Volume 19 Number 6
Seeing the World Through New Eyes
01 December 2006

José Carlos Léon Vargas looks back on nine months in Asia with an unusual training programme.

IF GLOBALISATION had a positive face, it would look like the Action for Life (AfL) leadership training programme, with its 45 participants from 27 countries and different cultures and religions, living and learning together.

From November 2005 until August 2006, I took part in the third AfL, beginning in India and ending in Indonesia. As a graduate of International Relations, AfL allowed me to see the world through the eyes of local activists, housewives, rural students, change-makers, village children and human rights defenders.

My journey started well before reaching India. I was reluctant to join AfL because one of the ground-rules was to refrain from having exclusive relationships during the programme. I used to find it extremely difficult to have friendly, honest conversations with girls because I normally had a hidden agenda.

My experience with AfL began the day I acknowledged I had a problem with relationships—and that it would be a shame to allow it to stop me taking this fabulous opportunity to learn from other cultures. When I submitted my application and accepted the terms of the programme a sense of liberation filled me with joy. It was like being someone different.

The most important part of the AfL process was to become myself an agent of change: ‘as I am so is my nation’. This may sound simple, but it requires a great deal of courage, at least for me. For instance, being honest with the funds I received during my stay in Asia and spending them properly was not easy. I often found myself having to choose between using the money given by my sponsors to buy personal souvenirs or spending it on food for the team. It was in simple, everyday dilemmas like these that my honesty and principles were tested.

My first five months in India exposed me to the challenges faced every day by a country of 1.1 billion people. Spending weeks in areas where transport, food, healthcare and employment were almost non-existent helped me to discover realities first hand which I had only heard about at university. But these weeks also showed me that the greatest care and friendship often come from those who have least.

We spent some days in the village of Ballia, Uttar Pradesh. The local people offered us the rice and vegetables they had cultivated with great effort. It was a lesson in humility for someone like me who had always cared about having the best diploma, a good salary and social recognition.

My three-month visit to the regions that surround the Mekong River in South East Asia left an indelible mark. My eyes couldn’t believe that such beautiful countries had witnessed so much violence and suffering. Cambodia’s heat brought many memories of my home country, Mexico, but these countries also reminded me that inequalities and hatred can lead to genocide or the brutalities of war.

It was often hard to cope with the realities we saw. At these moments, we drew hope and encouragement from the people we met. In Bangkok, Sulak Sivaraksa (nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize) received us in his home. ‘A real leader,’ he told us, ‘is the one who listens and is ready to serve others, unravelling from the idea of popularity and material success.’ His words were confirmed by all the projects, organisations and people we visited that are transforming the wounds of the region into fertile soil for development and social growth.

Malaysia and Indonesia gave me a new view of Islam and modernity. With their rapidly growing economies, young populations and ethnic divisions, these two countries face the challenge of maintaining social cohesion.

The Muslim participants in AfL also opened my heart and mind as an agnostic. As I saw them praying five times a day and heard them talking about the Qur’an and their religion, I began to appreciate the immense value of spirituality. Each day, as a group, we spent time in silence, and then shared our thoughts. Through this, I have regained a spiritual and ethical awareness that my rational and materialistic world did not allow me to explore.

The Philippines is the only Catholic country in Asia and, like Mexico, has a history of Spanish colonisation. The streets of Manila reminded me of Mexico City: in both cities people struggle against overpopulation, corruption, pollution and inequality.

As we travelled we found that the problems in one country were replicated in another. But in every school we visited, in every town or city where we stayed, in every meeting with local leaders I also noticed an emerging globalisation of values and understanding. This trend is even more powerful than that of corruption or hatred, because its energy comes from men and women who have set aside the lethargy of indifference and passivity to work for fairer and more peaceful societies, starting with themselves.