This past Saturday morning, we were exploring the Royal Palace and the infamous Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, Thailand. The sweat was pouring down our backs and literally dripping off our faces, even when we were just sitting in the shade. We were constantly scratching, our whole bodies covered in mosquito bites. And we were very tired.
By Sunday morning, we found ourselves strolling through the breezy city of Melbourne, Australia. The air was cold and crisp, the wind blowing in our faces felt glorious, we actually wanted to be in the sun, and we felt completely refreshed. We were re-energized, and we’ve been walking all over the city ever since. It is the height of winter here, but to me, it feels like a beautiful fall day in Chicago – perhaps mid to late October.
The city itself reminds me of Chicago, as well. It’s on a big body of water and it has a river running through it. The air is crisp and the wind is always blowing. There are lots of public transportation options. There’s an observation deck in the highest building, like the Sears Tower (although the Eureka Skydeck here is actually the highest viewing deck in the Southern Hemisphere!). And that’s probably where the similarities stop – I know I’m exaggerating the comparison, but I guess that happens when you’re homesick. Oh, if only Chicago winters could be like this!
But in many ways, I do feel like Melbourne could be another U.S. city, with a few positive exceptions. Here are just a few observations I’ve made on things I’ve seen here that I think are pretty awesome and that I would like to see in more U.S. cities (note: I can’t speak for all U.S. cities, as I haven’t been to all of them; I’m just speaking from personal experience):
1. Trams: Melbourne has an extensive city tram network. I know that many U.S. cities used to have trams, but took them down in 50’s and 60’s – something about the wires looking ugly. Listen – trams are cleaner, more environmentally friendly than buses, and they’re fun to hop on and off. Let’s bring back the trams, people!
2. Bike share: Melbourne has a great bike share system and it’s all electronic. There are stations all over the city, and after becoming a member online, you can walk up to any bike and borrow it. The first 30 minutes are free, and if you’re done and you get to a station that’s already full, just press a button on the bike and you get fifteen extra minutes to ride to the nearest station for free. Plus, they’re pretty cool bikes.
3. Self-cleaning public toilets: We came across an interesting site by the river. There was a little building that housed a free public toilet. It cleans itself when it’s not occupied, and it even has a “no loitering” policy to keep the sketchy people out – the door will open and an alarm will sound after 10 minutes of someone going inside. I’m not sure about the 10 minutes rule, but I think the self-cleaning thing is pretty neat.
4. Free public transportation options: Melbourne is extremely visitor friendly. In addition to having a fantastic visitor center, there is a free tourist shuttle that runs all around the city everyday. There’s also a free city circle tram that runs around the city center, stopping at all major destinations.
It was certainly a drastic change going from such temperature and cultural extremes, but it was a needed change. Not that Thailand was that bad – I really loved Thailand and I wished we had spent more time there – I will definitely be returning one day. But now I can understand the language (and listen to the best accent ever), I’m eating hamburgers and drinking wine and actual coffee, walking down the street isn’t a chore, and cold weather never felt so good.
We move on to Sydney now, but I certainly won’t forget the wonderful rejuvenation and Chicago flair that I experienced in Melbourne.
It’s been only 5 months since I wrote about standing on top of a 10 foot frozen wave of Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
Seems like a lifetime ago. I couldn’t be further from that wave, both literally and figuratively speaking. As I stood on the crest of that frozen wave, in utter silence with no one in sight for miles, I reflected on the human spirit in this remote part of the world. The sun was setting and I was fearful of slipping into a crevice but yet drawn to the glow of the setting sun – feeling hopeful for the future.
We left Jaipur, India yesterday, with the temperatures nearing the 100 mark and the humidity level the same. But it seemed hotter because everything here in India seems intensified on every level. We’ve been on the road for close to 2 months now and have traversed a variety of climates, cultures, joys and heartbreaks. It’s been easy, hard and everything in between.
In creating this documentary “Opening Our Eyes” we have challenged ourselves in every way we know how. Just shooting a documentary with an HDSLR system, on a slim budget and with a two-person crew is a feat in itself. But this documentary is taking us around the world and putting us in touch with the less fortunate of our planet. It’s humbling, heartbreaking, exhausting, yet somehow a boost to my inner spirit – that same spirit I wrote about back in February when isolated and alone on top of that 10 ft. frozen wave.
How I crave those frigid temperatures and the utter silence of tranquility. Space is a luxury in India with billions of people competing for it. Such an intriguing culture but one that is beyond demanding of all that a body and soul has to give. I draw on my inner strength and my people that came before me who taught me well about struggles and endurance as well as compassion for those who are less fortunate.
My eyes have been opened these past two months in so many ways. To experience and see the extremes of the human condition across the globe has broadened my perspective and put things into balance. What seemed so important just a few months ago, seems so trivial today.
And so it goes as we complete this journey in a few months time. Off to another climate and culture with our eyes opening wider as we go along.
One of the first things we noticed after arriving in Moscow was the poor quality of services for pedestrians. Sidewalks are bumpy with very high curbs, there are no elevators in the metro stations, and if you’re lucky enough to find a ramp, it’s extremely narrow, steep and slippery (we could barely roll our luggage up the one at the high-end Hilton Hotel). These are the kinds of obstacles that Yulia Simonova and other disabled people face everyday in Moscow and Russia in general.
Yulia is the Project Coordinator for the Regional Society of Disabled People – Perspektiva, an organization that works to improve the conditions and raise awareness about the rights of disabled people in Russia. The conditions for disabled people in Russia are terrible – not many handicap-accesible areas, hardly any programs for the blind and deaf, few schools that accept disabled kids, etc. The mentality among the Russian people focuses on the masses, not on the individual. There are so many people in the country (10 million in Moscow alone) that problems affecting even a few thousand people don’t matter. Disabled people are invisible and the government can’t be bothered with implementing services for such a small group in the scheme of things.
Yulia broke her back after a tragic gymnastics accident at the age of ten, and has been in a wheelchair ever since. She was forced to be home-schooled because the schools were not handicap-accessible at that time, and she began to lose hope in ever being able to lead a normal, happy life. She gradually met other people in wheelchairs and learned that they do in fact lead very diverse and active lives, changing her perspective on the possibilities for disabled people. After finishing school, she became a trained activist for people with disabilities through Perspektiva, and has been working for the organization ever since.
Yulia works on the development of inclusive education, traveling to schools and training students, parents and administrators about people with disabilities. She meets with many children, both with and without disabilities, talking to them about all of the activities that she does and showing them how disabled people can, in fact, lead normal lives. The impact of such education is obvious – she recalled how one boy, who was not disabled, came up to her afterwards and said that he now wants to be friends with disabled kids and help them. Many parents become involved in creating awareness as well. And though progress is slow, it is there – there are now 80 inclusive schools in Moscow, which accept disabled children.
Yulia’s story and Perspektiva’s mission are perfect examples of what creating awareness can accomplish. And that is the main goal of our project as well – to create awareness about individuals who are fighting for their beliefs, following their passions and making progress, one day at a time.