much of the day following my return and was back at work the day after that. There was a pile of things to do and, like I suspect has been the case for many other WYD journeymen and journeywomen, I have been in catch-up mode ever since. My initial thoughts were that I would begin visits to schools last week to film some video reflections from teachers and students about their adventure. I have still yet to do that, but now have a few dates in the calendar.

A very good friend of mine said to me once that every travel experience changes you although you usually don't rarely know it at the time. She is right. I am probably a different person as a result of where I have been and what I have seen and what I have learnt, and I am more aware of it since arriving back in Australia. I don't think that I am necessarily a better person (how could I ever measure that) but I am a different person. I have seen more, thought more and I guess I know more. To be fair, the lives of some of the people I met while I was away were not all that much different from my own, but the lives of others could not have been more so. There were some days I felt sad by what I had seen; on others days, I was deeply moved and inspired, and on other days I was too tired to think about much at all. Now, when I look back at the photos I took and read a few of my earlier posts, I am reminded of the fact that is only through luck that I have the life I have. Sure, I have worked pretty hard in my life but no harder, and perhaps even less so than some I met in Peru or Argentina or Brazil. I am under no illusion that I am ostensibly a product of opportunity. Australia is not the only lucky country out there but it is certainly one of them.

It is clear to me that the experiences that had most impact on students while they were away was their mission work on the shanty hills of Lima. I am not surprised by that. It's a no-brainer for me - young people find meaning in their faith by doing things to help people. While the students who travelled with us to South America were mostly young men and women of faith, for them it was when they 'did stuff' to help people that they felt most Catholic. I could see it clearly and they also told me that themselves. Carting rocks or water or cement to build a set of stairs up a slippery hill; sanding a wall while renovating  an old shed that will be a future community centre; watching the look on the face of a local woman when they gave her a small parcel of food - these were the moments where they had the most unobstructed view of the face of Christ. Too often, I think, our Church is looking for the faith of its young people to be strengthened primarily through ritual and ceremony . The rituals of our church are powerful and often beautiful, but for them it mostly about action. Isn't that what the messages of the gospels are all about, after all? Lovable rogue Catholic priest and lover of ordinary people Father Bob McGuire says we spend far too much time trying to explain faith and not enough time practising it. He could be right...

The weeks home since WYD have strengthened my admiration even further for the pilgrim leaders who accompanied the kids on their South American adventure. Just last week, they gathered at the CEO's main office at Leichhardt for one of their scheduled meetings and I caught up with some of them at lunch. It was great to see them looking much refreshed. Their work to ensure that every young pilgrim was kept safe and well, and had the best possible WYD experience, would have taken a lot out of each of them so it was good to see them looking well and rested. They were bloody amazing.

So this week, I start my visits to schools. I will put those up on the blog when they are done. I have also been given so more photos from a couple of bus groups so I will add those too. In the meantime, I wanted to say thank you to those of you who have been kind enough to write or email or phone to say that you enjoyed reading the blog. I am deeply appreciative of that. Just knowing that people want to read something that I have written always surprises me, but it is a nice feeling. Thanks plenty. x


Tuesday, 6 August 2013

A short entry and lots more Bus 6 photos...

Greetings everyone! I am writing to you from a strange place called Sydney Australia. We are all back now - arriving at various times over the past few days. the last flight was scheduled to touch down early yesterday morning (Monday) at around 7.40am. Not sure if it landed on time as planned but it is good to know that everyone is home safe and sound.

It was a 141/2 hour flight from Santiago Airport following a three-hour flight from Buenos Aires and a four-hour stopover in Santiago. It was a mostly uneventful flight on QF28 but 141/2 hours is a long tome in the air and there are so many movies you can watch before your eyes glaze tell you that that's enough. As you might imagine, my sleep patterns are all over the place - I slept for quite a few hours yesterday but have been up since about 3.00am this morning. I hope it doesn't take too long to get back into a regular sleep pattern (as a very erratic sleeper, that doesn't mean much for me, but I am happy to resume regular irregularity as soon as possible).

This is just a short entry. I am back at work at my desk today, for the first time. It is great to see my work colleagues again; we have spent some time catching up and they have been patiently listening to my stories and experiences for the past month. As you might imagine, I have a bit waiting for me here so I don't have too much tome to write just now but I do plan to write something tonight.

I have now placed up a new bank of photos from Bus 6. I am hoping to put more up in the coming days as they come through from other bus groups. I am also keen to get out to the schools that sent students to WYD to get some video reflections from them, now that they are home. I have this strong sense that this is important. That might take a week or two so I hope you will be patient. Consequently, the plan is to keep the blog rolling along for a little while yet. In the meantime, please feel free to copy the photos that you would from the blog if you would like to use them.

I am not underestimating how much time it will take to feel completely at ease back home. 'Re-entry' into the the routines of work might take a little longer than we all expect. I have just been speaking about that with a colleague who called up to Communications to say hello. I hope you will be  patient with us all in the weeks ahead if we don't seem quite up to speed with the usual pace of life - hopefully, we will get there in time. It is likely to take longer still to process the experiences we have all shared. More about that later.


Saturday, 3 August 2013

The journey home has begun...

Just before I came back to my hotel room in downtown Buenos Aires, David Cloran, the man most responsible for putting together the WYD pilgrimage, told me that the first group on their way home has just touched down safely in Auckland, the final stopover on their journey back to Sydney. Other groups are also on their way home too. The last three flights carrying Sydney Catholic school WYD pilgrims take off at various times tomorrow, from 6.00am in the morning to 9.30pm in the evening. I am on the second of those flights, the 8.35am one, which means a 4.20am bus transfer from the hotel. That flight gets back to Sydney around 6.00pm on Sunday night.

We all arrived in BA at different times over a 24-hour period, depending on the time of our flight out of Iguazu. All of us got away safely and compared to some of our other journeys, with relatively few problems. We were all booked on normal domestic flights for this leg of the trip so perhaps that made things easier with no need to undergo immigration checks. We were also flying out of a smaller regional airport so there were fewer queues and much less waiting. My flight touched down at around 12.20am and we were at the hotel by about 1.

We began the day with Mass at the main Cathedral which is just a short walk from our hotel. It was in fact the former  resident Church of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who we now know as Pope Francis, before he was elected to the role of leader of the universal Catholic Church earlier this year. It is a beautiful Cathedral and the Mass was concelebrated by our WYD pastors, led by Fr Michael McLean. After Mass, the bus groups then had had various amounts of time (depending on whether they were scheduled to fly out today or tomorrow) to have a wander around BA.

We all seemed to stay pretty close to the main shopping strip, the Florade. This is a traffic-free promenade about a kilometre long. It begins just around the corner from our hotel and finishes at the start of one of the city squares where there is also an entrance to the subway. Florade is a crowded, bustling shopping strip with a mix of banks, electronic retail stores, boutiques, discount warehouses, cafes, fast food joints and artisan markets. And from one end of the strip to the other, there are also hordes of very dodgy-looking come-uppers trying to convince unwary tourists that they should exchange with them whatever currency they are carrying for Argentinean pesos. We were warned about these guys by the guide who met us at the airport last night. We were told that we should not do business with them under any circumstances. None of us did (in fact I never saw anybody at all accept their offers of a currency trade) but some must because there were literally hundreds of them.We walked, and shopped and had coffee (it was great to get a decent cup of coffee after so many weeks) and ate lunch, and shopped just a bit more before all meeting up again to head back to the hotel for our final night together.

Most of the students and staff that I spoke to today seem pretty keen to get home now. It has been almost three weeks away and I guess they are missing their families and friends. Most will charge head-on back into the routines of everyday life: school, work, weekend sport - you know the drill. I am aware that a couple of people have tagged on some additional leave to spend a bit more time travelling or resting back home before taking on work again.

I feel weary tonight although I have not had a taxing day. Sorry, I have little to offer by way of reflections or thoughts on the last few days or the previous weeks. Tonight I am thinking of other things. I will probably write just one or two more posts, soon after returning but will keep adding photos and video reflections from the students and staff from all of the groups in the weeks to come. Hopefully the students will be keen to have a look at the pics of their experiences when they get home. While I have done my best to encourage every bus group to send me photos while we have been here (I put up more from bus 3 yesterday), the pace of travel has not made it easy for them and for the majority of time, they have had limited access to decent wifi. So if you will bear with me for a little while yet, there will be a bit more to come.

Here are a few pics from the Mass at the Cathedral this morning and a couple of BA.


Friday, 2 August 2013

Almost done.....

We leave Iguazu today for the Argentinean capital of Buenos Aires. It is kind of a stopover with added benefits. Because we are already in Argentina, we do not cross any borders so essentially we have a day of sightseeing and shopping in the capital before heading back home via Santiago.

I was called by the newsroom of 2UE at 2.30am local Iquazu time to tell me that 39 student pilgrims returning on a Qantas flight from their WYD adventure (they were part of a larger group) had fallen ill with diarrhoea while on the flight home). THe journalist wanted to know if they were our students. I am happy to report that they were not. None of our groups has headed home yet. We will be certainly hoping for a better fate than those poor souls! While we have had our fair share of illness along the way, we seem to be travelling very well at the moment. Let's hope it stays that way.

Because we have such a large group, we need to stagger our departure times today. Most groups have already left. I am not heading off with my travelling group until around 5.30pm to link up with a 9.00pm flight to BA. If everything is on time (sure...), we will be at our hotel just after midnight. We have a full day in Buenos Aires tomorrow, one more sleep, and then we fly out the following morning. We are almost done.

Last night, we all headed into downtown Iquazu to celeberate Mass with Cardinal Pell. It was concelebrated by 3 bishops (including Bishop Terry Brady and Bishop Peter Comensoli), and our 9 Bus Group Chaplains. We filled the small regional Cathedral and there were plenty of locals asking about us and the reason for us being there.

The Iquazu township is a lovely regional centre. Mass was at 6.00pm and we arrived at about 5.30pm, just as shift 2 of school was finishing for the day (well, I am assuming that is the case. A 5.30pm pick-up would make it for a very long day if it was an early morning start). Many of the mums and dads who were there to pick up their young children arrived on motor scooters and the kids merely jumped on the back, tossed on a helmet and together they sped off into the twilight. Like many South American towns and cities, Iquazu has a town square and that was filled with people just sitting around chatting, street skaters, children playing and people on their way home from work or whatever else occupied their day. I love the idea of the town square. It is by nature, a town's central landmark and it becomes a focal point for so many things in that community.

Mass was a fairly simple affair. It was great to have the opportunity to be able to celebrate it in the one venue with the whole pilgrim group, together with our pastors and of course the Cardinal. It was fitting way to conclude our few days in this beautiful part of the world.

We got back to the hotel for a late dinner. Some groups still had a session remaining to complete their retreat. Others sat around together and talked, or logged onto the local wifi to send messages home and many of those with an early start the next day, headed to their room to pack their bags.There was a sense around the place that things were coming to a close.

Speaking of the retreats, these were run in bus groups here in the grounds of the hotel. While the content for the sessions was planned beforehand, each group had the flexibility to adapt the program to suit the needs of their students. Most of the discussions and reflections focused on the students' lingering memories of their pilgrimage experience and how they felt have been changed by these events. After doing so much and being so busy for so long, they took the opportunity provided to them to talk about what they had seen and done, the impact it had had on their own faith and what they planned to do from here.

The responses from students that I heard to these very big questions were inspiring. There was an overwhelming sense that they were coming back from their WYD pilgrimage different young men and women from the ones who had set out. I know many were deeply affected by the poverty and deprivation they saw on the barren hillsides of Pamplone Lima. I heard many say they wanted to go back as there was still so much to do. I believe some of them will. A few students told me their time there had made them reassess what they wanted to do with their careers, while others said they were determined to find a way to make helping others whose needs were great an ongoing part of their life. Others spoke about the incredible experience of being in a crowd of around 4 million people to see Pope Francis in person and share their faith with other young Catholics from all over the world. Then there was Machu Pichu and Iguazu Falls and Chile and Cuzco, and travelling on planes, trains and omnibuses in some of the world's iconic cities. And, of course, who could forget Aussie Central!

Having these few days to stop, talk and think about where we have been and what we have done has made us all realise what an opportunity we have been given on this trip. In a few days time we will be back in our homes with a whole lot of other things to think about and different decisions to make. That will be the time when we will really see whether we are changed people after all, and whether we will be able to hold on to this feeling that we can do something more, and be someone more than who we are right now.


Just a few pics form the Mass with Cardinal Pell....

Iquazu Falls: The Argentinean side

We headed back over the border once again we had to pass through the immigration checkpoint. Isabel explained that the length of time it takes to have one's visas processed is dependent entirely on which public servant you get when you go to up to the counter. On this occasion, we lucked out. We sat on the bus for about 50 minutes while our applications to get back over the same border that we crossed only three hours earlier were processed and permission granted to enter. This put us a little behind schedule bit no big drama.

The entry into the park at the Argentinean end was a little more straight forward.Once we were all through, we had a break to buy something to eat or drink (there was really no lunch food on sale, only snacks, ice creams and drinks so it was a ice cream for lunch for me!).

To get down to the falls, you jump on a little open-carriage train, much like the kind that you might travel on to get around in a theme park or at Darling Harbour (except it was on rails). It was a short trip down to the stop where were alighted t start or exploration of the park.

It was only a short walk until we saw ahead the spray of the falls rising above the vegetation and heard the rumbling roar of falling water. The road eventually met up with a series of elevated walkways that crossed the rivers that fed the falls. There was a number of small islands in the middle of the fast-flowing water. The area is renowned for it unique wildlife, which includes small crocodiles, turtles, even the giant anaconda calls this place home (one of the girls in my groups was particularly unhappy to hear that news). One of my colleagues saw a turtle resting on one of the walkway supports and snapped it on his camera. I had no such luck but very soon, it didn't matter because the first view of Iquazu Falls - Argentina style revealed itself.

It was only a couple of hours since we had been on the the Brazilian version of this extraordinary phenomenon but the effect was like seeing it for the first time. You are able to get exhilaratingly close to the biggest and most powerful of all the falls, the one known as The Devil's Throat. When you get to it, the walkway opens up onto a large viewing platform right next to the neck of the devil. I just stood, by myself, transfixed, and watched this breathtaking scene in silence. The I unpacked my camera to take some shots and a short video of the water charging over the lip.

There are some pics and the video.

I am sorry if I have loaded pictures of the falls that are very similar to each other. As I was choosing them, it was hard to decide what to include and what not to. Each time I look at a picture again, I am reminded of the experience and I think I am instinctively trying to recreate that experience for others. I know that doesn’t really work, but what the hell – too many photos of Iquazu Falls, is surely, never enough.

Because we were a bit late arriving, our group was one of the last through. I was being gently hurried along by the park ranger who needed to get us all back to catch the last train ride back to the park entrance, as I would stop for ‘just one more photo’ (times about 10). We did make the last ride back and it wasn’t long before we were once more at the hotel Complejo Turistico Americano to share stories about what we had seen that day. These were generally not long conversations – none us really had the words to describe the experience we had shared. I remember the word “unbelievable; being the most commonly one used.

Isabel our guide said that the Argentinean side of the Falls was even more spectacular than the Brazilian side. She may be right but I really don’t know. How do you measure degrees of beauty? I am happy enough to say that like the others here with me, I was privileged to be able to see this extraordinary place from both sides of the massive valley that lies between the two countries.

And that was a blessing.

Just to finish, here a few extra pics of some of the kids and staff on the day of our visit.