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Recollections and Impressions

of a Legendary Athletics Coach and a Formidable Disciplinarian

This is a compilation of five article submissions on Denis Armstrong. It was initially published as a book earlier this year and is now captured here in two posts.

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Denis Armstrong

This is the first post which comprises:-

  • my Introduction;
  • a contribution from Rev. Fr. Patrick Boudville; and
  • a contribution from Vinay Chandran.

The following post will comprise the remaining contributions from :

  • Paul Selvadurai;
  • Peter Sinniah;
  • Dr Michael Tay Choon Hock.

 

A good coach can change a game,
a great coach can change a life.
– John Wooden

INTRODUCTION

Denis Armstrong was one of the nine pioneer teachers of La Salle Brickfields when the school was established in 1954. While teaching at the school, he underwent concurrently a three-year teacher training programme known as Normal Class.

In its early beginnings, it was called Normal School. It was, in reality, a teacher training approach. Normal Class training was used because there were not enough colleges to train the number of teachers needed for the many schools in the colonial era Malaya. For the record, Malaya only gained its independence on 31st August 1957.

This particular sort of teacher training practice was first established in Paris, France in 1794. It was pioneered by St. John Baptist De La Salle and was intended to serve as a model for teacher training colleges.

After teaching and holding other senior administrative as well as extra-curricular posts in La Salle Brickfields for twenty years, Denis Armstrong resigned his position to take up an offer in the corporate world in 1974.

Denis Armstrong remained with the Ericsson Group of Companies till his retirement. From 1994 to 1998 Denis served as the Company Quality Manager for the Ericsson group of companies. The Quality Division that he headed was responsible for providing services for all three companies in the group.

Denis Armstrong is best known and fondly remembered among many former students as a legendary athletics coach and as a formidable disciplinarian. After a span of about fifty years, here are first hand vivid and interesting accounts captured for posterity. These are from a few former schoolboy athletes as well as a few former students of their recollections and impressions of this remarkable individual and the huge impact he had on them.

There is no way that this can be a complete picture of the man and who he really is because Denis Armstrong is by nature a private person. He has his circle of friends and associates and he does meet with them on a regular basis. In addition, he spends time on his few hobbies. Denis Armstrong also readily accepts invitations to meet up with old boys from the different graduating years of La Salle Brickfields on a fairly regular basis. To many old boys, he has that special aura and therefore still remains to this day, an enigma.

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Benedict Morais

Benedict Morais
Teacher, La Salle Brickfields Secondary School,
Kuala Lumpur  – 1966 to 1980.

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From A Distance … Master Denis, the Discipline Teacher

It was during my Standard 5 days at La Salle Brickfields 1 that I remember noticing this tall, slim, stylish light blue jeans wearing and good-looking gentleman who I eventually came to know as Master Denis.

He was certainly a strict teacher. I have heard him loudly scolding those who needed to be disciplined and then hearing the all too familiar swish of the cane as it struck the behind of the boys.

Master Denis, the taekwondo sifu and discipline teacher was feared by many students from the primary as well as the secondary schools.

Within Distance … Master Denis, the Science Teacher

Horror of horrors! We guys at Standard 6 Red in 1973 had to face the reality that Master Denis would be teaching us science. Our worries and fears were confirmed when our exercise books would come flying to the back of the class when we made careless mistakes. And you could be sure that all of us did our homework faithfully thereafter.

The best lesson that Master Denis taught us as a science teacher, at least for me, was the experience of what electric current feels like! One day, we guys were truly puzzled to see him carrying into class what looked like a desk mounted pencil sharpener. It turned out to be a manually operated generator. After some explanation, Master Denis got us lined up one by one to hold the two wires.  The reactions of the first few guys to the mild shock turned our worries into real fears.

During my LSB school days, I was once able to even escape the school organised and much feared TB inoculation programme but unfortunately there no escape from this electrifying lesson from Master Denis.

Short Distance Runner … Master Denis, the Athletics Coach

Out of the blues, I won the LSB Class A ( Under 12 ) athletics individual events in the 100 metres and 200 metres sprints during our 1973 Athletics Meet during Sports Day. Suddenly, it was discovered that I could actually sprint faster than those known sprinters in my category.

This surprising discovery also meant that it was too late to register me to represent LSB in these sprint events in the popular Inter La Salle Schools Sports Meet for schools in the Klang Valley. However, I was duly registered for the 4 X 100 metres team event as the 2nd runner. This was when I came closer into the circle of Master Denis…….the great athletics coach of LSB. His skills and approach in training athletes were definitely awesome.

Imagine sprinting 40 metres 10 times continuously……..the slow walk back to the starting line after every stopwatch timed sprint was our brief breather. The classic skill of baton changing that he taught us in training made sure that we won the 4 X 100 metres team event. That was Master Denis to us school athletes……..he was a champion maker albeit with a strong demand always for attention, focus and discipline.

One evening I was excused from the day’s strenuous training because I was unwell.

Yet, I joined some guys to play sepak takraw while waiting for the school bus. And there stood Master Denis pointing at me and signalling me to approach him. When I reached him, I did not dare look at his face as I knew I had disappointed and angered him. He sternly questioned me:  ‘ You are supposed to take a rest, aren’t you?  I expected a slap as I apologised. ‘ I am sorry, Sir ‘ I mumbled feebly. But the slap did not come. Instead, I felt regret in my heart. A slap would have settled the whole issue of disobedience followed by punishment but this was the gentle side of Master Denis that I encountered. And I somehow knew from that moment on that I should not push my luck too far when it came to Master Denis!

Record Short Distance Run …  Master Denis, the Champion Maker

I did the 100-metre dash during our 1974 LSB School Sports Day confident of winning the race. Being confident of winning the race is one thing but sprinting the 100 metres with a 12.7-second timing for a Class 3 ( Under 13 ) was another matter altogether.

I was at that time coached by Master Denis for nearly a year. He was very happy and exclaimed: You smashed the record Boudville. You have smashed the record. It was a proud moment for me as the usual timing for this event has never been below 13 seconds. My smashing the record has much to do with the training I received under Master Denis.

Feeling Distant … Master Denis Leaves LSB

After Master Denis left LSB to join the Swedish MNC Ericsson Group of Companies in 1974, we did not have the Inter La Salle Sports Meet for two years. When it was revived in 1976 it was so nice to see Master Denis at Merdeka Stadium, this time around as a guest official

Master Denis walked beside me after the Under 15 category 100-metre run in which I only managed to gain a 2nd place although the winner and I clocked the same timing.

‘ It is your stamina Boudville. You need to build up your stamina’ he advised consolingly. That was when I had wanted to tell him that I really missed the days of him being in LSB with us. Yet, life must go on and we need to keep focused in life too … with Master Denis as the role model.

Within Distance Again – Keeping in Touch with Master Denis

I am so glad to know that Mr Denis Armstrong is in touch with former students and athletes once again. You will always be Master Denis to me, Sir.

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Fr Patrick Boudville

Rev. Fr. Patrick Boudville
Catholic Parish Priest
Kuantan, Pahang

 

Teachers play such an enormous role in forming, not just teaching them, but forming character in our kids. We really have to thank them for
what they do. They are really the core that
makes our society work.
– Jeanine Pirro

 

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From Grass to Bitumen
From Weakness to Strength; From Nothing to Something.

Sometimes, it can be difficult to find the right words to say about someone who means so much to you and sometimes, you need only a few words to express how grateful you are for everything.

Master Denis Armstrong, you are everything one could look for in a good mentor. You groomed us to be sound professionals and made training under you a rewarding and memorable experience. I will always be grateful to you for your support and kindness.

Uncanny Ability to Recognise Potential

It would be impossible to count all the ways that you’ve helped me in my life. You had the uncanny ability to recognise the potential one has. And then, you would dedicate all your efforts to bring out this ability and thereafter stretch the limits for us to become something.

I can never forget the days you used to call me out even during class breaks and make me do 20 push-ups at a time. I was just an ordinary athlete but the training techniques you used not only brought out the best in me but kept me injury free. You planned meticulously and made me peak at the right season. Representing Selangor in the Malaysian School Sports Council activities was indeed one of the early highlights of my life.

Some Matters I Never Understood Then

  1. Making me practise the 100m sprint but always at a distance of 110m. I was always stronger at the tape for a 100m sprint from the rest.  (Confidence & Endurance)
  2. Concentrating more on my upper limbs. I always wondered why swinging my arms faster was more important than pounding my feet. (Determination, Coordination & Power).
  3. Developing every muscle, even my eye muscles had to be conditioned. Still have no clue about this but I am sure it would have contributed in some way. (Leaving no loose ends).
  4. Innumerable repetitions. The more practice, the better. (Practice makes perfect).

There are many more examples.

Kind & Caring Disciplinarian

In the late 60’s the bitumen tracks were quite new for school level athletes. We used to sprint on grass tracks. The spikes (running shoes) we used were those with irremovable long nails. For the bitumen track, shorter nails were required and the nails were of different sizes for different purposes. My parents were more enthusiastic that I spend my time on studies rather than sports and refused to buy me the appropriate gear. Master Denis took the trouble to arrange a used pair of Adidas spikes for my coaching camp and the National Schools Meet in Penang. That is something that I can never forget.

Weeks before I was off for the Nationals, Master Denis would visit me at home on his scooter and then would spend at least half an hour preparing me mentally for the sprint. His talks were like he was running the race in my body. He would rehearse almost every five meters from the starting blocks to the end of the tape. He would tell me when my leg muscles feel weak, to shift my concentration to my arms and swing them faster and that that would carry my feet faster. His dedication and determination made it so important that even on his weekends he would make it a point to keep these home visits and mental coaching. I learnt that before any event in life, regular and repetitive mental rehearsal journeys are of utmost importance!

During the State Schools Coaching Camp, Master Denis would always be like a Phantom sitting in the gallery watching the full routine. The next day he would call me out in school and tell me ways to improve. He was so proud of his student’s success.

There’s one particularly funny episode that I remember well. I had fractured my arm once and had a cast on my forearm. During one of our P.E. classes, it was raining heavily and the class was scrapped. But a few of us decided to play rugby in the pouring rain. I just pulled a stocking over my white cast and was happily enjoying rugby with my fractured arm.

A Lion with a Lamb’s Heart

Suddenly, we heard a loud clap from the corridor and there was Master Denis calling me. When I approached him, he asked me to remove my spectacles. Before my spectacles were at my chin level, I was slapped like an automatic pistol. Too fast to count how many slaps. He questioned me, “Your athletic meet is soon approaching –  do you want to get hurt again?”

That was his sincerity and love: a lion with a lamb’s heart.

Over these past 50 years, there were numerous occasions when I would recollect my days with Master Denis. I would never hesitate to tell my friends, colleagues and associates that I had a Master Denis in school. I would always quote Tottenham Hotspur’s, Bill Nicholson’s famous lines:  ‘It is better to fail aiming high than to succeed aiming low. And we of Spurs have set our sights very high, so high in fact that even failure will have in it an echo of glory.’

His coaching has helped me to achieve high levels in sports and disciplined me in my profession. It is a privilege to wish him well and to mention that his efforts did bear fruit by bringing great credit to our school. I consider our school fortunate to have found such a distinguished and dedicated teacher. I wish him all the success, fulfilment and happiness in the coming years.

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Vinay Chandran

Vinay Chandran
Landscape Architect
( but prefers to be called a Farmer )
Muscat, Sultanate of Oman

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Stupendous Example of Humanity at Its Very Best

The amazing, dramatic and awe-inspiring story of the daring rescue of the Thai boys from the caves in Cheng Rai, Thailand

For far too often these days we are regularly bombarded with sad, distressing and unpleasant stories of man’s sheer inhumanity to one another. There is the fairly regular story of a rocket attack(s) in the Middle East, a police station being surrounded and attacked by heavily armed insurgents in Pakistan and of a restaurant or hotel frequented by foreigners being attacked by Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. These are all senseless attacks driven by pure, unadulterated hate.

Daily Diet of Atrocities

Closer home too, we hear of such atrocities being committed in Indonesian cities, in Southern Thailand, in Southern Philippines islands and even sometimes in Malaysian cities. The newspapers and 24-hour news broadcasts from local and international TV stations trumpet these stories with all the gory details on a regular, almost daily basis. Bad news sells like hot cakes!

On top of all that, these breaking news stories also appear on the internet, in whatsapp messages on your smartphone and on FB too. Of course, some of these are fake stories. However, the daily broadcast and publication of these ghastly stories have, to some extent, numbed many of us to all these gory happenings.

Simply Labelled as Collateral Damage

Despite all our so-called advances in science, medicine and space to name a few, man is mighty quick to revert to his prehistoric stage with little provocation. For the simpleton in him, it is easier, faster and much more satisfying to REACT to issues and problems than to seriously THINK matters through carefully.

Just take a cursory look at all the wars going on in this world currently.

The only people and companies laughing all the way to the bank are the mighty armaments manufacturers and their sleazy enabling, powerful political allies. These unprincipled politicians seek the people’s mandate to go to Congress or Parliament but then, once duly elected, choose to conveniently forget their solemn obligations to the electorate.

For these duplicitously evil people, all the damage and destruction of the cities and the resulting deaths of many civilians are casually and conveniently labelled as collateral damage!

No wonder, George Bernard Shaw, the famous Irish scholar once astutely remarked: Politics is the last refuge for scoundrels!

Let me be quick to add that there are exceptions to this rule. The legendary GBS was a well-known playwright, literary critic and dramatist as well as the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925.

Faith in Humanity Restored

Our faith in the inherent goodness of humanity when it matters most was restored recently when there was a huge effort launched by the Thai authorities to save 12 young soccer players and their amazing 25-year old coach who were trapped in the caves in Cheng Rai. Cheng Rai is in Northern Thailand and is close to its bigger and better-known city, Cheng Mai.

The fate of these boys and their coach trapped for 18 agonisingly long days in these dark, damp and flooded caves kept people in Thailand, the region and even globally riveted to regular news broadcasts on both national and international TV. Here, in Malaysia, there was much hope for a successful rescue even though we were informed that this was going to be a very difficult and hazardous operation at best.

However, since the Thai Navy Seals were leading the rescue operation, it was their firm belief that failure was not going to be an option! As the rescue attempt got underway and success begun to make an appearance, as many as 90 divers were involved. About 50 of them were Thai Navy Seals and the rest were the foreign divers.

Complex, Difficult and Dangerous Rescue Mission

At its height, the rescue mission involved almost 1000 personnel. Leading the rescue mission were Thai Navy Seals ( divers ). Also providing expertise in locating the boys were internationally acknowledged expert divers from the United Kingdom. There were three: John Volanthen, Richard Stanton and Robert Harper.

It was John who managed to locate and then speak to the boys. One of these three divers from the UK had some valuable experience in these caves on a past visit. And that precise knowledge proved most useful.

Mapping Knowledge of Tham Luang Caves

Another British expert caver named Vernon Unsworth provided detailed mapping knowledge of the caves that was so vitally important for the rescue team of divers.

This was because the rescue team needed such information about the complex, narrow network of twisting, flooded tunnels.

Green Light for Rescue

It was an Australian expert diver and doctor named Richard Harris who first examined the boys in the caves and subsequently gave the green light for the rescue operation to begin. He is also an anesthesiologist by training and practice. At some point before the rescue began each boy had to be sedated for the journey.

And for sure, it proved to be a tough mission.

But with the combined wisdom, experience and expertise of the diving professionals what was initially termed as a mission impossible turned out to be a success beyond measure.

Do keep in mind that none of the boys could swim and neither did they have experience in diving. In addition, the weather was threatening to wreak havoc and derail their plans.

Heroic International Effort All The Way

When it was first determined that the boys needed to be rescued, it was generally agreed that this was going to be an extremely complex, difficult, dangerous and daring rescue mission. International assistance came forth readily.

The United States sent some armed forces personnel from its Pacific Command to assist.  A few individuals ( diving experts ) from the following countries assisted willingly: United Kingdom, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Canada and Australia. Some foreign dive operators in Phuket and other islands in Thailand also joined in.

In the case of the Australian doctor, he interrupted his vacation to assist in the rescue operation. All these international volunteers came to assist at their own cost and willingly. They took time off from work and family matters in a wonderful, selfless show of true humanity at its very best. This rescue mission was no walk in the park! One Thai volunteer paid the ultimate price while on the mission.

Remarkable Cohesion of Thai Society

It is often said that sometimes it takes a tragedy or a disaster to bring out the best in people. This is very true in the case of the rescue mission of the 12 young and calm boys.

Here are a few examples of that amazing Thai resilience.

  1. Monkhood and Meditation: The soccer coach was a Buddhist monk for ten years. During that time, he had learned about meditation. He is credited with keeping the boys calm. The coach even gave whatever food he had to the boys. This is truly inspiring leadership by example;
  2. Accepted Flooding of their Village and Fields: The villagers who lived near the caves readily accepted the water that was being pumped out from the caves to flood their village and rice fields. They did not mind the consequent damage to their crops and the village. They believed in helping in whatever way possible to save the lives of the young boys;
  3. Free Laundry Service: A young Thai lady who operates a laundry service nearby offered free laundry service for all the divers involved in the mission. The mission, mind you, lasted 18 days. What a thoughtful contribution;
  4. Free Oxygen and Diving Gear: A local businessman in Cheng Rai who ran a shop selling oxygen tanks and diving gear etc donated a number of such tanks for the rescue mission. Another selfless act of solidarity;
  5. Villagers Brought Food for the Rescue Volunteers: Many local villagers were seen bringing cooked food for the volunteers on a regular basis; and
  6. The Sacrifice of Petty Officer Saman Gunan: This former Thai Navy Seal actually volunteered to assist. While transporting oxygen tanks to the trapped boys and on his way back to the surface, he ran out of oxygen and passed away. Such a fallen hero is worthy of great respect.

These are just a few related human interest stories that give us much hope for the future of humanity. When we come together for a greater and noble cause, much can be achieved.

The Genesis of the Single Malt Whisky Club

What Seniors Who Really Live Do Differently

Some time ago, I read a very interesting book by Bob Buford titled: Finishing Well – What People Who Really Live Do Differently!  The book is based on his in-depth interviews with 60 remarkable and successful people in the United States.

The book details with amazing clarity a motivating set of best practices for those who are seeking to re-define their second lifetime, so to speak. This second lifetime is actually a wonderful opportunity to re-invent ourselves with a singular purpose for the post-retirement phase of our lives.

Downside of our Failure to Re-Invent Ourselves

Failure to re-invent ourselves at this juncture in our lives will certainly leave us that much poorer in spirit and quite lost in this fast-paced world of ours. Some seniors, unfortunately, have become grumpy, morose, irritable and quarrelsome individuals. They are a real pain to be with because they choose to focus on the negatives all the time. This is a situation of their own making but they are the last to realise this.

While in full-time employment, we often danced to the tune of our demanding employers and bosses, the reverse is actually true for us in retirement. In order to do just that, we have to get organised and plan for a variety of interesting programmes and activities. Nobody is going to do that for you if you are much too lazy or indifferent to do that for yourself!

Retirement, I say, is not the time for endless rests and siestas or even watching television programmes one after the other until we knock off in the armchair. Seniors too need to be proactive and stay active. And if a 93-year old doctor can answer the call to lead the Malaysian nation once again, we too must be up for the challenge.

Have Carefully Chosen to be Semi-Retired

This is our opportunity to plan for an enjoyable post-retirement phase.

In my case, I have carefully chosen to be semi-retired. I still enjoy the challenge of a tough management assignment; I also relish the chance to assist a friend or client with a speech; and I jump at the chance to conduct a training programme in my areas of expertise.

Most recently, I received an invitation to conduct a two-day training programme in Effective Public Relations sometime next month. I readily accepted the offer.

Then again, I also received an invitation a couple of days ago to conduct a training session on Business Writing Skills for a small group of women executives/managers in the Klang Valley. I have also signalled my acceptance in this case. Three months ago I was invited to address members of the Rotary Club of Damansara on the topic: Professionals and Professionalism.

All these activities and the fact that I blog regularly keep my mental faculties in top condition……….or so I hope!

Indulging in a Range of Physical Activities

On the other hand, I do not neglect the need for physical activities. I make it a point to go for brisk walks five times a week. Each walk lasts for about forty minutes in a small park in my neighbourhood.

In addition, my wife and I enjoy undertaking scenic drives to ‘ discover’ small towns and villages that we have heard about. We have undertaken such adventures to places like Fraser’s Hill, Kuala Kubu Bahru, Kuala Selangor, Port Dickson, Taiping, Kuala Terengganu etc.

In most cases, these are just day-long drives, but in some cases, we have stayed the night in the town. We did not have the luxury or the time to undertake such drives when we were working and the children were young. Our three adult children have flown from the nest and we are truly free to undertake such enjoyable trips on a regular basis.

On The Social Side of Activities

On the social side of activities, I personally like some variety.

I make it a point to attend at least three interesting tea talks or lectures on an annual basis. The most recent one was on the topic of “ Building Resilience – Ways to Draw on our Inner Strength “ by Maureen Goodman, programme director of Brahma Kumaris, United Kingdom.

In addition, I attend plays, musical shows and comedy programmes from time to time at Theatre Lounge Cafe in Sri Hartamas, Kuala Lumpur; at PJ Live Arts Theatre in Jaya One, Petaling Jaya; and also at KL PAC Theatre in Sentul, Kuala Lumpur. The prices of tickets to attend these events are reasonable and there are ample parking facilities at these centres.

There are also a few groups that I meet with on a social basis periodically. They are my associates from the public relations fraternity; my friends from the Kiwanis Club of Kuala Lumpur; my former colleagues from the teaching profession as well as some of my former students; and also my college mates from my days at a small La Salle college in Penang called St Joseph’s Training College in Pulau Tikus, Penang.

Drinks and Bites Events

An attempt was made to have a social gathering at a well-known club in Kuala Lumpur over drinks and small bites. Initially, only about four others were invited. The event proved very popular and more such events were held always at this social club but with an increase in the number of attendees.

The attendees were all former teachers and former students who had studiously taken the trouble to stay in touch with a few of their former teachers. The initial group was made up of three former teachers and three former students.

The event would last for about three hours or so. The joy of fellowship was the key driver for these events and the subjects for informal conversation were usually topical issues of the day! This club also has a conducive ambience and a comfortable setting for the gathering.

Single Malt Whisky (SMW) Club

After about three such Drinks and Bites events, someone in the select group suggested that the group ought to morph into a ‘ Single Malt Whisky Club ‘. It was to be on a ‘by invitation only’ basis. There was unanimous agreement to the idea and soon, we had our first Single Malt Whisky Club gathering at the same club.

We would meet initially for a couple of cold beers in one part of the club and after about two hours, adjourn to a Chinese restaurant within the club for a leisurely dinner. Each member of the group would take turns by bringing a bottle of a SMW of his choice. The bill for the drinks and the dinner would then be split equally among the attendees.

Octogenarian, Septuagenarians and Sexagenarians

This has now been going on for about three years. The group has increased to eight individuals.  There is an octogenarian, a couple of septuagenarians and the youngest are sexagenarians.

Occupation wise, the attendees are a retired senior manager with a Swedish multinational, a retired general manager of a prominent US hotel chain in Malaysia, a retired but re-employed editor of a mainstream newspaper, a retired entrepreneur with a love for quality German cars, a gung-ho entrepreneur still in harness in a technology business, a retired senior manager, commerce with an established embassy, a passionate geographer and a semi-retired accountant who shuttles between Malaysia and Australia. The actual numbers attending a session may vary due to health or travel reasons but the group remains deliberately small for proper interaction.

Whisky Grand Master & the Rituals We Go Through

One among us is a true whisky connoisseur and he likes to surprise us with a range of expensive whiskies that he is familiar with. He will also normally brief us on the history of that particular liquid gold as well as advise us on the correct way to sip the first drink! He enjoys, by popular acclaim, an exalted Whisky Grand Master status among us.

Now, who says seniors do not know how to live and enjoy life? For this small group in the Klang Valley in Selangor, Malaysia, it is the fine art of living well but in moderation that holds great promise and excitement for them.

Moreover, good friends take on an even greater role and meaning in a post-retirement phase because we share a common past and a diminishing future. But for three or four glorious hours, we can all take a fun trip back to the past, share forgotten and hilarious stories and enjoy the warm fellowship and easy camaraderie. C’est la vie.

Choosing to Raise the Bar

Reflections on Continuous Self Development

On Sunday, 17 September 2017, the active La Salle Secondary School Brickfields ( Kuala Lumpur ) Alumni body hosted a dignified book launch at the Royal Lake Club in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The title of the book that was launched is ‘ Choosing to Raise the Bar – Reflections on Continuous Self Development.

Education Should be a Life-Long Process

The book is based on about 25 of my relevant blog postings that have appeared in https://benmorais.wordpress.com as well as in my LinkedIn Pulse. The blog postings touch on issues of personal development which I firmly believe should be a life-long process. After all, isn’t there a well known saying that goes like this: ‘From the womb to the tomb ‘ or if you prefer ‘From the cradle to the grave’?

About 80 individuals attended the lively event. Half of them were old boys of La Salle Brickfields Secondary School. Many of them were in their late fifties to mid-sixties but nevertheless, the fire, the joy and the thrill of being true blue La Sallians still burned strongly in these amazing men.

The others came from the Institute of Public Relations Malaysia (IPRM), Kiwanis Club of Kuala Lumpur, CIMA, ACCA, Malaysian Association of Social Workers (MASW), Befrienders Kuala Lumpur, Project Management Institute (PMI) Malaysia Chapter etc.

Panel of Distinguished Speakers

The following individuals spoke briefly before the launch:

  • Mr JD Lovrenciear, executive director, Business Ethics Institute Malaysia and an accredited PR practitioner;
  • Mr Jeffrey Cheah, former chairman, Education & Training Committee, CIMA Malaysia and a chartered management accountant;
  • Mr Ngau Wing Fatt, president, Kiwanis Club of Kuala Lumpur and a chartered certified accountant; and
  • Mr Jaya Sarathy, an eloquent and humourous retired senior manager from the British High Commission in Kuala Lumpur. Mr Jaya Sarathy, an old boy also served as the emcee for the event.

The guest of honour is an academic and an old boy, Professor Dr Bernie Renaldo Wong, a chartered physicist from the University of Malaya.

Excerpts from the Foreword

The foreword was written by Mr Denis Armstrong, a former supervisor at La Salle Brickfields Secondary School and later, company quality manager, for the Ericsson group of companies in Malaysia. Mr Armstrong is best remembered by the many athletes he trained as a truly legendary and successful athletics coach. He has also earned an enviable reputation as a no-nonsense disciplinarian.

This is what Mr Denis Armstrong had to say in his foreword:

‘This compilation shines the spotlight on the subject of personal development and its various elements. The range of topics is comprehensive and impressive. This is not another collection of tiresome, gimmicky clichés and taglines written by some armchair consultant that we come across so often. Each theme in this compilation is anchored to first-hand observations and insights honed over more than three decades of experience in Ben’s many-faceted career’.

What Some Others Have To Say

Raymund Jagan: Here is an excerpt:

‘With the rise of technology-driven societies and relationships profoundly influenced by the compulsion to connect mindlessly rather than communicate meaningfully, there is a need to remind us of the rich values, skills and knowledge base of what makes us human. Benedict’s musings do just that – a reservoir of insights on ethical conduct, purposeful communication and living a value based life’.

Raymund is a seasoned counsellor, trainer and council member, Malaysian Association of Social Workers.

JD Lovrenciear had this to say: 

‘Having walked through life with him as my first master in public relations, my long years of association with Benedict assures me that this book is not only timely but indeed will be a blessing that readers can count on’.

JD, as he is popularly known, is an accredited PR practitioner and a prolific writer on a wide range of issues that matter. He is, currently, executive director of the Business Ethics Institute Malaysia.

Brenda Lee Tang (all the way from Trinidad and Tobago) had this to say :

‘I have been a colleague of Benedict Morais and can say with absolute certainty that he has been the perfect coach, friend, guide and mentor to many, including me. He has an extensive and enviable background as a high school teacher, lecturer and also as an educator. This background enables him to speak on a wide range of topics due to his professional competence and wide range of soft skills’.

Brenda is a chartered certified accountant and a former head of ACCA Caribbean.

Range of Topics

The range of topics is both wide and comprehensive. They are divided into five sections in the book:

  • Values, Beliefs, Ethics;
  • Communication;
  • Self Leadership;
  • Work and Life; and
  • A Lasting Legacy.

Some of the topics in the book (in no fixed order) are:

  • Practising Common Courtesies;
  • Repugnant Habit of Making Rude, Personal Remarks;
  • The Alluring Grace of Social Intelligence;
  • Implications of Devaluing Your Words;
  • Aggressive Language in Speech and Writing;
  • The Art of Engaging in Conversation;
  • Expressing Gratitude;
  • Too Lazy to Really Think;
  • Hold High the Torch of Responsibility;
  • Seamstress on A Laudable Mission;
  • The Many Joys of Serving in a Voluntary Capacity;
  • Importance of Striking the Right Work–Life Balance; and
  • Leave with Dignity and Decorum.

Quotes at the Start of Each Section

There are relevant quotes placed at the start of each section to prepare the readers for what lies ahead. For instance, at the start of the first section, the quote is: “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honourable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well” – Ralph Waldo Emerson.

At the start of the second section, the quote is: “The art of communication is the language of leadership” – James Hughes.

For the third section, the quote is: “The lion who breaks the enemy’s ranks is a minor hero compared to the lion who overcomes himself” – Rumi.

In the fourth section, the quote is: “If I had to embrace a definition of success, it would be that success is making the best choices we can………….and accepting them” – Sheryl Sandberg.

And finally, in the last section, which gives us the inspiring stories of three remarkable men, the quote is: “Some people arrive and make such a beautiful impact on your life, you can barely remember what life was like without them” – Anna Taylor.

All these quotes are meant to make the readers think deeply before proceeding to read the articles in the section.

Old Soldiers Never Die, They Just Fade Away

There is a well known saying about old soldiers. I cannot remember who said it but the following quote is quite meaningful: ‘ Old Soldiers Never Die, They Just Fade Away ‘.

I recall the dashing actor, Gregory Peck, playing General Douglas MacArthur in a movie about the great general giving a farewell speech at his alma mater West Point, the famous US military academy. He used this saying in his closing remarks with telling effect.

Likewise, when I was asked by a guest at the book launch why I had decided to write and publish the book at this stage in my life, I calmly responded, in a measured manner, by saying: I would like to think that Old Teachers Never Die, They Just Re-invent Themselves!

 

 

 

Note: The book is available for sale at MYR$30 + shipping/handling.  For more info on this book (as well as the other books I’ve written) and for placing orders, please visit the Books page.

Penang at the Climate Crossroads

Blissfully Unconcerned or Just Plain Naïve?

My wife and I recently drove up to George Town, all the way from Petaling Jaya, to attend a forum titled, ‘Penang At The Climate Crossroads’. It was a timely, informative and interesting event co-hosted by Areca Books, a leading niche publisher in Malaysia and the Penang Institute.

The Penang Institute was founded in 1997 and it was initially known by another name. After a rebranding exercise, it is now known to key stakeholders and others as the Penang Institute. It has established itself as one of the country’s leading think tanks. It is funded by the Penang State Government.

Serving as an Intellectual Hub

Its principal aim is to secure Penang’s reputation as an intellectual hub. Another equally important aim is to serve as the cultural capital of Malaysia. As many are already aware, George Town’s attractive street food has already rocketed the city, state and country to worldwide fame and acclaim.

Relatively Indifferent to Global Warming

Incidents of climate change related disasters and issues connected with global warming have been reported with increasing frequency for a number of years. In addition, Malaysia is a signatory to the Paris Agreement.

But what in reality is happening here on the ground at the individual level, at the city level, at the state level and also nationwide?

According to a Merdeka Centre Survey carried out in December 2016, 81% of the respondents seemed unconcerned! Now that is something to be really concerned about.

Lip Service as Opposed to Real Action

Governments throughout the world are often seemingly ready to act on this matter on paper only, often give the right sort of speeches but are much too slow and tied to vested commercial interests to take immediate and concrete steps to address this worrying phenomenon.

Even one leading superpower, in a show of petulance and total disregard for the facts associated with climate change, recently opted out of the Paris Accord!

Are we too, here in Malaysia, going to fiddle around and act in a nonchalant manner while Rome burns? Failure to act sensibly and in a timely manner as well as with great resolve brings with it dire consequences for our children, grandchildren and mankind in general.

Asia and the World at Climate Crossroads

As Gurmit Singh, the author of ‘Memoirs of a Malaysian Eco-Activist‘ stated quite vehemently at the forum, it is not just Penang that is at the Climate Crossroads  – Malaysia, Asia and the world are also at the Climate Crossroads. Gurmit is a pioneering Malaysian environmentalist and human rights activist.

Gurmit founded two NGOs – EPSM and CETDEM – and represented Malaysia at various international environmental seminars, conferences and forums for many years. He was conferred the Langkawi Environmental Award in 1993.

Sombre Scenarios Presented

Another speaker at the forum, Dr Kam Suan Pheng, who holds a doctorate from Cornell University, has been an academic at Universiti Sains Malaysia as well as a scientist at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines and the WorldFish Centre.

In her presentation, she outlined three sombre scenarios.  There is a general consensus that these are as follows: Virtually Certain to Happen; Very Likely to Happen; and Likely to Happen.

She touched in passing on diminishing snow, ice and permafrost. As far as Coastal and Ocean events are concerned, she mentioned the rise in sea levels; storms and tidal surges and ocean acidification.

Two Pathways Await Us

A third panellist, Clare Westwood, holds an MBA. Clare has extensive experience in the areas of food, agriculture, biosafety, food sovereignty and climate change resilience mainly through working with NGOs serving poor rural communities across Asia. She too shared her thoughts on this topic.

We could choose to adopt a Life and Hope approach and in that sensible spirit act with a greater sense of purpose and immediacy.

In her presentation, Clare gave actual examples of the feedback she received from these rural respondents all over Asia to this important matter. While they may not have had much schooling in life, they understand the grim realities of living through these regular climatic disasters.

Clare reminded the audience that there are actually two stark Future Pathways awaiting us. The world is in a climatic crisis and we had better believe it.

We could choose to adopt a Life and Hope approach and in that sensible spirit act with a greater sense of purpose and immediacy. Alternatively, we could choose to disregard the reality and the seriousness of the situation and act with the sense that there is only Death and Destruction that awaits us from our folly and foolishness.

Book Launch by Dato Dr. Anwar Fazal

Prior to the forum, the audience heard Dato Dr. Anwar Fazal introduce Gurmit Singh in glowing terms. He also lauded Gurmit’s vast contribution, as a concerned citizen, to the growing environmental awareness issues in Malaysia. The guest speaker also mentioned that for all his efforts Gurmit was often referred to as a ‘thorn in the flesh’ of the government.

Dato Dr. Anwar Fazal himself has been an outstanding consumer awareness advocate and he once headed the International Organisation of Consumer Unions ( IOCU ) which has its world headquarters in Penang. Dato Dr. Anwar is also the recipient of the Right Livelihood Award.

Dato Dr. Anwar then took the opportunity to launch Gurmit’s book, ‘Memoirs of a Malaysian Eco-Activist’ and remarked that he hoped many would buy and read the book. The book is published by Areca Books of Penang.

You Can Depend On The Brand

On a different note, I cannot end this sharing without giving my faithful steed a well- deserved plug. At the start of this article, I mentioned that we drove up to Penang and then back again to Petaling Jaya. This was a round trip that covered about 1000 km in all, including driving about town in both Ipoh and George Town.

I enjoyed the drive in my reliable, well built and sturdy 16-year old Toyota Camry 2.2. It is an exceptionally well-maintained vehicle that has attractive alloy wheels shod with low profile radial tyres. It gave us a wonderfully safe and comfortable drive. It is also the car we use for our out-station driving adventures from time to time. Only when you can depend on the brand, does one undertake these driving expeditions.

There are also three other options that we could have chosen. We could have made the journey to Penang by bus, by KTM’s Electric Train Service ( ETS) or by air.

We have heard many good reports about the ETS. The journey by bus, however, is fraught with danger because many of the drivers are sometimes not as professional as they should be. I have witnessed many bus drivers driving erratically and speeding recklessly. Since we did not have any time constraints, we chose to drive at a leisurely pace and made sure we stopped for comfort breaks along the way. We look forward to yet another driving adventure in the not too distant future.

Too Lazy to Really Think

Why Many Choose Instead to React 

I read somewhere recently that the true purpose of thinking is to understand our world as best as is possible. It is a fact that our minds have evolved over the centuries to think… if we care enough to exercise that important activity in earnest. When I say think, I mean really and seriously think about a matter or matters in a mature, careful, considerate and thoughtful manner.

Need To Engage in Thinking Seriously

Why is it necessary for us to indulge in the act of thinking seriously?

This is because we can then better understand and adapt to our environment. By indulging in the serious act of really thinking, rather than mindlessly reacting to issues, individuals or situations, we are better able to make smarter decisions.

In this manner, we are better able to ‘ survive ‘ and live regardless of whether this is a family situation, an office environment, a neighbourhood association or even in a social club setting.

Biased, Distorted and Uninformed

It is a fact that a lot of our so called low level, what I term as Division 3 thinking is biased, distorted, partial, uninformed and / or downright prejudiced. Just listen to the speeches or utterances of hate mongers throughout the world and you will understand what I am trying to convey.

They shamelessly and recklessly peddle their version of ‘ the truth ‘  badly disguised as information. In this manner, they appeal to those low-level Division 3 individuals who are much too lazy or indifferent to think and evaluate the speech or utterances for themselves.

Politicians Appeal to This Segment

In recent general elections held in Australia, a number of countries in Europe and the United States politicians from the far right and the extreme right were quick to seize the opportunities presented by a biased print and electronic media. Some of these media companies have impressive but hollow tag lines like: ‘The Most Trusted Source of News’.

Many news organisations have chosen to conveniently forget or ignore the basic tenets of professional journalism! A quick check to discover who are the owners of these news organisations will reveal why they have opted to adopt this biased  and unprofessional approach.

The fact that these organisations have to broadcast this tag line repeatedly is an indication that many do not trust these bodies to give clear, unbiased news to their viewers / readers. Many of the hate speeches and utterances were repeated with annoying frequency on television as a daily diet for Division 3 thinkers.

And it worked because these individuals voted en masse for such candidates and also on important issues in their respective countries. In addition, because these politicians understood the mentality and the poor thinking skills of Division 3 individuals, they were able to tailor their messages for such lazy thinkers.

Benefits of Critical Thinking

One must understand that the desire by an individual to engage in critical thinking has to be both self–guided and self-disciplined. The onus is thus on the individual to first carry out an honest audit of his current level of thinking skills.

When we engage in critical thinking, we are indulging in reflective and independent thinking. Mobs of lawless individuals running around causing havoc and mayhem are often under the influence of a puppet master.

None of these individuals is able to think for themselves and readily take their cue from the puppet master. When asked the reason why they participated in the protest or demonstration, they appear clueless and stunned.

These then are some of the benefits of critical thinking.

  1. it improves our ability to better understand logical connections between ideas;
  2. it assists us to carefully identify, propose and evaluate arguments;
  3. it assists us to detect inconsistencies in reasoning; and
  4. finally, it helps us to solve or overcome problems with a degree of confidence.

From my experience, it takes humility, patience, courage and maturity to develop the ability to think and that too, to think critically!

It is important to note that most problem-solving efforts will require one to engage in creative thinking as a natural consequence. The same is also the case for proper planning and decision making.

Some Excellent Examples of Lazy Thinkers

A Company Scenario
A manager walks into the office of his chief executive to discuss a relevant problem or issue. He proceeds to inform his boss of the problem and the resulting implications of not being able to overcome the problem. He then very conveniently passes the buck to his boss and requests him to deal with the matter.

What is wrong here? Has he correctly identified the problem? Has he thought through the problem or issue and has he come up with a proposal(s) to deal with it effectively? Is he now wishing to get his boss’s opinion on the best way forward? It is none of the above.

He is simply much too lazy to engage his brain in this manner. It does not seem to matter to him that he seems to be a manager in name only because he is clearly unable to manage. This is essentially because he is unwilling to think and to think seriously!

A Political Scenario
An individual proposes a line of action to deal with a pressing social issue. This is debated within the party and the issue is given a proper airing. After much discussion and debate, a way forward is proposed. This is then announced to the print and electronic media by way of a press conference.

In an immediate reaction, an individual from another party, who does not agree to this proposal, threatens the other party. He also issues veiled warnings, indulges in intimidation and for good measure delivers a personal insult to the other leader. What is wrong here?

Has the individual concerned sought clarification from the other party? Has the individual proposed to have a meeting or discussion with the other party to get more information, in a civil and decent manner? Has he proposed any counter measures? It is none of the above.

Once again, rather than exercise his brain, this so-called leader chooses to react emotionally instead of thinking rationally. This modus operandi is then followed by other rabble rousers who delight in showing the community and the nation, the might of their puny brains! They are like drug addicts, always with an unquenchable craving for publicity, the more the better and it does not matter that this is often mere cheap publicity.

A Nugget of Wisdom
More than thirty-four years ago, I was chosen to attend a six-month course in Applied Research and Educational Developmental Planning at Innotech in Manila, Philippines. Innotech is one of the South East Asian Ministers of Education Organisation ( SEAMEO ) training facility. There are such training facilities in all ASEAN countries. Malaysia has one for Science and Mathematics ( RECSAM ) in Penang and Singapore has one for English Language ( RELC ).

One day, I went in to see the director of Innotech on a matter of some concern. While waiting for her to look up, I noticed a prominent sign behind her chair and on the wall. It read: Are You Here with the Solution to the Problem or Are You Part of the Problem? It was certainly food for thought.

Many years later when I was heading a professional body in Malaysia, I thought it would be good to have that sign on the wall behind my desk. And whenever someone chose not to think about an issue properly, I was sure to ask him or her to read that sign. It had a sobering effect on the reader and he or she often left my office sheepishly.

So are we all ready to be self-guided and self-disciplined? This is because that is precisely what is called for if we are to seriously and deliberately engage in the art of thinking in earnest. It will also liberate us from the shackles of being manipulated by sinister forces. Finally, being able to really think and see issues in their true light will be an eye opening and mind liberating exercise for many of us.

 

What do you think? If you like what you’ve been reading, I hope you will consider following me on either Facebook or LinkedIn

Vilnius, Lithuania reveals her many charms

Civic Pride and Cleanliness Reign

 

Recently my wife and I had another incredible opportunity to spend 12 nights in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. This came about because we had received an invitation from a close relative to come and discover the city. This relative has a smart, up-market two room furnished apartment right in the heart of the city and alongside the main road i.e. Gedimino Avenue.

We accepted the invitation and soon discovered many interesting and unusual facts about the city.

Where is Vilnius, Lithuania?

But first, where exactly is this country called Lithuania? It is a small country in Europe with a population of some three million people. The capital, Vilnius, has a population of 250,000 inhabitants, eighty per cent of whom are ethnic Lithuanians, eight per cent are Russian and another seven percent are Polish.

Lithuania is bordered by the Baltic Sea, another small country called Latvia and also Poland. It also has the unusual Russian enclave of Kaliningrad! It is one of the safest countries to visit in the whole of Europe. We can attest to that because we felt very safe and secure throughout our stay in Vilnius.

Early History and Growth of Vilnius

Vilnius is amazingly attractive and alluring with its labyrinthine Old Town cobblestone lanes and courtyards. It has its very own distinctive ambiance that is both charming as well as endearing. With proper shoes, walking on the well laid cobblestones can be quite a lot of fun.

Its first period of growth took place south of Cathedral Square right in the heart of Old Town. Standing majestically here is the imposing Cathedral – Basilica of St Stanislaus and St. Ladislaus. It remains to this day, the most important Catholic building in Lithuania. It was first built way back in 1251! It was partly destroyed and rebuilt a number of times.

Many people, I believe, visit the city of Vilnius to marvel at the interesting and unusual mix of Baroque, Gothic, Neoclassical and Renaissance architectural styles.

Next to it is Vilnius Cathedral Belfry… and it became a belfry only in the 16th century. Seeing it first hand, I was astounded to learn that the belfry is 57 metres high and quite wide at the bottom. No mere description can do justice to this building.

Dazzling Architectural Styles

Old Town in Vilnius achieved UNESCO world heritage status sometime in the early nineties. After walking through the Old Town on many occasions during my brief stay in the city, I can well understand why it earned this highly coveted status.  Many people, I believe, visit the city of Vilnius to marvel at the interesting and unusual mix of Baroque, Gothic, Neoclassical and Renaissance architectural styles.

It was such a pleasure to walk leisurely to Old Town and to take in the sights, sounds and feel of this wonderful, well preserved place. To me and my wife the whole city is clean but I later revised my opinion when I had a chance conversation with a senior gentleman from the Netherlands. To him, and I must stress here that this was his 5th visit to the city, he said that the city was not just clean but very clean!

Civic Pride and Cleanliness

He remarked that compared to the streets of Amsterdam which he said were quite dirty, Vilnius was exceptional. I had to agree with him because I have been to some major European cities and generally the streets are quite dirty because, in part, many of these cities have very many tourists on a regular basis. This was not the case with Vilnius. It has, I believe, yet to be discovered by hordes of tourists.

My wife and I did a lot of walking around to get a real feel for the city. We walked all over New Town as well as Old Town. We however liked Old Town better because of its unique charms and buildings.

No Cigarettes Butts on the Streets!

Walking was made that much easier because the pavements for pedestrians are wide enough and not crowded like most busy European capitals. There were thrash bins placed at strategic intervals and people actually used them. And nobody threw cigarette butts on the streets! Amazing self control or is this just a matter of civic pride?

It was also pleasant weather for the most part and the people of Vilnius did stop and help us out when we asked for directions……………….each and every time. Best of all, the people of Vilnius, not just the university students but also the middle aged and the not so young individuals all spoke and understood English. Let me add though that outside the capital of Vilnius, English is neither widely spoken nor understood.

Vilnius City Fiesta

It was just our good fortune that the day after we arrived in Vilnius, the city began three days of celebration. Titled Vilnius City Fiesta – 2 to 4 September, it was held on the avenue for about a mile just below my relative’s apartment building. How convenient for us!

There were properly erected, sturdy stalls set up the day before the event on Gedimino Avenue.  There were stalls selling cooked food – Lithuanian food is mainly hardy fare of meat and potatoes. Nothing was too exciting but solid stuff for the masses. There were also stalls selling grilled sausages of all types, cheese, biscuits, cookies etc. There were also stalls selling jewelleries, furniture, art works and paintings. Some stalls sold clothes, hats, caps etc.

For me, the best part of the City Fiesta was the  element of music …there was enough variety for all ages and groups. Two huge stages were set up at both ends of the avenue. From these stages, rock groups belted out popular numbers and I could see people moving and occasionally dancing to the beat. Families with young children were all over the fiesta grounds having a really good time.

People in Vilnius are more than willing to provide help and assistance when asked. In other major cities, they do not have the time for you. They are not prepared to stop and assist.

It was all good, heady stuff and I enjoyed the shows. Further down the avenue, we heard a jazz quintet playing beautiful music. As we walked along the avenue, we also heard buskers belting out numbers to a vey appreciate crowd. It was simply good clean fun…there was no rowdiness, fights or drunken displays by anyone in the crowd.

On day 4 when we came down from our apartment, we noticed that all the stalls had been dismantled and removed and the place cleaned up and restored to the way it was before the event. Such discipline is to be admired.

Other Strange Facts and Information 

  1. In addition to the city being very clean, I also noticed very little graffiti in the city. Most major cities of the world have the scourge of graffiti plastered all over the city. Vilnius is spared this scourge to some decent degree. Once again, I think it is civic pride that is so ingrained in the people.
  2. People in Vilnius are more than willing to provide help and assistance when asked. In other major cities, they do not have the time for you. They are not prepared to stop and assist.
  3. English is widely spoken and understood. Where this is not the case in a restaurant or department store, they will immediately summon someone who can assist us.
  4. There are no cigarette butts, cigarette packets or plastic wrappers carelessly thrown away and littering the streets!
  5. The country has a very small population of Sunni Muslims, about 7000 who, I have been informed, have integrated well with the rest of the population. These Muslims are very supportive of the government.
  6. Believe it or not. …………the first Lithuanians came to the country thousands of years ago from India!
  7. This information was conveyed to me by our guide who said he is also an amateur historian, during our brief visit to the resort town of Trakai. He said the Lithuanian language and Sanskrit are very similar. In addition, I would like to add that Sanskrit has been very important in the origin and development of comparative Indo-European linguistics.
  8. Cost of living in Vilnius is really low. Three racks of meat on the bone cost 3 Euro. A can of beer ( larger than normal ) 42 cents and I purchased a bottle of fairly good wine ( Merlot ) for about 3 Euro.
  9. There is a wide variety of good restaurants including those that cater for the Asian palate i.e. Thai, Chinese, Indian and Japanese.
  10. All statues of prominent Russian personalities and heroes i.e. Stalin, Lenin etc have been removed from the capital and relocated to a small town 120 kilometres away.
  11. Unfortunately, Vilnius too has its share of rogue taxi drivers. The taxi ride from the airport to our apartment was a whopping 15 Euro by a truly dishonest young taxi driver. However, our trip to the airport for the return journey home by a middle aged taxi driver cost us only 5 Euro. Even the tourist brochures warn us to be careful about this matter.

Trakai: Picture Postcard Perfect

Towards the end of our stay in Vilnius we decided to visit the resort town of Trakai. It is just a 45 minute drive to the town in a comfortable, medium sized Mercedes Benz bus. Trakai only has a population of about 7,500 residents. It has all the other facilities of a modern town, complete with hotels, restaurants, post offices, hospitals, pharmacies etc. However, the one drawback is the lack of sufficient and decent toilet facilities for the crowds of tourists.

My first impression of Trakai is of a picture perfect postcard setting. I marvelled at how tranquil the place seemed. Trakai boasts thirteen beautiful and charming lakes within and around the town! We stopped at the regular rest area which happened to be directly opposite the only remaining castle. Even this castle was only partly ancient, the bottom part and partly modern….which made it look rather incongruous!

There were two other castles there in the past but these were destroyed during the occupation.

The rest area was dotted with a succession of souvenir shops, bars and restaurants and we stopped at a restaurant for a local meal. We had a local version of curry puff but there was no curry in it…… it was just meat, potatoes and cheese. It was more like a pasty… a convenience food. A pasty is actually a baked pastry.

I noticed many sturdy wooden houses here. Some seemed old and weather beaten while others looked fairly new and impressive. It gave the town a different feel and seemed to fit in well with the town’s image as a tourist draw.

Go For the Path Less Travelled

If you are tired of the packaged tours and the usual countries to visit in Europe, then do give a thought to visiting Vilnius. It has much to offer and you do not need to book any tours or need a guide. Cost wise, it can be a dream vacation and from a safety angle, it is a place that is relatively free of crime. Here you can choose to be a real traveller rather than a tourist.

Some of my friends just came back from a holiday to Italy and another to France. Both said these countries had very interesting sights to see and marvel at. However, they felt unsafe, especially from pickpockets in some places. One friend also grumbled about racist shopkeepers, the huge crowd of tourists and unfriendly sections of the population. This is the price one has to pay to visit the popular countries. In that sense, Vilnius will be a complete change and it will also be easier on the pocket.