Journalist Dhruti Shah took some time out of the BBC newsroom to try to find peace in Thailand and Sri Lanka. But why did her shoes cause so much trouble in her desire to find peace?In the grand scheme of things, they are pretty ugly shoes: brown, fake leather, with three buckle straps and a sole and heel the pollution in Bangkok and three months of constant wear would turn from a tan colour to a steadfast black.I’d been selected as one of 24 mid-career professionals from around the world to take up a Rotary International peace fellowship. It involved three months studying peace and conflict at Chulalongkorn University, in Thailand.Peace potentialsMy classmates would be peacekeepers who had seen war and conflict up close. They were professors and activists from places such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ireland, Zimbabwe, Nepal and beyond. The hope was we’d graduate brimming with solutions to help a world that, let’s face it, needs people minded to try to find peace where they can.But I’d only been in Bangkok two days when I realised I had a problem. As I looked down after seven hours of exploring the streets, I saw my feet, swollen in the heat, were bleeding – cut to pieces by my seven-year-old weathered sandals. With temperatures set to rise, and school starting early the next morning, I had to buy new footwear.
They had to be respectable, so my trainers wouldn’t cut it. We had been warned before we came out that Thailand was still in the midst of a year-long mourning period for the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. My outfits, therefore, had to be suitable from head to toe, especially since I was attending the royal university.I left my room in a rush and spotted a chap in my dorm corridor. “Are you new? Are you a Rotary fellow too? Want to help me buy shoes?” Andrew Miles, a policeman from Melbourne, knew when he had been ambushed. Fifteen minutes later, we found ourselves in the midst of the MBK shopping centre.Ten minutes after that and 500 baht (£11) poorer, I had in my hand two pairs of sandals that could easily be slipped off at temples and people’s homes, as the Thai culture required, and could also cope with swelling feet in Bangkok’s rising heat.Global educationGet in touch with the Global education series.The sandals certainly got a battering. As a vegetarian, Bangkok’s famed street food proved a bit of challenge. Lesson one: to find peace, learn as much of the language of the country you’ve moved to as quickly as you can – especially when it comes to meal time. This will prevent “hanger” (when you get angry because you are so hungry). But the Thai language is a tonal one, so do accept it’s not so easy for someone brought up on a Western diet of words to pick up quickly. Creative bondsLesson two: be ready to walk, and walk and walk as you try to find somewhere that can cater for your strict dietary requirements. Be careful of getting overexcited by meal spots, as you may end up tripping over your toes. I can testify that falling flat on your bottom in your first week on Bangkok’s incredibly busy streets is not a good look.At first, things went well. School was a 10-minute walk away, and guest lecturers included Buddhist monks, military generals and academics with years’ of experience in peace studies.Topics included storytelling and peace and conflict analysis tools. Friendships and bonds emerged through this unique programme.
Where else would I, a London journalist, end up sharing washing powder with Natasha Dimitrovska – an ardent feminist from Macedonia – or have daily morning coffee with Manty Hasan- a peace activist living in Aceh, Indonesia?I was following in the footsteps of more than 400 peace fellows who had studied peace and conflict at the Thailand centre.Cheap solesBut those shoes were not what I thought I’d bargained for. The rubber soles on one pair gave away in the heat and when you live a student life, you revert to cheap fixes. One message I sent to the group’s WhatsApp chat included: “I accidently superglued my sandal to the floor; anyone got any nail polish remover I could borrow?”The acetone worked, but it cemented my reputation for asking for strange goods and perhaps adhering to the English-eccentric stereotype. Yikes.
One day, Travis Burke, an American classmate who had worked in war zones, sewed together my other pair of broken sandals with a travel kit he had had the foresight to bring with him. Lesson three: a needle and thread is a life-essential for any emerging cracks.Designer Christian Louboutin has called shoes a “communication tool between people”, and that leads to lesson four.Jamming sessionMy shoes brought the entire class together while we were on a field trip to Sri Lanka to look at the after-effects of the civil war, which had almost destroyed the country. As we drove down in the coach from Jaffna, in the north, to Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, the pounding those fake leather shoes had taken over 10 weeks and three countries meant that the buckle snapped again. This time, the attempts by Travis and Kenyan farmer Emmanuel Karisa Baya to fix them with the adhesive tape led to something quite unexpected.
Travis started playing his ukulele, and Kemuel Laeta, a Solomon Islander with a water-bottle tambourine, and two Kenyans, Karisa and Dan Noel Odaba, whose sense of rhythm I envied, began a jamming session. The combination of this motley crew led to not just an idea for a global business venture but an accompanying jingle – Mzungu [White Person’s] Repair. As the catchy tune originating from the back seat got louder and louder: “We repair it until it become brand new,” the entire coach burst out in song. English poet John Donne wrote: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” That was clear as our petri dish of voices from different cultures blended together.The tape was a temporary fix – my shoes were a write-off. The song, however, brought people from 19 different countries together, not quite in vocal harmony but, certainly, in peace.Follow Dhruti Shah on Twitter: @dhrutishah