26 October 2020

By Kristen Lazarus

‘Stitch up’: (noun; informal) a situation in which someone or something derails your plans. Often occurs when you are saddled with a responsibility or outcome that is completely out of your control and not foreseeable. 

Working in the industry that we do is inherently challenging. There’s nothing ‘easy’ about building a startup; no social entrepreneur has described their journey as ‘smooth’. Throw in a new environment, a developing economy, a new culture, new food, and a few things you wouldn’t find yourself getting up to at home, and while you’ve got a recipe for success, you’ve also set yourself up for guaranteed “stitch-ups”. 

There’s a reason that amongst our leaders and trekkers, we frequently use the phrase “expect the unexpected.” I never realised how dangerous the question “what’s the worst that could happen?” was until I encountered the good ol’ on-project stitch-up. The answer? Toilets full of curry, many cuts, bruises and crushed egos, and too many lost games of “odds”. 

Toilets full of curry? 

This story is one of my favourites, and dates back to July 2019 when I was Team Leading in Fiji. Arguably the biggest highlight of Fiji is the food (besides from the amazing people, culture and projects, of course). But anyone who has been to Fiji will know that this means curry, curry and more curry – and when that’s not your usual diet, it can take some…getting used to. It was Friday of Week 2 of project and we had a huge long weekend planned, which meant we wouldn’t be returning to the project house until Tuesday. 

Bags were packed, snacks were acquired, first aid kits were stocked and the house was cleaned when we realised one tiny detail: the fridge was full of 5 days worth of curry leftovers, which definitely wouldn’t survive a weekend of Fijian humidity. Obviously in the interest of sustainability we had been chipping away at these leftovers all week but sometimes there is only so much curry your body can take, and in true Fiji style the curry had now turned mouldy. 

Awesome, we will just have to throw out the curry before heading off, right? So wrong. 

Our landlord informs us that he has decided to re-engineer our bin system and we can’t use the bin until next week because it needs to dry. Stitch up. 

Do we resort to throwing the curry in the back garden? That counts as compost right? No we can’t do that, the chickens (yes, chickens) will get to it and who knows what we will come back to after the weekend. 

In perhaps not our finest moment, the Group Leader, Gina, and I decide that there is only one option: the curry needs to be flushed down the toilet. Stitch up. 

If there is one thing that I can say with absolute certainty, it’s that flushing batches of mouldy curry down the toilet is an experience that stays with you (and I won’t mention the feeling of having a shower and realising that you can smell the curry through the drain pipes). It’s definitely not something I thought would come with the job, but given “expect the unexpected”, it doesn’t surprise me one bit. 

Fast forward to the next time that I find myself in country.

It’s New Years Eve 2019 and I am in Timor-Leste with some of the leadership team ahead of trekkers arriving, prepping for a huge two months in January and February. What better way to celebrate NYE than set up bunk beds, right? 

We need to move a bunch of bunks from one room to another on the other side of the accommodation. Easy. We pick up the bunks and try to move them out of the room but realise that the door is too narrow. Stitch up number one. That’s ok, we can just disassemble the sliding doors so the bunk beds can fit. Done. It doesn’t take us long to realise that the bunk beds now don’t fit through the corridor between the rooms. Stitch up number two. Ok, we will need to disassemble the beds and then reassemble them in the room. 

Everything is going well, I’m in a rhythm of setting up these beds, our next-door neighbour’s children, who are half my age, are laughing at me because they are about twelve times stronger than me and could make this look so effortless. But all is ok. 

As I’m now used to in Timor-Leste, the individual slats that support the mattresses are all different shapes and sizes so we’re working with a massive jigsaw puzzle here. Stitch up number three. I am standing bent over in the middle of the bunk bed frame trying to get these slats in, and as the bed is finally assembled, I triumphantly stand up at full speed… only to slam the bridge of my nose into the top bunk slats. Stitched myself up this time. The children are laughing as I hold back tears in a bid to “act tough”. Can confirm that this did not work. 

All in all, an awesome experience of setting up the bunk beds, and a scar in the middle of my face to show for it.

While on the topic of me being, maybe not as ‘physical’ as would be preferred, now comes the tory of ‘The Gate’. 

Now for context, I am 5 foot nothing and physical strength has never been in my wheelhouse. So, when you ask everyone what their biggest challenge was on project and they reply: “the cultural differences”, “the heat!”, my answer is always “sliding the gate open to get into our carport in the Timor-leste accommodation” (which, in my defence, I’m certain weighs a thousand kilos).

It’s the end of week 3 in January, and I have seamlessly lasted close to an entire month without personally needing to open the dreaded gate (we’re talking strategic exists, always sitting in the back seat in the middle in the car – surely opening or closing the gate is a front-seat kind of role). But, a looming problem starts the dawn on me…… in February I would be Senior Leading, meaning I would be using the car every day and definitely couldn’t continue to strategically rely on others to open and close the gate. Stitch. Up. 

So began the start of my very short-lived journey of trying to build probably 10 years worth of muscle mass in the week before the start of February. Every morning while everyone went to the gym, or went to the beach for an early-morning yoga session or swim, I would stay back at the accommodation and attempt to push this gate open and closed. And let me tell you….. this still stands as the most strenuous weights training I’ve ever done – F45’s got nothing on this damn gate.

Here’s a quick summary of my ‘growth’ that week:

Day 1. Gate 1 – Krit 0. 

Day 2. Gate 1 – Krit -1 (don’t ask). 

Day 3. The impossible happens. 

I managed to get the gate open and closed. Krit 1 – Gate 0! But, this found me on the outside of the accommodation staring at a closed gate. Shouldn’t be too hard to open it again, surely! I’ve done it once I can do it again. Wrong. After a series of fruitless attempts I end up jumping the fence to make it back into the accommodation for breakfast. Stitch up. Not a good start to the day for Krit.  

Total score: Gate 3 – Krit…in the negatives. 
As always on project, I decided that it was time to improvise, adapt and overcome. One of us had to change, and between me and the gate, I can tell you it wasn’t going to be me. A can of WD-40 never did so much good. 

And now for my favourite type of stitch-up…..the self-inflicted stitch up. 

If you’re anything like me, the self-inflicted stitch up usually results from having too much confidence in yourself during a game of “odds”. “Odds” is a project favourite, involving one person asking another what the “odds” are that they’d do something (usually) stupid. Something not so dumb might get a ‘1 in 5’, something ridiculous a ‘50 in 1’ or a flat out refusal. If both people say the same number simultaneously, well, you’re in trouble.

“Odds” has resulted in me sculling tabasco hot sauce, eating a toothpaste sandwich (you read that right) and having to exclusively drink from a coconut for an entire day (not good for the dehydration situation, I’ll tell you that much) – and yes, I could have refused the odds, but what’s the fun in that? Stitch ups

But the unassuming self-inflicted stitch up that perhaps caused the most damage? Losing cutlery privileges. This was a classic odds scenario in February, and meant that slowly most trekkers and leaders lost the ability to use some form of cutlery. For me, only being able to eat with a knife by the end of the month was certainly a stitch up. I wish I could tell you what “odds” I lost, but I’m trying to wipe it from my memory. 

So if you’ve made it this far, I’m sure you’re wondering why I’ve shared these ridiculous and embarrassing stories with you. There are a lot of things that go into 2-4 weeks on a PEV program, and while we talk about the awesome people, the communities, the impact and the projects, but if you ask any of the PEV alumni or leaders, you’ll discover that it’s not an Impact Program without a stitch up or two. And don’t worry, you’ll laugh about it all, even if it is with a mouthful of toothpaste sandwich…
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