Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Another Ending...

There have been so many streams of thought going through my mind the last few weeks; I have found it difficult to focus on anything enough to write. I have cleared paragraphs on my phone (on which I have been writing all summer) a dozen times already and written and deleted several titles to this post. I had thought to call it The end of your life book club in reference to the book (written by Will Schwalbe) I have been reading recently, which may be to blame for many of my wandering thoughts. I thought I was reading a book about the relationship between a mother and son as they come to terms with her terminal illness. But as Schwalbe writes about the life of his mother I have found myself inspired and stumped all at the same time by the things she has done. I also nearly entitled this post Poverty Tourist for reasons I will try to explain later. In the end I settled with Another Ending because this is exactly what it is. 

The strangest, happiest and saddest thing about going on adventures is that there comes a point when the journey must come to an end, and for me this is the point where I turn around and head for home.

Endings have a way of bringing things into focus. In all of us I think there is a natural desire for conclusions, for closure. To know we can close the book, safe if the knowledge that everything is as it should be. Of course there may be a sequel - more adventures, more challenges, questions and trials - but for now, we rest, our questions answered and fears relieved. Of course not all endings wrap up as neatly as that, in fact many writers leave us hanging in suspense driving us mad with unanswered questions until the next book comes out. For me the end of this chapter is more attune to the latter.

It was four months ago when I began this journey. My tricycle full to over flowing and my mind and my heart a sea of questions unanswered and dreams unrealised. I had told myself and many others: "This will be my last big journey, I think." I'm not sure why I said that. I think even before I began I was weary of the transient lifestyle I'd been living. I want a home, a place that's mine, to put my belongings in cupboards and wardrobes rather than forever carrying them in a suitcase or leaving them behind in boxes.

Those first few weeks were hard work - I remember - and there were many times I nearly turned around. I'm glad now that I didn't though I would often stop and stare into the distance, then turn around and stare behind me and wonder which way to go. Reluctantly I would face forwards once again and pedal on. 

This journey hasn't just been one measured in kilometres cycled, countries visited and mountains climbed. In many ways my physical movements have been a backdrop for a greater adventure that has been taking place, an adventure of friendships and connections, of learning to see and to do something about what I see, of admitting my weaknesses, realising my strengths and accepting myself as I am, of hope and courage, and mostly... Mostly of dreaming.

As I read about the life of Mary Ann (Will Schwalbe's mother,) it has felt as though I were sat next to her at her coffee table listening to her stories and hearing words of wisdom - from a woman who even in her last days was determined to live a full life and one that impacted the world around her. 

Since I can remember my prayer and my dream has always been to live a full life. To do something that mattered, that made a difference. I say prayer, because I do pray still, not with much faith I must admit. Something Mary says to her son, after some friends (who are completely unreligious) tell her they are praying for her made me smile: "I think the prayers of heathens are much more powerful than the those of the religious." Maybe she is right? I found my self praying the other morning after watching a short film about the Syrian civilians who were brutally murdered in a army attack. I thought of the refugee's we had met last year on the Syrian border in Turkey, I thought of the street kids in Elbasan, the Roma communities I had visited... I don't want to be a poverty tourist! God! I want to do something...

I think prayer is the natural expression when we realise we are at the end of ourselves. I have reached the end of myself. I don't know what I can do, yes I can juggle and set things on fire... But really... How do I really make a difference? So I find myself praying, with little faith, and little discipline. Father if you are really there, help me, I don't know what to do or where to start. I know I don't have much faith, but I do know that I want to make a difference... I can't see and do nothing.

I think I have decided that questions very rarely lead to answers. And to expect them to is often the recipe for frustration and disappointment. Mostly they lead us to other questions, to conversations, relationships, impulses, adventures, challenges, and yet more questions after that. Perhaps though questions are more important than answers because they lead us somewhere, and the journey changes us... This has definitely been true of my journey over the last few months. As I have talked and listened and seen; and as I've made decisions and dealt with challenges I have found myself unpacking many questions from my bags and leaving them on the side of the road, not because I found the answers but simply because I had travelled to a point where the questions became unimportant and I had to make room for new questions which would take me further down the road. 

Sometimes questions follow us for decades as we navigate our lives other times they stand in front of us and demand a decision, an action... As I start to pack my bags once more and get ready to leave Skopje and head for home I find myself thinking about my place in this world. As I look around me and see all that is going on - the good and the bad - I ask myself: How will I respond?

Will Schwalbe quotes from the book he found next to his mother's bed the day she died which it's self quotes the words of John Ruskin:

If you do not wish for His kingdom, don't pray for it. But if you do, you must do more than pray for it; you must work for it.

This is indeed another ending, but whether it is the last of my journeys I'm not so sure... I'll have to wait for the sequel.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

This is why!

It was 4.30pm on Friday night and the last day of our circus workshops. The dress rehearsal hadn't exactly gone smoothly, some kids were missing and others wandered off half way through, the hardest part was getting the right children on stage at the the right time, if you turned your back for an instant you would loose some and others who shouldn't have been there turned up in their place. Somehow though we made it through the entire show but after 2 hours I thought to myself it's going to be a long night. "kids often surprise you." I said to charlie while we were worrying about the evening's show. "They are aweful right up the last second. but give them an audience and they shine..." at that moment in time we were actually more concerned about the sun shining than the kids. Our performance space was outside and it had been raining all afternoon, and was showing no signs of letting up. Fiona had said to me that I best start praying. Yeh right. I thought to myself as I looked around at the thick grey clouds looming over the mountains. I really didn't have much faith for such things... If I had prayed it was silent, and it was more of a grumble than a prayer. Really after 2 weeks of hard work...? 

But soon enough the first patches of blue began to appear, the clouds retreated over the mountains and then I was suddenly aware that I had a shadow. I couldn't quite believe it but the sun was out. Just in time.

We walked over to the Roma area that evening. The kids were wild with excitement as they followed us through the streets, miming the parts of the show they would take part in and pointing to themselves eagerly, just to make sure we didn't forget them. Soon chaos had surrounded us once again, chairs and benches were being brought out, sound equipment set up and kids were running about and shouting as I swept the last of the rain puddles off the yard. Parents and many other children began to fill the seats and then it was time... I don't know how but somehow we managed to get all our kids to sit together and almost all of them turned up. (One decided after coming to nearly all the workshops that he would miss the show and go to a wedding instead) I stood up and did the obligatory introductions and then the show began. After the chaos of the dress rehearsal I wasn't quite sure what to expect but as usual they surprised us all. From the opening number as they entered through the audience to the sounds of pink panther, to their closing bows. They danced, balanced, clowned, juggled, span things, through things, dropped things (and sometimes caught things) with smiles on their faces as their families and friends clapped and cheered them on...

There are times when I wonder what I'm doing with my life. Wandering from place to place, no home, no job, no partner, no idea what's next. But then sometimes I remember. As I watched their show, and looked into the faces of these kids who had won my heart and driven me crazy, I new. This is why! 

All the questions melt away in these moments and are replaced by dreams and possibilities.

Tomorrow is set to be a day of many goodbyes. In the morning I wave off my sister Charlie as she flies back to England, she has been an incredible help and as always, a lot of fun. Then after 4 wonderful weeks here in Albania I must pack my things once again ready to leave for Macedonia on Tuesday morning. This is the end of the road for my beloved tricycle too, tomorrow I have to take him apart and pack him away to wait for his ride (in the back of a van) all the way back to England. I will be very sad to leave him behind, I never decided whether it was me or the tricycle who was the goose, we have shared so many experiences over the last few months that 'it' has become a 'He', and almost a friend. (although we have had many arguments.) But with winter approaching and thousands of miles to make all the way home, I must travel from here by cardboard and thumb once again. 

I am sure this won't be my last visit to this beautiful country though, In fact I have already started scheming about plans for next year. And with so many friends here and many opportunities to work with wonderful kids, it seems it would be wrong not to return.

But for now, Skopje here I come...

Sunday, 8 September 2013

The 3 wheeled circus...

A look of guilt and an uncontanable smile broke across my face as we sat at the airport coffeshop waiting for the bus back into Tirrana. Charlie had handed me a margarine container filled with polistirine  protecting two eggs she had dutifully transported all the way from England on the plane. I had thought that someone in my house might have had the sense to think I was only joking about the egg I so desperately needed... Thankfully Charlie had the grace not to crack said egg on my head and the next day we laughed as we enjoyed American pancakes made from English eggs sat in Albania with friends from Texas and South Africa.

On wednesday we began our circus program in the roma gypsy area. It was for this reason I carried a trailer full of circus equipment across Europe on my tricycle, of course it wasn't untill I had cycled half way that my sister agreed to come and help and I realised I could have sent everything over with her by plane and enjoyed a much lighter load... But the circus arrived all the same. I had spent many days making more equipment, (flower sticks from old inner tubes, staffs from broom handles, even stilts were cut to size at the local saw mill) and Charlie had brought some of the things i left behind in England to add to the collection. So when the gates opened on Wednesday morning we were ready for the beautiful chaos that awaited us. 

And chaos it was... Over 40 kids arrived and soon the courtyard was alive with balls and rings flying through the air, brightly coloured socks were spinning around children's heads, diablo's shot up into the sky and occasionally wooden stills would crash to the ground as a kid tumbled down after. There was laughter, shouting, screaming, snatching, cheating, fighting... I discoverd quickly that embracing the crazyness is much easier than trying to control it... Although not always the best idea.

The next day was more successful, we scrapped the games that everyone cheated at and returned to silly warm ups which mainly consisted of the 'wiggling fingers, shaking wrists, spinning arms, circling hips turning round on one foot dance,' it's not at all sexy but apparently quite entertaining. I even taught the kids how to bow and explained that if we had to drag them offstage everytime as they continued to do "just one more trick" it kind of ruins the show...

On Thursday night we were invited to a birthday party of a friend from the Roma community. Raji's birthday was slightly eclipsed by the presence of his new born daughter but still the music blaired out of the giant speaker (that somehow apeared part way through the evening) and of course we were subjected to traditional dancing, in wich everyone joins hads and dances around and around in circles, over and over again, it's actually quite fun if a little dizzy. It was possibly slightly more dizzy for me as I had not learned the art of leaving the last bit of my drink. Apparently if you Finnish your beer your host fills it right back up again... Thankfully they were quite small cups, but I must admit I couldn't tell you how many times it was refilled. I didn't often refuse but even when I did I was completely ignored. 

There are many things that are difficult to understand about Roma culture, many hard things, perhaps even wrong things. But there are also some beautiful things. And for one they deffinatley know how to party.

The next night as we walked our way down to the bridge we could see the crowd had already gathered. For me it was a familiar scene, I rembered mine and Patrick's show there last year, the kids had remembered too, for weeks they had been miming and pointing, asking when we would make a show. They all seemed to like the fire breathing best as that was the most common mime they made. I didn't even try to explain that I wasn't going to breath fire, I just nodded and said "soon."

We arrived at the bridge to find hords of excited children, adults and families had come out to see what was going on too. I would like to say that it was because they had heard how good we were, but the reality is that there really isn't much else to do... 

I have made countless shows throughout the summer in all kinds of places, but this place and these people hold a special place in my heart. Often I count my success by the amount of coins in my hat, here I just enjoy smiles, high fives, cheers and laughter. The music blaired, fire burned, people shouted... Occasionally a car would come through and we would have to pause as it passed. The circle seemed to get closer and closer, untill I dropped my staff into the croud and everyone jumped back. Charlie did great as usual (every time I see her she gets better) and she whispered instructions as we performed our partner ruitine trying to prevent me from hitting her in the head with my poi... 
It was a great show though, and all the better for having my little sister join in. As we packed away, dripping with sweat and stinking of fuel, the excitement slowly died away and I thought to myself. I love this!

After a mostly relaxing weekend (well for me it was relaxing, Charlie was a bit saw after the "little" bike ride I took her on) 
we have begun another week of circus workshops here in the Roma area. We are working with the kids on a show to perform to their families and the rest of the community. Today is day two and little routines are taking shape and stars are beginning to emerge. It's hard work, hot in the sun and the kids are pretty wild. most nights I'm ready to crash by 9 o'clock. But its worth it, not just for the fun, and it is a lot of fun, but for many of these kids life is survival and childhood is short. The guys who serve this community have created a sanctuary for the kids here, where they find safety, guidance, love, education, fresh fruit and so much more. It is such a privilage to be apart of something so special and even for just these few weeks to be able to bless this community in giving what we have.