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How did my cheap shoes lead to peace?

Woman in Sri Lanka on beach next to sea Image copyright Maja Pecanac
Image caption The peace studies project in Thailand brought together peacekeepers, academics and journalists

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 lessons

My 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 and Nepal.

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.

Image copyright Rotary Peace Chula
Image caption Dhruti Shah joined classmates who had seen war and conflict close up

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.


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The sandals certainly got a battering.

As a vegetarian, Bangkok's 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).

Creative bonds

Lesson 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 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.

Image copyright Dhruti Shah
Image caption The shoes were left behind

Where else would a London journalist like me end up sharing washing powder with Natasha Dimitrovska - a 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 soles

But 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?"

Image copyright RotaryPeaceChula
Image caption Sri Lanka provided a backdrop to study how to prevent conflict

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 session

Resolving conflict is about finding things in common. Even things that might seem insignificant. Like shoes.

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 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.

Image copyright RotaryPeaceChula
Image caption Music became a way for people from very different cultures to share together

Travis started playing his ukulele, and Kemuel Laeta, a Solomon Islander with a water-bottle tambourine, and two Kenyans, Karisa and Dan Noel Odaba began a jamming session.

The combination of this motley crew who tried to fix my shoes led to not just an idea for a global business venture but an accompanying jingle - Mzungu Repair. The word 'Mzungu' means 'white person' in Swahili and the original repair shop would be founded by Travis and Karisa with franchises elsewhere.

This petri dish of voices from different cultures blended together.

The tape was a temporary fix - my shoes were a write-off.

But the song brought people from 19 different countries together, not quite in vocal harmony but, certainly, in peace.

Follow Dhruti Shah on Twitter: @dhrutishah

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